The waters around Scotland saw far too much tragedy this past weekend – a mother, her son and a friend, lost to drowning near Pulpit Rock on Loch Lomond, an 11-year-old boy, Dean Irvine, drowned after falling into the water at Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, 16-year-old Connor Markward, who died after getting into difficulty in the water at Balloch Castle Country Park, Loch Lomond, a 13-year-old boy drowned at Hazelbank. Such shocking news brings a reminder to all those who swim regularly, as well as those who like a summer dip, that our waters are home to extreme dangers. One weekend, six lives lost.
This should remind us all of the need to share the safety advice issued by the RNLI, the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Outdoor Swimming Society, and others who have strong, tested recommendations on how to stay safe, when not to enter the water, and how to survive if you do find yourself accidentally there. Anything that might make a difference, after all, is worth sharing.
Be water aware
The first thing to note is that it’s not only those who arrive at the water intending to swim who are at risk of drowning. Too many people, each year, drown after someone falls in the water. That was the case for a number of those lost last weekend, including the three at Loch Lomond, who died after a child slipped and fell in. Indeed, more people die whilst walking or running, than whilst deliberately swimming. In 2019, of the 223 people who accidentally drowned in the UK, 44 percent of them just happened to be near water and had no intention of entering the water, 82 percent were male.
The National Fire Chiefs Council runs a #bewateraware campaign. Their advice is that if you do happen to unintentionally end up in the water, you should lie on your back and float, whilst shouting for someone to ring 999.
In Scotland, the majority of fatalities by drowning over the past year have taken place in rivers (48.7 percent), followed by lochs (28 percent), sea (8 percent) and coastal/beach (8 percent).
Research in the United States found that teenage boys were ten times more likely to drown than teenage girls. But the disparity between genders is lifelong and exists even in early childhood. Men, some studies have found, are more likely to drink and swim, underestimate the risks and overestimate their abilities.
If you see someone you believe is drowning, don’t jump in to rescue them, unless you are trained to do so. Raise the alarm at once. Dial 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard or relevant agency, to ensure trained professional rescue services are on their way. Shout and try to calm the struggling person and encourage them to stay afloat. If there is a lifering or other public rescue equipment nearby, throw it to them. Do not attempt to rescue unless you have training to do so. The RNLI message is: “Call for help rather than endanger your own life and the lives of others.”
Staying safe if you do decide to swim
All this, of course doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get in, and on these beautiful sunny days, enjoy the water. But, if you do take a dip, be aware that entering open water is vastly different to swimming in a pool, and stick to the following safety advice.
1. Do not drink alcohol and swim. Be a sober swimmer.
2. Don’t jump straight in – enter the water slowly. There are several very good reasons for this. The first is that a dive or jump straight into the water can trigger the cold water shock response, and leave you gasping for air and gulping in water instead. The second is that before you take a plunge into any water it’s best to check around to get a clear sense of depth and whether there are any hazards around.
3. If you get into trouble, follow RNLI advice and “float to live”. Float on your back, relax and try to regain control of your breathing before attempting to swim again.
4. Keep a keen eye on children and non-swimmers at all times. It can take just moments for a young swimmer to get in trouble or disappear from sight.
5. Be particularly careful around use of inflatables Too many of us have seen it happen that an inflatable boat or lilo gets caught by the wind and carried out to sea. The OSS society notes, “Because of the increase in deaths involving children and inflatables the RNLI cautioned parents NOT to take inflatables to the beach in 2021. The issues it that gusts of winds can quickly carry off the inflatables, faster than people can swim after them, and wind and waves can turn the inflatables over.” There has also been a huge rise in paddleboarding and kayaking and with that comes certain dangers. If using such boards make sure you have life jackets, buoyancy aids and leashes – and ensure, again, children and non-swimmers are supervised at all times.
6. Don’t swim on your own. Always do it in the company of others. But be aware that the presence of other people is not safety in itself – you need to swim with an awareness of your own abilities and current health condition.
7. Take local advice where possible on where to swim, or swim at what are obviously popular spots. On holidays we can often be tempted to take a dip in waters we don’t know, where there may be currents or rip-tides we are unaware of.
8. For extra safety, swim at a life-guarded beach.
9. Learn to recognise the signs of drowning. This is not the thrashing around and shouting normally portrayed in the movies. A person drowning will tend to be upright, with head back and mouth open. Their eyes are likely to be panicked or glassy and empty. Long hair over face can be an indication. Sometimes people look as if they are climbing a ladder, trying to stay buoyant.
Further safe swimming tips
1. Check the weather forecast beforehand and, if sea or sea loch swimming, find out about what the tide is doing. Generally the safest time to swim is around a slack tide – an hour either side of low or high tide.
2. Be aware of submerged hazards like rocks and enter the water slowly.
3. Make sure you have sighted where you are going to exit the water before entering.
4. If swimming in a reservoir, stay away from man-made structures – for example the dam wall.
5. Learn to recognise a rip tide. If you see an area of water that’s darker than the rest, then there’s a chance that’s a rip, a fast-running river of water within the sea. Its surface is often chop-py, but at the same time it can appear clear of waves, almost as if the waves are backing off from it. The RNLI advises: “Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted. If you can stand, wade don’t swim. If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore. Always raise your hand and shout for help.”
6. Be aware of other water users, like boats, kayaks and paddleboarders. Wear a bright hat or use a high-visibility tow-float to make yourself noticeable.
7. Be aware of hypothermia and don’t swim for too long. Even in summer the waters around Scotland are relatively cold and if you are out for a long swim, hypothermia can begin to set in without you noticing.
8. In rivers avoid swimming near weirs and be aware of possible flash flooding.
9. In rivers and waterfall pools be aware of fallen trees and other hazards – do a thorough risk assess-ment before jumping into any water.
10. Avoid swimming after heavy rainfall, when waters may be contaminated by sewage or agricultural run-off. Be aware of algal blooms.
11. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a wealth of articles on swimming safety. Read them at www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com
What about jellyfish?
Most of the jellyfish you see in Scottish waters will give you either no sting, or just a mild, nettle-like sting. However, there is one relatively common jellyfish you do need to watch out for, the large, red-orange Lion’s Mane, whose tentacles can stretch up to 3m in length. It’s the presence of such jellyfish, rather than the cold of the water, that leads many regular swimmers during the summer months to wear wetsuits.
The NHS website advises treating jellyfish stings as follows: “Rinse the affected area with seawater (not fresh water). Remove any spines from the skin using tweezers or the edge of a bank card. Soak the area in very warm water (as hot as can be tolerated) for at least 30 minutes – use hot flannels or towels if you cannot soak it. Take painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen.” It also recommends, in the case of severe pain that won’t go away, or a sting in the face or genitals, attending to a minor injuries unit.