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Open Water

Here Be Dragons, Part II

Additional open water hazards and how to cope

Elaine K. Howley | July 9, 2014

Although ocean swimmers may have a greater range of water conditions to deal with, fresh water swimmers aren’t off the hook entirely. In especially large lakes, like Lake Michigan where the Big Shoulders 5K event is held each year, conditions sometimes mimic those in an ocean because the expanse of water is just so enormous. Being aware of your surroundings and anticipating potential problems before they crop up is the best defense for dealing with condition hazards.

Both fresh and salt-water swimmers are also likely to encounter the following additional hazards at some point during their swimming sessions:

  • Boat traffic. Most of the waterways we want to swim are also inhabited by boaters, who may or may not be interested in sharing the road. Boat traffic is a major hazard and just one of the many reasons you should never swim alone. Keep your eyes and ears open for approaching boats at all times.
  • Pollution. Industrial America grew up on rivers and harbors, and today, not all the 19th century gunk that progress left behind has been cleaned up yet, despite the sweeping changes established by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Make sure you know whether it’s safe—from a pollution standpoint—to enter a body of water before you swim. Who knows whether those rusting shopping carts you can see on days when the water clarity is high pose a health risk, or if that high clarity is a sign of a problem itself.
  • Sun. The best way to deal with sun is sunblock, so make sure you invest in a good one. Blue Lizard and Bullfrog are perennial favorites among open water swimmers for their longevity in the water. Just make sure you use a lot of it and reapply frequently.
  • Wind. From the choppy water conditions it can create to wind chill, wind can be a bad thing for an open water swimmer. Rule of thumb: If a small craft advisory is in effect in your waterway, skip the open water session and head to the pool instead.
  • Hypothermia. Hypothermia is one of the biggest challenges swimmers face in open water. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and solutions is important. Signs can include a drop in stroke rate (the number of strokes a swimmer takes in a minute) of more than a few strokes per minute. Shivering, slurred speech, an inability to follow directions, or giving incongruous answers to simple questions are also symptoms of hypothermia. A swimmer suffering hypothermia should be removed from the water immediately, stripped of wet bathing suits or other clothing, and wrapped in dry towels and blankets. Administration of warm fluids can help rewarm the patient, but rewarming should be done slowly and cautiously so as not to shock the body. If the swimmer is unconscious or does not improve once removed from the water, seek immediate medical attention. (See the March/April 2014 issue of SWIMMER magazine for more about this dangerous condition.)
  • Other health risks. Heart attacks. Water aspiration. Strokes. Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema. All of these can happen at any time in the open water, and making sure you are healthy and able to engage in vigorous exercise before you head out to the water is your best bet for reducing the chances that one of these major conditions will ruin your swim. Swimming with others is also vitally important; if you suddenly suffer a heart attack and go under, having a swim partner with you means your chances of survival rise from “nil” if you’re alone to “fighting chance.”
  • Nasty nibblers. Although jellyfish and sea lice are the itch de jour in the ocean, in fresh water, mosquitoes are the usual suspects for bites that vex and annoy. In addition, leeches and lampreys can also attach themselves to freshwater swimmers, helping themselves to a tasty blood snack. In North America, mosquitoes can carry diseases and illness, though it’s unlikely they will cause malaria, dengue fever, or any of the other marquee mosquito-borne illnesses the World Health Organization is trying to combat. West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (Triple E) are the big threats in this part of the world, and are not to be taken lightly. Find out if these or other insect-borne diseases are present in your area and use a mosquito repellent to lessen the chances that you will be bitten. Leeches and lampreys do not typically carry infectious diseases, so you’ll be left to deal with the ick factor more than any lasting illness if you tangle with one of these animals. Deer ticks, those tiny carriers of Lyme disease, can also be present in the wooded approaches to many North American lakes and ponds, so be sure to do a tick check after your swim.
  • Swimmer’s Itch. If those other nasty nibblers weren’t enough, some swimmers also report experiencing an unpleasant sensation called “Swimmer’s Itch” after swimming in some lakes and ponds. Caused by a tiny protozoa found in fresh water, swimmer’s itch is a rash that can appear all over a swimmer’s body within a few hours of swimming in an infected lake. It’s unpleasant for sure, but simply rinsing off in clean water (taking a shower) immediately after a swim will reduce symptoms greatly. Stagnant or small lakes or ponds are also more prone to harbor these animals, so seek out bigger waterways with a healthy exchange of water; water that moves flushes out the bugs.

Though this list of possible hazards is long and might be intimidating, don’t let it frighten you. A little smart planning will mitigate many of these potential problems before they start, and the rewards are well worth the risks.

Open Water 101 Article Series

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About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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