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by Elaine K Howley

May 6, 2020

Focus on these things to avoid disaster

Water is perhaps the most powerful force on the planet. It has literally moved mountains, carved valleys, and destroyed civilizations throughout the ages. For swimmers, it’s our element, sure, but it absolutely demands the appropriate level of respect at all times.

Aquatic environments aren’t our primary milieus, and as such, any watery location can turn deadly in an instant. If you’re looking to venture into open water, it’s critical that you understand that Mother Nature always has the upper hand. When selecting a site for open water swimming, choose wisely and steer clear of these three common water hazards.

Rip Currents

When swimming in a coastal location, one of the most common—and potentially deadly—hazards you can encounter are rip currents. Rip currents, also sometimes erroneously referred to as rip tides, are powerful columns of water that can develop perpendicular to beaches. They occur when a sandbar (or other in-water structure) traps water between the beach and itself. That trapped water wants to rush back out to sea and will eventually create a rip across or around the obstacle. Rips can become fast-moving rivers of water that rush directly outward and can easily carry an unsuspecting swimmer well away from shore in a matter of seconds. 

To avoid a rip, look for frothy bubbles or swirls on the surface that run perpendicular to the shoreline. This pattern indicates that water is moving faster in that column than in the surrounding water. If you accidentally end up in a rip, don’t fight it—that’s a recipe for exhausted disaster. Instead, ride the rip until you feel its strength weakening. Then, instead of swimming directly back to shore, swim parallel to the shore until you’re well away from the rip. Once you’re out of its pull, you can turn and start swimming back into shore in calmer water.

Lowhead Dams

Also called “run of the river” dams or weirs, these structures are often hardly noticeable depending on the water level. Karl Kingery, an avid open water swimmer and water resources engineer based in Denver, says that because they tend to be small—varying from about 18 inches in height up to about 15 feet—they can be difficult to spot.

The danger comes from their prevalence and their ability to create a calm area of water that may look particularly inviting to swimmers. “They aren’t regulated by the states and there’s lots of them, especially back East,” Kingery says. “Lots of them are where there used to be an old mill or water works.”

The problematic power comes from a continuously rolling wave that forms at the base of the dam. “The water flows over the dam and creates a uniform hydraulic that circulates back towards the dam,” Kingery says. This can create a powerful force that pins objects, such as logs, at the base of the dam. It can also capture an unsuspecting swimmer as the force of the water sucks you towards the dam and pulls you under unrelentingly. “We call them drowning machines,” he says.

Kingery, who also serves on the Safety Around Dams committee of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, a nonprofit that seeks to improve dam safety, says the group is lobbying to get better signage around lowhead dams installed across the country. Currently, most of these structures are not marked, and it could be easy to miss their presence, especially if the water level conceal them.

But there are a few indications you can watch out for. “Look for trapped objects, such as a log bouncing around. A bubble or boil zone,” can also signal that there’s a disturbance under the water that could be dangerous, he says. Even if there’s a very calm area near a known dam that looks inviting, unless you know the area to be safe for swimming, you’d be wise to steer clear as unseen underwater currents could pull you toward the dam.

If you should be unlucky enough to find yourself being pulled toward a lowhead dam or trapped in one, Kingery recommends trying to work yourself to the side and exit via land. “Get to a shoreline. Lots of times there’s logs in the way or vertical concrete walls so you can’t get out,” he says, but fire and rescue personnel may be able to reach you with a rope if you’re closer to the bank.

In any event, don’t waste your energy trying to swim against the flow of water. “You can’t swim against it on the surface,” Kingery says. “Instead, dive down toward the bottom and stay under as long as you can,” while trying to swim away from the dam.

Whirlpools and Irregular Currents

In some locations, irregular currents and whirlpools can pop up unexpectedly, related to either recent rainfall or tidal changes. Whirlpools are created when two opposing currents meet. So, in locations where a river is letting into an ocean, depending on the tidal flow or currents created by the topography of the ground under the water, that can create a whirlpool. These water features can trap unsuspecting swimmers and pull them under.

In other locations, irregular currents can develop after massive rains change the shape of the land or create a high volume of water moving through a restricted space. These currents can force you in directions you don’t intend to go and make for a more difficult swim.

As with rip currents and dams, signs that there’s a current may include irregular bubbles or churning of water on the surface or water that appears a different color to the surrounding area. You should also tap into local knowledge from boaters or fisherman who know the area well, as they can often provide useful insight about which areas to avoid.

Also, be careful when venturing out for an open water swim after heavy or extended rainfall. Increased volume of water and altered currents can be dangerous, but heavy rain can also send debris such as logs into your swimming area that may be difficult to see. Swimming smack into a submerged log is no picnic.

What’s more, in urban locations or waterways close to farms or factories, run-off that contains bacteria or hazardous chemicals can also damage your health.

Other Hazards

In addition to these water-based hazards, there are few other things you need to keep in mind when selecting a new open water swimming location.

  • Weather. It’s important to always know the weather forecast for the area over the duration of time you’ll be out swimming. If there are thunderstorms or other inclement conditions headed toward your intended swimming area, best not venture out until the threat has passed.
  • Water temperature. Know what to expect in terms of water temperature and come prepared. If you’re not used to cold temperatures, wear a wetsuit and limit your time in the water. Bring plenty of warm clothes to change into afterward.
  • Large tidal fluctuations. Some coastal areas see great fluctuations in water levels depending on the tide. These fluctuations can sweep you away from where you want to go. If the tide turns while you’re out swimming, you may find yourself unable to swim back against it. Therefore, you should always know what the local tidal conditions will be during the time you intend to be out swimming.
  • Critters. Being aware of the sea life you might encounter in a particular location—from jellyfish and ducks to sharks and seals—can help you make a better decision about when and where it might be safe to swim.
  • Boat traffic. You should also be aware of what to expect in terms of boat traffic and other water users you may come into contact with while swimming. When training, wear a tow float for better visibility, and always swim with a buddy.


  • Open Water


  • Safety