The Risks of Open Water Swimming & How to Manage Them

Top Down View of Open Water Swimmers

Swimming is the UK’s most popular participation sport with approximately 4.49 million people swimming on a monthly basis in England.  Open water swimming experienced a surge in popularity in 2015 and has been undergoing a period of massive growth since.  The opportunity for businesses and commercial venues to cater to this increased demand is huge – organised events, races and swim meets are more prevalent than ever.  However, with more and more people taking the plunge, are safety measures associated with the inherent risks of open water swimming keeping up?  Taking a close look at the Annual Fatal Incident Reports compiled by the National Water Safety Forum reveals that the rate of accidental death by drowning when swimming has been steadily increasing – from 10.4% in 2015 to 14.1% in 2018.

Let’s take a look at water temperature and weather conditions – two of the most important issues that every open water swimming venture must observe as part of their risk assessment. 

Water Temperature

Water that is exceedingly warm or cold is possibly the hugest factor to pay attention to as it can have seriously detrimental effects on the human body.  Due to the climate we have in England, our water being too cold is the one to be aware of.  Cold water shock can be triggered in water below 15c, and is a risk swimmers need to be aware of all year round, including summertime.

Hypothermia – as opposed to hyperthermia – is again the most likely to occur in the frequently chilly waters around the UK and will cause the body to fight to keep its core temperature from dropping.  The other side of the coin – hyperthermia – is when the body’s core temperature becomes too sweltering.  Both have the same net result; limbs will cease to work as blood is concentrated on the internal organs resulting in what is known as swim failureThe swimmer will most likely sink below the water’s surface as their arms and legs simply will not function.

It’s fair to assume that most open water swimming venues will be aware of the risks posed by water temperate and will even train their staff on spotting the signs of swim failure.  However, the top level of safety cover advertised by a significant amount of venues extends to lifeguards in canoes.  A big problem with this solution is quite obvious to us – how will a lifeguard in a canoe keep a swimmer suffering swim failure afloat?

Weather Conditions

Inclement weather conditions can bring particular challenges to open water swimming that need to be assessed; for instance, high rainfall and increased wind will bring faster currents and choppy water surfaces.  Whilst this presents an obvious increased chance of a swimmer finding themselves in difficulty, it also makes rescuing such a swimmer more challenging too.  Going back to lifeguards in canoes – would an already challenging rescue from a canoe be made impossible by unfavourable weather conditions?

Whilst the human body may develop the ability to regulate body temperature in open water over time with training, this is not guaranteed as everyone’s body behaves differently.  If we couple this with the huge variations in swimming ability, skill level and overall health of the swimmer and chuck in the variables of water temperature and weather then open water swimming venues have no room for complacency when it comes to water safety.

The Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) list the following instructions a water rescuer should follow if someone finds themselves in difficulty in water:

  1. Shout reassurance to them and shout for help and ensure the emergency services are on their way (call 999 or 112).
  2. Without endangering yourself, see if you can reach out to them, extend your reach with a stick, pole, item of clothing, lie down or stay secure.  Alternatively throw something buoyant to them such as a ring buoy, part filled plastic container, ball or anything that will float.

Portsafe with Rescue Pole and Emergency Throwline Board Throwbag by River Bedford


Reach and Rescue have designed and manufactured a solution that supports the RLSS’s advice above.  The solution is the Portsafe – The World’s First Public Access Rescue System.  Portsafe is the innovative new water rescue solution that is:

  1. Accessible to the general public
  2. Simple-to-use
  3. Quick to deploy to speed up the rescue
  4. Safe for rescuers keeping them out of harm’s way
  5. Linked to the emergency services alerting them when in use
  6. Tamperproof to protect from vandalism

The Portsafe itself is contains either a telescopic rescue pole, an emergency throwline throwbag or a combination of both in a lockable box and stands at the water’s edge similar to a traditional life ring.  But unlike the life ring, it is secure from vandalism and is more accurate when in use.

The system can reach someone in distress in the water in as little as 20 seconds, and reach up to 17 metres.  A location number is shown on the Portsafe board for the caller to quote when ringing the emergency services; it is this number that grants the caller access to the pole via an access code given to them by the emergency services.

Emergency Services Collaborators alongside Portsafe in Front of River

Utilising the speed and accuracy of the Portsafe’s rescue pole gives a casualty in the water the highest chance of survival.  The telescopic rescue poles accurately extend to a casualty in the water; pictured above is the pole with clamping float which will provide support and stability as the pole is extended across the water.  The body hook attachment at the top will mean the pole will function and rescue an individual regardless of whether they’re struggling with swim failure in the water or not.  And with poles that reach up to 17m, this negates the need for rescue operatives to be present in canoes.


Speak to us about the Portsafe by calling us on 03301 595 088 or by emailing

Read more about our collaboration with Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service that led to multiple Portsafes being installed across Bedfordshire.
UK: 03301 595 088
International: 0203 368 6792     

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin