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Open water swimming

Water Safety Sham

Kaitlin Dryburgh – 28th July 2022

This Monday marked the second World Drowning Prevention Day for the United Nations, and even though it is very much in its infancy there was a fair amount of publicity surrounding it. As reported by WHO, drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the world and drowning rates are almost two thirds that of malnutrition. Several countries through-out the world took this opportunity to promote water safety, with the catchy little slogan from WHO “Do One Thing”. Everyone can do one thing to make open water swimming safer such as only swim in the appropriate conditions, bring the right kit, or go with another person. 

Unfortunately, it looks like the Scottish Government thought the “Do One Thing” also applied to them. In honour of this day they lit St Andrews House blue, perhaps not the One Thing we would have liked to see. In their statement marking the occasion they have reiterated a previous commitment to provide £60,000 to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to help strengthen the focus on water safety. Excuse the pun, but an extra £60,000 is a drop in the ocean for what needs to take place in Scotland to reduce the very high drowning rates we experience. Therefore it is questionable why only £60,000 was given to RoSPA, but also how effective are RoSPA at educating the wider public about water safety when one of the points they state you can do to reduce drownings is “know what to do in an emergency”, if they are receiving the funding would it be too much to ask that they tell us? 

Perhaps the most ironic factor in this choice of organisation to fund, is that RoSPA was instrumental in developing the UK’s first drowning prevention Strategy, which makes explicit that “every child should have the opportunity to learn to swim and receive water safety education at primary school”. Meanwhile the Scottish Government has cut all direct funding for children to learn to swim in primary school. Why they would provide funding to an organisation which campaigns for something they’re actively going to ignore, it is very confusing. Although there is a Scottish Drowning Prevention Strategy this does not go far enough.

Several weeks ago I wrote a newsletter piece detailing the lack of swimming lessons for Scottish children, the funding cuts, as well as the current fuel crisis impacting upon swimming pools and their ability to stay open. This was all very much in contrast with the success Scotland has had with its competitive swimming programme. Even though Scotland has the second highest drowning rate among all high-income European countries, nearly three times higher than that of England and irrespective of the Drowning Prevention Strategy’s plan the numbers have risen. Since this newsletter piece went out, a little over a month ago, approximately five more people have drowned in Scotland. 

As predicted climate change has made our summers warmer and the need to cool down greater, making the brisk waters of Scotland very appealing indeed. As Craig, head of policy at Common Weal asked last week, did you enjoy the coolest summer of the rest of your life? The increase in popularity of outdoor swimming needs to be met with a serious commitment to improve water safety awareness in Scotland, otherwise drowning rates will only increase.

Having been a swim teacher for nearing a decade and previous competitive swimmer in my youth I am well aware of the dangers of open water swimming. I am also aware that when it comes to swimming outdoors being able to swim isn’t always enough and needs to be coupled with practical lessons on the dangers of open water swimming and how to recognise and overcome them. I have witnessed a Scottish  swimming champion sit in the back of an ambulance having entered the water wrong at an open water event, resulting in his body going into cold water shock. In some circumstances it doesn’t matter how strong a swimmer you are, if you swim in the wrong conditions or don’t control your breathing as you enter the water you could place yourself in danger, there is a reason why at every open water swimming event an ambulance is present.  

Last year there was a devastating story of a mum, her nine-year-old son and a family friend drown in Loch Lomond due to getting in difficulties, they were not the only ones to drown there that weekend. What became clear from many of those who sadly drowned in lochs is they were unaware that in one spot they are able to stand perfectly easily but move a couple of inches one way and there could be a massive drop off. Some have called for signposts to be put up to make people aware, however considering there are 30,000 lochs in Scotland I don’t think this is a viable option, perhaps only in very popular swimming spots. As Scottish citizens we have access to so many beautiful places to swim, yet the majority of us have little awareness of the elements that make-up these bodies of waters. Countries such as Australia have run water safety campaigns that consider issues that are extremely relevant to their waters, for example rip currents and coast guard flags. 

Currently there is no national swimming curriculum in place, and although I am not campaigning for all swim schools, council run or private to teach the exact same curriculum, there is no responsibility for swim lesson providers to teach one ounce of water safety. That is practical water safety, what do if you accidently fall in, how do you swim in the sea or what should you wear if swimming in a Loch in November. 

Having taught a child several years ago who was traumatised by a Saturday at the beach that saw him and his brother rescued by the Coast Guard after being pulled out to sea by a rip current, I realised when reassuring him that I didn’t even know at that point what I would have done or how I would have avoided that situation. I was never taught about rip currents, and I certainly wasn’t teaching anyone else about them, I could teach perfect front crawl technique and how to do a fast tumble turn, yet I wasn’t teaching potentially life-saving advice. Although I have changed the way I teach and deliver lessons, I have seen no initiative from the Scottish Government or Scottish Swimming to make water safety compulsory in all swim school curriculums. Small gestures have been put in place, for example the Royal Lifesaving Society (RLSS)  teamed up with Scottish Swimming to deliver one week of water safety lessons to all their pupils. However, that’s just one week with no promise of more or perhaps water safety being integrated into normal lessons. This only applied to swim schools that have adopted the Scottish Swimming curriculum, and because swim schools have to pay £300 per year in membership, in comparison with Swim England’s £85 this isn’t as popular as many would think. 

However, as previously discussed not every child has access to lessons, and it’s not just children who are drowning so there should be a large effort to integrate swim safety education into everyday life. As school children will often have a fire safety talk from a fire-fighter or a police officer coming to talk in schools, should we not have coastguards or educators from the RLSS delivering water safety lessons in schools? As well as widespread campaigns to educate Scotland and the rest of the UK about how to safely swim and enjoy yourself in open water. 

During the heatwave areas up and down the UK including those in Scotland were told to not go swimming outdoors, although this was sound advice and perhaps saved many lives, this shouldn’t be the accepted norm. We should be able to take advantage of the great beauty spots in Scotland and encourage open water swimming as the benefits are amazing. Some have suggested that we make pools free during heatwaves or have designated safe open water swimming areas. Although good short-term solutions this is not the long-term answer. With our changing climate we must integrate and invest in comprehensive water safety education – £60,000 and a blue house will just not cut it. 

1 thought on “Water Safety Sham”

  1. Alison Pearson

    I was lucky in that my generation got free swimming lessons for 3 years in primary school in Edinburgh, and we also had swimming in our curriculum at High School for years one and two. My children got excellent lessons while attending Peebles primary school, for which we were very grateful, as the river Tweed here was, and is, a magnet for youngsters in the summer.
    With a family member in the ambulance service we know how many tragedies have occurred in recent years due to the public being unable to swim, and getting into difficulties due to ignorance of tides, rips, and the unseen hazards in lochs and reservoirs. Also the shock that may affect your body if you jump into very cold water, even if you can swim.
    Scotland MUST ensure ALL young people get a chance to learn to swim, and are taught in Primary School about Safe Swimming outdoors.

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