Even though we may have evolved from fish, humans sure as heck aren’t suited to surviving in the water anymore. The water is a cold and harsh environment for warm-blooded creatures without gills like us. Less than 60 seconds is all the time it takes for a human to drown.
Outside of a controlled environment like a swimming pool, you could be subject to extreme temperature changes and rough current due to the unpredictable nature of weather. You could also suffer a cramp or a medical condition could flare up, and this could spell a death sentence if you’re swimming out in open water alone. Even swimming in a pool alone has its share of risks.
With all of these risks in mind, it’s important to understand why you should not swim alone. Having at least one partner could make the difference between life or death in a life-threatening situation. Your partner can potentially rescue you, or at the very least s/he can call for help. If you’re alone and especially if you’re out in the open water, your chances of survival are almost zilch.
In this article, we will cover some of the potential risks you can face swimming alone in various bodies of water, from your backyard pool all the way to the ocean. You may be surprised to learn just how many ways your life could be endangered, especially if you’re alone, and how having a partner can at least give you a fighting chance of survival.
Potential risks of swimming alone
In the pool
The least risky body of water you can swim in is a controlled environment such as a swimming pool. That said, even experienced swimmers have drowned in a pool before, particularly when swimming alone.
For example, pools have vents that produce suction strong enough to trap your hair, clothing, or even parts of your body. It could even pull you under the water and make it difficult to get out, especially if you’re petite. Some swimmers have found themselves trapped against the vent until they drowned.
The safeness of a swimming pool compared to other bodies of water ironically lulls people into a false sense of security, increasing its risk. Poolgoers have, for instance, dove head first into the pool (not realizing how shallow it is) and hit their head against the bottom, causing them to lose consciousness and drown, or to receive permanent brain damage.
In a similar vein, some people have collided head first against the wall while swimming laps and miscalculating their distance to the end. Some swimmers have also overestimated their stamina and suddenly found themselves completely exhausted in the middle of a lap, struggling to stay afloat and reach a wall.
That said, unless you’re swimming in your own backyard pool, swimming pools are generally full of people and have lifeguards on duty. Thus, public swimming pools are extremely safe because by definition, you’re not alone in a public space.
For those with their own pools, the depth and length are generally pretty short so you have a decent chance of saving yourself in an emergency, but why not have someone around for extra insurance?
In the ocean
When you take your swimming outdoors, suddenly all bets are off when it comes to safety. Now you have to worry about strong currents, called riptides, that can suddenly pull you hundreds of meters away from shore, requiring Herculean strength and stamina in order for you to swim out of it and swim back to shore.
In a similar vein, strong waves can also push you down and submerge you for a long time. If you try to remain on the surface, you will waste a lot of energy and experience the pain of being buffetted by waves.
There are also marine life such as sea urchins, jellyfish, and potentially even sharks to be wary of. You must always be aware of your surroundings not just in regards to marine life but for boats. Wear a bright swimming cap or dive hood or something that makes you stand out so that boaters can see you.
In these situations, the point of having a swimming partner is to look out for each other. Your partner could just as easily encounter the same problems. If someone were to become incapacitated, the other could try to call for help and help their partner stay afloat for as long as possible.
In lakes and rivers
Swimming in freshwater is not necessarily any safer than swimming in saltwater. First off, many lakes are murky, making it hard to tell just how deep it is. It is extremely dangerous to dive into lakes without first checking that it’s safe underneath.
You can also get tangled up in weeds and grasses more easily since water visibility is often poor. There may also be nets or other objects underwater that a swimmer can get tangled up in or stuck under.
In a river, the fast-flowing current can sweep you away, sending you downstream where there may be sharp rocks. All it takes is six inches of flowing water to sweep someone off their feet. If you hit your head, drowning is all but certain.
Cramping is when your muscles involuntarily contract, causing severe pain and restricted mobility. Imagine being out in the open water and suddenly getting a leg cramp. Suddenly, you’ve lost the use of one leg or maybe both of them.
If you’re lucky, maybe you can get your leg muscles to loosen up quickly. If not, you could easily panic, flail around, waste a lot of energy, and then drown. This is a nightmare scenario for a lot of people, because it can happen to anybody young or old.
Here’s how you can avoid it. Drink plenty of water and get enough electrolytes. Dehydration is a common cause of cramping, as some swimmers don’t like feeling the urge to pee while swimming.
You will also need electrolytes. A great source of electrolytes is in energy drinks like Gatorade. You can also get it naturally from eating healthy foods like potatoes, bananas, kale, spinach, milk, yogurt, and so on.
Cramping can also occur due to fatigue. When you’re swimming all day, you will eventually overuse your muscles and this makes you susceptible to cramps. Take frequent breaks and replenish your body with fluids and electrolytes to reduce the likelihood of cramps occurring.
Pre-existing health conditions
I don’t think I need to explain how having a medical episode in the middle of a lake or far from the coast is basically a death sentence.
Under normal circumstances, perhaps it could have been easily dealt with. For instance, conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, asthma, or heart problems are more easily alleviated when you’re on land than in the water, so if you have a pre-existing medical condition, consider whether open water swimming is for you.
In fact, don’t rely on your own opinion or mine for the matter; consult a doctor on whether it is safe for someone with your conditions to be swimming outdoors. If the doctor says no, then guess you’re out of luck.
You wouldn’t drink and drive or operate heavy machinery. Anything that requires precision and good judgment and may potentially affect your life or someone else’s should be undertaken with the utmost care. I think swimming falls into that category, and you shouldn’t drink and swim either.
One of the leading causes of adult drownings is due to alcohol consumption, according to the CDC. In addition to impairing coordination and precision, alcohol is known to dehydrate you, leading to increased risk of cramps.
It also makes your blood vessels dilate which sends more blood to your skin, causing you to feel warm but in reality you’re losing body heat to the environment faster.
I really cannot overstate how dangerous it is to have impaired judgment while swimming. You could easily swim out too far, not recognize changes in the weather, or do risky actions that you wouldn’t otherwise have done while sober. Drinking while swimming outdoors is like playing Russian roulette, and one of these days you’ll lose.
In a similar vein, if you are taking medications, you should also ask your doctor if it’s safe to swim after taking your medicine. The side effects of certain medications, such as those taken for anxiety and depression, can be eerily similar to being drunk. (I.e. You may have impaired coordination and judgment).
Hopefully your doctor can provide you with some kind of a workaround. Again, do not rely on your own judgment. Get some professional guidance about whether it’s safe for you to swim with while taking medications or not.
Many of the problems discussed in this article are, if you encounter any of them while swimming alone, very likely to lead to a drowning death. With a swimming partner, there is at least a fighting chance that you can get rescued either by your partner or by others alerted by him.
In the event of a medical episode, even if you do get rescued from the water, you still need to hang in there long enough to reach the hospital. In other words, medical conditions are extremely dangerous and may completely prohibit you from swimming outdoors at all.
Whether you’re swimming alone in the pool, ocean, lake, or river, you run the risk of getting into a situation that is difficult to survive alone. There are certainly precautions you can take on your own, but the ultimate insurance is to have at least one other person with you in case something goes wrong.