Blue Balls – the benefits of a cold water dip while keeping safe

With wild swimming increasing in popularity, the RNLI, along with Cornish swim group Blue Balls, is urging those thinking of taking the plunge to follow important advice so they can enjoy the benefits of a cold-water dip safely.

Wild or cold-water swimming has seen a real popularity boom with many claiming physical and mental health benefits from taking the plunge. When the pandemic hit and pools were closed, there was a further increase in wild-swimming participation with a report by Outdoor Swimmer revealing 45% of swimmers increased how much they swam outside in 2020, along with a rise in young people participating due to the influence of social media.

Joel Ninnes, RNLI Water Safety Officer said: ‘We know more and more people are choosing to go wild swimming throughout the winter months and our coastline and in-land water ways are beautiful places that are there to be enjoyed. But as with any sport or activity in and around water there is an element of risk. It’s important that people understand those risks, how to minimise them and to always consider safety as a first priority above anything else in order to keep themselves and their families safe.’

Just this month a woman was rescued after getting into difficulty whilst sea swimming off Little Fistral, Newquay. Newquay RNLI launched the D class inshore lifeboat from Towan Beach and were quick to spot the woman due to her bright pink swimming hat and float of the same colour and was airlifted by the Coastguard Helicopter to safety.

Joel continued:

‘Swimming outdoors can be unpredictable and conditions can change very quickly. If you are a regular swimmer, it’s just as important you take precautions before heading in the water, as no two days are the same. This woman gave herself the best chance of being rescued by using a highly visible pink tow float and swim cap, which meant the 999 caller was able to provide accurate information on her position and emergency crews could locate her in the water very quickly.’

Tom Mason, co-founder of Blue Balls, a Cornish swimming group aimed specifically at men, got into cold-water swimming during the winter lockdown. Tom began sharing his swims on his social media and found people reaching out to him wanting to give it a go. Tom and fellow Blue Balls co-founder Ross Jackson-Hicks, who also runs men’s mental health charity Man Down, saw an opportunity to create a place for men to try cold-water swimming in what was a female-dominated space.

Tom said: ‘I love it for the tranquillity and peace it can offer but also how it brings people together and then there’s obviously the health benefits and chemicals it releases in your brain where you get a real buzz from it. I think it’s more of a mental challenge, and part of the buzz comes from the sense of accomplishment you get from overcoming the very cold temperature. But of course there are risks, and since we started Blue Balls we understand it’s important to highlight how to cold-water swim as safely as possible.

‘I wouldn’t really call what we do ‘swimming’, we tend to get in for a quick dip for a few minutes and then get out and that’s enough time to feel the benefits. It’s really important that during the coldest months you don’t stay in the water for too long. I would always advise people to never jump in and instead take your time. If you jump in, you could get cold-water shock and that’s when you can get into trouble. I always acclimatise slowly allowing my body to get used to the temperature and control my breathing. Entering slowly also means you are less likely to injure yourself as jumping in to a tidal pool or a quarry or even the sea, you might not know how deep it is or what could be submerged under the water’s surface.

‘I’d also advise that you never go in alone, part of why we created Blue Balls was the sense of community and to give men a space to try it with other like-minded individuals, but for obvious safety reasons it’s always better to go in the water with someone else, as if one of you gets into trouble the other person can go and get help. Make sure you bring suitable clothing to keep you warm especially after you’ve been in and your body temperature has dropped. Some people bring hot water bottles and hot drinks and you should always bring a mobile phone that you can access quickly if needed.’

People wild swim in lots of different locations and Tom’s favourite place to go swimming is in tidal pools around the coast. By joining a local swim group they will give you the knowledge of where is safe to swim and where isn’t. Other dangers can include the terrain and accessibility around the water, water quality and pollution as well as rip currents and waves. You should never go swimming near moving boats or in harbours, where it’s often very difficult to be seen as a swimmer by other water users on boats, which could result in serious injury.

 

Bude sea pool

Tom finished by saying:

‘My last bit of safety advice is to always check the weather conditions and tide times. You want to be prepared and doing this before you set off allows you to make an informed decision. Not long ago a group of five of us went down to Gyllyngvase beach in Falmouth, which is normally quite a safe beach but in high winds you can get big dumpy waves there and it goes from shallow to deep water quite quickly.

‘We all got down there and the conditions were severe with really strong winds. We’d made the effort of getting down there early in the morning and could have gone in, but we knew we would be putting ourselves in direct danger by doing that, so we decided against it. Listen to your gut and don’t push beyond your limits, the water will still be there for you to enjoy on another day in the right conditions. Never go in if you are unsure and remember you are only as strong as your weakest swimmer.

‘If you follow basic safety advice cold-water swimming is an amazing thing there to be enjoyed. I really love it and now, if I’ve had a bad day or things are getting too much, I’d much rather meet up with a mate and go for a dip than go to the pub.’

Credit: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The RNLI’s key safety advice for taking a winter dip is:

  • Don’t swim alone – always go with someone else to a familiar spot and let someone know when you are due back
  • Always check the weather forecast, including tide information and wave height
  • If in doubt, stay out – there is always another day to go for a swim
  • Take plenty of warm clothes for before and after your dip, along with a hot drink or a hot water bottle to help you warm up again when you come out of the water
  • Wearing a wetsuit will help increase your buoyancy and reduce the chances of suffering cold water shock
  • Be seen – wear a brightly coloured swim cap and consider using a tow float
  • Acclimatise to the water temperature slowly – never jump straight in
  • Stay in your depth and know your limits
  • If you get into trouble, remember FLOAT to live by leaning back in the water, extending your arms and legs, and resisting the urge to thrash around to gain control of your breathing
  • Take a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch
  • If you or someone else is in trouble call 999 and ask for the Coastguard

For more information on how to stay safe please visit the RNLI website: https://rnli.org/safety

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