Author: Nathan Heinicke-Peart

Whether you’re training for a triathlon or just swimming for fun, the open-water is a great way to enjoy a swim. At the same time, the open water holds its share of challenges and risks. Foggy weather, murky waters, and unpredictable undercurrents pose serious risks to swimmers of all ages and abilities.

Here are some tips to keep you safe while enjoying open water this summer.


Swimrun contestants crossing open water during SwimRVA SwimRunVA

1.) Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Maybe the current is starting to get rough, a storm is approaching, or your body is struggling to keep up (due to muscle cramps, fatigue, exhaustion). If you sense a problem, get out of the water and come back another day.

Keep alert. Periodically lift your head out of the water and look straight ahead to make sure you’re not headed toward something potentially dangerous, or that you’re not drifting too far from shore.


Two swimmers using the buddy system to safely swim in open water

2.) Swim with a Buddy

As noted in previous blog posts, a swimming buddy helps keep you accountable, safe, and working hard. The same goes for a swim buddy in the open water. “Swim with someone who knows how to do the cross chest carry, and is strong enough to pull you out of the water if you have a problem,” Cox says. “It’s a good idea to practice this rescue technique during workouts before you have a problem.”

This is especially true if you’re training for a long-distance open-water race or you decide to go swimming in the ocean without a lifeguard present.


Kayakers patrolling the designated water course

3.) Swim in Designated Areas

Most state parks, beaches, and lakes have areas and designated times when swimming is allowed, as well as flags that indicate water conditions and mark the borders of swimming areas. “If you’re in an area without a designated swim zone, swim with a qualified kayaker or qualified Zodiac boat operator who can safely guide you and can pull you out of the water in an emergency,” Cox says.

If you don’t have access to a kayaker or boater, ask a friend to walk along the shoreline or stand guard while you swim. You might find that you have to double back so your friend can keep you in sight and get to you quickly. Practice the technique with your friend to make it work.


Swimmers being saved by lifeguard during training course

4.) Swim Where a Lifeguard is Present

Always make sure a lifeguard is on duty and check in with your lifeguard before you get in the water.  Lynne Cox – a writer, and speaker, and long-distance swimmer – states, “Unlike a swimming pool, ocean and beach conditions are constantly changing, but lifeguards know where the riptides are, if there’s been recent shark activity, and what the water quality is like.”

While the best rule of thumb is to swim with a lifeguard on duty, if you’re experienced in open water and feel comfortable swimming without a lifeguard present, check with local authorities, regarding the conditions of the water. It is also a good idea to do some of your own research as well on the oceans, currents and tide.


James River in Richmond, Virginia

5.) Watch for Rip Tides

Always watch for rip tides and currents when you are swimming in the open water. These currents can be very dangerous even for the most experienced swimmers. Rip tides are difficult to spot from the shore and they can occur unexpectedly. “In many popular open water swim locations, currents are infamous for their strength and speed”. They pull swimmers away from the shore and take them out to sea.

Never try to break out directly. According to Swim Outlet, “swiftly moving water can pull you astray, potentially miles off-shore, off-target, or even underwater.” If you get caught in a rip current, the most important thing to remember is: do not panic and do not try to fight the current directly. Instead, swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip tide.


There is no shortage of safe swimming facilities in Richmond!  Wherever you choose to swim this summer, be safe and enjoy the water!

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The Mission of SwimRVA is to elevate swimming in the Richmond region making water safety and aquatic fitness more accessible to all. We promise to serve as a catalyst for regional aquatics and community-wide focus on water safety, health and fitness, sports tourism, and competitive aquatics. Donate today to help support our mission.