Death at Great North Swim. But open water swimming is still safe!

Great North Swim 2011, Lake Windermere

Last weekend saw The Great North Swim in Lake Windermere. Swimmers flocked to the Lake District from all over the country to raise money for various charities and to experience the sense of achievement of swimming up to 2 miles in open water.

Unfortunately the events were marred by tragedy. One 46 year old man died of a heart attack on the Saturday and another is lying critically ill after suffering a heart attack during the race. Last year a 35 year old Scottish woman died in The Great East Swim in Alton Water, Suffolk.

Nor are the deaths restricted to charity swimmers who may not be particularly experienced of swimming in open water conditions. Last year US long distance champion Fran Crippen died while swimming the last race of FINA’s 2010 10km series in the United Arab Emirates, after having won the penultimate race in Cancun, Mexico the weekend before.

That day, the water was unusually warm (around 30 degrees centigrade) and many swimmers reported heat related symptoms. The coroner said that Crippen may have died of a “cardiac abnormality” and “uncontrolled exercise-induced asthma in unfavorable race environmental conditions.”

Of course, overly warm water wasn’t the cause of the death at Lake Windermere at the weekend. But nor was it too cold either. Swimming in the lakes can be quite a challenging affair even with a wet suit on – and wet suits are compulsory during The Great Swims.

When I swam there a few summers back the temperature in Ennerdale Tarn was just 12 degrees centigrade and even Grasmere, which is at a much lower altitude, the water temperature only reached 14-15 degrees max. At this temperature it’s quite common to experience a loss of breath at first and even to suffer an ‘ice cream’ headache as the body struggles to cope with the low temperatures.

But at Windermere last weekend the temperature was a reasonable 16 degrees centigrade – not exactly tropical but warm enough for experienced swimmers to manage without a wet suit on. So what went wrong? We don’t know yet. But it’s possible the swimmer panicked in the cold water, struggled to breath, and that this brought on an undiagnosed heart condition.

But tragic as these events are, especially for friends and family, do they make open water swimming dangerous? I don’t think so – as long as you folllow common sense advice. See our article on How to swim safely in open water here. It’s estimated that 10,000 swimmers took part in the Great North Swim. Even if one swimmer dies that’s a mortality rate of 1:10,000 though in reality it is probably nearer 1:50,000 (roughly the same as the London Marathon which has seen 10 deaths in its 30 year history).

Compare this to driving your car and the risk seems ridiculously small. According to the Department of Transport’s official statistics Britons have an astonishing 1 in 200 chance of dying in a car crash. So should we all stop driving from now on? Obviously not – it’s a risk we’re prepared to take for the mobility and freedom that driving gives us.

In the same way, many thousands of people are prepared to don largely ridiculous looking wetsuits and swim caps and swim in open water for the pleasure it gives us. Indeed, maybe we should all swim everywhere instead of taking the car. It would probably be much safer as well as much better for the environment.