Open water swimming in Sussex: this is how to stay safe and why it can be dangerous

A drowning prevention expert from Sussex has shared advice about staying safe in open water following a ‘horrendous’ weekend.
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Dawn Whittaker is chief fire officer and CEO of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and the NFCC lead for Drowning Prevention and Water Safety.

“It has been a horrendous weekend for incidents in open water, both at the coast and inland across the UK,” she said.

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Dawn, who is the National Water Safety Forum chair-designate as well, also highlighted the search for a 49-year-old man at Ardingly Reservoir after he was reported missing on Sunday (July 18).

Ardingly Reservoir. Picture by Steve Robards.Ardingly Reservoir. Picture by Steve Robards.
Ardingly Reservoir. Picture by Steve Robards.

She said that in West Sussex last year, the fire service was involved in 28 rescues, and that there were four fatalities in water.

In East Sussex, Dawn said, the fire service was involved in 20 rescues in 2020 and there were 13 reported fatalities.

The number of rescues is much higher if you add Coastguard and RNLI figures, she said.

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Dawn shared some advice from the National Water Safety Forum to help keep people safe while swimming in rivers, lakes, natural pools and the sea.

The top tips are:

Get to know where you are swimming and check the condition before going in.

Make sure you are properly equipped.

Beware of the cold.

Make sure someone knows where you have gone and why, and that you have the means to call for help, especially in remote locations.

Take note of local safety advice and respect the countryside, landowners and other users.

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Swimmers are also urged to make sure they avoid ‘cold water shock’, a main underlying factor in drowning deaths.

This, the NWSF says, is the body’s short-term and involuntary response to being suddenly immersed in cold water.

After sudden immersion, the closure of the blood vessels in the skin results in increased resistance to blood flow, which means the heart has to work harder and blood pressure increases.

There is also a ‘gasp’ response and a significant change in the breathing rate so it becomes harder to breathe steadily, which can cause swimmers to panic and inhale water.

In some cases, this can lead to a cardiac arrest.

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People can limit the effects of cold water shock by wearing a well-fitting wetsuit, entering water slowly and wearing a life jacket or buoyancy aid.

People who fall into the water by accident are advised to use the ‘float-first’ technique, which means tucking-up and floating on your back to control your breathing until you are rescued (or can rescue yourself).

The safest open water spots to swim, say the NWSF, are lifeguarded and supervised beaches and outdoor pools.

Locations to be cautious about include: quarries and reservoirs, rivers with features like weirs and fast-flowing water and potentially polluted locations near rainwater run-offs, livestock and estuarial waters.

People can find out more at

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