I went swimming in the sea and made one terrible mistake

There is plenty to think about when you decide to go for your first sea swim of the summer.

Firstly, is the weather actually warm enough? Only the hardiest of wild swimmers will venture into the murky North Sea in all seasons. Then you have to think about the sea temperature itself. Even if it is hot weather, this early in summer often means the water is anything but.

However, as I learnt to my cost, there is another factor you really should think about if you want to avoid the embarrassing and, without being too dramatic, potentially hazardous fate that befell me. Read on for tips from the RNLI on how to swim safely.

Read more: The venomous fish heading to East Yorkshire’s beaches and how to avoid being stung

I love a swimming in the sea, but I’m a bit of a fair weather type, if I’m honest. I am also rather cautious. The bravado of youth is well behind me.

However, as I drove to Withernsea beach in the morning last weekend – in a bid to beat the crowds and get a parking space – I had neglected to take into account the tide times. I have been sea swimming countless times and usually this hasn’t been an issue.

Reporter James Campbell's first sea swim of the summer at Withernsea did not go well
Reporter James Campbell’s first sea swim of the summer at Withernsea did not go well

But, at Withernsea and other beaches along the East Yorkshire coast, when the tide is out the water is generally shallow. You can sometimes wade out at waist height for a good 50 metres. It is a whole different story at high tide.

Because of the way the beach slopes, towards the top of the beach, where the shingle is, there is quite a steep incline before it flattens out into a sandy expanse. When the tide is in, this results in pretty big waves, even when the weather is calm and still. It also means it gets deep pretty quickly.

The first mistake I made, then, was turning up at high tide. The second was shrugging off the waves. It did not look that bad, after all. No one else had ventured into the water at this stage so I had no guinea pigs to learn from.

I nonchalantly swaggered down to the water in my gear and safely negotiated the first few waves. But as I got in waist deep, I suddenly realised – too late – just how high the waves actually were.

Withernsea beach on a hot summers day but the waves are big when the tide is in
Withernsea beach on a hot summer.s day. The waves are big when the tide is in

As they peaked, they were comfortably higher than me. Suddenly one rolled towards me. I should have dived in under it, but I wasn’t quite ready.

Instead, it clean knocked me over and I tumbled backwards. I swear I could hear one or two children nearby laugh as I made my abrupt and inelegant entrance into the water.

The only thing that hurt was my pride. But later, it dawned on me that, had there been rocks or stones nearby, I could have hit my head. That did happen to me once when I was a young lad on holiday in Majorca. Thankfully, I came away with only a bump on my head.

The rest of the swim was not very relaxing as I negotiated the undulating waves relentlessly. Next time I will check the tides and try and get to the coast when the tide is further out. Then I can wade out waist deep into the calm water and gently ease in for a relaxing swim.

How to swim in the sea safely

I’m an experienced sea swimmer, but I still overlooked how the shape of the beach would affect the waves. The RNLI offers a wide range of tips on its website which it is important to follow if considering swimming in the sea. They include:

  • Choose a beach with lifeguards and swim between the red and yellow flags. A list of lifeguarded beaches can be found here.
  • If there is no lifeguard cover, make sure you are aware of any hazards, the tide times and how to spot and deal with rip currents.
  • Wear a wetsuit – it will keep you warm and increase your buoyancy.
  • Wear a brightly coloured swimming hat and take a tow float. These will help you be seen and increase buoyancy.
  • Take a means of calling for help, such as a phone in a waterproof pouch. Call 999 if you get into trouble
  • Check the weather.
  • Don’t enter the water if it is too rough.
  • Never jump straight in, as this can lead to cold water shock.
  • Stay within your depths and swim parallel to the shore.
  • Use the “float to live” technique if you get tired. Roll on to your back and hold something that floats, such as your tow float.


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