Concerns and responses: November protest swim

There was much interest in our trespass swims at Bawsey in the week leading up to 19 November 2023, on Facebook, local online newspapers, with interviews on radio and local TV. The landowner and a local councillor put out a press release which was picked up by the media, and we were invited to put the point of view of those involved in the swims.

Read about the swims in November, October, and September, including discussion of the aims and issues.

We believe that it is possible to swim safely at Bawsey Lakes with accurate knowledge. We want to prevent any further tragedies and to help people know how to stay safe, and consider this can be better achieved by a change in policy and better access to relatively harmless waters.

We invite those with whom we share the aim of keeping people safe to a discussion to see if there are any areas on which we could work together.

Here are the key concerns that have been raised, and responses (links to more detail below):

It can never be safe for anyone to swim at Bawsey Lakes, as they were previously quarries and there are too many dangers; no one should ever swim at a place where people have drowned as that shows that it is dangerous.

One purpose of the protest swims was to show that it is possible to swim safely at Bawsey Lakes, with knowledge on how to stay safe and swim within your capabilities. All open water has risks, however assessment by experienced swimmers at Bawsey has not found evidence of specific and unusual dangers that make this lake more dangerous than other places. In fact, like other inland lakes, it is relatively safe compared to the sea or rivers, and the gradually sloping beaches into shallow then deeper water make it easier and safer to exit the water safely, especially important in the colder months. Although originally quarries, the lakes are now no different to any other lake, and there are many examples of ex-quarries where swimming is accepted or encouraged in the county. A number of claimed risks for this place are not borne out by assessment, for example the claim that there are weeds in the lakes that could be a significant risk to swimmers, or that the water is very cold even in summer.

People have died in lakes because they were not aware of key safety information or were not able to swim. They died of causes related to cold or swim capability – cold water shock, swim failure, swimming when not capable enough to do that swim, falling off an inflatable, trying to rescue a drowning person, and of causes that might not be related to cold, including heart failure or alcohol.

It is utterly tragic that people have died in ways that could be prevented by giving them accurate information, and we want to see a change in approach so that people can receive this knowledge rather than being simply told to stay out, an approach that does not work and does not help them stay safe.

Your assessment of the risks at the site is wrong.

Swimmers have used their detailed understanding of safety and expert sources, and have assessed the site using a variety of methods as thoroughly as possible, and continue to assess any risk suggested to apply at Bawsey. We have put the information gathered so far in a page on this website, Risks and Myths at Bawsey Lakes, which explains what risk has been claimed, what risks apply here or elsewhere when swimming in open water, and how to stay safe and avoid coming to harm from that risk. We would be happy to go through this analysis and discuss those risks that are in dispute, and to look at alternative assessments of the risks to those choosing to enter water at the site.

Swimming at these lakes is insensitive as people have died here in the past.

We feel strongly that further tragedies must be prevented, and believe that could be done more effectively by taking a different approach. We seek to raise our points in as respectful a way as possible and to recognise that people have died at the lakes over the past 10 years, and we do not in any way wish to belittle people’s concerns. However, most of those concerns are based on misunderstandings and inaccurate information about the risks at the lakes and about outdoor swimming generally. Outdoor swimming is not dangerous, in fact is very low risk and even more so when the level of knowledge across communities is raised so that they can stay safe.

Sometimes the approach to outdoor swimming appears to be very different to other risks in society. For example we might consider whether it is appropriate to cycle in a place where someone has been killed when cycling, and some might decide that they feel those roads are not safe to cycle along, but we are not generally told that it is insensitive to cycle or that we should not cycle along those roads. Instead we educate drivers to be aware of cyclists and educate cyclists to be aware of the risks and how to stay safe. The relative risk of activities can be seen in a table from RoSPA in this OSS article about drowning statistics.

If a group of people are seen to swim in the lakes, and they say that risks can be avoided, then other people will copy them and they will drown, so our choice to swim there is irresponsible.

This doesn’t take note of the reality that people do and will swim in the lakes, especially in summer, whether a group goes public about doing so or not. Every person who chooses to enter the water takes responsibility for their own actions, and parents or carers for their children, and this is reflected in established case law. The presence of experienced swimmers at a location can provide a very positive influence, showing how to be responsible and sharing tips amongst friends, family and their community, and spreading out knowledge about how to swim safely far and wide.  A wider understanding of water safety is needed because of several decades of driving people out of our waters, and we want to see a change to this situation. Denying people this knowledge that could keep them safe because of a blanket ‘Stay Out’ policy could be seen as a more irresponsible approach.

The message that outdoor swimming is dangerous prevents useful information being given so that people can stay safe, and prevents them becoming familiar with swimming outdoors and learning by experience. It also stops the sharing of constructive information that could actually save people. For example, an important safety tip is to avoid cold water shock causing a problem by getting into water slowly and taking a few moments for breathing to slow before swimming off. But if the only statement made is that cold water shock will put someone entering the water in immediate danger of death, no one can learn from that how they can stay safe.

The landowner does not wish you to swim, and you should obey signs, rules, and their policy.

We believe that the landowners’ policy to say ‘Stay Out’ of the water is an approach that cannot work and doesn’t help water safety. We believe that more places are needed, especially suitable ones, so that people can experience outdoor swimming and learn how to be safe. It is impossible in practice to stop people swimming: people want to swim and paddle in the water especially in summer, and many have either done so all their lives or more recently discovered how enjoyable this is and how much it benefits them. A prohibition approach not only doesn’t work, it can be counter-productive and encourage riskier behaviour and reduce respect, especially if based on inaccurate information. For example telling people that the water is freezing in summer when it’s well over 20° reduces credibility and goes against people’s real experience and common sense. The approach prevents basic essential safety information getting across to people, and having that knowledge is the best way that people can keep themselves safe. It is better to base policies on the latest research and up-to-date understanding of water safety and behaviour, as do the national safety organisations and many landowners and authorities.

Useful sources of information include National Water Safety Forum, Visitor Safety Group (landowner body), RoSPA (guidance for landowners, https://www.rospa.com/leisure-safety/water/inland/), the Local Government Association advice on enabling visitors to enjoy the natural environment safely (www.local.gov.uk/topics/community-safety/water-safety-toolkit), and one of the talks at a recent RoSPA organised safety conference, ‘Using what we know in behavioural science to help improve water safety’ from Dr Fiona Fylan, Reader in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIiFT875HEg.

Shared aims – why not work together?

We understand that the current approach is based on sincerely believed concerns and to achieve aims which we share – keeping people safe – but we don’t believe that it works.

As we have a common aim we invite those with concerns and a different approach to have a discussion to see if there are any areas in which we could work together. There are other water bodies in the county, including lakes which were previously sand quarries, where swimmers work with landowners to help tackle antisocial behaviour and problems including by litter picking, reporting issues, spreading water safety messaging and organising training – and at these sites thousands of people swim safely every year. Being able to take part in this healthy, affordable and enjoyable activity has enormous benefits to the individuals and  to society as it can help tackle issues of obesity, inactivity and poor physical and mental health. The positive approach and the presence of responsible swimmers has a powerful influence on visitors, discouraging unsafe and disrespectful behaviour. So there is another way, and experience to show that it can work well.

(This was a presentation to Visitor Safety Group conference on swimmers working with landowners, https://www.imogensriverswims.co.uk/blog/responsible-swimming-presentation-to-vsg/.)

See some of the coverage in local newspapers, radio and TV: BBC Look East 171123 Lunchtime item; Radio Norfolk 171123 Breakfast Imogen interviewed; BBC Radio Norfolk 171123 Breakfast local councillor interviewed; Eastern Daily Press, 151123; Lynn News, 161123, Dereham and Fakenham Times 231123.

Sign reading “Danger Deep Cold Water, KEEP OUT OF THE WATER, no swimming or paddling. BBC Look East: Wild swimming row”

Signage at the Great Lake, still from Look East item

swims and swim places, and related issues