A 17-year old drowned in a West Des Moines’ Blue Heron Lake at Raccoon River Park yesterday while swimming with a group of friends, apparently after becoming fatigued and panicking. Raccoon River park is a popular place for triathlon training and I’ve seen people of varying comfort and skill levels swimming for fitness in the lake. This unfortunate incident inspired me to offer a few safety tips and a reminder that no matter how comfortable you are as a swimmer, you should always remember that open water swimming comes with inherent dangers.
Tip 1: Never swim in open water alone. Even if your partner is at a different level, it is helpful to know that someone is keeping an eye out for you. Be sure to periodically check for your partner. If you can’t find a partner who is swimming, at least find out to hang out on the shore while you swim. This certainly won’t guarantee your safety, but it is better than nothing!
Tip 2: Hug the ropes. Typically I stay right along the roped off swim areas. I know this safety tip may not seem quite as safe, but I tend to be right outside of the rope because so many people on floating tubes and rafts tend to float up to the rope inside and latch on. Some people do manage to hug the rope right inside of the swimming area. Either way, it is good to be right by the rope in case you get a cramp or need help.
Tip 3: Wear a brightly colored swim cap. Yes, men. Even you. Especially if you’re wearing a wetsuit. Lakes are murky and depending on the time of day, the sun can cast a glare over the water causing visual difficulties. If someone is paddling a boat, they might not see you until it is too late (I was hugging the ropes at Raccoon River Park once swimming and a boy scout canoe training group got very close to the swim area…it would not have been a stretch to imagine how a swimmer could have gotten clocked by an oar!) Also, if you’re in trouble and need rescued, it would be much easier to spot a bright cap in murky water.
Tip 4: If you are going to venture out farther into open water, have a friend who kayaks hang out by you in the water.
Be safe out there!