How to plan a safe lake swim

The tragic death of triathlete Paul Gallihawk during the open water swim section of an event during the Bank Holiday weekend has shocked the sporting community. It has also focused attention on the safety issues arising from one of Britain’s fastest growing participation sports.

British Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, issues guidance but it will ultimately fall to the event’s organisers to ensure that competitors are safe on the day. The safety considerations arising from the cycle and run sections of an event can be challenging on a practical level, however are usually easy to identify. Where the event includes an open water swim, the hazards can be less easy to spot. Even when something goes wrong the cause can be a challenge to identify.

Venue and route selection are key elements in ensuring safety. The summer event circuit features venues that have been tried and tested year in, year out. This does not mean that organisers can afford to be complacent. Whilst an event can begin in a picturesque country park, the route itself will often run onto roads which can be subject to alteration, deterioration or simply roadworks. Equally, a lake that was clean one year can be afflicted by poisonous blue green algae the next. Thankfully a fairly simple water test is available to check. When selecting a new venue an assessment must be carried out to identify any hazards within the venue itself, and along the intended route. Ultimately, consideration also needs to be given to the worst case scenario. If the emergency services needed to get to a competitor quickly, are they able to?

The weekend’s events also raise the question of participant monitoring. Whilst the enquiry is still ongoing, Mr Gallihawk’s failure to emerge from the lake apparently went unnoticed for some time. The BTF guidelines provide that events must have a suitable system in place to ensure that participants are monitored at regular intervals. In some cases this will be as simple as a marshal with a clipboard to tick off numbers as they emerge from each stage. There is also a requirement for a safety boat and kayaks at regular intervals. These not only offer assistance to competitors, but can also provide a useful turn marker in an otherwise featureless lake. The first boat is an important one; open water events typically have mass starts where inexperienced competitors can become overwhelmed. Pre-race assessments play their part here too, as competitors can be grouped by ability and will be set off in staggered waves.

A proper briefing is crucial. This not only apprises participants of the route and any hazards, but also ensures that they know what to do if they get into difficulty. Marshals and officials also need full training in how to assist competitors. This can be tricky. Whilst accepted procedure for providing assistance using a canoe or boat is well publicised, the need to avoid grabbing competitors on their way out of the water is less well known. Safety matting is commonly used but can still be slippery. I once dealt with a claim for an athlete who slipped on his exit from Albert Dock to be grabbed by an over zealous marshal, dislocating his shoulder in the process.

An organiser’s obligation to their participants extends beyond the finish line. Post-race, athletes will need to get warm and dry, so changing tents and hot drinks should be available. Plus, the triathletes I know will crave first water, then cake! If an event provides both, it will not only be a success but will guarantee repeat business for the following year.

– An edited version of this article was published in the Weightmans Commercial Insurance newsletter, November 2015.