Protecting Swimmers in Natural Bodies of Water

Lakes, beaches and rivers all provide opportunities for youth to explore the water in ways that might be different to what they are used to. However, swimming in natural bodies of water also provides some unique challenges for guards—whether it is the clarity of water, daily changes in currents, or the depth of the water. That’s why it is important that all swimmers are protected and lifeguards are prepared for guarding the specific body of water they are responsible for.

Below are some of the recommended steps for your teams to take in order to protect youth when swimming in natural bodies of water:

  • Assess the Waterfront: Before allowing swimmers in the water, check to make sure that all boats, docks and other toys are in good condition. Also, check the water for obstructions, depth changes or strong currents that would potentially put swimmers in harm’s way.
  • Check Lifeguard Positioning: The designated area in which youth are allowed to swim will need to be clearly marked and communicated. Check the area regularly, at different times of the day and in a variety of weather conditions, to make sure that all lifeguards are able to see and respond to the farthest point within their area of responsibility. (Remember, shifting light patterns can significantly change visibility.)
  • Non-Swimmer Protections: Even if a swimmer is comfortable in a traditional pool, they may not be as comfortable or confident in brown water. Make sure that all swimmers go through Test. Mark. Protect. before swimming in a natural body of water, even if they have previously been tested in a pool. In order to swim without a lifejacket, youth will need to be tested and marked as a swimmer—although some organizations prefer to require lifejackets for everybody at all times in natural bodies of water. (See below for guidance on boating and water toys.)
  • Buddy Systems: Implement a buddy system where two swimmers—of similar swimming ability—are responsible for staying within arm’s reach of each other. Conduct buddy checks regularly to ensure accountability among all swimmers.
  • Emergency Equipment: When an emergency happens, it is critical that all equipment (AED, oxygen, backboard, etc.) is stored in a central location so that lifeguards are able to access it quickly. If not stored directly at the waterfront, make sure everyone knows whose responsibility it is to retrieve it and have a back-up plan for that process, in case the responsible party is not available.
  • Water Toys & Small Boats: Often on natural bodies of water, you will have blobs, slides, trampolines, small boats or other water toys. Before use, make sure that all toys are properly secured. Regardless of swimming ability, make sure that all youth are wearing lifejackets during boating or while playing on water toys. Each toy should have their own lifeguard and be cleared regularly to be sure that no swimmer has fallen underneath. Properly store all small boats and other watercraft after use.