Temperature guide for cold water swimming

Want to have a go at open water swimming? Check out this temperature guide (below).

Spoiler alert: You can do it. You can acclimatise to the cold water, with wetsuit or without. Soon the pool will be too warm for you and your body will be thanking you for having a go.

Ocean swimming in winter – how to do it

In the middle of winter, the ocean water temperature goes down to 9c in Melbourne Australia. That is very cold and no one can stay in the water for extended periods of time at that temperature.

Here’s a typical timeline of a cold water swim at this temp:

* 1 minute: Walk in slowly, thinking: “No I can’t do this.”

* 5 minutes: Standing in waist deep water, thinking: “I def can’t do this. Can I turn around and get out without being noticed?”

* 8 minutes: Dive in, start to swim: “OMG, how do I breathe?”

* 10 minutes: Just start to breathe normally (sort of).

* 15 minutes: “I think I’m doing it.”

* 20 minutes: “I feel amazing and I’m not really all that cold. haha.”

* 25 minutes: “I’m awesome and I’m feeling things and bits I haven’t felt for so long.”

* 35 minutes: “OK now I’m starting to feel cold again.”

* 40-45 minutes: Getting out – “No I don’t want to get out, let’s do it again.”

* 10 minutes after getting out: “Yeah I’m cold, where is my thermos? My jumper? My ugg boots? How do I dress myself again?”

* Rest of day: “You can’t tell me nothing, I swam in the cold ocean today.”

Swimming with no wetsuit in 10c ocean in winter in Melbourne Australia

Before you leave home, check the weather conditions and the water temperature. It’s easy to google the water temperature for your local area. You can look up Seatemperature.org or bom.gov.au for your local ocean water temperatures.

Any temperatures below about 18 C is cold water swimming.

This Guide to Safe Cold Water Swimming gives you a general picture of what to expect at low temperatures and some safety tips.

And here is a quick temperature guide to swimming in the sea:

Cold water swimming temperatures in centigrade/Celsius:

  • Mid 20s degrees: warm enough for everyone
  • 22C: Warm in Victoria, but a bit nippy for northerners from NSW and Queensland!
  • 20C: You might like a wetsuit for longer swims but not necessary.
  • 18C: Time for a wetsuit unless your swim time is quite short. FINA and Swimming Australia say wetsuits (not swim-suits) are mandatory in OWS events under 18 degrees.
  • 16C: FINA and Swimming Australia rules say no event can be held in water under 16 degrees.
  • 15.5C: This is really cold and you will need time to recover from swimming in water of this temperature. You can’t leave the water and expect to be able to drive a car, for example. Swimmers who want to qualify for an English Channel attempt must swim for two hours, without wetsuit in water that is 15.5C or less.
  • 10C: This is cold for everyone, including those who do cold water swimming every day. Limit swims to 45 minutes and don’t attempt without a wetsuit at very least.
  • 8C: Do not enter the water for more than a very short period of time – max 30 minutes – for the most experienced swimmers.
  • 5C: This is called Ice swimming. Please seek medical advice.

Cold water swimming temperature guide infographic

What about swimming in rivers and lakes?

Freshwater is often colder than the sea so approach rivers and lakes with care. Plus freshwater doesn’t have the same buoyancy as salt water so swimming can be a bit more tiring. The sea water keeps you afloat more easily than water in the pool or freshwater in rivers and lakes.

Safety in the open water:

The golden rules from Lifesaving Australia are:

  • Swim in a group, never swim alone
  • Don’t stray far from shore
  • Shorten your swim time in winter.

Also: A thermos of hot tea is your best friend. You will get colder when you get out of cool water so what you do after a swim is very important. The warm summer months are ok. You can hang around in the sun and get dry quickly. If it is a cool day, you need to get out of your wet gear, get warm and monitor yourself.

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