Harbour safety – what you need to know: John King  c  Neil Philips photographer

18 Jun 2021

Community Safety and Licensing

Harbour safety – what you need to know

People face serous risk of injury posed getting into the water

Members of Bristol’s Water Safety Partnership are appealing for people to beware of the dangers of the city harbour and the serious risk of injury posed by getting into the water.

Following a number of dangerous incidents over the weekend which saw many people enter the water at a number of points across the harbourside, city officials are calling on people to be aware of important water safety advice.

The dangers to anyone entering the water exist both on the surface and beneath. Bristol harbourside remains a working harbour with vessels coming and going all year round and many surface water activities taking place across the harbourside. Whilst these activities are regulated, they do pose a risk to anyone entering the water unexpectedly.

In addition to these dangers, officials are warning people that swimming in the harbour is a very different experience to doing so in a river or a lake.

Even in the height of summer, harbour waters remain cold enough to induce cold water shock - the body’s involuntary response to being suddenly immersed into cold water. While weather conditions may seem stable, the situation beneath the water can change quickly, causing a shift in conditions, which can be fatal.

Other factors, such as variable water quality, spring tides and hidden dangers beneath the water can be incredibly dangerous; from rocks to rubbish there are many hazardous materials that pose a risk to swimmers’ safety.

Harry Awramenko, Avon Fire & Rescue Service Group Manager, said: “Swimming in Bristol’s harbour, and surrounding waterways, is incredibly dangerous. While it may seem tempting to cool off in the water, even in the height of summer the waters in England remain cold enough to induce involuntary cold water shock which causes even the strongest swimmers to gasp for breath, inhale water, cause panic and too often leads to drowning.

“In the past two years we’ve responded to over 70 water related incidents in Bristol alone, and, sadly, 25 of those resulted in serious injury or death. We urge you to avoid swimming in the water to keep yourself safe from drowning and other water-related injuries.

“If you get into trouble near the water, or notice someone needs help, please call 999 and ask for the Fire and Rescue Service.”

Local by-laws prohibit swimming in the harbour except where consent is given by the city’s Harbour Master. These by-laws are in place to protect the health and safety of everyone working, travelling or relaxing on the harbourside and ensure everyone can use the harbour without posing any unnecessary risk to each other.

Likewise, it is also a criminal offence to tamper with the life-saving equipment that is spread across the harbourside. Damaging or removing equipment without good reason to do so could result in a fine of up to £2,500.

Jon James, Head of Service Natural & Marine Environment at Bristol City Council said: “Bristol Harbourside is always one of the most popular destinations across the region when the weather is good and we expect this summer to be one of the busiest yet. Whilst we welcome people down on the harbourside to shop, eat, drink and relax, we are appealing for people to stay out of the water and refrain from swimming at all times. The water may look tempting when temperatures are high but there are a number of significant dangers associated with swimming in cold water of variable quality, with boats and other vessels zigzagging across the surface throughout the day.

“In recent weeks we’ve received several reports of people entering the water, many under the influence of alcohol or other substances which significantly adds to the risk of injury and death. This behaviour is not only irresponsible but also endangers the lives of others who are working or travelling on the water or anyone who puts themselves at risk to rescue them.

“We’re exploring the potential of introducing safe, managed and segregated swimming to the harbourside, but this is not in place right now. It requires facilities and more intensive management of a section of water which is all being discussed as part of the upcoming Western Harbour development. Until such facilities are in place, swimming in the harbour without the prior consent of the Harbour Master remains a dangerous activity that carries a significant risk of harm.”

The risk posed by the harbour waters was sadly highlighted recently by an incident at Narrow Quay on the evening of Sunday 13 June.

Insp Rob Cheeseman said: “Tragically, we saw another life lost at the weekend and our thoughts are very much with the family of this young man.

“As part of the Water Safety Partnership, we must do all we can to highlight the dangers and risks posed by swimming in the harbour. These risks are often far from people’s minds on a hot summer’s day, but they are real and ever-present, nonetheless.

“It’s always vital you call 999 immediately if you see someone in trouble in the water, and not put yourself at risk by trying to save them, no matter how courageous it may seem.”

Further information on the harbourside and how it is managed can be found on the Bristol City Council website.

Additional information on water safety can be found on the Avon Fire & Rescue website.