Piers are the perfect place to stroll by the water, watch a sunset, or try your hand at fishing. Some piers, like the Gord Edgar Downie Swimming Pier, are not just beloved swimming spots, but are also a testament to communities fighting for water access and swimmable waters in urban cities.

Piers can be great for many types of water recreation, but they can offer specific hazards to swimmers. Learn how to avoid these hazards before you head to the water.

Type of Piers

Some piers, like the Gord Edgar Downie Pier, are meant to be enjoyed by swimmers. You can learn how to swim at the Kingston pier here.

However, not all piers are safe to swim around. Fishing, working, and pleasure piers are not appropriate for swimming, and it is dangerous to swim off or near them. Fishing piers are for those who want to fish, working piers are often for ships and industry, and pleasure piers are often used for amusement parks or other attractions.

While you should never swim at a pier that is not designated for swimming, even at swimming piers there are safety hazards to be aware of.

Here is how you can safely swim around piers:

1. Know how to avoid, recognize, and escape rip currents

Strong and fixed rip currents often form near piers. If you get caught in a rip current, the water will pull you away from the shore. Rip currents can form in any waterbody that has waves, meaning that both lake piers and ocean piers can pose this risk. To avoid rip currents, swim at least 30 meters away from a pier.

Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility at Duck, NC.

A rip current may appear as a choppy line of water moving in a circular motion, a column of seaweed or other beach sediment that is being sucked out to sea, gaps between waves, waves in disrupted patterns, and as darker coloured or muddy waters.

It’s nearly impossible to swim back to shore against the pull of a rip current for even the most experienced swimmers. The best way to escape a rip current is swimming parallel to shore until you no longer feel the pull, then swimming back to the beach.

2. Be aware of structural currents and longshore currents

Structural currents are essentially rip currents that are created near a shoreline structure. They are almost always present near piers or other structures where water can be funneled away from the shore in a long, narrow channel.

Longshore currents move parallel to the shore. They are formed when wind and waves hit the shoreline from an angle, forcing water down the length of a beach in a single direction.

A longshore current can push a swimmer into a structural current or rip current. It can be very difficult to escape multiple currents in the same area, and you may end up being passed from one current to another. The most effective way to prevent being caught in multiple currents is to avoid swimming directly by a pier.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

3. Be cautious of strong waves, rocks, and other hazards

Powerful waves around piers can crush you or push you into the pier or surrounding structures and rocks. Strong waves and storm surges are especially a concern before, during, or after stormy weather. Storm surges sets of long waves that form in the deep water offshore and get more powerful as they come inland.

Rocks on the bottom waterbody can also be hazards, since you can injure yourself by jumping onto sharp rocks. Always look before you leap, and make a note of things like water and air temperature, wind, and waves before you swim.

4. Steer clear of people fishing

Piers—whether designated or not—are popular places for fishing. Watch out for both fishing hooks and large fish when you are swimming by a pier. You may be hooked or tangled in lines or nets.

Photo by Taylor Young

Fishing is often allowed on piers, and some beaches ban swimming near fixed structures to keep swimmers safe. Make sure you aren’t putting yourself in danger by swimming too close to people who are fishing.

With these safety tips on hand, you’re ready to set out swimming!

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