I’ve been watching the TV program about the celebrities swimming the English Channel for Stand Up To Cancer (www.standuptocancer.org.uk/fundraise/sink-or-swim) If any of you haven’t watched it, all the celebs in it were either afraid of the water, or couldn’t even swim, before they started the challenge. This got me thinking about swimming ability before getting into outdoor swimming.
I was very lucky that from basically being born my parents were determined to make me a good swimmer. They took me to the pool, took me on seaside holidays, encouraged me to join the swim team at school, and paid for swimming and diving lessons. I had a massive break from swimming from around the time I went to university to pretty much this year, but I still liked the idea, and wanted to go again. I can’t thank my parents enough for giving me such a great basis for swimming. If it weren’t for such a strong start, and a love of the water, I doubt I would have even contemplated wild swimming.
It may sound obvious, but I think that you need to be able to swim and tread water if you want to take up wild swimming. You don’t have to be a marathon swimmer, just a very slow length or so would be fine (unless you’ve got Ross Edgley training you to swim, like the celebs of course!). The sea is so powerful, that if you get in trouble you need to be able to keep yourself above water until help can arrive. I’d love to say that you don’t need to because I’d love everyone to give outdoor swimming a go, especially if you’re not actually going out of your depth or just going in for a splash, but I’ve mentioned before, I was in less than two foot of water and a wave nearly took me out! Please don’t let this put you off! Take some time in your local swimming pool, take some lessons if you can afford it, it will be worth the investment. If you can swim a few lengths without stopping (speed doesn’t matter) and tread water for a few minutes you’ll be ok to start.
Once you think you’re ready, remember that the sea (or lake, or river etc.) will be very different to the pool, salty water makes you more buoyant (so treading water is easier!) there are tides, and currents to think of too, I know I’ve said this before many times, but go with a buddy! I’ve found it very helpful to read up on things I might encounter, for example how to get out of a rip current. There’s sometimes one or two at Longsands, where I swim, so I needed to know how to manage them (basically swim parallel to the shore, or let it take you out to sea a bit, you can then come round the end of it and swim back to shore). Also, how to swim through a wave. These might sound like simple things, but you just don’t learn them in swimming lessons, and I actually didn’t think about them until I got in the water. When I first started in the end of winter/beginning of spring, the sea was very wavy, and I didn’t even get in a few times! More often than not there will be a set of waves that break close to the shore, and you will have to get past them to reach the flatter bit of sea that is more swimmable. If they’re small you can just walk through them (I walk sideways to cut through the wave better). However, if they are a bit big and strong, it can take time to get past them, and sometimes they will just push you back to the start again. If this happens you may waste energy trying to get through them, and will have nothing left for actual swimming (or the return battle!). So you have a few options; give up and go home (boo!), stay where you are and play in the waves (you can practice body surfing which will help you on a return journey next time!), move down the beach to try another entry point, or learn to “duck dive” under the waves. I’ve actually watched a couple of youtube videos on diving through waves, and I found this really helpful. Also watch more experienced members of your swim group and see how they approach the waves.
If, like me, you’re not in it for the competition and are happy to amble along and enjoy the wildlife, then you can stick to breast stroke (with the odd bit of sculling!). But if you want to get some “proper” swimming done, then you’ll need to have a strong front crawl (freestyle). Even a little current in the sea can move you off course by a few hundred meters, so you need to be able to have enough “in the tank” to correct course, battle the current, and get back home. After a few sessions in the sea you will start to find your ability improve. I’m a pretty ok swimmer and I can now swim a kilometre in about 30 minutes (with pauses for looking at crabs, seaweed, the clouds etc.) which isn’t going to win me any races, but it’s a lot better than when I started!
Going back to the TV show, I think the main thing that was standing (or swimming!) in the celebrities’ way was panic. Even the ones who could swim were having moments when they were almost pushing themselves under the water as they were feeling afraid and out of control. However, it’s virtually impossible to drown in a wetsuit! The biggest thing you can learn, and use in the sea, is a sense of calm. If you think you’re in trouble you have to chill out a bit, remember you swam to where you are, so you can swim back! Your body is really buoyant, especially in salt water, and people know you’re out there, so you can just float along with the current until you get your breath back, or someone comes and gets you. Look at the clouds, watch the birds, count to 20, do what makes you turn off the fear, and turn on your swimming brain.
Learn to swim!
Remember one body of water is not like the other, if you can swim in a lake, don’t assume you can swim in the sea.
Do a bit of research, the internet has a load of guides and videos on outdoor swimming.