Leap In: A Guide to Taking Your Swimming to the Next Level
You think you want to get swimming, or make the move from the pool to the open water, but you don’t know where to start. Here are the top questions I either had when I was a novice myself, or am now frequently asked, on the subject of where to begin.
1. I want to take part in an event, but do I have to enter a triathlon to do a short organised swim?
No, there are lots of events for swimmers who want to complete shorter distances as part of training for a triathlon. A sprint triathlon swim is 750 metres, a standard is 1.5 kilometres, and an Ironman distance is 3.8 kilometres. Of course – as with my Arun swim experience – this can temper the mood of the event, making for a more competitive atmosphere. There is also the unnerving practice at the start of triathlon events of swimmers swimming over each other in their haste to get to the front of the pack. That experience is a big no from me, and I had no qualms about holding back until the alpha crew had set off. Triathletes in training needn’t be a reason to put you off taking part in any of these shorter events, though – after all, if you can persuade enough friends to go with you, you have created your own mood.
2. What about if I want to do a longer swim? Or one that is less competitive?
At the other end of the spectrum, the Outdoor Swimming Society and Chill Swim organise longer swims that involve the endurance aspect that triathlon-length swims don’t, but with the mood of a festival. The Dart 10K, the Jubilee River Swim (10 kilometres, but doable as a relay), the Bantham Swoosh (6 kilometres) and the Coniston End-to-End (5.25 miles) are as much about the journey as they are about breaking any time limits. Appreciating the natural environment, feeling safe in a long stretch of water that you might not undertake alone, and spending time in the company of other outdoor swimmers – all of these are equal objectives here.
Then there are marathon swims and Channel crossings, which are an altogether bigger undertaking. Channel crossings can be done as a team, or solo. It is a costly and unpredictable business, though – and not one that sounds particularly enjoyable. The course is a busy shipping lane, you can end up swimming for hours longer than you have trained for if the weather is against you, and there is little to see or experience en route. Very few French people care about swimming the Channel, which makes me suspect it’s not a goal I would ever like to pursue.
3. I don’t care about distances, I just want to swim in amazing places, but safely. How do I get to do that?
A swimming holiday is the route you want to take. SwimTrek is the company that has all but created the market here, but there are others such as the Big Blue (who took me to Greece), Strel Swimming and the US-based SwimVacation who will organise a trip for you. There are also companies such as Swim the Lakes, who arrange shorter day trips for those who want to swim in the Lake District but are anxious about doing it alone.
Most of the international trips will arrange accommodation, boats and guides, as well as having a specific schedule of swims booked with local coastguards for the duration of the trip. To varying degrees they also organise swim coaching, fun afternoons of water sports and special meals out. The UK- based trips often involve nothing but support for the swim, but if it means being able to swim under Durdle Door or along the Thames with safety guides to hand, it is still well worth it.
The idea of going on an adventurous holiday was pretty overwhelming for me, but I spoke at length to J, our guide in Greece, and I have since interviewed Simon Murie, who founded SwimTrek, the company with the greatest experience in this area. Everyone who goes on these trips has the same kind of anxieties: they’re worried about being left behind, they’re worried about letting the others down, they’re worried about swimming in unfamiliar water.
These trips are generally great value for money, though they are still a significant financial outlay. But if you are in a position to go, save up and enjoy!
4. I can’t afford a holiday! I just want to get into a lake, river or the sea, but I don’t have anyone to go with – is that okay?
It’s highly inadvisable to go swimming in open water alone unless you are an exceptionally experienced swimmer in water that you know very well. It’s too risky, and also it’s quite boring, not to mention lonely. For the purpose of finding nearby swimmers, the Outdoor Swimming Society is an invaluable resource, and a far more personal touch than Google. Its Facebook group is used not just by new or potential swimmers looking for like-minded souls nearby, but by people all over the country who are going away for a holiday or even on a work trip and want to know if there will be any outdoor swimming going on where they’ll be. It is rare that a polite and friendly request goes unanswered, and our informal group in Brighton has welcomed passing swimmers too. Anywhere there is a clean and safe body of water, there will be a swimming group based around it, however informally.
5. How do I know which way the tide is going if I want to get into the sea?
If you already have a swim buddy but just want to get in the water, it is essential to do some research into the local conditions, such as tides and waves. The Magicseaweed app is a wonderful resource for this if you are near the sea rather than rivers, lakes or lidos, and in some instances it even has cameras online so you can actually see the height of the waves you’re considering swimming in. Another great website is www.goodbeachguide.co.uk, which lets you know what sort of wildlife you might encounter and also how clean the water is.
If you want to undertake a swim that heads one way and then returns, it is safest (and most enjoyable) to do it so that you have the current helping you on the way back. That way, if the weather changes, or you encounter accident or adventure, you will have natural help getting home. Do note that while the tide is usually taking you one way, a strong wind can override this. In the UK we have two tides a day, and on the south coast where I swim, if the tide is going out, the current is going west. That reverses as the tide comes in. But if it is a particularly windy day, and the wind is blowing from west to east, you may end up getting blown in the opposite direction. The safest thing to do is get in the water, look at the shore, and see which way you float once you have been in for twenty seconds or so. Then head the other way!
Whatever your plans and however far you intend to swim, you should always give a moment’s pause to consider what the sea is doing before you get in. Even utterly flat water can have strong currents pulling beneath the surface, and it is unnerving at best, frightening at worst to realise you are swimming home and getting nowhere.
6. What is a rip tide, and how do I deal with one?
Rip tides are basically the consequence of waves hitting the beach entirely parallel to it, and the water beneath the waves then pulling back with exceptional strength and speed. This intense current can pull a swimmer, or someone playing on a lilo in the water, several hundred feet back from the shore in a matter of seconds. If you are a less confident swimmer, deliberately staying where the water is shallow, this is terrifying, and the force of the water means that following your instinct – swimming against the rip towards the shore – is pointless. There is, however, a quick way to get out of the rip: you simply swim to the side, parallel to the beach. Don’t even think about trying to get back to the beach until you have swum to the side a good few metres and are no longer in the rip. After that, it should be relatively easy to get back to shore.
Rip tides are sudden and scary, but generally take place on beaches where the lifeguards know that they are expected and signpost adequately. So don’t let them dog your nightmares unduly.
7. What will I want to have with me for when I get out of the water?
If you’re swimming in anything but the sunniest of Mediterranean or Caribbean seas, you will probably come out of the water and feel a bit chilly. So the most important things to have with you are a few layers of warm clothing. A couple of sweatshirts will do just as well as a hi-tech fleece if you have space rather than cash to burn. And I prefer putting leggings onto damp legs rather than tracksuit bottoms or jeans, which tend to stick and bunch up while I’m standing on one leg pulling them on. A hat and scarf make a huge difference, as will having a flask of something hot. And Uggs, for so long the dark shame of my wardrobe, are now being used for the purpose they were invented: sliding on for warm toes after sea-bound adventures.
8. Seriously, though, what fish might be in there?
Well, that is half the mystery. And isn’t a little mystery half the fun? To speak only of the waters closest to me, an actual dolphin has been spotted several times swimming around the West Pier in Brighton. In UK waters there are very few fish that might actually do you harm, for all that some of them can look pretty ugly (sorry, pike). On the whole, fish will swim away from you before you even spot them – we are so much larger, and considerably scarier, especially in a group.
Occasionally I have a moment of terror that a boisterous seal is about to thump me, but most of the time the thought of seeing fish in the water is part of the excitement. Local lifeguards – or fishermen! – will be able to tell you specifics about where you’re swimming, and www.goodbeachguide.co.uk (run in association with the Marine Conservation Society) is a solid starting point for your research.
9. I’m perfectly fine in the pool, thanks, but how do I take things up a notch with my swimming without heading into the wild?
The wisest thing to do is to find your local Masters swimming group. It’s like joining a local track club. The group will organise age-categorised training sessions and meets, and will more than keep you on your toes.