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People of the Water | The Outdoor Swimming Society

 What does it mean to be an outdoor swimmer? What is it about slipping into the freezing cold waters of our seas, lakes and rivers that is so exhilarating? What does it feel like to be so completely immersed in the natural world?

We caught up with four prominent members of the Outdoor Swimming Society to find out what wild swimming means to them. 


Kari Furre


When and how did you first come to identify yourself as an outdoor\wild swimmer?

When I was six or seven I learnt to swim in a pond in Somerset, cohabiting with frogs and newts. I was not keen on the newts. It did however occur to me that even though they made me feel a bit nauseous when I looked at their translucent bellies, that either I killed the Newts – not feasible and really horrid – stopped swimming, or just got over myself. Thankfully I took the last option.

What does swimming mean to you and how does it enrich your time?
Is it an obsession? My family certainly would say so. Is it a habit? Is it a pleasure?  A cure? Exercise? A compulsion? My social life? My internal life? It could be cycling, or running or something else, but for me it is swimming. I know that if I decide I am too busy to swim because of a deadline, I get no more achieved and feel depressed instantly. 

Where was your most vivid experience and moment of connection?

Regardless of where you swim, there is a solitude, a need for self-reliance, your sense of self is somehow diluted by the water, and you are a part of the fabric of the world, rather than an observer. There are lots of holiday brochure moments, but for me it is not the exterior stuff, it is the space that opens up in your brain as it becomes uncluttered and emptied, usually after an hour or so, of swimming.


Cal Maclean preparing for a sea swim

Cal Maclean 


When and how did you first come to identify yourself as an outdoor/wild swimmer?

I often think back to a swim I took across the River Derwent in Tasmania. I'd never done a long open water swim yet set myself this challenge, out of curiosity and my own need to see if it were possible. It wasn't the longest swim, just over a kilometre, yet my mind was racing the whole time. After completing it I had to run back over the bridge to the start, barefoot as curious commuters glanced at me. I cared not for their looks as in that moment I'd found something that made me feel alive.

What does swimming mean to you and how does it enrich your time?

Swimming outdoors allows my mind to relax and open, and often gives me the chance to think. I swim for many reasons, and different kinds of swim give me different experiences - a gentle soak in nature is very different to a wild coastal swim but I love both. I think the subtle mental challenge of it also improves my day - in essence going for a swim is the easiest thing, but my mind often plays tricks beforehand: can I get in, can I swim? So when I do, it's almost like a paradigm shift, and much more becomes possible in my mind.

Where was your most vivid experience and moment of connection?

I can think of several occasions - and they certainly differ in experience!

The bad - late December in the Isle of Skye I stole out for a quick afternoon dip before the day ended. It was a calm day but brutally cold. After the initial pain transformed into the euphoria of cold, I enjoyed my swim. That was until I came to exit the water. I'd been in too long and the numbness of my toes meant I struggled to walk out. I lay down momentarily, huddled into the foetal position, I wondered what I'd done wrong. It was a learning experience, a true reminder of being alive in that moment.

The good - a late afternoon crossing between the Isle of Skye and the island of Pabbay. Flat calm in the last light of the day, the only sounds being curious seals snorting at my wake. The sun set behind the hills as I swam, the calm water around reflecting the red of the sky. It was a moment that made me think: "why would I want to be anywhere else?!"

Oli Pitt at River Dart swim

Oli Pitt


When and how did you first come to identify yourself as an outdoor/wild swimmer?

When I was at my first school we used to swim in the lake. So I have swum outdoors since I was 6. I remember having to check each other for leeches which seemed to have a soft spot for me. I did occasionally swim in lakes and rivers but it wasn't until many moons ago that Kate invited me out to the Thames one night and it truly became part of me.

What does swimming mean to you and how does it enrich your time?

Swimming means that I see the world in a different way. I look at maps and see touch points with water where I can swim. I read maps and look at river systems how and where they connect. I see the artery of water that breathes life through our landscapes and where I can get into it. It means I always have a swim bag with me so that spaniel like I can scrabble into water. I count days from when I last swam in water and when I will next. When I am in it resets me and places me in the environment where I am consumed by nature.

Where was your most vivid experience and moment of connection?

We hold a swim event in the River Avon (old English for River so it is called River River) called the Bantham Swoosh. Three-quarters of the river floor is sand and I remember being pushed along by the water as this estuary emptied on the tide. Diving down beneath the surface, in crystal clear water, the surface of the riverbed looks like the moon. I can perfectly recall the feeling. The sensation of flying over the surface of another world. The swim continues and finishes just where there is a narrowing of the channel and the water bubbles and rushes through, a natural flume. Sorry Disney, Mother Nature beats you hands-down.

Erin Jeffery after Arran sea swim Holy Isle in background

Erin Jeffery


When and how did you first come to identify yourself as an outdoor/wild swimmer?

I have jumped into bodies of water ever since I was a child, family holidays and days out would always involve ending up in the sea, a lake, a river or (accidentally) ornamental ponds. During my teenage years and early twenties I was a competitive pool swimmer. It was only once I had moved to Australia after university that I started to regularly swim outdoors. I’m not sure I would have said that I identified as an outdoor swimmer at this point though.

Next, I lived in Turkey and then Croatia where precious days off were spent with friends hunting for wild swimming spots. The feeling of an adventure and finding somewhere that no one else knew about was so exciting. It was around this time I became completely hooked.

What does swimming mean to you and how does it enrich your time?

Swimming means many things to me. The water is where I feel at home. It's where I feel strong and powerful. It's where I feel like myself. It gives me the opportunity to better myself. I've heard a lot of people mention that swimming is their time to switch off but I find that I do all my best thinking when I'm in the water! Since I have started working for The Outdoor Swimming Society, I have realised how broad the community really is. There are many different swimming identities but we are all united with that shared passion of being in the open water.

Where was your most vivid experience and moment of connection?

I have two of these moments but both completely different.

The first was when I was living in Croatia, 2 years ago. Some friends and I visited the famous Plitvice National Park but were disappointed to learn that swimming is illegal there. We couldn’t believe our luck when we later found a deserted wild swimming spot just outside the national park with vibrant turquoise water. We spent the late afternoon swimming up and down the river and exploring waterfalls, complete bliss.

The second was last year when I was on Arran, Scotland. I met a local swimmer who invited me to swim with her and some friends to Holy Isle and back from Lamlash Bay. I was terrified the whole way over. I was scared of the deep, murky water, the waves hitting my face, the jellyfish, the seaweed, the boats, the buoys and the possibility of seals coming close. I wasn’t sure where all this fear came from but I remembered that in order to conquer your fears you must face them! I kept going and forced myself to relax into it. Even though this swim was an emotional roller-coaster for me, it changed the kind of swimmer I see myself as and prepared me for more outdoor swimming adventures!

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