From exploring the land by sea, to the calm of cold water immersion and intimate proximity to nature; swimming in the sea offers up as many rewards as it does challenges. As founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society, Kate Rew is something of an authority on most of them.
Following on from our Cornish sea swimming adventure, we asked Kate what she loves about sea swimming, and what tips she has for those keen to try it out for themselves.
Outdoor swimming sets me free. I feel unburdened by all the complications of modern life when I swim: literally – cliché as it may be – in my element. Outdoor swimming is a very peace-provoking thing to do; people of all sorts of different types will tell you that. “There’s no such thing as a bad swim” says the bumper sticker, and the mental change it provokes is what makes that true. I have done so many meditative, repetitive forms of exercise in my life – running, rowing, yoga, biking – and do lots of other things in water, but none of them match swimming for its ability to change me within minutes.
Even heavily humanised landscapes become wild again when sunk to water level. Gone are the roads, shops and houses. Into view come the water lilies, dragonflies and tree roots. Starting out from a beach – already a wild place – the adventures on offer become even more thrilling: swimming around islands and sea stacks, into caves, along rocky cliff shores…
“Experiences like this reassure me that the differences so many of us seek in more far off travels and adventures are still available in this new world we live in… if we just stop still long enough and look around.”
Most outdoor swimmers get a frisson from the self-reliance required of them in the water; the slight brush of danger, the inbuilt requirement to face cold and not completely predictable conditions with stoicism. On the British coast (as opposed to tide free warm shores) this goes up another level: tides don’t just go in and out, they create tidal streams that pull you one way or another.
Wild swimming in the sea...
Each wild swimming environment – lake, river, estuary, tarn, waterfall – is unique, and has its own special features. When it comes to swimming in the sea, there are so many: the buoyancy of salt water, the hurly burly of the waves, the variety of marine life underneath the water. To swim over a kelp forest, spider crabs scuttling through it, is magical. I love swimming around islands, or to rocks; making it to places along the coast that aren’t accessible by foot. Experiences like this reassure me that the differences so many of us seek in more far off travels and adventures are still available to us in this new world we live in… if we just stop still long enough and look around.
A friend of mine talked about ‘sight-seeing strolls’ in the water recently: that encapsulates what I love about sea swimming perfectly. On a swim there may be a bit of freestyle, a bit of breaststroke, but we get to stretch our arms and legs and hearts and lungs as we take in the landscape; half of which just happens to be underwater. I also like the foam and fizz of waves and, while I still can’t explain it, I swear that salt water chills you less than freshwater of the same temperature. Waves take my mind off the first few minutes of immersion, but I think the sea is kinder, generally, temperature wise.
Kit you need for your sea swim...
Pants! Or not even that…. Swimming can be as low-fi as you like: pants and goggles, and dry off in a towel. However my typical kit bag includes a few things:
- Waterproof rucksack - great to throw a wet wetsuit in afterwards.
- Goggles - I personally like big wide angle dive shaped ones.
- Changing robe - something lightweight, windproof and absorbent, that dries me off and I can change in.
- Swimming costume - I'm in love with ECONYL®, and the sustainability of swimming in reclaimed fishing nets.
- Warm things! I always have something waiting on the banks, and when it's winter I'm pretty much in snow gear when I emerge. Wool socks, thermals, insulated jackets, hats: I dry off quick as I can, layer up, and hope I don't overdo it!
- Warm drinks and food - swimming makes you hungry, so it's nice to take something with you for afterwards. Then, if you want to, you can linger by the water.
Getting started with sea swimming...
Ultimately, all you’re leading up to is… getting in! What you want to do is equip yourself with some water sense before you do. It’s the simple things; like identifying where to get out before you get in – you may not be able to clamber up high banks. Don’t jump if you can’t see the bottom. Start with small swims, and see how cold you feel afterwards – rather than pushing yourself to the max, and then experiencing bad after-drop when you get out (you will feel your coldest 10 minutes after you emerge, typically).
If you’re interested in giving it a go, browse The Outdoor Swimming Society website or any of our social media channels. There’s a whole host of information on getting started and understanding different types of water (reservoirs, quarry lakes, weirs, rivers, sea), with big communities (both virtual and actual, through local wild swimming groups) that you can join.
A Finisterre Production