An ice mile. A cake dip. A burning rush of cold. There was a time when swimming just meant swimming. But with the Outdoor Swimming Society’s 23,000 members discovering and sharing the joys of plunging into coves, rivers, lakes and secret spots all over the world, the culture of swimming outdoors has reached new heights.
We shared a rare moment on land with the Society’s founder, and author of the bestselling book Wild Swim, Kate Rew, to discuss tidal terror, surprising seals, and letting modern life drift away.
Why do you think people are getting back into natural waters?
There’s a great quote by the writer Robert MacFarlane: “Discomfort has become its own luxury.” Being indoors used to be a luxury, but now we’re too comfortable – most of our lives are controlled, we’re in manufactured environments a lot of the time. People long to get cold and wet and slightly scared.
When we began 12 years ago, we really had to work to convince people swimming outdoors wasn’t dirty, dangerous and illegal. Lots of people’s grandmothers still did it – but it wasn’t an active movement.
So what inspired you to start this huge organisation?
A lot of it was a happy accident. I’ve always jumped into water wherever I’ve found it – breaking into lidos at night at university, and jumping into lochs in Scotland. Then I met another swimmer and we started seeking out swims like a surfer seeks out a break.
I was just feeling how transformative swimming can be. And I wanted to help other people feel that; to share the joy of going for a swim, and enlarge the beauty of every day through swimming. The rest is the result of the collective enthusiasm: I couldn’t control the Outdoor Swimming Society if I wanted to. It keeps growing and growing.
Now we have all sorts of specialisms. Skinny dippers, marathon swimmers, ice milers (people swimming a mile in water below 6° in bathers), open water competitors, wild swimmers, and lots and lots of cake dippers – who are all about wild dips with friends and then eating cake.
I think swimming breaks down all the barriers between people. Age, profession, class, we all have the same experience. There’s no competition, we’re just sharing experiences we maybe can’t share with land lubbers.
What about the first time land lubber takes the plunge?
It depends how cold it is! For me the first moment of immersion isn’t very dignified – gasping and thinking ‘Do I really want to do this?’ And then the rhythm of swimming and being in the aquatic world takes over.
People often come up to me at OSS events, clasp my hands and say, “This changed my life!”. It has changed mine too. Swimming teaches you so much about yourself; it sharpens your senses, it reawakens part of you, and calms down a lot of that humdrum mental chatter from the rest of the world.
You feel more yourself after a swim, and that’s why it changes people’s perceptions of their lives. For me it’s a very enriching thing to do. It’s one of the few things that makes you feel both calm and energised at the same time. You’re slightly thrilled and very peaceful simultaneously, which is a great way to feel.
“[Swimming in the wild] is one of the few things that makes you feel both calm and energised at the same time. You’re slightly thrilled and very peaceful simultaneously, which is a great way to feel.”
Have you spent much time in cold water?
How are we defining cold? Anything beneath 16 degrees feels pretty chilly to most, with most swimming pools 29.
I once went swimming in 0.1° water, but I didn’t know I was pregnant with my son! He’d have been tiny in there but in retrospect I don’t think I’d have gone in. There was snow all around the lido, and if you kicked it in it just floated there like an iceberg.
I wear a wetsuit for longer summer swims to stay in for longer, but when it’s really cold, I like short, sharp, freezing dips in a bikini – the joy is just exposing your skin to the cold and feeling that burning rush.
As someone who’s swum all over the place, what would you say makes sea swimming special?
The underwater world can be much richer. Next weekend we’re going up to swim in a sea loch in Scotland. It’s shallow and clear, so we’ll see the huge mountains surrounding us, and the ridges and ripples of the sea bed below.
If you want to feel insignificant, the ocean’s the place to be. You have to learn about your environment and appraise the risks.
Have you ever got into trouble?
Yes! I mistimed a swim around Burgh Island. My sister Lisa was visiting and I was so excited to show her the swim. So I put her in a wetsuit that was too big, took her out in January when it was freezing, forgot she isn’t a particularly strong swimmer, and didn’t pay proper attention to the tides. God knows what I was thinking.
We got round the back of the island and the tide turned. Lisa was blue and just didn’t have the strength to swim against it. There were no lifeguards and the waves were so big. I was thinking, “I really, really don’t know how we’re going to get Lisa back to shore.” Eventually we reached a rock and just kind of scrambled along the side of the island and made it home!
Have you met many sea creatures?
A friend found a colony of seals so we thought it would be “amazing” to go freediving with them. All I can report is it was utterly terrifying! They’re huge and absolutely alarming. They know exactly where you are in the water and you haven’t got a clue where they are – one minute they’re 20 feet away, the next they’re right beside you.
Have you noticed a change in the amount of plastic and ocean litter you encounter?
What I’ve noticed most is the presence of things like 2 Minute Beach Clean and people being more waste-conscious. Outdoor swimmers tend to clean up as they go along, but I think the heavier foot traffic is creating more picnic debris at popular swimming spots.
There are a lot of people who take it upon themselves to regularly clean up after people. We can only applaud them – they manage to do it without losing faith in humanity!
“What makes it addictive is the mental transformation. I think maybe the introvert in me loves the silence of being outdoors, the way modern life just drifts away from you. All the deadlines and worries that come from being a social human being just become utterly irrelevant. It’s just you swimming.”
Finally, what is it that keeps you going back into the water?
I love the connection with nature. I love the places swimming takes me – I’ve gotten to know the whole of the UK just through swimming. I love the adventure – spotting a blue line or spot on a map and going to find out what it’s like. I like the athleticism and perfecting the art of swimming, although I still have a long way to go. I love the way it makes you feel thrilled and peaceful at once.
But most of all, what I guess makes it addictive is the mental transformation. I think maybe the introvert in me loves the silence of being outdoors, the way modern life just drifts away from you. All the deadlines and worries that come from being a social human being just become utterly irrelevant. It’s just you swimming. And I think that’s a huge tonic for me.
Kate's top tips for sea swimming:
• If you’ve never been before, go to a beach with lifeguards. And if you’re going far, tell them your route.
• Pay attention to the tide times, and try to swim on an incoming tide.
• Swim along the shore, rather than away from it.
• Wear a bright-coloured hat so people and boats can see you.
• Ask other swimmers about the area.
• If you’re introducing young children to the water, hold them close when you get in. They’ll share your warmth and it’ll help them have more confidence in the sea.
Find your nearest outdoor swimming spot and thousands of others at wildswim.com