What’s your love story with water? Here, Joanna Scanlan, Jessica Hepburn and members of The OSS team share theirs – from the gushy liminal phase when you just can’t stop talking about it; the playing the field phase where the wildswim map is the equivalent of GrindR; the negotiating transactional phase (“am I going to keep on loving you if you’re so damn cold?”); right up to the co-creative forever “where are we going next, swimming my love, what is on the horizon for us as a couple…?”
Why is it when I think of my relationship with you I only remember the bad times? The wicked, risky, nearly-got-caught times. The times you challenged my will, when you fought me, exhausted me, bruised me and made me bleed. When you gave me a hiding. I can’t recall the myriad gentle brooks and burns, the tranquil blues, the lapping azure when we were getting on famously. No, I can’t remember those times half so well. Your benign self has become part of me, each encounter buoyed up my better self – but it’s the times you betrayed me that I can’t get over. I trusted you and you replied ‘trust is for sissies’.
Take the day after my wedding. A squally August day, when the sea fret descended at Durdle Door. I had longed to swim through your arch for years. I plunged into lumpy grey waters, alone, leaving The Earthling, not a swimmer, in the shallows oblivious to my overconfident plunge back to you, his rival. It all went well for a while. You matched my every move, slipping round my deft presses, pushes, slices, strokes, caresses. And silly me, I thought we were having fun playing our water-field. Some few hundred feet into your bulging troughs, I turned back to look at The Earthling on the strand but he was too far away for me to see him wave without my prescription goggles so I turned from him back toward you, gravity an unimportant memory, into your embrace, only ten more yards and I would be swimming beneath your arch’s span. I would be out beyond the bay, moving out of foreshore play into the serious stuff. The joy of it.
I didn’t deserve what came next. Clang. You slammed your Durdle Door on me, you shut me out. No entry. Not today. I tried your east, your west. Block. Block. I couldn’t get round to try your southerly side. Block. I petitioned…I can accommodate, I can slip through quietly, no one will know…. Make me an exception. My ankles then felt feeble, my shoulder’s circular reach so minimal, my finger ends couldn’t catch you. Come on, don’t make me beg…please, just once, let me in. Please! I’ve come all this way, PLEASE. You bellowed back at me. Didn’t you hear me, fangirl? I said NO. Piss off. I could barely hear you; white horses thundering, cacophonous at the castle gates, you, usually so pliant, turned to solid stone to bar my way.
I retreated, hurt, embarrassed, vulnerable, ashamed, acknowledging defeat, back towards The Earthling on the beach and that’s when you kicked me, right when I was down. I had to fight you for my life. I had to use every inch of my energy and every micro muscle to get back to him, to land. I won’t let you drown me today. Not today, after yesterday, the wedding, when I had felt so held aloft by human love. Is this what happens after happy ever after? I would deserve it, adulterous me. I knew you could win, and I knew you would win if I showed alarm. And my cool poker face saved me, inch by inch you lost interest and released me back towards the land. You remembered to give me a teasing maul often enough, then ignored me again, until I could take my chance and reach out for another length. Time stood still as tide did its worst. Eventually, The Earthling coming into focus, I dared to stop propelling forward and let my legs drop reaching down – my toes clawing for sand, or rock, even a flatfish beneath your shallowing depths. Shrouded now in fog and spray there he was sitting on the beach, drenched by your pounding angry heartbeat dumping sand, seaweed, plastic bottles, blue glass, dead crabs and finally me, his watery wife, back on the shingle.
I scrabbled up, my legs giving way and screamed, get out, get out. I took The Earthling in my arms and pulled him away from you, as far as I could, out of danger. He didn’t really see it for himself. I could never share what you did to me back there, that has to be our secret, but I held my earthling tight whispering, let’s be landlubbers, safe, together, forever. And even as I screamed above the noise of shrieking gulls and stormy summer, I knew I would stray again, and soon.
Wherever I am – whether in a car, plane, train or even just walking along – and I see an new or interesting body of water, my initial thought is often: how would it be to swim here..? This has led to me finding some incredible spots, often by following an innocuous looking stream, or round the coast to an idyllic bay. Because of the many good memories I have made from swim discoveries, I may be biased in thinking “just going for it” at a new location is a good idea, and have forgotten the bad times where I got scraped along barnacles, or approached “aggressively” by some (probably friendly) cows. This swim was definitely the latter.
A couple of years set myself the plan to swim every day in June, and always somewhere different, to make a short film. Seeing as how the days are so long in the Highlands over summer, I was sure this would be no problem at all. However, near the end of the month I was running thin on local options to where I live, in Inverness. I’d walked the dog a few times at a place nearby with photogenic kettle holes full of water. As it was June, it was nice and warm so I went there one evening after a trail run.
As soon as I sank into the water I regretted it. My feet slipped through the mud, immediately deeper than my knees. In for a penny…I wasn’t going to stop now. As I got into deeper water, the mud slowly cleared…but I had released a smell from the deep, a stench of rotting, decaying plant material (I hope it was plants!). I’d realised this water was pretty stagnant by now, without much through-flow, and a fair few ducks about. After getting my shot, and making sure to keep my head above water I scrambled out, the mud clinging to me, as though it too was also desperate to escape out of there. I put on my waterproofs, zipped up tight to prevent the smell escaping, sat gingerly in the car on the way home and hosed myself down at home, like I were a dog that had rolled in something dead. You never regret a swim, right?
“I had released a smell from the deep, a stench of rotting, decaying plant material… I zipped up my waterproofs to prevent the smell escaping and hosed myself down at home, like I were a dog that had rolled in something dead”
This Valentine’s Day me and open water are taking a break. But I guess we’ve always had a complicated, sometimes difficult relationship. I loved swimming as a child, yet this duckling never really became a swan. For most of my life I’ve never managed more than a few lengths of breaststroke in the local pool. Then – aged 43 – I decided to swim the English Channel. I call it part childhood dream, part mid-life crisis. Mainly it was madness. I had no idea what was involved.
But we started dating – me and open water. There were arguments and compromises – hours and hours in the cold. There were moments of joy – getting out. And eventually a lasting love evolved. On the 2nd September 2015 at 19:19 on Sangatte Beach, France.
The next day Freda Streeter – the legendary Channel swimming trainer – called me to say: ‘Now listen to me mate, you’re going to get depressed. It’s normal.’ Other people said the same and urged me not to think about taking on another challenge to fill the void.
But bugger that. I did.
So now I’m trying to get from Pond to Peak. In fact, I’m trying to become the first woman to make that journey: from swimming the English Channel to climbing Mount Everest.
And that’s why me and open water are having to take a break. Not because we’ve fallen out, in fact swimming is very good training for altitude. But because I’m even less a mountaineer than a swimmer and got frostbite on the last mountain I climbed so am currently forbidden from putting my hands in the cold, before I leave for Everest in six weeks time.
Last weekend I was on the South Coast marching up and down the Seven Sisters with a pack on my back. And I actually felt a lover’s jealousy as I thought of all the year- round sea swimmers emerging from the waves, radiant and ready for cake. So I’ve made myself a playlist to listen to as I train. I’ve called it ‘The Sea, The Sea’ and it includes Charles Trenet singing ‘La Mer’ and Declan O Rourke’s ‘Marrying the Sea (Til death do us part) and even Englebert Humperdinck’s ‘All this World and the Seven Seas’. What better love songs does a girl need this Valentine’s Day?
Jessica Hepburn, author of 21 Miles, www.jessicahepburn.com
Outdoor swimming is a huge part of my life. I’ve been swimming outdoors for most of my life, but in early 2014, I decided to see how long I could go with swimming every day. I’m still going, and am up to about 2164 days in a row. Our sixth anniversary is coming up in March 2020. I’ll probably celebrate with a swim.
For me, swimming outside is a constant wonder- the movement and cycles of nature, the weather and water, the currents and clarity and temperature. Everything keeps on changing, so you never get bored. Swimming every day has been a lot of fun, and overcoming obstacles has just been part of the challenge. For example, sometimes for work I need to get on a 6:30 am flight. This means a 4:30 am swim in the pitch black, even in winter when the air is -5°C and the water 6°C. The need to swim has definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone a few times, but in doing so my ‘comfort zone’ has expanded significantly.
I live in Armidale, a regional town in New South Wales, Australia. All of our lakes and rivers have had it really tough over the past few years. We’ve had one of the worst droughts in recorded history NSW and Queensland, and many rivers have dried up completely. It has been increasingly difficult to find nice swimming holes- with many familiar ones becoming beds of sand and rocky, or algae-filled waterholes not safe for contact. The water level in Dumaresq Dam, where I usually swim, has fallen 3 m and it’s now surrounded by knee-deep mud. Some of the other nearby reservoirs contain as little as 1% of their capacity.
Then late last year the fires started, burning millions of hectares of forests and National Park. The follow-up consequences for the ecology of many rivers could be pretty grim. Recent rain has washed ash into some rivers, causing dissolved oxygen levels to plummet and many fish to die. It’s not all doom and gloom- I visited one of my favourite spots in the middle of a burned forest and found the water clear and the riparian and floodplain forest intact, despite the surrounding devastation. But on the whole, it looks like our aquatic ecosystems have a tough battle ahead of them.
Although the drought and fires have made it harder to find a good place to swim, they’ve also made me really appreciate the spots that are left. These remnant waterholes provide refuge not only for the swimmer, but also for the fish, invertebrates, turtles, and other aquatic species, so that when wetter times do come, they (and we) will be able to move out and rediscover new places.
My relationship with water is a long term one. It spans decades and we’ve had to take a few breaks along the way. These experiences can make a relationship stronger, but there are a few things I wish I’d known before it all started…
Wait until you are ready – don’t believe people who tell you your first time has to be perfect – mine was terrifying and I never wanted to do it again. I was scared of the water for quite some time and it took years for me to learn the basics. Also, don’t put pressure on yourself – when I was younger I used to do it most nights (and some mornings). After a while it just became exhausting. Swimming training keeps you fit, but just make sure you’re still enjoying it. I used to swim for a competitive club but it’s the experience of nature and the friendships swimming has brought me that I value, not the competitions or the PBs.
Remember that you don’t have to impress anyone – I used to obsess about doing it quickly. I started off as a 50m sprinter but now I get a lot more enjoyment from taking my time and enjoying the scenery. It also doesn’t matter what you look like while you’re doing it – don’t be afraid to wear a little rubber hat. I’m particularly fond of the swim hats with the names of the local swim tribes on them. And if you love it, you’ll keep coming back – I stopped swimming for quite a few years, but when I came back to it I knew I was doing it because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to. This is important whether you swim competitively or not.
It’s also way better to do it with a partner, whether for safety or just for enjoyment, swimming with others tends to be more fun.
And lastly, it’s more fun when you do it outdoors! Like that was ever in doubt…
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