How to plan a swim adventure

Make an adventure of your very own. Plus, what not to worry about

Kate getting ready to explore

It’s New Year now, and some of us are impatient to know what 2024 will hold in the way of swim adventures. I know I am, with more questions than answers. Here are some tips and tricks to getting started.

My life is mapped out by swim adventures: life feels exciting and purposeful when I have a plan in my future, and I can feel a little bored, lost and groundhog day when I don’t.

Some swim plans take years to form or pull off. Eight years before I launched the Hurly Burly swim I drove past the Mawdacch estuary with Tim, now my husband, who said ‘you could do a swim there.’ ‘Yes,’ I scoffed looking at the water swirling under the bridge, ‘if I wanted to kill everyone.’ But eight years later I had grown as a swimmer, and over time we worked out how to pull off an individual 10k up the estuary, and then one for 800.

While some plans take years to come together, other adventures are spontaneous or happen when you are looking for something else. Last autumn Kari (my constant swimming companion) and I went to Torquay for a swim, looking for kelp beds. Over the years we have travelled the length of the UK, broken wrists and used school half terms on this particular mission. ‘Let’s head left,’ we said, and while the water was too cloudy and turbulent to really see the kelp, and the sea trees were as battered and dirty as the autumn trees above ground, we had some wonderful moments bobbing about looking at herons rising and falling together on the rocky outcrop. Herons, together, by the sea! And two swans in the shallows. Bird behaviour we had never before witnessed.

Time to Think: Kate

Find Your Pull

Finding a good adventure begins with learning to recognise the strange pull of what you love. An interesting swim life requires staying mildly alert as you go about your normal life – to throwaway comments, to water glimpsed from a car, to ideas triggered by a story or image. It’s hard to find a plan just when you want one, so I try to gather ideas of where I’d like to swim or swim experiences I’d like to have as I go.

Planning a swim can use a lot of time, effort and sometimes money, all of which are limited, so Kari and I are ruthlessly honest with ourselves and each other, constantly filtering out ideas by asking ‘do we really want to do that?’ and ‘do I really want to do that?’. Have no shame – either about being whimsical or wimpy. There are so many great ideas out there about which, personally, many of us won’t be bothered.

I believe adventure needs to come from our identity – otherwise it’s just someone else’s experience that we tried on, or (worse, as a subjective experience), something sold to us, a dream someone else had that we tried to relive. If you really don’t like cold, or endurance, but are transfixed by the mist under waterfalls: start with that. If you don’t want to swim the channel, but do want to swim to the next bay: there’s your plan.

Examine the concept of adventure – for some it has archaic patriarchal values hidden within it, from a past where people pitched themselves against nature and conquered it, claiming status as the first, the fastest, or the one who went the furthest. Do you care? For me, it’s about inner states. About pockets of time with a clear beginning and end, and moments of surprise, danger and delight in between. Adventures make us feel awake, alive and free, they hold moments that burn themselves straight into our memories, they can connect us to nature, ourselves and others. And they are always unique – try to repeat one and you can’t, all the elements involved change every moment of every day – so start with your inimitability: what pulls you?

An interesting swim life requires staying mildly alert as you go about your normal life – to throwaway comments, to water glimpsed from a car, to ideas triggered by a story or image.

The Brave and The Bold

You know you’ll feel stronger and more confident and courageous after an adventure – but what if the issue is feeling you don’t have enough bravery or confidence to begin? Identifying what pulls you will take you more than halfway there; once an idea is compelling, the rest is practicalities.

While you work on the logistics, throw anything at fear and self-doubt till it’s diminished: self-sooth by reflecting on times where you did have the qualities you fear you lack (professionally or personally) and then move. Physically move. It changes your mindset. Swim training is an obvious place to find all you need: pool training or lake training build fitness, capability, community, time to focus and time for ideas to arise. Cold plunges build resilience, confidence, community and mastery. Both give you chance to witness yourself making a plan, carrying it out, and improving incrementally towards a goal.

And both require making the choice, again and again, to get in. That is important because at some point that’s all it’s going to come down to: just doing it. Choosing to get in. So have faith, keep moving, witness yourself repeatedly getting in to to places that feel safe to you, and in time you will be ready to begin.

Physically move. It changes your mindset. Swim training is an obvious place to find all you need: pool training or lake training build fitness, capability, community, time to focus and time for ideas to arise.

Identifying the swim channel

Caution And Back Up

Swimming outdoors – like climbing – presents multiple serious risks: tides, currents, cold, waves and weather are all capable of overpowering us in the water. There is no such thing as a safe swim, only a safe swimmer. That safety is multifactorial, down to what you know, what your body has been trained to do, and your experience and aptitude for handling the volatility of outdoor situations.

Everyone is a singular mix of gung-ho and fastidious, with a different idea of what is acceptable risk, and I do believe we have a responsibility (to ourselves, family and friends, people we swim with and the wider community) to swim within our capabilities. With the right to swim freely (something The OSS is seeking to legally extend), comes the responsibility to do it safely.

To that end: always do at least one recce from the bank. Where there are dangers, seek to diminish them by (for example) having a paddle board or boat with you, or swimming it in small sections first where you know you can self rescue. Work out what ‘going wrong’ might look like and, when you have all the possible control measures in place, what you would do if it happened.

Is there anyone in your life who would enjoy being your back up? My husband is not interested in swimming, but he does love adventures, and we both like getting our two boys out in the open. So Kari and I have had years of long swims with a flanking banana-boat element, any serenity broken by the boys whizzing past on a trailing paddle board or shouting for snacks. It’s a lot of work, but my 10 year old gave me a Mr Man book this Christmas, with all the R’s in Mr Adventure hidden behind a sticker with an S drawn on top: inside Ms Adventure was having a lovely time in all sorts of ways. So in terms of changing the narrative around women and adventure our work here is done.

Room For The Unknown

I have come to recognise that part of what makes something an adventure is the gaps – the parts left to find out. If everything is known, it’s not an adventure, it’s a day-trip.

So while I spend a lot of time on logistics and reducing risk, I have learnt to embrace the fact I’m the kind of person who reads the guidebook on the way home, and looks things up afterwards, once I’m interested. With so much information on the internet we would never leave home if we tried to find everything out: so sometimes, I think, we need reminding that it’s okay to set out with plenty of room to find out in the real world, amongst and from other humans. And to ask other people on the ground.

“I have learnt to embrace the fact I’m the kind of person who reads the guidebook on the way home, and looks things up afterwards, once I’m interested.”

Kate & Back Up (Tim)

Welcome the Challenges, not just The Challenge

Things will aways get tricky, so accept that things might not work or go as you planned. It’s really important to turn up prepared to change the plan: sticking to it when conditions are not right, or you’re not feeling it, is likely to end up in territory that is dicey. Be prepared to swerve when you arrive at the go point, depending on what you find.

Having once gone all the way to Pembroke with the dream of swimming into a rock chasm, then pulled off the feat of offloading the boys in the campsite and hulking gear to the get in point very early, Tim and I were met by big seas. We stood next to the paddle board timing waves, seeing if there were lulls where we could conceivably get in, and I put my trainers back on so I could fend off the rocks. Safe to say that while we hoped it was ‘calmer around the corner’, it was not in any way ‘calmer round the corner’, it was wild (of course it was, as around the corner we were in open sea). We hammered back to shore, being thrown up and down in the sough of the sea while we tried to time our way back out and up the rocks, with salt water streaming from my nose, our eyes fear-wide and hearts hammering. As we changed we were approached by a couple had filmed the whole thing. ie: to innocent bystanders, what we were doing was so clearly ridiculous that they were motivated to turn it into footage. I learned a lesson that day, I think.

Kate & Tim by Cameron Alexander
Channelling Sheep
OSS Team, Penmaenpool

Don’t Rush Your Exit

You may want to rush getting out, and dry, and into warm clothes, but don’t rush your exit from the bank. Take some time. At the end of last summer Kari and I spent a school day (6 hours long, as some of you will know, less travel) searching for ditches to swim in on the Somerset Levels. At points it felt like we were never going to find our swim, that the rare day off work was being squandered, and I should have done more research before we got there (cue self-recrimination, panic, feelings of hopelessness and uselessness). But then we did find one, and when we got out into the hot September sun, hauling ourselves up with handfuls of grass, and I said ‘there is just enough time to get a food shop in on the way home’, but instead we sat down in our towels right where we were, watching damselflies in the sun. And it was perfect.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Rew is the author of The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook (Rider, £22. In all good bookshops and signed in The OSS shop). Chasing the Sublime is her short film about seeking adventures with her swim twin, Kari Furre.

FURTHER READING

Kate Rew