When Kate Rew started The Outdoor Swimming Society in 2006 entering open water for fun was considered dangerously left-field: dirty, dangerous, and possibly illegal. Freshly passionate about swimming, she started taking other people swimming, who in turn took other people swimming, and via stunt, social media, media, photography, mass event and a constant sharing of ideas The OSS has been part of driving a huge change in the number of people who swim outdoors and how they do it. During that time our community has shared adventure and misadventure, philosophy and practical tips, as we have discovered and articulated what we need to know to swim in lakes, rivers and seas, from how to read weather to how to survive cold. Now Kate has wrapped this collective knowledge on the art, sport and science of swimming in a new book, The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook, out this week (June 9th).
In this extract from the book’s introduction she describes the joy- and hazard-filled early days as she and others blazed a trail through the waterways of the UK.
Just as there was a time before triathlons, skateboarding, surfing, mountaineering or mountain biking, there was a time when mass-participation open-water swims were not commonplace. That time was 2006. In the fresh grip of a love for adventurous swimming and eager (messianic in fact) to get more people out of pools and into British rivers and lakes with me, I set up ‘Breastrokes’, a one-mile charity swim, and I chose the two best-known lakes I could think of (perhaps the only two lakes I could think of) in which to host it: the Serpentine in the middle of London, and Windermere in the Lake District.
The newly formed ‘The Outdoor Swimming Society’ (OSS) sold 300 tickets to each event. Finding 300 people with the same desire to swim In. A. Lake. drew gasps of surprise and column inches everywhere in Britain. In Windermere, swimmers docked at an island for hot chocolate halfway around, where people sloshed about in the shallows exclaiming how incredible it was, this outlandish, maverick thing they were doing. No one had trained in a lake for the swims; they got fit in a pool and came for the novelty.
The Great North Swim was established in 2008 and the rest is zeitgeist: swimming has gone from being a relatively niche activity to being popular again, with millions of people all over the world leaping in. If you say you’re going swimming now, most people will picture you in a river or the sea, not a pool, even if it’s midwinter. The sort of swim challenges once only dreamt about by locals who knew the waterways and the British Long Distance Swimming Association (established in 1956) have since entered the mainstream. Today, there are open-water lake and wild swim groups offering warm welcomes across the country, and swimmers across the world are looking to the UK to work out how to create a similar culture of free, nomadic swimming where they live. Swimming the length of Windermere remains the UK marathon crown, but today there are swimmers everywhere who are exploring their local seas and waterways for the sheer joy of it.
Today, there are open-water lake and wild swim groups offering warm welcomes across the country, and swimmers across the world are looking to the UK to work out how to create a similar culture of free, nomadic swimming where they live.
Yet people have always swum. The first book on the theory and techniques of swimming was presented to the world in 1587 by Cambridge don Everard Digby in his De Arte Natandi (‘The Art of Swimming’). Some of the advice in his technique guide-come-safety manual is still valid today: avoid murky ponds in which animals have been washed and be careful about jumping in feet first. The book includes forty-three woodcuts of swimmers captured in a familiar visual frame: a river runs vertically down the centre of the page, banked by reeds and oak trees, with one person swimming, a second leaping naked into the water (sometimes backwards) and a third either preparing to swim or putting on his socks afterwards. The strokes may have altered (it seems swimmers were less constrained 400 years ago) but the playground and the human urge look much the same as they do today.
The earliest record of swimming, however, dates to much further back, and is depicted on the walls of a cave in the mountainous Gilf Kebir plateau in Egypt. There, three figures dive off the sandstone and are buoyed by what appears to be the sluice and joy of a downstream Neolithic drift. The rock-art figures – whose creation is dated by the British Museum to about 6,000 to 9,000 years ago – carry with them all the happiness of a river float: arms up, bellies and spirits buoyant.
In 2006, the OSS, similarly uplifted by the swimming experience, set out a manifesto to help people escape chlorine captivity, leading with the pledge that we would ‘celebrate and enlarge the beauty of every day by going for a nice, long swim’ (a nod to the John Cheever story ‘The Swimmer’). Our focus ever since has been to persuade people to follow suit. An ever-growing band of individuals got involved: someone created a website, someone took photos, someone else bought a hot tub and everyone went swimming. Our lawyer, Nathan Willmott, wrote a ‘Swim Responsibility Statement’ so we could come out in public and say ‘Let’s go swimming!’ without fear of losing our homes. (This was a time when outdoor swimming was largely thought to be a dirty, dangerous and illegal activity, and there was fear of being sued.)
Artist and friend Kari (pronounced Car-ee) Furre viewed the whole thing as an exercise in giving people permission – permission that wasn’t ours to give, she observed wryly as we bobbed about in Loch Ness at dusk, as there has never been much to stop people swimming. But at this point in history people needed to hear that it was ‘allowed’, so we went around ‘sanctioning’ swimming. We made swim friends everywhere, leading by example and sharing this wonderful, life-enriching thing we were doing at festivals, on TV, on the radio, in the press and on Facebook. No one had any kit; it was towel and trunks, or T-shirt and pants if the swim was spontaneous. A neopagan element punctured our urban existence, with full moon swims exposing us to the hooting of owls in the woods and to midsummer parties at Parliament Hill Lido where people wore flower crowns. The OSS logo was spotted with excitement on hoodies in pubs and bobbing on red hats like buoys in the sea.
There were days when we cancelled or aborted swims for fear of sewage or blue-green algae and occasions when whimsical swim plans (‘Let’s swim down a tributary into the Thames!’) had very gritty executions, leaving us cold and desperate in driving rain. But you never regret a swim, so we kept going.
The OSS ‘Regional Rep’ programme, whereby a few swimmers across the UK started social swim communities in their areas via Facebook, mushroomed into the hundreds of independent social wild swim groups that exist today. There was an infectious freewheeling energy to it all – even the bad times were good times. There were days when we cancelled or aborted swims for fear of sewage or blue-green algae, when in retrospect we were just unfamiliar with tree pollen, and the occasions when whimsical swim plans (‘Let’s swim down a tributary into the Thames!’) had very gritty executions, leaving us cold and desperate in driving rain. No one understood how tides worked so on estuary swims we waded around in mud quite a lot. But you never regret a swim, so we kept going. There was a silent swim preceded by meditation, and a ‘secret swim’ at a festival. There was the time a fire engine filled our hot tub for us in about five seconds. I am proud that in 2010 we ran the first ten-kilometre swim aimed at the public, the Dart 10k, and a ten-mile swim followed soon after.
In 2015, I finally swam the Dart 10k myself (like a ship’s captain, my job was to be at the helm, not head down and unreachable in the water), and the experience of swimming around Sharpham Bends flanked by an army of fit, capable swimmers, the sense of joint strength and capability, rose up like a rush. It was a high point for me, a marker of how far we had come as a community – all of us amateurs out there in this big(ish) river, capable of swimming for hours, in all weathers, engaged together in wordless communion with this thing that we love. It will stay with me, as will the finish party we organised for adventurer Ross Edgley after he swam around the coast of Britain in 2018.
It is never just about the swimming. It’s about connection with nature, connection with self and connection with others. It’s about adventure, joy, challenge, health, fitness, endurance and escape. People swim for all sorts of reasons: for the mental or spiritual uplift, or as a creative practice. They swim because it helps them think or stops them thinking. And because it’s free.
For the ‘Great British Swim’ finish party, 300 of us arranged to meet Ross in the water on a November morning, swimming half a mile offshore to join him and flank his return. At this point he had averaged over twelve hours of swimming a day for 157 days without, as far as we knew, grumbling once. Witnessing the swim from his weekly vlogs had been inspiring and staggering. We trod water, looking out over the horizon, and then someone saw him in the distance and a huge guttural roar erupted among us. People were slapping the water, hollering and punching their fists into the air. Waves of noise rose up and receded. We were, apparently, beside ourselves: that this swim had happened, and that the man who had accomplished it was in our water. Then he looked up and stopped, and there was a stand-off of sorts: him looking at us, beaming, and us facing him, roaring. The noise was on a knife-edge between tremendous and terrifying. Then he gestured for us to come closer and everyone gathered around, slithering over each other like a mosh pit of seals to high-five him and hug him. I still get teary thinking about it. It was a community embrace for what he insisted on calling a community effort – for while all we did was cheer, for every swimmer out there charting new swims (and there are many, male and female) there is a support crew holding warm glucose drinks and being cheerful, making their dreams happen.
What drives all this? Passion. Almost by definition outdoor swimmers are both fiercely independent and free-spirited, so making a community out of ourselves is somewhat of a challenge. We are a society of people who don’t follow, a tribe of non-joiners, but one thing many of us share alongside a love of water is the desire to share our finds, questions and experiences.
Modern life has made many of us feel tamed and now we want to turn to swimming for rewilding. When swimming, we are not passively consuming the landscape, we are pulled into it, breeze flattening the water surface beneath our faces, warmth draining from our bare feet like colour leaches out of the landscape in the cold autumn light. We are there, damp from the clag by a tarn, underneath the belly of a swan as it takes off. We are part of the planet and all the elements again, in a place where moons wane, storms swell and life ebbs and flows throughout the seasons.
It is never just about the swimming. It’s about connection with nature, connection with self and connection with others. It’s about adventure, joy, challenge, health, fitness, endurance and escape. People swim for all sorts of reasons: for the mental or spiritual uplift, or as a creative practice. They swim because it helps them think or stops them thinking. And because it’s free (and so much easier on the joints than activities on land). With huge thanks to everyone who’s been a part of the journey so far, and the best of luck to you on the next stage of yours. May swimming help you celebrate and enlarge the beauty of many days ahead.