Here’s the thing about wild swimming- on the one hand, it absolutely fascinates me, I can think of nothing more free than swimming in the wild, but on the other hand, I can think of nothing more petrifying!
I have never been a strong swimmer, neither of my parents enjoy swimming so as children it just wasn’t something we ever did. I hated my swimming lessons at school, I was bottom of the class and never made it more than my 10m certificate. On girly holidays as I got older I’d chill by the pool with my friends and they’d always encourage me, but it was until I was about 30 when I finally felt comfortable saying, “I can swim.”
Now I live by the sea, and I’m married to a person who sails, and who’s livelihood is dependant on the ocean. I also live on the edge of Dartmoor, one of the best places for wild swimming in the country. Yet, here I am, standing on the edge and too afraid to jump right in. It feels like a running theme in my life.
I see pictures on social media, groups of people swimming, supping, kayaking- and I feel such longing; for the friendship, and for the chance to get in the water and not be afraid.
Last year, I braved it. My friend Sharrow and I went to Cadover Bridge, Dartmoor, for a walk and a catch up. “I’ll be going for a swim to,” she said, and for some reason that day I pushed myself. I put my swimming costume on and I took joy in dunking my body into the cool water.
Since then though, I’ve never gone back in. It’s cold, there’s fish, what if I get swept away?? My anxious mind can think of all the reasons not to do something, no matter how extreme.
This year though, inspired by films like My Big White Thighs and Me and also just getting increasingly frustrated with myself, I put wild swimming on my adventure list. I figured it was going to be one of those things I just did on the spur of the moment with out too much planning, so when Matt suggested going up to Dartmoor for dinner one night, I knew where to go, and I knew I’d be taking my swimming costume with me.
In the week before, I’d found a pretty quiet spot by some water somewhere near Tavistock. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic and also for a spot of swimming.
We got our kit ready, assembled on the bank and as Matt prepared our meal, I went for a paddle with the dog. At first I just put my feet in, then I waded a little higher up to my knees, then my thighs, then my hips, then my waist. I was as deep as I could go in the pool and nothing bad was happening! Fish weren’t attacking me, I wasn’t drowning, I wasn’t being led away down stream by the current, I was just standing there in the water.
It felt so liberating. It felt like an achievement. I know it’s stupid, but for me, it’s a big deal. I felt encouraged. In fact I was so encouraged that when Sharrow posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to go for a socially distanced sea swim the next morning, I signed up.
Silly old me, who has never been brave enough to swim in the sea, volunteered to go sea swimming, and with a group of near strangers. This is not something I do.
I got up at 6.30am and met them 2m apart on the seafront.
The sea was calm and clear, and according to Sharrow’s thermometer it was a fairly warm 15.4 degrees. The other members of our group of 6 were pros, with wetsuits and buoyancy aids they were sea swimming regulars. Then there was me, my swimming costume, bare legs and irrational fear of the water. Normally I’d be anxious, terrified but that day I felt strong. No one laughed at my big white thighs, everyone was so friendly. I was clear with my plan, “I’m just going to wade, I’m a beginner, you lot go ahead.” I think Sharrow understood how big a deal this was for me.
I went waist deep, until the sea weed began to tickle my calves. I embraced the warmish water and felt proud. I was taking baby steps to conquer my fear of water, and of strangers, and again just like the day before, nothing bad had happened.
One of the ladies came over and we chatted, she was nice and kind and encouraging, I wondered if she was a teacher. I’m not sure how the conversation came about, but before I knew it, she had got me swimming, just a few metres. I heard a massive whoop and a clap, Sharrow was cheering me on from where she swam.
It’s the moments like these that remind me why I love being out in nature and how good it is for my mental health.
It took me 30 years to consider myself a swimmer, and maybe it will take me another 30 years to be a sea swimmer- but it’s cool. I want to push myself and I am, it feels great.