That really is the question. And the question that is dividing the once aligned community of wild, open and outdoor swimmers. This is hopefully a balanced view, if there is such a thing…..
Being an outdoor swimmer opens you up to a large friendly wild swimming community. I swim with the Salty Seabirds in Brighton and Hove because they are my safe harbour in stormy seas. Always kind, willing to help and support each other. Swimmers I have never met, and never will, virtually share their swimming lives with each other on a daily basis. Again the positive affirmations and generosity keeps your spirits lifted. This has continued throughout the Covid19 crisis but not even this robust and buoyant community is coming out of this unscathed.
We don’t have a governing body – we outdoor swimmers, swim wild and free – that is the point. The group I swim with have rejected clubs rules, constitutions and committees in favour of fluid freedom. However – we do stress that everyone swims and their own risk and precautions should be taken – those being irresponsible are removed from the group so there are group rules of a kind.
The answer to the question to swim or not to swim, is all about personal perspective, personal experience (not the swimming kind) and personal need. And therefore, the only person that can answer the question is you! When the government guidelines in England prevented people from travelling to exercise/go outdoors for an hour it was a very easy decision to make. If it’s not on your doorstep you can’t do it.
Cue the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ division. All over the Outdoor Swimming Society images of huge paddling pools (sometimes in huge gardens attached to huge houses) popped up. Instead of asking about places to swim the most asked question switched to the type and size of paddling pool to get. So much so that the poor group admins had to restrict the number of posts on the subject.
As the English restrictions were relaxed cue the ‘wild’ and ‘open’ division. Those that dip in any river, pond, cove or muddy puddles could now jump in their car and seek out spots to get wet. Those that swim for fitness and train for events were still being denied access to commercial open water swimming venues. And the no swimming rules have remained in Scotland, Wales and NI.
Nothing has been so hotly debated since the days of the skin Vs suits discussion. I swim in the sea because I love the expanse of it, the never ending horizon, how it changes every minute of every day. I love swimming with my flock, faffing, chatting and eating cake. I admire the creative ingenuity of those able to rig up resistance bungees to provide them with personal endless pools. I have enjoyed watching people get into cold baths and showers. I have particularly liked the imaginative buckets of cold water being thrown about all over social media. But none of this does it for me. My personal perspective, experience and need means it’s the sea or nothing for me.
Now, as we approach a sunny bank holiday in England and you are allowed to travel, meet a friend albeit 2 metres apart it is not quite so cut and dry. Under normal circumstances this would be the first weekend of the lifeguard season for seaside resorts up and down the country. But this year it is not. Last weekend Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jetskis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddleboarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud. As I write this the coastguard helicopter is flying over Brighton looking for lost children. More people in the water definitely increasing the probability of accidents and emergencies which will inevitability put the NHS resources under strain and voluntary RNLI crew at risk.
Beautiful locations are normally so popular and picturesque because they are rural and remote. What this means is they will naturally have lower incidents of Covid19 and they do not have the infrastructure to deal with a huge increase of visitors at a time when the emergency services are stretched to the limit. People are being asked to stay away from the Lake District = and the coasts of Cornwall to protect these communities. Popular tourists resorts like Brighton are also under threat. Just a quick hop down the A23 from London and you can be on the beach in an hour. Up until now Brighton and Hove has had one of the lowest rates of Covid19 cases. We’d like to keep it that way!
For those of us that make a living from teaching people to swim or open water coaching the personal need to get in the water may be financial. However, how are we meant to perform a rescue under social distancing regulations. The risk assessments we normally use are redundant. I specialise in working with people with confidence , mental health and wellbeing issues. I have to be closer than 2 metres with my swimmers to provide them with the very necessary reassurance they need. So my personal perspective is to postpone all of the confidence tasters and wellbeing sessions until all restrictions are removed. We have also felt a uncomfortable promoting our wild swim shop when not everyone is allowed to swim and not everyone should be swimming.
People who no longer have access to their local pool, or have always wanted to try wild swimming and the change in weather and working circumstances has made this possible now are keen to experience outdoor swimming. We receive lots of request asking for advice on how to start, what to wear, where to go etc. We gently advise them that this isn’t the best time to start swimming outdoors. You can’t miss something you have never experienced and the sea will always be there when this is all over. We’d also like to be able to personally welcome them into our group and show them the ropes For us running a community group we cannot provide the support/guidance etc they require without actually being with them and as voluntary admins we don’t have the time or resources to do it and are not prepared to ask those in the group to either. So, our Salty Seabird community group remains closed for the foreseeable future. People have begun to swim again, in pairs based on their personal perspective, experience and need.
We are very visible here on Brighton and Hove’s beaches and have monkey see, monkey do concerns. Many of us are experienced year round swimmers but know that anyone regardless of swim ability and local knowledge can get into difficulty. Those that choose to swim try to be discreet and respectful of others that choose not to.
We have a trauma surgeon in our group that works in a busy A&E department – if anyone needs a bloody swim outdoors it is her. But she hasn’t and she isn’t going to until the rest of the UK allows swimming, and she evaluates the impact of the bank holiday and the more relaxed lockdown regime on the Covid figures at the hospital. This is based on her perspective and experience overriding her need. (We will of course provide her with a guard of honour when she enter the water when she returns to the flock.)
We also have some swimmers in our group that suffer severely with their mental health and they believe that as a direct consequence of their lack of access to cold water they have suffered relapses in some cases resulting in admission to hospital. They feel that a quick low tide dip is less likely to result in a stay on the ward that not doing so would.
So the choice is yours. What is your perspective, experience and need? If you do chose to get in the water, do it safely. If you chose to wait, the sea will be there with open arms when you do.
Social Distancing Safe Swimming!
- Never swim alone – but during these times it needs to be just one other!
- Always wear a brightly coloured hat and tow float to be seen.
- Always wear goggles so that you can see hazards
- Adhere to social distancing requirements throughout your swim, including arrival, changing and post swim.
- Let someone in your household know where you are, what you are doing and expected time to return.
- It is your responsibility that you are sufficiently fit and healthy to swim and that you know your limits, have you eaten, are you hydrated, what is your state of mind?
- In terms of sea swimming, there are no RNLI lifeguards (Council Lifeguards in Brighton and Hove) operating presently, so you need to complete your own risk assessment on the water conditions, safe exit points, water hazards.