Something In The Water: Once a Pursuit of the Romantic Poets, Why “Wild” Swimming is Making a Comeback

Swimming

The practice of open-water, or “wild,” swimming has been gaining popularity for the last two decades, thanks in part to British environmentalist Roger Deakin’s 1999 memoir 'Waterlog.' Photo: Luca Sage/Getty Images

Deep in the throes of perimenopause, with the joint aches, disturbed sleep, mood swings and flushes, the one place I still feel great – weightless and ageless and wholly myself – is in the water. I’m not talking about taking a long soak in a hot bath, but rather diving into the chilly depths of Lake Ontario – and swimming laps in the open water all year round.

While this love affair began in earnest during the pandemic, I’ve always been a water baby. Like many Canadian kids, I earned those perfunctory Red Cross water safety badges. In the winter, you’d often find me in the rec centre swimming pool and, come summer, splashing around in nature  – growing up in northern Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick mining towns, there was an ample supply of rivers and lakes to explore.

Over the years, I have read (and re-read) British environmentalist Roger Deakin’s 1999 memoir Waterlog, a landmark of the outdoor swim genre, while also noting with admiration how, in interviews, New York fashion pioneer Diane von Furstenberg, 77, regularly credits her vitality and creativity to daily two-hour open-water swims. So when I stumbled across an online wetsuit sale at MEC – as I was getting more and more stir-crazy during lockdown – I was ready to take the plunge. 

I dared a friend to join me, and we began meeting up at the lake’s edge several days a week before work. The ritual morning swims not only helped with the cabin fever, but rekindled my passion for aquatic adventure with an intensity and devotion that truly surprised me. I’d blearily pull myself from a warm bed, and we’d be in the water at first light. I quickly learned that a Baltic-like 2 C water temperature can seem almost warm when compared to Toronto’s chilly -15 C air. And after floating unfettered under blue (or cloudy) skies, I would emerge grounded and strong, in an expansive mood and sharpened for the day. 

Post-pandemic I’m still going strong. Where once I fantasized about fashion, I now think about gear – friends tease me about my ever-expanding wetsuit wardrobe.

Of course, I’m not alone. Thanks in part to Deakin’s book, the practice of open-water or “wild” swimming has been gaining popularity for the last two decades. (That said, it was also in vogue in the 18th century, a favourite with the Romantic poets. And texts dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, including Beowulf, describe warriors racing in the open water.) In 2006, British journalist Kate Rew founded the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS), and watched membership steadily tick up as more and more people found community through their shared interest in swimming in rivers, lakes, cold-water lidos and seas. Then came COVID-19 and the quest for novel pandemic hobbies:
the glut of social media, news articles and picturesque photos encouraging
reconnection with the outdoors cemented wild swimming as a trendy pursuit.

Since early 2020 – the same year Harry Styles extolled the virtues of “a swim
in a really cold pond” in a Vogue cover story – the OSS membership has nearly doubled and currently hovers around 189,000 across 28 countries. Last fall, travel publisher Lonely Planet released its first-ever international guide dedicated to open-water swimming locations, and Rew recently put out her own inspiring tome, The Outdoor Swimmers’ Handbook. Because open water is not a controlled environment, the latter combines advice on risk and practical concerns – like the changeability of water conditions, marine life, understanding cold sensitivity and weatherproofing one’s form (adjusting stroke for chop and wind, for instance) – with poetic musings and encouragement. 

“For me it’s a sport, a type of fitness, it’s an outdoor activity, and it’s a moving meditation,” Rew says from her home in Somerset, England. “Whether we like the phrase or not, I swim as a practice.” She likens it to yoga where you have to pay attention to your form. “It’s also a philosophy. The people who like cold water learn something about themselves when they come out, feeling braver and more stoic as a result of the challenge that they’ve just given themselves. You have to make up your own mind to go swimming, don’t you – you have to get in.”

That element of casual everyday bravery resonates with me: feeling powerful and unrestrained in the water is so different from the rest of my daily life, and the limitations experienced on land. “When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens,” Deakin writes in Waterlog. “Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”

Swimming, I’ve found, just naturally lends itself to self-reflection – and lyricism. Certainly, the late writer Iris Murdoch was no stranger to its euphoric qualities, evocatively describing the invigorating escape in her 1978 novel The Sea, The Sea: “Trembling with emotion, I tore my clothes off and walked into the sea. The cold shock, then the warmth, then the strong gentle lifting motion of the quiet waves reminded me of happiness.” 

Not surprisingly, open-water swimming is starting to get its due in the mental health sphere. Last year, the Journal of Environmental Psychology reviewed 14 studies and found that the immersive nature of the activity – done in “blue spaces” (the water version of “green spaces”) – can reduce negative mood states such as tension, anger, fatigue and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Dr. Mark Harper, a British anaesthetist and researcher, who wrote Chill (a guide to the therapeutic benefits of cold swimming), also cites its positive effects on PTSD and dementia in individual case studies. 

Of course, there are physical benefits as well – particularly as we get older. Earlier this year, the Post Reproductive Health journal reported on the ways in which cold-water swimming improves the lives of perimenopausal and menopausal women, helping sleep disturbances, fatigue and hot flashes. And swimming is one of the low-load activities recommended by the Arthritis Society of Canada for osteoarthritis. “The buoyancy of water provides a gentle traction to all parts submerged, and this allows much-needed relief for compressed osteoarthritic areas such as the spine and hips and knees,” says Adrienne Murawiecki, a Toronto orthopaedic physiotherapist and former dancer. As well as providing temporary relief from gravity, swimming demands the kind of physical exertion that helps increase blood flow to the areas that need healing, while also increasing muscle strength and cardiovascular health. While other forms of exercise can offer similar benefits, Murawiecki recommends swimming because it is a whole body activity, adding, “You can move at a pace that suits you and if nothing else, you will feel better for doing it.”

Personally, I don’t think too much about pace. At an indoor pool, I’m usually the one doing a leisurely methodical breaststroke in the slow lane, and outdoors, it’s really about the primordial, meditative pursuit. Thoughts of refining technique and increasing speed fade while navigating waves and changing weather conditions. But it’s hard to ignore the rising interest in the competitive side of things. Open-water “marathon swimming” has been an Olympic sport since 2008, while in Canada, the number of lake and ocean races are increasing every year. (One national race organization, Canaqua Sports, says they put on 20 events in 2023 compared to only four in 2015.) And endurance swimming received a huge boost in exposure from the Oscar-nominated Netflix biopic Nyad, about American long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (played by Annette Bening), who, at 64, completed the open-water swim from Cuba to Florida. 

TIFF
Annette Bening in Nyad. Photo: Courtesy of TIFF

 

When I bring up the movie’s appeal with Rew, we commiserate about hierarchical attitudes around achievement that still exist in swimming. Her mission with the OSS is to advance the idea of recreation – free of those pressures to excel. “As a society, the only people who get put on the podium are the ones that still conform to a quite archaic sense of adventure, which is all about measurements,” Rew says. “Were you the first, the most extreme, did you go the furthest, the fastest? The adventures accessible to most of us are the ones that we make up for ourselves and the ones that actually fit where we live in the world, what’s close at hand or what inspires us.” 

For me, that adventure is swimming to self-discovery and resilience – embracing the unpredictability of water, whatever the weather, and gliding through the dark depths to silvered light and glimpsing trees and sky. It’s a spiritual buoyancy that cuts across age – and aches –  and doesn’t judge.  

 

Make Waves

Ready to dip your toe in the world of open-water swimming?
Stay warm, dry and fashionable with a few of the author’s
must-have suits and accessories

GEAR UP

Surf suit: When I’m not in a wetsuit proper — Lake Ontario is pretty cold even in summer — I wear a Seea surf suit – either the Dara (above) or the Gaviotas. Both have long sleeves (for extra sun protection as much as extra warmth). theseea.com 

Wetsuit: As an hourglass size 12, finding good thermal wetsuits that fit properly in both waist and bust can be a challenge. Most, it seems, are designed for extremely athletic surfers or lean triathletes. I find Sisstr and Rip Curl’s lighter neoprene a good fit and, come winter, the thicker Xcel Drylock wetsuit has a women-specific cut.  surfthegreats.org

Swimsuit: In winter, I put on the basic workhorse Lands’ End Tugless one piece under my wetsuit, it’s deeply unglamorous but perfect in its simplicity and function. landsend.com

A warm, water-resistant robe: I love the insulated over-parkas from SittingSuits – a women-owned company from Denmark. Essentially a wearable sleeping bag (made from recycled waterbottles), it’s cheerier than my ubiquitous DryRobe. Friends have even bought them to wear over their dour black winter coats. sittingsuits.ca 

Booties and gloves: I use Patagonia Yulex and I also swear by C-Monsta wetsuit hanger. c-monsta.com

BUT DON’T FORGET

Really good sunscreen: I have olive skin and now use more sunscreen than usual during the warmer months because the water amplifies the sun’s rays. The best one, Ultra Violette’s Supreme Screen, is coming to Canada in April. sephora.com/ca