It was only a matter of time before Girl on the River became Girl IN the River. I’m not talking about capsizing here – though admittedly I’ve had the occasional dip that way as well – but actual, voluntary, full-body immersion in the river, by way of a wild swimming workshop. If you’ve only ever seen wild swimmers as annoying obstructions when you’re rowing, think again. Swimming in the river is one of the most life-affirming, exhilarating things you can do – and all the more so when it’s cold (there’s science behind this, but I won’t bore you with it – just take my word for it).
The sun may have made an appearance a few times recently, but that doesn’t mean the river was warm by any means. April is one of the cold months in water temperature terms, and the river was delivering that bone-gripping, eye-popping kind of cold. Admittedly, fellow swimmer Cath Pendleton, who’s represented GB in ice swimming, probably found it pleasantly warm, but to normal human beings it was parky as hell, so we were kitted out in (borrowed, in my case) wetsuits and hats, with some of the others in booties and gloves as well (I wished I’d had those extra bits of kit). Cath was rocking it in just a bikini, but that wouldn’t be a good idea if you’re not acclimatised, as she is.
So, what happens at a wild swimming workshop? Well, safety in wild swimming is paramount so our coach, Angela Jones, gave us a talk on where and how to swim safely, what to look out for in health and river terms, and swimming technique (it’s slightly different for outdoor swimming). She took our temperature to ensure we were all healthy and tested our oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter (mine was 99, which apparently is a good sign). We did a grip test to see which arm was stronger (interestingly for me, as a bowsider and right hander, my left arm came out stronger) and tested our lung capacity. Finally, we tested for hyper-flexibility, which can be problematic for some (though as nobody in the group was hyper-flexible we didn’t go into the whys and the wherefores). We talked about the importance of strong glutes for swimming and general fitness (rowers will be nodding along here) and did some warm-up exercises.
Then, finally, we hit the water. I say hit, but it was more lowering gently, as Angela had emphasised the dangers of diving or jumping in. Wow. Just wow. I knew it would be cold but I was still quite startled by quite how cold the water seeping in around the edges of my wetsuit was. The worst part was my arms (my skinniest bit and suffering without gloves). Angela gave me a float to raise myself out of the water with and I kicked vigorously with my legs which warmed me up a bit, and from then on I was fine and able to start enjoying the experience.
We swam downstream to our meeting point, where we emerged, exhilarated and victorious. It wasn’t a long swim but as an introduction to cold water swimming, just perfect. That wasn’t the end. Warming up quickly after cold water swimming is essential so we after a quick survivors’ photo we got swiftly dressed in warm clothes, had hot drinks and got moving to ensure our body temperature rose again (Angela took our temperature and we were all on the low side, so we did a lot of jumping around the car park).
So will I do it again? Absolutely I will. I loved the buzz both during and after the swim – endorphin central – and the feeling of peace as we paddled down the river. I’m already booked in to another workshop in a couple of weeks’ time and can’t wait to get back in the water. I’ve even been googling wetsuits, which is a sure sign I’m hooked.
If you’re thinking of wild swimming, please be sure to do it safely. Do your research on safety before you go – the Outdoor Swimming Society has loads of sound advice and can put you in touch with other wild swimmers in your area, as it’s not a good idea to go alone. A workshop like I did was ideal (here’s the link to Angela’s site) but otherwise find someone you trust and who knows the river or sea and go with them.
Oh, and don’t forget to let me know if you give it a go!