It seems hard to believe it today, as I dry myself off in the sun after a swim in the Bay of Naples, but in 2011 I managed to cycle around the whole coast of Britain without once going for a swim in the sea, or in any of the dozens of rivers, lakes and streams that I passed.*
It was this realisation that led me to the maxim that I carry around the world’s waters with me: Always take the swim.
Myriad are the times that I have really hated the idea of jumping into a river or lake, but zero are the number of times that I’ve regretted doing so.
When faced with a wild swimming opportunity, my brain does something silly and the combined efforts of willpower and desire are not enough to get me into the water.
I need automatic thinking – and I’ve come across enough other people in the same metaphorical boat to believe that many could benefit from this humble maxim.
Always take the swim.
Whenever there is an opportunity to swim, you should take that opportunity. And you’d be amazed how many opportunities there are in your day-to-day life.
Seas, oceans, rivers, streams, burns, fountains, lakes, ponds. The water is waiting.
Don’t let excuses get in the way. Your brain, for some reptilian reason, will furnish you with dozens of excuses ripe to fit any occasion. You must ignore them and instead trust and follow the maxim.
Always take the swim.
Not having your bathers is no excuse. I have taken swims naked and in my boxer shorts when nakedness is scorned.
Not having a towel is no excuse. On days like today, I dry in the sun, on less clement days I have dried myself with a t-shirt – or simply shaken myself down and put on my clothes still wet. It’s never that long before I have the chance to find a towel or a change of clothes. And I have still never regretted taking a swim.
Cold water is no excuse – although it is a very good reason to be cautious. Cold water makes for the most invigorating swims. Cold water should make your maxim yet more urgent.
But beware: enter the water slowly, and make sure you are confident about warming up again afterwards. It doesn’t take much (and you still don’t need a towel) – just run up and down on the shore until you’re warm again. Then put your layers back on.
Poor weather is no excuse. This overlaps with cold water, but I would hasten to add that there is no more joyful swim than that taken in pouring rain. How perverse, how apt!
Even better: high winds equal high surf and vastly more pleasurable sea swimming. Although, please be careful and watch out for rip tides.
Not having time is no excuse. Whoever said a swim has to take a long time? There aren’t many places in the world that are a long way from a water course – almost by definition. Humans need water, so settlements rise up along their route.
When I am in Bournemouth, blessed with a 10km shoreline, I calculate that the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives) takes exactly 13 minutes, from fully dressed at my desk, into the sea, and back. I defy anyone unable to find 13 minutes in their day for a swim.
Not being near the sea is no excuse. For some reason, rivers and streams are usually excluded from most people’s acceptable notions of outdoor swimming. This is madness for I find that they are the most rewarding.
The sea is relentless and – dare I say – a little dull sometimes. The river is never short of interest, from the sludgy coolness of the mud shore, to the abundant wildlife that coos and chuckles from the treeline. Plus there is the eternal pleasure of striking out upstream until exhaustion, before drifting back to base on the current.
If you have never thought of taking a river swim, I urge you to take one today. Be not afeared of cleanliness. If you are worried (and in the UK), check the government’s designated bathing water website or the Environment Agency Water Quality Archive for wilder swims.
I have swum now in rivers all over Europe and never once contracted ringworm.
I dread to think how many swims I missed out on during my round Britain cycle, but I am glad in a way that it has brought me to my fool-proof maxim. I cannot turn back the clock, but I can try to convince you to always take the swim.
May the tides be with you!
* Full disclosure: I washed myself once at a friend’s local watering hole in a river near Bath, and I also got my feet wet in the North Sea at John O’Groats. Up to my ankles. Doesn’t count.