Wild swimming is booming in the pandemic: 'It is a lifelong education in facing down fear'

Bonnie Tsui
·6-min read

As a kid at Jones Beach, New York, I spent a lot of time in the four feet of water at the scalloped, lacy edge of the Atlantic. I can picture the scene clearly: my brother and cousins and I bob up and down in the shallows, waiting for a wave to come and lift us off our feet. We use our arms as rudders to pilot us along the face of a wave as it breaks, depositing us at the foamy intersection where water meets sand. Get up, laugh, repeat.

We are mesmerised by that heaving body of water. So is everybody else. On a hot day, and on a holiday, 100,000 other people might be at Jones Beach. Lifeguards sit sentinel at their elevated stations, policing the crowds from behind their mirrored sunglasses. There’s something primal about a day like that at the beach, like all the animals heading to the watering hole. Water is a magnet for our teeming throng of humanity.

Such was my introduction to wild swimming, as a child growing up in New York. Over almost four decades of swimming, I have observed the changing scenery behind that practice – from beach to pool to open ocean and back again – and its evolving role in my life. I wrote a book about it, a cultural and scientific exploration of humanity’s relationship with water.

What I couldn’t have imagined, of course, was that this book about swimming would be published in a time when most people couldn’t swim.

A swimmer standing in the shallows of the River Avon at Warleigh Weir in Somerset, England.
A swimmer standing in the shallows of the River Avon at Warleigh Weir in Somerset, England. Photograph: Anthony Brown/Alamy

What do you do in a pandemic summer, when you are frozen in place, on indefinite pause from moving like a skipping stone across the globe? What do you do when the domesticated, chlorinated bodies of water you are accustomed to are suddenly closed?

Maybe, increasingly desperate under the intense eye of an August sun, you begin to look to the oceans, rivers, lakes and streams nearby – to see them anew. You notice mood, shifting temperature, texture, the days when surface chop precludes getting in. Your own mood reflects that. You can’t get what you want as quickly or as easily as you like. And so you adapt.

Related: Summer readings: Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain, by Roger Deakin

In Waterlog, his celebrated chronicle of swimming through Britain’s waterways, the naturalist Roger Deakin described swimming as having a transformative, Alice-in-Wonderland quality; it was an activity that had power over his perception of self and of time. “When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens,” he wrote. “Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world … You see and experience when you’re swimming in a way that is completely different from any other.” Your sense of the present, he added, “is overwhelming”.

I live in California now. Over the last few months of dedicated wild swimming in the Pacific and in the San Francisco Bay, I have noted both the otherworldliness and the acuteness of experience that Deakin so vividly depicted. The periodic shift in perspective – from land to water level, external to internal, anthropocentric to aquacentric – has helped me get to the other side of many a difficult day.

In pre-pandemic times, I swam several mornings a week in the pool, and surfed the rest as conditions allowed. Most of the time, it didn’t matter if it was rainy or cold or blustery; I could get into a temperature-controlled outdoor pool year-round and be quite happy. Now my engagement with the water is completely dictated by nature. If there are howling winds, water quality issues, or storm-related runoff, I can’t get in. It’s an exercise in relinquishing control.

In this time of isolation, I have found community in the lovely stream of letters from readers, who describe their new embrace of wild swimming, and the process of their own seeking. In my book, Why We Swim, I write that to live deliberately as a swimmer means that you are a seeker: a chaser of the ocean’s blue corduroy, a follower of river veins. It involves a certain kind of bravery to embrace the uncertainty.

Swimmers jump into the Yangtze River in Wuhan, China, on 6 July 2020.
Swimmers jump into the Yangtze River in Wuhan, China, on 6 July. Photograph: Getty Images

In those childhood days at Jones Beach, I watched the ways people dipped in and out. Some were just there to cool off: electrifying entry, quick exit. Some stayed awhile, floating and splashing and swimming. Always there were people who kept their distance and didn’t go in at all. But still they came, hypnotised by the pulse of the ocean, alive to the sound of the surf and the smell of the briny air. I liked how the ocean seemed to draw breath, lying placid one moment and rearing up the next, moving us in one rippling mass to and from the horizon.

Once, a big wave came and smacked me from behind. Surprise overturning, ass over teakettle. Then a liquid, green room, clouded by sand. Me, swimming and swimming toward nothing. Which way is up? Four feet isn’t very much water, but it’s deep enough to drown in.

Time stretched; I wondered about the press of my burning lungs, wishing for air. Then time restarted, with an accidental kick to the head from my cousin swimming not two feet away. Gifted this reference point, I scrambled to the surface, my hair wrapped around my face like kelp. Embarrassed and gasping, I looked around. When I realised that no one had noticed I was in trouble, I pretended that I never was. And I turned right back into the sea.

What did I find so alluring about the water that I could forgive a murder attempt, and so quickly at that? I was just a young swimmer, going back for more of the magic: the illusion of being native in an environment that is no home to humans.

This summer, as I prepare for a flight back to the east coast, an essential trip to be with loved ones in a terribly fraught time, I am gripped by anxiety. So much is unknown. And yet I think about swimming, and wild swimming especially, as a lifelong education in facing down fear.

I think back to a year ago, when, in a fluke of airplane routeing, I flew home over Jones Beach. We circled the tower, so low over the barrier beaches that I could see the individual pinpoints of people amassed on their shores. It was a view of my aquatic childhood that I had never seen before, and as I looked and looked, drinking in the pictures below, I was surprised by the tears that suddenly pricked my eyes.

We are pulled to the paradox of water as a source of life and death, and we have figured out myriad ways to conduct ourselves in it. Not everybody is a swimmer, but everyone has a swimming story to tell. In the examination of this universal experience – and it is universal, whether you are fearful of the water or not; whether you love it or leave it, you will encounter it at some point in your life – we find ourselves flexing our survival muscles, quietly triumphant at our own persistence.