When Sophie Skellern lost her grandma, whom she had nursed through her dying days during the first lockdown, the one thing that helped ease her grief was open-water swimming.
Whatever the weather, three times a week, Sophie would pull on her swimming costume and head to the lake at Sale Water Park, near her home in Manchester, where, front crawling through the chilly waters, she would briefly forget her sadness.
In fact, wild swimming left Sophie, 29, feeling so exhilarated that it had never occurred to her what a risky form of exercise it can be.
Woman in a mid air jump from the rocks into a beautiful clear blue rock pool on the coast of Australia
Barely a day goes by without someone in the public eye — supermodel Helena Christensen, (pictured) TV presenters Fearne Cotton and Susannah Constantine and even former Prime Minister David Cameron are all fans — are talking about 'wild swimming'
But last month — if she hadn’t had a float and her boyfriend on hand — she could have died while swimming in a lake near Mount Snowdon during a holiday.
‘I was half a mile from the water’s edge when both my calves cramped up and I couldn’t move or kick them, the pain was so intense,’ recalls Sophie, shuddering at the memory of what happened in Llyn Gwynant.
‘I felt almost paralysed from the waist down as I lay on my back trying to float. Luckily I knew to immediately lie on my back and put the tow float I was pulling across my chest. Someone new to this may not have had a float with them and I dread to think what would have happened if I’d panicked. That’s when people drown.
‘However, the 30 minutes it took for the cramping to pass were among the scariest of my life.
‘Fortunately, my partner, Jack, was also in the lake, in a kayak about 100 metres away.
‘He noticed I’d stopped swimming and was on my back and I was able to raise my arm and beckon him over.
‘It was a tiny one-person kayak, so there was no way he could have pulled me in, or even towed me back to shore, but he stayed beside me, giving me sips of water, while I tried to point my toes to stretch out the muscles, until the cramping finally eased enough for normal sensations to return to my legs. It would have been so easy to start hyperventilating. However, thankfully, I forced myself to keep taking deep breaths and stay calm, because getting stressed and anxious in water is the very worst thing you can do.
‘After half an hour, my legs felt strong enough for Jack to escort me back to the shore.’
Sophie, who organises art exhibitions and is studying for a PhD, believes her legs cramped because she had not drunk enough water and had become dehydrated in the heat, nor had she left enough of a gap between eating lunch and getting into the water — mistakes she will not repeat.
She’s one of many women who enjoy so-called ‘wild swimming’, which has caught on like wildfire in recent years. Barely a day goes by without someone in the public eye — supermodel Helena Christensen, TV presenters Fearne Cotton and Susannah Constantine and even former Prime Minister David Cameron are all fans — espousing its virtues.
From improving sleep, boosting immunity and metabolism, to ‘significantly reducing’ symptoms of anxiety and depression, outdoor swimming is seen by many as a cure-all.
Yet despite its benefits, there is no denying that swimming in open water is far riskier than a trip to your local pool.
Writer Lebby Eyres, 50, is painfully aware of the risk of injury from swimming in the great outdoors
Since the heatwave began on July 14, at least 40 people have lost their lives in open water — rivers, lakes, natural pools and the sea — treble the usual rate of water deaths, which average 19 a year.
But wild swimming poses risks whatever the weather, with dangers including near freezing temperatures, water-born contaminants and hidden obstructions.
Cold water shock — which can happen in water temperatures below 15c (59f), common all year round in the UK — is one of the main contributing factors in drowning.
It causes the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body, raising blood pressure. Additionally, people instinctively gasp when in cold water, which in turn causes panic, water inhalation, and, in some cases, cardiac arrest.
Jade Stevens, 41, is all too aware of the risks of cold water shock.
The mother of three was pregnant when she decided to go for a swim, alone, in a river in Yalding, Kent, to cool off on a very hot day — a decision she mercifully lived to regret.
‘I’d been swimming in open water since I was a child,’ says Jade. ‘And it felt so refreshing when I first got in.
‘However, after about five minutes, it suddenly got so cold it literally took my breath away, and within seconds I was gasping, couldn’t talk and my teeth were chattering.
‘Then my whole body went into shock and I couldn’t move.
‘There were other people in the water and on the bank, but they didn’t notice what was happening and I had no way of attracting their attention.’
Jade somehow made it to the water’s edge, where she stayed, immobilised, hyperventilating and unable to make a sound, holding onto the rocky bank, certain she was going to die.
Luckily a family walking by saw her distress, and the father was able to reach down and pull her out of the water to safety.
Seeing the commotion, her partner, who was having a drink outside a nearby bar, came to Jade’s aid and took her to hospital, where she and her unborn baby were checked over.
‘Fortunately, we were both in good health,’ says Jade. ‘But I cannot let my mind wander to thoughts of what would have happened to us if that man hadn’t been so observant.’ Estate agent Jade steered clear of open water for the remainder of her pregnancy, but, astonishingly, she and her three children, now aged 15, nine and five, are all keen wild swimmers — though she insists they all wear buoyancy aids.
‘Ever since my near-death experience, I realise how essential they are,’ says Jade. ‘You can’t predict when you’ll hit a cold patch, which can paralyse you and, I’ve since also learned that you’re far more likely to come across them in fresh water than in the sea.’
With public pools closed during much of the pandemic, membership of the Outdoor Swimming Society grew by 36 per cent in 2020 — and internet searches for ‘wild swimming’ increased by 94 per cent between 2019 and 2020.
But those used to swimming in depth-regulated, temperature-controlled pools policed by vigilant lifeguards don’t always realise just how different the experience can be.
So concerned is environmental scientist Rob Gray, a keen open-water swimmer himself, about the risks those new to the sport are taking that he has created an app, Wild, which collates information on the various open water locations in the UK, including when to go, where to avoid, what to take and be aware of, plus how to team up with others.
Julia Elliott is a recent recruit after suffering a ‘horrendous’ stomach upset which she’s convinced was the result of swimming in the sea off Brighton following heavy rainfall, a time when sewers often overflow and raw sewage leaks into the ocean
‘There’s a fresh community of people who have recently taken up wild swimming, which is great, and it’s not our intention to put anyone off,’ says Rob.
‘However, people do get into trouble all the time — they get cramp, cold water shock and even injuries, and these are things you can’t predict, so it’s a good idea always to have a buoyancy aid, like a tow float, and never to go wild swimming alone.’
Writer Lebby Eyres, 50, is painfully aware of the risk of injury from swimming in the great outdoors.
Last summer, she and her children, aged 15 and 12, were walking close to their holiday home in Jura, Eastern France, when they came across a lake, Lac de Vouglans.
It was a swelteringly hot day, so they decided it was the perfect place to enjoy a cooling dip. ‘It was only a one-metre drop from the bank and my kids threw themselves in without a problem. ‘But I had barely leapt more than a few centimetres when my left foot smashed into a ledge of rock,’ recalls Lebby.
‘I carried on swimming, but once we got out, my toes and ankle really began to hurt. The half-mile walk back to the car was agony.’
Fast-forward two hours and Lebby was crawling around on her hands and knees, screaming in pain. But because the family was due to return home to London the next day, there was no time for her to have an X-ray.
With no painkillers in the holiday property, Lebby resorted to drinking half a bottle of wine to dull the pain as her foot and ankle swelled and turned blue.
‘I’ll never forget the bleakness of lying awake in bed that night beside my sleeping husband, sobbing due to the intense pain in my foot,’ recalls Lebby. ‘I’ve given birth to two children, but never felt pain like that.’
Back in London, Lebby couldn’t visit a hospital for an X-ray because she had to quarantine. In a video call, her GP diagnosed broken toes and a sprained ankle.
‘It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if both my feet had hit the ledge,’ Lebby says. ‘The impact would have reverberated through both my legs and then my spine. I could have been paralysed.
‘Swimming outdoors feels wonderful, but you must never lose sight of the fact you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.’ Yet it’s not just the perils inflicted by the elements of which wild swimmers need to be aware.
Outdoor swimmers on the South Coast are currently battling with Southern Water, which was recently fined £90 million for deliberately releasing billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea.
For six years the company, whose operating profits totalled £213 million in 2019, poured untreated sewage into the sea in an attempt to avoid both financial penalties and the cost of upgrading and maintaining infrastructure.
Vital advice before you take the plunge
1. Never swim alone. Always take someone with you so that you can look out for each other.
2. If you’re swimming in the sea, choose beaches with lifeguards and pay attention to the flag warning system.
3. Check the water quality — does it look clean? Is it free of blue-green algae and other obvious warning signs? Waterways near urban areas are particularly likely to contain harmful bacteria.
4. Wear the right kit — swim shoes to protect feet from rocks, a wetsuit if it’s cold, and make yourself visible with a brightly coloured swim hat.
5. Plan your exit point before getting into the water and don’t try to stay in too long, especially when it’s cold. Know your limits.
6. Use a tow float for buoyancy.
7. Pack warm clothes for afterwards and stay moving to warm up.
8. Keep an eye out for strong currents and sudden changes in depth.
9. Never jump in without acclimatising to the water temperature and check the landing area.
10. Swim where others swim — but avoid areas crowded with boats or used for watersports.
Instead of treating the sewage, as required by law, it stored millions of litres of wastewater in storm tanks, before releasing it into the sea around North Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.
Swimmers in these areas are so fed up with encountering faeces and sanitary products, they have set up a group — South Coast Sirens: Clean Seas For All — to put pressure on the water companies.
Julia Elliott is a recent recruit after suffering a ‘horrendous’ stomach upset which she’s convinced was the result of swimming in the sea off Brighton following heavy rainfall, a time when sewers often overflow and raw sewage leaks into the ocean.
Strictly a pool swimmer until lockdown, Julia, 47, an alliances manager in IT, started open-water swimming in March after becoming frustrated that local leisure centres remained shut.
She quickly became hooked, and although she had heard talk about sewage leaking from overflow pipes, didn’t pay it much heed. And so she went for a long swim in Brighton with a friend on July 3. The following day, Julia started suffering terrible stomach cramps and severe diarrhoea.
Priding herself on having a ‘cast-iron tummy’ and being impervious to stomach viruses, it was only when Julia spoke to her swimming companion, who had exactly the same symptoms, that it dawned on her they had probably picked up something in the sea.
‘I felt dreadful for about a week, I’d suddenly get these terrible cramps and be in excruciating pain,’ recalls Julia.
‘Even a few weeks later, my stomach is still not 100 per cent better. It don’t want to think about what we might have swallowed in the water that caused this. We live in a country where it rains heavily fairly frequently so, if Southern Water is using that as an excuse, it needs to spend some of the money we pay in hefty bills on sorting out the infrastructure,’ she adds.
‘I’m careful not to put my head below the surface when I swim, but it’s impossible to avoid getting water in your mouth.
‘I’m even more nervous since I was ill. If I see a wave coming towards me, I’ll think: “Oh God, no! What might I swallow?”
Off-putting though the myriad risks may be, it’s safe to say that many more people will join the swelling ranks of open-water devotees this summer.
They can only hope that, in chasing the high that wild swimming gives them, they don’t experience the lows that can come hand-in-hand with this sport.