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Friday 21 August 2015

Fear of Open Water Swimming: What Lies Beneath?

I am not new to open water. I grew up in Dorset and visiting the seaside and swimming there was a regular occurrence. Equally, I have been able to swim - to a degree, most of my life. But I am new to Open Water. Open Water with capitals. The wetsuit, swimming hat and goggles are new. Likewise the Rules. Being kicked in Open Water swimming or swum over is nothing to blink at. Do not expect an apology. But do expect to chat, during the swim, during changing. Whether you are changing into your wetsuit in a purpose-built changing room – or more likely – by the side of your car, clinging onto the door trying not to fall over as you try to get the tight rubber up over your thighs. Race hats are worn with pride and the few who swim in ‘skins’ – without a wetsuit are the Kings and Queens of the lakes. 

I am a confident swimmer, but arriving for a swim at 6am at a lake new to me I was informed that they operate an ‘honesty box’ policy and that I’d have to post my five pounds swim payment into the equivalent of a metal letterbox and her there would be no safety kayaks on the water. And no other swimmers yet.

This didn’t faze me getting ready. My wetsuit went on the same – with difficulty, my goggles were just as scratched and misty although my hat broke like an omen. My triathlon relays hat. The only hat I own which marks me out as having done something I was proud of doing.  I thought nothing of it and returned to the car and put on a new hat. A white one. 

The water isn’t as cold as I expected, although I always get a shock when it comes in through the zip at the back of my wetsuit and at the neck. I have not yet ‘christened’ my wetsuit yet. The swimmers reading this will know what that means. 

I swim through the clear water slowly towards the first buoy which is floating serenely on the water. I look towards the clear bottom of the lake and I can see a shoal of tiny fish scatter before me. It’s a treat to see them. 

As I get deeper, the water is darker, cloudy. A stripy fish zips away from me. A glimpse of stripes and a tail.  The weed is visible, dark and dusty looking in the still water.  The bottom of the lake is there ... somewhere. 

It is strange swimming without safety kayaks, the silent sentinels that usually float unnoticed and unheeded on the water. And without the splash and chat of other swimmers echoing off the water. The small noises, not noticed until they are missed.  But I am in a wetsuit. A rubber wetsuit. A FLOATY wetsuit. It is almost impossible to sink in one of these. 

No safety kayaks. No problem. I am unable to sink in a wetsuit I tell myself.

I keep my head down towards the bottom of the lake except when I turn to breathe and I get something new. A strange vertigo swimming out here alone. The bottom of the lake is cloudy with distance and silt but every now and then there is a black patch entirely without weed. Is it algae on the bottom? Stones? Silt? A hole? A deep chasm gaping in the bottom of the lake within which anything might lurk. I swim on, maybe I can look ahead when my face is underwater rather than down or close my eyes instead of at the holes gaping black like hungry mouths. It doesn’t help. 

I look ahead to the next buoy floating ahead on the lake. It looks a long way away. I keep swimming. But I swim around the holes. 

The lake is quiet. Quiet and lonely except for the noise of a duck quacking. It sounds harsh against the silence. I look up when I’m sighting the buoys, look for the noise but can’t see anything. No ducks, no water birds at all. The water surface is flat and unbroken. Except for me. The solitary swimmer.

I am at the 3rd buoy now. The furthest point of the lake away from where I started. The bottom of the lake is invisible, shrouded in darkness. Weed stretches upwards out of the depths. It rises from the murkiness in single strands. I swim around them but they cluster around the turn. I mustn’t touch them. Like ringing a bell or touching a strand of spider web. What will rise from the depths? 

I turn around the buoy avoiding the weed and strike out for the next marker. The water is cloudy but not as murky as before and I can see a vague shape on my left keeping pace with me. It is impossible to judge the size. A fish? Otter that wants to bite my feet? Why is something that I can’t see worse than something I can? My imagination goes wild. 

I take a breath.

I’m covered in a big rubber wetsuit. I’m safe. My imagination chips in: But your white paddling feet aren’t. I bet they look like the equivalent of chicken dippers to an otter or a massive pike. The Loch Ness Monster has survived in Loch Ness for years, who knows what’s in these (shallow warm) lakes (in the Cotswolds)?

The thought of the Loch Ness Monster breaks the spell. I realise how ridiculous this train of thought is and as I turn my head to breathe I catch sight of another swimmer splashing between the buoys on the other side of the lake and realise I’m not alone out here.  

As I move my head, I hear the duck again and realise the furious quacking isn’t the Duck of Death but is the rubber swim hat squeaking on the back of my wetsuit. The mystery of the invisible duck is solved, I am no longer alone in the lake and I have managed to complete my swim. The water no longer seems gloomy and friendless but calm and peaceful.  

The sun comes out from behind a cloud and shines rays through the water. My shadow keeps pace with me as I swim, half seen. 


  1. I am blooming terrified of water I can't see the bottom of. That includes non lit pools. I have no idea where I got this, but as a child I remember thinking they kept sharks at the end of the pool in the Time Capsule behind the cage bars (cage bars were actually for the wave machine, so it doesn't suck a child back into its mechanism). I'm still quite afraid of the sea but still swim in it because its lovely.

    1. That sounds terrifying! So if you misbehaved (like wee-ing in the pool) they released the sharks?? :) I swam at this lake the Friday before in a night swim and it was wonderful - but I didn't get freaked out because I couldn't see what was in the water with me. Apparently if I can't see it, it doesn't exist :)

  2. You are much braver than me! No open water swimming for me, ever!
    I once really freaked out because the bushes kept rustling alongside me whilst out on a run at dusk. Turned out it was a herd of deer. Lovely to see when they finally bounded infront of me but I had convinced myself that was a thug in the bushes with a knife, wild wolves and any other number of scenarios by the time they popped out!

    1. Oh but Mary it's lovely! No having to dodge other swimmers or keep turning around at the end of the pool ... but the wildlife in it is a bit offputting! Deer make a LOT of noise, don't they? That sounds scary!!

  3. I'm trying OW at Shepperton for the first time this weekend (i.e. 4 weeks before my first OW tri, good preparation!) and I don't know if this has made me feel better or worse!! I am preparing myself to bob around a lot and be rescued by a lovely person in a kayak......

    1. I hope your OW swim went really, really well!! Did you love it?