It’s cold, murky, there’s a strong current and it could be polluted – but yes, you can swim

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The Thames on a chilly autumn morning. Surprisingly hard to resist swimming, apparently.

Outdoor swimming has a habit of delivering surreal experiences. Earlier this week, while I was wrapped in multiple layers of clothing, warming up after a quick dip in the Thames, a runner paused and asked me: “is it OK to swim in the river?”

This question always puts me on the spot as the answer, of course, is, “it depends”.

It depends on a lot of things. How much do you know about outdoor swimming? How much have you done? Have you swum in these temperatures recently (it was around 11 degrees in the water)? Do you know about cold water shock? Can you even swim? And, while it’s not yet winter, there is a definite autumnal chill in the air, which means it would be prudent to have some warm clothes to put on after a dip to help deal with afterdrop.

Without knowing anything about this person, I was wary about how I answered. On the one hand, I love to encourage people to swim but on the other I’d be mortified if I told someone it was fine to swim and they jumped in and got into difficulties.

I told him: “it’s cold, murky, there’s a strong current and there’s always a risk it might be polluted but, if you’re happy with all of that, you can swim.”

As I had clearly just got out and there was someone else in the water at that moment, I could hardly say he shouldn’t swim, could I?

What happened next took me by surprise. The runner stripped to his boxers, stepped into the river and started to swim. For a moment, I wondered if he would need rescuing. He swam head up breaststroke and, as he drifted away from the bank, the current started dragging him downstream. Luckily, after 30 seconds or so, he was able to hold his place against the stream. He swam for a couple of minutes on the spot, and then returned safely to the bank. We offered him a towel, which he declined. Still wet, he put his running kit back on, reassured us that he lived “just around the corner” and jogged off!

I think there are a couple of morals to this story. Firstly, if you swim outdoors, whether you intend to or not, you set an example for other people and encourage them to swim too. Therefore, always swim safely and demonstrate safe swimming habits. If you have the opportunity, share any wisdom you have accumulated. Secondly, and this is a more general lesson about outdoor swimming, never judge a swimmer by their appearance. I wrongly assumed that this runner was asking about swimming out of idle curiosity or possibly planning a swim on another occasion when he had some kit. It never occurred to me that he would swim there and then. I was so surprised in fact that I forgot to try to sell him a magazine!

01 Cover December

Issue 44 December 2020

  • Finding joy in 2020: Sarah Thomas looks back on a very strange year
  • Motivation: triple Olympian Keri-anne Payne on dealing with changing situations
  • UnstoppaBull: the extreme adventurer who swam in the highest lake on earth
  • Wild swimming: misadventures in the Peak District
  • Soul Cap: solving the problem of swimming with afro hair

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