Open water fear

How to overcome your fear of open water

Jonathan Cowie muses on the perils of outdoor swimming, and how to overcome a sudden feeling of panic in the water

The FEAR. We’ve all had it. The brush of a leaf on your thigh that could be a massive tentacle about to wrap itself around your leg and drag you down to a watery death. Is that a stick you just swam into or a dismembered arm?

What would happen if you swam into the middle of a deep lake and then just… you know… forgot how to swim. It could happen! Or what if the swarms of piranhas that secretly plague your daily dipping spot finally decide to feast on your flesh and rip you to shreds as you swim head-up breaststroke with your oblivious friends?

Open water swimming can be a dangerous activity. As well as the obvious risks like the torrents of raw sewage fl owing down our rivers and across our beaches, there are also dangers under the water. The giant, clanking machinery that lurks at the end of every reservoir just waiting to ensnare swimmers in a metallic death embrace. The weeds that will ensnare you as you swim through them, tangling you up in their deadly tendrils. The deep, dark depths that are so bone-chillingly cold that you will instantly die of hypothermia.

And have you thought about what other activities people may use your swim spot for? Not everyone is as wholesome and clean-living as outdoor swimmers. I always wondered what was below me when I swam in the London docks: abandoned cars, discarded guns, former gangsters with concrete shoes.

And it’s no better in the Lake District where I now live, where the beautiful lakes of our national park have also historically been used as the means of disposing of bodies. Just don’t swim too close to that rolled-up carpet…

And the danger doesn’t end when you get out of the water. Many people worry about getting too cold after swimming, but what if you put on so many postswim layers that you are crushed to death under your dryrobe. Death by dryrobe* – is there a more middle-class way to die?

I have a friend who used to be afraid of sharks. Fair enough, who would want Jaws chasing them down, but his fear extended to swimming in indoor pools. Heaven knows how he managed to swim in open water. But, of course, he did, and that is the one thing that all these fears have in common: they are irrational and they can be overcome. (Apart from the sewage, that is unfortunately only too real.)

How to overcome the fear

If you get the fear, there are ways that you can work to overcome it (whether it is a longstanding fear like sharks, or a one-off panic induced by a stick).

Firstly, learning how to relax and stay calm in the open water will help overcome fear. Work on calm, relaxed and steady breathing so you can reduce panic and anxiety. Learn how to ‘fl oat to live’ and tread water – if you feel yourself becoming overcome by your fear, just flip yourself onto your back and chill out for a bit or tread water to regain your calm.

No matter how experienced we are, we can all succumb to panic, whether from a mass start or due to challenging conditions. Learn how to calm yourself down and these feelings will pass.

If your fears are more longstanding (such as fear of deep water or sharks), learn to recognise your fears and take steps to overcome them, for example swimming in deep water in an indoor pool before venturing into the open water. Just don’t watch Jaws before going swimming!

*Other robes are available but aren’t so alliterative.

To see all the online content from the April 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Underwater' page.
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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.