FEATURES,  View from the Water

Is the open water still open?

At the time of writing leisure centres and swimming pools are closed and the government has advised us to avoid all non-essential travel. Open water venues in London, where I live, are closed – lidos, ponds, lakes and docks have locked their gates. Outdoor swimming is a social sport – even if you swim alone it is hard to maintain social distancing and effective hygiene while getting changed, paying or signing in for your swim and having your post-swim chat and cuppa. So where does that leave us?

The message we have been getting from the government is to self-isolate if we are unwell, but otherwise to exercise safely outdoors. Yet it seems people aren’t heeding that advice. Our national parks were extremely busy this weekend, with queues for car parks seen around the country. West Wittering beach was so busy that it was closed as it was impossible to maintain social distancing. The National Trust has closed its parks and gardens due to the sheer number of visitors. Seaside towns and beaches were packed with visitors enjoying the first sunny spring weekend of the year. Parks in London were packed with little regard for social distancing. In today’s government briefing from Number 10, Boris Johnson stated that: “The health benefits of keeping parks and green spaces open outweigh the epidemical value of closing them.” But if people don’t use them safely and observe social distancing then further measures will be brought in. People should “stay home, protect our NHS and save lives.” Having seen the situation in mainland European countries, it seems unlikely that stricter measures won’t be put in place in the UK soon.

With open water venues closed it is tempting to travel for our outdoor swimming fix. Over the weekend my social media feeds have been full of photos of swimmers enjoying swimming outdoors in the Spring sunshine. If you live on a beach, riverbank or lakeside then please go ahead and enjoy your swim. If you don’t, does going for a swim really count as “essential travel”? Jumping in a car and travelling to the coast or the Lake District for a dip and some nature therapy is all very well, but when everyone else has the same idea then we have a problem. Keswick at the weekend was reported to be as busy as usual. Photos of Skegness looked like it was a bank holiday weekend. Obviously you shouldn’t be travelling on public transport, but if you are driving can you guarantee that you won’t have to stop for petrol or park in a busy car park? Is that necessary social contact? And if you are travelling to a remote region and you unwittingly bring the virus with you, you will be putting extra stress on the NHS.

I am not a medical expert or scientist, but it seems to me the advice is clear: in these troubled and uncertain times stay local and keep your distance. Go to your local swim spots, maintain social distancing and keep yourself and others safe. If, like me, your local swim spots are closed, then please find another way to exercise outdoors safely. Help maintain your swim fitness by doing swim-specific land exercises, plan open water adventures for when the outbreak is over, join online open water swimming communities, and keep inspired by reading Outdoor Swimmer magazine. The open water will still be there when this crisis is over; in the meantime, keep yourself and others safe.

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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.