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Laura Coffey
EXTRA,  FEATURES,  May 2024

Laura Coffey: why I swim

Writer Laura Coffey discovers the redemptive powers of travel, nature and cold-water swimming

Tell us about your new book and why we will love it?

Enchanted Islands is about love, loss and Greek myth. It’s my story of navigating heartbreak and grief as I went on a quest to map the real life islands that inspired the wanderings of Homer’s epic hero, Odysseus. It’s accessible, not remotely academic (you don’t need to know anything about Greek myth to enjoy it) and has been endorsed by Stephen Fry. He described it as “magical and captivating, hugely recommended”. It’s also a love letter to cold water swimming.

Which island left a lasting impression?

I spent a lot of time on Menorca, the island of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant in the story. The whole place is wildly beautiful and it’s an amazing place to see birds because it’s bang on their migration paths to Africa. And in terms of beaches and swimming it’s got everything you could possibly want: from tiny rocky coves to full on Carribean-style sand, all tastes are catered for.

Which location was best for swimming?

I swam in three seas all winter – the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and the Baleric and they were each amazing in different ways. Location wise, I prefer a rocky cove to a sandy beach when I’m swimming in winter – it’s far easier to get changed quickly and warm up faster when you don’t have to deal with all that sand. In this respect Sicily is great because its coastline is so rugged. It’s the Island of the Sun God in the story, which I always think makes it sound wildly romantic.

Have you always enjoyed swimming?

I’ve always loved to swim in the sea but in The Odyssey the ocean is full of perils, there’s seamonsters and whirlpools and it’s ruled over by Poseidon, a petty, vengeful god. The worst thing I encountered were stinging jellyfish but was never enough to stop me swimming. In the book I explain the link between Medusa the Gorgon and the humble jellyfish. Spoiler alert – her story isn’t quite what you think it might be.

What is your favourite type of swim today?

My perfect day is taking a long hot hike through the mountains and finding a green mountain lake at the end of it. Nothing feels better than cool water on aching muscles and it feels like you’ve really earned your swim.

What advice do you have for solo travellers?

Invent your own adventure: choice instead of compromise, ‘go easy, be filled / with light’ as Mary Oliver puts it.

What has this adventure taught you?

It re-taught me the importance of connection, and I think that’s kind of easier when you’re travelling, you’re naturally more open to the world, to new experiences and people.

How does travel and adventure enrich your life?

It opens worlds. “Yes is a world” is a line of poetry I really love and I think it encapsulates the feeling of adventure and travel. Say yes and worlds open.

Tell us about a mistake that you learnt from?

I didn’t realise you should check the wind direction and swim at the opposite shore to minimise the chance of jellyfish stings. A lesson hard earned!

How do you find enchantment in the everyday?

Look for the wonderment. Talk to a child – they’ll show you. For me, it’s small things, going for a swim somewhere lovely, being on my bicycle moving across a city, that feeling of movement, of being in motion. Reading is particular enchantment for me and I’d love you to join me on an epic adventure…

Laura Coffey’s book, ‘Enchanted Islands: Travels through Myth & Magic, Love & Loss’ (Summersdale, £16.99) is out now. You can follow her on instagram at @L_J_Coffey

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.