Outdoor Swimming: A Gateway to Positive Change

It’s 1.15am and pitch black, apart from the flashing lights attached to my swimming cossy and hat. The gate to the back of the fishing boat is opened and I sit down, dangling my feet above the ‘tropical’ 16 degree Celsius English Channel, about to jump in for my third hour of swimming. I am so excited… our four women relay team is less than two hours from landing in France!

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Girls Night Out in the English Channel: Photo Credit Alice Gartland

Swimming is a life skill that is fundamental to being able to take to the water safely, whatever activity we choose; but it’s also a gateway to adventure, well-being and exploration in its own right.
From artist Vivienne Rickman Poole, who is documenting her journey to swim in all 250 lakes of Snowdonia (whatever the weather) and Sam Mould ’s exploration of the tarns in the Lake District, to swimmer- writers inspired by the water like Caitlin Davies, Jenny Landreth, Tanya Shadrick, Outdoor swimming is an activity in which women excel, empowering people’s lives both in and out of the water.

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Photo Credit Sam Mould

Not just a catalyst for creativity, outdoor swimming is a channel for international diplomacy, social justice and and positive change.

Becky Sindall, is a water scientist and swimming instructor volunteering with the charity Nile Swimmers in the Lebanon and Sudan to help tackle drowning in Africa, and since Lynne Cox’s 1987 swim of the Bering Straits, helping to melt the cold war, swim diplomats have been building bridges across the globe. For example on 5th May 2017 Kim Chambers brought together a team of international swimmers in the first ever swim from USA to Mexico, that’s following on from her August 2015 swim where she became the first woman to swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge – a distance of about 30 miles in waters famed for its Great White Shark inhabitants…If only Kim, Putin, Tump, Xi, May et al went and chilled out for a swim together…

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Photo Credit Beth French

It’s fair to say, women are dominating the world of endurance swimming at the moment. Chloe McCardel’s three way Channel Crossing and four way channel attempt is part of wave of women, like WAexpo speaker Beth French, redefining the parameters of what’s possible. The diversity of their swim adventures is also breath taking. For example, Jaimie Monahan’s recent swims include an Ice Zero Swim in Tyumen Russia, through to swimming 42.8 miles across Lake Geneva in 32 hours and 52 minutes. And it’s a sport for life, with Sal Minty Gravett and Pat Gallante amongst the leading lights.

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Jaimie Monahan swimming at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Iceland. Photo credit Arik Thomahlen

Of course, every swim journey starts with a single splash and the beauty of outdoor swimming is that it is accessible, requires very little kit (wetsuits are optional), and is as challenging as you want it to be: 8-10th August, the wonderful swim spirit Sarah Thomas swam a 104.6 mile route in Lake Champlain and this morning I did 4 lengths of my local lido – it’s all good!

Social media means it’s easy to find local swim groups (never swim outdoors alone) and you soon discover the joy of the outdoor swimming community, it’s love of cake and strong tradition of ‘giving back ‘ and helping others to realise their dreams. Check out the Outdoor Swimming Society, founded by Kate Rew for starters.

And it is very much a team sport, particularly when it comes to long distance challenges, where support crew are critical for route planning and ensuring the safety of the swimmer. Kayaker Shu Pu became the first person to paddle solo across the Pearl River Delta when she supported Simon Holliday on his 35km swim from Hong Kong to Macau and is now organising Simon’s swim around Hong Kong island this November.

Outdoor swimming is a liberator, known to alleviate anxiety and depression and was a sanctuary for me to rebuild my mind and body following a road traffic accident. It is also a ‘leveller’ – I still have no idea what most of the people I swim with ‘do’ for a living; and for a sport where everyone pretty much gets naked all of the time, body image seems irrelevant – I have never asked anyone if my bum looks big in a swimming costume.

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The Thames Marathon Swim: Photo Credit Dan Bullock

Whether splashing around in a loch in Skye, surrounded by seals and crying with laughter with a seaweed wig on my head, competing in international winter swimming festivals in China, or jumping in the English Channel at 1.15 am, the rewards of rewards of outdoor swimming are immense.

Back in the Channel, I finish my final hour of swimming and Kathrine takes over, landing us in France at around 2.40am. Exhausted, elated and wrapped up in our sleeping bags on deck, our sense of accomplishment and capability envelopes us as we sail home and a spectacular orange and pink sunrise emerges; it’s incredible what can happen when you take to the water…

Happy Swimming

Alice

A Lotus Rises, the swim blog for women who love Open Water. She’ll be presenting the Guide to open water swimming at WAExpo 2017, the Women’s Adventure Expo’s flagship event on the 7th of October, sponsored by Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and with assistance from the International Institute for Swim Cake Studies.

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Oceans 7 in 1 Year

In September 2016, British Endurance Swimmer Beth French will commence her world record setting challenge to swim the Oceans Seven in one year. She will be swimming to highlight the relationship humans have with our fragile but vital oceans, looking at environmental issues in the marine ecology as she goes.

French is no stranger to overcoming incredible challenges. In 1993 ME had caused her to be wheelchair bound, but she recovered after almost a decade since contracting this debilitating syndrome. As such, she has, “different parameters for coping.”

Her previous swims include, the English Channel, the Molokai Channel – a British female first and the 26 mile Scilly Island Channel from Cornwall to St Mary’s – a world first. A Lotus Rises spoke to French about this incredible challenge and the power of mind over matter both in and out of the water.

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Beth in her element

This is EPIC! What inspired you to undertake this challenge?

I concocted the mad notion that I could swim all oceans seven channels in a year when I was up a gum tree, about 5miles from completing my solo crossing of the Molokai channel in Hawaii.

A couple of miles earlier, I had hit a wall… Recent heart-break meant I fell off the wagon psychologically, and I’d been beating my pain into the water for about 7hrs before that. My left elbow had twinged previously and all of a sudden, I couldn’t move it at all. My left shoulder froze- I could no longer get it out of the water to swim front crawl, nor could I put any resistance through it via breaststroke.

But this channel swimming lark is not for the faint hearted (or sane) so I one arm doggy paddled the last 7 miles, which with the Pacific swells, took me a further 12 hrs.

I’m not ashamed of holding the longest crossing of the Molokai channel to date- I swam for 24hrs 10mins, non stop. I realised that I loved channel swimming, but wanted more than an expensive day trip- I wanted to see if I knew how to drive my body well enough to recover quickly for the next one…. And the next one…

Having recovered from ME, which is relentless, I have different parameters for coping, I guess.

Beth French

What order will you complete the swims? What are the logistical challenges?

The order I am attempting the channels is to begin with the north channel from Ireland to Scotland. I want that one in the bag – It’ll be the coldest and I don’t want to have to attempt that without a full tank of gas. Then the Catalina channel in California, then the Molokai channel, the Cook Straits of New Zealand, the Straits of Gibraltar, Tsugaru channel in Japan and finishing with the English Channel in time for my 40th birthday.

How do you prepare physically? What does your training schedule look like and how will you avoid injury and ensure you have time to recover between swims?

Preparing for something like this is a pretty individual thing – I train a lot less than people expect, due to my ex ME health and hyper mobility.

I can’t train twice a day, or even every day like some competitive pool swimmers. I’m a single mum, which actually helps with the mental training and dealing with sleep deprivation, so they are not new experiences. I have a very physical job, 9hrs of deep tissue massage back to back 3 days a week and I’ll go train after at least one of them to really get the endurance going.

I sporadically torture myself with random sets of say, an hour and a half legs only, or towing my son in a dinghy in the sea.

You use what you have, so I get my son to sit on my hips and do lengths of front crawl with a 7yr old on me- great resistance training and efficient use of time.

Avoiding injury would be nice- because of my job I am pretty clued up with body mechanics so I go to the gym a couple of times a week to work on specific areas that need strengthening.

I also avoid over training. In this kind of event, one channel becomes training for the next, so it’s a perpetual taper once you are in it.

Beth French

You were ordained as a Buddhist nun. Please can you describe the relationship between your meditation practice and swimming. In particular, the importance of mindset for endurance swims.

In my 20’s when I was wandering the world learning different indigenous answers to ME, I ordained as a Buddhist nun in Thailand in order to intensively study vipasanna meditation, which has been popularised as mindfulness.

The mind is such an incredible weapon, but without training it easily works against us. The monastery was such an amazing experience and taught me so much about inner strength.

Swimming is a dichotomy of sensory deprivation and overload at the same time. You are forced to come face to face with your internal workings both physically and mentally and it is invariably your emotions that end a swim. You are immersed in your experiences moment to moment so you have to have a really strong grip on how you handle highs and lows to ride them out regardless in order to keep going.

Euphoria may feel great, but allow it to bubble up too much and you’ll be exhausted the next minute or hit a depression and slump. Learning to shepherd your emotional state means you can channel anything back into your swim.

Beth French

After 6hrs, you rely on your mind about 50%, I reckon. After 12 hrs it goes up to 65% mind, then when you are talking 20+ hrs, I’d say 80% is mental. Think it and your body will follow.

As you know, at A Lotus Rises we are working in partnership with the International Institute of Swim Cake Studies (IISCS), on a global research project to answer the question: What is the best cake for optimum swim performance?  Please can you help us with this critical research – What is your cake of choice for your Oceans 7 Challenge?

I am happy to help with this important research.  My cake of choice is a malt chocolate coconut fudge brownie. You can read a blog post I wrote about that on my website here.

What’s your favourite swim spot and swimming cossy?

My favourite swim spot in the world is kealakekua bay on the big island of Hawaii. The water is so stunningly clear, spinner dolphins come in to play and it’s utter heaven.

In England, I think you’d have a hard job beating the Isles of Scilly. Gin clear water, stunning scenery.

Beth in her favourite cossy

Beth in her favourite cossy

My fave cozzie is a metallic fish scale print little number by the finals. I’ve seen an awesome one that has your internal organs printed on it- would love to get my hands on that! I enjoy a collection of novelty hats too, including a minion one that says have a nice day of the back of it and a good old candy skull one.

Thank you Beth and thank you for letting us be part of your wonderful adventure!

You can follow Beth’s incredible journey on Twitter and Facebook.

A Lotus Rises is dedicated to women who love open water, from your first splash, through to wild swims and marathon swimming.

Many more inspirational stories, advice and adventures can be found on our Blog, and Facebook page and please don’t hesitate to get in touch via Twitter or  alotusrises@gmail.com. We want to share your stories, so we can support you and inspire others!