What’s ‘wild swimming’? The perfect antidote to cabin fever

The water may be cold but the health benefits keep these daring divers coming back.

Photograph by Klaudia Nowak, National Geographic
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Marianne Clark, a fitness and endurance coach, is a member of the oldest swimming club in Britain, located in Brighton. “The physical sensation of immersing yourself in cold water is a really life-affirming one,” she says. “I like the frisson of danger that comes with the sea, the fact that the water can be unpredictable. But the bottom line is that it makes me feel good—physically and mentally strong and it gives a sense of liberation.”

Photograph by Klaudia Nowak, National Geographic

What’s ‘wild swimming’? The perfect antidote to cabin fever

The water may be cold but the health benefits keep these daring divers coming back.

As stay-at-home orders have eased and temperatures risen, one question keeps bobbing up: Where can we swim? Pools may still be closed, but leaping into a natural body of water has become a symbol of freedom.

Trendsetters have brilliantly rebranded the ancient pastime as “wild swimming,” a breakthrough wellness pursuit. And the number of wild-swimming websites, books, outfitters, and apps has proliferated. COVID-19 has only pushed outdoor swimming further into the mainstream, with natural beauty spots the only places to indulge in a dip for now.

Especially in Britain—where the furthest from the coast you can ever be is the Derbyshire village Coton in the Elms, 70 miles from the Irish Sea—the sport is a way of life. Raised on Romantic poetry and restorative country walks, a bafflingly large subset of Brits is devoted to alfresco bathing, in all seasons. Visit any beach, in any conditions, at ungodly hours, and you’ll invariably spot a mound of discarded clothing and, out in the blue, a bathing cap bobbing contentedly.

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British solicitor David Bailey braces against a surf break near the Brighton Palace Pier. Bailey often “swimmutes”—a swimming commute—the two kilometers (1.2 miles) from his apartment to his office.

Not even the lockdown could stop the most dedicated sea-swimmers of Brighton, the British seaside city an hour’s drive south of London. Making the most of their daily exercise quota, the Speedo-wearing stalwarts of the Brighton Swimming Club carried on as always. Arriving at the sea wall as the sun rose over the boardwalk, they teetered down the pebbly beach toward the lapping tide and slid in. Now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, these enthusiasts have been joined by daytripping crowds braving a record-breaking heatwave across the U.K. to bask in the sun.

Brighton’s sea swimmers are all sorts: a nurse, a tattoo artist, a retiree of 85 whose minder supports him into the surf until he’s deep enough to float. Companions with as much in common as a corporate focus group, they share one passion. And they do it, on average, five times a week. “If it’s too rough to swim,” says 49-year-old psychotherapist and daily swimmer Sam Milford, “we’ll lie in the path of the waves and allow them to wash over us.” In this good-time town legendary for hard-partying into the wee hours, the sea swimmers prefer the high that comes from submerging yourself in the English Channel before breakfast.

Born in Poland and based in London, photographer Klaudia Nowak has been a regular visitor to Brighton—consolation for her unfulfilled desire to live waterside. She began to visit the beach earlier and earlier in the mornings as she became fascinated by the swim club and got to know the swimmers personally. They touted the benefits of sea swimming to her: the frisson of an invigorating dip, immune-system boosts, mood lifts, unlikely friendships, and “the feeling of being alive,” according to Biz Bliss, a 32-year-old planner of psychedelic experience retreats.

Last winter, Nowak began photographing Bliss and her cohorts on their way into the water. On their way out, still in shock from the cold, even the hardiest swimmers found it a struggle to pose. “It takes them 15 or 20 minutes just to sign the release form,” Nowak says.

“Most of them tell me they started swimming here in summer, when the water is warmer, and loved it so much they didn’t stop,” Nowak says. “It’s not as cold as you might think. It might be -2ºC (28ºF) outside, but the water is still 8ºC (46ºF).”

Before they rushed off to work, Nowak would join them for a cup of tea in the small clubhouse under the boardwalk, equipped with showers, change rooms, and the requisite tea kettle. Brighton is nothing if not inclusive, and sea-swimmers are a particularly inclusive subset.

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The iSwim Brighton swimming group is one of the newest clubs on the beach.

Calling all polar bears

The Brighton Swimming Club can trace its roots back to 1858, when a crew of tradesmen from North Street, a commercial thoroughfare near the boardwalk, would stroll down to the coast to clean off. Nothing organized, just a splash and a laugh in the Atlantic at the end of a hard day, in an era when a good bath was an infrequent luxury and a leisurely dip even more so. Before the phrase “endorphin high” had entered the lexicon, they reveled in the buzz. Two years later they established the Brighton Swimming Club on a patch of shingle beach alongside the Victorian pier.

For a two-penny weekly fee, the 13 founding members enjoyed the camaraderie of regular group bathing, speed-races, floating tea parties, and “antics” where two fellows would jump in clothed and trade clothes underwater. The modern club has shaken off the slapstick of its early days; the summer pier-to-pier race is as crazy as it gets now. But 160 years later, the BSC is the longest running bathing club in British history.

Membership stands at nearly 200, with a growing waiting list. As soon as it’s safe, the club will reopen the application process and audition new candidates: only strong, confident swimmers who can withstand cold water on top of the usual ocean currents.

Despite encouragement from her photograph subjects, Nowak will not be joining the next class of rookies. Her new friends put her reluctance down to classic first-timer fear. But Nowak sees herself more as an anthropologist spellbound by a behavior she will never truly understand.

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Brighton Pier, opened in 1899, still offers old-school pleasures, including a carousel, sticks of Brighton Rock candy, and canvas deck chairs for watching the sunset.

“I’d never go into water this cold,” she says. “But people keep coming every morning, so there must be something to it.”

Ellen Himelfarb lives in London, England and contributes regularly to the Sunday Times, Telegraph, and Wallpaper. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Klaudia Nowak is a London, England-based photographer specializing in editorial and commercial photography. This is her first story for National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.