For many, the ocean holds an allure that we can’t quite name. Maybe we believe in its therapeutic powers, maybe we like the way the salt-air blows the cobwebs out our lungs, or maybe there’s a siren calling to us just out of earshot on the other side of the horizon (kidding, kind of).
It’s a peculiar ‘third place’, the name given to spaces outside the home and the workplace where people gather to socialise, bond, and relax. Unlike a public park or cafe, you can’t easily move through it or hang out in it, it’s not a background for other activities – its nature demands that you interact with it at all times. We can’t move through it like a public park or take up space in it like a cafe or bar. And yet, communities are thriving on the edges of the waves.
In recent years, swimming in lakes, rivers, and oceans has enjoyed something of a zeitgeist-y moment in online wellness spaces. Dubbed everything from “wild swimming”, to “open water swimming”, we’ve seen article after article published on the benefits of dunking your head under cold water.
Unlike most wellness trends, the popularity of swimming outdoors is hard to capitalise on, because it doesn’t require special gear, expertise, or a peppy instructor to lead you through a 45-minute class. All you need is access to an open body of water and the guts to get really, really cold.
To those who practise it, sea swimming is a way to connect to a community and find a sense of belonging within their surroundings; either deep in nature or on the edge of their neighbourhoods.
In my hometown of Brighton and Hove, swim groups are all the rage, with members of both formally organised clubs and casual friend groups meeting up multiple times a week, year-round to take a dip off our stony shores.
One local swimmer tells me that swimming with a group has provided her with a group of friends and a routine. “I used to swim alone or with friends, family, my husband – anyone I could persuade.” After her husband died two years ago, a friend invited her to join an existing WhatsApp group chat of regular swimmers. Despite being an avid swimmer since childhood, it’s only since becoming a member that she’s committed to swimming year-round, sticking it out through winter.
Joining a club, however informally, can be about commitment: holding yourself accountable to meet up with others can help get your butt out the door, even on dark, freezing January mornings. For others, having a ‘swim buddy’ is a safety measure.
An old coworker of mine, who started swimming in her 40s, would become so enthralled by the waves that she was a danger to herself. “I need a friend there to pull me out,” she told me, admitting she couldn’t trust herself to know when she’d been in the freezing water too long. A friend was there to help her avoid catching hypothermia.
Clearly, open water swimming can have a powerful effect on our psyches. Is part of the attraction simply a desire to connect with nature? “That’s not how I’d describe it,” the local swimmer says, “nature is too broad a concept”. For sea swimmers, the sea tends to be rather the point. If we want to connect with ‘nature’, we can stroll through a park, read in the garden, or embark on multi-day hiking excursions. Instead, we return to the sea, again and again.
It’s a slippery thing to try to define, like explaining the appeal of crisp morning air or the smell of fresh-baked bread. Something primal in us is soothed by being close to the sea. For my former coworker, the feeling manifested “like an addiction.” The more she swam, the more she felt drawn to the waves. Finding community in it just sort of happened: as swimming became increasingly important to her, she began prioritising friendships which could take place over cold plunges and races to the buoys.
When we swim with other people, our personal connection to the ocean is not only witnessed, but shared. Through swimming with a buddy or a group, we’re finding ways to turn a solitary experience into a collective one.
Coming together in mutual love of an activity – call it a hobby, a workout, or simply hanging out in swimsuits on drizzly autumn mornings – is a way to build a kind of community that’s based on shared experiences, rather than physical proximity. We may not be neighbours, family, or colleagues, but there’s an inner kinship to be found between two people, striding side-by-side into the sea.