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Growing Numbers of 'Wild Swimmers' Undeterred by Cold Water

  • Tom Banse

Swimmers enter the water for a mid-October, 1.6 km "excursion" at Alki Beach in Seattle. (VOA / T. Banse)

Swimmers enter the water for a mid-October, 1.6 km "excursion" at Alki Beach in Seattle. (VOA / T. Banse)

Growing numbers of swimmers are trading the comfort of a pool for a workout in open water. Known as "wild swimmers," they dive into lakes, rivers and oceans almost any time of the year.

In late October, the salt water of the Puget Sound off America's northwest coast is 13 degrees Celsius and the air isn’t much warmer, but that does not deter a group of swimmers gathered on Seattle, Washington's Alki Beach for a group swim.

The first one to dive into the waves is 43-year-old tech worker Mike Tanner, who said he swims in open water from May until the end of November.

Safety kayaks and paddleboarders escorted paying customers on the group swim. (VOA / T. Banse)

Safety kayaks and paddleboarders escorted paying customers on the group swim. (VOA / T. Banse)

"Then I go back to the pool and wait for May again," he said.

On this particular day, he is a paying customer on an escorted swim excursion. More than a dozen swimmers -- almost all in wetsuits -- trail behind an orange kayak for a 1.5 kilometer salt water swim. The excursion is not a race, according to trip leader Guila Muir, who paddles the first of the support boats.

"That's the primary differentiation,” Muir said. “It's an expedition. It is an adventure."

Three years ago, Muir turned that concept into a business called “Say Yes! To Life Swims.”

She took up swimming in her mid-40s, and soon recognized there were enough other converts around to support a new business. Although anyone can head to the beach and swim on their own, she said her clients think paying for an excursion is worth it.

"It's for the camaraderie,” she said. “You can see the incredible enthusiasm, the feeling of support."

Kelly Reynolds is one of those new converts. At a beach bonfire, where she and Muir's other clients warmed themselves post-swim with hot chocolate and fish and chips, she said her first swim in Puget Sound was cold, but "not that bad. I thought it was going to be worse."

Kelly Reynolds of Seattle is seen after her first distance swim in Puget Sound. (VOA / T. Banse)

Kelly Reynolds of Seattle is seen after her first distance swim in Puget Sound. (VOA / T. Banse)

More swimmers diving in

There appears to be growing interest in open water swimming in the northwest, and across the country, if the lengthening list of names on entry sheets of open water swim races is any indication.

The Swim Across America organization raises money and awareness for cancer research with wild swims up and down the U.S. East Coast in December.

One of the bigger open water events is the annual Long Bridge Swim at Sandpoint, Idaho, held in August. Founder Eric Ridgway said the nearly 3-kilometer swim across Lake Pend Oreille drew 68 participants when he started it in 1995. This year, more than 700 swimmers registered.

Ridgway said that although he encourages people to wear wetsuits, only about half of them do.

"It makes them a little bit safer,” Ridgway said. “It gives them buoyancy, should make them a little faster and will keep their body temperature up for less chance of hypothermia."

Another event to witness big growth is the Portland, Oregon, Bridge Swim, now in its fourth year. Nearly 100 people registered to swim either a relay segment or the full 17 kilometers, with the current, down the Willamette River this July.

Across the Pacific, the State New Zealand Ocean Swim Series gets under way in November, and there are dozens of events across Europe, where it’s much colder. They include the inaugural Swim the World competition in the waters off Cadiz, Spain, and the annual Fireworks 500 nighttime swim in a big, water-filled former quarry in Lancashire, England.

Ridgway gives some credit to triathlons -- endurance competitions that include open water swimming along with cycling and running -- for introducing newcomers to the sport ... along with society's broader interest in fitness.

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