Having been struck down by flu, I’ve been lubbing around on dry land and pondering the most contentious issue among OSS members which – it might surprise you to know – is: Wetsuit or Non-Wetsuit?
Some wild swimmers wear wetsuits year-round, others only in winter. Wetsuits have some big advantages; in particular they add buoyancy and increase your endurance in colder water, while also providing some protection from scrapes and bruising if you’re swimming in rocky waters. They allow you to spend time exploring without getting cold. Those new to Wild Swimming might find that a wetsuit gives them confidence, and allows them to acclimatise to colder water by spending longer in it. Many of them will undoubtedly ditch the suit at least some of the time as they become more experienced. All of us who swam around a stormy Burgh Island on Christmas Eve wore wetsuits; the swim takes around and hour, and there is nowhere to get out once you’re committed so it seemed daft to risk hypothermia and death, not to mention wasting a Christmas Dinner. I was pretty cold by the time I’d finished, despite swimming regularly in chilly waters. I’m sure there are a few people out there who could tolerate this swim non-wetsuit in winter, but I suspect they are few.
Devotees of Non-Wetsuit swimming tend to be even more evangelical than your average Wild Swimmer. The first thing that struck me on noticing the repeated use of this term was the the negative phraseology; that aficionados of this habit prefer to define themselves against those who in the view of some are the lepers of Wild Swimming – the wearers of wetsuits.
Swim in budgie-smugglers or a bikini, or naked, and you feel the water rippling along your body with no barriers to your enjoyment or the chill. Be like a fish! Over time, and with regular exposure, you will acclimatise to low temperatures, although your endurance will be limited by comparison to those who use neoprene. Eat heartily and maintain a layer of bioprene (body fat) and you will further increase your ability to withstand low temperatures. I admit to sympathising with the view that this is a big part of what Wild Swimming is all about, and I have a deep respect for those people who swim year-round in the nuddy or near-buff.
What’s Wild Swimming About?
So how do we bridge the river? The key factor for me concerns why I love Wild Swimming, and the ways in which I benefit from it. Wild Swimmers are a disparate bunch of people. They encompass all ages and backgrounds. Some of them like swimming flat-out for five miles, others like bobbing around in the shallows, and a few like swimming out to sea in storms, exploring sea caves, or shooting the rapids in fast-flowing rivers. I share something in common with all of them – we love the water and the outdoors, although we experience it in different ways and are passionate about different aspects of it. We meet up for all kinds of swims all over Devon and Cornwall, and we choose which ones we’d like to do. There are no rules, no directives saying what you should wear, or whether the conditions are too cold or too dangerous, or too silly. You should see some of the hats! This semi-anarchic freedom defines Wild Swimming.
My own approach to wetsuits is that I will wear one when I feel like it, or when I feel the need for a longer swim and conditions are cold or difficult. Sometimes I wear surf shorts and a rash vest. I revel in the touch of wild water on my wild naked skin, but I’m also hugely attached to being thrown around in a winter sea for an hour, or spending five hours descending the Double Dart on a cloudy, windy summer’s day without getting hypothermia or leaving acres of skin behind on a boulder.
I’d like to propose that we stop worrying, and simply wear what makes us happy and confident. The other day I listened to a radio broadcast featuring my buddy JJ, where the presenter had misunderstood the concept of Wild Swimming and coined the term Wild Naked Swimming. This, I feel, is infinitely more descriptive than Non-Wetsuit Swimming and holds an appropriate literal and metaphorical frisson. I’m sure someone will start on swimsuits next, but what’s a sliver of lycra between water and skin? So I’d like to formally abolish the term Non-Wetsuit. At the risk of making a rule, you are into either Wild Naked Swimming or Wild Swimming, or both. Nobody minds! Dare I ask for comments?…