Swimming the Thames: Swimming Down an English River Doesn't Sound like the Most Exhilarating Experience for a Seasoned Explorer. but at Frog's-Eye Level, Says Alastair Humphreys, the Thames Is a Wild, Beautiful and Adventurous Place
Humphreys, Alastair, Geographical
It was all going so well. The sun had been shining for two days. The river sparkled beautifully. The reeds in the shallows swayed slowly in the gentle current. My film footage was going to be great.
I had put a great deal of thought and effort into carefully filming every aspect of my swim down the river, and I was feeling very pleased with myself. And then, in a moment of absent-mindedness, I let go of the camera. It sank, along with my precious footage and my heart. At that moment I learned an important lesson for aquatic expeditions: it's irrelevant how good your camera is, or how clever your camera work, if you don't ensure that all of your equipment floats or is securely attached.
SHORT BUT SWEET
I dedicated 2011 to seeking out short yet rewarding journeys close to home, which I dubbed 'microadventures'. I documented them online and produced a series of very short films to promote the idea of snatching small adventures in whatever time and location is available to you (as opposed to using a lack of time and an uninspiring environment as an excuse to do nothing). I wanted to encourage people who've never slept outdoors or explored a national park to try something new.
When it came to my swimming microadventure, I chose the Thames. Few people think of it as a beautiful river or, indeed, one suitable for a swimming journey. But I had a hunch that swimming along a section of the Thames--rather than walking along its banks or paddling it--would offer a different perspective. I was right.
At frog's-eye level, the Thames feels wild, beautiful and adventurous. It was exciting and unusual to undertake a journey, even this tiny one, by swimming. Add to this the fact that so little equipment, money and planning are required and I'm surprised that river-swimming journeys aren't more common.
Some gear, however, is essential. A wetsuit is recommended if you're going to spend all day immersed in a river, even if you plan your journey to coincide with the height of the British summer. Although some hardcore swimmers eschew wetsuits, preferring to swim only in trunks, goggles and cap, mere mortals such as me would freeze if we swam for a whole day dressed like that.
Wetsuits come in many shapes and sizes. I rummaged around in my attic for my old, full-length model. It was 20 years old, looked ridiculous and was too thick and constricting for long-distance swimming. But part of the point of microadventures is to make do with what you already have, rather than allowing the expense of buying hi-tech gear to become prohibitive. Besides, I'm not a particularly good swimmer, so the thickness of the wetsuit didn't inhibit my progress. If you're serious about river swims or are planning a long swim, then a modern triathlon wetsuit designed specifically for swimming will be the most important piece of equipment in which you invest.
I took good-quality, snug-fitting goggles with me, even though the water was opaque with run-off following a few days of heavy rain. In addition. I chose to swim breaststroke, the 'naturalist's stroke', according to the late Roger Deakin. the godfather of wild swimming. These two factors meant that I barely used my goggles, although I still recommend them for any swimming expedition.
I didn't wear a swimming hat (for the good reason that I don't own one) but a cap is recommended for open-water swimming. As well as helping to keep you warm, a brightly coloured hat also makes you more visible to other users of the water, especially motorboat owners.
If you're intent on swimming a long distance along a consistently deep river, you may want to wear fins as they significantly increase efficiency. But because I expected my stretch of river to be shallow in parts, and because I knew I would need to leave the river on a regular basis in order to film, I decided to wear Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. …