On Saturday May 5thI went with my daughter Laila (that’s us in the picture) to our first open water swimming class – it did not go as I expected.

The venue was the London Royal Docks Open Water Swimming (LRDOWS) pontoon at the Royal Victoria Docks in East London. LRDOWS is a member of NOWCA, an alliance of professional open water swimming instructors and open water swimming venues that work together to ensure swimmers can enjoy open water swimming safely, and the NOWCA wristband that all swimmers must wear enables NOWCA staff to ensure a swimmer’s safety, record their performance and offer advice for improvement.

So, it was a lovely day and we were led through an introduction to open water swimming, during which head coach Georgie told us about water safety, good quality equipment and how to put on and use a wetsuit. All good so far, though I did initially try to put on my wetsuit inside out!

Then it was time to swim. We all trooped onto the pontoon like a one of ducklings and I was okay until we actually got into the water. The water temperature was 13°C and I didn’t think that was all that cold, until I let some water into my wetsuit (which is essential for the wetsuit to work – hence the name).

The water was freezing! I am an asthmatic and no sooner had the cold, cold water started flooding in around my wetsuit than my chest became incredibly tight with asthma. I found it very hard to breathe. What was worse, the vacuum effect of the wetsuit pulled it tight against my chest too and exacerbated the asthma. Still, I figured I figured I might be able to swim on, so I joined our little group in swimming to a buoy about 100 metres away from the pontoon.

Well I made a start for the buoy but was only half way across when my difficulty breathing became unbearable and I had to call for help from one of the instructors and was accompanied back to the pontoon. After getting out of the water and having a few puffs on my Ventolin I managed to recover enough to swim out to the buoy but was once again overcome with asthma and had to swim back and out of the water. So far so bad.

Once the lesson had finished, Georgie had me watch her on-on-one lesson with another swimmer who had also had difficulty breathing in the cold water, and I picked up some tips but still felt pretty awful.

My primary feeling about the swim was one of confusion. The things I feared most for the lesson – fear of no solid ground beneath my feet and not having the strength to actually swim – had not happened. I hadn’t even considered asthma as a possible concern. I also hadn’t considered the constricting effect of a wetsuit. I was confused as to how I could have so overlooked something I’d had to deal with since I was an adolescent. And I was confused at how so much preparation, in terms of learning to swim and building stamina, had just evaporated in the face of the cold reality of open water swimming – pun fully intended!

Another feeling I had was fear. That old fear of death by drowning had returned, and it shocked me. I though I’d made good progress at that old limiting belief. Fortunately I’m not dead yet, but I can see that death by drowning remains a real threat in open water swimming.

For the record, and despite the difficulties I had, I really enjoyed the day. It was great to do something new and fun with :Laila and to have taken the first step towards actual open water swimming. Laila had a fabulous swim that day, covering more than a kilometre of swimming in the murky waters of the Royal Victoria dock. Proud of you, Laila and can’t wait for us to go again!

So here’s some lessons I learned from my first open water swim.

  • Stamina is vital, because not being able to breathe dissipates strength really fast. All those hours swimming length after length in a 25 metre pool paid off because I had enough stamina to keep on going and, even when I found breathing very difficult, I was able to swim back to the pontoon of safety on my own strength. So, that was positive. However, I do need to build up my stamina even more, so I have started swimming in the 50 metre pool at the Hackney Lido, where the water is heated, but not much, and the wind chill adds to the open water swimming vérité. A 50 metre pool also allows me to build up a rhythm in my swimming stroke, which is difficult to do in a 20 metre pool, and I am quickly building a stroke pace that helps me be very comfortable in the water.
  • I am must work on ways to manage the possibility of asthma striking again while I’m in the water. I make sure I use both my asthma medications as intended. With Beclometasone both morning and evening (to build up a resistance to asthma striking) and Salbutamol (Ventolin) as and when needed. Becky, my Wednesday evening instructor at the London Aquatics Centre (LAC), is helping with improving my breathing technique and I ma going to book some Swim Doctor sessions at the LAC to help with floating and swimming on my back to help manage things at the should I get tired or out of breath on the water.
  • I need more time in open water. I haven’t been back to London Royal Docks Open Water Swimming since the beginning of May but plan top do so when the water gets a bit warmer because that’s the closest venue with enough of a span of water to practice a one mile swim for real. It also provides more realism in the sense of water conditions (temperature, choppiness, dirtiness), swimming in a group and water depth. Meanwhile, the Hackney Lido is listed as an open water venue and does have some of the elements I need to prepare for real open water conditions (water depth, temperature).
  • I need to find the right size of wetsuit. At present I’m somewhere between a Medium and a Medium/Large. That’s why I’m pressing on with losing weight (now heading towards 75 Kg) in order to get a more comfortable fit for my wetsuit. When I’m ready I’ll spend the right amount of money to buy a wetsuit that has the necessary stretchiness and flexibility in the chest area to ensure that I don’t feel as constricted when wearing it.

There you go. My first encounter with real open water. A rude awakening but one that provided me with valuable lessons for a successful swim in July. As usual, I encourage you to leave comments or questions. I also encourage you to both subscribe via email AND to click the bell icon to ensure you receive a push notification whenever I publish a new post here.