Fear of Open Water Swimming

Not the fear that open water swimmers might feel about sharks, jellyfish, tides, weeds, or snapping turtles. This is the fear that open water swimmers might have too much fun. Or start a lawsuit. Or something. It is rapidly becoming a trend and I am not happy.

First up, Walden Pond, the idyllic home of philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Last week, state legislators in Massachusetts banned open water swimming there, as part of an effort to address water safety following a spate of drownings across the state. Of note, I could not find reports of any drownings at Walden Pond itself. Thankfully, as of July 9, open water swimmers will be allowed back in, only at times when there are no lifeguards on duty, and only if using a swim float (which most already do).

Then we have the Cam, where people have been swimming at least since the time of the poet Byron in the early 1800s. Technically, Grantchester Meadows, the access area, is owned by King’s College Cambridge, but they are managed by the local council as public space. King’s College abruptly put up no swimming signs last week, as they said their legal advice was that “use at own risk” was insufficient. Again, no evidence of actual drownings. Following another outcry and 18,000 signature petition (known as the peasants’ revolt) the decision was reviewed but the ban will stay.

A spokesperson for the university stated “We have every wish to temper the language of ‘no swimming’ to a less prohibitive form of words, but feel unable to do so without the express support of the [district and parish] councils and their health and safety officers. We hope they will be willing to co-operate on this and bring the ‘ban’ to end.” But it will not officially reinstate swimming unless its insurers agree the college is not liable should anyone be injured while swimming. Meanwhile, there are no plans for lifeguards, patrols, or any of the normal provisions to increase water safety.

The Hampstead Ponds near London are former water reservoirs, originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are three separate swimming ponds: for women, men and mixed. Access to ponds has been cost-free since at least the 1920s; though a fee had been charged since 2005, payment was not enforced. Last year, a mandatory payment system was put in place, and prices more than doubled (and were subsequently raised again).

Some free swims were still available, but times did not align with when low cost public transit was available, which meant those with mobility issues or low incomes could not benefit. According to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association (KLPA), the ladies’ pond had historically provided a sanctuary for women and girls, including those with disabilities, victims of violence and abuse, and those from faith groups that demand modesty, but the new charging system was proving exclusionary for many people. Even before the most recent price rise this year, the KLPA conducted a survey of 600 swimmers and that found the charges had affected affordability for 58% of them. As a result, more than half now swim less often and 25% can no longer afford to swim at all.

Closer to home, several lakes managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC) and used by open water swimmers for many years are now under new rules that limit the ability of open water swimmers to train. At Meech Lake, the most popular spot, parking hours have been shortened, and swimmers must either swim along lanes marked by buoys, or within 30 metres of the shore. This seems to be counterproductive, since one of the main issues noise complaints – until now, most swimmers have preferred to stay nearer the centre of the lake). Swimmers must wear a colourful cap and a float, which most already do.

The conflict arose because of complaints by homeowners about noise and traffic on the main lake late at night. I can’t speak for all swimmers, but all those I know prefer to swim early in the day, so I suspect swimmers are getting the blame for other partiers. But really, it seems to be boiling down to the NCC’s unwillingness to uphold its mandate of protecting the ecology of the area. Why are all these new monster homes and powerboats being allowed? What will it take to stop power boats from traveling at speed through the designated swim lanes? So far, complaints to the NCC, supported by photos and videos, have not been effective. But there is an active alliance of open water swimmers on Facebook that is working hard to make the best of the situation.

And just down the street from my house, we have the Pond. It has always been an elitist spot. When I first started swimming there, I was questioned about how long I had lived in the area. It was nice to be able to say “25 years”, but it would have been nicer to have known about this closely guarded secret much earlier. I found out about it because my son hung out with the rich kids and mentioned it. It only became popular after a local blogger spilled the beans.

The swimming hours are from 7am to 2pm, supposedly because it is a conservation area. But really, turtles and herons can’t tell time. It is more about keeping out potentially rowdy teenagers who don’t wake up before noon.

Now, thanks to complaints about overcrowding, one or two Bylaw officers are at the beach every single day, to keep the numbers down to 10 in the changing area and 10 on the beach. I just love seeing my tax dollars at work (insert sarcasm emoji here).

The Pond, with a few swimmers and waders

As one of my friends said, “In every one of these cases, the increased access to information has in many ways just underscored how actively shitty so many people are.” Keep on shining a light on inequity and fight on for access to public swimming spaces, my friends!

2 thoughts on “Fear of Open Water Swimming

  1. Have you read the book “Contested Waters” by Jeff Wiltse? It’s a fascinating look at swimming pools and racism in the USA. I realize it’s not open water swimming, but the restriction of swimming in general is grounded in racism. There was a beach in Florida that used to be Whites Only. Non-violent activism resulted in it being opened to all. See link below. Your comment about being challenged at your private pond underscores this history. Policing of swimming has long been used to keep “others” out.

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