We chat to Simon Kerslake of The Outdoor Swimming Society
In 2016, Simon Kerslake took part in the very first Swim Serpentine. The sense of achievement and community spirit he experienced at the event encouraged him to take on more wild swimming challenges and ultimately to get involved in The Outdoor Swimming Society (The OSS), where he is now Secretary.
Five years on from his first Swim Serpentine experience, Simon is about to conquer the Channel as part of a relay team. He tells us how he grew up wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, what he loves about crossing over into the magical realm of open water, and why everyone should embrace the challenge of Swim Serpentine.
What are your earliest memories of swimming?
I was obsessed with water, the sea and sea creatures as a child. I was enthralled by this idea of a different world and would glue myself to the television every Saturday morning to watch The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I even wanted to be Jacques Cousteau when I grew up.
But my earliest memory of swimming is when I was about seven or eight, when I spent most of the summer in the pool at the campsite where we were staying in France.
I began to swim competitively when I was 10 or 11. I joined a swimming club and would go to galas around the Midlands, but a few years later I went to boarding school, and swimming became more about picking rubber bricks up off the bottom of the pool than swimming up and down. Team sports ruled, so the only swimming I did as a teenager was as part of the water polo team.
When did you rediscover swimming?
The feeling that I was in my element in the water never left me so once I’d become a parent and my career had settled down – and I was able to go on holiday – I always took the time to swim in the sea when we were away. I loved heading out for a few hours to swim to some rocks or an island wherever we were on holiday, and that inspired me to buy a copy of Wild Swim by Kate Rew [founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society].
Even though I lived in central London, I wanted to spend more time in the water, so finding out that wild swimming was ‘a thing’ really inspired me. At the same time, a friend recommended a book by Charles Sprawson called Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, which is an amazing in-depth look at the history of swimming and our relationship with water.
So it was a combination of reading that and leafing through Kate’s book that inspired me to get back into swimming; I loved it as a kid and wanted to challenge myself to do some big swims.
This was around the time of the first Swim Serpentine in 2016 and I remember hearing about the event at my local lido. It fitted in brilliantly with my life at the time – living in London, being a parent, with few opportunities to skip off to the sea – so I thought it could be my first chance to try a bigger swim in open water.
How did you approach the training?
Because of my competitive swim training as a child, I’d only ever really sprinted front crawl, never really swum it over a distance, so I swam the first Swim Serpentine doing breaststroke.
I had quite a few lessons to retrain my stroke as you need to be able to relax and swim effortlessly, whereas I’d been thrashing up and down the lanes of the pool. I read on The OSS Facebook page that lots of people struggle with what speed to swim because they set out too fast and get tired. You almost need to relearn how to swim with the least amount of effort.
Then someone gave me some great advice: it’s about fitting your stroke around your breathing, not fitting your breathing around your stroke – so if you get in a flap and can’t catch your breath, try breaststroke. One of the coaches said you’re not out of breath when you’re walking, and you shouldn’t be when you’re swimming long distances.
How does open water differ from pool swimming?
I went on holiday after one of these coaching sessions and was swimming across a lovely bay when everything kind of clicked – and I think being in open water helped with that.
When you are in a pool, there’s always that psychological thing of getting to the end – you’re always thinking about having to stop, or turn, or manoeuvre, but if you’re in a lake or the sea, there’s a lovely feeling that nothing is in your way and that’s the feeling you want – that you could just keep going.
What makes the Serpentine such a special place to swim?
I’ve done Swim Serpentine every year apart from one – when I was ill. It’s an iconic swimming spot and it’s not very often you get to say you’ve swum in the Serpentine, where the oldest swimming club in the country is located.
If you were to run a marathon, you’d want to do the London Marathon so you could experience the closed roads and run past historic landmarks before finishing on The Mall – and Swim Serpentine is just as special for open water swimmers.
The surroundings and scenery are beautiful, and the Serpentine’s history and heritage as an open water venue make it a really special place to swim. And the event itself is so well organised, with such a buzzy atmosphere, that it’s great to be part of it.
The first time I did it no one in my family was able to come, so I was feeling a bit sad about taking part on my own, but I ended up chatting to people who were in the same boat as me and everyone supported each other, chatting and helping with wetsuits. There’s a great community feeling at the event that really adds to the enjoyment.
What advice would you give to someone who might not have swum outdoors before?
If you’re thinking about signing up for Swim Serpentine, just do it. It might be a challenge, but I honestly believe that it’s good to challenge yourself and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to remind yourself what you’re about.
Make sure you do some training and, if you’re nervous, remember you will not be alone – there will be lots of people taking on the event for the first time, so be kind and considerate and embrace the great community spirit.
It sounds obvious, but try to enjoy it too! Take it all in – ultimately you’re there to have fun. Enjoy the frog’s eye view you’ll have of the land from the water and the support you’ll get all the way around. It’s something you’ll never forget. The whole thing is an amazing experience.
How’s your prep going for the Channel relay?
I challenged myself to swim throughout the last winter without any neoprene protection so I’m ready for the cold water – you do get used to it after a while!
But the waiting around for the weather window for the Channel relay is tough. It’s nicknamed the ‘Dovercoaster’ and some people end up being ‘on it’ for up to five weeks as they wait for the right conditions.
There are so many things to consider – weather forecasts and tide tables – and while we’ve been waiting to swim, the conditions have gone from a neap tide to a spring tide, which means there’s more water in the Channel, it’s faster flowing, the current is more unpredictable, but the crossing could be faster too.
It’s a bit like waiting to give birth – although I feel more anxious about this than I did about having children!
How did you get involved in The Outdoor Swimming Society?
I’d been aware of The OSS for a while as a great online resource. I’d been on the website and looked at amazing photos of the Dart 10K and wondered whether I could do something like that after completing Swim Serpentine.
I was looking for my next challenge, so I signed up to swim the 6K Bantham Swoosh (also breaststroke!) in Devon and got involved in some other events. I found it challenging, exciting and beautiful to connect with nature, but the events also had a lovely sense of community.
You find a network of people who share the same feeling, and you connect with a wild swimming group who become like family. The OSS has a phrase ‘finding the others’ and if I’m wearing my OSS hat or a Dart 10K hat people always stop me to ask questions. You’re part of a family and community.
What do you enjoy most about swimming outdoors?
You always feel amazing after a swim, which comes back to the idea that you’re crossing into this other element, whether you’re jumping in a pond or a lake or just doing a couple of lengths of a lido.
When I drag myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to meet friends at the lido for a swim, I often wonder what I’m doing, but afterwards I feel amazing and the sense of camaraderie is hard to beat. And when you do events like Swim Serpentine or the Dart 10K, you also get an incredible sense of achievement.
The mental and physical health benefits of cold-water swimming have filled many books, but I think it always comes back to the idea of being outside and feeling free, reconnecting with nature and entering a magical watery realm.