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The rise of open water swimming in India

Tired of your swimming pool? Meet the Indians who are popularising swimming in rivers, reservoirs and even in the open sea

Open water swimming is rising in popularity in India.
Open water swimming is rising in popularity in India. (Istockphoto)

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The French sailor Alain Gerbeault had famously said “I wanted freedom, open air and adventure. I found it on the sea.” But it is not just sailors who have found the answer to their need for adventure in the joys of the open sea. These days, an increasing number of people are tuning in to the magic of swimming in the sea. 

Open water swimming, or OWS as it is colloquially called, is any swim done in an outdoor water body—be it a river, a lake, a reservoir or the sea. It’s growth in India has been slow, but its allure has picked up in the past two years, when pools were shut due to covid-19.

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“Back in 2016, no one in India was training for OWS specifically. The ones who picked it up all had the same goal—become a triathlete or cross the English Channel. It was around that time that my friends, Mehul Ved and Mitali Pinto and I decided to try out swimming in the sea near Khar,” says Minesh Babla, a businessman and co-founder of Mumbai Sea Swimmers. “I approached a few fishermen who knew their way around the sea and that is probably how the first idea of Mumbai Sea Swimmers began.” 

Initially, Babla, 52, and co-founder Mehul Ved (a triathlete) did not expect many people to join in. But during one swim in 2018, over 50 people joined in, and the duo realised that the idea had potential. They started organising events, and even hired certified coaches to train newbies. Today, the group has over 500 people registered on its Facebook page: a small, but respectable following.

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Further down the Konkan Coast, in South Goa’s Benaulim area, Tony Fernandes, 48, swims with a motley crew of locals, tourists, and triathletes at least three times a week. Many of them are first-time open water swimmers and are naturally worried. Fernandes holds each one by hand and guides them into the water.

“I see how tightly they are gripping my hand when they go in. If it’s a very tight grip, I know that they are not ready yet to swim into the sea. Then I design small tasks and drills for them to get over their fear—stand under the shower, or practice breathing bubbles in a bucket of water,” explains Fernandes, who picked up long distance swimming in 2007. He is now a full-time swim coach.

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Fernandes stresses on teaching the basics—information on different kinds of waves, the currents that one might face, swells, breakers and so on. These theory classes are followed by swims in shallow water (where one’s feet still touch the ground), and finally, swims in slightly deeper water. 

It was this progressive introduction to the open water that attracted physiotherapist Carolyne Fernandes, 28, to these classes. As a child, Carolyne was scared of water. But in 2020, after moving to Goa during the pandemic, she saw Fernandes swimming in the sea. She decided to give it a shot and get over her fear. Initially, she used to swim everyday in the sea but once the monsoon arrived, and the sea became rough, the group turned to dry land workouts to increase strength, conditioning, power and flexibility.

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“These helped me to concentrate and work on my breathing and physical aspects. I started practicing alone as well, first in the pool, and then, once the weather got a little better, in the sea, with a brightly-coloured buoy. I would swim a bit, rest on the buoy and then swim again. This way I increased my swimming distances from 1km to 5km,” Carolyne says. 

She followed Fernandes’ advice to not focus on the distance right at the beginning. She started slow and practiced drills in the ocean, concentrating on just arm or leg work or breathing technique. Even now, her long swims with the group are just once or twice a week. The rest of the week, she works on the drills. “You’d think that everyone who would swim in the sea is a triathlete. I could not run because I would always feel it in my joints. Even cycling was a little challenging. Swimming didn’t just feel more comfortable, but it has definitely made me fitter. And now, through swimming it is unlocking a lot of the other activities I had dreaded before,” she explains.

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Carolyn has the option of swimming in the sea. But for many living in land-locked areas of the country, OWS is a struggle. Even if they wish to train for triathlons, they have to practice in swimming pools. This is what made Delhi-based Chiropriyo Mitra, a veterinary surgeon, start looking at other options. Mitra, 49, arranged the Pondicherry Swim-a-thon in May this year, for people looking to compete in OWS as a stepping stone to Ironman, the most famous triathlon race. Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated, and the event had to be cancelled.

“This was a turning point for us and we decided to move future events to Pong Reservoir in Himachal Pradesh. We still need permissions from authorities, but at least the weather is not unpredictable. And you want to make sure that everyone is safe—that is the single biggest concern for both swimmers and organisers,” he explains. 

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Mitra’s event did not allow amateurs. In order to ensure that all participants were seasoned swimmers, he asked for previous credentials (of a completed OWS) and a doctor’s certificate. During the event, lifeguards were on standby, there were speed boats for emergency rescues and inflatable buoys for the swimmers. Mitra believes that OWS is possible if people are fit and can swim. But more importantly, swimmers need to remain calm at all times. He adds that OWS participants should check the safety and emergency measures taken by the organisers and have faith in them. 

With every event they organise, or every group they take out for a practice swim, people like Mitra and Babla are learning about new problems and new possibilities. This could relate to growing the community, improving safety standards, or getting people outside their comfort zones. And while they steer clear of the seas during the monsoon, the goal remain the same—get more people to try out the joys of open water swimming. 

Sohini Sen is a freelance writer and fitness enthusiast.

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