Wild swimming – with this phrase I will call in the article the use of lakes, rivers and the sea for recreational purposes. The prerequisite will be swimming in the water outside of areas designated for bathing, all year round or only during certain periods. There are open water swimmers and swimmers who are looking for sports competition and stamina, long crossings and competitions.

Some focus on winter swimming, adapting to cold temperatures, while others seek technological aids such as various wetsuits, fins and boards. Here I would like to address swimming, the essence of which is the simplest way to get into the water, an activity for pleasure, relaxation and a sense of connection with nature. That’s when you’re wearing only swim trunks, a cap and goggles, with a small belay buoy or board attached to your belt.

We detach our feet from the ground and literally move to another space. We saturate our senses with an experience available only to… cosmonauts. Yes. We have a sense of less gravity, a different pressure exerted on the body. The ear perceives radically different stimuli and we often fall into a mild hypothermia, giving a feeling of a certain unreality to the world around us. The idea is to swim spontaneously, but combined with an assessment of the risks. This is an important matter for which you need common sense and swimming experience.

Wild swimming – yesterday

I often look at old photos showing swimmers and swimmers from before World War II. Full beaches along the Vistula River in Warsaw and Krakow. Such a state lasted more or less until the 1960s, maybe the 1970s. last century. Despite the risks incurred, efforts were made to tame the elements. Accidents happened, of course, but people somehow lived closer to the water. In addition to swimming, various types of regattas held on rivers, especially the Vistula, were popular. In the 1970s. The Gdynia – Hel swimming marathon was also held.

In Poland, we had a specific situation. A huge number of people have migrated from the east to the west of the country. The areas where they lived earlier often lacked numerous bodies of water and developed swimming infrastructure, and certainly did not have the scale of the Baltic, Oder or Vistula rivers.

Swimming culture, that is, the ability to swim and the ability to assess hazards in open water, could not develop in such places. In regions such as the Silesia, the opportunities for learning to swim were much greater. Public swimming pools were established as early as the turn of the 20th century. During the communist era, directors of large industrial plants had the ambition to have swimming pools built for employees and their families.

However, at some point the swimming culture stopped developing. As industry flourished, toxic wastewater was increasingly discharged into rivers without treatment. In the 1980s. It was already difficult to imagine swimming in the Vistula for sanitary reasons. The simultaneous drive to regulate rivers caused them to lose their natural potential for self-purification. Somewhere in the 1960s. began to ban swimming in open water.

On the one hand, it was thought that the fight against drowning should consist of swimming bans, while on the other hand, there was the idea that rivers should be used for large-scale transportation. Then there is no room for small boats, much less swimmers. The assumption was that if people were moved away from the water, by the way, they would have no insight or control over what was happening with that water.

Thus arose the trend of “seizure” of water bodies by leaseholders who usurped the exclusive use of water, contrary to the law on universal access to it. One of the senior swimmers from Toruń summed up the matter this way: “Simply put, the uniformed services received the first motorboats and threw us out of the river.” Some in the water rescue community have begun to promote swimming, but only within designated, supervised swimming areas.

However, such a strategy can have the opposite effect. At a guarded bathing area, the beachgoer will feel too safe and shift the responsibility for his activity in the water to the lifeguard, who is not really able to see everything that is going on around him. Looking at the statistics of recent years, this idea doesn’t work. About 500 people a year are still drowning in Poland.

Wild swimming – today

The situation for wild water swimmers began to change in the early 1990s. In the 1970s. Treatment plants were started up, which dramatically improved the quality of water in the rivers. This does not mean that the situation is good, only that the water has become “buoyant” in many places. Until a decade ago, we could not actually see swimmers traversing lakes and rivers, but now the situation is slowly changing. In 2018, I started to swim the Vistula River from Goczałkowice to the Baltic Sea with another amateur river rafter, Lukasz Tkacz. Practically no one but us regularly swam in the river at that time.

Currently, we know of about 100 people systematically swimming in the Vistula alone. Slow-swimming events, or short, organized lake crossings for amateurs, combined with family picnics, have begun to develop. A winter swimming movement has also developed in the country, active throughout the period from November to the end of March. There are about 500 of them.

One gets the impression, following the media, that there is now some sort of media clash between supporters of wild swimming and those who want to further ban it. Compared to the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK, floating is still very low, but something has definitely stirred. Scandals involving river pollution from the chemical, mining and agricultural industries are not helping to promote our waters for recreation and tourism.

Wild swimming – tomorrow

The future will belong to us. It is necessary to continue to build a swimming culture, that is, to learn swimming technique in practice, just as we learn math and Polish. The media should reliably report the true causes of drownings. The narrative is actually already beginning to change. If one in four to five people drown while under the influence of alcohol, it means that most people drown “sober” without being able to properly assess the situation.

They are generally middle-aged men, recreational bathers and anglers who fall out of their boats accidentally. They have no open water swimming experience. It’s not that “only good swimmers” are drowning – those are simply a small handful for now, and virtually everyone in this environment knows each other. This does not mean that accidents will not happen. They will happen.

Swimming bans should apply near hydro facilities, harbors, water intakes, nature reserves and on private property if the owner does not agree to swimming. In other cases, prohibition signs should be replaced with warning signs: “dangerous current”, “breakwater”, “water pollution, bacteria concentration”. Then the swimmer can responsibly make a decision – to swim or not. Water rescuers should also gain skills in rivers and the sea. If they don’t, they will always advise against swimming in more difficult bodies of water.

Not all lifeguards are focused on winning bids for guarded bathing areas. Some see the possibility of organizing volatile patrols that will not impose fines for “wild swimming,” but will suggest how to swim safely, what belay to use and how to help a drowning person. I firmly believe that only getting closer to water can bring positive results in terms of reducing drowning and building environmental awareness among Poles.

What new water sports are gaining popularity and whether practicing them serves the aquatic environment you will read in the article : New water sports. Could the ecosystem suffer?

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