The 15 tribes of outdoor swimming

You’ve taken the plunge, donned a wetsuit, fitted some goggles and you start to come across other people indulging in this strange sport. Here’s a secret — they are not all the same and they are mostly faster than you.

Here’ s a quick guide to the strange types who like to swim in cold water:

1/ The Novices. These have only just learnt to swim and, now they can, they want to get the most enjoyment out of it. They love paddling out into a lake or a sheltered bay.

2/ The Newbies. These are competent swimmers but have never done much of it up until now. Now they’ve discovered the pleasures of outdoor swimming, they’re at it all the time.

Sometimes Novices and Newbies sign up for «Events» because they are advertised as being «fun.» At the end the Novices arrive by boat with a broad smile on their faces. The Newbies are dragged out of the water last, scowling because they thought they were better swimmers than that.

3/ The Triathletes. These «train» in packs for triathlons. They are pretty fit but rarely swim for longer than a mile and may not be the most stylish swimmers. They can be fun to be around — but remember they are trained racers and when they see another swimmer they may see a rival to be overtaken. Sometimes you come across a lone triathlete at other venues, like a hound that’s been separated from its pack.

Sometimes Triathletes merge into…

4/ Iron People. These do Ironman events, which may require them sometimes to swim for a little more than two miles. To be fair they will then go on to run a marathon and ride an awfully long way on a bicycle. Never get in the way of an Iron Person.

5/ The Clubbers. Grew up in a swimming club and kept swimming endless lengths in swimming pools to keep fit. Discovering the open air is a liberating experience and they’re having a ball out of doors. They’re in it for the fun and they are fast and competent swimmers, who sometimes find it hard to slow down.

6/ The Masters. They are still in a swimming club and, like the triathletes, tend to swim in packs. They’re often found at «events» and turn up in a group and swim together, carefully checking their times and swimming in formation, like migrating geese.

7/ The Fitness Freaks. There’s not many of these outdoors but plenty in public swimming pools, usually after they’ve been to the gym. This is because their regime requires precise times and distances. Not many outdoor venues offer precise distances and none are marked with white lines. If an FF wears a tracking device, it tells them an utterly different distance from the advertised one — even if they think they are swimming straight. Which distance should they put in their training log? It’s far too confusing.

8/ The Competitors. For these people there is an «open water swimming season» — as there is for Triathletes, Iron Men and Masters. They spend the winter training indoors and during the spring and summer sign up for all the «events» and plenty of coaching. Even when an event really is meant to be only «fun», it’s a race to them and they will be sure to be among the first to finish. Event organisers have to be sure any staggered starts allow them to be first over the line. Never get in the way of a Competitor.

9/ The Wildswimmers. Wild swimmers would never be seen at a venue which charges or one where you have to swim round and round. They’re looking for great scenery, great photos and the chance to battle some waves or drift on the current of a river.

10/ The Pioneers. These are Wild Swimmers too — but they are the ones who go out and find new places to swim.

11/ The Endurance Addicts. If they haven’t yet swum the Channel, they soon will. These are the long distance swimmers, who have the stamina and skill to keep swimming for hours on end, usually with a boat in tow, just in case they need picking out of the water.

12/ The Ice-people. For these the colder the water the better. Their open water season is the winter and the summer is just too warm. The most hardened of these head north in the summer to cooler waters. Their challenge is the Ice Mile — one mile at 4degrees C or less without a wetsuit. To achieve this you have to be pretty fit — because the quicker you do the mile, the less likely you are to go hypothermic.

13/ The Skins. These never wear a wet suit. They can be found among Wildswimmers, Pioneers, Ice-people and Endurance Addicts but probably not in anything that involves joining a club. A subset of these prefer no clothing at all.

14/ The Elite. These have probably been Olympic swimmers or national team swimmers and are much in demand with event organisers to headline their events. Sadly they are so fast, they never get much time in the water to enjoy the pleasures of open air swimming — that is unless they convert to Ice-people.

15/ The Outdoor Swimmers. These may emerge from any of the other tribes and now they swim in all sorts of venues with all sorts of people and sometimes they wear a wetsuit and sometimes they don’t and usually they have lots of fun.

Some of the tribes are very serious about their stroke and have strict tribal rules about how to swim. These rules define such matters as the angle of the elbow and the angle of the feet. This may lead you to believe there is only one correct way to swim the crawl.

Don’t believe it. There are two ways: the Male way and the Female way:

  • Male swimmers swim face down on the water — with the merest, slightest motion of the head to take in air occasionally. In a pool they’d be navigating using the lines but outdoors they are using their inbuilt male radar to keep a straight line from one point to the next.
  • Female swimmers swim on their side. It’s possible they are rotating from side to side but when they go past you it’s as if they glide past like sailing boats, having a good look at the view all round as they travel.

Personally I suspect the female way of being more efficient and I am trying to learn it — but I’m not sure I have the body shape.