We’re mesmerized by pools: those big blue boxes in London where pristine water fairly screams “Everybody in!” But beyond the Olympics, swimming pools (essentially giant bathtubs) are being challenged by wide open spaces. And swimmers are debating whether they prefer to bounce back and forth between walls or swim, say, from continent to continent. I’ve done both, and I’m here to moderate the case.
Historically, it wasn’t an issue. While swimming pools accommodated ancient Roman emperors, they disappeared for centuries, and didn’t come into popular use until the 1800s, in Europe. Until then, the only waters were natural: the lakes, oceans, rivers, and streams that humans shared with, well, everything else. Today we have choices—from the more than 10 million pools dotting backyards and sports centers across the country to the rolling surf of our spectacular coasts.
Pools glisten in the sun; they illuminate a dreary yard; they play with lines and light as the wavy reflections of sun in water animate straight walls. Pools are pure, capturing nature’s force for our benefit. We think differently about water when it’s accessible. It’s a surprise, a safe haven in the most improbable places. A fantasy of liquid islands.
Still, they’re a round trip to nowhere, over and over again. “I don’t like pools,” says Simon Murie, a tall, slender, Australian-born Briton who organizes open-water swim vacations. “In an indoor pool, every day is the same. It’s like McDonald’s—the same meal wherever you are. But go to a local café, and every meal will be different. That’s the beauty of open-water swimming: each day is different.”
That’s why so many swimmers today are testing themselves in the seven seas and beyond. It’s why some 900 people have swum the chilly, egg-beater waters of the English Channel since British sea captain Matthew Webb first breast-stroked across in 1875. It’s why intrepid cold-water marathoner Lynne Cox has braved such bone-freezing byways as the Antarctic Ocean, Lake Baikal, and the Bering Strait. “You are lifted by the waves,” she told me. “Everything is always changing, even the light on the water. The different kinds of froth. And at night, the phosphorous sparks fly.” And it’s why Diana Nyad, 62, will try again this summer to swim from Havana to Key West, a 103-mile passage whose toxic jellyfish nearly killed her last year.
It’s also why other swimmers take on lesser-known challenges in races from South Africa to Sweden, from Chesapeake Bay to Alcatraz Island. Capri Djatiasmoro, a self-described New York mermaid who has swum in every major New York City waterway, says the open water gets rid of “all the mental garbage. I check my form; then I go wandering around the universe.” She is one of thousands of swimmers who have benefited from the cleanup of New York City’s waters. Dave Tanner, who coaches high-school swimmers, exulted about his trip around Manhattan Island: “I swam along the East River,” he tells me. “I saw the United Nations. I passed taxis—I was going faster than they were. Then I headed down the Hudson. It took seven and a half hours.”
Alan Morrison, a New York lawyer with enviable shoulder muscles, completed the 24-mile swim across Tampa Bay and a more rugged 12.4-mile crossing of the Santa Barbara Channel. “I don’t swim marathons to win,” he tells me. “It’s to have a long visit and hope that Mother Nature lets me through.” Which just about sums up the attitude of the open-water swimmers I’ve met. None uses the word “conquer.” A California physicist elaborated in 1988: “The sea is not susceptible to human vanity,” observed David Clark. “When I got out of the ocean, stood on the shoreline in France, and looked back across the [English] Channel, it did not look defeated to me. What we conquer are our own limitations.”
Me too. Last summer I decided to try it myself, and signed up for a race across the Hellespont (a.k.a. the Dardanelles), the Turkish strait separating Europe from Asia. Never mind that I’d never ventured into open water far beyond the shore, that I was a lazy lap swimmer in pools. I liked the challenge, loved the history of the iconic passage you could see from Troy, swum by the mythic Leander in poetic lore, and by Lord Byron in 1810. So I trained—hard—and put aside my fears (jellyfish, currents, distance) to plunge in with 430 other international swimmers last August. And I made it! I exchanged a blue box for an ocean, swam four miles in 84 minutes. I had waded into the water in Europe and emerged in Asia, and the grin is still on my face. Yes, open water is more exciting and exhilarating than a pool. But I’m not abandoning the pool. You shouldn’t either.