The World’s Best Guide to Open and Cold Water Swimming

There are better cold water swimmers than I.

There are faster cold water swimmers than I.

There are hardier cold water swimmers than I.

There are more scientific cold water swimmers than I.

There are more experienced cold water swimmers than I.

There are people who love colder water more than I. There are even people who make money from open water swimming. So there are fact people who are better at every single aspect of open water swimming than I am.

But around the world, (by which I mean, around the Internet) when the phrase “the bible of cold water swimming” is used, it refers to only one place,

When I started, I did not know what I was doing. I had no thought to be identified as an expert. Cold water swimming has existed as a sport for a couple of hundred years and maybe longer as a deliberate recreation. There are giants of cold water marathon swimming like Alison Streeter and Tom Blower and Ted and Jon Erikson and Kevin Murphy, compared to whom I am a mere stripling. My only advantage has only been to write these things down and knowing how all those giants share their knowledge with anyone who asks, I feel I am respecting them and the traditions of open water swimming.

While I often struggle with the blog and I’m even sometimes ambivalent about having to write it, on the whole LoneSwimmer has meant a lot to me. Because it has proven to me that an average swimmer can actually have an effect on their chosen sport and that was certainly another thing I never anticipated.

I mention my average ability partly because I myself find it hard to get motivated by the extraordinary ones. They are extraordinary by definition, both in talent and hard work. They are extraordinary to watch and appreciate and know. How can what Michael Phelps does have any impact on an average Irish middle-aged swimmer? But you and I? We are on a journey together, sharing the same ocean. I am always most influenced by my friends that I know and respect and want to emulate – and from whom I learn in turn.

In the same way that swimming allows, LoneSwimmer also allows me to be me. I believe most of us are constrained in some way in our lives. When I first wrote about open water swimming six years ago, I said it was about seeking freedom. Maybe that’s only me, but I think the sense of freedom is a significant part of all open water swimmers. Writing LoneSwimmer has the same result.

In 2013 I started to change the site, to have a more definite idea of what I wanted to do with it. As I changed it, my number of posts decreased, but site traffic continued to increase, (as it has for six consecutive years). For most blog (I still hate that term) writers, the biggest challenge is often idea generation. Finding enough to write about is the requisite to actually keeping writing. This has become less of an issue for me with time. I’ve learned to trust my subconscious and that the ideas will come, and like buses, sometimes they come in multiples, all showing up with an idea that I need explore, and sometimes leave again without me having gotten on board.

What was the change? While I had tried to keep the site away from being a pure training log from the beginning and to be about sharing what I was learning along the way, in 2013 and 2014 I eliminated any final training diary vestiges. If I write about some swim training aspect, I try to do it in a context. LoneSwimmer therefore became more focused on original content. I am always trying to figure out what I can write about, hopefully in a new or different way.

I am willing to try any post if I feel it is potentially useful to someone. If you want stroke and technique advice, there are experts and gurus galore who will help you. You’ll notice though how few people discuss or explain all the other factors in open water swimming like preparation, weather, tides, limiting factors, downsides and of course, the biggest challenge, the subject that needs as much exploration as stroke, that of cold water swimming.

Possibly the biggest thing that’s happened is that I’ve become more willing to risk what I will write about and I have discovered a sense of freedom from some of the things I’ve written. So I guess this retrospective is part of that impulse. I recognise also that such a retrospective is of little interest to anyone except myself. The last such marker post was in 2014, when the site reached half a million views. That number has doubled in about one-third of the time.

The similarities between a blog and swimming are marked, as indeed are the similarities of swimming and many aspects of life. I would like to see more people start swimming blogs, and more people write open water swimming blogs as few of the blogs I was reading back when I started are still regularly active. So what do you needed to write a swimming blog?

LoneSwimmer logoBe Honest. People will tell you to be passionate, but you won’t sustain a blog without having a passion, and that by itself is nothing unusual. It’s more important to be honest because those who aren’t seem to forget that people can tell who is saying or writing something for political advantage (and there are a lot of behind-the-scenes politics and ego in marathon swimming). You must be honest above all to engage with people. And that honesty must focus first on yourself. There’s (to my mind) no point in me calling out the IISA or NYCSwim etc if I can’t be honest about my own limitations first. You don’t have to go beyond swimming or your chosen subject, you can still retain your privacy. In the past six years it has often been difficult to keep the blog focused on the single subject, considering many of the other subjects about which I may feel strongly. The single most important thing to me about LoneSwimmer is that readers recognise its integrity.

Enjoy writing. You can’t keep swimming if you don’t enjoy the act itself. You can’t write a blog if you don’t enjoy the act of writing. I am not saying how good you or I need to be at it, just enjoy doing it.

Be Consistent. The greatest similarity between swimming and blogging is that you must keep at both. It doesn’t matter if you do it badly occasionally or regularly, you just have to keep doing it. The odds are against you getting past the first six months and the further odds against making it to six years are big. A lot of things can happen a person in a six-year period and there are periods when the idea of writing a blog will seem like the most difficult thing to do. But try to keep doing it. Once a month is consistency and it can help to have a backup post or two written.

Pick a theme. Don’t expect to get it right initially, but have some idea off where you want to go with it. You can write a blog on multiple subjects but unless you are an exceptionally good writer, what will your readers return for? You can change direction of course, but a map requires you know your current position. In swimming metaphors, pick your A stroke and your B stroke and don’t be afraid of a little I.M.

“Vary your intensity”. This advice also comes from swimming. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms. A blog is as much about your leaning as your readers. This means being willing to take the aforementioned risks, but you need to figure out your base pace first.

Illustrate. Show what you see or are describing. Draw cartoons, take photos, shoot video.

Things I don’t mention as requisites are a pre-defined expertise or best practices for blog. Some of those will come with time, some you may want to do research if you become interested. What’s really interesting is your world view, and swimming and life experience, if the writer is prepared to make all that real. If your blog has good content, people will read it. Nothing from all the online experts will outweigh this simple fact: Content is King.

For a blog to officially* pass one million views is not insignificant for the single person writing it (i.e. me), like the first time you swim a 10k. Traffic on forums or sites run by more people, like the MSF, dwarf my blog traffic. More people will read DNOWS, but more people trust LoneSwimmer. Like swimming the Channel was not the journey I expected to take the first day I went for a swim at Baile na Gaul, I never realised that so much of my life would change or be impacted by what at the time of creating the site seemed like a casual fun thing to do. Neither the me who went for that swim, nor the me who casually created a blog, had any inkling of where such first steps would lead; like co-founding the MSF, or co-writing the Global Rules, or coming up with the idea for a World Marathon Swimming Day, or crewing world record swims, or winning awards, or pulling a friend out the water before he died, or getting a Thank You email from Ted Erikson, or having Sam Krohn make a movie with me, or having people visit me to go swim in my cave.

(*Unofficially, the number is significantly higher, but it’s impossible to quantify email subscriptions and RSS readers with any accuracy beyond an estimate).

As pattern-recognising apes, we can’t help but apply meaning to arbitrary numbers and reflect on the presumed meaning in such retrospectives as this.

LoneSwimmer is beholden to no outside influence or control.  LoneSwimmer has also meant thousands of new contacts and hundreds of new swimming friends and acquaintance around the world. So while there is no outside control, there’s plenty of outside influence, and that comes from you.

I have used “who dares swims” as the site tagline for five years.  But now, I’ve changed that, based not on what I claim, but on what you readers has told me, and what you have written about the site in various locations. Though it is likely the other Irish people will take me out behind the bicycle shed to give me a sound thrashing for my presumption and assumed arrogance. (Who dares swims will, if it’s not too pompous a statement, remain one of my personal mottoes, by which I mean one of the little catchphrases I use to assist like myself when it cold, grey, windy and lonely at the Guillamene).

I’ll continue to try to live up to the new tagline, as well as the old, and I hope you will continue to visit. Because it takes all of us.

Thanks for all the reading, views, likes and comments. Thanks for visiting the Copper Coast for a swim, and if you haven’t come yet, well, there’s always next summer.

Meet you at the coast.


P.S. I’m going to leave you this time with some of my favourite posts. In many cases, my own favourites were not even popular. I’ve written well over a thousand articles in six years. I deleted a few hundred in 2015, with a current site total of about 650 in early 2016.

The Reverie of Cold. One aspect of swimming in cold water, and I think one of the better things I’ve written. I would continue writing just to try to recapture how it feels when writing becomes something like this.

memory and water. My earliest memory of swimming, a link to my Dad.

Swimming in the Desert. My most difficult and personal post, and one I tried unsuccessfully many times to write over a period of a couple of years, before working it out. The post that elicited the most meaningful compliment I think I’ve ever received, when a chap called Alan, who I didn’t know, thanked me for writing it. Thank you Alan.

An Introduction to a Precise Open Water Temperature Scale. I’ve occasionally been tempted to tweak this old and popular post. I have so far resisted. Beyond its ongoing popularity, it was one of the first clues that I could write something that might have an effect on the sport.

I Touched Your Foot. Humour is so hard to write. When you get an idea, and it works, and people like it… its like swimming a new personal record. I have immense respect for people who can do it consistently. Any time I’ve written a humourous post, I’ve been absolutely certain I will never have another humourous idea.

I am afraid it’s long deleted, which I regret, but my first April Fool’s joke, which almost caused an international swimming politics incident. Subsequently, all my other April’s Fools, even the ridiculous one still published on the site that only one person has ever called me out on. No, I’m not telling you which. Alternate site tagline “LoneSwimmer: Spoofing about swimming for years”. There will be no LoneSwimmer April Fool’s joke in 2016.

The long (nine parts. Nine!) Ice Mile Dilemmas series. Ice Mile swimming is stupid and dangerous, and the IISA supports corrupt swims and swimmers and encourages deception. Nothing I’ve said has ever been refuted. I don’t care if every other marathon swimmer in the world supports Ice Mileing.

The Diana Nyad Controversy series. She’s a fraud. I try to move on from it, and I certainly want want to be obsessed with the subject. It’s hard. And worse, there are others.

There are a number of extremely popular posts that cover either pool swimming specifics, or marathon swim reports. Of those I’d pick Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because of the opportunity it presented all of us to finally see a once-in-a-generation English Channel record from up close and allowed me to be the one to share it. Sylvain Estadieu’s later English Channel butterfly swim was similar. By simply writing down Understanding Lane Swimming etiquette, I may have helped improved the pleasure in swimming of tens of thousands of pools swimmers around the world by either showing there was an etiquette that works, or allowing us to share our frustrations. And as a by-product gave the used-by-no-one-except-me title of Furious Bob to all those people who get angry when sharing a lane because they don’t now what they are doing.

What is the Dunning-Kruger effect and how does it relate to pool and open water swimming? and the Marathon Swimming Hype Cycle. These are ideas I took from outside swimming that I think are useful to look at both personal and macro scales of the sport. These were really interesting posts to write, because each resulted from a Eureka moment when I realised that no-one had applied either of these concepts to swimming previously. I have a similar but far larger project of an outside concept that could be applied to open water swimming, that is sufficient for a book, but the magnitude of it means I would almost certainly require a collaborator. Anyone interested?

The Awful Cave. The article that shook the open water swimming world!

The Last Shore. Formerly named A Further Shore, this was the one of the most personally rewarding writing experiences I’ve ever had, and wrote the entire first draft in two days of non-stop writing. I have never enjoyed writing as much as I enjoyed this, it was like a fever. Then almost  no-one read it! Writing is often very largely its own reward.

11 Things To Hate About Open Water Swimming (And What To Do About Them). Kicking back against the man flaws in the sport  (not recreation) of open water swimming.

Given all the cold water specific swimming articles, if I was pick one I like apart from the Reverie of Cold and Ice Mile critique mentioned above, I’d probably pick this consideration of the first three minutes of a cold water swim. In pool swimming, I like How To understand and choose between the different types of swimming googles because honestly, in all my years of buying goggles, I’d never seen an overall explanation of the different types.

In marathon swimming, Two Golden Rules of Open Water and/or Marathon Swims helped informed the formation of the MSF first Global Rules of Marathon Swimming.

I’m going to leave you with a very old post. HOW TO be an open water swimmer.



9 thoughts on “The World’s Best Guide to Open and Cold Water Swimming

  1. THANK YOU!!!
    I’m posting, after reading this blog, on December 6 2016, almost a year later. and i want to say, after spending time with a professional writer the last week, life writing is NOT ABOUT THE GREATS!!!! It’s about ALL of us, our common humanity, and deep connections to our world. Before I left a week ago, I had a really cold hard day, and I kept telling myself as I biked to my river spot as I do every day, I CAN DO THIS BECAUSE DONAL & all his friends, and Other cold water swimmers linked in around the world are doing this!!! Because of this blog Donal, I just MIGHT MAKE it through this winter of swimming every day in my beloved swimming spot on the Willamette river with the herons, cormorants, mallards, ospreys, Canadian geese and more. And without it, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do it!! You are inspiring, changing, lives! All those things you mentioned above, like saving a friend’s life too, wow! Thank you soo much!! I just got back home, haven’t been able to swim in four days, and there are record temperature drops, it snowed here this morning, it doesn’t do that in western oregon–the high here today is 38 Fahrenheit air temperature, and the river is on the lower side of 7, in reality probably 6 degrees Celsius, and I am a little worried how my body which has ‘vacationed’ for four days from cold water is going to handle it!! But because of this blog, it gives me strength, calmness, camaraderie, a group of other wild non-wetsuit merpeople around the globe to relate to, and connect. The amazing guru Brene Brown of Daring Greatly fame says we are hardwired for connection. You have created that connection! You are doing that!! keep it up! And I hope too, to one day come swimming on the Copper Coast as well. Sounds great!
    Gazelle in Oregon 🙂


  2. In a world where everyone is fantastic Donal, your writing is at least one talent in which you are indisputably far beyond average. Far from allowing your brilliance to deter others – I agree, if anyone out there is contemplating a swim blog, take the plunge!
    For my own very average part, writing a swim blog has enriched my swimming experience immensely and connected me to the open water community in a way I could not have imagined. It has also given me countless opportunities to promote my own favourite Loneswimmer post (to date) –
    Your blog has not just meant a lot to you Donal, it’s meant a lot to me and I am sure thousands of readers. Thank you.


  3. I would not be an EC soloist without having met you and your blog not only reminds me of that fact but reminds me to be humble, as I have only been a tourist in the world in which you are the greatest guide.


  4. Your blog really piqued my interest. I’d come here looking for information on how to handle cold when I was playing with the idea of this CRAZY pipe-dream open water swim — Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. I wanted to do it safely and wanted to know if I could avoid getting a wetsuit.

    My view of a crazy pipe-dream swim has changed a bit since then 🙂


  5. So good – we can always count on you to keep it real, be informative, and entertaining. What more can we ask? (Besides more writing of course! 🙂 Thanks again for all that you do.


  6. Wow!!! It’s true, I keep coming back here, because “The world’s best guide” inspires ……. lanes, outdoor swimming, no wetsuits, sea swimming and cold water …….. tried a couple of these, but this blog has made me think about trying one or two of the other, maybe, one day…And blogging, hmm – a bit of a beached whale at the moment, maybe it’s time to get back in the water.
    The link to The Marathon Swimming Hype Cycle didn’t work for me, and I couldn’t find “How to be an open water swimmer”, but I’ve come across the Dunning-Kruger effect – it always makes me smile, as I know just how “good” I am and how much better other people are. Would love to proof read your book.


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