On The Road

Where To Swim Like A Fish

Make a splash at one of these seven open-water races

  • Swimming past Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay. Photograph by Mr David Fenton/Gallery Stock

Some people like to throw themselves out of a plane to feel alive. For others, it’s scaling mountains so high their lungs are almost crushed under the pressure. Then there are those of us who like nothing better than plunging into the icy open sea, skimming past shoals of fish, to remind us we’re part of something bigger.

Swimming away from beaches and pools has become a popular pastime in the past five years or so and there have been a number of bestsellers on the subject, not least Mr Daniel Start’s Wild Swimming. There’s no doubt that diving into the ocean, with or without a wetsuit, is invigorating. But what you maybe didn’t know is there are health benefits to be had, too. The higher mineral levels in sea water mean a stronger immune system and improved circulation, and it’s good for your skin.

Still afraid to take on the tumbling waves all alone? Fear not. Competitive wild swimming is very much a thing and it’s got all organised and professional with marked courses, safety boats and finish-line feasts. From Italian bays to desert islands, here are seven of the best sea swims to front crawl through.


Levanto, Italy

  • Photograph by Mr Marco Barsi

This annual Traversata Del Golfo (crossing of the bay) is a 1.5km swim along the Ligurian coast in Levanto, just south of the picturesque Cinque Terre. Like something out of the iconic 1998 Guinness “Swimblack” advert, where the village hero swims across the bay as his bartender brother pulls a pint, it’s a chance for visitors to literally dive into the local culture. The Traversata starts from La Pietra jetty and finishes on sandy Sirena beach to the cheers of locals. The race is divided into categories, with the more serious swimmers going first. There’s a trophy for the winner of each division and a T-shirt for everyone else.

Post-swim: forget protein bars, swimmers are invited for local wine and seafood served on the beachfront.

When: 20 August 2017. Head out early to practise the route and catch the Ferragosto on 15 August, an Italian public holiday with fireworks over the bay and processions through the streets.

San Francisco, US

  • Photograph by Ms Sarah Rice/Eyevine

Known as the Escape from Alcatraz, in honour of one of the most daring prison breaks in history and the 1979 film starring Mr Clint Eastwood, this 2km swim from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shores is steeped in lore. It was once believed to be an impossible journey, due to the strong currents and shark-infested waters, but thousands of swimmers looking for a challenge now take it on. While the distance isn’t too far (the equivalent of about 90 lengths in a pool), the water can be cold and choppy, but the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning light will make every stroke worth it. There are also spectator boats (the San Francisco Police Department lines the route on shark alert), so friends and family can cheer you on.

Post-swim: brunch at the historic South End Rowing Club, where you can rub shoulders with hardy old-timers who regularly do the crossing in just swimsuits, bathing caps and goggles.

When: 23 September 2017. The water at this time of year is normally 15 to 17°C.

Sydney, Australia

  • Photograph courtesy of World Series Swims

Known by locals as the B2B, this is one of Australia’s most popular swims. The 2.2km course starts with racers running into the ocean from Bondi Beach and follows a series of fluorescent pink buoys along the coast, taking in the wafer-like rock formations around Mackenzie’s Point. The final buoy is fluorescent green and signals the start of the sprint finish, which winds up at the arch on Bronte Beach.

Post-swim: a party atmosphere greets swimmers at Bronte Surf Life Saving Club. As does a barbecue.

When: 3 December 2017, when the water temperature is normally 20 to 21°C.

Santorini, Greece

  • Photograph by Mr Elias Lefas. Courtesy of Santorini Experience

After a sun- and ouzo-soaked summer, Greece’s famous volcanic island experiences a second wave of endorphins in the autumn as athletes take part in this two-day sporting event, which includes both a 2.4km sea swim and runs of 5km, 10km and 15km. While the running courses take you along the coast from Oia to Fira with views looking out to the Caldera (the mouth of the volcano that created the island), the swim cuts through the volcanic waters. The race starts in the harbour of Nea Kameni, the uninhabited island opposite Santorini’s capital, Fira (and a shadowy feature of many a sunset photo), and ends in Fira’s old town (pictured above), as swimmers clamber up a ladder to reach the finishing arch. More forgiving than other events, swimmers who aren’t interested in racing to the finish can use a snorkel, mask and flippers.

Post-swim: swap flippers for sails and hire a catamaran for a sunset boat tour. Race participants can get special deals.

When: 6–8 October 2017. Expect water temperature to be between 22 and 24°C degrees.

US Virgin Islands

  • Photograph by Mr Steve Simonsen

Stingrays, starfish and sharks join swimmers on this annual event in the Caribbean calendar. There are three swim courses, of one, two and five miles, but all skim across spectacularly clear waters and beautiful coral reefs. The five-miler starts on Buck Island (pictured above), one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive private islands, and ends on a palm-lined, white-sand beach at The Buccaneer resort, where a steel band, rum cocktails and a meal of grilled mahi mahi await.

Post-swim: the diving around St Croix is world-renowned. Not only does the island have the second longest coral reef in the Caribbean, there are five wrecks within 100m of each other and an underwater pier inhabited by seahorses, batfish and octopus. FYI, it’s best seen at night.

When: 5 November 2017. The water is balmy, usually between 25 and 27°C.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, UK

  • Photograph by Mr James Paterson/N-Photo Magazine via Getty Images

This might be a guided swim, rather than a race, but don’t let that put you off. Lasting seven days, and in chillier waters, it is very much one for the hardcore open-water swimmer. It follows famous stretches of the Cornish coast, including Sennen Cove to Land’s End and Porthgwarra Beach to Porthcurno Beach, where you pass below the open-air Minack Theatre, which has been carved into the cliffs. As well as exploring the mainland, swimmers also circumnavigate the Isles of Scilly (Tresco pictured above). Think of it as island hopping without a boat.

Post-swim: swimmers stay on board Lady Avenel, a majestic 102ft brigantine square rigger ship that has its own private chef for post-swim refuelling.

When: 16–22 September 2017. Expect the water to be 15 to 18°C.

Stockholm, Sweden

  • Photograph by Mr Jakob Edholm/ÖTILLÖ

What started as a drunken bet among friends in 2002 has become one of the world’s toughest endurance races and part of the Swimrun World Championships. It consists of both swimming and trail running across the Stockholm Archipelago. For 75km (46 miles), racers participate in teams of two and follow a pre-marked course, which takes them between 26 different islands, across lakes, through forests and into villages. The fastest teams manage the race (which is broken down into 10km swimming, 65km running) in eight hours and the slowest, who haven’t fallen outside the cut-off times, will reach the finishing island of Utö in 14 hours. It’s adventure racing at its best, but definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Post-swim: a hot shower and a smorgasbord of salads, pasta, reindeer meat and even sushi at the Utö Värdshus hotel.

When: 4 September 2017. The water is cold and varies from 9 to 14°C, depending where you are on the course.

Take the plunge