Fenwick Ridley On The Benefits of Open Water Swimming

Fenwick Ridley is a Corbridge-based adventure swimmer and coach with a bucket list worthy of a BAFTA. Elysia Fryer chats to the 35-year-old about life on the water, doing his bit for the environment and completing the ultimate ‘Tyne Travel’ journey
Open Water Adventures With Fenwick Ridley

Video calling has become a huge part of our everyday lives. What was once a quick catch up between friends and relatives, has become quite the norm when it comes to business.

It’s a busy Wednesday in the home office and I’m setting up for a virtual chat with adventure swimmer and open water coach, Fenwick Ridley.

My current situation is a desk, a cup of tea and a notepad. The other end of our call is where the story is at.

Fenwick has pulled up on the river banks with his paddleboard and his poochy companion, Moona.

Fenwick and Moona have spent the morning scouring the river to ‘do their bit’, collecting plastic on a paddleboard.

As we settle down to chat, I can hear the wonders of the great wildlife in the background. There’s something very exciting about speaking to someone about what they do best – while they’re doing it!

“I was supposed to be having a chilled day today,” Fenwick laughs.

“But I just can’t do it. I’ve got to get out and do something. Moona and I have been out on the paddleboard collecting some plastic.”

After we’ve compared our very contrasting office set-ups, we’re ready to talk up the good stuff; from childhood swimming clubs to ice swimming adventures – and everything in between.

Fenwick’s passions lay in life on the water, whether it’s adventure swimming, coaching, paddleboarding, ice swimming or marathon swimming. Everything he knows and loves involves the water, which has led him to winning medals at the Winter Championships, setting up his dream business and working towards representing his country at a higher level.

“I’ve been swimming since I was a kid,” he says.

“I completed my first mile when I was 7. I then went on to join a swimming club in my early teens, which led to teaching at my local leisure centre.

“When I turned 20 I was ready for my next challenge; and when my old coach encouraged me to get out and take to the open water, I never looked back.

“I ended up turning to marathon open water swimming – doing anything between 600 and 800 miles per year. By the time I reached my early 30s, I’d already done quite a lot of racing, so I started pursuing adventure swimming – which is the most exciting part of it for me.”

Behind the scenes, when he’s not setting himself challenges, entering competitions and ticking off his bucket list, his day job includes running his business, H2oTrails.

“It is most definitely my dream job – being able to share my passion for the water and the great outdoors is so special,” he says.

Fenwick’s ‘office’ is in a picturesque spot on a freshwater lake in Northumberland. Sweethope Lough is the home of H2oTrails.

“It’s so great to share the lake with the local community and our ever-growing client base,” says Fenwick.

“I’ve got some very tiny clients, right up to 86-year-old clients. It’s so vast, it’s wonderful. I’ve got some of the fastest kids in the UK training with me at the moment, some of who will go on to compete nationally. It’s great to be able to share my knowledge; I love to see other people catch the bug like I did. Something just clicks and it’s a very special thing.

“One of my favourite things to do is teach people how to swim in icy waters in the winter months, so we’ve got a lot of that coming up as the seasons change, which I’m really excited about.”

Many of us have memories of swimming lessons at school. For me it’s working towards my badges – mini milestones to keep me going. That, paired with holidays spent in the water, but admittedly, my open water experience is limited to a mid-sunbathing afternoon dip in the Med.

Just how does one take the plunge and dive into the wonderful world of open water swimming?

With an understanding of the health benefits of open water swimming – both mentally and phsycially – I know it’s something we should all have a go at, but just how do you teach that – and how did Fenwick make the jump from the swimming pool to the open water?

“I just got to the point where I wanted to try something a little bit different,” he explains. “It was a new challenge for me at first, but then it got to the point where I had to get my fix. I started to realise how much I needed the open water for head space and fitness. It really did sculpt me as a swimmer.

“I did what a lot of people do when they take up a new sport. I spent a fortune on all the gear before I had any idea about what I needed.

“Now I have about 90 suits. I’m an ambassador for Blueseventy, the brand behind the suits that I race in, so I work quite closely with them, and thankfully I know what I’m talking about now,” he laughs.

For those of us looking to get out in the open water, coaching is key. It all comes down to the first experience, he tells me.

If something goes wrong, you’ll struggle to get yourself back in the cold water, but with the right kit and a trusted coach, you’ll be able to pick up all the tools you need to enjoy what nature presents to us.

“I remember every single second of my first open water swim,” Fenwick recalls.

“I went out with some triathletes. Because I was already a strong swimmer, they just left me to my own devices, but it was a real struggle. I was wearing a kayaking suit, so I had it all wrong before I even stepped foot in the water. I couldn’t get my breathing right, I panicked, they swam off and it was absolutely terrifying.

“But because I’m generally confident in the water, I got used to it and carried on.

“Luckily, my second swim was in a local river and it was absolutely amazing. Somehow, I wasn’t totally put off by the whole experience and by then I had got myself a brand new open water suit and it felt great.

“Of course, I never imagined back then that I would get to where I am now, but I really did just come into my own when I discovered adventure swimming.”

Open water swimming has blown up in recent years. Not only is it a unique opportunity to explore the natural world around us, but it’s a fantastic way to boost our immune system and combat mental health issues.

The sport is in no way a new phenomenon, but there’s plenty of research out there that backs its benefits, and in a post-lockdown world as we seek more and more solace in the natural beauty that surrounds us, many people are looking to new forms of exercise
outdoors.

Open water swimming very often tops the list, but there’s still the fear of the unknown. That’s where Fenwick steps in.

“One of my biggest motivators is to get people to understand that they can actually do it,” he says.

“People can come to the lake and they can get out and enjoy the water safely. It’s just about getting the guidance you need to get you off to a positive start.

“I also try to remind people that it’s not as cold as you might think. We are very warm creatures, and of course, getting into the water is going to be a little fresh at first because we have to go through a cooling process, but once you’re in, it’s magical.

“Like any sport, I always advise people that it’s a good idea to do your research and get some professional guidance. It just makes everything perfect, and you’ll get so much more out of the experience.

“Even professionals have coaching. It’s so important.”

Whether you’re a city person or you live in the countryside, people head out into nature to escape – and that’s exactly what an open water swim can bring.

“Now is a great time to try something new,” says Fenwick.

“Particularly as we’re heading into the cooler months and people are wondering how they can keep up their outdoor exercise in a post-pandemic world.

“The wild swimming scene has exploded and it’s fantastic to see. Social media is carrying it so well – documenting how great our water is in this part of the world.

Our job is to enjoy it and reap in all of those benefits.

“People are staying at home and enjoying what we have on our doorstep, and that’s great. Our wildlife is well worth exploring.”

Fenwick’s biggest passion is in adventure swimming, setting himself new goals and teaching what he knows to other budding swimmers, but he’s got a few trophies worth mentioning, which he is oh-so humble about.

“This year started off pretty amazingly with a swim across Hooker Glacier in New Zealand. I tackled some pretty big icebergs – it was awesome.

“When I came back, I competed in the GB Winter Championships. I did quite well, but not as well as I could’ve done so I’m hoping that when the World Championships come around, I’ll be qualifying to go and represent Britain. That’s me with my fingers crossed!

“I came first in all of my races in the Welsh Winter Championships and I won three gold medals and one silver medal in the Scottish Winter Championships.

“Since then, I’ve really just been focusing on my winter challenges – moving away from distance racing.

“One of my biggest and most recent personal challenges is the Tyne Travel adventure, which I started over a year ago.

“The first swim was from Newcastle to Kielder. The second part was covering the south Tyne and the third was to SUP board from Kielder back down to the Quayside, finishing with a pint in the Pitcher & Piano.”

He certainly keeps himself busy – and his fans entertained with social media updates.

“H2oTrails is in its fourth year now,” says Fenwick.

“We’ve worked with so many amazing people. It’s the best job in the world,” he adds.

“To date, I think we’ve had a good 1,500 people through the doors, which is really quite special.

“The idea was born from a discussion between myself and a friend who lived over in Lanzarote. I flew out and had a meeting with him – the idea was to set up swimming holidays. When I came back, I started to realise that I didn’t really need to take people abroad, we’ve actually got so much natural beauty over here, so I decided to grow the business at home.

“H2oTrails is my full-time job now. I’m now in a place where I can teach and coach paddleboarding, all-ability open water swimming and also the cold water immersion stuff. I’m teaching people how to swim in the ice – it’s taken me about five or six years to get to the point where I feel like I can actually deliver some real good ice swimming sessions – allowing people to learn how to swim under 1 degree. We have a very particular setup when it comes to that. I’ve done a lot of training for it.

“I’ve got a lot of people wanting to swim through the winter. The lake is really high up and it’s pretty shallow, so it gets battered by the weather. It’s very dramatic when it comes to the change in seasons. It gets warm very quickly in the summer and it can ice over so quickly in the winter.

“In November last year, it dropped to -6, the lake froze over straight away and I was up there with my axe, making an ice channel to do some training. Ice swimming is now my biggest love. It’s a very exciting thing – I’m super happy that I’ve got the ability to swim in the ice.

“October is when we start running the cold conditioning courses. We start by helping swimmers to understand how to climb down the temperature ladder.”

Fenwick’s day job is all about the natural environment that surrounds him. It’s what makes him tick – which is why when I approached him to talk about why he loves the North East region, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I live in Corbridge, but you’ll often find me exploring much of the region and the areas surrounding Corbridge.

“There’s so much to love about where I live – and it has led me to my passion project, which I’m forever grateful for.

“If I’m not on the water paddling or lifeguarding, I’m most likely in there swimming or coaching. When I’m kicking back and chilling out, I’m usually at home with my partner Jenny.

“If I’m not at work or training, I’m quite often going up and down the river on my paddleboard picking up plastic. I’ve got a massive passion for collecting rubbish out of the river, taking it to the tips and doing my bit. A lot of us use the river for all kinds of sports, and it just needs a bit of TLC. If I get a chance, I get a massive buzz out of getting a sack full of plastic that’s been pulled out of the river before it even gets to the sea.

“My black lab puppy, Moona, is getting trained up as part of my lifeguard team. She’s getting really good on the water with me.”

As the weather changes and we wind down ever so slightly for winter, there’s no slowing down for Fenwick. Admittedly, he tells me he’s going to concentrate on coaching and his ice swimming school, but he still has big plans for the future.

“My next challenge is going to be to complete an official ice mile,” he says, with determination.

“I keep missing it every year because the temperature doesn’t always get low enough.

“I’d also like to complete an ice mile in Antarctica. Swimming with some giant icebergs would be pretty cool,” he adds.

“So that’s what’s in the pipeline when it comes to my swimming adventures, but work-wise, I really want to help raise awareness when it comes to plastic in our waters.

“I’m going to try and get a group together to help with some plastic collection, not only in my local river, but also a little further afield. We’ve all got to do our bit.

“My plan is to offer some free coaching to paddleboarders where we can learn and collect plastic as we go. It’s a small mission, but I’m on it and I’d really like to help make a difference.

“As you can imagine, I’ve got a never-ending list of challenges both big and small. As soon as I tick something off, another three things go on. But it’s all part of the fun.”

My Tyne Travelling Mission >>

At the beginning of My Tyne Travelling Mission, the aim was just to complete one section, but I’ve ended up creating a whole new hobby of mine called ‘river trekking’.

It started with the Newcastle to Kielder swim, pulling a raft with me. I managed to raise over 3k for Cancer Research, which was wonderful.

While swimming the North Tyne, I passed the meetings of the north and south rivers and decided that I wanted to return to do the south river stretch.

My next challenge was the South Tyne stretch. I completed the route from Acomb to Bardon Mill, which took me 13 hours.

This river is quite shallow and gets much more technical, which was incredibly testing to say the least. The adventure continued with a SUP paddle challenge from Kielder to Newcastle, finishing on Newcastle’s Quayside for a refreshing pint.

My most recent South Tyne challenge was from Bardon Mill to Lambley Viaduct – a 12 mile stretch against the flow of the river.

You can follow My Tyne Travelling Mission on my Instagram page, where I posted regular updates throughout the challenge. If you would like to support my campaign and donate to Teenage Cancer Trust, please visit: justgiving.com/fundraising/fenwickridley


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