I’ve been a year-round San Francisco Bay swimmer for 33 years, and there’s something going on with cold open-water swimming that is deeper than most people would expect (not just the water depth!). So I’ve started a documentary about the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of full immersion in the natural world, entitled “Cold Refuge.”
First, I’m filming individual swimmers and asking them 1) how they convince themselves to take that first step into cold water, and 2) once they’re in, what the Bay has to say to them. The film is expanding as I proceed. I’ve just found my first narrative threads: an African American “late-onset” swimmer who was told by whites when he was 13 years old that “blacks don’t swim.” (It took him 30 years to try.) A blind man who tethers himself to a sighted swimmer, synchronizing his swim stroke to his partner. A wheelchair-bound swimmer who dives off a pier, weightless at last.
People swim in open water for many reasons in addition to exercise: to re-create balance, to gain perspective, to get over a loss, or depression, or stress, to wash away fear and anxiety, to do something real. In recent years we’ve backed away from nature in two major ways: Most of us now live in cities surrounded by concrete, and we spend most of our time as sedentary beings, living in abstract, ethereal cyberspaces, staring at screens.
The subtext of “Cold Refuge” is get back to nature! Here in San Francisco it’s surprisingly easy to do that: to fully immerse oneself in the world of sea lions, cormorants, gulls, and tides, and to benefit from its healing aspects. Cold-water swimming won’t ever be everyone’s cup of tea — and I’ll include those on shore who think it’s completely nuts — but hopefully the film will encourage urban audiences to consider how they, too, might find nature in or near the city. That connection helps foster environmental activism; people only protect what they know and love. Please support this in-progress project!