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Geoffrey Fraser Dutton: Swimming Free

Fri Aug 08, 2014 5:35 am

After a recent exchange of emails, I'm minded to move on a couple of decades from the early 1950s to the early 1970s when the following book was published:
Dutton, Geoffrey Fraser (1972) Swimming Free: On and Below the Surface of Lake, River and Sea, London: William Heinemann Ltd.

The image of the book cover is from the Classic Diving Books site and the caption there reads: "I have no idea what this book is about - and here it is before me. The fly reads: 'What can we do with ourselves', asks the author,' what is there to do, once we have gone to the botherof learning to swim?. In this book he tell us.
Well, thats gratifying. Who is this guy? Well, he is a doctor, and lives in th Highlands with wife and three children and is well known in Scottish mountaineering circles ... and 'discovers the best communion of mind and matter when floating far out on the sun-smacked waves...' There is mention of diving."

So this title is at least a bit of an enigma and, speaking for myself, I believe it to be a classic of its kind. I wrote the following review almost 5 years ago and posted it elsewhere, but I do think it bears republication.

What can we do with ourselves-what is there to do-once we have learnt to swim? I hope to answer this question in the following pages. I hope to show that there exists for every swimmer a new and unsuspected world-not thousands of miles away or hugely expensive but here under his nose in river, lake, sea, even in pond and ditch and flooded meadow, available now with the simplest of equipment. You no longer have to brave frigid waters-warm rubber suits are for all; with fins and mask and snorkel you enjoy a confidence and freedom of the water never before offered to Man. You merely need to have learnt to swim-well. Then you can begin to look around you, at your new inheritance.

I offer in these pages a personal solution-but it applies to everyone who longs to explore aquatic worlds more imaginative than swimming pool, and more accessible than the Red Sea; and who wishes simply to swim, and not be burdened with expensive specialized apparatus. It should whet the appetite of those who are not yet competent swimmers, and refresh those who are happy just to be beside loch, river or sea-everyone, surely, who finds adventure in our despoiled terrestrial environment becomes ever less satisfying and ever more mechanical. Here is simplicity and freedom, uncontaminated, unsuspected.

Above are the opening paragraphs of a British book published over three decades ago and written by a man who climbs, skis, walks and swims as he travels. The volume focuses on what the blurb on the dustcover calls "adventure swimming", namely swimming in open waters, such as rivers, lakes and the sea, with the aid of fins, mask, snorkel and wetsuit, while hiking and camping across country. What he describes largely resembles what has come to be called "swimhiking" in the new millennium. I admire this book because it is very much "before its time" and because its robust portrayal of snorkelling as a cold-water means of getting from A to B while enjoying the view above and below the waves is so different from some people's perception of snorkelling as an activity confined to remote, expensive, warm, tropical resorts on ocean islands devoid of culture and nightlife, an exclusive pursuit for the overpaid, the effete, the very timid and the very young.

Dutton insists that he is offering something inclusive to his readers, open to everyone with basic swimming skills, a pair of fins, a mask, a snorkel and an exposure suit. We don't have to fly anywhere first, the nearest patch of open water will do. I can relate to this simplicity, because as often as I can I head off to the coast, 8 miles away, to snorkel in the North Sea in my vintage-style fins, mask, snorkel and drysuit, all new but a close copy of what the skin diving pioneers of the 1950s wore when exploring their own home waters, whether the Mediterranean, the Southern California Pacific or the Great Lakes of the Upper Midwest. I can recommend this book unreservedly to everybody, but particularly to those aquatic enthusiasts who see themselves as rugged individualists.

So those were my thoughts from half a decade ago. I don't think I would change much, if anything, in what I wrote back then. I always enjoy reading about people taking pleasure in swimming and diving in their own home waters rather than abroad. After all, that was how most people in the early days developed their passion for the aquatic environment. The Riviera and the Caribbean were for a privileged few back then.

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Re: Geoffrey Fraser Dutton: Swimming Free

Fri Aug 08, 2014 3:06 pm

Another excellent read worth seeking out. I think it is very worthwhile extolling the virtures of local diving. It is just as worthwhile a pursuit as diving more exotic locales. I am fortunate enough to live within a 2-4 hour drive of many freshwater lakes and look foward to diving all of them. Again I admire his emphasis of the simplicity of basic gear and skin diving technique.

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