Story first published in West Magazine, August 2016
Wild swimmer Kari Furre’s aquatic love affair began in her garden pond, aged six. The 66-year-old can swim distances of more than 10-miles at a time, describes swimming in nature’s playground like “swimming over a garden”, and says she’ll never, ever, stop.
“My father had a digger, and one day just dug and dug until he’d created a pond in our garden which I spent a lot of time swimming in as a child, with all the frogs and dead leaves,” she recalls. “That’s probably what made wild swimming quite normal for me,” continues Kari from her home near the bohemian town of Totnes, south west England.
This July, for her Diamond Duke of Edinburgh Award, the merwoman swum the epic, 17km length of England’s largest lake, Lake Windermere in the Lake District, accompanied by two friends, her son on a paddleboard and a friend in a motorised boat.
“We swam for about six hours, feeding every 45 minutes” she says. “And had the most memorable meal in the middle – a white bread roll with grated cheese from Spar and a cup of instant coffee, and it was absolutely delicious – food always tastes better mid swim!”
As a teenager in the 1960s, Kari was one of a small number of women who completed their gold Duke of Edinburgh Award. So when she signed up for her Diamond Award to mark her 65th year – swimming the length of Windermere the “perfect challenge” – she was used as a poster girl for the scheme which is celebrating its Diamond Anniversary this year.
Kari’s sights are now fixed on an even longer jaunt from Dartmouth Castle to Start Point in south Devon later this summer.
“People swim for different reasons,” she explains. “I like the journey. There’s something very special about immersing yourself in the landscape, and for me, it comes from the creative part of my brain. You get a heightened sense of being; I describe my swimming as being yogic in nature, an art process rather than a sports process.”
But Kari, who’s favourite haunts include the River Dart and Thurlestone Rock to Hope Cove in the South Hams, and from Totnes to Dartmouth, doesn’t actually call swimming in the outdoors, be it rivers, lakes or the sea, “wild”. “We used to just call it going for a swim!” she laughs.
The 3.5km section of the Dart from Totnes to Dartington Hall, is a regular foray for Kari. “You get it all to yourself, it’s amazing, and it’s completely free! I used to go up and down up and down for training for Windermere. It’s good fresh water, very shallow and safe, and lots of teenagers enjoy themselves there during the summer, which is lovely.
“I mix up river and sea swimming. I think I prefer rivers, but there’s an iconic swim around Burgh Island I used for training which is just brilliant.”
Another favourite swim is a 6km stretch downstream from Aveton Gifford to Bantham along the River Avon. “It’s very serene,” she explains. “There’s a sandy bottom and the water’s always really clear so you can watch the seaweed beneath you, and you get a lot of assistance from the current so you feel like an Olympian! It feels like the 19th century children’s fairytale The Water-Babies.”
Kari had an itinerant career working in repertory theatre for 20 years, then as an exhibition designer and is now an established maker of the most exquisite fish leather sculptures, a nod to her Norwegian roots (her father was Norwegian, her mother from Totnes). She sources the fish skin for her craft from chefs who work in the fishing town of Brixham, who save the skins for her, and describes her fascination with the material as a subconscious link to her amphibious alter ego.
The artist has always been a swimmer, regularly clocking up 30 odd lengths upon each visit to her nearest pool throughout her life. And a flirtation with scuba diving also paved the way for her later life amid the blue.
But it was when she hit her 50s that she decided she wanted “something else” from life and when long distance outdoor swimming became part of her identity. A short instructors’ course with a coach who was renowned for his interest with the well-being philosophy surrounding the Alexander Technique, kick started a new found appreciation for technique and the therapeutic element of swimming. And the first of many adventures in the water started with swimming holiday specialists, SwimTrek, with one of her first swims an idyllic two miler between Greek islands.
“You could say I had a midlife rebellion!” she says. “Water quality back in the ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t like it is now, and people had to make their own wetsuits, it’s all about the zeitgeist really.”
Kari became a teacher, both of competitive triathletes and enthusiasts, using Ashburton’s community outdoor pool, and has became known for treating swimming like an art form and giving many people the confidence to swim.
“I don’t push people up and down the pool,” she says of her teaching style. “I have a sculptor’s eye – I’m good at looking at people and working out what to do with their technique.”
Kari swims four or five times a week, sticks more to the pool in the winter months admitting that sometimes the brutality of the cold, as a sufferer from Raynaud’s phenomenon – whereby blood circulation is reduced in extreme cold – can get to her. Yet she never lets it conquer her. “The swimmers who swim without wetsuits are just so tough,” she says. “I’m a bit more namby- pamby.” I disagree I tell her, this is one strong she-phibian (fictional genetically engineered primitive humanoid fish creature created by author David Lynch), and I ask her whether she’s had any close calls. She hasn’t; she says she’s no risk taker and does things safely.
“I have a sense of self-preservation,” she continues. I don’t ever mess with the sea or waterfalls because you can’t win. I think a bit of healthy fear is good for you. But everyone has different perceptions of fear – for some people putting their faces into water is scary, but for me it’s cycling – the scariest thing for me would be cycling around Totnes! But I believe that if you try, you can achieve anything.”
To the landlubber, Kari’s exploits are nothing short of awesome. She struggles to recall her most epic adventure, there seem to have been so many, including the time she swam the Lake District’s Crummock Water – in the dark.
“The nice thing about swimming is that middle aged ladies with a layer of subterranean fat which aids buoyancy, can be really good at it, but young athletic teenage boys can sink to the bottom,” she laughs. “It’s quite like learning to drive a car or a bicycle even, you have to coordinate all of your arms and legs and position and rotation, and then take the water into consideration.
“I think I prefer swimming alone – you never should of course, and there is no need to, there is a strong Facebook community of swimmers and there’s always a swim going on somewhere, so I often get involved, but more for the social side of things and the cake!”
Kari’s return to her Devon roots after a life working around London and latterly York, coincided with her taking up long distance outdoor swimming, becoming a director of the Outdoor Swimming Society and helping founder and friend, Kate Rew research her book, Wild Swim, one of the first publications about wild swimming.
Kari’s sister lives locally and her son, a marine biology graduate and London Triathlon winner, visits frequently and they often swim together, a enviable perhaps rare, mother-son activity.
“I count myself very lucky that we go out swimming together,” she says. “He was saying throughout the Windermere swim, ‘come on mother, more swimming!’ I used to be the one pressuring him to exercise, and now it’s come back at me!”
Kari’s husband died in 1992, and his, and other close family members’ health issues saw her embrace exercise as an elixir of life. “I used to believe that if you got up and went running and you didn’t eat rubbish, you’d be immortal,” she explains. “Exercise doesn’t make you immortal. But it does make your quality of life much better.”
What advice does she have for would-be wild swimmers? “Learn to swim properly,” she affirms. “If you have a good technique, it will not only make it easier but more fun. Triathletes all want to master their front crawl, but it’s the playing aspect that’s just as important – under water somersaults, jumping in, climbing out of the pool – if you’re used to being upside down, then you’re not going to be fazed if you’re suddenly wiped out by a wave.
“Swimming is the most remarkable activity. You can do it from before you can speak, right up to old age. I’ve seen people who can barely move about on land, but chuck them in the water and they get their independence back.”
She adds: “I’m a water junkie. There are a lot of people who don’t like chlorinated pools or only swim in chlorinated pools, but I love anything – I’d swim in a puddle. I see no real reason why I can’t go on swimming forever.”