Move over St Tropez, Princes Dock is the place to swim and be seen
My lips are blue, my toes are numb, but I've never been happier than swimming in the Mersey.
By Abi Whistance
“Just jump!” a voice behind me shouts. I’m on the edge of the dock — it’s been raining all day, and I’m shivering in my swimming costume. “It’s like a plaster, you just have to rip it off!” A smattering of swimming-capped heads bob up and down, and as I climb the steel stairs, I look to one of them for encouragement. They smile, and I close my eyes, tumbling backwards into the water.
Two hours before my leap of faith into the Mersey, I arrive at Princes Dock. It’s just before 5pm, and I’m here to meet Owen — he’s a lifeguard at the city’s open water swimming club, Swim Liverpool. “This is Jan,” he says, pointing at a woman shuffling around in the metal changing rooms to the side of the dock, putting her bikini on. Jan is a competitive swimmer who is currently training for her first triathlon. “If you stick around long enough you’ll see her jump out of the water and do a run of the docks in just her swimming cossie!” he laughs. I’m not 100% sure if he's joking or not: everyone here seems so radiantly and naturally athletic that I wouldn’t be surprised.
Swim Liverpool is part of a wider UK organisation, WeSwimRun, that orchestrates sporting events across Merseyside and Wales, including marathons and aquathlons. He first got involved with the group back in 2008, after moving home to Liverpool from Manchester. “I was working in bars and I was having a good life, but perhaps not the healthiest of lives,” he tells me, adding that while he was a keen swimmer and a pool lifeguard as a kid, university prompted him to replace that hobby with partying. “I decided to set up a plan for the future so I moved home.”
Upon his return, he threw himself into any number of different sports, going as far as to sign up for a triathlon. It was here that he tried open water swimming at Swim Liverpool for the first time, diving into the dock headfirst. “It was a real shock,” Owen laughs, adding that while he’s been “a confident swimmer all his life”, being in open water was a different thing altogether. “I dove in and I panicked because I couldn’t see the floor,” he tells me. “Fear took over and I just swam like crazy.” After ten minutes of flailing in the dark water, Owen found his stride, relishing the feel of its cold embrace and the lack of lanes and boundaries that constrict swimmers in pools. Since then, he’s never looked back.
In 2021, Owen took the logical next step, completing an open water lifeguarding qualification so he could help run the five weekly swims at Princes Dock. Being a lifeguard in open water is very different to that of a pool, he says — the distances are longer, for one thing, and some of the rescues required are more difficult when exposed to the elements. Owen points to the buoys that most of the swimmers here use for lap markers, placed so far out that they look like tiny pink specks in the water.
As we chat, more swimmers start to arrive and Owen dips away to sign them in. He keeps a record of all of the swimmers here, making sure each of them has a brightly coloured cap on so he can spot them in the water. One of the women getting ready to take the plunge is 54-year-old Mandy — she’s an NHS nurse who has been swimming here for around two years. “I didn’t swim for about 14 years before this,” she says, explaining that an injury in her shoulder made it difficult for her to exercise. When her friend suggested she give open water swimming a try in 2021, Mandy jumped at the chance.
What was it like experiencing the open water for the first time? “I jumped in and my face went numb, my lips went numb, it was like someone threw chillis at my face,” she giggles. Yet despite the initial shock she pushed through, and within four weeks she had swum her first full mile in open water. “It’s been life changing for me,” she says, adding that her own mental health struggles take a backseat when she’s in the water. “It’s a hard feeling to explain but you’ve got massive endorphins and you can’t think about anything else — it’s the mental health aspect that brings everyone together”. With that, Mandy skips up towards the head of the dock, and before a full count to three she’s hurled herself into the water, resurfacing with a triumphant woop.
While I’d love to be brave enough to hop right in, I’m not quite there yet. I look around for other swimmers willing to chat to me, and 52-year-old Alice calls me over, visibly giddy. She tells me that she first tried open water swimming here around six months ago. “I just hate swimming pools and chlorine, all the screaming children and predetermined lanes, it just wasn’t for me,” she explains, adding that open water swimming is “a lot more freeing” than other sports with it being out in nature. “It’s like a drug — when you try it, you can’t stop!”
She tells me that today has been a pretty tough day mentally for her, and while she feels deflated now she knows that after her swim, any negative feelings will slip away. “I know that I’ll get in there, do my laps, and the day will be transformed into something else and I’ll feel great”.
The emotional aspect sounds delightful, but what about the hygiene? I ask about the water quality — submerging yourself in the same water as so many ships must leave you feeling a little murky when you climb out, right? Nope — the water is tested for pollutants on a fortnightly basis by Peel Ports (the owner of the dock) and as long as she has been here, there has never been a problem with the water quality. There are four oxygen pumps dotted around the site too, working to keep the water as clean as possible for swimmers.
She tells me that at first it is daunting, admitting that her first time jumping into the water did frighten her a bit. “But [Swim Liverpool] is such a friendly place to be,” she adds, explaining that people of all abilities head to Princes Dock to swim each week. “The best thing is everyone just goes at their own pace, there’s no pressure at all”. With that, Alice waves goodbye and heads into the changing rooms, pulling a towel from her bag and tucking it into the metal shelves.
At this point, the jig is up. It’s clear I’m procrastinating, and Owen’s noticed. “I think it’s time for you to go in,” he tells me, a glint in his eyes. As I drag myself into the changing rooms, I run into Mandy, who’s finished her swim. She tells me that the water is a “marvellous 18 degrees” — warmer than usual — and despite her encouragement, I extract my sandals from my bag in slow motion to draw things out. But like death or taxes, the water comes for us all. It’s time.
“Listen, I’ll go in with you!” Owen shouts. Together, we walk out onto Princes Dock and I stare down. Owen gives me a long sidelong look: “It’s best just to get it out of the way.” I climb onto the ladder, lowering one foot into the water.
Much to my surprise, the water is far warmer than I’d imagined. “It’s because it's only around two metres deep and the sun warms it,” Owen explains. Emboldened, I tumble backfirst into the water. The cold envelopes me, wrapping itself around my body as I get a rush of adrenaline. There’s a split second in which I panic, before I collect myself and remember to swim.
Cheers erupt from behind me. “Well done!” Alice shouts, floating on her back a few metres away from me. Owen, braver than I, dives straight in. I notice I’m smiling, beaming even, so much so that my cheeks hurt. “See, it’s amazing isn’t it?” he says, encouraging me to take a deep breath and lie on my back. “If you’re ever tired when you’re out here, just lie on your back and float.”
Time passes differently in water. Sounds feel softer, the world moves slower, and a racing mind takes a minute to just breathe. I’ve always been an anxious person, my brain keeping me up most nights with intrusive thoughts about silly things I’ve done or said that day. Here, my worry seems to have dissolved into the water, and even despite emotional muscle memory — my brain’s dogged attempts to return to its usual tightly-wound norm — I feel relaxed. Suddenly everyone’s cult-like enthusiasm for the swimming group adds up. I luxuriate in the water for a while, alternating between floating and swimming a few strokes. After ten minutes, I wade back towards the steps, hoisting myself out.
My lips are blue, the tips of my toes numb, but I’m so happy, maybe the happiest I’ve been in this city yet. “I get it!” I shout at Mandy, who is now fully changed, sitting just outside the steps leading onto the dock. She grins: “I told you that you would!” Moments later, Owen reappears, swaddled in a fluffy poncho. “There’s nothing like it,” he says — and while this is starting to sound like an extremely long advertorial for Swim Liverpool, you know what? There isn’t.
I’m wrapped up in my hoodie, sat watching the water, when trainers sound behind me. Turning round, I spot a bikini-clad Jan, running across the bridge, dodging businessmen in suits and ties finishing work for the day. “I told you!” Owen laughs, “she does this three or four times every session!”
After a time, Jan comes to a halt by the dock, her running shoes dripping. “I do about 2km in the water, then one or two laps around the docks which is about another 2km,” she shouts across to me, wringing out her socks. She tells me she’s what is known as a “competitive pool swimmer”, competing in 100-metre butterfly stroke races for Bridgefields Swimming Club and completing swims of the English Channel. She comes to the Swim Liverpool sessions for training purposes. But what does she enjoy most about swimming here at Princes Dock? “My friends,” she says, waving at a woman called Lisa who is just about to take the plunge. They swim here together every week. “Being in the water, it’s my happy place.”