Annette Lees, author of a social history of swimming in New Zealand, says her favourite swim is always the one at her feet. Sandra Simpson finds out more.
August 29, Tamaterau Bay: Strong wind blowing straight across Whāngārei Harbour. I walk for a long while before I find a sheltered pool behind an old pōhutukawa and lower myself into the high tide. Salty. Cold. This doesn't feel too clever.
At the time she wrote this diary entry, Annette Lees had whooping cough but was maintaining her "quest" to swim outside every day for a year by using hot pools and even dunking herself into a cold rainwater bath with the window open.
"I felt far more despair over the breaking of the habit than about being sick," she says. "It was very interesting to do something every day. It breaks you into a whole new world."
Lees, a freshwater conservationist, grew up in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and swam "all over" while growing up.
"I never wanted to be that dusty adult sitting on the side while the children are swimming – and one day I found myself in that position.
"So the next summer I swam outdoors every day and enjoyed it so much I carried on. I travel a lot for work so would ask locals where to swim and all these new places opened up. There are secret swimming spots everywhere."
The same locals would often tell Lees stories or suggest a person with local swimming knowledge. After being unable to source a book about this country's social history of swimming, Lees decided to write her own.
Swim includes once-famous swimmers, such as Hūria Mātenga, who in 1863 with two Māori men, saved nine crewmen aboard the Delaware from stormy seas near Nelson, and Lily Copplestone who in 1930 swam from Mt Maunganui to Tauranga (1 hour and 20 minutes) and was the first woman to swim across Sydney Harbour.
"The historic stories were hard to find," Lees says.
"Hinemoa's swim across Lake Rotorua is famous but many others had all but vanished.
"I think swimming is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we don't appreciate how unique our history of domestic, outdoor swimming is. If we don't have a language for recreational swimming and it's not recognised as a 'thing' then it can be dismissed and overlooked.
"I wanted to honour the history of swimming and hope this book helps bring the freshwater story to life."
April 16, Mission Bay (Auckland): In the changing sheds I strip off my hot conference clothes. It feels great to get in my comfy togs and dive in. The water is deliciously fresh, sand the colour of butter. A speed holiday. I drive back to the conference with wet hair.
• Annette Lees appears at Escape! on October 18, talking about Swim at 11am and joining a panel discussion on issues facing New Zealand at 12.30pm, both at Baycourt. See the full programme at taurangafestival.co.nz. Tickets through the website or from Baycourt box office.
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