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In Mumbai’s sea, a group of swimmers finds thrill, respite from the city, and a sense of community

·8 min read

The years 2020 and 2021 have been witness to the slow-but-inevitable coming-apart of our lives due to the coronavirus pandemic. Amid moments of turmoil and pain, what made life bearable €" and perhaps even worth it for many of us €" were the pockets of leisure and loiter we carved out for ourselves.

Firstpost's new series 'Leisure & Loiter' explores the value that these acts €" and the many things that encompass them such as rest, love, pleasure, hobbies, travel, day-dreaming, food, conversation €" add to our everyday existence.

In Part 4, >Neerja Deodhar and >Zahra Amiruddin look at sea swimming as a test of resilience, a sense of escape, and a way to build a community. Read more from the series here.

***

A setting moon, bright in the sky and glimmering softly in the waves, illuminates Mumbai's Juhu Beach on an early March morning in 2021. The horizon is hazy, the beach is largely isolated, and this setting is made more surreal by an image that I won't forget for years to come: A group of swimmers walking determinedly into the water, only to break into effortless strokes as they ventured deeper into the sea.

I am at Juhu Beach to meet the Mumbai Sea Swimmers, a nearly five-year-old group of open sea swimmers who pursue this unique sport in the waters surrounding the city.

Only a few minutes ago they'd huddled together to discuss the safety rules: notes on staying within the prescribed area, asking for help, and not swimming in isolation were exchanged, as the swimmers put on their gear and did some stretches. My guide on this reporting trip is Minesh Babla, a businessman who co-founded Mumbai Sea Swimmers with software developer Mehul Ved.

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All photographs by Zahra Amiruddin

He leads us to a fisherman's boat, which will allow us to watch the swimmers at close quarters and experience the sea in a way that is very different from sitting at the beach. A warning about momentary unsteadiness and a strong push later, our boat has embraced the waves. Babla's encouraging voice, which tells stories about memorable swims and the might of the sea, is a steadying force for those of us who are not used to being in a boat like this.

The Mumbai Sea Swimmers began going out to sea in 2016, in a more informal manner and in smaller groups, at Khar Danda. These swims were undertaken with the assistance of local fishermen. But the number of people who sign up for swims now has increased exponentially; there were over 20 people, some beginners and some advanced, the day we visited. This is in part due to the lockdown and the lack of access to pools, but mainly because of the reputation and popularity that this group has earned over the years. An increasing interest in triathlons has provided a fillip to the culture of open sea swimming, Babla adds.

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"But we're not running this group with the incentive of cashing in on a demand or to earn a profit. This is a collective passion," he asserts. Ved echoes this sentiment; the idea, he says, was always to build a community. "We're not a business, we're just trying to gather resources to build something €" without the people around us, we would not be able to grow, whether it's our regular swimmers, the fishermen, or even the coconut vendor at the beach who helped us make arrangements." Ved adds that even their approach towards increasing outreach ensures that the swimmers' safety is not compromised.

***

The sea is the medium and the source of exhilaration, and Babla's love and respect for it is evident from the way he looks at and speaks about it. "The water has been my companion for 10 years; it is my relaxation, the place where I leave my worries behind. It's not a workout," he says. Experiencing the sea in such an intimate manner has meant that he does not feel the "need" for a vacation.

Nearly every swim brings him joy, but Babla does have his favourites, such as the time he swam alongside a dolphin which was only two-and-a-half feet away. "The magic is in things like this.€¦ the seagulls flying around, the sun rising as you explore the water," he adds.

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Once you're away from the coast, all you can hear is the waves, and the sound of the swimmers' arms and legs crashing against them. Their limbs cut through the sea like a pair of scissors against soft fabric. Despite the vastness of the sea, they're all completely at ease, but this is only because they've gotten over their individual fears €" of being completely spent in the middle of a swim, of wandering too far away, of the unknown things one may encounter in the water (jellyfish and plastic bags are only among two of such possibilities).

"Fear itself is fine, what you do with it is what matters€¦ The sea is unique every day and at every new stretch. Swimmers need to navigate and calibrate their actions based on how it is behaving on that particular day," Babla says. A perimeter is set up in the water, and there are boats like the one we are in, out at sea, to provide assistance and breaks whenever the swimmers need them.

Ved adds that for many participants, this is their first experience of swimming in the sea. After being trained, most people test the waters by doing one- or two-kilometre swims. Observing people challenge themselves has helped Ved and Babla to expand their own understanding of what they can achieve through Mumbai Sea Swimmers. "Last year, a few swimmers expressed the desire to do a 10k swim. I told them we'd monitor them and ask them to stop if they seemed like they weren't prepared. They did well and finished in time," he says with pride.

***

Part of the allure of open sea swimming is doing it as a group, not just to alleviate one's worries, but also because of the solidarity and community that is an integral part of it. The more advanced swimmers look out for the beginners, as part of a 'buddy system'. "This system is as much about instilling a sense of confidence and safety as it is about advanced swimmers giving back to the group that taught them how to navigate the waters in the first place. After all, each of us remembers how nervous we were the first few times we swam," Babla says.

Mentorship and training beginners is a big part of Mumbai Sea Swimmers' objectives. The group has hired coaches who work with the beginners in shallow water; they feel reassured and safe because their feet always touch the sand. "A coach must be a people-person, they must have passion and expertise, and I'd rate their passion over their need to be technical," says Babla.

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Closer to the coast, Coach Sarika is in action, helping people do short laps near the beach. She has been with the group since its inception. "The most gratifying part of being a coach is knowing that the swimmers have taken something back with them at the end of a training session, when their technique improves, and when they overcome their apprehensions," Sarika says.

One of the challenges of pursuing this sport in Mumbai is the quality of the seawater itself, which is no stranger to dirt, garbage and many other pollutants. We're told that on most days, it's not possible to see your own arm under water; if you do, it's a sign that the water is clean. But those who sign up to swim, whether with this group or outside of it, are aware of this fact, and there has been no observable health hazard, they say.

***

The reasons to join this group are as varied as the swimmers themselves. Radhika Tonsey, a doctor, has been with the group since late 2017 and finds sea swimming exciting because of the water's unpredictable nature. "You can be an excellent pool swimmer and still find the sea challenging. You need a different set of swimming skills and tricks. One day the sea may be cool and calm, and the next day, it could be lashing in your face," she says.

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Everyone in the group has a day job, which means that they're accommodating swims in their weekly schedules by carving out time for them. Many wake up early, drive down to the beach, swim to their heart's content and then do a full shift at work. Ritam Sinha, who joined the group two years ago, calls these swims his 'mid-week therapy' because of the meditative effect they have on him.

One of the group's members found that swimming in the sea was helping heal his neuro-muscular condition, allowing him to engage in cardio-vascular exercise while feeling more empowered about his body.

For Coach Sarika, who isn't a big fan of Mumbai and city-living, the sea and swimming in it give her a sense of respite and escape, and an opportunity to be closer to nature.

When the sounds of the city are drowned out by the sea and all you can see is wave upon wave, the skyline is but a silhouette, and Mumbai looks nothing like herself. Some loiter in the city's streets to get to know it better, some loiter among its waves, for a taste of salt and thrill.

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Also See: Mrs Nischol: A short story on love, memory — and a tomato that refused to ripen

Of loitering and loss: Mourning a changed relationship with the sea, in a 'developing' city

The pleasure of leisure: Finding value in disengaging from our pursuits, every now and then

Read more on long-reads by Firstpost.

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