Cold water swimming continues to ride the crest of a wave. What started a few years ago as a trend is now looking like a permanent fixture – and its positive effects are wider ranging than many people realise.

Much has been written about the health, social and mental health benefits of chilly dipping. But it’s also benefitting seaside economies, helping micro businesses blossom, and creating jobs in rural locations.

The trend for cold water swimming began with the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and they started life in St David’s Pembrokeshire after one woman, Sian Richardson, set herself a cold-water swimming challenge. Struggling with pain and mobility problems due to needing two hip replacements, Sian decided cold water swimming would be therapeutic and it appealed to her love of physical challenges.

Back then Sian was a lone swimmer, so when she went in the water, often shrieking and swearing as the water hit her. she started to attract attention, and gradually people started to ask if they could join her. The Bluetits Chill Swimmers was the result.

That was in 2014. Now, in 2023, The Bluetits has over 100,000 members worldwide. In the past year alone the Bluetits community grew by 30,000. Some 67 per cent of them are sea swimmers - that’s a lot of people visiting our coastline, and the result is a lot of extra trade for the businesses there. This is much appreciated out of season, when coastal businesses often struggle.

Ben and Caroline Elliott have been running Porthclais kiosk in Pembrokeshire since 2019 and they have noticed a positive impact from having a local Bluetits flock.

“The Bluetits have been visiting us since the very start of our time at Porthclais. They always bring good vibes and laughter whenever they stop by,” says Ben.

“Some of the Bluetits who are more local, we have gotten to know quite well, and they will often visit with their individual family and friends as well as when they meet for a swim.”

He adds that the Bluetits Holidays initiative, which helps to fill holiday accommodation out of season by offering deals for Bluetits members, has also benefitted his business.

“With the Bluetit holidays, they have made a point to stop by with their groups, which increases our exposure to new customers,” he says. “The Bluetits have without doubt had a positive Impact on our business.”

Besides boosting local businesses, The Bluetits Chill Swimmers has brought regular orders for the micro businesses that make Bluetits branded merchandise.

The Bluetits product range began after Sian discovered just how much she was spending giving free badges for new members. Her solution was to start selling Bluetits merchandise to fund the freebies and other Bluetits activities.

One business owner she teamed up with is Ellen Maxwell from Edinburgh, who founded the Pants at Bottom Line Etsy shop during lockdown in March 2020

“During Covid, ‘normal’ life came to a standstill so abruptly that I found myself with lots of time to fill and decided to make bralets, briefs, boyshorts, thongs and boxers,” says Ellen. “I chose undies because they’re easy to mail out and there weren’t many people selling them at the time.”

Her friends and family raved about how comfortable they are and how much they loved the quirky fabric designs, and the Etsy shop quickly became successful. Bluetits founder Sian discovered it and asked if she could make custom post-swim pants for the Bluetits.

“I had cotton lycra printed especially for them with the Bluetits logo,” says Ellen. “It’s such a cute and joyous print. Making the Bluetits pants has brought quite a few new customers to my shop. Some have become regulars and they just message me via Insta or WhatsApp to order ‘the usual’ in the new prints that I keep adding. It’s wonderful getting orders from returning customers; it’s encouraging that they love the fit and feel of the pants as much as I do.”

Sales of Bluetits merchandise has helped to fund the training of 21 swim coaches through its swim coach bursary programme. These coaches are all now qualified and starting their own self-employed businesses.

One of them is Kate O'Brien, who now runs Black Mountains Swims in the Brecon Beacons. Kate had set up a Bluetits flock at Keepers Pond in the Brecon Beacons while working as a massage therapist. In the spring of 2022 she injured her shoulder, impacting her career. At the same time, the opportunity came up to train as a swim coach with the Bluetits.

“It was great timing,” she says. “It was a perfect opportunity to do something different. I love the outdoor swimming, so I thought, ‘Why not? Let's give it a go.’”

She’d been attracted to the Bluetits because it was non-competitive, and the coach training had a similar approach.

“Before I joined the Bluetits, if you’d said, ‘outdoor swim coach’, I would have immediately thought of triathlon, and that's not me at all,” she says. “Pretty much 99 per cent of the people I swim with are not about that either. We do it more for the wellbeing and the fun side of it, and for that reset. If you’ve had a bad day, you can go and get in the water and to be with lovely people and it really helps.”

Now she’s working as a swim coach, she embodies that approach.

“I just want to help people be happy,” she says. “So many people are nervous about doing it. I'm able to guide them, and it's all done in a fun and supportive way rather than me being a shouty coach. It's friendly and welcoming and inclusive, and it just fits me to a tee.”

Kate adds that the Bluetits funding made the training accessible to her as a single mother, allowing her to seize the opportunity to start a new career.

“I pretty much hit the ground running,” she says. “As soon as we got the certificates I went ahead and set up social media pages for Black Mountain Swims. My friend designed a logo for me. I decided I wanted to mainly offer guided swims. I like doing swim tours. I take people to waterfalls, on river swims, and to local spots that they maybe wouldn't go to on their own.

“I also do introductory sessions, which have been really popular over the winter. We learn about safety and how to spot things like cold water shock and hypothermia.”

She’s delighted by the new career that has opened up as a result of the training.

“I can't put it into words - it makes it a little bit emotional,” she says. “Without the Bluetits I definitely wouldn't be where I am. I was not a very happy person before, and through the Bluetits my life has changed completely.

“I now get to do something that I really, really love. I get to help people, I get to enjoy myself at work, and I can work around my daughter. I couldn't ask for more. When I wake up every morning, I feel like I have to pinch myself. Work is taking somebody swimming! I'm very lucky.”