Swimlit: Gillian Best’s The Last Wave is a love letter to the sea

Friday, August 11, 2017

I don’t understand the sea. Not one bit. I grew up in my neighbourhood pool, and in Ontario lakes, and the thought of a shifting shoreline, not to mention undertows, is disorienting, terrifying even. I also can’t read a tide table to save my life. When I hiked the West Coast Trail at 18, I got caught not once, not twice, but three times on the beach with the tides coming in, scrambling up slippery ladders, soaked to my knees.

But if there’s anyone who could convince me of sea swimming, it’s Canadian-born, Bristol-based author Gillian Best. In her debut novel, The Last Wave, Martha, a devoted ocean swimmer who wears the second skin of her bathing suit tan for most of her life, never once steps foot in a pool. “The sea is alive, expansive; a pool is dead and confining. The sea is freedom. There is nothing in a pool: no current, no tide, no waves, and most of all, no history,” Best writes.

In the book, Martha swims to escape just about everything—the drudgery of motherhood, the mind numbingly boring tasks of being a housewife and is so well crafted, when I spoke to Best this week, I had to keep myself from asking how Martha was doing.

Best laughed. “She’s like an imaginary friend to me, too,” she says. “She’s good, she’s doing well.”

Martha doesn’t just swim in the sea, she crosses the English Channel nine (!) times (with one failed attempt). The book traces her swimming journey from 1947 until the present day and includes her Channel swims, estrangement, dementia and a devastating cancer diagnosis.

Best writes: “Gliding through the water almost completely submerged had always been a retreat to a different world for me. Swimming front crawl allowed me to focus inward, blocking everything else out—and the absolute quiet it afforded was unique. No other solitude—not going to the library, not sitting on a bench by myself—allowed my mind to wander so freely, roaming the wilds of my fantasies and the hundreds of other lives I imagined for myself.”

Swimming has also provided sanctuary for Best, the sea omnipresent in her life as well. As a 12-year-old, she spent time visiting San Francisco with her father. “I was always the first one in the ocean and the last one dragged out,” she says. She would collect small bottles of seawater and take them back to land-locked Waterloo with her so she could smell the briny sea during the “grim” Ontario winters and “be transported.”

She believed for years she’d be a professional surfer – something she laughs about now – but realized that it wasn’t surfing she was obsessed with, but the ocean. “It’s a holy experience, how people relate to water,” she says.

After years of swimming competitively, and lifeguarding and teaching swimming, Best moved to Toronto for university and was diagnosed with painful arthritis, a type in which, she describes, her spine and hips are trying to fuse. She began swimming again and says it has saved her time and time again. “I can be limping and hobbling on land, but as soon as I’m in the water, I can move again.”

“For me, water is physical freedom,” she says.

Though Best wrote about the English Channel, and ocean swimming and the power and fortitude of the sea, she admits she’s a pool swimmer herself.

“When I was living in London, I used to swim at London Fields Lido,” she says, a 50m outdoor pool in east London. It’s heated, year round and Best tells me about swimming in the snow on the few snowy days in London. (Check out these amazing photos from The Guardian!) 

“I prefer the wonderful incongruity of a pool in downtown London to Hampstead Heath or the Pond,” she says.

And because I ask every swimmer I met, I asked her if she has any other favourite swimming holes:
1). Her brother’s secret swimming hole in Guelph that he takes her to every time she’s home for a visit (I press for details, but she says she has no directional sense so this one remains a secret!)

2). The Hart House Pool at the University of Toronto: “It’s just so beautiful,” she says.

3). The 25m outdoor pool in her mom’s neighbourhood in Waterloo. “I went for a swim the day I arrived from the UK,” she says. “And it’ll be the last thing I do when I leave, on my way to the airport."

A swimming kindred spirit if I’ve ever known one.


Best will be launching the book in Toronto or Waterloo next week (swimwear option!):

Toronto: Monday, August 14 at 7pm at Glad Day Bookshop (499 Church St).
Free event; everyone is welcome.

Waterloo: Tuesday, August 15th at 7pm at Wordsworth Books (96 King Street South

You Might Also Like


Blog Archive


2017 2018 2019 2020 52 lakes A Big Deep Breath A Comparison a veritable miracle A-plus west end pools accessories alex duff pool algonquin park all the pools all the swimming holes aquafit Aquatic Centre in Regent Park argentina Art Art of the Swim atlantic ocean Awenda baby shampoo backyard pools Backyard wading pool badges bancroft bancroft and the Kawarthas bathing caps bathing suits Beach bears berlin bingo blogging blowing bubbles books Buckskin Lake buenos aires bunchfamily butterfly Caledon cambridge Camp Tanamakoon canoeing carilo Catskills CBC CBC Radio cheddar ontario Chicago Chlorine christie pits christmas claire cliff jumping coach dave Coaching insight cocktails cold water swimming Collecting Colouring cottage cottageing courage COVID-19 Craft crowns ctv news dave ling Dawson's Pond docktail docktails Donald Summerville Pool dreaming of swimming driveway puddle earlscourt park edmonton elora elora quarry English Channel Etobicoke etsy Europe Everton Ontario every single fast lane Extreme Heat Alert Fall 2017 fall swimming fast lane first swim Flesherton flipturns floating fouling French 75 Gallagher Centre gary clement gatineau Gatineau River Georgian Bay germany gifts Giovanni Caboto Giovanni Caboto pool goggles Grey County grotto guardian swim Guest blog guest swim Habermannsee Haliburton halloween Hampstead Heath Ladies' Pond Hanlan's Point heaven High Park high park pool highlight reel highlights homebody homemade badges Homstead hotel pool iceland illustration inclusive change rooms indoor pool Indoor Pools instagram Intercontinental Yorkville interview jack jessica j. lee jon klassen Joy julia zarankin jump jumping jumping in kate greene kate pugsley kawartha dairy kawarthas kerry clare kiddos kiki and polly kinmount Lake lake la peche Lake Louise Lake Ontario Lake Ontario and pools lake swimming Lake Temiskaming lakes lambton kingsway pool Laura Wills leanne shapton leeches length swim leo lionni lessons Letting Go lido lidos lifeguard towers lifeguarding Lindsay Lindsay Recreation Centre lindsay sutherland Lindsay Zier-Vogel lisa congdon lisa golightly local swimming hole london long distances long hair long hair caps loons love love lettering project Lucky Peach manhattan pools margrit talpalaru Marilyn Bell mark tewksbury martha graham martingrove bears master swim club mat leave matisse Meaford meghan markle melodrama memoir Memory Mendoza Metro Morning michael phelps Michigan lakes Middle America Miles Nadal JCC miracle miranda july missing MoMA my local myvatn nature baths natural pools nebraska new pool new pools new year New Year's Eve new years new york city Newfoundland night swimming nightswimming norman hardie nova scotia novel ocean ocean swimming olympic pool olympics olympics 2016 ontario Oshawa Oshawa apartment pool outdoor pools outdoor swimming pack and play paddle paddling pam mcconnell aquatic centre pandemic pandemic swims papirmass park lawn pool parklawn pool parks and rec patrice hall pattern design PEC pells pool penny olesiak perfectionist PFDs photos picton pinehurst lake pisces poetry Polar Bear Dip pond Pondering Pool pool swimming Pool: Sunnyside pools poolsitting prairies pregnancy pregnant prince edward county prince harry PSA public pools quarry Quebec Radiohead railcar cottage rain reading recipe recipes relay report cards resolutions Rhya Tamasauskas Rio de la Plata River river swimming rivers road trip road trips roadtrip rocktails rosehall run royal wedding runner running salt water saltwater pool sandbanks Saskatchewan Saugeen Schoolhouse Riviera sculpture seaweed secret swim shade's mills Shannon Litzenberger Shebeshekong Bay Sketchbook skimmer skinny dipping skinnydipping slow lane smores smythe park pool smythe pool snacks sprinting st. john's legends swim club stedmans Stirling submission suburbs summer summer 2016 Summer 2017 summer 2018 summer 2019 summer camp summerary sundhollin Sunnyside Sunnyside beach Sunnyside Pool sunrise sunsets superhero splash suzanne moreau swim swim art swim blog swim crown swim goals swim lit Swim Mantra Swim Meme Swim retreat Swim Rituals Swim Scenes swim weekend Swim-ventures swimiracle swimlit swimming swimming attire swimming caps swimming friends swimming hole swimming holes swimming hotel swimming lessons swimming pool swimming pools swimming song swimmy swimply Swimsuits tall poppy tanamakoon tanis rideout team mermaids Team Swim technique thanksgiving the 6ix The Beach The Beaches The Deep End this is not my hat tilley hat tips TMU toddler toddlers Toronto Toronto Island Toronto Masters of the Universe toronto pools trackpants transistor radio travel ontario Travel Stories travel writing triathlon turning twelve mile lake Twitter Two Lakes UK underpants uniform University of Toronto Uruguay user guide Varsity vicki smith wading pool warming stations Wasaga Beach Water water therapy waterfalls watermarks weeds Weisser See west end west end phoenix West End Toronto whip kick wild swimming Wilder Lake Wills Laura winery winter picnic winter stations winter swimming worlds smallest bookstore writing xmas Yorkton zier-vogel lindsay
©2016 Lindsay, Rhya & Laura.
... Powered by Blogger.