Cold-water swimming is enjoying a surge in popularity in the UK, with Google searches increasing by 45% in the past month alone. But, for some, like Robert Hester, the thrill of swimming in open waters comes with a paralysing fear of deep bodies of water, also known as thalassophobia. This phobia is so prevalent that TikTok videos visualising it have amassed over 3 billion views.
London-based marketing director Robert Hester, 29, shared his journey of overcoming his intense fear with premium outdoor clothing brand Finisterre. “I have always had a fear of deep water,” Rob recounts, attributing part of his trepidation to his upbringing on the Isle of Man. “I experienced very rough seas growing up. Even in Force 12 wind conditions, the ferry would still sail,” he elaborates.
Rob’s fear was put to the test when he decided to take on the Iron Man Challenge UK in 2022. The event features a gruelling 1.2-mile swim, among other disciplines. “I remember wanting to take on a physical challenge I believed would be nearly impossible to achieve,” he said, recognising that conquering his fear of deep water was non-negotiable if he were to complete the challenge.
To tackle his fear, Rob strategically began open-water swimming sessions at Canary Wharf. “This got me comfortable swimming in open water, knowing there were easy exit points,” he notes. A crucial development was finding a wetsuit that gave him extra buoyancy, alleviating his fear of sinking. “I felt like Ironman putting on a suit with superpowers! I could float instantly,” he recalls.
Ultimately, the most significant factor in overcoming his phobia was mental preparation. Rob turned to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques, specifically those from a book by psychologist Dr Jim Taylor. These techniques helped him break the swim into manageable segments, all while repeating NLP affirmations. “Zero doubts entered my mind when saying this, and my mind believed it,” he said.
When asked how others can conquer their fear of deep water, Rob has three pieces of advice. First, swim in open water when others are swimming to boost confidence. Second, invest in a wetsuit that suits your needs, focusing on buoyancy. Lastly, work on mental strength through affirmation and focus.
Ultimately, it was the combination of mental and physical preparation that led to Rob’s successful completion of the Iron Man Challenge. “I wasn’t terrified anymore,” he concludes, his story becoming a beacon of inspiration for others who share his once-crippling fear.