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Rhein Swimming: A Basel Rite of Passage

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Thinking of taking your first swim in the Rhein? Here's a few tips before you take the plunge!

Be in the know...

Before you jump in, here's a few things you should know:

For experienced swimmers only! Swimming the Rhein is not always peaceful. It can be very swift and a strong swimming ability is essential.

Flotation devices not allowed. Apart from your Wickelfisch (which is meant only to keep your things dry) there are no floatation devices allowed. This is to prevent inexperienced swimmers.

Check the conditions. Heavy rains can make for a very fast and muddy experience. Best to wait for high waters to subside before you jump in.

Stay in your lane. Remember that the Rhein is also a very busy commercial route. Make sure to stay in the designated swimming areas and watch out for water taxis and buoys.

Go with a friend. To ensure a safe trip, it is best to bring along a buddy

A Wickelfisch is not waterproof! Put your phone in a ziplock for added protection.

My first Rhein swim

On a recent hot, sticky Thursday I took part in a Basel rite of passage - the Rhein Swim. The Rhein (or Rhine for us anglophones) runs from the Canton of Graubünden in the southeastern Swiss Alps all the way to the North Sea. Basel sits right at the transition from the High Rhein to the Upper Rhein where the river drops from 246 to 79 meters in elevation.

A once toxic river now safe for swimming

Only a few decades ago it was unimaginable to swim in the river. In 1986, a fire broke out at a pharmaceutical production plant in Basel resulting in about 20 tons of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides being leaked into the river. According to reports at the time, the river ran red and was full of thousands of dead fish. As an industrial river at the time, it wasn’t exactly clean prior to this accident, but the spill brought worldwide attention to the disaster. Thankfully, the spill and resulting headlines prompted a swift multinational effort to clean up the river.

Today the river is deemed safe enough for strong swimmers to float along a stretch that begins at the Tinguely Museum and runs all the way to the Johanniterbrücke. While you see the most swimmers on the Klein Basel side there are a few areas on the Gross Basel side that are also deemed safe for swimming. The Swiss Lifesaving Society (SLRG) produced a handy map indicating the safe swim areas that is posted along the course of the river.

First timers, be prepared

For my first dip, I went along with two more experienced Rhein swimmers. I grew up along the ocean and consider myself to be a decent “survival” swimmer (meaning I had some lessons as a kid, but basically had to fend for myself in ocean surf since I was little). When they asked me if I could swim well, I replied nonchalantly, “Of course, no problem.”

We decided to start below the Tinguely Museum, which is the uppermost spot to start your swim. We dropped our clothes into the ubiquitous Wickelfisch dry bags, rolled them up into a pseudo floatie (actual swim floats are not allowed) and jumped in. Or rather, I waded in, swim shoes on, cheap sunglasses wrapped around my face, swearing under my breath about how cold it was.

Immediately, I was a little surprised at how much I had to work to get out into the current. I was also fiddling with my Wickelfisch making sure not to use it too much as a float while not getting tangled in its strap. Before I knew it my two friends were lazily floating down the river ahead of me with me cheerily waving that everything was alright (at least that was what I was repeating to myself the whole time...I’m alright, right?!)

Eventually I caught up and started to enjoy myself. It was exhilarating to float down a quick moving river, watch the beach goers splash along the banks and flip onto my back to check for incoming boats (they are in a separate lane but it takes some getting used to seeing a small barge come down the same river). Before I knew it we were at Wettsteinbrücke, where there is a little beach along the Kleinbasel bank. My friends (wisely) suggested that we swim in and take a rest on the beach, to which I agreed.

After a rocky walk along the river’s edge it came time to make a decision. Do I paddle my way back into the current, around the upcoming moored boats, and head on down to the next bridge? Or do I jump out now, run along the side and meet them at a nice buvette downstream?

You guessed it. I got out. I decided that while I could probably do it, I was just a little too nervous for it to be enjoyable. And really, I had just agreed to the swim to get the Aperol Spritz at the end anyway.

Would I do it again?

Maybe? Probably. I’ve heard that the river is still pretty high in June and that I should try again in August. Also, I found some handy tips for first time river swimmers (like that while the water is technically clean enough you shouldn’t swallow the water or dip your head under - yikes!). Also, I learned that you can actually go in with lifeguards every Tuesday in July and August.

If nothing else, it would be a blast to watch the annual Rhein swim where thousands of swimmers wade down together. Alas, this year’s swim has been cancelled due to COVID uncertainty but check it out on August 16, 2022!

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