The Great Escape: How the digital age brought ‘rewilding’ back into fashion

By Catrin Picton
January 27 2020, 10.25
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In a world so endlessly digitally connected that we now seek refuge in places where phones are banned and social media is strictly forbidden.

Retreats involving surfing, silence and ayahuasca trips continue to thrive: but what exactly are we retreating from?

Sophie Hellyer, a former professional surfer, is the founder of women’s cold water swimming collective Rise Fierce.

The Rise Fierce Facebook group was started in January 2020 and, as of writing, membership has reached 500 members in under a month.

CHILL FACTOR: Rise Fierce empowers women with cold swimming

Surf pioneer Doc Paskowitz, who died in 2014, famously left his medical career following a nervous breakdown to pursue a unique life raising his nine children in a campervan while surfing everyday. 

“Everything that mattered, I learned from surfing,” he once said.

His philosophies on the benefits of daily surfing, such as “Even God will surf with the devil if the waves are good”, were abundant and he believed he could wake up suicidal, then go for a surf and feel he could take on the world. 

Surfing for women has not always been as widely accepted as student Laurentia Campbell said:  “I’ve found that guys are fine with female surfers as long as you surf well.

“Guys can be quite cliquey and it is still a boy’s world with the guys staying on the water far longer than the girls still and resisting the colder weather.

“There are fewer older women than older men definitely.”

Florence Seck, a nutritional therapy student, said: “Cold swimming feels amazing for my mind. Makes me feel much sharper, more present and less anxious.”

“ I do anything I can to experience some of that wild energy again.

“My life is centred around creating vitality and I’ve always felt amazing wild swimming so I wasn’t surprised when I started reading about all the health benefits”


Lily Wearden, education worker and Rise Fierce member, said: “It’s almost like meditating, really takes my mind off everyday problems and helps me to connect with nature.

“Getting in the water makes me feel serene, poetic and inspired. I definitely feel stronger physically and I feel a lot more confident in my body.

“Mentally I have found a huge difference and it has helped me be a lot more accepting of myself as an individual.”

LIFE UNDERWATER: A lake view view captured by a wild swimmer

Doc Paskowitz’s personal experiment in social engineering required harsh discipline and ascetic dietary restrictions, enforced with dogmatic ruthlessness, with the aim of he and his family living a more primal existence.

Fatty foods and refined sugar were forbidden; the children rose at dawn to the sound of Chairman Mao’s wake-up song and were fed a seven-grain gruel for breakfast. 

For a year Doc lived alone on the edge of the Israeli desert, sleeping on the beach and eating only fish he caught himself, attaining a level of almost supernaturally raw health that would inform his thinking about diet and exercise for the rest of his life. 

Paskowitz’s lifestyle sounds very similar to many extreme health retreats which often go for thousands of pounds a week.

Doc’s family became ‘the first family of surf’ and founded the Paskowitz Surf Camp in 1971 in San Onofre. 

Perhaps Doc Paskowitz’s clean-living dictatorship and surf camp unknowingly created the guide for many a ‘wellness retreat’.

The rising wellness trend has given birth to many an expensive retreat abroad offering meditation, ‘sharing circles’ and lots and lots of ‘healing’. 

But Doc was spreading the ‘Eat clean, live clean, surf clean’ mantra back in the 70s. 

“We’re supposed to be a better product,” explained David, the eldest of Doc’s children.

All Paskowitz children remain devoted to the metaphysical appeals of surfing, and the healing power of the wave.

David said: “We did not spend very much time out of the water. Nobody knew what time it was. Nobody cared what the month was.”

It was arguably the pressure to succeed professionally that drove Paskowitz to his extreme lifestyle, so are workers under too much pressure they seek ‘nature retreats’ to unwind?

Perhaps we can all learn to let time pass, reconnect with nature and not have to fork out thousands to simply enjoy the best things in life. 

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