I have loved being either in or on the sea ever since I learned to swim off the sandy beach at Margate. I was four years old and these summer Sunday trips on the train from London Bridge station, were a highlight of my young urban life.
I can recall the sheer excitement of seeing the first glimpses of the shining sea, the squeals of joy as the salty air rushed up to my nostrils and the utter happiness of splashing about in the water, riding on my dad’s sandy back as he swam out and then being towed back in towards the shore. My dad encouraged to kick and swim as he confidently held me, letting go a little bit more each time until I could float and propel myself. The feeling I associate with being in the sea is one of glee. Yes, sea swimming is a really gleeful activity for me and continues to be so.
Of course, lockdown in these pandemic times has seen scores of people taking the plunge into the briny for the first time, and many of them continuing to swim through the summer into the autumn and onwards into the winter. People who are, somehow, now captivated by that increasingly popular lockdown activity –the Cold Water/Outdoor/Open Water/Wild Swim.
A great deal of attention has been given to something that – only a year ago – was the province of a relatively small group of oddballs who maybe commanded a column inch or two on New Year’s Day.
2020 saw the rise of the Outdoor Swimmer, the cataloguing of the many health and wellbeing benefits of immersion in cold (15 degrees or below) water.
Looking for an improvement in your mental health? Get in the water! Eager to strengthen your immune system? Get in the water! Want to fix whatever ails you?….. You get my drift. Open water swimming has been chronicled, critiqued and analysed from a dozen perspectives and yet, for every article written, there remains a weird mystique attached to the lets face it, the relatively uncomplicated act of getting undressed and getting wet.
This is my personal account of taking my existing relationship with the sea, one that has included scuba diving as well as swimming, to a new and unexpected level.
In January 2020, when the notion of a pandemic and the chaos that would ensue seemed quite preposterous to me, I found myself following a friend and local sporting hero on social media who had been swimming through the winter. She, along with a group of (mostly) women, regularly swam off our local Portsmouth beach, right through the coldest months of the year. It looked great, if slightly unhinged and I really wanted to join in. Then Covid and lockdown entered our lives and vocabulary and, for a while, I forgot about everything except trying not to catch the virus. Easter came and went and I hardly ventured outside of the house, not least because we had my elderly mum staying with us for several weeks and I became a full-time carer.
However, once mum was able to move back into her flat, I started going to the beach and found myself desperate to get into the sea. It was now the beginning of May and yes, the water was fresh!
The body has a clearly defined and well-documented response to immersion in cold water. It is, at once, an assault and an energising stimulant. Your blood pressure goes up, your breathing becomes gasps, your nerves zing and I swear you can feel your internal organs contract (well, maybe that’s just me!) But, and this is the thing, you can learn to accommodate this reaction, to acclimatize your body, to control your breathing (it really is all about the breath, the exhale), to relax your tensed muscles, to embrace the cold and then welcome it, wallow in it, love it.
All that is required is for you to be present, focused, alert and surrendered all at once.
The biggest benefit for me, in all of this, was not, however, the physical sense of wellbeing. It was the fact that, in going swimming in the sea, I was able to maintain contact – in real life – with my best friend, because she came too.
Since last May we have swum together several times a week, always socially distanced – she is a senior nurse in ICU and I am clinically extremely vulnerable. We’re both healthcare professionals (I’m retired) and we both understand the principles of infection control. The act of going swimming moved beyond mere exercise and getting some fresh air, it became more than a routine, providing a focus and structure in this chaotic and dystopian world. It has become a ritual, a celebration and an anchor.
Each swim begins the day before when we are in contact via WhatsApp, exchanging details of tide times, sea state, weather conditions and work commitments. We agree on a time to meet on the beach and then we prepare. Swim kit is packed. Swimsuit (our personal challenge is to avoid wearing a wetsuit), goggles, hats, tow-float, swim watches, towels, a flask of hot drink, hot water bottle, extra warm layers of clothing, waterproof changing robe all organised into a bag ready to go.
There is a methodical wonderfulness in the way we first wave to one another, then chatter briefly before setting onto the shingle, shedding clothes down to our swim gear and then striding – we always stride – down to the water’s edge and then walk straight in – without hesitation. I like to start jumping up and down in the water, laughing or shrieking, as the water gets deeper. I whoosh my out breath forcefully and inhale deeply, overriding my gasp reflex. It calms and strengthens me as I immerse myself to swim.
Catriona simply slips her shoulders beneath the waves and exhales. I watch the stress melt away from her dear face, the world’s biggest smile taking its place. We remain several feet apart as we swim, talk, take photos, marvel at nature, sing or cry. We keep an eye on how our hands and fingers are feeling – a loss of dexterity is an indicator that your body is pretty cold and you need to be getting out. During the summer months, we were swimming for anything up to two hours at a time. Now, in January, the water temperature is around six degrees and we manage 10-15 minutes before our fingers start to seize up and it’s time to exit.
The ritual extends to emerging from the sea, beaming and burnished, getting dried, dressed and warmed up as quickly as we can whilst continuing to bask in the heady mix of endorphins and companionship.
We have both noticed how much we enjoy the view of the world from sea level, in the water. It is time out of time when the world and its business stands still. The water that holds us suspended in its cold depths connects us to one another. On Christmas Eve we enjoyed singing carols as we bobbed in the waves and then on Christmas day we exchanged gifts before donning novelty hats to swim in.
As I write this – I’m thinking about the swim we have planned for tomorrow. It has been a week since our last swim, Catriona’s work schedule has been punishing to say the least, and storm Cristoph laid waste to the few possibilities of getting into the water safely.
It’s okay though. The sea isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’ll be there tomorrow to welcome us. We’re both hoping that the water temperature will have fallen further – another boundary to push at, another day of feeling very alive.