“Are you going in?”
“The tide is good and the waves aren’t too big but…I never swim alone.” Whether it’s memorized as a mantra or sung as a gospel spiritual, the first rule of sea swimming is, “Never Alone!”
“We are here.”
There went my last excuse. There are plenty of real and imaginary reasons to avoid sea-swimming, from jellyfish to sharks to yuck! But we hadn’t had recent heavy rains or sewer overflows, jellyfish come with warmer water and overfishing has forced sharks to look elsewhere for food.
I hadn’t met these swimmers before but Eastern-Europeans come here more often in midwinter. One Eastern Orthodox tradition is to cut a cross-shaped hole in the ice for a baptism on January 19th. According to the Orthodox calendar this is when John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the river Jordan.
I regularly meet sea-swimmers from Ireland, Australia, Scotland and Ethiopia. Some barely wade in past their ankles, others swim several kilometers in training to cross the English Channel or from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Some are triathletes, others swim because they can’t walk or run. One confident swimmer sets her cane, folding chair and thermos mug a few feet above the water’s edge. She plans her swim so that a rising tide makes it easy for her to exit the water and warm up with a cup of tea. Sea-swimming was part of the new normal that came with Covid-19. It was safer than going to the gym or disco during a pandemic. We had a beautiful natural setting, healthy social distance, fresh air and fitness. It was the perfect activity except for one thing. It was cold.
Traces of diamond dust snow sparkled in the streetlights as we walked down to the rocky shore. I jog to this little beach so I seldom bring dryrobes, wetsuits or other bulky gear. But even us minimalist swimmers appreciate a towel, warm beverage and a swim safety buoy. A small flashlight inside the buoy’s waterproof cargo chamber turns it into a floating orange lantern like the Japanese Toro Nagashi which guide the souls of the dead.
“You have a light? We don’t go out far in the dark.”
“Neither do I but the light is nice don’t you think?”
The stars were bright with temperatures below freezing which meant the water would be warmer than the air. Even so, the first moments can be painful. Sharp, someone had once called it. As if shards of ice were forming on the dark water of this sea whose Latin name Mare Hibernicum translates roughly to “Sea of Winter.” Temperatures in the Irish Sea range from 5°C to 15°C and Global warming is likely to make this part of the world colder.
We didn’t stay out long. Some cold water swimmers use the rule-of-thumb of 1 minute immersion per degree celsius. A 3mm wetsuit just about doubles this time. Not so much cheating as increasing the “comfortable” time between overcoming the cold-water shock and the onset of hypothermia for long enough to relax or swim for a few minutes. It’s like diving to depths where the bottom time is short. It isn’t impossible as long as we stay within our limits.
We shared a warm cup of tea afterwards. The conditions are different every evening so we learn the patterns of the tides. Here when the moon is new or full, swimming is best at midnight and noon. A few days later a half moon means the tides are lower and better for swimming near sunrise and sunset. If you try this, find someone who knows local conditions and patterns of wind and tide.
“Have you heard of Vim Hof?” The man in a coffee van asked. “Wim who?” No I hadn’t heard of him. I was introduced to this thorough charity swims and practicing for a kayak capsizing class during Covid-19. I didn’t swim in the cold sea for any particular health benefits but because it was cold and it was there. It was even within our 5k Covid-19 lockdown range.
The coffee van man went on to tell me that he throws bags of ice into a bathtub in his garden. I was reminiscing about a geothermal tidepool in the Black Sea and wished our little swimming hole was heated. Maybe I’m a fair-weather cold-water swimmer.
Lord Byron is usually given credit for the popularity of sea-swimming for his swim across Turkey’s Dardanelles Strait from Europe to Asia. He was inspired by the legend of Leander who drowned while trying to swim to a guiding light held by his lover Hero on the far shore. Lord Byron was by no means the first. Plato believed that swimming was as important as reading and that cold water was better for health. There is some truth to that, cholera, red tide and jellyfish are among the hazards associated with warmer water. But there may be other health benefits Wim Hof and others are only beginning to understand.
Vim “The Iceman” Hof shares his knowledge and experience in breathing techniques, cold therapy and commitment. It’s hard to argue with someone from the Netherlands who held the Guinness World Record for swimming beneath ice, full-body contact with ice and a barefoot half marathon on snow and ice. He promotes health benefits of cold which contradict everything our grandparents told us about cold such as “You’ll catch your death!” The true story behind the 2017 film “12th Man” is a reminder that, as Vim Hof puts it, “You are stronger than you think you are.” This becomes clear after the first time you push through the wall of cold and come out the other side. It’s always a good idea to ask your doctor about any new physical activity but when I asked mine he said, “Sea swimming? I never see those people!”
There are many theories about these benefits, increased immunity and “brown (good) fat”, improvement in mood, and reduction of anxiety. All of this is difficult to measure in a double-blind study because it’s so obvious that cold water is cold. Water conducts heat away much faster than air. Most people experience cold water shock which causes their breathing and heart rate to spike. Over time, this becomes less of a shock- or at least a more familiar shock. The cold-water anti-anxiety theory says that the cold-water shock response makes our heart and breath rate rise, we gasp on the edge of panic just as we would with anxiety or a panic attack. By overcoming this reflex, we learn to overcome its other causes. The improved mood may have come from the exercise, being outdoors among a group of people who share this unusual pastime.
A group of swimmers in Gaza meet through the winter in the Mediterranean. Cold is relative. Mid-winter sea temperatures in that part of the Mediterranean rarely fall as low as the highest summer temperatures recorded here in the Irish Sea.
This time the high tide came near noon. There was a crust of ice on brackish tide pools but the Irish Sea was relatively warm. My swim watch showed 8°C but the skin of my wrist is usually a degree or two above water temperature. Once when I told an old-timer that it was 10°C he responded with disgust and disbelief. He used to come down here for a dip in the sea every day but a medical condition limited him to warmer months. 10°C seemed like sauna temperatures to him. “Swimmin Wimmin” later posted that the group training to swim from Dover to Calais reported the temperature at 7°C and as I write this, another cold snap brought sea temperatures back down to 5°C or lower. I waded past the stones thrown up by the most recent northeastern storm and splashed in, trying to balance the shock of throwing myself into deep water against the slow torture of introducing inch by inch of myself to the sea as I waded into water that grew deeper much too gradually. This is where even one meter waves can help. Trying to sneak into the sea? Surprise! Now you’re up to your neck.
The shoreline bluff cast long shadows in the December light. I swam out into the sunlight and around the buoy which marked a safe passage between the rocks to our narrow spit of sand. I swam back to shore and paused for a moment before going ashore to dry off. It was only when I was putting my hat and shoes back on that I remembered Wim Hof’s advice. Breathe in deeply but do not force my exhaled breath. Surely by Wim Hof’s standards I was doing it wrong, but that’s ok. I sipped some hot lemon ginger tea and jogged home to warm my feet and hands. I appreciated the hot coffee and warm shower more than ever before.