I did a pre-sunrise swim in the North Sea today. 12 hours later I’m still wearing a down gilet and bobble hat in the house! I’ve taken them off twice in the intervening hours, for two work zoom calls, then quickly put them back on.
To be fair, we are three quarters of the way through October and it was the North Sea. But to paint a balanced picture, the air temperature was a mild 8 degrees C, the water felt a degree or two warmer and this will be the 4th winter I’m about to enter skin swimming.
But ‘cold’ is a movable feast. And so is recovery. I wasn’t cold in the water today, if anything, the opposite. I ran in skipping and jumping. It was joyous. It was easy. The beautiful sky bloomed and changed as the sun slowly rose.
Since Covid lockdown the number of people in the sea at Seaburn, Sunderland at and around sunrise has exploded. It’s great to see. It’s also interesting to think that every one of the, probably 30 or so, people in the sea at the same time as me will have experienced the temperature differently and will have had very different recoveries.
So when someone asks, as people inevitably do, “is it cold?”, it’s a difficult one to answer. Some days my honest response might be ‘yes, for me, but it might not be for you.’ Or, ‘not for me, today, but you might find it cold,’ or ‘not for me, today, right now, but in 12 hours time I might still be wearing my down gilet and bobble hat indoors.’ So many possible answers.
I think the other thing to say in how I might respond to that question is that, I love the cold. So a really enthusiastic ‘yes!’ with a huge grin and a happy heart is the best possible answer for me. I embrace the winter. Welcome it. I look forward to the summer solstice, to feel the earth tilt on her axis and head gleefully towards shorter, colder days. Winter is my season. Cold is my favourite state.
That’s not to say I find it easy by any means. I permanently doubt what my gut instinct knows to be true, as I head off, sleet coming in sideways, to swim in the sea – that I will find my place of ultimate being within that space where I step out of my head and fully into my body where the waves meet the sand. Walking towards all the sensory feedback that the spikey, bitey, pinchy, snippy winter water gives me.
So what am I hoping for this winter?
Well, many glorious sunrise swims. At least a couple of full moon swims where I actually see the moon. Some swims where there is snow on the ground. Marking the turning of the days fully immersed, marking Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane. To observe the world hibernate from the eye level of the water and then cautiously re-emerge again in spring.
To do it all with my mer-mates, laughing, screaming, jumping, hugging (we can only hope!), and crying through it. No pushing. No targets. No expectations. Nothing to fail at. Just lots of successes. Every time I get the car off the drive in my Dry Robe and bobble hat and point it towards the coast, another success. Every time I step out of the water onto frozen sand, blowing warm air through bitter fingers to revive them enough to pull clothes on. Each moment will be welcomed as a gift.
And when I can’t get to the beach because the snow is too deep (again, we can only hope!) I will break the ice on the surface of my garden bath and I will sit in bathers and bobble hat and listen to the blackbird go ballistic because I am in her space.
Winter swimmers are a unique breed. Odd things make our weird little hearts sing. But they sing loud, a little out of tune, creating a cacophony of joy with the other brave hearts of all the other weirdos who proudly call themselves winter swimmers.