Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Three wild swimmers reflect on the return of winter swims
A pale boot-warm foot on frosty grass. In November, we are not just wild swimmers; we are wild winter swimmers. With a spiky nip in the air, stripping down to costumes beside the river is a ridiculous notion, and the temperature of the water is going to put our systems in shock. Why would anyone do this?
The river runs fast but we are equipped to meet the current’s force and waddle flipper-footed down to the bank. I ease myself in, inch by painful inch, steel myself – then launch off, exhaling cloudy dragon-breaths of determination across the surface of the water.
I hate it.
I hate it, I hate it, I…
I love it!
I completely, bloomin’ love it!
It’s an act of mental defiance to get into a river in winter; to conquer all instincts for self-preservation. The water’s icy jaws bite hard in the first minutes of a truly cold cold-water swim but mysteriously, the body acclimatises enough to linger a while – perhaps to swoosh downstream (yes!) or to work out against the current. Judging how long to stay in the water is an art – an art I have not mastered. Many times, I have been seduced by blue skies and joy, and played for longer that I should have. Stay in too long, and the aftershock’s grip is ruthless, the cold lingering deep inside for hours. Get out too soon and the spirit feels cheated; deprived of the full set of winter-swimming sensations.
A lobster-pink body clambering fresh from the river can forget for a moment about cold and, as good sense has been put on ice, it seems like a fine idea to prance along the bank and photograph the last swimmers. Until suddenly, the fallout from a hidden war makes itself known. Greedy cells vie for the few degrees of bodily warmth that have survived the chill waters, internal organs vs everywhere else. Internal organs win – thankfully, they always win – and the body shakes in protest.
It is true, winter swimming is not very kind or forgiving. The ice-cold waters take no prisoners nor tolerate fools. This wintery wilderness is like a haven for the plants and animals with its momentary silence in the grip of the cold, and stillness in the quiet countryside.
This cold-water landscape is also a refuge for the open water winter swimmers. A moment away from the harshness of society. When very little is moving on these cold misty mornings, it’s a place to hear nature’s chorus, and maybe the water’s ripples, or the howl of the wind.
From this water level, as we swim submerged in the cold, we find a place to see the stars at night, swim under the light of a full moon – the snow moon. Having the chance or creating the moment to feel the cold waters on your skin, how it burns and numbs, dulling the sharp edge of rawness.
We never miss the opportunity to smell the air, fresh and cool, full of wintery fragrance. The cold waters sap the heat from your bones, as the cutting wintery winds slash the skin of your soul. There is no greater thief of warmth than that of ice-cold water. No place to hide or negotiate.
In winter, from clear cold blue skies, a distant star sends rays of light that lack the power to warm. Just find the spot of light and bathe in the imaginary warmth. Reset your demanding stance, change your uptight posture, and grovel for the warmth and the hope this brings to our unfolding life.
Some say, it helps to clarify things, to ease the burden of our chattering minds. Become still and quiet, feel the comfort in solitude or the company of others. Be in nature not looking at nature.
It’s so good to go winter swimming in the cold waters.
Autumn seems to have left in a hurry and we find ourselves suddenly entering the cold-water realm of winter swimming. Like hovering at the entrance to another world, hesitant and wondering how we did this for some seasons yet somehow that seems to count for nothing – it feels all new and different – I’m not ready…
I’m unprepared for the shock of bare feet on frozen ground, the insanity of undressing in icy air, the freakishly cold water when you do a tentative toe dip, and then watching your fellow swimmers tell you that the glacial water is “All right, not too bad”. How can it be?
I’m dawdling, reluctant, and a little afraid.
Then I recall the familiar mental tussle: dismiss from the mind the creeping numbing of the extremities, ignore the mind screaming No! and slowly surrender to the voice that says Just do it. It’s a pared down internal conversation that may play out if you were wavering on the edge of an aeroplane door about to skydive. It’s from the same sensational side that seeks adventure, albeit this is the tingle, the kick, the exhilaration – without the major life-death concerns or monetary outlay.
The buzz from cold water is an intriguing whole-body response – utterly unique are our particular after-drops, shivers and hungers. What feels consistent is the joyfulness that visits the whole being, sometimes bubbling over into divine collective hysteria. And then I remember this place isn’t new, it’s familiar – this place of energy, of calm, of being on cloud nine.