I like being warm. I like scalding baths and hot chocolate in front of the fire. I like chunky woolen jumpers, thick socks and mittens. I like snuggling under a squashy down duvet, I like the warm sun on my face. Swimming in freezing cold temperatures in just a thin layer of spandex is not a life choice made lightly. The prospect of looking hard-core on Facebook is a consideration, I’ll admit, but still…I like warm.
Unfortunately for me, the Channel Swimming Association does not like warm as much as me, and it’s to the English Channel that I’m heading with my relay team. Ever since Captain Webb completed the crossing in 1875 in a red silk costume, (whit whoo!) the precedent has been set. Wetsuits weren’t a thing for the early pioneers and they cannot be worn in official attempts today. The CSA are very clear on this (there’s even a 5 page illustrated pdf):
A Standard Channel Swim must be accomplished without assistance of any kind other than the provision of nourishment – and Pilotage! You are restricted to a ‘Standard’ Swim Costume, A ‘Standard Swim Costume’ (for both sexes) shall be of a material not offering Thermal Protection or Buoyancy and shall be Sleeveless and Legless: ‘Sleeveless’ shall mean the Costume must not extend beyond the end of the shoulder onto the Upper Arm; ‘Legless’ shall mean the Costume must not extend onto the Upper Leg below the level of the Crotch.
Our swim will take place in September, when the water temperature can range from 14-18 degrees C (2012 was an especially bad year with night time temps sometimes plunging to 6-8 degrees C.) We will be in the water for an hour at a time and when we are not in the water we will be trying to warm ourselves up on a small pilot vessel. Before this, we need to complete a qualifying 2hr swim below 16 degrees C. Let’s cut to the chase; it’s going to be be brass blumming sea monkeys.
Knowing that being cold may be an issue for me, I made a decision. At the end of the season, I would continue to swim skins (that’s in just my costume) until it was unbearable. I reckoned on being able to extend my season by a month or two.
The first thing I had to accept was that swimming in very cold water is not pleasant. In fact it’s painfully UNpleasant and un-natural. Each time I got into the water, my brain sent do-not-do-this messages to every part of my body; these escaped as loud swear words which proved to be completely useless at making the experience any more tolerable. October to December were my cussing months as I forced my body, counter-intuitively into being seriously uncomfortable.
Bizarrely, I soon realised that I wasn’t the only one this stupid. It turns out there are a whole bunch of crazies who swim outdoors, skins, all year round. They are all slightly deranged and a bit ruddy. These fantastic, florid females (as most are) are a friendly bunch, and they all seem to love cake. It’s like there’s a Hot Chocolate Drinkers Club with this insane initiation test. As organised sessions are few and far between October-May, there’s a whole underground network organising meet ups.
When people around you are at such an acute level of un-hinged, it is difficult not to get swept along. Realising that no-one else was effing and jeffing as much as I was, I copied the zen hold-your-breath-but-breathe method of entry. I began to learn that after the initial shock, I was actually ok. By swimming regularly in the cold, I was building some sort of tolerance. January and February are the coldest months, my skin felt like it was on fire during some swims, but they were strangely the most fun simply because of the company.
I am a shiverer. I can swim reasonably contented, yet I know that once I get out, I have 10 mins max before I feel a surge of cold rising through my insides, immediately followed by vigorous shivers. The trick is getting myself dry and dressed before this happens. Now I’ve read up on hyperthermia and how the human body reacts to cold, I understand that this is my body going through the necessary processes to warm my core. I’m getting better at recovering more quickly and follow sensible precautions. Still it can be fairly spectacular and other people find it uncomfortable to watch. This winter I’ve spilt a lot of vimto.
By March I was on the home strait. As the water temps started to creep up, words like tropical and balmy started being bandied about, complete madness as the water was still cold enough to give you claw finger and pins and needles in your tongue. Some fellow crazies dug out bikinis, I drew the line at shedding one of my double-layered swim caps; let’s not get carried away.
Swimming through the winter has been a definite learning curve. Transition is an important element; getting yourself warm again fast is crucial (leaving your knickers at home doesn’t help.) I now have clothes no sane woman should wear outside of an institute and am the proud owner of 7 costumes (as my Instagram was getting a bit samey.)
There’s lots of sensible advice to be found online about how to do this safely; cold water swimming can be dangerous if not done sensibly, but conversely, there’s also lots of evidence that it can have a positive impact on your mental health.
I am hooked, for sure. Nothing I do gives me the same level of smiley, contented smugness, whether I’m clattering about with my cup of vimto with pals, posturing on Facebook in my swimwear or smiling sagely at brave neoprene encased souls in May.
Will I do it again next year?