Feel the fear – do it anyway: the first wintery swim

Caption: all kitted up before the swim on 28 Oct 2012. Ten minutes later we were all in the sea wearing only swimsuits…

I have to write all this down now while the memories are fresh. I think if I wait any longer I’ll forget how hard it was.  It’s long so go and get a cup of tea before you start.

Feel the fear, do it anyway is one of my favourite sayings.  But it took on a new meaning this morning down on the beach.  I know I’m being a bit melodramatic but seriously, when the air temp is 5 degrees, you’re wearing nothing but a swimsuit, swimming hat and goggles and you’ve got your feet in the sea and it’s icy cold and you know you’ve got to get your whole BODY in, it IS a bit scary.

Actually, it’s not fear exactly.  You have to ignore everything your brain’s saying about what to do next.  Logical brain says it’s cold, the next 10 mins is going to be hideously uncomfortable, you don’t have to do this, it’s insane and it’s not safe.   Swimming brain says you have to get in and swim now, in the last weekend of October – and every weekend throughout the winter – or you’ll find acclimatising to the water temperature hideous in the spring when you need to swim for two hours in cold water without a wetsuit. Swimming brain looks at your friends already wading in without making a fuss and already nearing the first groyne and says, ‘don’t be such a wuss’.

So swimming brain won and in I went.  Up to knees was ok but after that the cold gripped my thighs and I started to gasp. Luckily the waves weren’t being spiteful and splashing me before I was ready. I splashed water on my face, shoulders, arms and down my back as I kept walking.  I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or swear; so I did both and it helped, as did encouragement from my fellow Seabrook Seals.  But I really, really didn’t want to get in.  It might as well have been a wall of fire.  I had to give myself a good talking to.

So now I was up to my shoulders but arms were still up in the air. I was in really – it was just the last dunk of the shoulders and I was swimming. I managed to get my face in straight away- no ice cream head – but it took longer than usual to get into my normal breathe-every-three-strokes rhythm. I know that helps me to calm down but it is quite tough when you’re breathless from swimming fast and hard to get warm.  Actually I’m not sure you feel cold at that point. Your brain expects you to feel cold but it’s more like burning heat.  The heat spreads across your chest, neck, arms and shoulders.  At this point I usually know I’m over the worst and just have to tough out the next five minutes until the burning stops, the breathing calms down and bingo – I’m having a lovely swim at the seaside.

But this time I never quite got to the lovely bit.  It stayed pretty nasty for 32 mins. It definitely helped to look around and see other Seals making good progress. If they can do it so could I.  We stopped after 15 mins for everyone to regroup and that was a good time to think how bonkers it all is.  A group of friends bobbing around and laughing in the sea on a Sunday morning – what’s not to like?

We had a bit of current to work against on the way back but the sea was smoother in this direction and I had a happy five minutes feeling calm and in control and able to concentrate on my stroke. But soon my arms were being squeezed by the cold and when I stopped to look around I realised my arms were brick red,  my face didn’t work and it was hard to speak.  Could still laugh though.   In the last five minutes everything slowed down – nothing to do with being tired, apparently, it’s just the cold impairing muscle function.  On the way in to the beach my fingers wouldn’t go together – fine motor control going? Anyway, my sign that I’m getting Cold with a capital C.   Time to get out.

So now the fun started.  I got out… then charged back in again to wash off my sea beard.  A sea beard – no idea if this is a Seal term or general swimming parlance – is a grey green brown film of whatever’s floating in the sea.  Funny how the sea doesn’t feel remotely cold when you plunge in a second time.

Anyway, back to the fun.  You know you have about five minutes before you get really cold and getting dressed becomes a mighty challenge on a par with wrestling a herd of octopus while  neck deep in golden syrup.  So you belt up the beach to get a head start on the octopi.  So you’re puffing from the sprint, puffing from the cold, then just puffing as fingers turn into sausages and fine motor control has gone.  Everyone is a bit hysterical at this point I think. I am, anyway.  Everything takes such a long time. But we help each other with zips and rucked up jumpers and eventually a gaggle of scruffy tramps emerge, wearing so many layers we can hardly move. Other than the shivering.

The next priority is to get some hot liquid inside you – if you can find some lovely person to get the lid off your flask and pour some into a cup.  Even then getting it up to your face and into your mouth isn’t a foregone conclusion.  All I know is I’m going to have to buy a toddler cup with a lid on it.   Most of us then start jogging up and down the promenade to get a bit of internal heat going.  God knows what we must look like to normal people.  A load of tramps wearing all the clothes they possess out on a Brownian motion training run.  The looks we get!

At this stage I should have been warming up but the discomfort was still extraordinary. I was huffing and puffing and just didn’t know what to do with myself. I can’t remember what it felt like exactly but it was wierd.  The only thing is to laugh.  Back to the hysteria!

We have a good steep walk up the cliff to get back to cars and that helps.  I then have an hour’s drive home but what I feel I should do is to jog or walk until I’m warm enough to sit for that long.  I actually started to walk along the overcliff today but suddenly felt conscious of how mad I looked so it was back to the car with heated seats and the heating on.  I didn’t want too much heat (it is dangerous to heat the body too quickly from the outside in case too much precious heat is drawn from your core where it’s needed), so when I arrived home, despite my  husband Simon’s  hilarious joke about whether or not he had any change on him, I stayed fully tramped-up, hugging the Aga for another 30 mins.

Other Seals on Facebook described today as a ‘chilly’ swim and the first time the sea felt wintery.  It might have been about 12 degrees – it’s got a fair way to drop yet.

The next swim is in the dark this coming Friday evening. Oops, I seem to be forgetting this morning’s horrors already…



About the Author:Lou


  1. gill muldoon

    Love it Lou, I am so pleased you have joined us, we exchanged words on the way in to the sea today and I remember mouthing swear words at you! I just wanted to say, I started in January, and am not sure I will last the winter un wet suited, however I have to say that it is not as difficult to get in as it was. I no longer have the pain in my shins or legs that I used to get, (i hope it lasts) the head however still gets ice cream headache!
    What is this sport we are involved in? all I know is that it is utterly and totally addictive, I am sure it is good for my mind body and soul!
    We didn’t have our hug after our swim, I think we were not capable of engineering it!
    See you soon and carry on blogging, you managed to say exactly how it is
    much love Gill

  2. Trevor

    Well done Lou not sure wether I could have done that. Fantastic blog, take care, Trevor and Gill xx

  3. Lou

    Gill, looking back I realise I remember very little of after the swim other than wanting to get dressed and get warm. Thanks for the encouragement – it REALLY helps because yesterday was definitely a step change in nastiness.

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