If you follow me on social media (I’m mostly on Instagram), you might have noticed that I’ve been trying out a potential new hobby this week – sea swimming. Spurred on by the enthusiasm of a friend – who’s been willingly flinging herself in the Pentland Firth for several months now – I was curious about the potential health benefits of what might look from the outside like a completely inane way to spend your time. A quick google search of the reported benefits, however, suggests that there might be more to wild swimming than just being, frankly, a little bit crazy. Indeed, with reports suggesting ‘dips with a nip’ can foster everything from improved mental health to a boosted immune system, how could I say no when my friend invited me along?
So, I rocked up to my local beach at the weekend wearing only a woolly hat and swimming costume (apparently this is called swimming in ‘skins’ – the choice, it seems, of hardy Caithness ladies). Naturally, I also wore a dressing gown to preserve my pre-swim modesty (TIP 1: I’ve since ordered a towelling poncho – dressing gowns are not the best for preserving post-swim modesty, it transpires). I’d also brought along a flask of Earl Grey for afterwards, and proceeded to tuck my long hair under my hat at my friend’s suggestion (TIP 2: Flask of hot stuff. Warm hat. Keep hair dry.) I realised later that I hadn’t kept my hair well enough tucked in, however – coming out of the water with wet ends, it turns out, is definitely not a good idea!
Anyway, before long, it was time to make the short walk to the shore and quite literally brave the elements. On wading in towards thigh height, I did wonder for a moment if I’d made a terrible mistake. The water was freezing, and I felt suddenly very anxious. What if the cold sent me into shock, or gave me a heart attack? (Ridiculously, it was the awkwardness of these things happening in front of other people, rather than the experiences themselves, which were worrying me most.)
In a few steps though, we were at roughly chest height, and my friend suggested we just go for it, getting our shoulders under – and thereby the worst bit over – fast. I did – said friend later commenting on how relaxed I had appeared throughout the whole experience. In truth, I wasn’t – I’m just not a vocal person, and do my screaming on the inside. (I’ve since discovered it helps to go in slowly, splashing your upper body with water as you wade in to help acclimatise. Let’s call that TIP 3 then. And TIP 4? Whatever you do, just don’t forget to breathe!)
Back to my first outing though, and after a brief moment of internal shouting, it actually started to feel okay – quite nice even. I swam around in small circles for a few minutes (TIP 5: build up VERY slowly), chatting to my friend and her companion – we might not always have time to meet for coffees, but who can’t manage ten minutes on the beach? When my time was up, I found myself wishing I could stay in a bit longer (I didn’t of course – I legged it back to the shore and cracked the Earl Grey open). I got very awkwardly (ref, dressing gown), out of my swimming costume and into warm clothing (TIP 6: Wet costumes off as quickly as you can.)
I live close to the beach, so I bundled my dressing gown on top of my layers, and made the short walk back to my car – yes, embarrassing. This is where the poncho will come into its own, I think – looking feasibly like the wearer might be connected to some sort of watersport, as opposed to just a random woman wandering around in the daytime in a dressing gown and a hat.
Anyway, I went home, supped on the remainder of my Earl Grey and got into the cosiest layers possible. I’d been advised not to have a hot bath or shower too quickly, so I didn’t, and I felt good for it (TIP 7: Warm up as slowly as you can). Of course I felt cold for a while, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, and mentally, I felt glorious. It had a similar effect to running, and the effect I get from my weekly Parkruns – a kind of mental health boost, a bit of lightness for the soul.
I should mention at this point that I rank among the world’s most unadventurous people. I don’t like taking risks and I’m not a thrill seeker (you’ll never find me on a rollercoaster, for instance – or possibly even the tiny kiddie rides at the fair). I plan to stick to my sheltered local beach, swim with companions, stay close to shore and avoid any sign of choppy waters (after an unfortunate incident when I once tried body-boarding I do not like waves, period). The sea is a powerful master. Or rather – * Anyone thinking of trying sea swimming for the first time would be wise to bear all relevant health and safety considerations in mind.*
As for me, I returned to the waters for a second time on Monday. Getting in hadn’t got any easier, but the natural high on getting out was just as good. I’m told outdoor swimming is addictive – Caithness winters can be brutal, so time will tell on that one.
But for now, I’m embracing my inner mermaid.
The kind who emerges from the water into a dressing gown, drinks Earl Grey and wears a woolly hat.