From the moment i get a glimpse of the sea I sense my soul begin to lighten. Cool water stretching out towards the horizon in various shades of blue, green or grey depending on the day, waiting to envelop me and bring me calm. Calm, and excitement. Release and invigoration. Solitude and community. The sea, in its ever-changing magnificence, brings me all of these things.
I have always loved the ocean. It was what brought me to Devon eight years ago, finally giving in to the pull it exerted on my body whenever I left to catch the train back to London. It took several more years though before I experienced the joy of immersing myself within it year round.
In the winter, the walk down to the beach is laden with layers of clothing to take the chill off after my dip. The people around me are similarly wrapped up, including my husband and two small boys who often come along to watch me from the shore. They are accustomed to what comes next, leaving me to change as they run off across the sand or search for the perfect pebble. Strangers, though, cast cautious glances as I strip down to my swimming costume. I have never been very keen on wetsuits, and the realisation that I maybe didn’t need one to be able to enjoy the sea in winter was incredibly liberating.
I haven’t always been so brave. Even eight years ago I used to wince at the feel of the cold water on my skin when I ventured into the sea on summer’s days. I still enjoyed it, but the thought of carrying on swimming beyond September was inconceivable.
Until one year, I just did.
FIRST DIP OF THE YEAR
We were living right by the water at the time. The sea would call to me as I sat at my desk, looking out across the waves, and as soon as June brought the first hints of summer I took my first dip, escaping to the water as often as I could. My eldest was four years old, and he loved the water too: we would spend hours on the beach, and he would regularly strip off to paddle. I would always follow him into the shallows, and, whenever there was someone else to watch him, would venture further into the bay until the sea bed dropped off beneath my feet and I could dive below to cleanse myself of the tiredness and mundanity that motherhood often brings. Every time would feel like an adventure: to kick off and leave the shore behind, even just for a matter of minutes. I especially loved to roll on to my back and, starfish-like, look up at the sky. I would feel at one with the universe in those moments, thankful for each accident of fate that had brought me there. I would peer over my toes at the beach beyond, at my son throwing stones into the sea and giggling with delight at every splash they made, and feel ready to return and give him the very best of me.
I kept swimming through the height of the summer, the sea crowded with people and watercrafts. I find it intriguing how the water still can bring something close to solitude even at times like those – and actually even when the sun is blazing not many swimmers venture far from the shore. I was glad of the quiet that September brought though, and appreciated those moments in the water even more. And then October came, and I wasn’t quite ready to give them up yet. And then November, and December, and I just kept on swimming.
It became a personal challenge – a test of endurance. It was definitely harder to persuade myself to strip off and make my way into the water when the air was grey with drizzle, or when waves crashed against the shore, but I held on to the feeling I knew would come when I did – that exhilaration, that separation from the everyday, that connection with forces so much greater than myself. There were still some glorious days, when the sun was warm on my skin and the blue sky reflected off the surface of the water, sunlight dispersing into infinite sparkles. But I couldn’t choose them: the need for supervision for my son (and for myself as I gradually became accustomed to the cooling temperatures) meant that I had to snatch opportunities as they came.
There were a few key things that made it easier. Finding a tribe was probably the main one, as with so many other things. There were a handful of other people whose urge to swim in the sea had not faded with the summer, and once our paths had crossed a couple of times I felt confident enough to seek them out for companionship. It felt good not to be entirely alone in the water, especially when the swell was up or the wind whipped the spray into my eyes. From them I learnt the value of goggles, a swim hat, and gloves and socks when the temperature slipped into single figures. Of the need to warm up quickly, even when I was buzzing with adrenaline and feeling invincible – and of the particular comfort of a flask of something hot waiting on the beach.
I made it through till February that year, until circumstances conspired to make continuing a challenge too far. In the middle of January I was bitten by a seal – a completely random and highly unusual event, but one which kept me out of the water for a few weeks whilst my wound healed and my nerve returned. I managed to get back in again, but the feeling of elation was tinged with a sense that my body was not entirely happy with the whole experience and my awareness of the cold was magnified. A few days later I discovered I was pregnant, and decided that for me the swimming season was finally over.
“Every time would feel like an adventure: to kick off and leave the shore behind, even just for a matter of minutes”
EASING PREGNANCY SYMPTOMS
Once the weather warmed up a bit (and the sea with it) there was nowhere else I enjoyed being more during that pregnancy. Through June, July, August and September me and my bump could be found submerged whenever circumstances allowed. The still-cool water eased the bone-aching tiredness I felt, and calmed a mind whirring with hormonal anxiety. As my baby grew inside me and I grew heavier I craved the weightlessness I felt when submerged in water – especially water unsullied by the chlorine fumes, which, on the rare occasion I ventured into a public pool, felt even more toxic than usual.
My eldest was a more confident swimmer by this point and loved to join me. My own enjoyment of being in the water was only enhanced by experiencing the joy it brought him too – and my pride at how adeptly he navigated the sea.
The winter after my second son arrived was spent mainly on land, hibernating and nurturing this new life. We had moved deeper into the countryside and even the short journey to get to the sea was at that time an insurmountable barrier. That and the fact that my immersion in the immediate postpartum period had meant I’d missed the chance to acclimatise to the dropping temperatures. There were times when I yearned for the sea, but life was so topsy turvy anyway that the lack of it got caught up in a general spirit of change. Still, as soon as the opportunity arose to swim in the wild again I seized it with both hands.
When our baby turned six months old we hit the road for two months in our campervan, a journey to Europe which meant that summer for us arrived early that year. I swam in the sea, in thermal pools, in waterfalls, in lakes and reservoirs. And each time my body was grateful for the cleansing powers the water held. I was reminded of how our experience of water temperature is very much relative: there were many spots we visited where I was the only person venturing in, as despite the water being in the mid to high teens the locals regarded it as not nearly warm enough to swim in yet. And I was grateful to the Devon sea for setting my endurance at a level which let me experience all of those waters others shied away from.
When we returned to the UK it was to a heatwave, and that summer, for the first time, I found the sea too warm to provide the relief I yearned for. And so we ventured up to Dartmoor, to dip in the deliciously cold river instead: it is exciting to know that when summer comes around again there is a whole other world of wild swimming to explore away from the coast.
But as summer turned to autumn, and as winter rolled in, it was the sea that called to me again.
Clad in my swimming costume, with socks and gloves and hat, I can feel the grin beginning to rise in my chest as the cold air raises goosebumps on my skin. I move quickly to the water, not wanting my body temperature to drop too swiftly before I’m even in. I walk until the sea laps against my thighs, pausing a moment to splash water on my arms, and then take a shallow dive. The cold grips my chest for a moment and I try not to panic, breathing in the majestic sky all around me and forcing the motion of breaststroke as my body remembers what to do. And then the shock has passed, and it is just the swimming. Limbs passing through cold water, body and mind grateful for the complete distraction from the day to day. I feel strong and courageous, like there is nothing in that moment that I cannot do. And that feeling stays with me long after I have swum back to the shore and layered up to bring the warmth back to my core.
The positive impact of sea swimming on mental health is well documented, with cold water therapy being successfully used as treatment for anxiety and depression. I have felt for myself its ability to lift me up when my spirits are low, to help me keep things in perspective and make overcoming the challenges of the day to day that little bit more manageable. It feels particularly powerful to me as a parent: when any time I can claim for myself is limited it is relatively easy to fit in a restorative dip, especially as the rest of my family love a trip to the beach just as much as I do. I like to think that the power of it passes on to my children as well: they are too young to join me in the water for winter dips, but they see me being brave and pushing the boundaries of what is possible – and of course as the weather gets warmer they get to experience it all for themselves.
Sophie lives in Devon where she is a keen wild swimmer. Having taught in secondary schools for over ten years, motherhood prompted a change of direction: Sophie is now focusing on her own writing, and home-educating her two young sons. She blogs about parenting and education at raisingrevolutionaries.co.uk.
READ: Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper
If you would like to feel the power of year-round sea swimming for yourself then summer is definitely the best time to start. It takes until December before the sea is colder than it is in May, and if you’ve got that far then you should be able to handle the few degrees extra drop off before the water begins to warm again. The Outdoor Swimming Society is a brilliant source of information and advice – and wherever you are you are bound to find others who have caught the bug and will be more than happy to initiate you into the wonderful world of wild swimming.