Last year, the Seabirds swam in the sea all year round. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just sorta happened. We started meeting on the beach to swim in May and we just didn’t stop. We were/are just a bunch of ordinary people who began regularly sea swimming due to changes in our personal lives. These changes meant we had the time in our normally busy, modern day, lives to take to the water at short notice and during the working day. Every month going in was another notch on the bed post although we convinced ourselves we hadn’t set ourselves arbitrary goals. Making it to December and the end of 2017, was a real highlight. Making it through January, February and March, when the Beast from the East turned up, really tested our determination. Swimming in the snow and frozen shingle. Who knew that would be a thing.
We all agreed that we would make concessions for the cold to ensure we were still able to get in the sea. Even if it meant donning a wet-suit which we were very keen to avoid. But, if it meant the difference between getting in or not, we would wear a wet-suit. This never happened. We are not skin swimming purists. We don’t judge neoprene clad swimmers. We believe you should wear what you feel comfortable in to ensure you get in. If the cold is a barrier then neoprene is the key that unlocks that door. As long as you get in who cares what you wear! Skin swimming is, for us, a choice we made as we love the high we get from being cold and hate the restriction of a wet-suit. However, if you are swimming kilometres rather than Brighton buoys and groynes and aren’t blessed with a slight middle aged spread, get your seal skin on.
We do have some adaptations though. For me, the head stops going in when the sea temperature drops out of double digits. I revert to a shoulder aching, face out, breast stroke. This is when my collar bone gets cold, a painful burning cold, from being both in and out of the water and the inevitable wind chill. So I resort to a thermal vest over my swim suit. Neoprene boots/socks are also a must. Not just for traversing the shingle beach to enter the sea, but to get out. I need to know that when it is time to get out, I can get out and get out quickly and safely. We double hat to preserve heat and pull on gloves to stop gnarly hands. See, hardly skin swimming purists, more cold water swimming with reasonable adaptations!
Swimming safely is also a massive consideration. Most of our flock have links with Brighton Surf Life Saving Club and the Seafront Office. We know only too well what can happen if you get too cold in the water. More concessions are made in the colder months. In deepest darkest winter when the water temperature plummets our swims are no more than 10/15 minutes. We never swim alone. There are no Lifeguards on duty after September until May so no red and yellow flags and safe swim areas. So if it’s too rough we just don’t go in or we pilchard on the beach. (Pilcharding is lying down in the shallows on the shingle in a line allowing the cold waves to wash cold water over you.)
We also have the best selection of cold combating after wear, accessories and refreshments. Hot tea and cake is an absolute must. Along with a woolly hat, woolly socks and woolly gloves The brighter and more garish the better. A brisk walk is better than a bath afterwards….but a bath ….with wine is also good!
Lots of layers, it sounds obvious but we love our haramaki core warmers. A fleece lined sports cloak is brilliant to get changed under and indeed travel home in. And clothes to easily get on afterwards when your hands just do not function with the cold. Tights and skinny jeans are not part of an outdoor swimmers staple wardrobe. Nor are bras. And sometimes knickers when we forget to pack them.
So we made it though last winter with our concessions and cold combating accessories. The positive impact on our well being being the driving force. In fact, we swam more regularly during he cold months than we have all summer, as the Seabirds migrated for their holidays. And now here we are, turning to face the changing season. Last time full of naive anticipation. This time full of nervous anticipation. While the sea has been warmer and our swims longer we are looking forward to the more social winter swims. With heads out we get more time to chat. The chat is a necessary part of the swim, not just for our well being. It also allows us to regulate our breathing as we adapt to the sudden drop in temperature and prevents cold water shock and panic. Sometimes we sing too.
We are all a year older and hopefully wiser. Wise enough to know that it gets cold. Really cold. But while there’s a Seabird that is willing to swim it will encourage the rest of the flock into the swimming formation. Of this we are sure.