Some of us Salty Seabirds are off on an adventure. We are going to Wales. The weather and sea conditions look less than ideal but we don’t care. When you read this we will be waking up west. We are going to the Great Tit Weekend organised by The Bluetits, TYF and Celtic Camping. A weekend of swimmy celebration with like minded souls from around the UK. The location is the Pembrokeshire coastline with plenty of swimming, eating, game playing, craft workshops, swim/coasteering and music.
The whatsapp group has been buzzing this week with what to pack. I am not quite sure why we are whipping ourselves up into such a frenzy when all we need to pack is what we take in our swim bags to the beach here in Brighton. But with the autumn equinox and storm after storm signalling the end of summer and our wild swim group growing significantly, may be it is time to consider the kit needed for cold water swimming.
This list is not exhaustive and really personal to me. I skin swim year round and fortunately don’t really feel the cold, so the neoprene accessories I pack are minimal. No wetsuit, no shoes, no gloves……..yet. It also does not include the cake, legwarmers and Uggs that accompany me in the winter. Also missing are the copious bags of crisps, red wine and middle age medication, that will be travelling with me to Wales but not returning.
My woolly hat. I say that like it is singular but I have one in every colour of the rainbow. As a child my mum tried to force me to wear a woolly hat, which I did not consider cool, much like wearing a coat. Now I can’t wait to don one. The game changer is the fleece band inside which cover your ears. Bad hair days, which is every day when it has been in salt water, are also very well dealt with.
A sports cloak. Much like the vacuum cleaner being called a hoover, this product is more commonly known by the brand name dryrobe. And I have two. I swim outdoors a lot and I coach both open water swimming and surf lifesaving so having two does not feel excessive as they double up as work-wear. I have a short sleeved Charlie McLeod for autumn and spring and a long sleeve dryrobe for the sub zero winter temperatures. I use them as a waterproof cover to place over my dry clothes while I am in the water. When I travel I use the more compact Charlie McLeod. They are not cheap but they make a huge difference on a windswept beach and are roomy enough to get changed under. Are they worth it? If you get wet regularly and live an outdoorsy life, absolutely!
A Towelling Robe. Although this is far from being a space saver in my kit bag, it is 100% cotton and so isn’t shedding micro fibres into the sea like other lightweight alternatives. It also protects my dignity and leaves my numb hands free to pull up my pants……if I have remembered them!
Core Warmer. AKA Haramaki, which means ‘belly-wrap’ in Japanese where they originate from. After a cold water swim your core can take a while to warm up and this bit of kit is just the ticket. We have thick gloves and socks for our extremities but it is the core we need to focus on to prevent the ‘after drop’. The best thing about them is you can stick a hot water bottle in them!
Flask. Another way to warm the core is a hot beverage. The only way to keep your drink warm is with an isothermal bottle or flask. My top tip is to take a cup with you as the flask keeps the heat in and so doesn’t warm your hands at the same time. Pouring your drink into a cup will transfer the heat to both your hands and your heart.
Tow Float. I love my Puffin dry bag tow float. It’s main purpose is for me to be seen and keep my car keys in but it has been known to double up as a pillow when I take a float break in the sea and I fill it with disco lights when we swim in the dark. I am a Seabird so it makes sense that I am kept safe by a Puffin. Also it is the first biodegradable tow float to be introduced to the UK market. As the sea temperature drops it is so important to be seen if you get into trouble as time is of the essence.
Swim Hat. This keeps my head warm and again is to make sure I can be seen. It is normally the only bit of neoprene I wear. I have a Zone 3 swimming bonnet (fastens under the chin) in bright orange to complement my tow float. I leave in on until the very last minute when I am getting dressed. It also covers my ears so helps stop water from getting in and the dreaded swimmers ear…….
Earol Swim Spray. The key to cold water swimming is acclimatisation. I do this by getting in the water as often as I can. If you get an ear infection you can be out of the water for weeks. This spray prevents water from collecting in your ears, the main reason they get infected. Prevention is better than cure!
Goggles. I have a small head so finding goggles is a tricky one for me. I recently got a pair of swipe goggles as market research for the Seabirds shop. They really are, and I am not just saying this because we sell them, the best pair of goggles I have ever owned. They were clear in and out of the water, didn’t leak, didn’t fog up, didn’t leave me with marks on my face. And you can get prescription ones for the same price. Being able to see stuff under the water on a clear sea day is one of my favourite things to do. I’d love to tell you it has improved my sighting, but it hasn’t. I can still happily head for the wrong buoy.
Friends. I can’t fit them in my kit bag but swimming with friends, forming friendships in the sea, sharing experiences like this weekend with friends also makes you warmer inside.
Next weekend’s blog will be full of stories of our adventures in wet Wales. Right off to pack now!
People always ask me how cold the water is. I don’t know and don’t care….or do I?
Some people ask how to acclimatise to cold water swimming. Others ask how to warm up afterwards and beat the after drop. There are lots of technical questions about various pieces of kit, where it is safe to swim and how long you should stay in for. Cold water Swimming is of the moment and there are lots of people taking to the water to improve their mental and physical health which invariably begs the question how is it good for you. BUT the question that is ALWAYS asked without fail is “What’s the water temperature?” (Normally asked by people who don’t even swim in warmer months so I am always left a bit unsure as to why they have asked!)
And do you know what? I have no bloody idea and I don’t bloomin’ care. Or do I?
The Outdoor Swimming community is growing and so is it’s presence on Social Media. My feed is full of the most beautiful photographs of idyllic wild swims. But it is also full of photos of the thermometers. The colder it gets the more I get! There are discussions on the best thermometer to use to measure the temperature of the water. My ‘lick my finger and hold it in the air’ thermometer does not measure the temperature in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. In the summer the sea can be as warm as a bath, my internal thermometer measures this as ‘barmy bathing’. In the winter it is cold enough to take your breath away, which shows on my internal thermometer as ‘bloody baltic’ . Anything below 5 degrees requires a profanity and is as ‘f@?$ing freezing’. In the winter you would think our flock would migrate to warmer climes but in fact as we drop out of double digit sea temperatures our numbers increase as locals look to improve their wellbeing by partaking in cold water swimming.
It is hard to actually measure the temperature of the sea in Brighton. In the summer, Brighton’s Beach Lifeguard Posts and year round, Brighton Sea Swimming Club regularly display the temperature of the sea on beach front boards. But it doesn’t always reflect how the water actually feels. The energy of a ground or wind swell that create waves and chop can make it feel a couple of degrees warmer. Underground fresh water streams empty into the sea all along the seafront which causes the temperature to vary considerably. If there has been significant rainfall the river Wellesbourne increases the cold freshwater entering the sea at Poole Valley. Even in the summer months you can find yourself in a really cold spot.
This is my second winter of skin swimming. Last year felt much colder and seemed much harder. There are lots of reasons why this may be the case. i) I have a significantly larger layer of brown fat! ii) I have an ever encouraging wonderful flock of Seabirds to swim with making the whole experience easier, iii) I have spent a ton on money on kit for warming up afterwards, iv) I am much more in tune with my senses and know exactly when to get out pre swim shakes. OR is the sea just warmer than last year?
For the majority of the Salty Seabirds, this year marks their first year swimming in the sea year round. They have been told tales of the 2018 Beast from the East and have been longing to swim in sub 5 degree temperatures. We have enticed them with stories of how cold it gets in March only for false Spring to arrive and temperatures almost reached double digits again (according to my internal thermometer). Many have researched the effects of cold water swimming on mental and physical wellbeing and are chasing the elusive cold water cure. Adaptations like duck diving, wave jumping and full stroke with head in, are made to ensure that vagus nerve gets the shock it needs. Fortunately being with the flock can also make you smile on a bad day whatever the water temperature.
Although rivers and lakes are significantly colder than the sea and the further north you go, the colder it gets, I wonder if they have experienced warmer water this year. The Scilly Isles haven’t left double digits but I do not know if this is their norm. We have fresh water field trips in the pipeline – The Seabird Sussex Swimble Series – over the coming months to ensure our junkie habit is fed as the sea temperatures increase. We are looking for our skin to burn, our breath to be taken away, our fingers to fumble and for the post swim high to last all day! As long as this happens I do not care what a Seabirds watch, baby’s duck thermometer or aquarium thermometer say the temperature is. As long as I squeal as I get in, shake as I get out and share the swim love, I am a happy Seabird!
With the rise in popularity of Cold Water Swimming, how do you get in?
The sea is a force amongst the Salty Seabirds that brings us together. We share a love of cold water swimming and as such our shared experiences of joy, respite and faffing is what notably makes us the same. But we all get in the sea differently.
We noticed this when we swam to the east of the Palace Pier to have a morning of celebration in the Beach Box Sauna and cold sea as we introduced some new Seabirds to our swimming pod.
Patrick McLennan, is the the co-director of a new documentary called The Ponds, about Hampstead Heath Ponds. In a recent article written for the Guardian by Tim Lewis McLennan explains “Outdoor swimmers tend to divide into “divers” and “creepers”, with the latter group easing themselves into the water more gradually. There are also “tea-baggers”: people who jump in and get straight out.”
When the Salty Seabirds visited the Ladies Pond last year we were definitely divers as the jetty and steps only allowed for that form of entry. How we get in the sea on Brighton’s beaches, all depends on the conditions and state of the tide. If the tide is high you have no choice but to submerge yourself at speed as after three steps and you are out of your depth on our steep shingle. However, the length of time you faff, get changed or observe your swim area can vary considerably. At low tide, particularly a spring tide, you maybe walking for what feels like miles across sand to get anywhere near swimming depth taking gradual acclimatisation to the extreme!
Faff– this is a favourite amongst the Salty Seabird flock – our super power is forgetfulness and changing bags are emptied and repacked quite a few times on the beach before we realise the swimming hat we are looking for is on our head
Inch by Inch – many a fledgling Seabird starts off this way, but after a few dips and possibly an encounter with Brighton’s infamous shore dump, they soon join the rest of the formation and get in as quickly as they can.
Swear – yep lots of it. In fact the swearing normally starts with the faffing and just continues into the water. Swearing helps you to regulate your breathing – FACT
Huff and Puff – I love chatting to the Seabirds that huff and puff as they get in as they are completely unable to talk back and I get the opportunity to waffle on uninterrupted.
Scream – Yep again and lots of it. It is a Seabirds primal call to nature
Splash and Slap – I am yet to spot a Seabird doing this but the more serious swimmers that migrate for the winter and return in the summer have been known to partake in this activity. On a serious note, it is a good way to acclimatise before a distance swim.
Recklessly – definitely a ‘don’t do this at home kids’. Unfortunately as a tourist city by the sea the Seabirds often witness people making poor choices. We don’t and move to safe swim spots when it’s stormy or just wave bathe on the shingle shoreline known locally as “pilcharding”.
Just Don’t – this applies to lots of our family members so we have created a new swimming family that ‘Just Do’
Whatever the time of year, outdoor water temperatures in the UK are cold. Even if you are wearing a wet-suit you will be susceptible to ‘Cold Water Shock’. Your breathing speeds up along with your heart rate and blood pressure – which in itself can lead to panic and gasping. The secret to over coming the cold water shock is to swim often and resist the urge to panic. The Outdoor Swimming Society has tips for cold water immersion written by the late great Lynne Roper of Wild Woman Swimming fame. She writes ‘ Much of the acclimatisation process is mental – knowing the moment of immersion will feel cold, and embracing it anyway.’ The RNLI ‘Float to Live’ campaign is aimed at people falling into the sea in British and Irish waters where the average temperature is 12-15 degrees. Low enough to cause cold water shock. The campaign promotes the lifesaving technique of fighting your instinct to swim until the cold water shock passes.
I have a unique style of entering the water. I am what Patrick McLennon would refer to as a ‘diver’ and Rowan Clarke a ‘just get on with it’. But the first thing I do, after getting in quickly, is to roll onto my back and just float. It’s not a conscious considered decision based on my lifesaving training or an attempt to be in the moment with nature. It’s just something I do without thinking. What it does do is allow me to relax and my breathing has time to regulate without plunging my head through waves or respond to the physical activity of purposeful swim strokes. The urge to start swimming soon arrives as I realise I need to move to keep warm.
However you get in – do it safely and JUST KEEP SWIMMING…….and eat cake afterwards. Copious amounts of cake.
How to beat the after-drop after cold water swimming
Discovered a few weeks ago whilst river swimming….
I took an isothermal bottle full of boiling water, my daughter’s mini hot-water-bottle and two core-warmers; one cotton for next to the skin and an ultra-warm one. Once out of the water and dressed (and while my fingers still worked) I filled the hot-water-bottle with the boiling water and popped the hot water bottle into my “roo pouch” of haramakis! Together with my robe, I built up a nice, warm core, which radiated heat. Adding tea and amazing marmalade cakes, made for a delightfully happy, post-swim seabird! Been doing it ever since to beat the after-drop