Lewis Pugh

Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale

Next year’s Cork Distance Week will have a record number of attendees, many from outside Ireland. Some will be coming nervous or terrified about the potential temperatures especially if they heard any of 2011’s details.

They need a scale of reference for that fear and we need a common terminology!

Steve Munatones on Daily News of Open Water Swimming had a post recently on the temperatures at which people consider water cold.

I remember Finbarr once saying to me that; “10ºC is the point at which you can start to do some proper distance”. But that’s when the temperature is going up in the late spring. What about when it is dropping in the autumn and winter?

Jack Bright might have some input into this also. :-)

I think it would be fair to say that many, if not most (but not all), of the (serious) Irish and British swimmers would fall into the 7% category, it’s getting cold under 10° C.

So here’s my purely personal swimmer’s temperature scale:

Over 18°C (65°F): This temperature is entirely theoretical and only happens on TV and in the movies. The only conclusion I can come to about the 32% who said this is cold are that they are someone’s imaginary friends. Or maybe foetuses.

16°C to 18°C (61 to 64°F): This is paradise. This is the temperature range at which Irish and British swimmers bring soap into the sea. The most common exclamation heard at this stage is “it’s a bath”!!! Sunburn is common. Swimmers float on their backs and laugh and play gaily like children. They wear shorts and t-shirts after finally emerging. They actually feel a bit guilty about swimming in such warm water. Possible exposures times are above 40 hours for us. It’s a pity we have to get out to sleep and eat.

14°C to 16°C (57° to 61°F): Aaahhh, summerAll is well with the world, the sea and the swimmers. Exposure times are at least 20 to 40 hours. Sandycove Swimmers will swim 6 hour to 16 hour qualification swims, some just for the hell of it and because others might be doing so. Lisa Cummins will see no need to get out of the water at all and will just sleep while floating, to get a head start on the next day’s training.

13°C (55° to 56°F): GrandYou can do a 6 hour swim, and have a bit of fun. Daily long distance training is fine. Barbecues in Sandycove. The first Irish teenagers start to appear.

12°C (53/54°F): Well manageable! You can still do a 6 hour swim, it’ll hurt but it’s possible. Otherwise it’s fine for regular 2 to 4 hour swims. This the temperature of the North Channel.

11°C (51/52°F): Ah well (with a shrug). Distance training is well underway. Ned, Rob, Ciarán, Craig, Danny C., Imelda, Eddie, Jen Lane, Jen Hurley & myself, at the very least, have all recorded 6 hour qualification swims at this temperature. Lisa did 9 hours at this temperature. Swimmers chuckle and murmur quietly amongst themselves when they hear tourists running screaming in agony from the water, throwing children out of the way… 

10°C (50°F): Usually known as It’s Still Ok”. A key temperature. This is the one hour point, where one hour swims become a regular event when the temperature is rising. We start wearing hats after swims.

9°C (48/49°F):A Bit Nippy”No point trying to do more than an hour, it can be done, but you won’t gain much from it unless you are contemplating the Mouth of Hell swim. Christmas Day swim range. Someone might remember to bring a flask of tea. No milk for me, thanks.

8°C (46/48°F): The precise technical term is “Chilly”. Sub one-hour swims. Weather plays a huge role. Gloves after swims. Sandycove Swimmers scoff at the notion they might be hypothermic.

7°C (44/45°F): “Cold”. Yes, it exists. It’s here. The front door to Cold-Town is 7.9°C.

6°C (42/43°F): “Damn, that hurts”. You baby.

5°C (40/41°F): Holy F*ck!That’s a technical term. Swimmers like to remind people this is the same temperature as the inside of a quite cold domestic fridge. Don’t worry if you can’t remember actually swimming, getting out of the water or trying to talk. Memory loss is a fun game for all the family. This occurs usually around the middle to end of February.

Under 5°C (Under 40 °F). This is only for bragging rights.There are no adequate words for this. In fact speech is impossible.  It’s completely acceptable to measure exposure times in multiples of half minutes and temperatures in one-tenths of a degree. This is hard-core.  When you’ve done this, you can tell others to “Bite me, (’cause I won’t feel it)”. (4.8°C 1.4°C is mine, Feb. 2013). Carl Reynolds starts to get a bit nervous. Lisa make sure her suntan lotion is packed.

Ned Denison during the winter

2.5°C  to 5°C. South London Swimming Club and British Cold Water Swimming Championships live here. If you are enjoying this, please seek immediate psychological help. Lisa might zip up her hoodie.

1.5°C to 2.5°C: Lynn Coxian temperatures. You are officially a loon.

0°C to 1.5°C: Aka “Lewis Pughiantemperatures. Long duration nerve damage, probably death for the rest of us. Lisa considers putting on shoes instead of sandals. But probably she won’t.

*Grand is a purely Irish use that ranges from; “don’t mind me, I’ll be over here slowly bleeding to death, don’t put yourself out … Son“, to “ok” and “the best“, indicated entirely by context and tone.

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38 thoughts on “Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale”

  1. A great article which made me chuckle, as an SLSC member (2nd year of swimming through the winter) I think I’m officially hardcore!

    1. Thanks Kate, I had a lot of fun writing this post. All SLSC members are hardcore. I was on my way over to the BCWSC there with the other Sandycove guys last Jan. I was already checked in and sitting in my seat, when I was told that my ticket was for the next weekend… Ryanair: seat empty, flight half empty, still kicked off flight. Didn’t get over the embarassment for months.

  2. Good stuff. This is my first season doing weekly OW swims throughout winter. Just a newbie. And what I used to think was cold last year, is tropical compared to now.

  3. Love this post. The rivers where I swim in summer vary from 10-16*c, and I struggle at the lower end – it feels bloody freezing! I swim in a wetsuit in winter, the river was 6.5*c on Saturday and that physically hurt my exposed parts. One of my buddies is training for a channel relay and has replaced the C-word with ‘cosy’. She claims this makes her feel un-C…

  4. having been asked to comment on such a quality blog I hope I don’t dissapoint so here goes…. nice humourous article. I think we can all agree that above 10c you can do some distance. Below that its trickier. I swim whatever the temperature all year but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think 12c water isn’t cold. Its just warmer. The body’s internal temp is cca 37c although well protected. Definately under 4c is tough but I would say it is under about 2.5c or 2c where its becomes really tough and you lose feeling in the extremities very quickly. I did 1km in 1c water 2 years ago bbrrrr, but last month we made a swim in the Norton sound (Bering sea) in alaska. Just 5 mins but highly saline and below zero, -1/-2c. I think I lost feeling in arms in about 10 seconds and I was sure I could feel my insides freezing when I got out. The iceswim is an interesting concept, late winter early spring in Europe probably best time to try it if you are not sure as after a good season of winter swimming 5c doesn’t feel too bad.

  5. I’ve noticed a couple of times on reports from the crews of marathon swimmers that, when they mention the water is a balmy (whatever temp), it is soon followed by the swimmer aborting the swim due to hypothermia.

  6. What’s the generally accepted freshwater conversion for temperature perception, or is there one? I’ve heard variables of 3-5 degrees F and 1-3 degrees C between salt and fresh. We’re landlocked – rivers, lakes, ponds and bathtubs.
    Many thanks!

  7. hi Donal, thank you for such an excellent blog and thank you for confirming/admitting that for some swimmers, sometimes there is memory loss in ‘ice’ waters. i had this happen to me over last saturday at coney island while trying for an ice mile. 300yds to the end and, unbeknownst to me, i stood up and got out (into the hands of my safety crew). dont remember anything until prob 45min later while warming up in the car….it was like i had been out on the lash and had no recollection of getting home. trying to find out what stage of hypothermia memory loss occurs…at the ok stage or not-ok stage. thank you again for sharing all your experiences in this most excellent blog. – Melissa O’Reilly

      1. I am trying to gague how serious the memory loss is….obviously it’s pretty much game over in the water if you are swimming. i would not attempt a swim pushing my limits without safety support – but can i ask you – does it happen to you often or just more so when you started cold water swimming or just when you are really on the edge? i am fairly new to this.

      2. I haven’t had memory loss in the water. The one time it happened me was immediately after a 3 hour race in 12C , when I had much less experience than now, whereas during Channel training 3 years later, I swam for 6 hours in under 11C with no recurrence. That one time, I was very hypothermic and fighting wind waves. I know of it happening to a couple of other friend in a similar training situation, really trying to push the boundaries for the Channel. However in a Channel solo,where the person becomes very hypothermic, swimmers will sometimes not recall the last portion of the swim before their crew pulls them out, or after being pulled, this period can be two or three hours long.

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