I struggled to get my sandals on, then climbed the steps to my swim box to get changed. It was another struggle, as my swim box wasn’t against the wall on the bench, as the other guys had filled up the space before me pre-swim. Instead it was balanced on the low wall above the steps. And there were people coming and going.
Many of my carefully learned post-swim processes and timing slowed.
I’d brought too many post-swim clothes. But I got dressed, putting on ski-pants instead of trousers, easier to pull on and very warm, then received some brief assistance from someone behind me to get the difficult first top base-layer on, as I was struggling with it, as usual. Afterdrop was coming on very hard, worse than usual. I may have taken ten minutes to get fully dressed instead of my usual five to six minutes and I only wore Crocs and Socks instead of shoes. Patrick Corkery shoved my woolly hat on my head.
The crowds and my position were very difficult, entirely my own fault. I noticed one swimmer being attended to, wrapped in thermal blankets and clothes, surrounded by people, but I didn’t see who it was and I wasn’t focused as I normally would be at such. Only later did Fergal tell me it was Ger Kennedy, who’d been removed from the water a couple of hundred metres from the end after he’d grabbed the kayak and asked for help, unable to swim the final couple of hundred metres.
Patrick Corkery’s brother John-Paul helped me back to his car to rewarm, my car a hundred metres further on must have looked too far, as I was walking somewhat unsteadily. I stayed there in the heat for about 20 minutes. I was quite hypothermic, extremely slowed speech and even cognition. I rang Dee to tell her I was okay, she later said I didn’t sound normal. But do I ever?
Eventually I moved to my car. Fergal, apparently entirely recovered almost immediately, drove us back to his house for home-made soup and brown bread and cake from his wife Mags. (The joys of open water swimming include how we can eat, returning to that time when we were teenagers and food can at every meal or snack become your entire world, with no guilt, no long-term ramifications).
I left Fergal’s house about two hours from the end of the swim, completely recovered and I had plenty of time to reflect on the way home.
As the blood cools, it thickens and slows, the increased viscosity therefore reducing the oxygen available to the brain. Cognition is impaired. It’s why I’ve previously stressed so often the importance of repetition, of learning what you are doing when you are really cold. It’s why we make out safety decisions outside the water, not when we are already cold. It’s why following a plan is important.
When you are hypothermic, you are still you, but you are also very distinctly not you.
In retrospect, it was the second worst hypothermia experience I’ve had, second only to the Blackwater to Cobh swim in 2007, early in my cold water swimming, when I’d had brief memory loss for ten to fifteen minutes afterwards.
The value of most of what I write here, is that I learn it all myself the hard way, and often make mistakes. And we all know mistakes often have more value than success.
I did complete the swim but it was maybe ~7°, maybe as low as 5.6°, not the necessary 5°, so it wasn’t a failure for me per se, but it was more difficult than I expected. For anyone experienced with cold water, that’s a wide temperature gap, as we all repeat to each other; every degree drop brings a new level of difficulty. This left me asking the question:
- Why was I so hypothermic afterwards?
At home I checked my swim log: On the 1st of December I’d swim in 7.2° Celsius for forty minutes, by myself, and not been as hypothermic, driving safely away from the Guillamenes after about 40 minutes. Not that I wasn’t hypo, after every swim at the Guillamenes I usually spend about 20 to 30 minutes before I drive home, including the very short but very useful climb up the steps to my car.
Pre-swim everything was done right, I didn’t get cold, I’d eaten enough, I was a little short of sleep but it shouldn’t have been a factor.
I have written on more than one occasion that you can’t out-think the Laws of Thermodynamics, heat will always leave the body in cold water, cold will always win. The rate that heat leaves is based primarily on body size, body fat, cold water experience and movement. The first two are obvious physically limiting factors, the third doesn’t seem to be but is also.
Recapping the three aspects:
- The larger the body, the greater the ratio of volume to surface area, so the slower the heat-loss. It’s why Polar animals are large, for example.
- Fat is obviously an insulator specifically designed by nature to protect from cold.
- As experience in cold water grows, heart-rate and stress hormones decrease, blood is not being pumped as quickly internally so heat loss is slowed.
- I was swimming hard(-ish).
Since I have plenty of experience, and I wasn’t stressed about the swim, the problem could likely to be in the first two items. And this is where the big change has been with me recently.
Here’s that picture of me from last autumn, pre-Coumshingaun swim.
I’m not the tallest of people, 170 centimetres. No change there except as I get older, I must be starting to shrink! No, the fact is that since November I’ve lost about seven kilograms. In fact I am lighter than I’ve been in at least four years, having dropped below my pre-Channel training weight. My winter swimming weight pre-Channel used to be about 75 kilos, whereas I’m now about 73 kilos.
No disrespect to my fellow swimmers, but I am somewhat significantly smaller than all of them. Only Ger is anywhere near my weight but probably still 10 kilos heavier. I’d guess the other four of them had 20 to 30 kilos of weight advantage on me.
Above is a photo of me greasing-up taken before the Ice-mile attempt. Since I didn’t know it was being taken, there was no belly-sucking, though I guess my torso is stretched, but both photos are from the side. I was genuinely surprised looking at the second photo how apparent the weight loss was (to me anyway).
Checking my log again, five days before that 7.2° swim in December, I was still 76 kg, three kilos heavier than now.
The other significant difference with Saturday’s swim was that I was actually swimming harder than my usual winter swims. That meant higher blood flow. I don’t know how to calculate the offset there. Swimming faster burns more energy and therefore produces more heat. But ironically that could have meant a greater exposure of warmed blood at the surface so it would cool quicker. I have no idea how to calculate the balancing factor here, but my feeling based on experience is that it was probably the smaller part of the story but at the same time, still important.
There’s yet another important factor: Colm was first out of the water at about 26 minutes. I was about 34 minutes. 34 minutes for 1600-odd metres is really really slow and I was swimming fast. And 26 minutes for 1600m is slow, especially for Colm. The return leg had taken us twice as long into the flood tide as the outward leg. All this indicates the strength of the flood tide we were swimming back against. Not the very best conditions if I was marginal on cold-exposure at that temperature.There could have been ten minutes extra swimming time. And remember also that I missed the turn, which probably added at least a minute. At this temperature spending extra time in the water wasn’t the optimum situation for me.
And I made another mistake. Earlier in the week I’d hoped to stay in the Dublin the previous night and hopefully have my sister accompany me, but she was working. Prior to the swim I should have taken a better changing location, knowing how hard it can be from experience AND I should asked for a designated person whose function was to help me dress afterwards.
I said to Fergal on Sunday that it felt like low 6° to me. A few days later Patrick Corkery told me he measured 6.7° out in the water on his watch, and swim watches almost invariably read a degree higher, even in very cold water, due to body heat (enough that swimmers often adjust for this). This puts the temperature potentially much closer to 5.5°.
So there you have it. I did the swim. I struggled afterwards. I made mistakes. Some factors were out of my control, some weren’t. At my current weight swimming in a temperature of three or four degrees for a sustained time is probably beyond me, but five might be possible. The official Ice Mile is still waiting for me.
Next time I’d designate my helper.
Next time I’ll be more sure of the turning point.
Next time I’ll avoid flood tides for this type of swim.
Thanks to Fergal and John, Eastern Bay Swim club, Dublin Sea-Scouts, the other swimmers and all the volunteers who assisted.
It’s worth closing with a comparison, and a warning. The day before this swim Finbarr Hedderman and Rob Bohane of Sandycove Island Swimming Club, two of the world’s finest *cold open water* swimmers swam 600 and 800 yards respectively in Totting Bec in 1.8C°. Speaking with Rob some days later, he’d suffered some nerve damage, having developed constant pins and needles in his fingertips. Lewis Pugh on his zero degree Antarctic mile suffered fingertip nerve damage that took 6 months to heal.
I’m not all about constant warnings here, I only give the occasional one. But cold water is dangerous. Almost all these people in Dublin and Tooting Bec are very experienced cold water experts . I try to give you as much information as I possibly can about cold swimming to help you. (In fact I don’t think you’ll find more anywhere else). But there is still risk. I’m not telling you shouldn’t take risks, but try to balance the risks with your capabilities. That point where risk and capability pivot about each is different for everyone.