How To: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year’s Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there’s the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.

PLAN and OBSERVE:

If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

BEFORE THE SWIM:

* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards.¬†Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

DURING THE SWIM:

* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.

* STAY CALM.

* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.

* DO NOT STOP IN THE WATER

* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

EXITING:

* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.

AFTER YOUR SWIM:

* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

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WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (loneswimmer.com)

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2 thoughts on “How To: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

  1. Pingback: Holiday Season Swims | Owen O'Keefe

  2. Really accurate useful advice! Planning and thinking ahead is really important for winter swims. Some of the suggestions may sound simple but can make a real difference – having something to stand on for instance (I use polystyrene and it feels warm).

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