I’ve been out for the water for some time. Just as the temperature starts to drop and the weather decay, a critical time for an open water swimmer to be out of the water if they plan to swim through the winter. One more day and it would be four weeks since my last sea swim, and that would be my longest break from the sea since an injury in 2010. I couldn’t let that happen (though I don’t really know why), so despite common sense and contrary to medical advice, per usual, I decided a short swim shouldn’t be too difficult. Time to make a small withdrawal from all the years of keeping my swimming account in credit. So it was that on a cool mid-November morning that Dee and I arrived to an empty Newtown & Guillamenes car park over Tramore Bay. The tide was low and with much humming and hawing and farting about beforehand, I finally and slowly dis-robed. The breeze was mild and offshore keeping the not insubstantial two and half to three metre swell groomed and not making the exit up the ladder onto the steps too fraught with difficulty.
Due to the swell I couldn’t measure the temperature but I knew it was most unlikely to be below a relatively comfortable twelve degrees as the early winter weather had been mild. I asked Dee to wait around and keep an eye on me for entry and exit, a precaution I rarely request. The good thing about surging waves when you are entering the water is that they often take the decision moment away. Leaning down to splash my face, a wave washed around me, and so I dived forward immediately to clear the railings. (The photo at the bottom was taken just after this swim).
The water was as expected, about twelve and half degrees according to my in-built thermometer. That’s really pleasant for early November. It’s not remotely cold by my now well-known Precise Open Water Temperature Scale.
I really dislike the whole back-clapping, chest-beating “man-up” or HTFU macho attitude often prevalent in cold water swimming. I think In reaction to it, I prefer to tell you how I found something hard or difficult. For example when I picked a single image to use after my Ice Mile I chose one of me stumbling when leaving the water.
I didn’t have a sudden gasp reflex. My sinuses didn’t hurt. I didn’t have significant cold shock. Twelve degrees will cause these things to you if you are not familiar with it, but even after a month out of the sea, I hadn’t lost my hardening. But I did have another different reaction: My legs hurt. Specifically they felt weak, and painful behind the knees and ankles. It’s a minor cold reaction in comparison to the more severe responses but it was noticeable and something I hadn’t experienced in years.
I was taken back to that March day in 2007 when I had my first non-wetsuit swim after the previous winter. (The previous year I had started in May when the water isn’t exactly warm but is manageable). Back then, despite years of surfing and a couple of years of open water swimming, I didn’t realise that I was starting the open water season in the almost the coldest water of the year. I was still a beginner in many ways. it was a similarly rough or wavey day. I stood in the shallows at the eastern end of the small cliff-encircled remote horseshoe of Ballydowane Cove (toward the far west end of the Copper Coast) so I could swim back the short distance toward the car park entrance.
I was terrified. I really could feel the fear. Not in some abstract car-sticker fashion, but tangibly. In my racing heart rate, the knot in my stomach, the pain in my feet. While I stood in shallow water trying to summon my courage, a sudden set wave loomed and overwhelmed me and took away the decision to enter. It’s said that humans survive as a species because we can’t remember pain, particularly that of chlldbirth or the accidents encountered during normal life. But I still, maybe only intellectually, remember the consuming fire and ice of that March icy swim. I swam parallel to the short horseshoe beach, larger waves outside on my left the beach only 50 to 75 metres away. I swim ten minutes through acid to cover only about 300 metres. What I still remember most is the fire of the cold water, my first real introduction to the Paradox of Cold. Afterwards I discovered that Dee couldn’t see me due to the rough water and since I told her I would be only five minutes, she actually believed that I’d drowned. While I very occasionally since make fun of her for pretty quickly coming to terms with my loss at sea, I regret of course that I caused her that distress. My apology might have more weight if I’d given up the sport and there have been other days when she has been similarly worried. But she has never once asked me to stop swimming and has always understood how essential it was to me.
Back in the present day, I had told Dee that I would be sensible (considering I shouldn’t have been swimming at all) and would limit my time, so I only swam past the Comolees and back to Newtown Cove, about 20 minutes. I never felt my respiration short, any cold in my hands or face or upper body, but my legs stayed somewhat uncomfortable for almost ten minutes. Apart from the pain in my legs the water felt warm. It was an interesting conjunction of sensations. I wanted like staying in longer but decided to stick to my pre-swim plan and motto. The best safety decisions are made outside of the water, and all that. I’ve written of the many things that affect cold water ability and tolerance which include Illness and lack of sleep, both contributory to my regression.
The comparisons to when I started winter swimming, the many things I’ve learned, the physical and experiential distances that I’ve travelled and the mistakes I still make, were all on my mind as I finished my short swim, by the second half completely comfortable once again.
Sometimes you shouldn’t swim, sometimes you don’t want to swim, but sometimes, sometimes you just need to swim anyway.