The Open Water Swimming Year: December’s Old Friends

The oceans are warming. It’s a rare winter that the Atlantic here on the Copper Coast drops below six degrees anymore. It hasn’t happened since but in the bitter winter of 2009/2010, the water temperature in Tramore Bay dropped below five degrees before the end of November. I went swimming that November while snow lay on the concrete at the Guill, ticking that minor item off my to-do list for the first time.
What most forget about that winter, amongst those small few winter swimmers here who remember, is that the water temperature subsequently rose that December, and by Christmas Day, had almost fully recovered its normal equilibrium, going over eight degrees by the Christmas Day swim. Only after that did it once again begin its long and this time unbroken fall into the new year and the range I like to tell those who ask is “as cold as the inside of your fridge“.

The cold winter of 2010, with water under 5 degrees Celsius, air -4 C. Steam rose from the sea in weak and watery sunshine. Unsurprisingly, I was alone.

We are in the heart of the dark of the year in December, Nollaig in Irish, with short days and long nights, the centre of the old Gaelic and Celtic season of winter (Geimhreadh*). Days when the cloud is so heavy that the gloom can be impenetrable at mid-day even in the south-facing living room here in Teach Solas**, Loneswimmer Lighthouse.

Therefore it’s tempting to label December’s place in the open water swimming year, the heart of darkness, name-checking one of my favourite novels, but it’s not really true, in any sense, here at the higher latitude of 54′ north. Light levels, despite the slight increase in day length, are actually at their lowest during the month of January.

Nor is the weather at its coldest. Annual variability aside, the real cold of winter doesn’t usually bite until the very end of the old year, and the early months of the new year.

Swimmers care about the weather of course. December continues the Atlantic storms with which we are annually familiar, paroxysms of water and wind and “national weather alerts“, now all announced under a colour-coded system that seems to make people forget they’ve experienced similar storms all their lives, and that allocating a colour to a storm doesn’t change anything fundamental about said storm.

As swimmers we are governed most by the Atlantic winds. Indeed my swim log shows that about one out of every three Christmas swims is cancelled due to conditions, (which may be why I am the only local with an unbroken record of ten consecutive Christmas Day swims. But more probably because  I’m the only one who cares).

Compiling an open water calendar year series inevitably and likely repeatedly each month, leads to musing on the nature of habit and tradition (and weather and climate). At few other times of the year is the concept of tradition so pronounced in our lives, as we try to extend or recapture familial traditions from childhood, or create our own “new traditions”, the contradiction rarely commented on.

It is with this thought of tradition that I frame December’s swims for myself, with two in particular foremost, one more obvious, public and perennially popular here on Loneswimmer,  but the other a silent personal rite.

The first, the Christmas swim mentioned above, has become a personal nothing-gets-in-my-way “tradition”, and that includes inclement or even stormy conditions, and I’m not sure why anymore, but it’s a fixed point for me. Christmas morning is spent starting the cooking then abandoning house and family to hie off down the coast for what is often the shortest swim of the year, usually a quick 15 or 20 minutes due to time constraints. Enough to feel fresh and enervated for the return home without feeling particularly cold.

One of the things I do like about the Christmas Day swim is to see the arrival of so many people, very few of whom I know, for their annual dip. Even for me, the perennial loner, I see people I haven’t seen much of in the last year, like with my friend Sam Krohn, I may not have seen him since the previous Christmas swim. I hope to see some of the more frail of the elderly club members who can no longer swim maybe holding a collection bucket for whatever this year’s designated charity is.

I love seeing all these people arrive, laughing and groaning and screaming and moaning, sometimes whole families, usually two or three per group, creating something between them by something unusual. It’s a microcosm of the reasons we all swim, because even thought it’s rare for most of them, there is something joyous about the short-lived pain (for the irregular) they willingly embrace that is a counterpoint to so much else in life and the particular day, the shared experience, the rawness both metaphorical and literal. The red skin, the bare heads with no swim caps, (that you couldn’t pay me to do), the club members offering soup and making the charity collection at the top of the 50 step descent. Above all the camaraderie, and the feeling of physical well-being that cold water brings and to which we regulars are all so addicted, now widely shared, like a gift that can be endlessly divided in twain, and yet never diminished, a veritable never-ending loaves and fishes boon, riches for all, with none left poor by their dispensation.

Want a Christmas present? Go for a cold swim.

Swimmer in skin and surfer in wetsuit entering water behind Tramore Pier

Same ocean, different worlds on New Year’s Eve. 8 degree water and three metre swell

The other tradition that framed this for me, is a private one, one that joins those other private moments of recognition I mentioned in the Open Water Swimming Year November Winterage article,which helped prompt this series. It’s not even a swimming moment or event. It’s the return of real cold, not the weather, or the water temperature but to myself.

I often enter December still swimming an hour in open water comfortably. November and early December might still reach the Combined Twenty (Combined 100 in the US) Rule, but if so, it’s short-lived chance, and will not last. In 2017 and 2016 the water temperature on the first weekend of December was a comfortable ten degrees. After such a swim, I am of course cool. I’ll wear my post-swim Surf-fur, maybe a hat. I’ll feel cool for a couple of hours, maybe, if I am not doing anything physical afterwards.

But inexorably and quite quickly, the winter finally catches up with us and by the last two weeks of the months, the temperature will inevitably have dropped, maybe by two degrees, (which I’ve previously termed “The Big Drop” that occurs every year). Swim times decrease.

And then the cold arrives. Not the cold of the water, or of the air. Not the moaning I hear from non-swimmers. They don’t know cold, and I ask, do you?

I mean real Cold, real cold, bone cold, core cold arrives, and like Sam Krohn at the Christmas swim, like an old friend newly met brightening your day, whose absence was forgotten, but whose arrival changes things. Call it “cauld” like my grandmother said. Call it Bone cold. When it arrives I remember that I am part of that small coterie of people for whom shivers and shakes is more than a casual descriptor of inconvenience.
Bone Cold is a rite of passage, a rite of return, a rite of the old year giving way and birthing the soon-to-arrive new year. Bone Cold is a herald, things done, things to do. Swims swam, swims to swim. Promises made, promises fulfilled. Bone Cold is a tattoo, a character trait, the colour of your eyes. Bone cold is the rictus of your face that you only really notice an hour after you get dressed, when your jaw finally releases. And in that moment of release, you return again to the Warm Lands

That is the second old friend that returns. After the swim I shuffle/stumble/walk along the coast road to rewarm sufficiently to drive safely home, stop for car fuel or shopping, and then, more often than not, that has happened enough times that I can predict that as I approach the bridge at Fiddown to cross the estuary, my body just, well, unclenches. I’m still cool, but I’m not longer bone cold. It’s been one hour and my core body temperature has elevated one degree.

One degree rise to enter the warm lands the rest of the world lives in. One degree that separates me from them. One degree that is an old friend, bringing back life, and evolving me from Homo Frigus, man of cold, back to ordinary human. Cold, which I hesitate to really call an old friend, but which I know intimately, relinquishes its grip on me, and we part warily, knowing we are never to be separated for long and that we have gotten back together in our on-again/off-again relationship that will last now for months, until I cast it aside in the not-so-bitter waters of summer.

Bone Cold and I, having entered back on our erratic relationship in December, will continue our relationship on through the true winter, the winter of the Atlantic, my cold grey lover.

 

* Like all the Insular Celtic languages, Irish (never, ever, call it Gaelic) seems consonant-rich, shall we say, and intractable or even unpronounceable to people with a Romance or English language background. In actuality these consonant combinations are generally pronounced as certain sounds. For example, Irish doesn’t have the letter v, but the bh combination makes the same sound. For Geimhreadh, the Irish for winter,  the pronunciation sounds like gee-reh or gee-rev, where the seemingly-impossible dh is actually silent and the -mh is either silent or makes a similar “v” sound to -bh, depending on where in the country it’s spoken. 

** Irish for House of Light, aka Lighthouse

 

*** It’s not a sweater, it’s a jumper. The same as there is lemonade, and red lemonade, and swim hats instead of swim caps. These things will not be apparent, explained, or understood from outside. 

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The Open Water Swimming Year: November Winterage

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3 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year: December’s Old Friends

  1. Wim Hoff said the following. ‘The cold is merciless but righteous. It brings you into the depth of yourself, you are not thinking, your emotions stop and you are surviving.’ He went on to say that it brings you into the ‘purity of your physiology as well as the soul.’ I had the same feelings as you write about here swimming into the cave at the Metal Man. It was as you say like meeting an old friend. Arriving at the Guillamene car park holds a sense of wonder of what waits below at the waters edge. The old friends of December and who might be wondering or swimming about adds to the excitement. Friendship, nature the cold and the meeting places that we are talking about here. Well they are worth swimming and holding buckets for.

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  2. Hear at Haifa bay, this year the water is warmer than ever. This week it was 19° Celsius when last year at January it was 17°. The sea gets warmer every year, that’s a fact.

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