“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the Deep”.
It’s occasionally struck me that in the second verse or chapter (or whatever these biblical couplets are called) Nothingness, the Void and the Deep are all co-equal. The Deep cannot exist without the Not-Deep, without its face, (nonsensical theological casuistry aside), and so the Void, which is Nothingness, is seen as consonant with the unimaginable. Not so surprising I suppose to a horde of desert-dwelling tribes who at best can only have seen the middle-sea, the Mediterranean, and not even have heard of the scary edge-of-the-world vastness of the Atlantic. Those who do not have the sea-longing think only of the emptiness and the darkness. They see not the possibilities of water and the endless change that is hidden behind the blank canvas that the ocean presents when seen from afar. They are insensate to its shifting and mercurial aspects.
But for us the ocean is a thing alive in more than just the obvious ways. It is not like a thing alive, but is an actual living force, separate and more than the lives it contains. The ocean is my church and swimming is my sacrament; communion, blessing and boon, all in one. And so essential is it to my nature and self that I cannot leave it.
But it is not always easy. For what religion is? Though I, as one without any, may not be the person best placed to speak of religion, if your viewpoint is that only those of faith may speak thereof. My sacrament calls me, even when it is difficult. And it is rarely as difficult as in January.
Not yet quite at its coldest, nonetheless the Atlantic’s temperatures seem to drop precipitously over a mere two weeks. From the relatively moderate eight to nine degrees of the winter solstice’s shortest day, it falls by what is only another degree, but which feels like the most difficult one-degree drop of all to seven degrees by the New Year.
A long time ago in one of the first viral Loneswimmer posts, I wrote that seven degrees is the entrance to Cold Town. Beyond and below seven is a different world, a world of which those who swim in winter temperatures of ten, eleven, twelve degrees have limited appreciation, and a temperature which spawns the biggest lie in open water swimming: “I like temperatures under seven degrees“. Seven degrees is the Cerberus that guards the gates of Cold, of Niflheim. Seven degrees is the vestibule to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.
Extreme cold water swimmers who swim in under five will occasionally dismiss six or seven degrees: “I am Norwegian ice swimmer“, said the big gentleman who visited the Guill in January.
“You do not even have ice. This is easy water“.
He never made it fully into the water. The swell wrapped around the dive platform while he was standing casually, too casually on the lower concrete steps. It threw him like Buster’s toy against the steel railings. Desperate, he grabbed on, holding on against the fading rush, frantically scrambling out before the next wave took him. He never re-entered. Cold rough water is a special combination that you better understand if you want to dare put such labels on yourself.
The number is not the ritual, not the skill, not the knowledge or experience.
The local Guillamene definition of a year-round swimmer, set by the club’s elder statespeople, is one who swims every month of the year. I don’t know if wetsuit swimmers are included, since all the wetsuit swimmers have ironically disappeared by November. Many people claim to be all-year open water swimmers. January makes a liar of them. People who swam consistently until Christmas are nowhere to be seen in January. It doesn’t matter if you only swim once during that month, so long as you swim.
Those who remain enact our rituals in relative solitude, sometimes arriving, swimming and departing in isolation. These rituals are not those of longer days. Though the year has turned, the light levels now in January are the lowest of all with only eight daylight hours and culmination occurring just after noon. On the first weekend of January, the Sun rises a mere 15 degrees into the sky, not much more than the length of your hand above the horizon.
The ritual begins with the decision. Did I swim at new year? Can I go to the pool instead? If I missed the previous weekend, then I won’t miss a consecutive second weekend unless the conditions make it impossible. My records show I very rarely swim the first weekend of January but never miss the second weekend.
The “holy ointment” , swim grease, is not needed, as swims are now thirty minutes or less, not long enough for chaffing to occur. More time is spent in travel than in the swim itself, more time rewarming than in the swim itself, more time ruminating and wondering, than in the swim itself.
No time is wasted between changing and immersion, no getting cold before because a cold water swimmer only grants the ocean the right to siphon off their precious body heat. To do otherwise is foolish and a waste, pearls before swine. Float to adjust or swim off, I am an immediate swimmer-offer, taking the pain and shock while I swim off, around the platform out to the south, chasing the Sun, communing in my own way, enacting some kind of pantheism, the rite and ritual that is entirely my own.
In the discomfort and shock, which most deny is pain, is a transformation, an affirmation of a brief defiance of the universe and the overwhelming immensity of well, everything. Our rituals are always about freedom, about how the ocean transforms some of us into more than we may be on land, changes us to a different species or person, even if for just this short swim. For how many people have those transformational moments?
How many people would be healed, even if only of a tiny fraction of their hurt, by the experience of becoming not just more than themselves, but of becoming more than everybody?
The watery low sunlight in the south calls me and the cold repels me. The water is teal and turquoise, because though January’s dark ritual may commonly occur under a grey overcast sky, it is the light that stays in my mind, always the light. How can I explain that the light of January that I see underwater is different from the light I see underwater in September. I have tried to make of myself a master in understanding the names of the palette of my northern Atlantic, and yet so few of the names are those that I see. Must I start naming my own?
In January, swimming south in swell, occurs something that does not happen any other month of the year, another thing I’ve not heard mentioned, another of the gifts I have gained from the ocean: Wave shadows. Oncoming waves eclipse the low Sun and cast shadows in front of themselves, throwing a blanket over me a moment before the wave arrives, and the water beneath transforms from the Atlantic cyan to a deeper darkness, the shadow on the back of my head only detected by the shifting presence and absence of light in the depth beneath me, by the light and shadow seen on my arms.
I am in the light of cold and shadow of the waves. I am a shadow cast by the ocean and my ritual is my rite.
Note: January’s post barely scapes in before the end of February. But February’s is also written, so not such a long wait for the next. And remember what may one of the reasons I am doing this: Our human calendars and the seasons of the ocean do not readily align, and this differentiations are merely constructs.
4 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year: January’s Dark Rituals”
What a brilliant piece! The Norwegian incident had me in fits of laughter. I am a river swimmer (due to my location rather than choice) and on the few occasions I have swum solo in the sea I do appreciate how very different the dynamics are. A fertile imagination isnt always the best companion when solo swimming!
I don’t think I could ever be a year long swimmer because while I like swimming (though probably not as much as you do) I don’t think I’d be able to handle the colder water. But nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this post and can’t wait to read many more.
If the Inuit can have a hundred words for snow, I’d say you could easily double that number.
“Shadows and Light – Donal’s Feeling for the Copper Coast”… why not? There’s a book there for sure.
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Oh good lord, I love this. The words just flow and I am enveloped in the cold
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