The Open Water Swimming Year – Bone Cold in February

“O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then – I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.”
The Ninth Circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno


Waiting For Summer

Do you know cold?
Do you really?

I don’t mean cold damp feet from watching a school under-14 football match from the sideline on a wet windy March, when you’d give anything for a cup of hot scald and dry socks.

I don’t mean that day you went shopping and the heavens opened, and you got soaked through and then the car was clamped and you had to walk to the office to pay the bill to get the clampers to release your car and it never stopped pouring.

I don’t mean that time you were digging rocks from the garden or a field and you kept going ’til all the light was gone and you didn’t realise the temperature until you straightened up to wipe your dripping nose and only then did you realise how stiff your back was and your hands wouldn’t straighten. Or that time you had to change a tyre by the roadside in the dark when driving home three hours from the airport and the wheel nuts jammed, and how desperate cold and tired you were, and how you suddenly felt much older.

I don’t mean that time the heating broke down for three days one winter in the middle of a cold spell and you had to go stay with your parents. Or  the office heating being set too low because that one clown of an open water swimmer is always complaining that the women in the office set it too high. He’s a bloody freak anyway.

I don’t mean the chills and discomfort of walking past the freezer aisle after a summer swim and wishing you had long sleeves on.

I don’t mean the standing-around-in-your-jacket-after-a-swim-having-a-chat-and-cake-with-your-mates-touch-of-the-shivers.

No, I mean Bone Cold.

so, living in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’.
Each kept his face bent downward steadily;
their mouths bore witness to the cold they felt,
just as their eyes proclaimed their sorry hearts
– The Ninth Circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno

I mean Cold. Down, down into your bones, down into your core, down in to your marrow, where previously you said you were cold to, but didn’t know. Not really. Not until now. Not until you got Bone Cold.

Bone Cold is why your discomfort, and my cold, are so very different, and that all other colds are insignificant beside Bone Cold. Bone Cold and chilly are both qualitatively and quantitatively different. You can get on the train at the station called Chilly but may never know there is a station called Bone Cold, because you will most likely never see a passenger embark from there.

My Bone Cold cannot be mistaken for your mild chills, your passing discomfort. Your chills are warm water aquarium guppies, while my Bone Cold is a dark water bull shark.

Bone Cold is the arrival of a train when you are standing too close to the edge of the railway platform and the vortex of its passing sucks you forward, and you feel scared at its overwhelming power.

Bone Cold is when you come home to find your front door kicked open.

Bone Cold is when the knife slipped the day after you sharpened it and it went deep, too deep and every chef who said a dull knife is the most dangerous is an idiot, the same as the people who think that setting the home heating a degree too low is the same as Bone Cold.

Bone Cold is walking to warm up after a swim and moving like Frankenstein’s Monster, stumbling and jerking spasmodically, unable to straighten.

Bone Cold is that kick of pain in the small of your back, that you don’t know until you have had it, but when you’ve had it, your eyes show me that you understand.

Bone Cold is when you are only 400 metres from your exit point and there’s a current running against you, and you are worried about getting back when you’ve never been worried this close to shore and the only reason you are worried is because you are Bone Cold.

Bone Cold is the way you speak when someone asks you the same stupid questions while you are struggling to get dressed without falling over, and your tongue and mouth won’t quite co-operate with your brain.Bone Cold is getting lost on the way home, and not realising ’til afterwards that it was because of your cold blood, thickening, cooling your brain, failing to pass on vital oxygen, making you dangerously stupid.

Bone Cold is the wind that blows off the winter ocean, blows direct from the six wings of Lucifer, trapped here with you in the centre of Hell, the ninth circle, and the colours of the centre of Hell are the colours of Bone Cold: Red, blue, and black. What you were, what you have become and what we will all yet become.

Bone Cold is what my grandmother used to call “cauld” and the way I remember she said it, many years after she’s died, tells me she knew, even if she never set foot in the winter ocean.

When you swim in water under five degrees, you start to die immediately. That is Bone Cold. Bone Cold is the Death Zone of open water swimming, our version of Eight-Thousanders. Bone Cold is the summit approach of K2 and Chomolungma and Nanga Parbat and there are no Sherpas here.

Bone Cold is a prophet. Bone Cold is the prophet, of whose congregation Loneswimmer is but a lesser sprite. Bone Cold  prophesies the end of all, the end of everything.

Bone Cold augurs from our blue lips and clammy red flesh skin to the galactic super-clusters spinning apart, to when atoms will fall apart, to when neutrons will fly apart and electrons and protons lose their attraction and the stars will no longer even be cinders. Bone Cold presages of when the universe will go dark and the cosmic two degrees Kelvin of the cosmic background radiation will be remembered as a raging fire.

When the nine billion names of god are finally enumerated, Bone Cold will be first and last on the list.

Bone Cold is the dead but inexorable hand of the second law of thermodynamics, the ultimate ruler. Bone Cold is the god of all and the hand of your god is a cold dead hand.Bone Cold makes you scream with the heat death of the universe; “not me, not today“. And swimmers tell you that they love it, because it’s too big, too scary for you to understand otherwise.

Bone Cold is why swimmers lie when they say they love the cold, because no-one loves this. No-one could love this. Because Bone Cold stops love. Bone Cold is fear.

And all this is a lie, because Bone Cold is life, through that foretaste of death.

Bone Cold’s name is February.

Say its name.


39 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year – Bone Cold in February

  1. “I don’t mean that time the heating broke down for three days one winter in the middle of a cold spell and you had to go stay with your parents. Or the office heating being set too low because that one clown of an open water swimmer is always complaining that the women in the office set it too high. He’s a bloody freak anyway.”

    Genuine laugh out loud at this one. I am that freak who melts at an air temp of 24C (75F), many’s the difference of opinion I’ve had with a colleague who is working in an air-conditioned room but dressed for the beach in the Bahamas!

    Haven’t got off the train at Bone Cold Station yet, but I have heard the conductor announce, “Next stop Bone Cold” and disembarked onto the sandy platform of South Chilly Station.

    Great article, actually, great blog, keep up the flow of thoughts,



  2. Pingback: The Open Water Swimming Year – The Ides of March | LoneSwimmer

  3. Gorgeous! I have done some cold swims but don’t think I’ve ever been “bone cold”! Everyone is different and I love reading about other people’s experiences but no one expresses it with as much style as you. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Bone cold. Some might say you only know real cold if you are from east coast USA, 14 years old and standing in O’Connell street in an Irish dancing costume in the Patrick’s day parade?
    But seriously, that piece really struck a cord with me. I was rendered helpless by the cold following a swim. The uncontrollable shaking was followed by a seizure, the scariest thing was having lost complete control of my reaction. In addition, inhalation of sea water inflamed both lungs and one partially collapsed. I still swim, but with a wetsuit.
    Brilliant writing. Scary and exhilliarating, like swimming.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like most men of my generation, if I had been dragged kicking and screaming to dance classes as a child – a long time before Riverdance – I would never admit it!


  5. I really enjoyed this post, I’ve been thinking of staying in a tad longer but maybe I won’t , I don’t want to “get lost”! (in 9 years swimming coldest seas in Greystones ever)


  6. Any day with a LoneSwimmer post is a good day. That’s a cracking picture too. The gull is as alone in that dark sky as a lone swimmer would be out in the sea below. There is going to be a book, isn’t there?


  7. Oh Byron! That was a beautiful one. Painfully beautifully, like Bone Cold. I can’t wait for spring. I’m not a fan of Bone Cold. But it’s been the coldest I’ve ever known it in my three winters of swimming, it’s never gone below 5 in the past here in February,  but in that cold spell it went to 3.7.  I didn’t experience it though as I’ve had the lurgey, again. Same old story. Jesus Deborah.
    Deborah Deborah Herridge Swam the English Channel for five charities in 2017 Has raised £20,497 for various charities through marathon sea swimming. Hoping to make it £21k for 21 English Channel miles


  8. Thanks Donal
    Enjoyed the article 😄
    Getting kinda bone cold here in Myrtleville . I know when I get light headed and dizzy for a min or two at start of swim it’s hitting 6 or below.
    Great wild waves and wind today😄 Nice for a walk
    Get Outlook for iOS


  9. One of your best.
    You can only approach cold, because true cold is death–everything stops. When you have approached cold, when everything has become slow, when you’ve met cold on death’s doorstep, it imprints upon you an appreciation of life–that will to live. When there was nothing, when everything else feel away, you chose to live, to fight, to continue, to not give up. Facing bone-cold mind-slowing water, swimming to the gate and back is a confirmation that you are alive. The tingling in your fingers, in your toes, in your skin, it is life.


  10. Interesting wander into the chilly depths.

    Is Bone Cold straying into the land of hypothermia or teetering on the brink?

    Coldest experienced was stabbing pains from head to toe, warmth retreated to mid-forearm and mid-shin, eyes look for a building to sight for as brain wonders why I’m looking at a building whilst swimming, stumbly, fallyovery, near vomiting, kangohammer-esque shivering, blue lips and tongue, cold skin rising on up deep into my stomach until late the following day that ignored the warmth of buckets of tea, fingertip regaining feeling 6 months later!

    Bone Cold or beyond?


    • Bone cold is well into hypo Paul, thanks. Its the unfortunately named “Moderate Hypothermia” which really is anything but moderate. If I recall correctly it’s a core temp drop of 2 to 3 degrees. Your description is definitely in this area if not into the lower end of severe hypo. It’s an interesting journey and once you’ve taken it, mild discomfort is can been as utterly benign.( Sent comment out before I was finished 2 fingering it on the phone, sorry.)


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