On Saturday the bay was lousy and blown out in howling onshores, breakers stretching out over a mile from the coast, unswimmable even using the alternative option of swimming out through the pier entrance. But as evening drew on the temperature dropped as the weather swung anti-cyclonic. The isobars narrowed and funneled a wind down out of the Arctic circle (though no Polar Vortex), blowing southerly over Ireland, and by Sunday morning the webcam showed the bay was flat under the offshore sweeping out to sea. The residual swell was compressed by it and only escaped the oppressive dominance of the offshore breeze right as it broke onto the beach, like soap escaping from between your hands as you press tighter, enticing bewetsuited surfers into the water.
Though I had been pool swimming, I hadn’t swam in the sea in four weeks, and if I didn’t get in at the weekend I would go a month without an open water swim for possibly the first time in a decade.
At home, before I left, I coughed a single time. A dry short cough that I recognised immediately. Even when I am not conscious of it, my body spits out this cough if I am exhibiting any physical nervousness. Before exams, job interviews, big swims. It’s a mildly annoying but long familiar symptom, and only remarkable in that I hadn’t known I was nervous. Afterall, it was just a short Sunday morning swim and I have counted many thousands of open water swims and many hundred of thousands of open water metres.
The immediate physical response to extreme cold is the sub-conscious fight or flight response. We react like we would to a physical threat. Because cold is a physical threat. Heart rate elevates, stress hormones production increases. All the Internet/Social Media posturing about cold water swimming is precisely that. Posturing. People lie about cold. For all the good we derive from it, something in cold water swimming also fosters those who see it as a platform for self-aggrandizement. They do not fear the cold, it does not make them nervous, does not make them cough. Apparently.
Since the last time I’d swam, the temperature would have dropped, but I did not know how much. What would it be? Somewhere between 6 and 9 degrees. All the world’s oceans could fill the space between those numbers when you are not cold-conditioned, and I was questioning how much cold-conditioning I’d lost, given I haven’t been trying to hold any great tolerance over the last couple of winters, content as I am with half hour swims when the temperate drops to eight degrees.
Habituation, the quickly trainable response of cold water swimmers is simply our reaction to getting into cold water. I am long habituated. I can get into any temperature, precisely because I know from long experience what the beginners do not know. Or more precisely, I know what their bodies do not know. I know it will not kill me. But conversely, I also know how much it can hurt.
Acclimatization, the more slowly trained response to staying in cold water takes longer to develop, but is not lost quickly, with some evidence that cold acclimatization is retained for up to six months without exposure.
That single cough though was my experience acknowledging I’d been out of the water and it would probably hurt. I recall a similar three-week break last spring around the nadir of the year’s temperatures, and the first swim back in temperatures around seven degrees had been significantly painful.
We have more regular swimmers now during winter at the Guill. The last year has seen an increase in new faces I do not know, daily-dipping where possible in the winter weather. Those wearing neoprene hoods and gloves are contrasted with those who wear only swimsuits, I occupy some middle ground using silicone cap, goggles (a rarity, showing how many daily dippers are not really swimmers) and silicone earplugs (the only local who wears them and though I do warn people, they all mistakenly consider them unnecessary).
Blue sky and calm water beckoned but the cold breeze caused me to dawdle before finally committing. My feet hurt as I slowly descended the concrete steps covered by the high tide as they were enveloped. A slow immersion to my chest, then the plunge forward.
I’ve previously described the first three minutes of a cold water swim but not all swims are the same. All the usual sensations of thermal shock response, gasp suppression and breathing control were present, but what was noticeable from my absence was the pain caused by the cold in my legs. Cold water swimmers don’t like to use the word pain. I am not (always) in agreement. It hurts, therefore it’s pain.
This pain manifests in two ways. First is the over-arching stimulation of the thermo-receptor nerve cells. Those thermo-receptors will transmit the same electrical signals to your brain as if you’d burned yourself. This is short-lived, lasting mere tens of seconds up to a minute or two at most. The other cold pain manifestation usually not described, which lasts longer, is akin to weakness. My legs feel powerless, lacking any muscular or motive strength, f does not appear to equal ma and I do not kick at all for the early part of the swim.
For the first one to two hundred metres, I swam with my eyes mostly closed. I am gone inward, hemmed in by the immediacy of physical sensation. I sometimes think I will make a change next time and start with the method favoured by some, of just floating first and adjusting to the cold before swimming. But each time I revert to the pattern that I have found suits me best; swim away from the discomfort and thermal shock.
I swam toward the Comolee rocks. I had thought before the swim that I might only stay in for 15 minutes. Once I reached three hundred metres, all the discomfort/pain/whatever had passed, my legs were kicking, my control was total. I am thinking about long clean pulling strokes, the water clear under me and I do not even feel cold any longer. So I stay in, swim for almost 30 minutes before emerging from this banal fountain of youth that I’d postulate was the origin of the mythological version. I am both rejuvenated and revivified, once again a newly emerged god of the ocean, so many times now reborn.
I occasionally think about the dichotomies of open and cold water swimming. There is the simple and most common dichotomy amongst cold water swimmers of simultaneously loving and hating cold water (although I am apparently the only cold water swimmer who ever says “hate” also). But there are also for me other dichotomies.
Nothing fixes you in the physical world, in the actual moment, like cold water swimming. My skin is acid, fire and ice. My feet hurt. I clench my eyes shut, my heart hammers, I use experience to control my breathing. Here, now, I am on the edge of life as we normally live it, the edge of the capability to which our human bodies have evolved, the edge to which my experience has led me. I can close my eyes, control my breath, I can swim smoothly or frantically, but there is no diversion, no getting away from now. I cannot pretend or imagine I am elsewhere or elsewhen. This is the worldy world, the water world, the real world. Swimming and cold are my entire universe.
I am cold, and wet, and swimming. If I ever needed or wanted a tattoo, would that not be everything I would never need to say? This is an entirely immanent experience and there is nothing metaphysical in it.
And yet, nothing fuels my imagination like this experience. When I swim in cold it feels like it unlocks something inside me, something I didn’t know was even present yet alone locked, a hidden door opens. It is like looking at bare dry sand from which some life suddenly sprouts. I can’t say unexpectedly, because not only have I gotten used to this sensation, I have come to trust it entirely and without reservation. It’s not revelatory in the sense of an epiphany or prophecy. It comes gradually, and often not while actually swimming. Instead, after I leave the water, my core temperature having dropped, I gradually reclaim body warmth. Indeed it seems like the cold actually drains slowly out of of me, thereby inverting what the second law of thermodynamics absolutely dictates, and into the interstice some greater sense of personal numinosity expands and words and phrases brim and feel like they will overflow.
I trust cold to show me things in myself, or in the world, that I never realised. I do not claim it always happens or that cold confers me any degree of special comprehension, maybe the cold water just pours into a gap that others don’t have. But I am content with the promise of occasional revelation, even if I am merely a dumb naked ape, wonderstruck and stupefied. I cannot expect you to understand that this experience is not a death-wish but a joyous life event, and it happens out here on the edge of life and land. Actually that’s why I occasionally think of it as a tiny death, and that it is good because there is the possibility of revelation, though I use that word with caution. In this transcendent (another cautionary word) experience, I find no evidence of or requirement for the metaphysical, the divine, the supernatural. All these years, all this time on the edge, has never shaken my profound and lifelong atheism. It is the actual power of the ocean, the deathly thrill of cold, the proficiency of my swimming. I experience wonder and need not ascribe it to anything transcendental. The sacred mundane is there to touch, and I don’t need to put a caveat on it like having the eyes to see or the faith to accept, no preconditions of belief or belonging are required, it’s a sacrament open to any who wish to try it.
No diversion, no deception are possible for me in the actuality of this swimming. I must accept this experience for what it is. I must accept myself for who I am. There is for me only truth in cold. I am not fast. I am not tough. I am not skilled. Therefore I am even more confused when I compare my experience to those people who do their swimming on the internet. But while I feel I have spent my life confused by people, in this water I have clarity, because I am in this water by myself, with the truth and need no ego out here. Maybe, each time, when I wonder if I didn’t swim for long enough, I actually swim for exactly the right length of time, and could and should butter no parsnips. Do I swim for this vision of truth? Not always, not even frequently, I am not sure if I ever actively seek it. Each time, after the swim, a gift. Unexpected, yet not a surprise.
The details of how I feel before a swim are only the preface. But the actual important part is brief. The context requires more words than the truth requires. Truth is usually simple. All the rest of our lives are complex grey shades contrasted to the fiery red of my post-swim skin, the goldgreenblack of the winter ocean.
Only the warm and the dry are deceptive. Water is always truthful. Cold does not lie.