“I really want to get in the sea every month of this year. Tips?”
I received this question on instagram this week.
And decided to share my answer here – just in case any of you were feeling curious about getting into the sea or the cold water near you…
Swimming through the winter in Cornwall can be an uplifting and inspiring experience (my article for Art of Healthy Living, How Cold Water Boosts Physical and Mental Health, tells you all the ways it can also boost your mental and physical health). But it can also be dangerous – and sometimes downright scary and unpleasant – especially if it’s not something you do regularly. So here are my top tips for making your winter sea swimming experience a safe, enjoyable, clean and deeply transformative part of your life in 2020.
1. GO WITH FRIENDS
Not only does this make it safer, it also makes it lots more fun – I’ve found such a lovely group of people to swim with – and wherever you go to swim, you’ll find like-minded welcoming souls.
Find an experienced group of swimmers to meet up with. You can find them via the Outdoor Swimming Society website, or search for hashtags like #seaswimmer, #coldwaterswimming, #outdoorswimmingsociety and #thestoics on instagram to find others who already love getting in the water.
For some extra inspiration, you could follow some outdoor swimming enthusiasts like @tonicofthesea, @stivesmermaid, @ellachloeswims, @caldamac, @gillymacarthur and @stompycole, sign up for Outdoor Swimmer magazine, or get yourself a fabulous book like Taking The Plunge.
2. DRESS FOR THE CONDITIONS, NOT YOUR EGO
Cold water swimming is all about enjoying being in the water, not about making the most attractive instagram photo. So don’t worry about what you look like or what anyone else will think.
I swim in the sea in my bikini all year round – but there’s no winter wetsuit one-up-man-ship in the sea! Don’t be embarrassed to wear a wetsuit and/or booties and/or gloves and/or a balaclava if that makes it more doable for you.
A bikini happens to work for me because I don’t stay in all that long, I’m acclimatised now after doing this for several years, I find it so much easier to get changed quickly out of a bikini afterwards, and I have lovely layers of natural skin padding that keep me all soft and warm. This year is the first year that I’ve also worn swim shoes to protect my feet from stones, which has made a massive difference.
Top secret tip: I now also swear by wearing two swim-hats at once (see that gold one peeking out under the turquoise one above…?). I only started doing that because I never seemed to be able to keep my hair dry with just the one cap, but now I think that two caps is most likely the greatest ever secret weapon in the battle to stay warm.
3. CHOOSE A PROVEN SWIMMING SPOT
I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here, but start by swimming somewhere safe on a calm day.
It’s best to seek out a spot where other people already swim regularly – take their advice on when and where to swim, and ask them about any local risks to be aware of.
If you’re pleasant company, they might even show you their favourite tidal pools if you’re lucky…
(Big thanks to Jade for this photo…)
4. LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
Before getting in the water, take some time to observe the conditions, especially if you’re about to swim in the sea – as the situation can change dramatically day to day, moment to moment. For example, you might need to be aware of rip tides and other currents, the time period between swells (I’ve been surprised by sudden big waves with long lulls in between sets before…), the shifting tides, underwater debris, and impending changes in conditions. Always be guided by other experienced swimmers on whether it’s safe to swim or not.
This week, I carried my swim stuff down to the sea… and while my initial response was “hmmmm that looks like a pretty heavy swell, I’d better take a closer look,” a heavy set suddenly rolled in, and…
View this post on Instagram
Exhilarating to watch, and laugh in awe – especially as we were standing there with our swimming stuff having gone down to see if it was swimmable… Um that would be a no. Managed to get into the harbour instead. It’s a stunning wild day in Cornwall. Today’s message from the sea can only be this one: May you feel AWE To pause in awareness that water is anchored to earth, tides turn as the moon circles, the horizon is straight but the world is round, is to feel awe. In the unfathomable magnificence of the sea lies the radiant mystery of your own existence. May you see the sublime in the everyday. May you stop to notice miracles. May you rise above all unnecessary detail, quarrels or criticism. May you live into wonder. Wishing you moments of awe – and safe swimming – today. #selfcompassion #selfkindness #awe #awesome #aweinspiring #wildseas #wildpenzance #penzanceprom #stormyseas #bigwaves #vitaminsea #mentalhealth #mindfulness #cornwallcoast #sea #seasoulblessings #seasoulblessing #seasoul #bluemind #sealover #seatherapy #seawisdom #oceanhealing #seaswimming #coldwaterswimming #outdoorswimmingsociety #thestoics
That would be a no swim day right there. I think I probably would have worked that out pretty quickly anyway, but that was a definitive immediate answer. I headed to the harbour, and had a lovely calm swim there instead.
5. KNOW YOUR NASTIES
(sensitive reader warning: this bit will talk about sewage…)
It’s worth checking Surfers Against Sewage’s Safer Seas App to see whether regular polluters like South West Water have pumped any horrible stuff into the sea recently. Although sadly SWW don’t provide data for the South West through much of the winter (aka “out of season” – whose season, you might ask?), you’ll be able to find data for other areas.
Unfortunately, with so many ancient and hard-to-maintain sewage pipes in Cornwall, that still happens pretty regularly. If you can avoid swimming through pollution, you’ll have a much nicer swim!
The same applies to container spills – check out my photo of a week when thousands of plastic detergent bottles suddenly washed up along Cornwall’s beaches – can you spot some on the prom?
It’s also a good idea to stay aware of seasonal risks like Portuguese Men O’ War and other curious creatures with a sting – jellyfish washing up amongst the seaweed for example. Read up on what’s swimming about out there – and check whether instagram is awash with photos of washed-up jellies in your area.
Don’t let the nasties put you off though. I’ve only been stung once in the last three years of swimming all year round, probably by a Portuguese Man O’ War judging by the welts. I didn’t see it, I just felt it – but you can see a lovely photo of one below…
It was only a mild sting, and pretty painful initially – but the pain was over in 24 hours, (my ex-lifeguard husband stood me naked in the bath and poured vinegar all over me, and then I soaked in a very hot bath for ages, which seemed to help – well, it amused the rest of the family anyway!). And the likelihood of bumping into one in all that water has to be pretty low.
It’s also worth knowing that not all jellyfish present a threat – for example, those gorgeous barrel jellyfish may be huge, but they rarely sting.
As for the sewage, my husband’s been surfing since way before Surfers Against Sewage raised awareness of pollution issues (he spent much of his youth surfing below a local pier where the toilets released straight into the sea for example… nice) and he seems to have turned out broadly OK.
Nonetheless, swimming past a tampon when you’re attempting to tune blissfully into nature is never a pleasant experience. The only possible positive there is that your first-hand experience of the human impact of environmental pollution is likely to encourage you to take better care of our beautiful seas (donating to organisations like Surfers Against Sewage for example).
6. RESPECT THE LOCAL WILDLIFE
I’m mostly talking about sea creatures here – but it’s also important to respect the other humans going about their business on the beach and in the water. Whether that’s other swimmers enjoying a rare bit of peace, the elderly dog-walker who’s likely to have a heart attack if you flash your bits, or all the surfers, boaters and other marine-craft in the water who need you to stay safely in the designated swimming area (if you’re lucky enough to find one – mostly, lifeguards don’t man the beaches in the winter).
While you might not be all that keen on bumping into a rare jellyfish, you’re stepping into the habitat of many other wonderful natural creatures.
While you’re swimming, you might be lucky enough to spot seals, swans, gannets, sea urchins, dolphins, jumping fish (though that does tend to make me a little nervous, as there’s usually a reason they’re jumping…), and all sorts of other amazing animals.
You might even see a whale – we’ve spotted these from the coastal path (that photo genuinely shows the kids spotting a humpback near Sennen), and my husband saw another recently while he was surfing.
Having said that, if you’re swimming and an animal communicates that they want you to leave the water, (territorial seals and hungry swans especially), I’d recommend getting out…! In general, you need to be aware that you’re in their space and not the other way round, and respect their need to keep a distance.
This still very much applies if you come across an animal stranded on the beach – stay away, and try to prevent anyone else getting too close. In Cornwall, you can contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue to come to the animal’s rescue, and inform the Marine Strandings Network.
7. GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO ACCLIMATISE
Start slowly and gently – and gradually work your way up, bit by bit – to spending a little more time in the water. It’s totally fine to start with a paddle, and a few times after that, a quick dunk. In fact you don’t ever need to do more than a dunk if you don’t want to. If your aim is to work towards a longer swim, then allow your body to slowly get used to spending a little more time in the water with each trip.
Read this post from the Outdoor Swimming Society on acclimatising to cold water by Dr Heather Massey.
It’s important to learn the symptoms of hypothermia, and know how to respond to these – in yourself and in others. Again, Dr Heather’s post above is a good starting point. When swimming in cold water, especially if it’s new to you, hypothermia can be a real risk – one that can catch you unawares.
It’s another very good reason to swim with other people: they may notice your symptoms before you do.
8. LOOK AFTER YOURSELF AFTERWARDS
You will probably be at your coldest as you change back into your clothes after the swim – but, numbed by the sea, and exhilarated by your swim, you may not realise that’s the case. Remember that your body temperature has dropped, and all the heat is now focused on protecting your internal organs – which leaves less energy for warming up your extremities – so you need to get yourself dry and warm as quickly as possible.
Watch and learn from your fellow swimmers – those I swim with have developed all sorts of clever ways of making this vital post-swim period easier and more pleasant:
- Taking a mat to stand on, or a bowl filled with warm water to stand in – this helps your feet to recover from the cold, and you don’t get sand and pebbles up your leggings in the rush to get dressed.
- Pouring warm soapy water over yourself before you towel off.
- Stuffing your pockets with heat packs to warm your fingers.
- Wrapping your towel in a hot water bottle so it’s toasty when you put it on
- Swigging from a flask of something tasty to heat you up from the insides.
- Sew two towels together, leaving a gap for your head, and use those as a discreet warm and wearable changing room.
A year into my sea swimming adventures, my husband got me a Dry Robe for Christmas – they’re super expensive, but amazingly warm – so definitely worth the investment. And best of all, since I live close to the sea, I can just whip mine on over my bikini, walk on home – and no one’s the wiser that I’m barely dressed under my coat. Shhhhhh! (In fact, thinking about it, that might be why my husband bought it…)
9. START WHEN IT’S EASY
If you can, start sea swimming in the summer and just keep going. Because why make life more difficult for yourself? The harder the challenge, the more likely you won’t do it. It’s actually much easier to start swimming in the summer and keep going as the water slowly cools down – from where we are now, the sea’s only going to get colder for the next few months before it starts to warm up again.
Having said that, if you’re really keen, and you can acclimatise, don’t let this put you off – because winter swimming is amazing.
10. KEEP IT UP: GO REGULARLY
Weather permitting (ie. not this week!) I usually manage to get into the sea between four and six times a week.
I’m extremely lucky – that’s relatively easy for me because I work from home, my kids go to school, and the sea’s only a few minutes walk from my house.
But if it’s a little harder for you to get to the sea that regularly, don’t despair…
Research has shown that we can improve our body’s initial cold shock response quite quickly – it only takes a few attempts at cold water swimming for our body to adjust more effectively to the cold temperatures. And a regular cold shower can make all the difference.
For me so far, swimming regularly has helped me to build up a kind of immunity to the cold – the more often I do it, the easier it is to get in. And if I haven’t been in for a few days, it’s harder to adjust. And just like anything, we don’t always feel strong and resilient – some days it’s harder – if I’ve got my period, or I’m knackered or a bit poorly, I definitely feel the cold more, but there isn’t really anything I can do to prevent that. Other than continuing to boost my immune system with cold water swimming! It’s worth it because – as an added bonus, in my experience, time in cold water helps to soothe all my other pains (and that includes period pain, arthritis, and recovering broken joints…).
11. MAKE THE MOST OF EACH MOMENT
The sea has a remarkable ability to bring us into the present moment, with a single clear aim – awakening all the benefits of our “blue mind”. Our attention lands on the water – both familiar and constantly changing – and stays there as we swim. Or do handstands and somersaults, or lie on our backs, or curl up into a primordial ‘egg’ (my current favourite, don’t judge it ’til you’ve tried it…).
Sea swimming inspired me to create Sea Soul Blessings cards – in an attempt to capture and share some of the incredible gifts that come with time spent in and around the sea.
Each card details a particular sea quality, and encourages us to apply that compassionately to our daily life – but you can use them to get the most out of your time in the water too.
Sea swimmers like Jade describe how choosing a card to provide a particular emotional focus for your swim (to release, find resilience, connect to hope…) can deepen our experience of the present moment. I often do that too – or ask the sea to guide me towards a particular quality while I’m there.
And if you can’t get to the sea as often as you like, choosing a Sea Soul Blessings card can be a powerful tool to help transport yourself back to that experience too.
12. START OR FINISH WITH A BEACH CLEAN
I always take at least three pieces of rubbish away with me – usually more. It’s a way of saying thank you to the sea for all it gives me with each swim – and it helps me to manage my own eco-anxiety by taking small positive actions every day.
It’s amazing to see the difference between the amount of debris on the beach and in the sea from one day to the next. There is so much plastic and fishing debris that comes up after the storms, and is then sucked back into the ocean – so grab it while you can, and help us all to keep it out of the ocean.
Wear gloves, sort and recycle what you find – and hopefully you’ll be saving a sea creature, or a fellow swimmer, from coming into contact with something dangerous or revolting in the water.
Not only do you get the feel-good benefits of doing something wonderful for yourself, you get the feel-good benefits of doing something wonderful for the planet.
That’s all my tips for now! Let me know how you get on.
And if you have more tips to share, let me know in the comments and I’ll pass them on!