On Sunday I joined about a dozen brave ladies for a swim in my local loch. They opted for the sensible wetsuit option, and I got in just in my shorts. You can imagine who stayed in for longer …
Getting in in just your skin is all about self-control. As soon as you step in the water your ankles start hurting, but you have to ignore it. I stayed in long enough to get my breathing under control before I began to think I should get out: without a timer on the bank to tell you how long you’ve been in, it’s quite easy to underestimate the duration of your dip. I opted for caution, and I reckon I was in for less than two minutes.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the benefits that are now being widely promoted of swimming in cold water – in this case about 5deg C, I was told. Dressed and dry, I swiftly warmed up with a flask of coffee, my skin was glowing, and there was a genuine feeling of well-being: it was deeply relaxing.
Those with suits and tow-floats swam across the loch and back, some managing proper front crawl despite the pain of the water on their heads.
I did a similar but even shorter dip in the Lake of Menteith on New Year’s Day, which thanks to a whipping wind and scudding waves felt even colder, and maybe that had boosted my resistance for another go five days later.
Open-water swimming, wild swimming, cold-water swimming – whatever it’s called, it seems to have got into the public’s imagination in the last couple of years. I have always been one for a leap in the sea, but staying in beyond the pain threshold is fairly new for me. It started in 2018 when I began to prolong my summer sea dips, and then I went in the sea a few months later in December at Wardie Bay in Edinburgh with open-water swimming legend Colin Campbell for a radio tape.
It’s such a massive contrast to how we live our lives these days. Done with care it’s safe, but you have to focus on yourself, your surroundings, your breathing: stay in too long and you can be in serious trouble. Like climbing, mountaineering, many other outdoor activities, you have to be self-sufficient – there’s no safety net other than your own common sense, no cotton-wool culture.
Some would call it risk, but it’s better expressed as adventure, stepping into the unknown. A swift dip in a local loch is about as quick an adventure as you can get, but even such slivers of visceral enjoyment are enough to makes us whole and give life its savour.