It’s About The (Warm) Water You Swim

The water’s up to my knees now, and I can tell this is going to be a tough one: the cold bites at my skin, blazing a line of icy fire higher and higher up my legs as I walk out further & further. The beach here is shallow, which sometimes looks like a blessing and today feels like a curse, prolonging this creeping agony, even if I grit my teeth and stride as fast as I’m able. Even at a near-run, for the water to get deep enough for me to swim, I’ve got a couple of minutes of this to endure. Yikes.

Up ahead, someone’s splashing around on a paddleboard – which is encouraging, until I see they’re wearing a wetsuit. Because of course they are. This is Scotland, and I’m plunging into the North Atlantic. What kind of idiot walks into waters this chilly without an extra layer of artificial skin to protect them? 

(Me. Hello there. I’m clearly an idiot.)

There are a few locals who manage this kind of thing just fine, even on days as cold as this, here in the depths of winter. There’s an outdoor swimming society which I sometimes see splashing and yelling its way into the waves, when I’m walking back from the shops clutching my padded down jacket around me. It must be an aversion therapy thing: do it enough times, fight through enough misery and anything’s possible. I respect that a lot, even though…no. No thanks. Life feels a bit too short for all that. This coldness is just too much for me.

North Atlantic Ocean
North Atlantic Ocean

At the other end of the Atlantic, my friend Anna is doing much the same thing, except in much chillier water. As she writes for Outside Online:

“I step in, up to my ankles, and then my calves. I walk further, submerging my thighs, and then the really hard part: my belly button. My face contorts with the spike of cold. I know that the sooner I can get my shoulders under the water, the easier the whole endeavor will be. Yet there’s a part of me that likes to stand here for a few seconds, with half of my body exposed to the winter air, half of it submerged. There’s an intensity to this “before” moment, as if I am hardening myself to the task ahead. I’m feeling the cold, I’m paying attention. I hear the wings of a seagull fly over me…”

Well, good for you, Anna. Terrific. Best of luck, and so on.

The irony is, I’m so ready to go swimming every day. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with sea-dips all over again. I remember doing them as a kid living in Cyprus, and at school in England we had our Physical Education lessons at the local pool, and the qualifications that went with them, turning me into Mike Sowden, BSC (Bronze Swimming Certificate). 

But as a teenager and adult, the UK’s always-cold waters completely took the shine off outdoor swimming. The British sea temperature hovers around the 15°C / 59°F point in the height of summer, and plunges down into single figures in the winter, so – it’s never what anyone would sensibly call “warm”.

I knew the health benefits of swimming (great for your heart rate, without any of the impact damage from similarly heart-thumping activities like running and football), and I knew it was a great way to make new friends. But then I looked at the sea, the grey, grey sea, and took my shoes & socks off to poke a toe into the water – and it all felt like a big Nope.

Then three years ago I went to live in Corfu for a few months, my personal version of a Wheel & Anchor LiveAways programme – and everything changed for me. 

Corfu Island
Corfu Island

As I write this on a rainy Scottish morning in late February, I just checked the sea temperature around Corfu. Today it’s 14.8°C / 58.7°F – so right now, in the dead of the Greek winter, it’s about as warm as the sea ever gets here in Scotland.

But in my time in Greece, it was late September, and the sea was still pretty warm – so I went in every day. Because it was warm. Not the “oh, you’ll be fine after a while, just grit your teeth” interpretation of warm that many beachgoing Scots seem to revel in. No – it was as immediately pleasant as stepping into a warm bath, a welcoming snugness that works its way up your body until you feel the tips of your ears glowing. There’s none of the violence of cold-water swimming in that part of the Mediterranean. It makes swimming easy.

This ease is what I’ve missed the most about the lack of travel, during these pandemic couple of years. I’ve taken to cold-water swimming not because I prefer it, but because there is no other option available to me outdoors. I’d much rather be jumping in warm water than cold – and that’s what I’m looking forward to the most, when I get moving again. 

For example, perhaps you’re considering taking part in our South African Safari By Land & Sea, taking place in October (in which case, as Gordon said, you need to act quickly to secure your place). You’ll be spending time in Cape Town, famous for its incredible beach-life, baking-hot white sand between your toes with the sun toasting your neck and shoulders – and then you’ll be whisked to the Seychelles, off Africa’s western coast, a place where the sea is such an impossibly luminous aquamarine that until you’ve seen it for yourself, you’d accuse any photo featuring it of being unrealistically enhanced.

Beautiful beach at the Seychelles
Beautiful beach at the Seychelles

In October, the average sea temperature in the Seychelles is 28.2°C (82.8°F). 

Those are…not temperatures I am capable of associating with the sea. That’s just absurd. If I was taking part in that trip, I’d refuse to leave the water. They’d have to drag me out. 

(No, don’t worry – I’m not actually going. There won’t be a scene.)

This, then, is what’s yelling at me right now. The world is calling, and it’s saying, “come on in, the water’s delicious!” It’s going to be a big factor in where I decide to go first, and I absolutely can’t wait to throw myself back in (without having to listen to my own shrieking as the aching cold claws its way up my torso)….

There’s a whole world out there to re-immerse ourselves in. Let’s make a plan to make the most of it.

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