I Started Swimming In The Sea Every Day & What I Learned Will Stay With Me Forever

by Aoife Hanna
Originally Published: 
Aoife Hanna

Moving to the seaside is one of those things you dream about. When you're at work and your mind wanders off into a beautiful abyss of dogs and space and an easier life. Long strolls on the beach and heaps of swimming, getting back to nature, getting toned, being able to be more smug on social media. This is what happiness is about. Especially the swimming in the sea every day part, which I absolutely love.

I moved to Margate in winter and budgetary constraints being what they are — I had £2 in my bank account for 3 weeks — a wetsuit wasn't really an option. That put the sea out of bounds for a little while, so my dream of being an all-weather swimmer wasn't quite realised. However, with summer upon us, I am in that bloomin' big old pond every day and I am amazed by what I have learned by swimming in the sea every day.

Outdoor swimming, or wild swimming as it has become known, is proven to be like, super good for you. So, why the heck not?

Are you envisioning some sort of graceful, goddess like mermaid creature? An olympic synchronised swimmer moving powerfully through the water? Well, that is not quite me. And to be honest, you don't need to be one to enjoy the joy that is outdoor swimming. So here's what I learned.


The Sea Is Very Cold

OK, so all those rumours about the sea in and around the British Isles is entirely true. It is cold AF. The coldest time of year according to sea temperature website is between January and April. Not much of a shock there. I was able to swim right up to November but after that, it was too painful.

If you are going to do the swimming bit in the depths of winter, you will have to cope with the beast from the east, or the west, or the north, or from hell, or whatever. As I haven't done any ACTUAL serious cold weather swimming, I decided to speak to an expert.

Esmé Ellis is one of the most interesting characters I have met in a while. She is a Berlin based academic who is an all weather swimmer and currently making a film, Die Badegäste (The Bathers) on lake swimming all year round. I recall my girlfriend telling me that "Esmé and her mates had planned on going swimming in the lake but nobody brought a hammer." Yes, a hammer for breaking ice. Ugh, I feel awful just thinking about that.

Ellis' advice is that preparation is key. "A towel for your feet and a towel for you, layers, hot black tea with sugar rather than liquor, no swimsuit because the skin gets very raw after that temperature, [and] put clothes on right away while drinking tea," she advises.


You Cannot Wade In

Countless all-weather swimmers will tell you the only way to do it is to jump or dive in. Owing to being freaked out by seaweed (mother earth over here) and god forbid actual creatures (nature is gross), jumping or diving in wasn't an option for me initially. This definitely slowed my progression and I really wish I had been a bit more brave.

The scene of my swimming crimes nine times out of ten is the Walpole Bay Tidal Pool. It was built way back when in 1937, in order for swimmers to enjoy the sea even when the tide is out and let me tell you it is flaming gorgeous.

A friend of mine, local fashion designer, Scouse glamour puss, and all round good egg Siobhan Hogan is a regular swimmer down at the Walpole and she advised the best method for wading in (if you must) is what has become known as "the backwards booty drop." Basically you walk in backwards, flap your arms around a bit and throw your body in backwards so you have no choice but to get in. Silly as it sounds, "the backwards booty drop" (BBD) is a tried and tested method of getting your scaredy cat self into the sea, and let me tell you, it works.


The First Bit Is The Worst

So, the initial shock feels a wee bit like your heart is going to stop beating, you can't breathe, and your brain is in overload. This is basically the fight or flight mode.

Just. Keep. On. Going.


After A While It Is Actually OK

As your body acclimatises to the temperature, you begin to take in all the lovely feelings of being all weightless and graceful in the sea. Once you are in, you won't want to get out. Honestly! OK, so maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but, like the good maxim says, practice makes perfect.

Also, the more you do it, the easier it is to get in and feel ok. Dr Heather Massey is a swimmer and researcher at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth. Speaking to the Outdoor Swimming Society, she said:

"The first thing that happens when you get into cold water is the cold shock response — the initial gasp, rapid breathing and increased heart rate and blood pressure as you get in. Swimmers can habituate this response very fast; as few as 5 or 6 three minute immersions where the whole body (not the head) are immersed in cold water will halve the cold shock response."


When You Get Out You Feel Invigorated

The after effects of outdoor swimming are innumerable.

The first one is feeling super, super smug and making sure you get on your social media to let everyone know you are a 2K18 mermaid angel. OK I jest, but seriously you feel so proud of yourself!

Once you have managed to get yourself dried off and into some nice dry clothes, you basically feel like a damn legend.

I spoke to Jenny Landreth, author of Swell: Waterography, The Sunday Times' Sport Book Of The Year 2017 who was keen to share the positive benefits of cold water swimming.

"Firstly, if you swim in cold water, that inevitably means you swim outside, all year round. Which means you get to experience the day in it’s rawest form — rain, sun, hail, snow, wind, and so on. And engaging in the world in that way, that’s so counter to every other transaction we have, it’s like… an antidote! There’s no central heating or air con, there’s no queues, there’s no app to make this different/better, there’s no gold bikini to give you a 'richer' experience than the next person. You experience a very basic physical thing. You, your skin, your body, your reaction. So that’s before you even get in the water! And I think it cannot be underestimated, the mental and physical benefits of that experience."

As a side note, Landreth's book is a wonderful, empowering insight into how women fought for the right to be able to swim in public places at a time when they weren't allowed. It's well worth a read.


Your Skin And Hair Feel Amazing Afterwards

OK, let's talk perfect beach waves. Nothing gives you that gorgeous beachy look like a dip into the big blue. I will admit that I have hair as fine as a tiny tiny infant so I can only speak for myself on this.

However, the proven benefits to the skin are reportedly pretty considerable. For me, it was bye bye eczema and hello silky soft skin. Think about all those bath salts you have been given as gifts over the years when someone doesn't know what to get you? Salts are the bomb for your skin. The sea is your very own enormous salt bath.


Your Head Feels A Bit Clearer

The sea heals all and that is no lie. Ish. Research has proven that cold showers can help with depression, with others claiming cold swimming has the same effect.

While the positive effects of aerobic exercise on both anxiety and depression is widely known, I believe that there is some sort of magic in those cold waters. Well magic isn't real so lets look at science. In an article for The Telegraph, Landreth claimed that cold water is of huge therapeutic benefit to sufferers of anxiety and depression.

Speaking again to Landreth, she added that

"Cold water can help people’s ability to deal with depression. The mental strength required to get in very cold water can boost your immune system, which helps resist colds etc. It increases blood flow, which improves circulation. [It also] helps muscle recovery, relieving inflammation. [Other benefits include] better metabolism, exposure to Vitamin D, serotonin."

Has it helped my anxiety? 100%. I feel like not only the act of throwing my carcass into the sea but the whole ceremony of the walk down, and the excitement pre, post, and during is just excellent for the soul.


It's A Great Way To Meet People

This is the funny thing about swimming at the local tidal pool. People are always keen to start up a conversation with you about it. There is a certain camaraderie among us swimmers that seems to over take usual conversational restraint and I bloody love it. I think the combination of everyone freezing their nanas off and also being nearly in the buff gives a certain vulnerability.

With wild swimming increasingly popular, The Royal Life Saving Society UK advises that it is important to remember to be safe and take relevant precautions. Once you have your safety, cozzie, and swimming location sorted, all you got to do is jump in, enjoy it, and feel all those benefits, because you're worth it.

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