Guest article by Kim Moore
I hate the cold with a passion. Ask anyone who knows me, friends, family and they will all agree to this. I’m always the one to take extra coats, hats and scarves on a walk, to pack slippers and blankets with me on weekends away and to cuddle up with a hot water bottle as soon as the summer slips away. So why is it that I love cold water swimming so much? Honestly, it’s a bit of a head tickler even for me, but I’ll try to explain.
There are times in all our lives when too much unhappiness can tip the balance of our mental health. That was me a year ago. Doses of medication, therapy and meditation followed and the recommendation to exercise more. Now I’ve always been a swimmer and have lost track of the numbers of pools I’ve swum in over the years, but the charms of the busy, chlorinated echo chambers were starting to wane.
Reviewing my options, I discovered Pells in Lewes, one of the oldest public outdoor swimming pools in the country. The adults only early morning session first attracted my attention, that and the natural setting, it’s bordered by pines and a fishing waterway. You can hear the ducks as you swim and watch birds coast on the clouds as they bluster by. The cold water was a problem though, I’m not going to lie. Just dripping my toes made me cry and I’d spend many a session, cowering on poolside being laughed at by hardy lifeguards who’d been cold water swimming for years. But over time and with some steadfast encouragement, I grew to welcome the cold, not to love it, but to accept it. I was still in a pool though and pounding up and down in the lanes, a banal exercise that allowed me to wallow in my thoughts, not escape them, and so with winter beckoning, I went to the sea.
I’ve lived in Brighton for over 20 years and have always swum in the sea in summer when the sun makes its annual appearance. To swim in it year round, in all weather was quite another thing. Like most people, the sea is what brought me to Brighton. I’d spent my whole life desperate to live within walking distance of its windy shore. But fast forward a family, my own business and a move to the city outskirts and the sea was suddenly taking a back seat.
My illness was to be the catalyst to change that, but I’d lost confidence in sea swimming and was uncomfortable being too far off the beach, so I called a sea-loving friend and laughing, we set out to reacquaint me with the many pleasures of our briny shore. There’s no dallying with my friend Lara, she ran to the waves and threw herself headfirst into the maw. I, ever a procrastinator danced a while in the surf, gasping at the cold that was numbing my ankles, before joining her in the deep. As we swam and chatted we became accustomed to the chilly water and the sun came out to warm our smiling faces. I’d forgotten the sheer joy of being moved by the sea’s waves, of being held and carried along by it is both humbling and exhilarating. There’s a sense of letting go in the sea, of acknowledging Mother Nature’s greater power, it is extremely liberating and especially so for a mind that’s knotted with anxiety and depression. The combination of the chilly water and the energy of the sea focuses your attention on the here and now. There’s no room for agonising, deliberations or ruminating, the sea demands all of your attention and it’s a relief. And there are multiple medical benefits that have been shown to be gained from cold water sea swimming.
Mindfulness - a popular therapy for depression - is not a modern enigma, most ancient cultures teach it in one way or another and sea swimming is a master class in it. There is only the present, defined by the startling sting of the cold water on your body, the wind whipping the sea spray into your face, the roar of the waves as they meet the shore and the ecstatic scream of the gulls as they skim the sky. You must pay attention to the sea at all times, to reach safety past the breakers, to swim with the current and the swell and then, to time your exit without being dumped on by a sudden wave.
Anyway, I was hooked. Lara and I laughed and giggled like school girls once back on the beach, where sticky with seaweed, we hastily dressed and gulped back cups of scalding tea. Since then, even with the temperatures diving, I’m a double dipper, that is I try to sea swim at least twice a week. I get tetchy if I can’t, physically yearning for the release that the sea gives me. My family tells me I’m a nicer person when I’ve been swimming and I think I am. How could I not be when I’ve been washed clean by the sea, both mentally and physically?
For more info and inspiration on sea swimming take a look at Seabirds of Brighton!