It’s grim here today. It’s been raining heavily on and off all day and it’s currently hailing. But over the weekend we had snow and cold and ice. Lots of ice!
Early in the open water season my bestest swimming buddy and I agreed to carry on swimming through the winter. For lots of reasons. Because it would keep us acclimatised to the cold when the OW season really starts again next year. Because we love swimming outside so much. Because we wanted to see if we could do it. Because we like a bit of a challenge. I think it’s fair to say when we decided this we thought we’d be swimming in wetsuits all winter. We’d done the odd dip last winter donning extra layers, neoprene hats, gloves and boots. I assumed we’d be doing the same.
Towards the end of the season my bestest swim buddy started shedding her wetsuit and going skins (just a cozzie). I thought she was mad! The temperatures were starting to drop. Surely she didn’t intend to do this all winter? Not wishing to be beaten I gave it a go and do you know what? It wasn’t that bad. Yes, it was cold but it was a different experience.
In a wetsuit you just get cold bits. Hands, feet, head and the odd trickle of cold water down the front of your wetsuit. Obviously the parts covered by your wetsuit do get cold too but it’s not as intense as the exposed bits. When it’s really cold those bits hurt. Eventually they go numb and then they hurt again when you warm up and the feeling comes back. I’ll be honest, it’s not the most pleasant of experiences, but I put up with it because the joy and excitement I get from swimming outside heavily outweigh that bit of pain.
Swimming in skins is an entirely different experience. Your entire body tingles from the cold. It’s like all over pins and needles but in a really good way. Every time you kick your legs or move in the water the zing seems to intensify. The isolated pain I get in my hands and feet when I’m in a wetsuit doesn’t seem to happen. Maybe it’s just because my system is so overwhelmed by the sensations of the cold that it can’t focus my brain on one particular part that hurts. I have to admit I’m falling in love with it!
Now, please don’t have visions of me walking gracefully into a reservoir with not a flinch at the cold. Our getting in process is lengthy. We usually spend ten minutes chatting at the side before finally conceding that we should get on and do this. There’s a quick test of the water temperature then a further five minutes are spent removing the many layers we’ve donned to keep us warm before and after.
Slowly, slowly we walk into the water. There’s a usual exchange of words along the lines of “huh, not too bad on the feet” swiftly followed by “ooof that’s cold” as we reach the thighs. By this point I’m usually swearing profusely and huffing like a steam train. As the water creeps up our arms creep higher, trying to keep as much of ourselves out of the water for as long as possible. By mid-chest we have to concede and the arms, hands and shoulders get submerged. I’m at peak huffing point by now. Attempting to control my breathing as my entire body tingles and, ever so slightly, tries to convince me I want to get out. Then we’re off. Heads up breastroke, often for the whole swim but sometimes the head gets in for a bit of front crawl.
What we have come to realise is, that at this time of year, the air temperature is as important as the water temperature. Even if the water’s still a balmy 10C, a day with an air temperature at 0C and a bit of wind chill can make it very unpleasant. As soon as you get out, or a part of your body is out of the water it chills even more in the air. We’ve had a few swims that were just unpleasant because getting out was so hard. But we’ve learnt the hard way to time our swims properly. Windy and cold has become a no-go. We aim for sunny and still. Even if the air’s hanging around 0C if it’s sunny and still we can manage it.
We’ve also kitted out a bit better. We’ve always taken hot drinks and our dry robes but our post swim kit list has increased. We now have enormous jumpers, trackies, hats, gloves, socks and boots. They’re all laid out in order to put back on and they’re all loose enough to get on when we’ve got slightly numb hands. This week we started taking a hot water bottle to put in the middle of it all so it was pre-warmed when we got out!
We’ve been having a go at this skin swimming malarkey since November but this weekend was a bit special. It got really cold. We had snow and ice! I desperately wanted to swim whilst it was snowing so on Sunday we headed out in the afternoon in the snow. It was magical. I have to confess I went in my wetsuit, gloves and shoes whilst my bestest swim buddy donned a bikini!
I was putting the bikini madness down to the amount she’d drunk the previous night. However, I got a bit jealous, so having done a little lap out I came back to shore, stripped my wetsuit off and headed back in without! It was amazing. Yes, it was bloody cold but the sense of achievement was completely worth it. Off we headed home in our million layers to warm up and eat some food. I assumed we’d not be going again for a few more days, waiting until it had warmed up a bit again. I was wrong.
Overnight the temperature dropped to -7C. I drove past a local reservoir, not our usual one, and it was almost completely covered over with ice. The compulsion to see what it’d be like to swim with ice on the top was there immediately. I messaged the bestest swim buddy and off we went for a quick lunchtime dip.
The ice was so thick we could walk on it in parts. We lobbed huge rocks in and they just chipped the ice. We eventually found a slightly more sheltered spot under the trees where we could break through. So, with sticks in hand, off we went breaking a path through the ice to get in. Neither of us really noticed just how cold it was (1.6C) as we were so distracted with our sticks.
We didn’t get out of our depth but we did get far enough to dunk our shoulders and be completely surrounded at neck height by ice. A few quick strokes of breaststroke and we were back. Climbing out with tingly slightly numb skin. A handy patch of fresh snow called to me. I couldn’t resist a quick snow angel and a roll in the snow! My skin was so cold I could barely feel the cold of the snow.
Back on with our many layers with massive grins on our faces! A quick drive home and back on with our normal days. I do love our impromptu, slightly mad dips! I’m still grinning a bit today.
Our respective facebook posts over the weekend were met largely by surprise with the odd comment of encouragement. In total we racked up 27 comments alluding to our states of mind (bonkers, insane, crazy to name just a few). I know most people think we’re utterly stark raving bonkers and that, to some extent, is part of the appeal. I’ll never run a marathon or undertake any other kind of crazy endurance event. I’ve always had utter admiration for people who do and I thought I’d never manage to be one of them, but in this I’ve found something that not many people can, or want, to do. I kind of like that. I’ve found my thing and, just as importantly, I’ve found someone bonkers enough to do it with me……….thanks bestest swim buddy!