We swim, hubby and I. Motivated by the beach on our doorstep and humble ambitions as triathletes, we log each swim with Garmin accuracy and analyse, speed, stoke and technique critically in Iyengar-esque style. And yet, my favourite dips are those that drift with the tide, stroke by slow stroke down the coast, breathing, blowing, bubbles, pulling, pushing and gliding above the rocks and sandy undulations towards the pub, a promised pint and a packet of crisps. Five slow kilometres down tide to Seaview and a warm evening drying out in the sunshine like a seal on the rocks.
Come September though and our swimming stops; but, it doesn't have to. The Isle of Wight has witnessed an explosion in year round dippers and swimmers. December mornings see our beaches and local social media full of the sparkling, adrenaline spiked smiles of swimmers, dressed in little more than bikinis, budgie smugglers, booties and bobble hats. All shapes, all sizes, all ages, buoyed along by bonhomie and a stoked sense of self belief with Wim Hoff steeliness mixed with the quiet humility of Roger Deakin. Curious, I asked my friend Alison Butcher to chat with her Bedford Weed Waders and share the motivation behind their weekly dips together.
Undercurrents: Accidental Swimmers
It is a Sunday afternoon in November and I am crouching on a riverbank after a chilly swim with a steaming hot drink in my hand and marvelling at the tiny fishes in the shallows. I am suddenly joined by a small dog called Lottie and her owner who have come to wash muddy feet and paws after their walk. The dog owner looks between my swimming buddy and me with wonder written all over her face and asks whether we have been swimming. We grin from ear to ear and say “yes.” Then she says, “I have often thought about swimming here but I’m not sure I could be that brave.” I quickly respond “yes, you could be that brave.” And there is the look I have seen a few times now...the flicker and then the outbreak of self-belief (I recognised it in myself two and a bit years ago). The talk of a plan and an intention to follow up in the Spring. An imagination ignited. Where and why do women lose their self-belief later in life? Is it like a plant that, if not nurtured, simply withers? It seems common to those that come to wild swimming. If not self-belief then confidence or peace of mind or the control of a body that seems to range and rage against women later in life. Whilst wild swimming does seem to attract a large a number of women, our swimming groups are well-represented by men. We come to wild swimming for a number of reasons and via a number of routes but with a common sense of reclaiming something once lost or misplaced. That sense of reclamation you get from wild swimming is a flame that, once lit, burns with powerful glow from which we continue to draw strength. Life is frenetic enough and the bright lights and straight lines of a swimming pool just don’t offer that salve for the soul we seek. Through wild swimming, we seek a way to bring ourselves to a sense of reset, reinvigoration and, in some cases, reinventing a narrative that is no longer serving us.
The prospect of dipping into a river with a water temperature at 7oC on a grey day is not everyone’s idea of fun but what a beautiful dimension it contains. With safety in numbers, swimming with at least one other person is recommended. That brings a sense of camaraderie that has been particularly poignant in the year of Covid-19. There are now familiar stages to the adventures on which we find ourselves embarking. Viewing the launch area, there is the trepidation (why are we doing this?!), the shared experience the moment where your breath is taken away (remembering not to utter expletives) and then the elation that comes with the immersion in cold water and being at eye level with a whole new world. The love of and being closer to nature is an important feature. To be immersed in nature and to regarded by nature as “one of them” is utterly thrilling. Many a time we have been eye to unblinking eye with a heron on the bank or visited by ducks and swans wondering who these funny silicone hatted beings are. In the opening few paragraphs of the iconic “Waterlog” by Roger Deakin he talked about swimming in his moat where raindrops hitting the surface of the water were like “...tiny dancers: water sprites springing up on tiptoe...” Having seen this myself a few times now, I am mesmerised every single time.
The favoured stroke of a wild swimmer is the breaststroke as it allows you to have all your senses on receive. When you are in the water, you are in the moment. It is like a meditation in motion where all that nature has to offer is suddenly in crisp, colourful focus. Wild swimmers have no regrets. They are soulful warriors of the water. There is no bravado, only humility. There is a respect for nature, our environment and we proudly take our place within it in our fleeting dance with the currents. The currents remind us that nothing is permanent. You never experience the same river twice. Each time is a wonderful retreat to the here and now. - Alison Butcher
Inspired? Yes, I am. I've been invited tomorrow to join the gang for a winter solstice swim off Ryde. To face the fear, to calm the nervous system and brave the cold. As I deliberate my RSVP, this wonderful poem appeared on the local wild swimming Facebook page:
"Three good friends went for a swim.
The one who was fat wished she was thin.
The one who was curvy wished she was clever.
The one who was clever wished she swam better.
The really great swimmer wished she was witty.
The one who was witty wished she was pretty.
All three friends thought the other two were just fine.
If only they could let their own bright light shine.
So throw on your swimsuit if you're fat or you're thin.
Enjoy fun and friendship .... love the skin that you're in" - Mandy Tompkins
In March I'm facilitating a yoga weekend in Wales with the option of daily dips in the lake - if you fancy a break offering something a little different then take a look here. https://www.yogawithemma.co.uk/wales-holidays