Swimming into spring

‘But you haven’t done a winter’ is a phrase which has rather followed us around in our life choices since we started this blog.

The notion of managing a winter in our campervan volunteering was the first one. Actually, we didn’t manage that. We’d always planned to be back in Sussex again for Christmas with family and not even attempted to set up WWOOF hosts through the winter before we set off as that would have proved all but impossible a year in advance. We assumed we would either continue setting up hosts a few weeks in advance as we travelled, that we’d have had enough of the adventure and returned home, decided to move our travels to somewhere warmer and venture into mainland Europe next or have worked out what our next step was and be wanting to start on that.

In fact we had indeed decided to move to Scotland, visited Rum for the first time and submitted our application for the croft so were waiting on hearing about that.

Our next ‘you haven’t done a winter yet’ was living on Rum itself. That was footnoted by ‘and definitely not in a caravan’.

That was quite some winter. We certainly came out of the other side of it feeling as though we had achieved something. We’d survived the winter winds, the days and days of endless rain and the croft turning to mud before our very eyes. The hours and hours of daylight – sometimes 20 a day shrank to barely 5 or 6. We’d been out collecting firewood, out picking winkles. It was a challenging and eye opening season with countless lessons learned and battles fought, lost and won.

‘Doing a winter’ certainly seems to be something of a badge of honour.

My adventures in wild swimming, started back in the summer last year had a similar hesitancy to the approach of the winter. I began to don a second pair of neoprene socks, looked at thicker gloves, bought a balaclava style hood and began exposing less and less of myself to the water as the temperature dropped.

At the end of November though, just as winter was tapping on our shoulders a couple of friends and I stripped off our wetsuits at the end of a regular swim and got back in to the water in our swimsuits. It was the most amazing feeling – like thousands of tiny pins and needles all over our bodies as the nerve endings jangled. It was one of the most freeing, joy filled experiences I’ve ever had. Every bit of my body seemed to be flooded with the most amazing sense of being alive. It was like letting your hair down when it’s been tied up all day, taking off a pair of uncomfortable high heels, removing your bra, finally having that wee you’ve been busting for for the last half an hour.

It was like putting on a pair of glasses when you’ve gradually been losing your vision and suddenly seeing every leaf on the trees again, your ears popping after being blocked and realising how muffled everything was. It was that feeling on the last day of school before the summer holidays, the relief of an all clear result, the exhilaration of a roller coaster.

I’ve not put the balaclava hood on since. Well actually I have, one day I had a very cold head and said to Ady ‘remind me tomorrow that my hat is my friend’ so the next day I went in the water wearing it, but a halfway into my swim I pulled it off and stuffed it down the front of my wetsuit. It was muffling the sounds, lessening my feelings and a million times more annoying than having a cold head.

Swimming without a wetsuit is known as ‘swimming in skins’ even though you are not just in your skin, you do have a swimsuit on too (although I do hear of many folk who literally just swim in their skin even my remote corner of the world still has me encountering other folk once a week or so and I can be seen from the roadside by any cars driving by, so I’ll be sticking with the swimsuit for now!). We carried on these skins dips at the end of our regular Sunday swims through December and for our New Years Day ‘Loony Dook’. The water was getting colder but with the decreasing temperature came increasing pleasure from the experience.

I began to consider just swimming in skins all the time rather than stripping off at the end of a swim. In the same way as the hat felt constricting the wetsuit was starting to feel the same. It was a faff to wriggle in and out of every time and I often felt I spent more time getting in to, out of or rinsing my wetsuit than I did actually being in it in the water. Over Christmas and new year I heard myself telling at least three people about how I was ‘considering losing the wetsuit and starting to swim in skins all the time’. I had half a plan to maybe shed it in the summer and then try not to go back to it through next winter thinking I would acclimatise that way, but those weekly skins dips were working their magic.

Then one day in early January I had my wetsuit with me to change in to on the shore as I was planning my swim on the way home from being out. I already had my swimsuit on under my clothes. It was windy and raining and Ady said to me ‘you’re going to get just as cold and wet putting that wetsuit on as you would just getting into the loch without it.’ He voiced in a joke what I had been thinking in all seriousness. My own voice was echoing in my ears that the only way to go from ‘thinking about doing’ something to doing something was to do it.

So I did.

And since then I’ve been in the loch most days in just a swimsuit and gloves. I have a fairly unreliable thermometer – some open water swimmers are a bit sniffy about having a thermometer at all but I like to know the water temperature. I am curious, purely in an interested in what’s going on sort of way. It is useful, in getting to know my own body and my capabilities to understand what impact a degree either way has on me. Finally I quite like knowing so I can brag about how tough I am! Conservative estimates corroborated by friends with more accurate thermometers and splitting the difference averages put the loch as low as perhaps 1 or 2 degrees at it’s coldest this winter. It’s currently around 6 degrees.

I swim in the loch in skins about five times a week. Sometimes it’s a dip lasting less than 10 minutes, sometimes it is over 20 minutes and I manage a decent swim. This depends on all sorts of variables including the water temperature, the air temperature, the weather conditions, the tide being in or out, the level of the waves, what the wildlife around me is doing and how I am feeling on any given day. I have had times when I went in calling back to Ady (who always accompanies me on my solo swims and stands on the shore, sometimes taking photos, sometimes collecting rubbish from the beach if it is after a storm and there is rubbish washed up) ‘I won’t be long…’ and then emerging after a new record for distance of swim or time in the water. Sometimes wading in thinking today is the day for breaking a personal record only to be spooked by an eagle, suddenly aware of loss of feeling in my toes or a low flying plane putting me off and coming back out again.

Up until today I have been donning my wetsuit still for my regular Sunday group swim with friends, feeling that it allows me to stay in for longer. But the last few times I have worn it it has felt like such an effort to pull it on pre-swim and I have felt constricted and irritated by wearing it, as though it is hampering my swim rather than aiding it. So today I arrived for our group swim in skins. And it did not prevent me from swimming as I would have done had I been wearing it, infact I am confident it was not missed at all and that I found swimming without it easier. It was also quite fun to be the only one in a group of nine without a wetsuit. I am always happy to be different!

I have had some of my best, deepest and most interesting conversations with people I swim with. I have made connections, lost inhibitions and found links with folk I would likely have little else in common with. It has been my opening in our new mainland life to a new social world and to interesting and diverse people.

It has provided me with my much needed link to the natural world and the landscape around us. I physically crave that connection with nature, with the weather, the seasons, the wildlife. On Rum my life was much more outside based and through necessity our new mainland existence means I am driving more and walking less. I am back in artificially controlled environments for a greater period of time with lights and heating and no windows. My near daily dips re-centre me and keep me in tune with a clock and calendar far beyond that which hangs on my wall or sends me reminders on my phone.

My relationship with the loch is much like the one I enjoyed with the hill on Rum. It provides challenges and inspiration, motivation and opportunity. It gives me headspace of a meditative nature and allows a mindless meandering of my thoughts and a wide open space for what is really important to rush in and show itself to me. I have epiphanies, realisations, eureka moments and clarity.

I am reminded how small I am, how insignificant and finite. I am conversely given the gift of feeling mighty, powerful, in control and autonomous. I can choose how long to stay in, which direction to head in, which stroke to select, I am at the absolute mercy of the waves, the tide, the unknown depths below me. I am entirely along in my experience in the loch, I am submersing myself in water which has always been on this planet and has been tears, sweat, a raindrop, a glass of water, an ice cube, a snowflake, a cloud…in a never ending cycle older than I will ever be, before my first ancestor, likely after the last of my line has become extinct.

It is mid March. I swam in summer, in autumn and I will swim in spring. But once again, with the echoes of voices in my ears about ‘not doing a winter’ I am able to take a small sense of pride in knowing that once again I did. This time I swam though it. I swam through a winter.

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