Why Open-Water Swimming Will Make You Immortal

It is the end of October 2020, a weekday afternoon and the sun is low in the sky. I am thirty metres offshore, floating on my back and feeling the sun’s rays on my face. The sea is calm and I close my eyes and mentally thank myself for arranging my life like this, to give myself moments such as these. I am going to live forever, I think.

Of course, I am not. And no, open water swimming (seas and rivers and lakes) will not make you eternal. But as a relatively new convert to sea swimming, I will tell you what I see on the stretch of coastline where I live: a whole lot of older (50 – 80 years old) women (and hardly any men – I can’t explain this gender disparity) getting in the water all year round, many of them every day, and they look and sound amazing, like people who have found a good secret and don’t mind sharing it.

Although I have lived near or on the coast for nearly all of my life, I, like many others, saw the sea as something to be enjoyed between June and September. I am a strong swimmer and have owned a paddleboard for the last three years but I tended to pack my beach stuff away when schools would restart in September. And my first attempts at year-round sea swimming, three years ago, did not go well.

Every new year, my family meet up for an evening with the same friends. At some point in the evening, we will write all our names on a piece of paper and put them in a hat. Each name will then be drawn out by someone and that person will give the named friend a challenge for the year. The idea is that the challenge will be achievable and self-improving.

About three years ago, the name I pulled out was my wife’s. I took my time but couldn’t think of anything but a few glasses of wine later, a thought appeared: I would set her the challenge of swimming in the sea at least once a month for the whole year. I told my two children and they laughed in that slightly bitter cruel way that suggested my idea would be met with more shock than enthusiasm.

They were right. My wife’s face fell. I taught her to swim properly not long after we met, 25 years ago, but she is not confident in deep or rough water. Immediately, I felt bad and so made the rash decision to join her in her challenge. Of course, starting sea swimming in January is far from ideal. The sea temperature will be somewhere between six and eight degrees Celsius, and you will have the cold air and winter wind to deal with as you try and get out of your wet cold gear.

We decided that we would wait until the end of January in vain hope that conditions would be better. I now know this makes no difference; the sea temperature does not even begin to rise until April. But back then we were naïve and desperate for every advantage we thought we might get.

It was a cold, grey, windy day when we drove over to Shoreham Beach and looked at the sea; the waves rising and breaking near the shore rather menacingly. We had wetsuits, but none of the other gear we have now purchased: neoprene boots and gloves, a swimming hat, a robe to get changed under when you have had enough.

I think we held hands as we entered the water and waded forward to where the water was waist height. The sea then creeps in through the zip in the back of the wetsuit, and you feel the true temperature of the water. At this point, my wife let go of my hand, and I decided to just go for it.

I dived under a breaking wave and felt the shock of the cold on my head, my hands, my brain.

I swam vigorously for about ten seconds and then thought that I would really like to get out. I turned to see how my wife was doing and saw her making her way out of the sea. When I made it out to join her, she told me that she had knocked her knee against a submerged wooden breaker post that divided parts of the beach, and then that a wave had crashed over her head. And that was enough for her.

We persevered. Once a month, and only once a month, between January and April, we headed to the beach and got in very briefly. It was less sea swimming and more cold water immersion. The challenge was being completed, but not enjoyed.

Then, in May, we noticed a proper change in the sea temperature. Suddenly, it was not such an ordeal to be in the water; we swam instead of dipping ourselves in and out.  That year, the May bank holiday was a scorcher. Everyone hit the beach. Many of them thought the water looked inviting and got in but their faces were like ours in January: ‘no way’ raised eyebrows and open-mouthed shock. Nobody stayed in for more than a minute but we swam like merry dolphins and from that point the challenge was easy.

Until late November.

The sea, being a massive body of water, takes time to heat up and cool down.

(Interestingly, I have just, mid-blog, searched for the year-round sea temperature for the south coast where I live and the first search engine result was this:

“Throughout the year, the water temperature in Shoreham-by-Sea does not rise above 20°C/68°F and therefore is not suitable for comfortable swimming.”).

The line graph of the average sea temperature for each month looks like a gentle wave, rising to between 17 – 19°C by mid-August, then falling to around 6 – 7°C by February. But between mid-May and late November, it is always above 12°C.

That might not sound very appealing, but all things are relative. If you were swimming in January when the water might have been half that, then 12°C can feel comfortable if not necessarily Mediterranean.

Finishing the challenge on Boxing Day of 2018, though we were quite proud of ourselves, there was no talk of carrying on. Challenge done; move on. Then this year, we just kept swimming past the end of summer into autumn, into winter.

Although there are a few hardy souls who turn up with nothing but a swimming costume, we had, by now, got all the necessary gear: short wetsuit, winter wetsuit, gloves, boots, hat. But something strange happened: as autumn drew on, so did the numbers of swimmers. A half dozen became twenty, and then on some weekend days, we might find the car park full and could count fifty people on the beach. Word was getting around.

But what was the word?

Sea swimming has, like cycling and running, benefitted from the limited scope for activities and organised sports imposed by the coronavirus lockdowns. It is, apart from the kit, free. And the kit does not need constant replacing; my second-hand wetsuit is at least ten years old. But why were so many people taking up open water swimming? If ever there was an activity that you might try only once before uttering, ‘never again’ then surely this was it.

First: the science. When your body is immersed in cold water, it enters survival mode. Your body is flooded with adrenaline, your blood pumps faster, your anti-inflammatory system goes into overdrive. And this is good for you. You will not notice many of the benefits which are long-term and still being researched but many of these are boosts to your mental health: less chance of dementia, anxiety, depression.

You will notice, shortly after swimming in cold water, a surge in your mood. Cold water immersion causes the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, the ‘happy chemicals’. For me, half an hour after I get out, I feel amazing – full of energy, happy, glowing. My wife calls it the Ready-Brek glow because it is physical as well: a cool vibe your body gives off but one infused with energy.

Sea swimmers get into the water in winter with various degrees of trepidation/abandon/bravado but they are all smiling and laughing ten minutes after getting out. This is not science but what I see with my own eyes.  Wim Hof, a Dutch advocate of cold water immersion, a bearded twinkly-eyed guru, has been at the forefront of lots of the research for his legendary abilities to withstand the cold but he has proven that we can be trained to withstand the cold and that this training has specific health benefits. In Brighton, near to where I live, Sussex Recovery College has run a sea swimming course for those experiencing mental health difficulties.

Mindfulness, a broad umbrella term for many different activities and philosophies, may be best summarised as living in the moment. I can assure you that entering the sea in December brings your attention to a still, sharp point. If your mind is wandering whilst in water the temperature of which is 6°C, then that is also an achievement – you have transcended your surroundings – but the real benefits can be of forgetting what happened earlier that day, or yesterday, or last year, and ignoring those thoughts about what might happen later, or tomorrow, or next year. The moment is now; your mind and body aligned in full survival mode.

And I particularly love the group of older ladies who swim together nearly every day on the beach at the bottom of my road, chatting and hanging out in the water, encouraging each other, their eyes alive with…what? Immortality – their special secret. They are as old and wise as Galapagos sea tortoises and have probably swum here on Kingston Beach, even before the construction of the stone lighthouse in 1846.

They are going to live forever.


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