• Karen

Dive in: how a New Year’s Day pact opened up a whole new watery world of wellbeing

Updated: Jan 16

Cast your mind back to childhood trips to the seaside. What do you remember other than perhaps a sense of nostalgia? Building sandcastles? Rockpooling? Swimming? The sea is almost certain to feature. For many of us as children, it was the ultimate waterpark.

Growing up near the Solent, we were never far from the water, even if our local beach was perhaps a little too close to the power station, my dad’s place of work, for today’s tastes. In those days, working life was still very nine-to-five and Dad would always come home for a proper lunch break; during the summer holidays he would pile my mum, brother and me into the Austin Maxi as he headed back for his afternoon shift, dropping us off at the beach en route. I loved those afternoons. There was no sand to speak of at our beach, just a bank of shingle, but there was water, and we cared not one jot about its temperature as we raced to change into our swimmers and wade in. This was par for the course on any beach, from the Highlands to Cornwall: we saw water, we wanted to get in. I’m sure it was the same for most children.

So why did so many of us stop swimming in the sea as we grew older? Teenage self-consciousness accounts for the best part of my second decade, and by the time my confidence had returned in my twenties and thirties, Neil and I were holidaying abroad most years, quickly acclimatising to the somewhat balmier waters of the Mediterranean, the Aegean or the sunkissed pool of a Tuscan villa. Swimming in the UK became something we just didn’t do any more. Compared with the turquoise waters of Paxos, the English Channel was a murky seaweed soup, reached by an agonising hobble across knobbly pebbles rather than sun-warmed sand. It was also, frankly, rather cold. Without realising it, sea swimming had become something I only did on holiday, and I was happy with that.

My attitude changed not long after turning 40. Neil and I had begun having conversations about approaching middle age and how we were determined never to use it as a reason to say no to things. Quite the opposite, we wanted to open ourselves up to more life experiences, even those that scared us a little.

It therefore felt like something of a set-up when, on a New Year’s Day walk, we encountered a group of seventy-somethings swimming off one of our favourite beaches on the Dorset coast. While they were throwing themselves into the waves seemingly without a care in the world or a wetsuit in sight, Neil and I were cocooned in down jackets, hats and gloves. We looked at each other. “That’ll be us next year,” said Neil. “Alright then,” I agreed, rather uncertainly.

As it happened, our summer holiday that year was to be on a remote island off the coast of North Wales. Swimming in the decidedly ‘fresh’ Irish Sea would be on the agenda (unlike us, the friends we were travelling with had never stopped dipping in UK waters) so it seemed like a good first step towards achieving our New Year goal. We bought wetsuits because we thought we should and, to be fair, they certainly took the edge off that first dip after so many years. But I didn’t enjoy wearing mine. I have never been able to master that surfer chic look (oh, how I wish); it was all I could do not to catch my back fat when zipping up the darned thing. But a wetsuit somehow gives you a false sense of protection from the unknown and so, with that little confidence boost, we enjoyed a jolly Famous Five style holiday bobbing around with the curious seals and generally getting used to being in the water once again. Back home in Dorset, we continued swimming regularly, refamiliarising ourselves with the sea on our home patch, which was a bit less seaweedy, and certainly less seal-y, but only a little less cold than Wales.

On New Year’s Day the following year, we held true to our pact and headed for the beach where we’d been so inspired the year before. Wetsuits on, we went in. The water was icy cold, decidedly painful on hands and feet, but utterly exhilarating. If I’d had any trace of a hangover from the night before it disappeared in an instant. We dunked our shoulders under, shrieked and swore a bit and then raced back up the beach to warm clothes, a flask of coffee and a warming nip from the hip flask.

That New Year swim was a landmark moment for Neil and me. We’d challenged ourselves a little and felt a definite sense of achievement, not to mention the unmistakable rush of endorphins that lasted for several hours after. It was enough of an incentive to become regular cold water dippers (I’m not going to say swimmers; it’s more of a dunk and a gentle bob around) and we soon abandoned the faff of wearing wetsuits. They don’t protect you from the initial cold shock response in any case (it’s only when the layer of trapped water warms up that you feel the benefit) and, in my experience, they can hinder your ability to get dressed quickly, which is vital to staying warm as your body continues to cool for 20-30 minutes after leaving the water. As we discovered, the secret to acclimatising to cold water is just to swim in it, regularly. By the time summer came around again, the sea felt like a bath (sort of) and we found ourselves missing the rush that comes from the feeling of euphoria after a cold water swim. I’ll leave it to others to explain the science behind the benefits of cold water swimming but, trust me, it works. In the years since that first New Year dip, we have swum year-round in locations such as Scottish lochs, which felt colder in May than in January, rivers in France, Portugal and Devon, wild Welsh beaches and disused sea quarries here in Dorset. All of these swims have been delicious, but the colder ones are often the most memorable and certainly those that deliver the biggest kick to the system.

Like many of us, I’ve had struggles with my mental health over the years, usually caused by work-related burnout, but I’m better able to manage it these days and I swear that swimming has a lot to do with that. I find that swimming seems to regulate my stress levels (see previously linked article for a possible reason why) and if I feel myself wobbling, a swim generally restores a degree of balance. For me, sea swimming is a truly mindful activity and one of the few times in life when I exist absolutely and entirely within that moment. It has also reset any issues I had with body confidence. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the habit of stripping off on such a regular basis that it has somehow become the norm. Perhaps it’s about reaching a point in my life when I am so grateful for what my body can do rather than what it looks like. I don’t know, but I’m telling you that I just don’t care any more about having cellulite or pasty skin or thighs that rub together. It’s true what they say, we all have a beach body and that’s your body, at the beach.

I regularly post photos of our outdoor swimming adventures on Instagram and the proliferation of wild swimming accounts, books and articles on the subject tells me I’m one of a rapidly growing tribe. I’m still surprised, therefore, when someone DMs me to tell me they wish they were brave enough to swim in the sea. I promise you that you are or, at least, you can be.

I want to let you into a little secret. An absolute game-changer for me was the purchase of a pair of neoprene swimming shoes. They make the walk to the water’s edge on even the pebbliest of beaches a pain-free experience and provide considerable reassurance if you have that not-entirely-irrational fear of your feet encountering something spiny or stinging as you wade in. A swimming poncho (I think they’re officially called surf towels) is also a godsend if you’re shy about getting changed on the beach and it can stop you from feeling like Mr Bean as you step back into your undies. Little things like these can make a big difference to your confidence.

If you want to give it a go, find a like-minded friend and start in the summer when the sea is at its warmest. There’s no need for heroics; walk in slowly and steadily (rather than diving under the waves) and stay in for as long as you feel comfortable. Try to go at least once a week, gradually lengthening the time that you stay in the water. If you’re able to, keep going through the autumn and into the winter. The Outdoor Swimming Society website is an incredible resource of advice and inspiration, such as this article on how to acclimatise to cold water, and includes lists of groups you can join if you haven’t got a willing partner in crime. It’s also worth checking out the Mental Health Swims Instagram account, whose mantra is ‘dips not distance, community not competition’; they can put you in touch with swimming groups in your area.

If you’re still in doubt, may I commend to you the words of Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim:

Within half an hour, I would be glowing from within, warm for the rest of the day. Like a hangover in reverse, I had done something that was painful for minutes but left me feeling well for hours.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. What are you waiting for?

Recommended reads

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

Floating: A Life Regained by Joe Minihane

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley

Wild Swim by Kate Rew

Further advice and information

The Outdoor Swimming Society

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