The cold fix

Sara Barnes on swimming with a local on the island of Hisøy

Jay Gilmour

For her new book, Sara Barnes travelled to swim in cold water with strangers. The result is a series of portraits capturing the relationship individuals have with cold water rituals. In this extract, Barnes meets 67-year-old Solveig at her home on the island of Hisøy in southern Norway and observes her daily routine of dips, going “down under” and essential local kit of oiled wool mittens. 

Solveig is sixty-seven years old. She lives with her husband in southern Norway. She started swimming in 2007, so this is her fourteenth winter. At first she swam every week, and then on 25 May 2020 she started to swim every day. I came to Solveig’s tiny Airbnb on a cold, dark December night, not sure who I was meeting or where I was staying. She and her husband had fetched me from another swimmer’s house and introduced me to my first Norwegian supermarket en route to their home on the island of Hisøy, near Arendal, in Norway’s ‘Riviera’.

Left on my own to unpack and settle in while they prepared dinner up in their own house, I was suddenly overwhelmed by what I had undertaken. I felt lost and frightened, in spite of the enormous generosity and warmth of my hosts so far. I felt a huge weight of responsibility to somehow return the favour and had no idea how. Money hadn’t exchanged hands, and, although I had brought each of them a small gift from the Lake District, I felt as if I was giving them nothing back. They were investing emotionally in me and I had no idea whether I could deliver. The time we spent together wasn’t set in stone; there was no agenda other than to make some sort of connection through our shared passion for cold water. I’m not sure I have ever put myself in such a strange situation in my life, staying in the homes of strangers and just going with the flow! Is this the magic of the cold-water swimming community? Do we really have a connection that runs deeper than other communities of like-minded people? Or have I just struck lucky with my choice of hosts so far? 

That night we swam together, just the two of us, but she loves the feel of community she experiences with the groups she has built up; swimming with her mermaids and mermen makes her laugh and she desperately wants laughter in her life. Sometimes she wonders what they think of her, what an ‘old lady’ like her can give them. But most of the time she feels strong and ageless; the new and familiar people she meets each day in the water are her cold-water family. The conversations in the water continue on dry land while they are changing. It feels as if she has something that is just hers again, like when she was a child. For so many years she has given, to family, to her four jobs.

It was in between her work and family commitments that I met up with Solveig again the following day for a group swim. It was one of her ‘down under’ days and I knew I would be going ‘down under’ with her whether I liked it or not! Fortunately, I love full immersion, even in cold water, so dunking down, or duck diving, is definitely a big part of my dips or swims. I feel far more alive if I’ve got wet all over. But Solveig’s description took it to another level: ‘Going down under the water is like being in my bed; it feels like a blanket around me.’

At first she feels a pain at the back of her neck, and if it keeps hurting she keeps her head higher up and waits a few seconds for the cold to sink in. It can feel like a nail driving into the back of her neck. She breathes the water in and sits on the bottom. The water is right up in her sinuses, but then as she surfaces she blows it out hard from inside her head. She is not afraid of being under the water and taking the water in. Believe me, I’ve seen her do it and it definitely takes her three dunks! Then she is done.

One of Solveig’s other habits is to gesticulate – a lot. ‘Oh yes, I speak with my hands, so the pandemic changed my life. I used to get close to people to show them I care; I would use my hands to make sure you had everything you needed. When I hug you it is because I want to make sure you’re okay. When I’m under the water it is as if I am being hugged. I hold out my hands and want someone to take hold of them. My hands are my strongest way of communicating how I feel. I want to be that person again.’

I had noticed that all the ladies I swam with on Solveig’s beach wore thick, oiled wool mittens and kept their hands out of the water. It is almost as if they were holding their hands up in surrender – to the cold water maybe? But I couldn’t imagine Solveig ever surrendering to anything or anyone. ‘But I do, I let the cold water take the physical pain of osteoarthritis away from my body.’

It wasn’t icy in the sea when I was there, although there was plenty of snow on the beach and I wondered how Solveig felt about ice: did she just walk into a frozen or slushy sea, or did she prepare herself first, with some breathwork or exercises? Her face lit up and she threw her hands up in the air, waving wildly: this, I imagine, was how she greeted the  arrival of ice!

‘It was amazing last winter,’ she says. ‘We had so much ice and it lasted for so long. We had to use an axe here in the sea, but we had no axe. I found a piece of wood which had washed up and I prepared an ice-free entry point for the other swimmers. The ice gave me cuts, but I was so excited to get in. I should have been more careful as I have varicose veins so I would bleed badly if I am cut too deeply.’ Her laughter is a full-body experience and completely out of sync with the seriousness of what she was talking about. But I understood why.

One of the first things Solveig said to me was, ‘I like to be a mum, look after my kids, my husband, to make food, to nurse and take care of people, and I have always wanted to be responsible for my own life  and bring my kids up to feel the same.’ All of that caring for other people takes its toll even on someone who seems to have limitless capacity for giving. The swift transition from serious to joy is what Solveig seeks on a daily basis. Even in the short space of a couple of days spent together, I witnessed Solveig exhausted and drained from commitment to others and then become rejuvenated almost as soon as her toes touched the water. I watched the cold burst the heavy cloud and bring immediate relief.

The Cold Fix by Sara Barnes is published by Vertebrate

Sara Barnes