The first time I entered the sea to swim at New Year, I thought I might die. I got in, felt my chest tighten, wondered if I would ever draw another breath, and then ran out again. The whole experience lasted, by my estimation, less than thirty seconds. But afterwards, I wanted to get straight back in again.
Since that panicked New Year swim, I’ve learned to trust the feeling that the air is being squeezed out of my lungs. My encounters with the winter sea have left me addicted to the potency of icy water, not just as a way of showing off my hardiness or daring, but as a crucial tool to help my mind and body cope through difficult times.
As I write, the water temperature at Whitstable is around 5 degrees C, and I heave in a big breath before I submerge. Three years on from that first swim, I have the measure of it. I know that if I can relax into that challenging first minute, I can easily stay in for ten more. And those minutes are joyful. I’m not so much acclimatised as calibrated.
I finally embraced cold water swimming in the middle of a crisis year, when both my husband and I had fallen ill, and I’d left my stable, secure job, casting myself into a world of financial anxiety. With a newly heightened sense of my own mortality and a churning mind, I was in desperate need of a place where my thoughts could settle for a while.
The sea was that place. The cold made me forget everything else for a few minutes each day, and that was a huge relief. Being on the outside of everyday life made the swimming possible: I suddenly had the flexibility to chase the elusive high tides, and the time to spare. Getting into the winter sea seemed to represent the way I’d fallen off the edge of the world, but in a glorious way. Here I was, doing something that nobody else wanted to do, and loving it. My sense of isolation became a privilege.
Getting into the winter sea seemed to represent the way I’d fallen off the edge of the world, but in a glorious way. Here I was, doing something that nobody else wanted to do, and loving it. My sense of isolation became a privilege.
I started my regular winter swims with a willing partner, and it helped. I didn’t want to lose face, so I got into the water in circumstances that seemed repellent: minus two dawns, days when snow was on the shingle and the edges of the water were slushy, in pouring rain and howling wind. It often took every ounce of my courage, but we dared each other to keep going.
On hitting the water we would both scream, and it was a liberation to sound off, out in the wild with the town hunched around us. Something about the water loosened our tongues, and we would chatter as we swam, sharing all the secret details of our lives even though we barely knew each other. Cold water creates a shortcut to intimacy, a sense of collusion and conspiracy. It brings about a state of mind that reminds me of those fast, intense bonds that I used to form in nightclubs, long ago. High as a kite, I am in love with everyone who swims alongside me.
Immersion in cold water has been shown to increase levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, and serotonin, which helps us to regulate our mood. It’s no surprise, then, that it feels good: cold water has a similar effect to the drug Ecstasy. A recent study found that regular winter swimming significantly decreases tension, fatigue, and negative states of mind, and improves swimmers’ sense of general wellbeing. Getting into the sea on days when the temperature hovers around zero is an act of defiance against our woes. By doing a resilient thing, we feel more resilient. In my book, Wintering, I delve into the fallow periods in life, when we feel ‘out in the cold’ or frozen, and I argue that nature can show us a way through them.
Cold water creates a shortcut to intimacy, a sense of collusion and conspiracy. It brings about a state of mind that reminds me of those fast, intense bonds that I used to form in nightclubs, long ago. High as a kite, I am in love with everyone who swims alongside me.
I’ve come to love the transformations that cold swimming brings to my body, too. Getting out, my skin turns bright red, not the colour of a blush or a hot flush, but the specific, deep orange of Heinz tomato soup. I adore that colour, my signal of having endured something so unlike anything else in my days. After a swim, the blood seems to sparkle in my veins for hours, as if I have been injected with some magical, rejuvenating serum.
Sometimes I shiver a little afterwards, but it’s another thing I’ve grown used to, and I don’t fear it. After a childhood spent in a house without central heating, my adult body has grown used to perpetual warmth, and I’ve rarely asked it to warm itself up. My cold swimming has allowed it to regain a forgotten skill, and my shivers are nothing that a cup of tea and some warm clothes can’t solve.
Only once have I felt overwhelmed by this cold, after I’d stayed in too long and against by better judgement. Ice water is a great teacher. It forces me to listen to my body, to engage with its sensations and to accept my limitations. More than ever, I watch the sea before I get in to make sure the conditions are safe. More than ever, I listen to my body and respect what it needs. That’s not a compromise.
To swim safely in icy water, I need to keep my mind in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or future, or tilling over an endless to-do list. While I’m there, the sea offers me an endless number of gifts to observe. It’s different every day, sometimes ridged with waves, sometimes millpond-flat. It turns pewter under pale skies, and craggy grey under storm clouds. There are days then the water feels silky, and days when it feels thin. I can be indifferent to all these things in the summer, but in winter I’m enthralled.
I now find myself waiting out the summer impatiently, longing for November. Meanwhile, my local winter swimming group grows and grows, as ever more people feel the lure of the cold. Each one of us has a different reason for craving the resilience that cold water swimming brings, but together we share the same high.
Wintering is published on 6th February 2020, and is available from all good book stores. You can pre-order it here: po.st/Wintering. You can find Katherine on Twitter: @_katherine_may or Instagram: @katherinemay_.