Let it not be said that I’m not committed to my writing. This morning I joined the Wild Ones outdoor swimming group in Portobello to see what sea swimming is really like.
I’ve often been asked if I’ve tried outdoor swimming and I’ve always said no, unashamedly referring to myself as a pool swimmer. I’ve got a huge respect for open water, the darkness, the unknown, the power, the unpredictability, the creatures living in it, the cold! All of which firmly put me in the ‘pool swimmer’ camp.
I’m doing an event at the Portobello Book Festival next month though (see event details below) and Sarah Morton, who is chairing the event, is a passionate outdoor swimmer. When I met her at the Festival programme launch a couple of weeks ago she suggested I come along and try outdoor swimming.
‘I don’t have a wetsuit, I’m afraid,’ I answered.
‘Oh, you don’t need one, most of us just swim in cossies,’ she replied.
‘Ah, okay, maybe I’ll give it a go sometime then, maybe, one day, possibly…’
I laughed it off on the night, no real intention of taking her up on the offer, but a little voice in my head kept tormenting me – just try it, go on, don’t be such a chicken.
I mentioned it to my husband, thinking he would laugh – ‘yeah right, you?! Outdoor swimming!’ But he surprised me by saying, ‘yeah, why not, give it a go.’
All of which led to me turning up at 9:30am on a Sunday morning outside the baths at Portobello.
As we got changed, my feet already chilly against the cold sand, the chat amongst the regulars was not what I wanted to hear.
The tide’s never been this far out before, it’s going to be a long, cold trek to get out there.
It’s cold today isn’t it, I should have brought my wetsuit after all.
I was reading online about the onset of hypothermia.
Last Sunday was lovely, but today…
Then one voice ‘Right, I’m going in.’
Okay! I followed her and the rest of the group into the sea, an intake of breath as we got deeper, ignoring the voice in my head which was now shouting things like ‘fuck, it’s cold’ and ‘jellyfish!’
Yeah, it was freezing. Yeah, I closed my eyes when I saw the first wave rolling towards me. And yeah, getting the shoulders under took a bit of willpower. Splash your arms a bit first. But once I was in there and actually swimming, it was pretty great.
I expected to feel cold, but was surprised by the warm, burning sensation instead. My arms and legs, used to feeling the water and using it to propel me forward, slipped and slid through the choppy sea water. The waves pushed me back to shore, much more powerful than I could ever be, the taste of salt in my mouth. I started with a bit of head-up breaststroke, but found the confidence to put my head in and do some front crawl. The cold water a shock to my usual breathing rhythm, my goggles showing up the murky depths, dark with swirling sand. Then we all stopped and floated for a bit, chatted, looked up at the sky, at the beach, at the horizon, and I realised I was enjoying it and looking forward to swimming back in the direction we’d just come.
Getting out was the worst bit, my teeth were chattering, my hands shaking and I made the rookie mistake of putting all my clothes on over my wet costume which didn’t help with the warming up process. My husband was waiting for me with a cup of tea though and the in-car heating and a well done – ‘I didn’t think you’d go through with it.’ One hot shower later and my feet began to come back to life, tingling with pins-and-needles.
If I’ve learnt anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s to experience life, live it to the full, because it’s gone far too quickly. So I’m really glad I tried open-water swimming and, a surprise to myself, I’d definitely do it again. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to experience it with either – the Wild Ones are welcoming, sensible, intrepid and, most importantly of all, they do it for the love of swimming. Some of them swim all year round; I’m not sure I’m that brave just yet, but for now the self-confessed pool swimmer can count herself as a fair-weather outdoor swimmer.
Portobello Book Festival in Portobello Library (upstairs) 4.45-5.45pm
SWIM UNTIL YOU CAN’T SEE LAND
In her latest novel, Catriona Child blends contemporary Scottish and historical fiction, contrasting the lives of two remarkable women: the injured swimmer Hannah Wright and the wartime spy Mariéle Downie. Chair: Sarah Morton