How Low Can You Go?

I was invited by Tom Reed, a fellow Kettering Amateur Swimming Club member, to join him and a group of open water swimmers for a sea swim at Wells Next-to-the Sea on Saturday 13th of November.

The weather throughout the week had been consistent rain, increasing wind speeds, with dropping temperatures and as the week went on I was certain of a call from Tom to confirm the swim was off. However, when I left home to pick up Tom, on route to the Norfolk coast, the sun was shining, the sky bright blue and the wind nonexistent.

We drove over, counting our blessings and Tom filled me on the group I was going to meet. Just like many gatherings of open water swimmers in mid November!!! there was a friendly, jolly banter as nearly a dozen of us gathered and discussed the pros and cons of taking our BBQ and picnics to the beach or leaving them in the car. As well as an all important discussions about who was going to wear wetsuits and who wasn’t!  I for one definitely wasn’t going to be wearing a wetsuit, for 3 key reasons…

  1. I had been invited by Tom (Tom was fast becoming the king of cold water swimming in my mind) for a non-wetsuit sea swim and I feared it would have been my fast and last invitation from Tom if I’d turned up planning to swim in a wetsuit
  2. The other person rather vocal in the conversation was ‘Atlantic Dan’ – he, who’d once before told me how disappointed he was in me and how much I’d let the side down, at Dover, when in a mere 10 degrees I decided to wear two swim caps!
  3. Lastly, I hadn’t actually considered bringing a wetsuit, I was there purposely for a ‘body-shockingly’ cold water experience, and had left my wetsuit in the loft at home.

We opted for the option to take the BBQ and picnic to the beach and set up by the wooden breakwater and proceeded to get ourselves ready for high tide at 11.30. Removing my shoes and socks, I noticed how cold the sand was, even in the bright sun and blue skies – I was now anticipating some very cold water.

Dan and Tom went to check the water temperature, and came back confirming it was a very comfortable 12 degrees!

However, after a minute or two they couldn’t contain the smiles and smirks and had to confess to their little white lie… that, in fact the water’s edge (which is normally a degree or half warmer than where we would be swimming), was in fact only 8 degrees.

Nonetheless, we donned our Speedos, hats (2 for me – sorry Dan) and goggles and made our way to the water. Dan and I were first there, closely followed by Tom and Carl; all in all I think there were 5 non-wetsuit swimmers and 6 with wetsuits.

My first thoughts… OMG!!!!!!  How cold is that water! by the time I had waded, well to be honest tiptoed, into the water to  knee-height my feet were totally numb. I continued to waist depth and then a moment behind Dan, dived under the water to total submersion.  My second thought… OMG!!!!!!  How cold is that water!  I breathed fast and furious for a minute or two as I powered my arms over to try and generate some body heat.

All I could feel was skin-bitingly cold water all over my body, as if someone was pushing needles into my face, arms, chest and every part of my skin. I then remembered some techniques I had read and been taught in Dover, ‘just tell yourself how warm you are’, ‘look up and the sun and see that bright orange glow beaming down, those sunrays making you body warm’. I tried, honest I did, but all I could think about was…  OMG!!!!!!  How cold is that water! – I remember thinking, oh! these guys are so much more used to this than me, I can’t do this, I’m going to have to get out!

I rationalised with myself for a minute of two and convinced myself I really hadn’t given my body a chance to get used to it yet, and that I was still in shock! After these few minutes had passed, a few of us were at the buoy, we’d agreed to start from, and it wasn’t long before someone confirmed our route (not far) but past the green buoy and up to the far green one; off we went.

Still I felt she sharp splints of the water as they pierced the nerves all over my body, but my breathing was slowing down and I started to find a rhythm, fast, furious, energy creating, but a rhythm!

As we swam, we were joined by a few seals that came to investigate us and see if we were suitable play mates. To be honest they pretty much kept their distance (above the water where we could see them) but it was still nice to be with them in their natural environment.

We did two lengths, from buoy to buoy and had been in the water for about 20 minutes, when everyone said they’d had enough and it was time to re-group, dry, dress and warm on the beach; everyone, that is, except Dan – Dan suggested that he and I should do another lap, I was going to decline, but knew he’d manage to twist my arm and press my competitive button (which I confess is easily pressed) – so rather than waste time debating for too long, I pressed on and swam along with Dan.  All in all I stayed in for 35 minutes, getting out just a few minutes before Dan.

As I exited the water, I experiences a quite strange sensation, I was looking down, watching my feet press down on the damp sand and leave the inevitable footprints, but for the life of me could not feel a thing! I was quite literally concentrating on the movement of my feet and legs, to know that I still had my balance and that I was stepping one foot in front of the other.

I got a short welcoming round of applause from the group, and began drying and dressing as quick as possible (which let me tell you isn’t that quick when you are that cold).

Cold (open) water swimming in these temperatures, as long as you are reasonably sensible, can be really quite fun, it’s a weird sensation when the blood starts to flow back from the core organs to your extremities and then back to your core, and as it does so the ‘shakes’ start to become more and more violent. As evidenced, when someone offered me some warm coffee and I concentrated hard to drink more than I spilled!

I have learned though, that for me, one way to speed up the warming process and reduce the shakes, is to run or jog, so after the slurps of coffee, I headed off across the beach for a few laps.

We all regrouped after a short while and enjoyed our assorted picnic, as usual, most people had brought enough food for everyone, so we barely made a dent in the food before packing up and heading back to the cars.

We all enjoyed a chat and some more food in the Wells Next-to-the-See town centre before bidding our farewells and heading back home.

Thanks for the photos from Tom, a great day was enjoyed by all.

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Thank you Tom for the invite, Thank you to the group for the experience and fun!

And to answer the question – circa 7 degrees is about as low as I can go!

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