Conversations from the Prom
People are so friendly in Felixstowe, especially on the Promenade. Cheerful hellos and greetings are made at all times of day and night. Many people will comment when they see me and my swim pals changing into our swim stuff. The common most comments are;
“You must be mad!”
“What’s the water temp?”
“Don’t you wear a wetsuit?”
“You wouldn’t catch me doing that!”
I’m never sure if the questioner wants an answer but they mostly seem satisfied with a smile or a number (for the temperature) or a shake of the head in agreement. Sometimes I’d like to give a full answer and this is my opportunity.
“You must be mad!”. I know this is a turn of phrase that is often used to suggest amazement with someone’s behaviour. I don’t take it as a serious indicator of other folk’s views on my mental health. However, it’s an interesting little sentence. I think ‘mad’ implies a behaviour which is unhinged, uncalculated, out of the norm, unusual, dangerous, unsociable. I would strongly argue that open water, winter swimming, for me, is none of those things. In actual fact, the ritual of cold water swimming, meeting my friends, socialising outdoors, keeping physically fit, is probably one of the main reasons that I have remained positive and on an even keel with my mental health – particularly in the last few years.
“What’s the water temp?” February is usually one of the coldest months where the temperature is definitely in single figures and usually hovering around the 5 to 6 degree mark. This is equivalent to swimming in a fridge. However, acclimatised winter swimming with sensible awareness of how long to stay in for, how to recover, how to dress quickly and how to look after oneself and one’s fellow swimmers plays a major part in being able to handle this extreme environment. None of my regular swim pals have started their open water swimming in the depths of winter. It’s been a carefully curated progression to be able to enjoy swimming in these temperatures and still be able to function afterwards. You may have noticed the layers and layers we wrap ourselves in, big coats covering jumpers, vests, thermal layers, mittens, woolly hats, double socks, fake fur lined boots. All the items in a swimmers’ kit bag are carefully selected, highly protected and valued by an open water swimmer. Flasks for hot drinks are a must. Some folk even bring tepid water down to the beach so they can stand in a bucket of warm water after their swim, to help their feet recover.
“Don’t you wear a wetsuit?” I don’t. Many of my friends do. There are plenty of swimmers who do and don’t, depending on how they are feeling, what the weather is like and how long they want to stay in the water for. I am acclimatised and have trained to be able to swim in February temperature water. Do I get cold – absolutely yes, but it takes me a wee bit longer to get cold than, perhaps, other folk. Do I benefit from a layer of fat on my body which insulates me – of course I do. More importantly than my physique, I would suggest, is I have the desire and will to do it. There are plenty of very lean cold water swimmers and plenty of plump swimmers who will not go into the water without covering themselves in neoprene. The thought of wriggling into a wetsuit feels me with horror. It looks so tight and constricting. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, the feeling of being immersed in the water is what draws me to it. By restricting my physical contact with the environment may allow me to stay in the water for longer but I don’t think I would enjoy it as much. There are so many conversations about ‘swimsuits v wetsuits’. I am no better or braver than anybody else. I just choose not to swim wearing one and it makes not one jot of difference to me if my friends do or don’t.
“You’re brave” The definition of brave is “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage”.
The definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery”
I don’t think I am brave as I’m neither in pain or frightened. I choose to swim all year round. I have turned up for a swim and decided against it because the water conditions are too frisky – too rough, especially at low tide when there are numerous, hazardous rocks to navigate and getting dumped by a wave can cause injury or worse. So, I calculate the risks, inform myself of the conditions and decide whether I can safely swim, with pleasure whilst challenging myself appropriately.
“You wouldn’t catch me doing that!” I was having a conversation with a swim friend recently and we were discussing activities that we would and wouldn’t like to do. For me, pot-holing feels me with so much dread and fear that I would have to be extremely brave to do it. The same with climbing a mountain – I would rather swim in an ocean for hours and hours then climb a mountain. We are all different, we carry different aspirations, fears and challenges. I feel so lucky to have discovered outdoor swimming and the friends and community that come with the activity. I imagine that most sports, activities, hobbies have an etiquette, sub-culture a community. What I choose to do may not be the same as others but it is no better or worse, it’s just different.
I often lean towards my favourite quote of all time “Comparison is the thief of joy’ Theodore Roosevelt, 29th March 1898.
Aka The Swimming Seamstress
Amanda runs mobile, online and Felixstowe based swimming costume making and general dressmaking classes. Contact her to find out more.