Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

Shockingly, Glorious Swims in the Cold, Cold Sea 

For today's MindLetter, I return to the beach. It's a tad nippy, but rather marvellous...

a man swimming in water with a wetsuit on

Shockingly, Glorious Swims in the Cold, Cold Sea  

Three weeks ago, it took me about ten minutes to get in, which was apt, because the water was ten degrees. It was my first foray in without a wetsuit this year, and when that brutally icy water – colder than you could possibly imagine – washed over my feet and ankles, my body instantly started going into shock. I felt lightheaded and dizzy, and my breath came in rapid uncontrollable snatches like the wheezing of an injured animal. If you have ever veered close to cold water shock, you will know this feeling: that your body is about to collapse, and that unless you do something very quickly, it will not end well.  

In this moment, the sea’s beauty becomes terrible. Its power is so very much greater than yours. Get it wrong, and it will, without a shadow of a doubt, kill you – not necessarily because of the cold itself, but because when the body goes into cold shock in open water, your hyperventilating lungs could drown you in a few frantic gasps.  

Has the blood drained from your face at this point, or are you nodding along, wrapped in your Dryrobe? When I recount these stories to my landlubber friends – the ones who send me pictures of their half-marathons and triathlons, none of which I could ever attempt, because I break bones and ligaments and tendons along the way – this is the point where I receive nervous messages. Isn’t it incredibly cold (yes), do I go in alone (usually), how long do I go in for (about half an hour), will I pick up some alienesque cold-water-lurking flesh-eating bacteria (I hope not), will I develop a subcutaneous layer of fat (!), aren’t I frightened of jellyfish (only sometimes)...

Hold fire, I think. Here’s what happens next. 

At the first sign of cold shock, I take a few steps out, to the very edge of the sea. I rest my hands on my knees and focus on breathing deeply, measuredly, right out to the end of the out-breath and right in to the end of the in-breath. The cold water, icy, deathly, washes over my toes. It doesn’t change, but what’s happening in my body does. It settles, and my breathing slows. I tingle. My body’s stress levels have returned within its window of tolerance. This is not my cue to get out of the water; it’s the sign that I can go back in. So I do, step by step. Each time, the sea rises up my legs, then my torso, and my body veers back towards shock. Each time, I steady my breath. I jump up and down to generate heat in my muscles and move the blood in my limbs. I am bearing the unbearable. And then – finally – I take the last plunge and begin to swim. It’s taken me ten minutes. I'll still need to watch for brain freeze, but I am all in, and it’s wonderful.  

I’ve written before about how I love the sea: its gifts of perfect blue jellyfish, its exhilaration in rain, its beauty under sun. What I did not expect is that the sea makes me feel so safe. The water is vast and the sky is deep; my body can twist and turn like an eel, freed from gravity, constraint and care. Any sound can travel from shore, but even in high wind, the sea itself seems replete with silence. The company is transcendent: in choppy waves, I have watched a young guillemot dance effortlessly across the water, and when the sea’s been calm, a seal has plopped and lounged, belly gleaming, twelve feet from my paddling arms. There is bone-deep contentment here. It’s not just a falling away of all the things a person can face on dry land, but all that they might face within the rocky realms of heart and mind, too.  

I am, by temperament, judiciously optimistic about the fruits of difficulty. But a year ago it had never occurred to me that walking into an unquestionably difficult ten-degree sea, encountering the extreme protests of my body, could bring such rejuvenating bliss. Some of the best moments in life are the ones where we learn – yet again, for the thousandth time – how to face what’s hard, and find ourselves forged by it. With cold sea swimming, I learned to mitigate danger as I went; two steps out, one step back, listening and breathing and waiting and soothing. I learned to get out when my fingers reached a certain point of numbness. I learned to take enough layers, and put them back on afterwards while my limbs were still humming with cold-water zing. I learned to bring a sensible flask of hot tea or hot chocolate, and have it waiting on my towel to mitigate the after-drop. I learned to trust that if I went stepwise, I – me, myself – would step up in ways I could never have predicted.  

By swim number three this year, my cold shock response had almost disappeared. A year ago, when I first started sea swimming, my skin burned and my teeth chattered every time I ventured in; this time round, despite six months out of the water, my body had retained some cold-shock resilience. In I went, splashing and jumping waves. This is often what we find when we take on what’s hard: that we’re strong in ways we have forgotten.  

I’ve not seen the seal yet this year. It’s summertime, and so the familiar messages are coming in: the 10ks and triathlons and bike rides; the group hikes and relays. I, as usual, have neither stamina nor speed. But blow me down - I can hang out in a cold, cold sea. I’m sure you could, too.  

A seal in the water close to the edge of a beach