Waterblog – some thoughts on wild swimming
There’s been a massive resurgence of interest in outdoor swimming in recent years. I can never quite bring myself to call it wild swimming; Martin will attest to the fact when it comes to media labels, I go a bit a bit funny and start ranting about how there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all open to interpretation; I say to my kids ‘let’s go swimming’ but what I mean is ‘let’s go to the pool and splash around in the water until we go blue’. My own childhood was spent on the Norfolk coast, where I would immerse myself in the murky brown waters of the Wash. In fact, you could spend all summer (and winter) in the water and never see your toes.
When I moved to Scotland in the early nineteen-nineties my love affair with swimming continued. Now, here’s a place where taking a dip gets serious. I sensibly decided to join a club: Ye Amphibious Ancient Bathing Association (founded in 1884, I can’t resist a club with history). Things seemed fine enough when I joined them at the pool but I was soon to discover this club meant business. This was very definitely ‘open water swimming’; there’s nothing romantically wild about the River Tay once it reaches Dundee. One youngster was training for the English Channel.
Eventually, the time came for me to be initiated with the first outdoor dip of the year and I was the only grown-up amidst a group of nervous kids heading down the old harbour slipway. No wet suits here – club rules are very strict and in my day you were lucky to be allowed to wear two swimming hats. Meanwhile, at the harbour wall, a large group of parents dressed in puffer jackets, hats and gloves were shouting words of encouragement to the young swimmers. If you survived the temperature you could still get sick from ingesting the slicks of diesel floating about in the harbour – I regularly completed a training session with a face covered in black crud. An interesting feature of this kind of intense, cold water training is that you come out feeling marvelous and then break into uncontrollable shivering ten minutes later when you’re driving home.
Martin, who has a certain amount of first aid experience, has never understood the rather macho world of open water swimming – good grief, even triathletes are allowed to wear wetsuits. And thinking on it; what you wear is probably the best way of defining yourself in the world of swimming. To paraphrase the great Laudon Wainwright III: you can be informal, or you can wear a suit. I’ve always enjoyed the informal approach when the mood takes me; mountain lochs are always good for this if you can stand the intense, bone-aching cold. But beware, places that may appear discreet are often not all they seem. I remember once picking my way down a remote gully on the Isle of Rum and accidentally coming across a naked guy having a shower under a waterfall. In these situations you always wonder whether it’s best to beat a hasty retreat or breezily walk on by with a cheery ‘hello’.
These days I’m a lot more flexible about swimming attire. I scuba dive in a drysuit in winter and snorkel in a wetsuit in summer. Anything involving floating around peacefully rather than flailing your arms about merits suiting up. But there’s no doubt you can get a buzz from the sensation of cold water on bare limbs. I’m not one of these people that jumps in without even testing the water – I like to ease myself in gradually, get my breath back and adjust to the temperature. This might take some time. A curious aspect of this is that as you become psychologically adapted to the cold, your body is going into reverse and gradually shutting down all its non-core services. This includes your brain. At some stage there will be a tipping point where either your brain will tell you it’s time to come out or it will suggest that it now feels tropical and there’s no need to ever leave the water. Unless you are now swimming energetically (preferably with a support boat) there’s a good chance you won’t.
My all-time most shameful wild swimming escapade came about in Italy, when I managed to persuade some innocent friends that it would a great caper to swim across a lake to an island about a kilometre from the shore. Duh. I ended up in a lakeside garden on a private island with no friends, no clothes, no ability to speak Italian and a storm brewing. Bemused picnickers pointed me towards a boat full of scary looking officials in uniforms with dark glasses. My friends were unbelievably kind and understanding considering what a total numpty I’d been.
Here on Skye there are numerous places suitable for wild swimming; the most famous being the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle. Funnily enough, I’ve never actually swum there – the water’s beautiful but there are usually too many tourists around to make it feel properly wild. Not a good place to go ‘informal’. I say avoid the crowds and check out the quiet spots for a bit of magic. Whether you immerse yourself in seaweed, melted snow or a cloud of midges, I can tell you the experience will be memorable.
Looking for more about swimming on Skye? We’ll probably be publishing more blogs on this topic once the weather warms up a bit!