Come on in . . .

More and more hardy swim­mers are tak­ing the icy plunge into wild wa­ters. Why? Suf­folk based writer Liz Fer­retti ex­plains

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - PHOTOS: Roj Whitelock

Why wild swim­ming in icy wa­ters is more and more pop­u­lar

There’s a road I like to drive down when I ar­rive at Felixs­towe. At the bot­tom you get a sud­den, dra­matic view of the sea. To­day, it is calm, blue and sparkling in the bright sum­mer sun­shine. And I have a mas­sive grin on my face, be­cause the con­di­tions are per­fect for a swim.

Felixs­towe Swim­scapes was founded in 2012 by swim­ming bud­dies Sea­mus Ben­nett, a pro­fes­sional swim­ming coach, and Alice Palmer. “This our sev­enth sea­son,” says Sea­mus. “We’ve grown from a hand­ful of swim­mers to now, where we have nearly 700 mem­bers on our Facebook page. Not all of them swim. We have a core who swim through the winter, and as the wa­ter warms up that goes up 30 to 50 or more.” It’s a friendly, wel­com­ing group, happy to pass on ad­vice to those new to open wa­ter swim­ming, like me. “Open wa­ter swim­ming is much safer in a group. It can be dan­ger­ous to go out on your own,” Sea­mus ex­plains. “The wa­ter qual­ity in Felixs­towe is ex­cel­lent and the town sits in a bay so the sea is more shel­tered from strong cur­rents. Swim­ming in a group is also more fun. It’s a great

equaliser of ages and gen­ders.”

Open wa­ter swim­ming has taken off in the UK in re­cent years. The Out­door Swim­ming So­ci­ety has nearly 30,000 mem­bers, and there is even a new genre of lit­er­a­ture, wa­ter bi­ogra­phies.

“Open wa­ter swim­ming has been made pop­u­lar from two key an­gles,” says Sea­mus. “First, there is the growth in the search for nat­u­ral ad­ven­tures, sparked off by Roger Deakin and his book Wa­ter­log, about a year swim­ming through Bri­tain. You also have huge mo­men­tum from triathlon, where open wa­ter swim­ming is one of the three el­e­ments, in ad­di­tion to run­ning and cy­cling.”

Swim­scapes is only loosely struc­tured, and Sea­mus says he has al­ways avoided over or­gan­is­ing it. “You could so eas­ily spoil the spirit of why peo­ple come to do it. They’re fairly in­de­pen­dently minded and adapt­able peo­ple, you have to be, con­di­tions vary from week to week and even over the course of the swim.” Open wa­ter swim­ming is one of the cheap­est sports to get into. At its most ba­sic all you need is a swim­ming cos­tume, gog­gles and a brightly coloured swim­ming hat. This is a must so that you can be seen, and it also keeps your head warm. Sea­mus also ad­vises a tow float, so that peo­ple are vis­i­ble to boat own­ers, kayak­ers and wind­surfers, and swim­mers can keep an eye on each other.

Tow floats are flu­o­res­cent or­ange or yel­low, and at­tach to the waist. They pro­vide a lit­tle buoy­ancy if swim­mers need to rest. The most ba­sic are around £15 and some have a dry pouch for car keys or a mo­bile phone. What does Sea­mus ad­vise would-be sea swim­mers who lack con­fi­dence?

“It de­pends whether their bar­rier is to swim­ming in gen­eral, putting their face in the wa­ter, or to go­ing out of their depth. If that’s the case, then I would start with the swim­ming pool. If you can, go to adult swim­ming les­sons or, if you’re young, join a swim­ming club.

“If you want to start swim­ming in the sea, then def­i­nitely join a group near you, and start when the wa­ter has warmed up to around 13°–15°C. Peo­ple of­ten un­der­es­ti­mate the ef­fect of the cold on their abil­ity to swim. The wa­ter is warm­est in Au­gust in Felixs­towe but starts get­ting warmer in June.” It is pos­si­ble to ac­cli­ma­tise to the cold over time. In fact, Sea­mus has swum the English Chan­nel in a re­lay of four, and has also com­pleted the Ice Mile, a near myth­i­cal mile swum in wa­ter be­low 5°C. “I was prob­a­bly near to hav­ing to go to hos­pi­tal at the end of it,” he laughs. “In terms of phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenge that is the most dif­fi­cult thing I have done.”

As Sea­mus and I are talk­ing, more Swim­sca­pers ar­rive at the group’s beach hut on the prom. I ask what brings them back to the sea ev­ery week.

“I love the ca­ma­raderie and team spirit,” says Paul Wil­liams, from Ip­swich, who joined the group last Au­gust. “It’s eerily quiet when you’re out there swim­ming, and I like that.” Paul is one of the group of hardy swim­mers who has kept go­ing through one of the cold­est

‘Af­ter a brief dip, I’ve got that mas­sive grin on my face’

win­ters any­one can re­mem­ber. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture – un­der­stand­ably a bit of an ob­ses­sion with open wa­ter swim­mers – went down to 1.3°C at one point.

Fel­low all-sea­son swim­mer Tor­ben Wood also joined last sum­mer. “Winter swim­ming is in­vig­o­rat­ing,” he says, “but the sum­mer is bet­ter for train­ing as you can do longer dis­tances.

“A lot of peo­ple swim to the pier and back, but there is no com­pe­ti­tion or judge­ment. It’s in­cred­i­bly in­clu­sive.” I ask about open wa­ter swim­ming and men­tal well­be­ing, a sub­ject I hear a lot about.

“I def­i­nitely get low dur­ing the winter and some­times run out of steam due to work pres­sures,” says Tor­ben. “But if you get out and see peo­ple, get some fresh air you def­i­nitely feel bet­ter for it.” Susie Ling de­cided to start swim­ming when the friend she was run­ning with at an Ip­swich club got in­jured. Ner­vous at first, and a lit­tle in­tim­i­dated by the more pro­fi­cient swim­mers, Susie has per­se­vered and grown in con­fi­dence.

“I’ve signed up for the Great East Swim at Al­ton Wa­ter later this month, and I’m on their out­reach project,” she says. “Swim­ming gives me headspace from be­ing a home-ed­u­cat­ing mum with a tod­dler. When I’m here, I go back to be­ing Suse, rather than be­ing a mummy or a wife. I feel en­er­gised and in­vig­o­rated af­ter a swim, some­times a bit giddy and eu­phoric. I had post-natal de­pres­sion af­ter my youngest was born and this is help­ing me to start find­ing my­self again.” It’s some­thing echoed by many of the other swim­mers I meet. And as I come out of the wa­ter, af­ter a brief dip, I’ve got that mas­sive grin on my face again.

So, if you see a bunch of peo­ple on the beach, about to go for a swim in their wet­suits or skins (open wa­ter jar­gon for wear­ing a swim­ming cos­tume), rather than think­ing to your­self, look at that crazy bunch, I hope you’ll un­der­stand why we do it . . . and maybe even con­sider tak­ing the plunge your­self.

ABOVE RIGHT: Siz­ing up the swell . . .

ABOVE LEFT: Felixs­towe Swim­sca­pers head out to sea

RIGHT: A warm­ing cuppa after­wards

ABOVE AND BE­LOW: Felixs­towe Swim­scape swim­mers

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