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