Wild swimming – a basic connection with the natural world

‘In Scotland?! … At this time of year?’ is often the response I get when I tell people I’m going for a sea swim, as I now do regularly. And it seems that every time I go with my swim buddy, there is almost always someone else in the sea too. It’s becoming really quite popular, encouragingly so.

So why do I do it?

Firstly, my weekly sea swim is a little space I carve out in the day for me. Particularly during lockdown, trying to squeeze in a full time job on top of parenting and home-schooling, housekeeping and general life admin, I have found it more important than ever to carve out some space for my own enjoyment. Not always easy.

Secondly, it allows me to push some boundaries within myself. I’m not sure I’m a born sea-lover. I’m not the biggest fan of slippery seaweed curling round my ankles, crashing waves over my head or sharing the sea with curious creatures with teeth and claws. But thanks to my regular swims, I am finding I’m getting used to the experience, becoming more confident reading both my body and the conditions, and starting to feel the cold much less. I’d go as far as to say that it’s making me more resilient, more able to say ‘I can’ rather than ‘I can’t’.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it gives me a connection to nature that I rarely feel with other activities. In the course of a 20-minute swim (though more like 10 at this time of year), my mind and body races through every emotion and feeling in a way that no other activity really does. I come out afterwards buzzing with energy.

There’s no sugar-coating the matter of temperature (most people’s biggest hurdle) – it’s basically usually freezing. The sea was 6 degrees for my most recent January swim, air temperature 1 degree. As long as you accept that fact, dress accordingly and take a deep breath, you’ll probably get used to it. In Scotland, the water can range from 5-9 degrees in January and between 11 and 16 in September. Your local swimming pool is about 25.

Sea swimming is an opportunity to connect my whole body with nature, and to remind myself of the power of the sea. It also serves me as reminder of who’s boss – the sea can be a dangerous place.

Want to try it?

Before you do, read some of my tips:

  • Start gently and work up. If you’re new to sea swimming, February is probably not the best time to give it a try. Like any kind of exercise, you wouldn’t start a marathon without any training. Work up to it gradually and get your body used to the experience.
  • Go where other swimmers tend to go. They probably know where are the best spots. If you see swimmers there, it’s probably a good sign that the locals deem it safe. Lifeguarded beaches are the best, but they are summer-only.
  • Swim with others. Mainly because it’s safer than swimming on your own, but it’s also more social. If all your friends think you’re mad for suggesting a sea swim in February, find a local swimming group on social media – there are loads, though many are restricted during lockdown. They’ll give you tips on where to go, what to wear and what creatures they spotted in the sea last week.
  • Leave 1-2 days after heavy rain. No matter how inviting they look, coastal waters and lakes are sometimes full of chemicals that run off farmland and from our sewers, mostly not good for our health. Check the relevant regulators’ water quality reports (Environment Agency), although they many only produce them in the summer.
  • Beware the unknown. The stuff you can see (seals, jellies, seaweed) isn’t half as dangerous as the things you can’t see (tides, rip currents, underwater obstructions). Look at the tide times and maybe even surf reports before you go.
  • Get the right gear. A wetsuit is a must unless you’re much hardier than me. In winter, it’s the gloves and shoes that are most useful, because the extremities suffer first. A bright hat might also save your life if you get into trouble.

Here’s a nice little video from the RNLI that gives some similar tips about how to approach a swim in the sea.

Adding in a #2minutebeachclean

One thing I’m trying to do more of this year, and that’s give back to nature where I can. Spending more time at the coast, I’m noticing more and more beach litter – fishing rope, wrappers, plastic bottles, broken toys, plastic cutlery – so I’ve vowed to do my bit to keep my beach clean (and I’d urge you to do the same).

I learned about the 2 minute beach clean from a friend. It’s a campaign that started back in 2013 encouraging people to take part in simple actions to contribute to the planet’s wellbeing, as well as our own. Every time I go for a swim, I’m now going to pick up a piece of rubbish and put it in a bin on my way home. It’s my contribution to a better planet.

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Each bit of rubbish I pick up will be less of a danger to the creatures in the sea, one less bit of plastic that might degrade into the food chain, and one less thing that may wash up and spoil someone else’s beach far far away.

As you can read on the 2 minute beach clean website – “we think that simple acts can add up to make a big difference, that doing something positive is infinitely better than doing nothing, and that it is positivity, people and passion that will change our world for the better.” Who can’t agree with that?

If YOU swim outdoors, or deliberately don’t, tell us why, and do share some of your tips ….

What YOU can do

  • Try a sea swim to get closer to nature
  • Do a 2 minute beach clean when you’re there

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