By Mary Walsh from Wellderness
“You must be mad!” is the most common response I receive when I tell people I swim in the Irish Sea all year. A lot of the time I just smile and nod. Sometimes I am honest enough to say that actually I’m pretty sure it’s probably the most sanity-inducing activity I do.
I grew up by the sea and spent my summers either in it or on it. Like many Newcastle natives, I (mis)spent entire summers at the Rock Pool, a man-made pool filled by the tide and frequented by every family I knew. The Irish Sea is never particularly warm and I guess this training gave me a tolerance for cold water that I noticed other people didn’t have. But I was never tempted to join the Christmas day swimmers and I probably would have shared the “you must be mad” mantra for a long time. I moved away and my career took me into an office and far away from the sea.
But then… in the words of another sea swimmer, I found my tribe.
Let me give you a bit of the backstory. I’ve spent nearly two decades in an office and the decade before that being a very good student. I’ve had the societally approved definition of a successful career with all the bells and whistles. This came at price though – too much time in the office, too many hours in front of a screen, a strange brain fug that used to lift only when I went on holiday or spent time in the fresh air. Like a lot of people, I experienced stress on both a physical and a mental level. Tiredness, tightness in the chest, busy-mind, constant distraction. Slowly but surely the dots began to join and I realised that what was making me ‘successful’ wasn’t necessarily making me well. I made all the right adjustments in my day – I committed to spending more time in nature (I document all of this through my @wellderness alter ego on Instagram), I shifted my work life priorities to the life side. But the cherry on the cake? I started jumping in the sea.
It was September 2017, two years after I relocated back to the Mournes, when I took the plunge, quite literally. The pools were closed, the tourists were clearing, but I didn’t want the summer to end. I knew about at the ‘harbour swimmers’, a group of hardy locals who swam every morning at the harbour at Newcastle, rain or shine, all year. Predominantly female, many of them retired, all of them vital and full of life, if you want to find inspiration, look no further. I plucked up the courage with a friend to go up one morning and join them. I never looked back. I sent a few messages to see if anyone else wanted to come. They did, they still do. The rest as they say is history.
So why? What is it about swimming in cold water that has us hooked?
The best way I can describe it is that being in cold water turns life into high definition. Everything comes into focus, things seem sharper, colours brighter. There is something so very ‘of the moment’ about being completely immersed, it is the ultimate act of mindfulness. It’s impossible to think about the stresses of ordinary life when you are so far removed from it in the cold. And I think that’s what’s kept me going. It’s kept me sane when the stresses of life can try to get in the way.
There is increasing science behind it now as well. Being exposed to the shock of cold water provokes a stress response in the body – the ‘fight or flight’ response. You might recognise it as an increased heart rate, shortening breath. Your body, the amazing machine that it is, can cope with stress. It can regulate this mini-stress and return you to a state of calm. When you’re in the sea, you learn to manage the stress response. Breathe. Presence. Learning to be calm when there’s a hint of panic. I can attest to this. A couple of moments after you get in the cold water, your breathing returns to normal, you are fully present, it’s all quite lovely and calm. Like a muscle, learning to regulate stress in this situation trains you for dealing with stress every day. Mentally I am tougher than I ever thought I could be. I often refer to it as topping up my levels of bad-ass. It’s much easier to deal with day-to-day annoyances that might have tripped me into a fight or flight moment. Building resilience.
And the additional benefits? Well here’s my top three.
Body Confidence – I now see my body as the most amazing piece of kit. It’s capable of swimming in the Irish Sea in all weathers. It’s amazing. I laugh in the face of bland marketing demanding “Are you beach body ready?” Hell yeah! In November! Me and my cellulite will see you there.
Community – There’s a community around sea swimming that bonds people together, a members’ club of cold water appreciation. All around the country you’ll find people who’ve discovered the magic of cold water all year round. And if you land into a new seaside spot, chances are you can find the regulars and be welcomed into a tribe of converts.
Pure Escapism – There’s something completely indulgent about taking yourself so far away from the everyday mundanities doing something most people do think of as a bit crazy. My favourite days involve doing the school run and then being in the water by 9.30, watching seabirds dart across the surface of the water as I cruise out to the nearest buoys. Take yourself away from the to-do list and do something out of the norm.
I went to a school whose motto was “fully alive” and while I can thank it for my fine education, the emphasis was very much on the conventional notion of achieving. I now know the best learning comes in a wholly different way. It took me a long time to realise that feeling fully alive definitely doesn’t come from sitting behind a desk and achieving in the conventional sense. It comes from being open to everything life has to offer. For me, I now know that this requires a more elemental place – outdoors, under the sky, on top a mountain, in the sea. Every time I splash down in the water, my inner child gets a day out and yes, I know that I am fully alive.