Polar Bear Club

Polar Bear Club Main Image

Sara Barnes is taking on a five-month cold water challenge

The air temperature is 1°C this morning at the edge of Crummock Water in the North West Lake District. It is 6.50am on a stunning autumnal day. Mist hangs over the water and the mountains. No geese this morning, just a couple of seagulls on Bird Poo Island at the southern end of the lake. My feet are bare; I am wearing a swimming costume and have a tow float strapped around my waist. My swim buddy is similarly clad. I am practising for the Polar Bear Challenge Classic, which is to swim 200 metres twice a month between November and March, dressed only in swimsuit, goggles and silicone swim hat.

I question my sanity as I walk into the water. Why am I doing this challenge? As the cold bites into my thighs I remember why. As the name suggests, it is a challenge: physical, emotional and mental. But with an added twist. I want to be a Polar Bear, one of approximately 400 people from around the globe. Our common bond is we take pleasure from swimming in cold water; taking ourselves to the edge of our own limits.

Sara Barnes Wast Water

Sara after triple dips at Wast Water

Exciting, joyous and exhilarating

I am a bit apprehensive. Partly because I am usually a heads-up breaststroker, swim quite slowly and therefore will be in the water longer than if I did front crawl, but also because I like to push myself. Once I get the bit between my teeth, will I remain sensible enough to admit defeat on a swim and keep safe? That is why I am swimming with someone else who I trust implicitly and who knows me well enough to say, ‘Time’s up, you need to get out’. And visa versa. We look after each other in the water and post swim. We are aware of cold water shock and after drop, which scare the pants off me and I always err on the side of caution about how long I stay in the water.

My first winter swimming in skins was all about being part of a small group and daring ourselves to take one swim at a time. It was exciting, joyous and exhilarating to be swimming in cold water when there was snow on the mountains around us and ice on the edge of the lake. We felt alive. But this year I need a new challenge to my winter swimming.

Training has already begun. I’ve swum with no swim shoes for the last few weeks. I am saving my swim cap and goggles for when the temperatures really start to drop, extra layers to look forward to. I am currently swimming further than 200 metres and staying in the water for around 20 minutes. The water temperature today is between 13 and 12 degrees in the top layer, but where my legs dangle down into deeper water it is noticeably cooler.

For each swim I will record the weather and water conditions and temperatures, swim location, my thoughts and emotions, and how my body behaves during and after the swim, including the post-swim core warm-up methods and timings.

Sara Barnes Swimming In Winter

Last year Sara swam throughout the winter


My first Polar Bear swim is going to be in Wast Water on the first weekend in November. A group of us will be there, including some would-be Polar Bears. It is possibly one of the most dramatic places in the UK to start the Polar Bear Challenge, but I am sure that other people will be swimming in equally amazing places around the world.

And that is another reason for taking up this challenge. It is not just about my swim group, or the Lake District, it is not even just England, or the UK, it reaches from Europe over to Canada and beyond. Wherever there are cold-water swimmers, the inspirational idea and hard work that organiser Pauline Barker channels into this challenge, are recognised and championed. Plus, our entry fees will go to a nominated charity.

Above all, we are starting from different directions, experiences, languages and goals; but, fundamentally, it is about each one of us seeking a few moments of clarity in our busy lives and spending time with ourselves at the edge of an extreme sport. It is life affirmation and self valuation at its most raw.

Sara Barnes Trains For Polar Bear Challenge

Sara in training for her Polar Bear Challenge

To become a member of the Polar Bear Club you need to swim at least 200 metres twice a month from 1 November through to and including 31 March. Channel rules apply – just a swimsuit, goggles and normal swim hat allowed.

There are three challenges for the 2018/2019 season:

  • Polar Bear Classic – swim 200 metres twice a month
  • Polar Bear Silver – swim 250 metres twice a month
  • Polar Bear Gold – swim 250 metres twice a month and a minimum total of 5000 metres during the challenge period.

Those who complete the challenge will receive a certificate and badge. Entries for 2019/2020 open in September 2019.

More info: devonandcornwallwildswimming.co.uk

01 Cover June

Issue 39 June 2020

  • Return to the Open Water - 8-week training plan
  • Skinny Dipping - Swim Wild and Free!
  • Beginners' Guide to Wetsuits
  • A Different Channel - Lockdown Resolutions
  • UK Wild Swimming Spots

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