Cold Water Swimming,  FEATURES,  Readers' Swims

Seasons of change: from sea swims to cold water dips

Nora Clarke heralds the start of the ‘dipping season’ in Norway with this moving tribute to cold water swimming, and the role it has played in her life.

It is that time of the year when I say goodbye to swimming along the southern coast of Norway with my orange safely buoy dangling behind me. This summer I have particularly loved my sea swims, and I am resisting the impending transition to swimming laps in the chlorinated pool.

The ‘dipping season’ as I like to call it – or cold water bathing – is now officially opened! After sitting on the fence for years, I got tired of myself saying “Oh, it’s too cold”. During the pandemic, a new interest in open water swimming swept through the world. The number of swimming groups that were formed during this time definitely got my attention.

We hear from many people around the world that swimming in the sea is actually not about swimming at all, at least not always. Outdoor Swimmer illustrates this beautifully each month. It is often about dealing with the hard things in life, in some cases really hard things like depression and illness.

I was first inspired many years ago, before the tidal wave of pandemic swimmers emerged. Back in 2017, I read a book called I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice. The author swims in the sea to deal with her reality of living and caring for her husband with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as motor neurone disease), while raising her young children. My dad had died the year before from ALS, and her book moved me deeply. It was still to take a few years before I took the plunge myself.

New beginnings: the sea opened its arms to me

In 2020, I got divorced. It was the end of a long marriage, and it marked the beginning of a change of course in my life journey. In April 2021, I took my first plunge with a wetsuit in very cold waters on the west coast of Norway. I was terrified, frozen and hooked.

That summer, I got acquainted with open sea swimming for the first time. In autumn 2021, I decided I would try to dip regularly, but decided if I ever didn’t enjoy it, I would just stop. This was a new approach for me. Normally, I would set goals and times, and I rigorously finish what I started. I decided this time, I would be kinder to myself.

Shining sea lights

Well, you can probably guess what happened. I kept swimming right through the Nordic winter. On a night swim ​​with someone special, I discovered bioluminescence – glowing lights in the ocean. It was extraordinary; a phenomenon I never had heard of. At 46 years old, I realised there was clearly much to still be discovered in life!

Another highlight was swimming on Christmas Eve morning with a friend. Because Christmas Eve was going to be hard, and it was. But that morning swim was very special, and filled me up with a dose of dopamine and serotonin, and an appetite for the day ahead.

Why do I really swim in cold waters? Wim Hof’s extraordinary work is certainly an inspiration and motivation. The health benefits are definitely a bonus, but that is not the reason I swim. The temporary after effects – the dopamine – are also certainly a kick, but it is a temporary pleasure that definitely does not sustain my desire to swim.

“We have all been through hard things, and we all have hard things ahead of us. That is what we experience when we are fortunate to live many years and grow older. So by swimming – by dipping in the cold – I practice. I practice for times ahead, for what I will meet tomorrow and for what I will meet next year.”

Nora clarke

I swim because I simply want to practice doing hard things. Because, going into the sea on a cold autumn morning is hard, and I never really want to go in. Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed has also been a source of inspiration to me. To other women reading this, I definitely recommend this book to you. One quote reads: “I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist. I’d say: Tabitha. You are not crazy. You are a goddamn cheetah.” Glennon’s life slogan, which became the title for her much-loved podcast, is “We can do hard things”.

Yes we can. We have all been through hard things, and we all have hard things ahead of us. That is what we experience when we are fortunate to live many years and grow older. So by swimming – by dipping in the cold – I practice. I practice for times ahead, for what I will meet tomorrow and for what I will meet next year, and what I will meet in a few years time. I believe (and hope) that I am building up my resilience, just a tiny weeny bit every time I dip my body into the cold sea.

Topping up your batteries

I will be honest that I love the sea as well. So, this cold water swimming is not some obscure form of Irish penance, far from it! I love the sea with all my heart, completely and utterly. The nervous excitement of heading down there, and taking in the sea’s beauty before and after my swims fills my soul batteries to 100%.

As a bonus, I seem to have inspired my kids – not to swim with me (unfortunately) – but they have somehow been inspired to thinking that Mummy is brave. Because they remember me when I used to stand at the side and watch them swim and splash in the sea. Imagine all the lovely swims I could have had with them when they were small. But at least today, I can be a brave soul in their eyes. And nothing more could be better than if I can be a humble role model for my beautiful girls, the future generation, who will most definitely change this world for the better. So for that reason alone, swimming in the cold seems to be a worthy endeavour.

Words by Nora Clarke in Norway, born and raised in Cork, Ireland. Read more readers’ swims from the Outdoor Swimmer community. Prepare for the winter season with our expert guides to cold water swimming.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.