FEATURES,  View from the Water

The first open water swim of the year

When you’ve spent the winter cosseted in warm indoor pools, your first open water swim of the year can be a bit of a shock. My previous swim in open water, before this season’s opener, was back in October, and that was in Italy where the water temperature was a comfortable 19 or 20 degrees Celsius. It’s been more than a year since I’ve swum in water with a single digit temperature as I’ve been careful to avoid all cold-water events this winter! I knew, therefore, that my first swim of the year at Thorpe Lake would be interesting, even with a wetsuit. The temperature was 9.6 degrees Celsius.

Yes, I know you winter swimmers think that’s balmy, but believe me, if the coolest water you’ve been in for six months is 28 degrees, then 9.6 is shockingly cold. Literally.

I admit, I stood around chatting to other swimmers for a while, pretending to be confident, but I was getting colder while the water wasn’t getting any warmer, so I sauntered down to the pontoon as if I just wanted to cool off on a hot summer’s day.

Another swimmer adjusted his goggles and dived in. I assumed he’d been swimming all winter as there was no way was I going to do that. I dangled my feet over the edge instead and they immediately began to hurt. I knew if I stayed there for more than a couple of seconds I wouldn’t be able to go any further so I slid in quickly and started swimming – sort of. I wasn’t yet ready to put my face in the water and my wetsuit was too buoyant for breaststroke so I doggy-paddled away from the pontoon.

My breathing was fast and shallow, which I knew was cold water shock. I haven’t had that for a while so it was interesting to feel it again and realise I couldn’t do anything about it. I did remember not to panic fortunately as I knew it would pass but it did make me feel a little light-headed. My hands were hurting too now so I rolled onto my back and lifted them out of the water.

I proceeded slowly on my back while keeping my head and hands above the water. It didn’t look much like swimming but the pain in my feet had diminished and I could breathe normally again. Not far away, cars and lorries were hurtling down the M3 but I could barely hear them above the bird song and the sound of my feet stirring the water. It was a very calm moment and a timely reminder of the delights of open water swimming.

Eventually I turned onto my front again and did a few strokes of freestyle. My hands were fine now but the water stung my face. I shouldn’t have shaved so closely. I completed a lap and then a second using a mixture of front crawl and backstroke. I was comfortable in the water by this stage but my hands had stopped functioning properly. I mumbled my words when I tried to speak to another swimmer because my lips didn’t work properly. I decided that was enough for my first outing of the season.

However, before I showered and changed, there was one more thing I wanted to do. I slithered onto the pontoon, quickly removed my wetsuit and slid back into the water. Wetsuits are great but I love the sensation of cool water on my skin and as my feet, hands and face were now used to the temperature I could swim properly. I didn’t stay in long as I wanted to avoid getting chilled, just 20 strokes one way and another 20 to get back, but it was plenty. I jumped out and quickly wrapped myself in a towel. My whole body tingled and I couldn’t help smiling. I was almost tempted to jump in again. Swimming outside does that to you. I’ll be back soon.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.