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.