I was asked today where my favourite place to swim was*.
Loch Lomond, Skye, Loch Katrine, Iona, Loch Awe, the rivers of rural Perthshire, Portobello, Gullane, Largs, Aberdour … in fairness the list of options isn’t that long, but there are only two serious contenders: Loch Lomond and Iona.
Both are profound landmarks on my journey to becoming a swimmer, and both I predict will feature in several as yet unwritten posts.
It seems fair to start with Loch Lomond.
It was, after all, Loch Lomond where I first seriously swam, and it’s within Loch Lomond that I have my first loch-swimming memory, and it’s Loch Lomond I first wrote about in this article published two years ago in the Sunday Herald.
Read the edited piece if you like (click the link at the very least). But in what must surely be the height of laziness (perhaps you could spin it into a remarkable feat of ink-driven efficiency) I present below the original non-edited, non-subbed, non-proofed and non-published version, as filed by email to my friend Susan Flockhart, the Sunday Herald’s superb Features Editor.
Standing in our trunks, goggles and bright rubber hats, the fishermen, in their camouflage fatigues, eye us with weary irritation and mild disbelief. Who else would be down by the loch this early in the morning?
Moments ago we were mooching around at the road end. Windmilling our arms. Eyeing the water. Nervous, over-loud laughter and a weak groan of a hangover. Those in their wetsuits – the suits – taking a bit of ritualistic heat from the skin swimmers. Usually someone asks: why are we doing this?
Then the hats go on – silicon, two, the outer one lurid – and force our hand. We strip to our trunks, no hanging about, and stride, occasionally with purpose, often with trepidation, towards the jetty and our jump-off point.
Sometimes there’s a bit of banter with the fishermen – you guys are crazy; you guys are crazy. Occasionally the irritation shows – we’re about to scare the fish after all. Sometimes it’s just us and the ducks. Most days though, it’s a mild-mannered, friendly acceptance. This loch and this jetty are public and fishing licence and bagsied space or not we all get to share these waters.
So we stand on the edge of the jetty. Early morning light around us and cold black water beneath, and again that question, that nagging doubt that all of us skin swimmers (barring a few hardened veterans) ask: why am I doing this?
And it’s a question more and more people answering for themselves. As last weekend’s ultra-popular Great Scottish Swim showed, thousands of people are making the leap from the pool to Britain’s cold waters and joining official clubs or taking part in small groups like ours or even going out on their own; seeking to enjoy the experience of swimming in lochs, seas and rivers, as far removed from the pool as the treadmill is to fell-running.
But growing popularity or not, standing fearful on the edge of shock and cold water, there’s a part of me – every time – that wonders if I’m crazy. There’s also excitement, anticipation and a compulsion, too. Motivations, like a river’s tributaries, come together, build up in force and volume until they wash away any lingering mental resistance and there’s nothing to do but jump.
The jump is both the easiest and hardest part of the swim. Physically all you have to do is lean out, step forward, let yourself go. Dive if you want to. Mentally, however, you have to hammer down your instincts and block out your fears. Best not to think about it and just get on with it.
We are brought up to fear the water, and rightly so. It’s dangerous and unfeeling and does not discriminate between young children and old folks. We’re taught to swim in swimming pools where the greatest danger is a verruca or slipping on your bum; where bored guards whistle at bad behaviour; where the water is warm and clear; where the stench of chlorine indicates the presence of urine; where the only living thing is you and other swimmers in a big bath, all nicely safe and sanitized … apart from the pee.
The loch, of course, is neither safe nor sanitised. It’s wild and beautiful, the hills – Ben Lomond, Conic Hill, the Arrochar Alps on a good day – framing the big sky above us. Across the water lies the tree-soaked peak of nearby Inchcailloch, one of Loch Lomond’s largest islands. The vast expanse of black water all around us. Moored yachts to our left, their halyards chiming against the masts on those windy days when white-topped waves promise a bit of chop. You learn to read the wind and waves and choose your route accordingly. It’s best to return with the current.
Time freezes in those first few moments in the water. Your senses are on overload. The nerves on your skin – every one of them – screaming out. Like a thousand small electric shocks all over your body. The water is muddy green brown, lighter than the black viewed from the pier, but you still can’t see much. You kick to the surface. Your lungs going like the clappers, relief or concern as you gauge the temperature. Sometimes if it’s really cold, there’s panic.
The next few minutes are critical, especially in water below 14C. You have to start swimming immediately to keep your core temperature up. Though your body’s fully immersed and an icy grip claws your limbs, putting your face in the water is painfully challenging. Breathing is difficult. Doubly so if you’re hyperventilating from cold water shock.
Adrenaline kicks in. Your body remembers all those lengths of the pool and your feet start to kick and arms rotate. You breathe, reach out, grab a ball of water, pull it down, push it away. Repeat. The face goes in the water for a few more seconds. Repeat again. The gulping for air, frantic and panicky like a landed fish, slows. Breathing becomes controlled. You repeat again and again and before you know it you’re a hundred metres from shore and the strokes, the kicks and the breathing are all coming together.
We’re moving gracefully, controlled and together through the water. The rhythm of swimming feels efficient and smooth. Confidence returns. The sound and feel of water passing along your skin begin to merge. The swishing sound you hear wraps around you like a musical blanket, interrupted by a slow percussion of exhalations that roll out from the side of your face. There is a beauty to this type of swimming that is impossible to describe. Endorphins build, and the question shifts from why do we do this to why would you not?
The physical and mental health benefits of cold water swimming are well recorded, both anecdotally and in terms of medical studies. Regular dips, scientists say, can help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol; boost the immune system; condition your skin; and improve libido and fertility. Though they may not be lean or in perfect shape, most wild swimmers will say they’ve never felt so fit, rarely get colds and generally feel happier.
Dr Pat MacLaren, a skin swimmer, explains that medical studies are increasingly looking at the physical benefits of exposure to cold water. “Recent findings,” he says, “show additional benefits of swimming may come from the exposure to cold rather than the exercise itself. Repeated cold exposure may condition the body into diverting calories from the production of white fat – generally stored under the skin – into brown fat, which is stored more around organs and which behaves slightly differently.”
Brown fat, he says, produces more heat when it is burned, or “utilised”. This, he adds, “has obvious benefits for surviving in cold environments though it does this relatively inefficiently, meaning you use up more fat reserves”.
Pat believes there’s a lot of scope to reap the benefits of this effect, particularly as the country faces an obesity epidemic. “You may burn more calories doing exercise in a cold environment than in a temperature neutral environment; the theory being that cold exposure triggers a change in the way the body stores excess calories.”
But he warns: “Before people rush off into a cold loch to shed some weight, it’s worth remembering that cold is dangerous and cold water doubly so. Safe conditioning requires repeated graded exposures. Having said that, much as I hate the 6am starts and icy cold water of April, cold water swimming is a wonderful thing to do, great for your physical and mental health.”
Our safety conscious society would have us believe otherwise. Municipal swimming pools deeper than five feet are becoming a rare thing, and every year, amid grim news reports of people drowning in our coastal waters, rivers or quarries, there are fresh warnings to stay clear of the water. Strong swimmers, though, tend not to drown, and of the 338 drownings in the UK last year, 36 were swimming related (worryingly, six of those were in a pool). The majority of drownings – 138 – were from those who had been walking or running alongside the riverbank or coast and had fallen in.
But if jumping into cold water was as natural to us as running or riding a bike, would drownings decrease? Evidence from Germany, which has a much healthier attitude to wild swimming (though, to be fair, warmer waters too), suggests wider participation in wild swimming would have no negative impact on drownings, and may mean even fewer. In Scotland, where obesity and heart disease are rife, it could hardly do any harm.
For Karen Weir, who competes in international sub-6C races, extreme cold water swimming is, she admits, an obsession. She says: “Since taking up open water swimming it would be fair to say I’ve seen an improvement in my health. It may or may not be connected but I very rarely catch a cold now and for me mentally it definitely is a good stress buster. No matter how my day has gone or how bad I feel, once I have been in the water I always come out refreshed, happy and planning my next swim. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I am standing on the shore on a dark, damp wintry night thinking why I am doing this, but once I am in the water I love every minute of it!”
It’s an attitude common to most wild swimmers; a compunction to do this, not just for the fun, beautiful experience of the swim itself, but the beneficial after-effects for your body and mind.
Karen, who helps organise the Wild West Swimmers community on Facebook and plan many of their swims, admits she finds the extreme cold water challenging – she took part in a non-wetsuit race in Estonia at 2C – though for her that’s an incentive rather than a drawback.
She adds: “It would be fair to say I am slightly obsessed with it. I can’t wait for my next swim no matter how big or small, just being in the water is all I need. There is no better feeling than to be in a loch early in the morning or during winter when there’s hardly a soul around. It is so peaceful and the scenery is stunning. Even if we go to the same venue, no two swims are the same. There are no lane restrictions, no overcrowding, no chlorine. It’s just perfect and I am able to enjoy this with some great friends.”
My small group of swimming friends stop to tread water in the loch. We look around and check each other is fine. A quick catch-up. But we can’t stop too long. This might be good for us, but, our bodies remind us, the clock is ticking, and although this might be a social event our conversations are marked by their brevity. Why do we do this, I ask? The answers are quick fire: Because it’s here. What else would I do? Because George (our coach) tells me to. Bad back, hate pools. I just love it.
Sometimes, we’re up early enough to catch the sunrise; the first light breaking through the clouds and kissing the land around us, its warmth noticeable and welcome. We’ve swam in storms and fog, difficult conditions adding to the challenge. On calm days, the long branches of oak, birch, alder and hazel trees reach out from the island of Inchcailloch, their long fingers dipping into the water, disrupting their reflection. Some distance past a heron stands eyeing us, completely unfazed as we swim by. A family of ducks crosses our paths just metres away, their feathers get caught up our wake. Swans still lurk menacingly.
But we don’t always pay attention to the wildlife above the surface. Often it’s what lurks beneath that focuses attention. Goggled eyes on the lookout for limbs, bodies, tentacles, monsters, and, worst of all, pike or jellyfish.
And so the swim resumes, as it must. And amid a frog’s eye views of the landscape around us, we catch glimpses of each other. Arms raised mid-stoke, bright hats between waves, a ghostly pale body alongside you below the surface; for a moment causing a rush of fantastical panic it’s a monster about to take you down to a watery grave.
Irrational fears rear their head without warning. The mind can start to play tricks on you. Temperature variations in the water have you wondering about the onset of hypothermia. Half-submerged branches become the limbs of sea monsters; wet leaves stick to you and give you a shiver greater than mild hypothermia. Weeds seek to wrap their tendrils around your ankles. Fear and fantasy rise up as your core temperature declines and the rational mind starts to slip away. I practise the alphabet and word games to stay alert. Other times my thoughts simply wander.
There is, of course, danger here, and not just from motor boats. Hypothermia, when it shifts from mild to moderate, is scary and serious. But like climbing, the exposure and calculated risk is part of the fun of being out in the water. The challenge of being in an alien environment you alone must get through is addictive, though you need to be aware of the risks: failure is not an option out here.
But we don’t fail and after an hour or so we return with the current. Those same waves we had to slog through – attempts to breathe answered with a mouthful of water; an arm stroke finding nothing but air; your face slapping the water on a down wave – now pushing us back to the jetty. We’re needing to get warm yet sad it’s over.
The fishermen are gone and the car park is deserted. There’s no one to witness our bodies emerge, cold, shaking, yet glowing from the euphoria. You have to move quick here – even out the water your core temperature will still be dropping. Numbness in fingers heeds the removal of swimming caps, the donning of T-shirts, underwear. Socks can be a nightmare. Shivering jaws and stabbing pains in the feet. But above all a buzz. The grins stuck on our shivering jaws as we try to warm up, already making suggestions for our next swim: Loch Chon, Loch Ard, Mull to Iona, Raasay to Skye, Cumbrae to Largs. Someone says Corryvreckan.
Why do we swim? It’s our coach George Love who sums it up best.
Asked why he swims, he replies: “Easy. It makes me feel alive more than anything else.”