Scottish Swimmer

The immersive pull of sea swimming

So the past couple of posts have been about swimming and not-swimming in fresh water, but since we moved to Edinburgh in 2016 the bulk of my swimming forays have been in the sea at Portobello.

After a weekend away that included three fresh water dips, I took off to Portobello at the start of the week hoping for a long (by my standards) sea swim. I’d hoped to hit the 3km mark, or even better two miles (3.2km), but the tide and my own fatigue was against me. I managed 1.8km before getting out. Didn’t know it then but I was coming down with something …

Anyhow, as I swam alongside the sandy shore, the swell raising me up and onwards, a gentle cradling push every six strokes or so, I felt an honest, pure realisation; a keen awareness caused by a combination of my own movement in relation to the sea and the moving sea itself. I was both passenger and pilot, participant and observer, gliding and propulsion. Float some and jet some. 

Sea swimming at Portobello

I admitted then that as much as I really love fresh-water swimming (and I really DO love it), it’s the sea that is where I’m drawn to, where I experience the greatest satisfaction and reward, where I find the greatest joy.

Such an admittance feels like a betrayal to my younger self; to the youth who spent his exam leave in the River Teith in Doune and Callander, and up the Scout Pool on scorchers; as well as to my wild swimming pals who regularly swim in Loch Lomond and Loch Ard, and who got me back into the sport after a back injury a few years ago.

But the sea holds too much sway. It’s not just Portobello, it’s Gullane, Tyninghame and Aberdour; it’s Cumbrae, Bendarloch and Durness; Croatia and Kenya; it’s Mull, Skye but most of all Iona. The exposure is bigger, and the experience more compelling, more visceral. You feel part of a living, vibrant, powerful force of nature.

Not that you don’t get all that in sublime locations like Loch Lomond, of course. When the early morning mist rises and you’re surrounded by a mass expanse of dark water, with Ben Lomond looming out of the grey, a hint of the Arrochar Alps on the western side, islands near and far in all directions, ducks chattering past, and the welcome morning sun tickling the leaves of pine and birch and oak, you feel privileged to witness something like that.

And maybe that’s the difference. With sea-swimming, at least for me, the sense of participation is greater, of not just being in these awesome surroundings but of being part of them. I think it’s a similar sort of reason as to why I prefer big mountain routes compared to more technically challenging crags or bouldering. Or maybe it’s just the added buoyancy.

Wherever you swim, though, you’re constantly aware of and readjusting to the conditions, you’re tuned into currents and tides, swells and wind. Your nerve endings are all lit up while at the same time the seep from your body makes it harder to define where you end and the water begins. Sometimes that goes for the mind too. 

So I was thinking all this as I coasted with the Portobello swell. Normally I’m just trying to think about my stroke, of watching the wildlife, or zoning out completely, one of the great therapeutic benefits of outdoor swimming.

On the way back and as a timely reminder of the sea’s potency, the return leg was far more effort. What had gently carried me down the coast was now a face-slapping chop pushing me pack. It was difficult and tiring, and mentally I was losing momentum.

After a mile, I’d returned to the groyne by Portobello Swim Centre. I ebbed for a wee while, then swam out a minute or so before turning back in and coasting in with the tide for the last 100 metres. As the water shallowed and the bed rose up to greet me on each trough, my fingertips started skiffing the sand before I was lifted and shunted forward again and again until it was time to stand on dry land.

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