I’ve never swum so deep into the winter before. The cold is intimidating when you haven’t already pushed through it once, and it’s always greater in your head than in reality. If you listen to your head, you never get far. The air is mild, I have a wetsuit and it’s Christmas Eve.
We sit on boulders at the base of the towering white chalk stacks while families with dogs run past. The beach is busy with festive walkers and the tide is high, sea foam lapping at semi submerged lumps of rock in the sand. There is grey all around in a myriad of shades – from bleak to dove to pewter. The sky and the sea lie peacefully together, both shifting and shimmering and stretching into the distance.
I don’t plan to swim for a long time – I’m not acclimatised to the winter water – but even with this in mind the cold shocks me. I haven’t been in the sea since October. I’m so grateful for the neoprene covering me from the neck down, wetsuit and swim socks. Often it’s a hindrance, a separation from the glory all about, but for a first winter immersion I’m shudderingly grateful. Even more so when my hands – the most exposed part of me – touch the water and instantly turn florid red.The water burns, my muscles clamp, my fingers turning to claws, raw, fluorescent, vivid. It is all engulfing. So much rolling water, so much ice, white foam laced with needles, steely grey troughs shimmering with frost.
All there is is to keep kicking, to hope the cold will recede with the first few breaths, will settle into my body as my breath comes slower, filling but not overtaking. Cold fists pumping to let the blood flow again rather than gathering beneath the surface like inflated rubber gloves, I stand and release them in star shapes again and again to get feeling back. Each return to the waves burns afresh, my fingers are stiff and my hands barely useable as paddles.
The breath-stealing ice instantly changes your mood as the water surrounds you. There’s no room for anything in your mind but the full force of the cold. The inane brain chatter is blown away, obliterated with a gasping shock that reminds you that you have a fully living body.
I stay well within my depth, swimming in just a few feat of steady grey water. Though the cold isn’t affecting much more than my hands, I don’t want to be in deep water when it tightens my muscles or stabs at my chest. I swim in fits and starts, lifting myself from the water to raise my hands and let the air soften the sting. I’m not in long at all, but I emerge shiny and new, flushed and hopping over hidden rocks.
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