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A tonic of our time

The emergence from a cold water, wild winter swim offers natural medication for mind, body and soul.

Social media is awash with stories of rosy faces fresh from salty dips, especially so in the era of Covid-19 when many of us have turned to nature as a form of therapy, soaking up the exhilaration of being exposed to the elements and inspired by the natural landscape. As the world we know it has been turned on its head, with dramatic changes for many in work and home lives, the great outdoors – and wild swimming in particular – has offered great comfort for many, including me.

Lucky enough to live in Cornwall, we have seascapes aplenty as well as rivers and lakes to dip our toes (and more) into for that chilly hit of happy hormones. Growing up on the west coast of Scotland did, in hindsight, offer a useful apprenticeship in the joys of cold water immersion and dodging jellyfish. Yet, although I’ve never been far from the sea, it has never beckoned more. How wonderful that so many people have been drawn to this free, powerful and abundant source of natural therapy.

Cold water swimming offers a startlingly comprehensive range of physiological and psychological benefits, including: reducing stress hormones, boosting the production of serotonin and dopamine that help to improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, directing circulation to the brain and vital organs which aids detoxification, boosting vitamin D as we venture outside, along with the range of benefits that arise through precious shared time with friends, social restrictions permitting.

However, outlining the benefits of wild swimming doesn’t address a reality of this activity which, let’s face it, puts many off, especially during winter: it’s absolutely freezing (or perhaps not actually below zero unless you’re north of Cornwall), almost painfully cold at times as you immerse yourself into the ocean or river, and in so doing become acutely aware of each and every body part.

So what, then, makes cold water swimming so enjoyable? For me it’s more than just knowing the potential benefits. Despite every nerve ending in the body sending a warning signal to the brain: “too cold, turn back”, we continue to head seaward, whether inching in gradually or with an icy launch. In that moment there’s an opportunity to push past those uncomfortable feelings and be truly present, feel the body come alive. The ability to overcome the cold is exhilarating, and there’s a moment of surprise that you have kept going – immersed – then begin to acclimatise. After an initial grimace or operatic warble comes laughter, joy and connection with those you are swimming alongside.

I swim in open water once or twice a week during winter; these are much-needed moments when they come around. But, as the era of social restrictions and disruption to ‘normal’ life looks set to continue, I wanted to talk with someone for whom cold water swimming is a daily ritual, someone who has committed to the practice over the course of years and can speak of the power of the ocean to support our wellbeing.

Katie Maggs began sea swimming from her home in Penzance five years ago following a burnout breakdown during which she experienced anxiety, fatigue and a feeling of total overload. Reconnecting with her childhood love for the ocean, Katie began swimming every morning, initially a short swim but gradually going further and for longer as her confidence grew. Katie recounts: “my journey with ill health spanned over a year but it was daily sea swimming, a wonderful outdoor swimming community and underwater photography that magically brought all that I once was back to me.”

Katie swims from Battery Rocks in Penzance at dawn each day, which during winter means submerging into extremely cold, black water. I asked Katie about swimming through the seasons, and whether her routine changes during winter. “I front-crawl swim in the sea all year round. In winter I swim with other people to be safe and as it’s dark first thing, we have waterproof lights and tow floats, it’s an incredible experience! We swim for about 15 minutes, but in summer we will often be in the water for up to an hour, swimming a few miles. I swim with a lovely group of friends that has really grown over the years.”

How, I ask, does daily sea swimming contribute to her wellbeing? “It can be a coping mechanism or a cure for things you’d never dreamt of it helping” replies Katie. “I’ve personally seen it help to heal grief, manage anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. I’ve witnessed it build resilience along with physical and emotional strength, and provide people with comfort, consistency and a sense of belonging.”

For Katie, the ocean’s healing power lies in the close connection to nature that is offered through wild swimming. “It is the unexplored hidden depths of the sea, its ever-changing moods that draw me to it. Daily swimming brought about a newfound respect for the sea and its vast range of marine life that I encounter. I always wear my wide lens goggles as I want to spot wildlife and marvel at the magic land that lies in wait below.

“I see such a range of wildlife at dawn when it’s so peaceful and quiet. Each day there’s an array of seabirds such as shags, the odd cormorant and guillemot, terns, sandpipers, curlews, and far out you can often see gannets diving. A heron feeds in the shallows of the rockpools most days. I see a lot of common grey seals which come up on the rocks in pup season. The list is endless really. I’ve watched dolphins and minke whales, as they tend to take the same routes following the fishing boats early in the morning. My favourite are the wonderful varieties of jellyfish, over the years I’ve photographed crystal jellies, compass, stalked, blue, moon, comb and barrels.”

Katie’s proximity to sea life has led her to undertake Marine Mammal Medic Training with the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, so she is on call to attend to stranded whales, porpoises, seals and dolphins around the Cornish coast. She is also a member of the Mount’s Bay Marine Group, working to protect and conserve the local marine environment. For Katie this has been a natural extension of her deepening relationship with the ocean, and a chance to give something back.

I was curious to know whether Katie’s own swimming practice had changed during the past year as a consequence of Covid-19. “It was humbling to be able to visit a natural place that was very familiar to me at a time when the world fell quiet. The increase in wildlife as a consequence of less human disturbance was painfully obvious and absolutely remarkable. We saw the return of basking sharks in Mount’s Bay and choughs nesting – both a first in years. Sea birds also arrived at the seafront in their masses.”

I asked Katie whether she has noticed a change in the level of interest and engagement in wild swimming over the past year. She replies: “It’s so much busier this year where I swim at Battery Rocks, which is fantastic to see! It is encouraging that so many people are taking it up, utilising the outdoors and giving it a try.”

I had to ask – Katie’s favourite wild swimming spot? “There are so many wonderful places to swim in and around Cornwall, beautiful beaches, incredibly deep hidden tidal pools, but I think Battery Rocks will always be my favourite due to my long-term relationship with it. At dawn it’s like the Serengeti of Penzance! Swimming straight from the rocks into deep water surrounded by so much wildlife with the sun slowly rising over St Michael’s Mount – what more could a girl ask for?”

Right now, late winter, as many of us struggle to keep our heads above water in the face of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, should we seek solace in the sea? For me one of the most joyful elements of wild swimming is its inclusiveness, a rare activity that cuts across all ages, genders and abilities, one that can be enjoyed in varying ways by everyone from toddlers right the way through (my mother in her late seventies can still regularly be found submerged in the ocean or a local river).

There is no ‘right’ way to swim in open water – you can wear a wetsuit or a bikini, dip your head under or wear a hat, stay in for two minutes or twenty, swim in the ocean, river, a lake (or even take a cold shower in the morning - my ritual on days when I can’t swim) – yet still experience the same elation, energy and uplift.

Hearing Katie’s story has made me reflect upon my own journey with wild swimming. I love to walk and run in the great outdoors, but this is somehow different – hard hitting, immediate, immensely powerful. Perhaps as we swim in cold, wintry water we become at one with nature in a unique and vulnerable way, as we strip back the physical and emotional cocoon of our daily lives and give ourselves up to a moment of presence and vitality. I have been truly inspired by Katie’s journey, I’m determined to commit to more regular open water swims and to tune in to the wildlife that surrounds me. Dawn tomorrow? You’ll find me in the sea.

Katie’s top tips for safe winter swimming:

Allow your body time to acclimatise, especially if you are new to wild swimming – cold water shock can otherwise create a panic-like reaction which can restrict breathing.

In the depths of winter when the water is cold, don’t stay in for too long – 10 to 15 minutes maximum. Invest in a wetsuit if you wish to stay in for longer.

Don’t swim too far from shore – remember you still have to make the return journey! Check tides and the suitability of the area for swimming.

Tell a friend or family member where you’re going and check in with them afterwards.

Swim with someone else, especially when new to wild swimming.

Bring plenty of warm layers to change into afterwards, including base layers close to the skin and warm socks, gloves and hat. Get dry and dressed quickly, out of the wind.

Bring a flask with a warm drink for after you have changed.


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