It might seem unbelievable to those people who have seen me regularly posting up pictures of open water swimming, but up until 2 years ago I couldn’t open my eyes under the water without freaking out at the gloom below. In fact, I still can’t open my eyes in lakes where it is very dark – that’s one thing I haven’t managed to conquer yet. The sea, in particular, was a source of both deep fear, and desire. I had a deep-rooted fear of the sea, but yet I wanted desperately to enjoy it freely, like so many other people I would watch in the waves from the shoreline.
My love of the sea began, as with most people, when I was young, when I was lucky enough to be growing up within 5 miles of the beautiful Northumbrian coastline. My brother and I spent many a happy, if frozen, hour in the sea all throughout the year. By the age of 8 I was learning how to sail, which I loved doing as I was out on the open waves feeling free. Then it all went wrong. It’s almost farcical, actually. What went so terribly wrong that I never again went out of my depth in the sea, or on a boat, without feeling utterly terrified? Fellow children of the 1980’s might understand….
Yep, I watched the film Jaws! It was big at the time, loads of children scaring themselves to death watching the ridiculously large great white shark dragging people off boats and under the water to their bloody demise. At such a young, impressionable age, it had a huge impact on me. No matter how logically I tried to look at it, knowing that there were no sharks (other than friendly basking sharks) in sea around where I live, I couldn’t shift my fear. For more than 30 years I remained too scared of the sea to enjoy it, never able to go out of my depth if I couldn’t see, never able to consider swimming out further than a few metres from the shore. But deep inside me, I still had the burning passion for the sea which I had had when I was younger. I really really wanted it back.
I heard about a local group of sea swimmers, and decided that I would borrow a wetsuit and go along to a sea swim in March 2017. There was only one other swimmer there, a friendly, likeable lady called Sarah, who confessed that she also didn’t like going out of her depth, but loved to be in the sea. The photo taken on that day is comical really. I was so scared. It was a pivotal moment. I was forcing myself to do something I was genuinely frightened of because the thing I wanted – to enjoy being in the sea – was a greater pull than the fear was a barrier. I was absolutely determined to overcome my fear – maybe not that day, but one day in the future, whenever that might be. I didn’t stay in long, and didn’t truly enjoy it all, my nerves spoiling the joy I should have got out of it. But, I had taken that first step.
I continued meeting the sea swimmers, still feeling sick every time I looked in the water and was unable to see, when I could feel the rising panic beginning to clog my throat and stick in my chest. My imagination was on permanent overdrive, alert to any possibility of a dark shape, or a fleeting touch of something on my foot. I devised a strategy to shut my eyes when breathing out in the water (as I swam front crawl), only opening them when I was facing out of the water to breathe. If my eyes accidentally opened under water the panic surged back immediately. I was powerless to control it, but I was grimly determined to beat it!
On and on I went, swimming with the same group of people, and mainly at the same beach, for 18 months. Gradually, I got my confidence up. I became more comfortable in the bay we swam in, feeler safer as I learnt the way of the waves and the pull of the tide. Jane, a super sensational open water swimmer enthusiast, was so confident in the water, she truly loved everything about it, and it was her constant reassurance, and exclamations of “there’s nothing here! Open your eyes!” which made me take the next step to opening my eyes. She did also point out that if I didn’t open my eyes I would swim into a rock or something…so it was of practical benefit too. We had lots of laughs in the water and I began to relax, even able to smile (ish) when she mentioned the dreaded S word when we were far from the shore (obviously wanted to hoof her at the time). One day I decided to go completely out of my comfort zone and swim out and around the boats in the bay. I did have a panic once out there, so Jane calmly arranged a swim formation of other swimmers, to help guide me back in.
Every swim I went to, I felt a bit better. I started opening my eyes every time in the water, realising that there was nothing there, I was among friends, and I was enjoying it . Truly enjoying it. I had bloody well beaten it! Once I had beaten my fear of opening my eyes, my confidence grew and grew. I started regularly swimming out and around the boats, swimming in different areas of the coast, and even jumping out of a boat and swimming with seals.
During this time I had always worn a wetsuit, watching in awe as other people swam throughout the year in a swimming costume. I uttered the infamous words “never ever ever could I do that! Far too cold!” But getting in and out of a wetsuit is a pain in the backside, especially in the cold weather, and I envied the ease with which the skins swimmers would pretty much get out their car and walk into the sea. The thought pinged into my brain “but, if they can do it, why can’t I?”. And so began my next challenge - to ditch the wetsuit and swim in skins. Over the next year I started taking off my wetsuit as I was getting out of the water, getting acclimatised to the cold. Eventually I took it off altogether, encouraged once more by the swimming group, who all cried cheers of “you can do it!”. I did it and have never looked back. I have a fantastic group of swimming friends, all supportive, hilarious, full of chat and lots of swearing as we battle the cold waves in winter.
I am a sea loving, skin swimming cold water addict. I still panic every now and then when my imagination plays tricks on me, but the sea is now my happy place, the place where I can switch off and feel the rush of endorphins from the cold water.
Still, I’m not done with the sea yet. I want to swim in ice water. I want to swim the Channel. However, first, I have decided that this year I am going to wear only a bikini for swimming throughout winter. Usually I wear a swimming costume, but with thick neoprene socks on, thick neoprene hat with 2 silicone hats on top, and gloves. I have never yet made it through a full winter, and in the bitter months of January and February I have worn a thick neoprene swimming costume too. With the water dipping as low as 4 degrees you need as much neoprene as you can get on you!
I love a challenge…what is life unless you have something to overcome!