Winter Swimming

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A snow-capped Ben Lomond shining over Loch Ard on a stunning winter’s day

I was determined to swim through the winter in Scotland; and by that I did not mean swimming in an indoor pool. I meant swimming in the lochs in the bracing water. This was coming from someone who grew up in Australia where the winter swimming clubs had to put ice cubes in the water to make them colder; a place where if the sea temperature dropped to 13c it was a cold winter, but if you waited a couple of weeks it would start to warm up again.

I knew a hardy bunch of swimmers who swam as often as they could in the winter. As the hours of daylight are so short, this usually meant a swim on a Saturday morning in a loch within an hours drive of Glasgow. I had the advantage of swimming in the summer, and not stopping, which enabled me to adjust as the water temperature dropped from 14c to 12c, then to 10c, then 8c. Over the winter I regularly swam when the water was under 5c, a temperature which is cold enough to qualify for an ice mile.

I must warn the reader that swimming in cold water can be dangerous, and you should be aware of the risks before you venture in. When the body first enters the water, it adapts to the threat of the cold water by a process known as cold water shock. Your breathing becomes short, your heart starts to race, and the body tries to ensure the vital organs are protected by reducing the cold blood moving from the arms and legs.

When you enter the water, it feels cold on the legs even in a wet suit, and sometimes it eels like the water is just never going to warm up. Then you lie flat on the water, and question why are you doing this, as the trunk feels the squeeze of the cold water. Once the breathing returns to normal, then it is time for the hardest bit, putting the face in the water. At first it hurts, especially when the water is under 5c. But soon the face soon feels numb and you do not notice. Then you start swimming, being very conscious of always swimming within your limits and ensuring there are emergency exit points available at any time.

Ard 7 Nov 15

Loch Ard on a moody day in late autumn

As you leave the water, you try to get the circulation going n the fingers again, and hope that you will be able to do up your shoe laces and buttons.

So why do I do it? Well there is a huge sense of achievement in swimming when the water is cold, seeing the stunning lochs from a different vantage point, watching it change from autumn with the colours, to the starkness of winter, and then the promise of life in the spring with the blooms. There is something quite special about swimming in a cold loch and looking up to see snow-capped hills around you, seeing your breath on the still cold air, and hearing the silence of the loch interrupted by the slap of arms as they hit the water in their rhythmic patterns.  Of course, there is also the nice hot coffee sitting around an open fire after the swim, as our group of intrepid swimmers talk about the swim.

Some days the swim seems like it will never end, with the arms feeling heavy, and the breathing always too fast. Other days, it feels more joyous, and you feel like you could stay in for at least 30 minutes if you are lucky. I can even remember one day at Loch Chon swimming up one side of the loch as the other side was covered in ice, and finding it almost impossible to swim front crawl due to the pain on the face. I learnt that the water temperature that day was 0.5c, and -3.5c under the ice, and even heard the ice hum as I swam past it, something that I had never experienced before.

But there are two things that make it worthwhile: the stunning scenery in Scotland; and the wonderful people from the Wild West Swimmers who I swim with. A special mention must be made of those who swim in only a swimsuit all year: Mark, Emma, Kathryn, and Karen (and any others I have inadvertently missed).

Some times at the end of my swim, I take off my boots, gloves and wetsuit, and just sit in the water for thirty seconds or so, full of admiration for those hardy souls who shun neoprene. Maybe next year I will venture out for longer with less. I do know that as the water warms up in the summer, I will not feel the cold and will be able to swim for longer and longer as part of my training for the summer season.

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A murky February day at Balloch on Loch Lomond with snow on the Luss Hills

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