Winter Swimming in Scotland

 

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A snow-capped Ben Lomond overlooking swimmers in Loch Lomond just after dawn in early January 2017

It seems like months since I have posted a swim story on this blog, so you probably think that I have been out of the water. Well, no I have continued my swim adventures, and now after the summer of 2017, it is time to get more up to date.

I swam through the winter of 2016 in the lochs of Scotland wearing a wetsuit, and yes it was not pleasant, but a big challenge. For the winter of 2017 I decided to set myself another challenge of swimming through in skins (ie no wetsuit). Now it is one thing to say that; it is another thing entirely to try it, and get the body to adapt to the cold water. I must stress that this is not something that should be attempted lightly, but once you are aware of the risks, and manage those risks, it is a very rewarding experience. I should remind you that the place where I had swum most of my life the water might drop to 13c or 14c (55F to 57F) in the middle of winter. Here in Scotland it is not unusual to go for a swim in summer when the water is that temperature; and in winter the water usually drops to 4c or 5c (39F to 41F).

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Dawn at Luss on Loch Lomond looking towards Inchlonaig and Inchconnachan

My plan was to get back into the water after my swim adventure in Greece in October 2016, but it was not until December that I commenced my cold water swimming. By this time the water had dropped to 6c, and I would go in with gloves and boots to try to acclimatise. I would go on and take ten minutes walking in up to my waist, and then would swim 200m or so, with lots of stops as my face adjusted to the cold. Then I would get out quickly. Another day, I just sat in the water up to my neck for 20 minutes getting my body used to the intense cold.

Over several weeks, I would go in, and swim slightly further each time, always conscious of the risks of hypothermia. After several weeks, I went in without the gloves or boots, just wearing my swimwear, and a swim cap. Yes it was cold, very cold, so cold that it took your breath away. But to swim in stunning beauty of Scotland after a snowfall, or when the dawn sun broke through morning mist over a still loch was an absolute delight.

 

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A swim at Duck Bay in early December 2016

I was always swimming with other nutters in the loch, some who like me were not in wetsuits, and others who did wear them. The good thing about swimming with others is that we keep an eye out for each other, and can assist someone if they stay in too long.

I have mentioned the risks of swimming in cold water. I must stress that cold water can be dangerous, and you must be aware of your own limits, and the impact of a cold morning, wind chill and precipitation on your body. You recognise that when you first go in the body goes into shock and you will start panting, though at dawn in January the water is often warmer than the air. Once your face is in the water, you start swimming slowly, until your breathing gets into a regular pattern again. You notice as you swim your arms change colour and start to get heavy. That was my signal to get out soon. I always made sure that I would swim parallel to shore and would have an exit point available at all times. Then a quick walk back to the car on frozen feet, get changed as quickly as possible, and then have a warm drink and some food.

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My swim on Australia Day in 2017

Each time I swam I would try two things: reduce the time it took to go from standing in waist deep water; and to increase the distance I could swim. Over the winter, I managed to increase my distance swum from 200m up to 1100m. I would also be able to walk in, splash myself, and then start swimming within 30 seconds or so. It was never easy to convince myself that this was a good idea, but would just get on with it.

The hardest part of the swim for me was the walk on frozen feet back to the car, knowing that it would be a few hours before my toes felt like part of my body again. If I had stayed in too long, the fine motor skills in my fingers would be non-existent too. But I always ensured I had several layers of clothing, gloves, two pairs of socks, a thick beanie, a coat, a warm drink, and sit in the car with the heater on to warm up. There was also the local coffee shop we would go to after to sit by a nice warm fire having cake and coffee to roast in the exhilaration of swimming in cold water again.

My winter swimming was successful, I swam on Boxing Day, New Years Day, celebrated Australia Day, swum with snow on the hills around me, and by the end of winter increased my distance up to 1km. What was more, I had done this in the company of friends who take equal pleas

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Another view of Ben Lomond with the winter mist rising off Loch Lomond

 

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