April 2017 – The sea waves goodbye to winter

My swimming pool subscription costs me £23.50 a month, which I don’t mind paying.  The swimming pool is definitely the safest place to learn to swim.  It is never too long, nor so wide that you are never more than a few metres away from land and mostly shallow enough to be able to stand on the bottom at most points if you really had to.  Navigation is never an issue in the pool, there are lines painted on the bottom to show you the way from one end to the other.  The water in the pool is often heated to be comfortable enough to swim in and is clear enough to see almost from one end to the other underwater with your goggles on.  The clarity of the water mean that you can see every part of your your stroke and technique and easily spot where you need to improve. There are chemicals in the pool that kill all the dreaded lurgy and viruses that could kill you and lifeguards to keep watch so that should you find yourself in trouble in the water there is someone there to quickly rescue you.  The pool is a safe place to learn to swim, so safe in fact that many swimmers will never swim anywhere other than the pool.  All of that makes it worth my £23.50 a month.  By contrast, the sea is free.

My first sea swim of the month was in the relatively warming, rolling waves off Formby beach in 7’C water and shore safety cover provided by the RNLI lifeguards and the family members from one of the swimming group.  Sea swimming is almost everything that the pool is not, so from the flat surface of the pool of April 1st to the face slapping chop of ocean waves on the 2nd was quite a change.  My techniques that work perfectly in the pool were struggling to find their form in the waves.  The people I was swimming with were very experienced with Ironman triathlons, ice miles and channel swims under their belt – basically watersports endurance athletes.  I felt privileged to be training alongside them.  A year ago I could not have imagined either swimming so far in such cold water or of swimming so competently alongside such people.  This was a good sign that I was making progress towards reaching my goal of the Winter Swimming World Championships in Estonia next year.

Every day in April I made sure that I did some form of exercise, for six days it was swimming and for the other day to give my swimming muscles rest I went for a five mile jog around my home town.  The swims took me all over the country, from lidos in London, lochs in Scotland, docks in Liverpool, tarns in Cumbria and meres near Manchester.  Though the water might be free to get in the petrol to get there was not and I noticed that my car mileage was going up sharply which no doubt will effect my insurance renewal when it comes up.  My car insurance comes with a blackbox tracker and they must think that I must be an amphibian by now as many of my journeys begin and end next to large masses of water!

I posted a lot of pictures from swims on my instagram account @i_swim_and_ice_swim and I noticed that a Swiss bottle company called Sigg were looking for product testers.  I asked if they’d let me loose with one and to my surprise they obliged and sent me a bottle to test (and keep) for free.  Their bottles reminded me of my first encounters with cold water swimming which had been in my teenage years when I got into outdoor sports.  When I was 14 my school had insisted that everyone my age went out and did a work experience placement.  My mum asked someone she knew at the local outdoor sports centre if they’d host me, and they agreed.  Though the placement was only a week long it got me hooked on outdoor sports, particularly watersports, and I volunteered every spare minute I had in the school holidays to work there. Though my interest was in becoming an instructor to earn my training I spent two thirds of my time helping on the housekeeping team, so I quickly learnt the skills of laundry, cooking, cleaning, ironing and washing up.  My mum was so pleased!  When I was 16 I arranged to spend one day a week out of school on ‘work experience’ at the centre and I began gaining the qualifications to become an instructor and all the safety training.  This involved swimming in lakes, scrambling up waterfalls and deliberately capsizing in harbours throughout the winter months and though wetsuited it did feel cold but it was always enormous amounts of fun.  The Sigg bottle was standard kit in that line of work, robust and reliable that could take a beating on the mountains and the seas and would not let you down.  Being tasked to test one of these bottles felt good and the bottle came with me wherever I went (I’ve posted the review here on the sidebar if you are interested).

My reading this month took me through a few adventures namely: Hell and High Water by Sean Conway, Man vs Ocean by Adam Walker and The man who swam the Amazon by Matthew Mohlke and Martin Strel.  Each of the books are about men who set swimming endurance records and overcame very difficult odds to achieve their feats.  They are good reads but none of them teach you anything about swimming technique.  Interestingly enough Adam Walker’s technique seems to be the Total Immersion method done very well.  The criticisms by SwimSmooth of methods taught in Total Immersion seemed lose validity when I see that they helped a novice swimmer become a record breaker.  Perhaps Roy Castle was right when it came to record breakers, it is not so much technique as dedication, dedication is what you need.  These swimmers were all dedicated to their ambitions and achieved them.  I am dedicated to my ambition to get to Estonia next year, not sure I’ll break any records though.

Having read all these books and swam with channel swimmers I considered myself in good company and as my Sigg flask was coming with me in the car on all my swims one of my swimming friends asked me “Does it float?”  Knowing the reliability of bottle from my younger days my response to simply throw it into the lake to see.  The answer was “yes” as it bobbed horizontally on it’s side and then washed up to shore a few moments later without a scratch and my tea inside just as warm and fresh as ever.  I would have to develop my testing of the bottle further.

By the end of April I felt confident that I had developed my stroke adequately, that I had found the right fix for me regarding swimming caps and ear plugs and increasingly I was no longer shivering when I got out of the water.  I wasn’t consciously suppressing any shivers, I was just not feeling cold in the water or whilst getting out of the water anymore.  My final swim of the month was back at Formby, the water temperature had jumped to 13’C and I was comfortably managing 2km distances and over an hour in the water.  However, on that particular swim I did shiver a lot as the air temperature was only 12’C in the shade and I was stood around waiting for others to finish their swims, which is an occupational hazard with endurance swimmers, they can just keep going and going.  I remember looking out across the bay and a fellow swimmer on the beach in his wetsuit said to me “Did you know that the open water competition season starts next month? ” I looked at him almost in disbelief “You want to get yourself a wetsuit, far too cold to be swimming without one, eh”.  With that he ran off and went into the waves for his swim.  I thought to myself ‘Aye, I guess I can wave goodbye to the winter now’.

Books of the month are:

The man who swam the Amazon by Matthew Mohlke and Martin Strel available from http://www.wordery.com

Man vs Ocean by Adam Walker available from http://www.oceanwalkeruk.com

Hell and Highwater by Sean Conway available from http://www.seanconway.com/