ASK anyone to explain why they would want to swim in the sea in winter and most will struggle to put into words exactly how it makes them feel.
It’s difficult to appreciate the appeal until you try it for yourself, which is why Min Henry, a 56-year-old grandmother, has made it her mission to share ‘the secret’ with others.
‘People will tell you how mad we all are,’ she said. ‘Well, we are having the time of our lives doing it and we feel great.’
Min was introduced to the pursuit last winter by her close friends, Rachel and Lucy, who had been swimming all year round for years.
‘No wetsuits, just swimsuits, swim shoes and a bath thermometer called Henry Hippo, who registered 9C at the coldest swim last year,’ said Min, who was hooked immediately.
‘At the end of last summer I was sitting at Pembroke, feeling so grateful and wondering how I could share “the secret” with others, so I set up a Facebook page in November called Guernsey Swim All Seasons, or “SAS” as our members affectionately call it.’
Since then the group has expanded far beyond her expectations to more than 1,000 members, with regulars posting photos of their swims daily.
‘Who would have known so many local winter swimmers were out there?
‘We have a huge number who are swimming during winter for the first time and are encouraged on by others on our “Daily Swim Buddy” section, where people post the location and time of their swims and anyone can join them. It has worked so well and many new wonderful friendships have been formed.
‘We hold a weekly group swim each weekend, with more new Facebook members joining us each time.’
All ages and abilities are welcome to get involved. The group’s oldest participant is 86-year-old Teresa Elliott, who swims all year round with her friends at Cobo.
‘We were all in awe of her joining us on a recent group swim,’ said Min.
‘Time and time again, our members mention how positive winter swimming is for their mental health and many studies back this up too. You emerge with a sense of achievement and euphoria. Forgetting all else while we swim, laughing and whooping like children, what a joy we experience.’
Group member Joanna Anastacio has no regrets about giving it a try.
‘My first swim, I took a deep breath and thought about how winter swimming was said to be exhilarating and good for the soul. I was nervous and I couldn’t really see how it was going to be enjoyable,’ said Joanna.
‘My auntie and her two friends had invited me and I bizarrely agreed. As we waded in, I knew there was no going back. “It’s cold,” I thought, but as I carried on swimming, to my surprise, it was very pleasant. My mind became empty and all I was thinking about was the present moment – the waves crashing, the wind blowing, the pretty lights reflecting in the water. We swam for around 20 minutes before getting out. Once changed, we sat in the car with coffee.
‘Wow, I had just swam in winter! And all of those people were right – it was thrilling. I felt so good for the rest of the evening.
‘I have now been swimming a few times a week for a month and am loving it every time. I honestly feel better in myself and love the endorphin release. I used to think these people were mad – now I am one of them!’
Melissa Campbell agrees that there is nothing quite like it.
‘I find that sea swimming calms me and makes me smile. That’s why I love doing it all year round,’ she said.
‘I emerge from the sea a happier, better person.’
Anyone who would like to experience winter swimming for themselves with some like-minded souls can search for Guernsey Swim All Seasons on Facebook. Solo swimmers are welcome and will soon feel at home.
Sammy Rouget highly recommends the group.
‘I have gained so much from it and would never have had the courage to try without the first group swim. I’ve met so many lovely, positive and encouraging people. Winter swimming has given me a sense of calm.’
AS WELL as being a natural deterrent for stress and anxiety, swimming is a great total-body workout that can help to build endurance, strength and maintain a healthy weight.
Going for dip is also one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise going, it’s low-impact on your joints and it’s suitable for all ages and fitness levels.
But why limit yourself to chlorinated, turquoise-tiled pools – however David Hockney-esque they might be – when you can swim in the sea for free instead?
And why restrict yourself to swimming outdoors only in summer? The health benefits are worth it whatever the season (and yes, that includes winter).
‘When you plunge into cold water, it releases a flood of endorphins and whatever mood you were in beforehand, you don’t regret it,’ says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming (Wild Things Publishing Ltd, £16.99).
‘Being submerged in cold water makes you feel alive and elated.
‘You’re so in the moment,’ he adds. ‘Particularly if you’re surrounded by nature and have a frog’s eye view of the world – it’s like a form of meditation, you feel very present.’
For those concerned about diving into icy water for the first time, Start explains that ‘cold adaptation’ tends to kick in around your third cold water swim. This is when your body will begin to adjust and not feel quite so sensitive to the chill. Obviously, ‘the more cold water swims, the better’ to build up your tolerance levels, he notes.
As well as being a cheap, fun and easy way to stay fit, studies have found that people who swim in cold water throughout winter are half as likely to develop a cold, while it’s also believed to be beneficial for those with mental health illnesses, MS, ME, anxiety and depression, among others.
It’s also ‘a great way to reclaim your life’, muses Start. ‘It’s very achievable, but doing it gives you a huge sense of accomplishment. Combine that with the endorphin release and the exercise element and you feel fantastic.’
Plus, ‘nothing burns calories like swimming, especially swimming in cold water’.
If you’re heading out on a winter sea swim, it’s always a good idea to take someone with you, dress appropriately for the water temperature, check the current and depth of the water and have some warm, dry clothes on the shore for when you’re finished.
Winter swimming is fantastic fun – but it’s always important to know your limits and build up your experience in the open water slowly.
Top tips for cold water swimming
1. Acclimatise As the temperature drops, just keep swimming and your body will get used to the cold.
2. Be safe The sea can be dangerous. Only ever swim where it is safe, and make sure you can enter and exit the water quickly and easily. Swim with others if possible.
3. Wear the right kit Wear a swimming hat, or two, to help preserve body heat. You can also wear neoprene gloves, booties, balaclava or a wetsuit – whatever you feel comfortable with.
4. No diving Do not dive or jump in unless you are used to the cold water. Cold water can cause gasping of breath and cold water shock, which can be dangerous.
5. Know your limits As the temperature drops, decrease the amount of time you spend in the water. In winter, swimmers often only swim for one or two minutes at a time.
6. Warm up slowly Don’t have a hot shower. Hot water can cool your core and it can be dangerous. Instead, make sure you have plenty of warm clothes, wrap up well and have a hot drink.
The 12 Bays of Christmas
THE 12 Bays of Christmas winter swimming challenge enticed hundreds of islanders into the chilly sea in aid of Les Bourgs Hospice in December.
The new fundraiser was created by the Sealey and Marley families as a follow-up to the popular 30 Bays In 30 Days summer event.
More than 600 swimmers took the plunge in 12 festively-themed bays, with names such as ‘Porte-let it snow’ and ‘L’Eree in a manger’, and ended up raising more than £22,500.
‘Winter sea swimming has definitely risen in popularity in the past year so it has been great to see so many people optimising island life and what we have on our doorstep,’ said Les Bourgs Hospice fundraising administrator Liz Stonebridge.
Enthusiasm for the new challenge means 12 Bays is set to become an annual fixture on the fundraising calendar.
Contact Ms Stonebridge at: email@example.com for any feedback or suggestions on how to improve the event.