DIPPING MY TOES

Gill Sherry

Sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a major life-changing adjustment, although, speaking from experience, a career change (at any age) can be liberating.
Trying something new can reap untold benefits. From making new friends to discovering a hidden talent or improving your mental or physical health, deviating from your routine and trying your hand at a new activity is the perfect way to broaden your horizons or, if you’re looking for more of a challenge, to test your limits.
I once signed up for a Champagne Cycle challenge from Crystal Palace to Reims. Bearing in mind I didn’t even own a bicycle, I was definitely stepping (or cycling) outside of my comfort zone. In fact, there was nothing comfortable about it. That said, not only did I see parts of France that I would never have otherwise seen, I also made a friend for life in one of the other cyclists. Not to mention the physical benefits that came from cycling 275 miles.
Of course, many of us turned to new activities during lockdown. Admittedly, much of this stemmed from boredom rather than the desire to achieve great things but even so, the results were positive. People began to bake their own bread. They taught themselves to knit, learned how to paint or took part in online Pilates. Others tackled DIY or mastered the art of paddleboarding. Some were even able to write that book they’d talked about for years.
Having read how wonderful open water swimming can be and heard first-hand accounts of its advantages, I decided it was about time I gave it a try. My sister swears by it, stating it’s the only thing that can stave off a migraine. Thankfully, I was able to borrow her wetsuit. I was more than happy to venture into the sea but doing so in just a swimsuit was never going to happen.
As a complete novice when it came to this particular pastime, I contacted Sarah Redman of Swim The Lochs (Facebook: Swim The Lochs, Instagram: swim_the_lochs). Sarah is an Outdoor Swimming for Wellbeing Swim Guide and Qualified Coach. She also happens to run a monthly Dips & Chips event in Girvan. Well, if I’m going to immerse myself in cold water, the least I can do is reward myself with a chippy tea!
Arriving at Girvan shorefront, I made sure my wetsuit was zipped up correctly (note to self: the zip goes at the back!) before pulling on my woolly hat, swim shoes and gloves. I was full of nervous excitement but also emboldened by the welcome I received from the other women in the group. There were 16 of us in total, five of whom were first-timers.
After introductions and safety instructions from Sarah, the group made its way down to the sea. The key, she told us, was to walk in slowly while being aware of the three cold water trigger points: bits, t**s, and pits. Laughter accompanied our gradual wade into deeper water where we were told to ‘keep moving’.
I was grateful for my wetsuit and full of admiration for those in more traditional (i.e. flimsy) swimwear. But even with the benefit of thermal protection there was no mistaking the temperature of the water (around 16° Celsius). What I hadn’t appreciated was that wetsuits are not actually waterproof. ‘They’re wetsuits not drysuits,’ my sister belatedly informed me.

We encountered large rocks and patches of seaweed but thankfully no jellyfish. Having seen hundreds of these creatures washed up on Ayrshire beaches I had no desire to meet one in the water.
Conditions, it seemed, were perfect: a slight swell in the water and fading blue evening skies. There was even a glimpse of sunshine, a hint at the sunset that looked sure to follow. With Ailsa Craig dominating the horizon, it was the ideal time and place for my first open water swim. Truth be told, it was more of a dip than a swim, although, I was surprised how far from the shore we had actually travelled – a reminder, should we need it, of the power of the sea. The expression ‘safety in numbers’ came to mind and I was reassured by the presence of Sarah and the other swimmers.
I recalled Sarah’s previous words of advice when she told me that inexperienced open water swimmers should never go out alone and should always let someone know where they’re going and what time they hope to be back. Sarah favours lochs over the sea and even now, if swimming alone, stays reasonably close to the bank and avoids swimming out of her depth.
Back at Girvan the atmosphere was buoyant with much mirth and merriment. From my point of view, I found it uplifting, but everyone had their own words to describe their experience. More than one mentioned the words ‘escapism’ and ‘calming’.
After twenty minutes in the water it was time to head back to dry land. Some had already retreated (we were all free to stay in for as long or as little as we wished) and had a good head start in the race to the chippy. The race, however, was not between the swimmers but, rather, against the clock. The doors to the Harbour Café closed at 7pm.
Getting the wetsuit off, I soon discovered, was a lot more difficult than getting it on. Fortunately, my fellow swimmers were not there to witness my disrobing embarrassment.
While they swiftly changed under their oversized robes on the beach, I struggled to peel off my rubber one-piece in the confines of my campervan. I suppose it served me right for being such a wuss and wearing a wetsuit in the first place. I’m sure practice will make perfect. Wait a minute… does that suggest I might try it again?
In the warmth of the café, the laughter and comradery continued. It was, I realised, a very sociable event. Everyone may have had their own reasons for doing it, but those varying reasons resulted in one common goal: to enjoy the experience. In turn, that bonded the group still further, the social aspect bringing them all together to reflect on their achievements. I felt privileged to be included.
Our group was made up of women of all shapes, sizes and ages. The sport of open water swimming does appear to be dominated by ‘women of a certain age’ although Sarah did tell me of one men-only group called the Edinburgh Blue Balls (great name!).
As we tucked into our fish and chips, washed down with mugs of hot tea, the jovial atmosphere remained. Some spoke of their vast swimming experiences with tales from lochs and rivers. Others debated the wetsuit versus swimsuit scenario. But one thing they all agreed on was the freedom that open water swimming allowed. Once in the water, they were no longer wife, mum, daughter, nurse or teacher, they were simply themselves. Nothing else mattered other than that ‘in the moment’ feeling of calm and contentment.
I may have only dipped my toes into this increasingly popular activity, but I understood that concept completely. Surrounded by water and infinite sky, I felt a million miles away from the reality of life. ‘Escapism’ really does sum it up, even if was for just twenty minutes. And the chips were lovely!