A few weeks ago, I had a work colleague join me for a swim during a port call in Lerwick, Shetland. He was a kite boarder and was used to being in the sea. But not without his wetsuit and in the warm temperatures of a beach close to home in Lisbon, Portugal. I had a choppy, windy, few hundred meters swim, he ran into the water then ran out. Disappointed he went in a second time. By the time my 15 minutes were up I returned to the beach to find him fully dressed describing how good he felt. He managed to capture a photo with me and the seal. The seal is the far away head.
A couple of days later on the Selkies- Shetland outside swimming facebook page, someone had posted a picture of a Orca whale tossing a seal into the air. The photo was taken at the headland between our swimming beach and quayside where we were tied up. A week later I returned to the beach myself for a wee swim. Half way to the buoy I had swam to a few times before, my brain went into overdrive. I had been for a swim at the beach over a dozen times and seen the seal or a seal, most times. His wee grey spotted labrador face would accompany and watch curiously from about fifty yards away. My exposure levels had just started relaxing swimming with the seal. This morning the seal made no appearance. Close to the buoy I was trying to convince myself, that killer whales were not colour blind and would be able to tell the difference from spotted grey seal fur and Daz white human turning red with water temperatures under 10 degrees. I returned unscathed.
Drowning, hypothermia and seals are only a few things I worry about. I had just added Orcas, result. My wetsuit and towfloat helped ease the drowing fear, the summer months arrived, and a increase in water temperatures decreased my hypothermia fear. Exposure to more sea dogs help me relax when swimming in Shetland. I just want to swim longer distances not create a list of things to be scared of. I had managed to increase my exposure times swimming skin’s upto about twenty minutes in a tempertures of 8 degrees and above. In Shetlands at Rovahead I know how far to swim, I have never made it to the second buoy, I have always got to the first Buoy looked back and thought that will do. I never had the courage to swim further.
The day of the Orca fear swim was crew change day. I swapped swimming locations from Shetland beaches for lochs in the Trossach’s Scotland for a couple weeks.
One of these swims was an early saturday morning 3km solo swim round Inchcolm island at Port of Menteith.
The Island has a old Abbey ruins on it and historic Scotland have a small boat to take a visitors across the shallow lake, a perfect picnic location or day out for the kids. The lake is a well known for trout, it was busy with fishermen, sitting casting their rods, two fishermen to a small wooden boat, it was a perfect morning, the sun was up in a cloudless blue sky, no wind to adjust the position of the boats. I set off from the water edge and discovered the water was full of small greyish green bits similar to grass cutting. These grass cutting were reducing the visibility to less than a foot, it was similar to driving in a foggy snow storm. Half way to the Island, blue green algae popped into my head, was I being irrational, inventing a biochemical fear. I dont know if the few fishermen I spoke to, as I swam past told the truth, when I asked them if the water was full of algae and they would be eating fish they caught that morning. If I was playing golf, would a man meandering about the fairway get helpful answers for his worrying health questions. Honestly, there’s a good chance he would get told what he wanted to hear, and directed on his way.
On my return home I asked the question on a local swimming facebook page. Turns out it was blue green algae is common in Lake of Menteith. Brilliant a biochemical worry. I was on a roll two new worries in a week .
The school holidays arrived, solo swims were put on hold for boy’s adventures and introducing my wife to swimming outside with a wet suit on.
Work called two weeks early, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of jelly fish during a evening swim in a Fjord at Haugensund.
The jelly fish kind of freaked me out and long thin seaweed a few metres in length would wrap round my limbs, it normally would not have bothered me but I kept on thinking it was a jelly fish tentacles and kept the heart rate a bit faster than normal. The water seemed colder than Shetland, I only managed 10 minutes. I was informed the big red jellyfish were lionsmane and to keep clear. Brilliant add jelly fish to the list of things to worry about. After a morning bus ride we arrived in Stord. I managed two normal 1/4 hour swims in a nearly jelly fish free Marina just outside the harbour quay.
When I say normal, just the normal. Is that to far? Is it to cold? worries, no new ones. ingress and egress points were checked out, no ladder, beaches or slipways but the rocks were relatively big and flat and made climbing out easy enough.
Just before we sailed I managed a quick swim the other side of wee headland beside the port. Sun was shining water was clear, a great wee swim.
Three days sailing North up the Norwegian coast brought us to Hammerfest. A small town in the Artic Circle sitting at a latitude of over 70. The Land of the midnight sun.
The first swim was a pre shift swim getting up at 9am doesn’t sound early but when you finish at twelve it’s about 2am before yer in yer scratcher. A big Australian dude joined me. By the time we sauntered up to the Quayside base exit, twice after being sent back to get better identification it was 10am, time was running out. Last year the first OCM(- my boss) I told I was going for a swim, told me, I was not going for a swim, I was going for run, just don’t run anywhere in the dock.( the paperwork the security guard would create if he caught me would not be worth it.) I have pretty much stuck to that. Sometimes I swim just beyond the security hut sometimes it’s an few kilometres away. The first bit of water we came to was a a stinky Marina, it a wee bit enclosed with not much changing water. We walked for another ten minutes to a rocky beach. It was not a great beach, the water was slightly cleaner than the Marina we had just passed. It would have to do before getting back to the boat for work. I swam for ten minutes, the Ozzy bloke couldn’t swim so submerged himself, sitting happily in the Artic waters up to his chin for ten minutes. I had a slight shake on, it didn’t help, I considered the rocks unsafe for walking in barefoot so I was squelching back to the boat in the swimming trainers. The big Ozzy bloke looked unaffected. After shift, at midnight I took to a ships bike looking for a better location for Artic swims. I met the Australian dude out for a walk heading south from Polar base. Polar base is a 45 minute walk south from Hammerfest, We must have traveled about 5 km before I found the perfect place to jump in the water, a small concrete jetty with a big flat rock for safe easy egress.
The Ozzy bloke did not join me this time. I climbed out and the shakes started as I got on my shoes. I am going to get a velcro jacket it always takes me umpteen attempts to get the zip up when my hands are shaking.
A couple of days later, the bike was used for an epic 36km road trip. It doesn’ t sound far but at midnight after a long day, the effort felt mammoth. If the bike was a horse a vet would have considered a bullet to end it’s pain. I ignored the fact only half the gears wear accessible and the chain links looked like the big bad guy from the James Bond movie Moonraker, the bloke with the metal teeth, had chewed them for a snack. There was not much confidence trying to power up steep hills. In Norway if your not going down hill you are pushing uphill. So I was not full of confidence that the bike would make it. As I made my way out of the town looking down on the small airport and collection of brightly coloured houses I crossed a cattle grid. I was yet to see a cow. The orange glow in the sky would have indicated sunset back home, up here it just made the rocky barren landscape look full of adventures. Bike lights were not required. About 1 am the sun started climbing, it did not disappear, it didn’t even touch the horizon, it started getting bright again as the water on East side of Island appeared. I was heading for a small village called Forsøl. Local contractors on the boat had spoke of the only beach in the area.
The reindeer sitting munching on the grass were not interested as I passed, entering the spread out small town or village. The village comprised of about 50 colourful timber houses. I found the beach it was quiet small about 20m wide but the white sand reminded me of the beach in Arisaig I had left just over a week previous.
On hearing the boat was contracted to work out of Hammerfest within the Artic Circle enhancing hydrocarbons extraction installation, my conservation ideals should have been appalled. But I am embarrassed to say I was more excited about the opportunity to swim in the Artic Circle.
My swimming adventures around Shetlands had shocked and amused my work colleagues, but it must have cultivated a swimming seed. I had already took one Australian with me on the first day arriving in Hammerfest. A couple days later a second bloke showed me a swimming gopro video he filmed that morning with his wetsuit on. The film showed large quantities of sea urchins some of the stripey pink and white things but there were loads of the black spikey porcupines type things. I was blown away.
1 He had wetsuit with him
2 He filmed his swim
3 The footage of the sealife.
4 New worry alert – Black spikey thing in my foot. CHECK
He was blown away by the length of time I was spending in the water. He was a qualified air diver and claimed extensive experience under the water. he said after 7 minutes his feet were really painful and had to get out. When I suggested cold showers every day and swimming all winter outside, he and the rest of the squad looked at me as if I required incarceration.
I couldn’t accompany a third bloke wanting to go swimming, I explained to him the dangers and increased risk of drowning, by jumping in cold water. Cold shock causes the body to demand air and it’s hard to resist opening your mouth and sucking in water if submerged. Before getting undressed make sure you ave a good egress point, better a couple for back up, if something goes wrong.
He later showed me his battle scars to his thighs and belly where he dragged himself up a ladder covered in barnacles. He didn’t listen, well he had a wee bit.
Ooh no. This added a different dimension to my swimming fears. Would my adventures lead to one of these guys wanting an artic circle swim, end up in tragedy.
The below advice should be considered for every outside swim in cold water.
Enter cold water gradually.
If you jump in don’t do it from a height, you submerge to long.
If you have to get out using a ladder there’s no lost pride climbing down the ladder first, checking it’s fit for purpose and will get you back out.
No beer- you would not drive after drinking it’s just as easy to lose concentration in water.
At Forsøl beach I nearly swam to the small boat in the photo. But there was a strange black shape in the water just past boat and thoughts of Orcas hindered relaxation. It was a buoy, but my eyes and brain were not agreeing. The water was invigorating, the sky was golden just after 1am, the beach was framed by rocky barren outcrops this all added to the feeling of wonder at my surroundings. On the cycle back to the boat the handle bars were shaky with my uncontrolable hands, I realised, It’s not worries I am collecting it’s a survival kit, I am covering all possibilities, so I can enjoy and continue swimming and exploring.