How could I be writing about wild swimming and not get wet. I was not much of a social drinker more binge party animal. The morning after, sitting at the side of my bed, head in my hands, struggling with a hangover, trying to decide if I needed a sh#t or a haircut, memories of night’s events returning in sporadic flashes. I vowed never drink again. I always seemed to take mischief and bad behaviour to another level. With drink, I am a LIABILITY. There will be a more than a few reading this nodding in agreement, and have at least one if not several stories in their heads where they vowed never drink with me, in fact never to talk to me ever again, when a couple of quiet pints ended in bedlam. This is not an apology or me trying to excuse myself for any misdemeanors. Don’t get me wrong, there has been some brilliant times and adventures that would not have happened if the sensible head was on. My first twenty years drinking were chaos. It’s easy to blame my sugar intolerance for some of the carnage.The last five sugar free years have been slightly more subdued, removing syrupy shots and liqueurs, all mixers including coke, lemonade, orange, apple and cranberry juice. Drinking spirits neat seem to make things a wee bit calmer. The killer was being completely sugar free all week, then scooping a bottle Henry Westons vintage 8.2% apple juice. It was like watching a dog eat beetroot. Clean off my head in zero to 330ml. Then 3 more bottles, just for the jackpot.
The year before giving up, it seemed every time I woke up with a hangover, I lay wondering if my wife would allow me to stay in the house, never mind speak to me. Going 6 weeks without a drink was easy and regular. Drink is pretty hard to come by in the middle of the ocean on a dive vessel. Working on a boat, building subsea oilfields is not like the navy, where daily Rum rations are handed out. Dive boats are dry, years ago it was a wee bit different. I was aware of my lack of self control and with a good chance of waking up on the helideck, I refrained, at least as long as the boat was infield, in port that was a different story. Large crew changes after a sober 6 weeks always ended in adventures.
Thats it! Never again! It was an immediate reaction, like many before it, hopefully this time it would be different, no more of Ireland’s finest cider touching my lips. That was over a year ago, my actions had been too much for my wife and the loss of respect from my boys was evident, things had to change. It was always the same before going offshore, vowing more acceptable behaviour on my return. Working away from home is rubbish but time for reflection, is one of the few good points. Every time I slipped into a bad routine, lack of exercise, excess food or drink, going to bed later than my wife, a few weeks later a crew change happened allowing time to reflect on aspects of life, good points to be revisted or bad habits to be curtailed. My next trip would be a short one of 3 weeks. Since discovering wild swimming a few months before I had started taking my new hobby to work. Working in Shetland, we were frequently in and out of port in Lerwick. This allowed for quick skin swims on the QT as I felt my boss and his superiors in the office would have frowned on my downtime recreational activity. Only a few people knew, mostly people seeing me coming back onto the boat shaking like a jakey. This crew change was out of Kristiansund in Norway. I was a wee bit lucky and was scheduled on the second helicopter flight out to the boat in the morning. I had time for a wee run and breakfast, then I jumped off the pier beside the hotel. The water was cold which was to be expected from the North Sea at the end of November. I was still trying to get to grips with physical changes the body goes through during cold water submersion. I didn’t stray far from the ladders and safety. After 10 minutes, breaststoking round the hotel without goggles, I returned to my bed to warm up. The hotel is the white building on the right surrounded by water on three sides.
I was expecting a project brief after stepping off the helicopter. The OCM wanted to know more about my swim than tell me about the job. There’s no secrets offshore. My boss stayed in North Berwick and his wife regularly swam off the south beach, he was amused rather than irritated at my antics. A week later we were alongside the CCB yard in the Bergan Fjord. The boat had to wait over the weekend for equipment to arrive. On the Sunday with all progress complete, I asked my boss if I could shoot off for a wee swim He said “You can go for a run, just don’t run in yard.” As close to permission as I was every going to get. After a short expolatory bike run I came a across a small Norwegian fishing quay.
This was one of the first times I noticed how cold I got after getting out then getting back in. I think it’s called temperature drop. I was shaking, stuggling to get my clothes on wearing a big grin. It had been amazing, surrounded by the brightly coloured shacks and houses. The water was clear, cold and refreshing. I think I was becoming addicted to the shock and the shaking.
A pod of Orcas was seen the next morning behind the vessel. I was glad I didn’t find a harbour to swim on the same fjord as the vessel.
The vessel sailed down into a Danish port for a refit. The closest town was Munkebo which had a lake. The lake is not very deep, more than 1/2 metre but not much. It was sitting more than swimming it performed the job to get cold on the day we arrived on port. It was a lot colder than Norway.
My shift finished at midday after starting at midnight. Some guys hate night shift, they never get a full sleep during the day. I prefer it, daylight is better for walking round the helideck in warmer climates or when in port going for the odd run or other adventures. Every 2nd day I would take one of the ships bikes and cycle the 10km down into Keterminde a Baltic Sea coastal beach resort in the summer. In December it was quiet. I was the only person I saw swimming off the beach. I tried both beaches on either side of the town .
I would cycle down to the beach padlock my bag, helmet and bike on the small wooden pier. I started off swimming ten minutes skins, then tried to increase it every swim. With uncontrollable hands the cycle back was always fun, sometimes it was safer to get off the bike and push. On one occasion while sitting shaking under a shop heater an old lady expressed her concern. I laughed through chattering teeth, explaining I had just returned from the sea. She laughed, walking off, shaking her head nearly as much as my own head was.
The Sunday before returning home, one of my colleagues cycled down to the beach with me. He biked off to explore the Danish town, as I stripped down, and waded into the water. The beach was shallow and to get a decent depth for swimming it took a walk of about 20m. I have never been a confident swimmer and added with pushing my body’s limits with exposure to cold water, I try to reduce the risks. I swam across the beach, making sure the water was never above my head so I could have stood up and walked out of the water if required. During the two weeks I gained a swim cap and goggles, it was after a lame attempt searching the shops for a Danish present for my wife. I dont know if it was lack of imagination or I was concious of missing swim time but all I could find was wooden clogs, a Danish flag teatowel or some cheese, I returned home presentless, I did offer Clare my new swim equipment. She said I needed travel goggles more than she did.
My colleague on the bike returned as I was getting dressed and we went for a beer in a bar come restaurant serving Sunday lunch. Much to the amusement of the patrons my uncontrollable hands nearly smashed my glass with the beer bottle, then I attempted to smash the glass against my teeth. During the trip my colleague had shown me pictures of his new wood heated hot tub; he couldn’t believe I got cold for fun. We finished our drinks, my first beer for nearly three weeks and returned to the boat.
A couple of days later, just before I left the vessel to return home, it was Tuesday 16th of December 2014, I went for another swim. It was a cold grey day. I biked down to the beach wearing my bright orange insulated waterproof deck overalls, they were too warm to wear while working but became invaluable during my excursions. This would be my last Danish swim in the Baltic sea. I decided to make it my longest swim. I had tried to swim from the small wooden pier to the large concrete jetty at the river mouth, a few hundred meters away. I had failed a few times, always turning round. I don’t know if it’s poor technique or lack of cold water familiarity but I really struggle to front crawl in the sea with no wetsuit, I mostly breaststroke. I managed to reach the pier and with over 25 minutes in the water, I was unable to cycle the bike with hands doing there own disco dancing. I went into a small bar. It was half full of old guys playing cards or patting their dogs. I raised a few eyebrows as I struggled to ask for a beer.
-You are sick.
-Nnnnnnnnnno , jjjjjjjust bbbbbbeeeeennnnn innnnn thhhhhe sssssssea ffffffor a sssssdswimmmmmm.
-It is your own fault.
He laughed, then translated to the other customers.
I enjoyed that beer holding the glass with two hands making sure the glass and beer didn’t end up on the floor or on my overalls. The aroma of beer from ones overalls is frowned on. It was my last beer to date. As my hands gradually became controllable I vowed to go home sober. Airports are just taxi ranks without take away food and fights, you need a beer or large bloody mary just to round off the spikes of the security queues and mad tourists dressed new sports clothes. I managed to bypass the Irish bar in Schipol and refused beer drinking water on the flights. The crew change was hard, not drinking over Xmas seemed easier. My closest nearly fail came with mussels cooked in french cider on a warm summer evening. I was really close to getting a glass of ice and starting on the rest of the case.
Not drinking allows freedom, not having to sober up before jumping in the car going for a swim. The hardest part is social gatherings. I find making small talk really hard. I struggle for conversation, its not that I am not interested or have nothing to say, I find it easier and less stressfull avoiding conversation. 3 pints was my batman mask, they allowed me to relax, enabling the talk sh&#e function, I take center stage and start acting the clown. These days I am content being the boring bloke in the corner. My wife has noted that family life is a great deal calmer since removing sugar from my diet, life without cider is even less turbulent and more focused.
One saturday morning I had slipped out of bed early doors and went for a swim. I spent an age in the warm summer water. On my return, my wife was slighly upset wondering why I was not back earlier as son number 2 had disobeyed all the instructions I had given him the previous night, and woke her up as soon as I had left, the luxury of the required and promised long lie, disappeared with a request to play the Xbox. I apologised, glared at the offending son, then gently reminded my wife that we were out the previous night and I could have still been lying in bed with hangover. I could see the pent up frustration release, she shrugged into my arms and agreed. I have been given alot more free passes on Saturday mornings since, just as long as Patrick holds up his end of the bargain and I don’t swim all day.
My continued obsession for swimming has helped keep the motivation to stay clear of dark rum and single malts. It has been alot quieter this last year our family life has become more solid and seems to be more enjoyable. Thats reason enough to continue getting cold and wet if it helps to stay dry.