Instead of being remorseful at the lack of swimming time given by the long cold dark nights we were rejoicing. There were no more long swims into the evening only short, breath taking swims in baltic temperatures. Part of the fun is experiencing the water temperature drop at every paddle you take and we eagerly waited for ice like kids waiting for Santa. Placing the yellow thermometer in the water is like discovering what lies behind the paper door on an advent calendar.
Shorter swims require different logistics. Instead of driving into the Trossachs we happily returned to the small reservoir (Cocksburn) above Bridge of Allan. The town used to be a Spa town back in the day where people, including author Robert Louis Stevenson, understood there was magic in the water and enjoyed its medicinal properties long before we did.
So, our first recorded swim at Cocksburn in the winter was nine degrees centigrade, but after a 200m swim up to the top and the entrance to the wee stream coming down from the hills, we noticed a sharp drop in temperature. It made the bones in my feet sore. The larger Lochs in the Trossachs were still giving a water temperature above ten degrees. We felt like prospectors on the hunt for frozen gold. The next day the top side of the reservoir was measured at 7 degrees, a 2 degrees difference from the bottom of the Loch. 2 degrees wouldn’t be that noticeable if it was in the tropics, but it’s massive under ten degrees. We were ecstatic. Winter had started. Not only was it below 10degress it was getting close to 5 and it’s was still November. There was still at least another 3 months before it might start getting warm again, if we were lucky.
Typing this I now realise that there is an actually genuine use for selfie sticks but last year I nearly had a snapping selfie stick rampage. We were in Tenerife and had got the good fortune of standing right at the window while descending, (the packed in like multinational sardines cable-car) from the high altitude top of Mount Tiede only to have the view obscured by a hoard of phones and selfie sticks by Facebook profile hunters seemingly oblivious to personal space. Here’s my dragons den pitch. Selfie sticks could be adapted to hold and photograph a thermometer instead of trying to keep shoes dry (as much as possible) while positioning the metal probe in sufficient water depth. Then the camera could focus on the thermometer’s faint LCD screen without dropping either of the non waterproof bits in the drink. Obviously this will need to be done prior to the “shaking and claw hands” after swim environment which would inevitably end up with the said items getting a wash. Or, maybe Santa will be kind and deliver one of those expensive tiny gadgets that Bluetooth connects to my watch and hopefully stay attached to my goggles and more importantly, save the hassle of becoming a thermometer fotostick millionaire….. just a thought.
Cold temperatures are not the only bonus of winter. You don’t have to camp up on top of a hillside to enjoy a sunrise. We started trying to arrive for a morning swim at first light when we were blessed with an unheard of length of atmospheric high pressure giving hardly a breath of wind and lack of clouds that allowed the water temperature to continue drop. Each morning the colours, hue and depth varied and never disappointed. We tried to share these views on Facebook but cameras on phones only catch a suggestion.
If it wasn’t for the Facebook groups I have joined, I don’t think I would use this social media App. The constant stream of adverts, fake news and attention seeking drivel, drives me demented. I used to share nonsense, have the odd rant and (unsuccessfully) try to change the outcome of major political events but then gradually came to the conclusion “what’s the point?” Now I try to only to post a photo that made me stop and go “awe yeah”. I don’t know if it was some of these photos that made my neighbour ask me for advice on wetsuits. Maybe it was seeing me chuck my big plastic tub with wetsuits, tow floats and my “fake grass standing mat” in the van and race into the hills at unreasonable times of the morning when we saw each other in the street as he got back from his nightshift.
I was not home when he borrowed my wetsuit for his first ever wild swim.
I think that suit must have magical powers like Billy’s boots from the comic Roy of the Rovers because every person that has been kept warm and afloat in a Loch with it on their first wild swimming venture went straight home and ordered a suit, tow float and goggles. There’s been at least four. The suit should come with a warning. The lyrics of one the first hip hop songs to explode my brain – White Lines by Grandmaster Flash – kind of sums up wild swimming up for me. Get the Karaoke mic out:-
“Twice as sweet as sugar, twice as bitter as salt and if you get hooked, baby, it’s nobody elses fault so just do it!
Get Colder baby (Ahhh)
Get Colder baby! (Ahhh)
Get Colder baby!
and youll never wanna swim warm……………………..waters again…….”
the wheels kind of fell off on the last line of the song but you get the gist……
Like a “swimming shadow”, I tripped and banged not so quietly out the house one Sunday morning to go swimming. Early doors is the only time when the music isn’t blaring from the van before I start the engine, all other times it’s music first, engine second. On the early morning swims, I stop at the end of our estate and crank up the tunes before heading up the steep Sheriffmuir hills road in search of the cold water oasis. I love all the methodical steps required for a relaxing swim. Small things like making sure the kit is all in one easy place to grab on the way out. Looking out thermals so no raking noisily through drawers early in the morning. Turning the van and parking facing the direction of homeward travel instead of trying a three point turn after a cold water swim, where anything physically or cognitively taxing must be prevented.
There are two main ways to get to the Cocksburn reservoir, both about the same distance in time to get to. The east side is really muddy at the start and best avoided unless combining running and swimming. You do get a good view down onto the water as you raise over the hill but I prefer the 5 minute slow meander up the gravel land-rover track, past a variety of trees and fields on the west side. It allows time take a breath. The tops of a couple of tall silver birch trees give an indication if the water will be calm. The bottom and most westerly point of the reservoir is damned with water on one side and on the other side a 20 of metre grassy steep hill. My anticipation always starts ramping up at this point. As you start climbing up it’s always exciting and in the dark it is magical. You rise over the steep grassy hill and face first light across the water to the east. Each sunrise is a different kaleidoscope of colour, each morning individual.
As I arrived that Sunday the sun was already up and there was a faint wind as I walked along the top of the dam wall. Looking towards the usual grassy spot where I changed to swim I noticed ice in a shallow protected wee inlet bit half way along the reservoir
I started giggling and jogging at the same time. Where the ice had formed it was not a good access swimming spot so carried on round to a small tree and a better safer access point which had a small bit of ice formed on top of the water. I returned home with a big grin on my face and a bounce in my step.
Still buzzing from the ice swim, I posted an invite on a couple Facebook groups I swim with advising of a swim well not a swim it was described as the Annual ice breaking championships for the following morning. Normally if I remember to post an invite to a swim it’s either too early or during working hours to get much company. This time I was blessed to have company from 4 other edjits ( ahem …. I mean, enthusiastic swimmers) at the start of the working week. One is an avid experienced cold water, skins swimmer we will call Google Maps. Another was a wetsuit swimmer we will call the Wanderer from Aberdeen way who I had the good fortune of meeting once before 2 /3 years previously on top of Dumyat, the 500m high hill to East of Cocksburn reservoir.
I had been sitting on the summit of Dumyat (pronounced dumb-eye-et) busy giving options to my walking companions (one of my sons and his friends) on the route back to the van. In my mind there were 4 viable options back to the van. One, was the very long, steep, and grassy meadow like way. Option two was a short and muddy return, Three could be achieved by following our footsteps back down the hill or Four was the “suicide route”. There were a few other walkers up on the top of the hill enjoying the view of the Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and the reek from the chimneys at Grangemouth and Cowie. On hearing my options a red haired walker turned and the conversation started with “ Excuse me, I thought there was only one route?”
“Awe naw” I replied, “there are even a few more including walking down past that reservoir down there ( pointing towards Lussburn reservoir). I swam in there this morning.”
“Ooh, I wild swim too” the red head replied
“Ooh, swimming, blah blah swimming blah blah “….. well not exactly like that but you get the drift. (Mention wild swimming in my company and I can talk or bore you for hours)
That’s how we, my son and his two friends, along with myself and a random lady ended up on the shear cliff on the front of Dumyat after I took a wrong turn. We were not lost. We knew exactly where we were but we also knew that we should not have been there with everyone in the group thinking we were in serious peril. Well, it is called the suicide route after all.
Any way, back to the swimming.
The swim group that day also consisted of Neoprene. I have mentioned him a few times in other posts and we are now swimming regularly together. The last member of the group was my “nightshift working” neighbour who we will call Gloves. He had used my wetsuit twice and then purchased his own which had it’s first outing in a Loch in the Trossachs with temperatures at about 8 degrees, which is completely tropical compared to the less than 2 degrees we were about to experience.
It was dark in the layby with the sun peaking over the hills as Google Maps joined us. I can’t speak for everyone else but they seemed as excited as me about the chance of breaking some ice during a swim. We were chatting and laughing during the march up the track towards the swim destination. On reaching the top of the wall we were faced with a few ripples on the water caused by the wind. My heart sank a wee bit. The temperature had risen from yesterday and there was a lack of frost on the grass. For a wee minute I thought the “ice breaking championships” would have to be postponed. I scanned the far corners hoping to see ice. I could not contain myself and started walking at a faster pace than the group so by the time I reached the end of the dam wall and close to our regular swim point I could see the water up at the tree I swam yesterday was a different texture from the rest of the reservoir. “There’s ice round there, hurry”. This was not because I thought it was going to melt but a couple of the group had a strict timescale for swimming and work starting.
There’s been much discussion in the media lately about the natural high experienced from cold water swimming. Being submerged and surrounded by hills with waterfalls, birds, waves, rustling trees. The list of nature is endless. The buzz is amazing. Some canny doctors are prescribing it and evidence seems to suggest that it might not cure but definitely removes some of bleakness for depression sufferers.
I recently described swimming in a Loch as a head down and switch off scenario and this lead me to describing switching off, not as like “sitting in front of the telly, mind numb effect watching just one more box set before going to bed” switching off, but the switch off the “outside pressures, money, kids, work” one and get (here’s the buzz word, awe yeah) Mindful.
WTF does that mean? Mindful.
I first tried to get mindful at the end of yoga class during breathing and meditation. I wasn’t aware of what I was meant to be doing and when I realised I couldn’t concentrate on breathing for more than 10 seconds I giggled at my inability, 10 seconds easy, not a chance, You might have tried it. Visualise your breath entering your nose and then follow it to your windpipe then follow that breath round your body and out. Repeat the process for about 30 seconds or hours maybe if you have the breathing abilities of a Monk. I really struggled. I would be like, and breath in……. ” look at that staining on the roof, there must have been a leak sometime” and breath out….” when was the last time I trimmed my eye brows, wow they are getting bushy”. These might not have been what I was thinking but you get the idea. It’s was really hard, in fact impossible.
Through design fault your body cannot breath easily in water and if you are trying to transport yourself efficiently across Lake or tarn you have to concentrate on breathing or you cough and splutter, so the first part of becoming Mindful during swimming is easy, even instinct. Focusing on perfecting the “swinging arms repetition” stop your thoughts escaping and roaming freely about in your head similar to a pack of wild Stallions. In a calm Loch swimming is uninterrupted. There are no walls, no swimming lanes or congestion. It’s just head in, focus on stroke and then, just to make sure the troublesome meandering brain waves stay penned in, the terror of hypothermia is like a high electric fence with armed guarded towers. Trust me, you won’t be considering which colour swim cap will go with your new goggles when your at the flag in the middle of Loch Lubnaig and 700 metres from the safety of the shoreline and you start feeling cold and I am not talking about ” I am going to put my slippers on cold”, I mean “things might stop working” cold. Arms, legs and internal organs type things. Your mind is completely focused on getting the stroke right and concentrating on monitoring for the onset of the body shutting down due to hypothermia.
Mmm…. I am not really selling this outdoor swimming malarkey am I…..
It took me weeks and weeks of meditation to be able to completley focus for a few minutes on breathing, not even getting close to the intense body monitoring wild swimming does for free. You don’t switch off, you switch on.
Sorry, blog writing for me is like my swimming GPS trail. Its never straight. It always meanders. Infact, this blog was shelved weeks ago as limited and not very entertaining, but the thing is Facebook just de-Knighted me and I am now tapping away writing this, trying to describe mindfulness (something I have only briefly experienced myself) so I hope it’s not rubbish and does make some sense to you.
Cold water has got loads of definitions and the more you Google it the more you get confused. If you grew up in tropics, anything below 20 degrees centigrade could make your extremities fall off. I made that last bit up, but if you grew up in Scotland, swimming in summer you were lucky that a shallow Loch might reach 15 degrees. Exposure to anything dangerous or extreme conditions allows to us endure increased scary moments. Consider horror movies, rock climbing and chilli sauce. These are all things that made you gulp at first attempt but through repeated exposure, like a knife edge the experience dulls and blunts. Like the search for hotter chilli sauce or to start trying overhangs at Ratho climbing wall the cold water is the same, the more you do the better you get, or maybe the better you endure.
In the summer, long swims are craved for and give amazing natural highs compared to winter swims these highs are like wee natural bumps, a mear glow.
The anticipation of getting in water below 2 degrees sometimes breaking ice.
The sensation of the water burning the skin, removing your breath.
The knowledge of pushing your body’s limit every swim.
The intense feeling from mild hypothermia sometimes extreme shaking including uncontrolablehands.
The serene calm that engulfs the body when it realises its warming up.
The surroundings are a bonus.
This is cold water swimming and I think I might be addicted.
So, back to the swim group. The five of us, all laughing like school kids have ice to the side, that we can break, but not enough to hinder swimming. There is nothing more disappointing than arriving for a swim to discover its frozen completely over, similar to pouring a bowl of your favourite cereal and discovering there is no milk in the fridge but much much worse.
Our breaths regained after getting in and we were swimming with smiles and giggles. Cold water cleanses troubles and for a few minutes we resemble innocent children. Too soon we are back in dry warm clothes feeling better than we arrived.
We chatted beside the cars then headed off to post the captured memories on Facebook.
That’s when Gloves made the comment he couldn’t feel 3 of his fingers.
He had mentioned earlier but we didn’t take much notice. This is when my happy feeling ended. There was no pre-swim buddy checks, talks or safety considerations. Looking back the anticipation of the ice swim and the sense of familiarity within the group had all lead to a false sense of security. Nobody had swam a great distance maybe maximum 40m out from the shore and we only swam for a few minutes. Everyone left the water with no apparent difficulties. Now, after a couple weeks, Gloves’s fingers have nearly all regained full mobility apart from a slight tingling sensation on the very tip of his one finger’s.
Experienced swimmers have said its only a wee bit frost nip, to the layman that’s mild frost bite. It might take days, weeks, months to recover. It’s not very serious in the grand scheme of things but I feel responsible and I should have been more aware of my fellow swimmers of their abilities. One group I swim with makes a point of a safety talk before anyone goes in the water.
I have just started river kayaking over the last few months with a local club. There is a safety talk before getting on the water. When we are on the water leaders give a constant feeling of observation for the group and individuals but this same consideration was not given on my part for the ice swimmers.
Swimming is dangerous. I completely understand we swim at our own risk, and many of you swim with the same small friendly group at the same location for years. I honestly don’t want to add to the never ending faff before a swim or suggest start appointing swim leaders to complete a written risk assessment, I am just considering the massive influx of new wild swimmers recently. They have not gained the same skills as folk that have been at it for years to personally risk assess a swim location and we can’t expect them to comprehend all apparent dangers. With this in mind, at a swim a couple days after the ice swim, there was confident competent swimmer, an experienced not completely confident swimmer and a new swimmer with limited experience and myself. Getting dressed into the full neoprene clobber. I considered the options and had a small discussion with the competent swimmer of what I could see happening in the water, it was not far off the mark and instead of letting every one swim off on there own mission or waste time and start cooling down while we discussed options, hanging onto our tow floats, our plan was already prepared we got back to the shore happy.
Please don’t think I am advising people how to swim. I am describing a couple of experiences and how they have altered my swimming mentality, after all its all fun and games until someones extremities get slightly cold and fall off.
All the photos above were taken over the last few months at Cocksburn Reservoir.