How cold-water swimming saved me

The chilly sea off New York’s Long Island has never felt so welcoming — or necessary — as during lockdown.

There is nothing to be done about the first two minutes. Stepping into the sea in April is awful. Every cell shouts: SAVE YOURSELF. GET OUT OF THE WATER. But then the body decides the mind is no help and sets about saving itself. The limbs numb. In the torso there is a sensation of energy being released, like an old car getting started. Panic drips away. The head feels soft and light. Three or four minutes in, you have stopped fighting for your life and begun swimming. I have been fortunate to spend lockdown a mile from Long Island Sound, and every day or two, in I go. A longtime swimmer, I have braved the cold before, but it has never felt so necessary.

On the little island my family has retreated to, I have my pick of public beaches, so I head for whichever is on the leeward side; swimming in whitecaps — the small, foamy waves — is a warm-weather pursuit.

It’s been a chilly spring and I share the beach with, at most, three or four walkers and a couple of dogs. Without exception, I have the water to myself, but for the occasional spider crab or osprey swooping by. It is very quiet.

British readers, in particular, will have heard for years about the rejuvenating power of wild swimming (a fine rebranding of “freezing your ass off”). I first took up the practice in London, at Tooting Bec Lido, where old ladies step briskly into water that would make a salmon gasp.

I am not sure if, as advertised, cold water boosts the immune system, renews the libido, melts the pounds away, reduces inflammation and fights depression. The UK’s Physiological Society, in a 2017 paper, acknowledged the medical logic of some of these claims, but noted that “in some instances the supporting data remain at the level of anecdotal speculation”.

This, I think, is an understated British way of saying: go ahead and get in the water, it probably won’t kill you.

But without any doubt a cold swim banishes middle-aged torpor. Coming out of the water, I feel like a triumphant gladiator emerging from the ring. For the rest of the day I am alert, an effect that does not fade with repeated exposure.

It’s a drug, in short. And, like any drug, one should experiment with it gingerly at first, with more experienced friends at hand. “Even in ice‐cold water,” the physiological society writes reassuringly, “the possibility of hypothermia does not arise for at least 30 minutes in adults.”

But it also points out that the initial shock can be dangerous for the uninitiated. Start slowly, slowly, a little colder and a little longer each day, and not by yourself.

And know your limits. Mine are well described. If the water is colder than 4.5C, I stay away. At 6C or 7C, I wear a wetsuit. At approaching 8C, the suit comes off, but until the water hits 10C I’m not in there for long: 20 minutes is plenty.

As with any drug, experiment gingerly at first, with more experienced friends at hand

Cold water teaches self-control. The way to feel comfortable in cold water is to relax the muscles, when your impulse is to do the opposite. When I first started, my eyes would slam shut as I paddled; a futile effort, I suppose, to keep the eyeballs warm. But taking deep breaths every three strokes washes the tension away.

At any temperature, swimming is magical. “If I were called in/To construct a religion/I should make use of water” the poet Phillip Larkin wrote. “My liturgy would employ/Images of sousing,/A furious devout drench.”

This is a difficult moment. We are cooped up, frustrated, anxious and in need of transformation. If you are lucky enough to be near the coast, then, follow Larkin’s advice. Make use of water, and be changed.

If you want to learn more about the mental and physical health benefits related to open water swimming and cold exposure, feel free to join our ICEWIM Facebook group or follow our Instagram page.

Have you personally experienced a positive impact on your life from open water swimming or cold exposure? We want to hear from you! Share your story with us by emailing an audio or video testimonial to and get a chance to be featured on the ICEWIM Instagram account.

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