I’ve only just found out that sea at the same temperature as fresh water will often feel warmer because it’s denser. Just one of many examples of watery physics magic that make me go “Ooh” whilst never really being likely to understand it. Before going in here, I’d been in the sea once this year, on May 20th at Tynemouth Longsands. A group of kids running in and out in t shirts and shorts gave me confidence that there weren’t hidden riptides. I’d stayed in half an hour feeling like my insides were a warm element that could possibly heat the whole sea if only it wouldn’t freeze me first. I’d like to swim in the sea more but it is much more unpredictable than most lakes and rivers, and certainly outdoor swimming pools. It also seems to involve people consulting tide tables, wind forecasts, the accumulated ancestral knowledge of fishermen and doing stuff with the moon. None of which are in my area of expertise.
This Sunday I’d been asked to run a writing workshop in Amble in Northumberland. I’d met Paula and Frances of Drywater Arts when they came to my show about Northern women. I talk about Ethel “Sunny” Lowry from Cheshire, the first British woman to swim the British channel (Her cousin’s an artist. You might have heard of him. Something to do with matchsticks). There was a shout and it turns out Frances Anderson was the second woman in one of my show audiences to have swum the channel too. I don’t think I consciously thought “Yes, I’ll take up their offer to run a writing workshop on a June Sunday because then I’ll get to swim in the sea with Frances and she’ll help confirm some of my developing ideas about mild swimming and also possess all this knowledge about tides, winds and moons”, but I wouldn’t put it past my unconscious. At the end, I asked her where was best to swim. She consulted a tidal app on her phone and started talking me through how there’d be no water at Boulmer because it was low tide, but Low Hauxley would probably be good and directing me. Then she suggested she just get her swim kit and come with me. It would be her first time in the sea this year.
We got to Low Hauxley, a lovely strip of beach just outside Amble, overlooking Coquet Island and its lighthouse but Frances said that tide as too low, we’d be swimming in rocks. All I’d seen was that we’d have to walk quite far to the sea- which is why local knowledge is invaluable. We drove to the next beach down, Amble Links and got into our gear (I already had my swimsuit on underneath my dress while Frances looked to have perfected impressive and complex towel-covered manoeuvres). After the wetsuit of Ullswater I was relieved to be keeping it minimal with just a cossie, neoprene socks (my feet get coldest) and earplugs. No swimming cap. I wasn’t intending to do front crawl and get ice cream head. We walked in together and I was pleasantly surprised at how okay the water felt on my skin. Much less icy than Ullswater even though it was probably technically colder. Frances’ approach to immersing herself was to start splashing the water in front of her vigorously, creating her own sort of sea tunnel to step into. Mine seems a bit more introverted. If I think it’s going to be really cold I sort of hug myself really tightly, then let go and sink into the water. Both ways, we were soon fully in and swimming under wisps of white candy floss cloud in a blue sky and a darker sea. One dark green-blue tent village after another popping up then collapsing in front of us every second.
Lakes don’t suddenly start wobbling in front of you like a jelly someone’s put a spoon in. I followed Frances as she moved into an economical front crawl South down the coast, happily prepared to follow at a slow breast stroke distance but she slowed down too and we drew level and chatted, the sea sometimes nearly tipping me nearly into her path as if we were on a giant wobble board. She talked about a fisherman being surprised when she said she sometimes knew there was something other going on with the sea. Not fully predictable by tide or current, but something telling you it was dangerous. He was surprised she knew that language too. I could imagine it was something you’d read in your body, as well as by triangulating what you could see around you in the water and the air. I don’t know how to read it yet, but I know it’s there.
She said the Channel Swim was the closest to death she’s ever been. She’s still not processed it all yet, though it was in 2008, but she has done some art about it and bits of writing which she hasn’t yet collated. (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/the-northerner/gallery/2014/jun/06/immersion-a-swimmer-at-one-with-the-sea-in-pictures) I know that doesn’t sound like mild swimming. It sounds like a dark night of the soul, in the old fashioned sense.
But the way she talked about preparing for the swim, about getting to know herself and her body and her limits and respecting the sea’s limits and the boat pilot’s knowledge, sounded more like what I’m reaching for than the packaged wild swimming thing. It sounded careful and committed. Not about being furthest or fastest or best but an insistent, gentle calling, prepared for over many years. Those who rush into it without knowing themselves or the crossing are much less likely to make it.
By now we had crossed and recrossed a section of the beach a few times. Frances pointed out how the sea was sweeping us on a bit of a diagonal. I was less attuned to my surroundings than when I swim on my own. Absorbed in the conversation but sneaking glances behind us to the white lighthouse, up to the white clouds standing out from the blue sky like a 3D image, the yellow dunes on the shore, the undulating glassiness of the water. If I stretched my toes down I could still feel a soft, sandy bottom. My hands were beginning to get a bit colder but I was still comfortable, though it felt right when Frances suggested we get out. Swimming through then standing up in the waves as they broke on to the shore, up with a bit of a stagger like when you’re getting off a rollercoaster ride and the gondolas are still swaying behind you. Again, looking at the time of the picture I’d taken before getting in was the only way to tell we must have been in forty minutes. Frances said that boded well if I was wanting to swim through further into the winter as I’d told her I did. I knew that the cold water shock response gets less and less the more you go in, but she said I’d still be able to get used to lower and lower temperatures than I am now. She said people laugh at her for feeling the draught, needing a cardigan, but she agreed with me that the cold of water is a different thing, often doesn’t feel like cold at all.
I don’t usually talk and swim but it had felt good to talk about swimming while doing it. To talk about the language of the sea. I’d read the writing group several sea poems including American feminist poet Adrienne Rich’s classic “Diving into the Wreck”. Dunno if she’d be a mild swimmer, but I felt like she knew something I’m beginning to know about the sea and the strength of gentleness:
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.