As December draws to a close, I often reflect on the year that has passed and what I have done in the previous 12 months. It would be easy to look back on 2020 as a truly awful year, and in many ways it was. With all of my events contracts disappearing overnight in March, I had to pivot my business to try and generate any sort of income.
I have been unable to see many friends, and it is now over a year since I have been back to Scotland to see my family.
Like many of us, we have turned to sources of comfort that are still available to us - for me it was still being able to see my partner, cooking great food, keeping virtual connections going with distant friends, and my training. As a triathlete I am lucky that I have three sports to choose from. Running was still very much on the agenda. Cycling yes, but with restrictions on meeting too many cycling club friends.
Swimming, however was one that took a severe blow back at the first lockdown in April with all pools closing. Out of the three disciplines, it was always the one that took a bit of planning - when would the pool be busy? Could I negotiate my training session around who else was in the lane? Then there is the getting there, getting changed and so on. It always seemed so much more of an effort. But there is nothing like having something taken away from you to make you want it more. My background was in swimming - back in Scotland as an asthmatic teenager, it was the one sport I felt I could do and actually benefitted from.
Earlier this year, I had actually just started to reignite my love of swimming when I discovered the lovely Wycombe Rye Lido. This to me offered the perfect balance of a quiet pool, whilst also being outside in nature whilst swimming.
My first visit there was in January, and being a heated pool, the 24deg temperature helped with the transition from the chilly 8deg outside. Or indeed the rain.
I was loving it! And then Covid hit.
March and April were difficult. I was pining for swimming and constantly trying to think of ways around the restrictions. What might be open? Did I know of anyone with an endless pool? My friend in Aberdeen and I joked about buying a giant paddling pool and tethering ourselves to our houses. I wasn't sure my downstairs neighbours would indulge me though!
As part of my triathlon training in the summer, I used to occasionally swim at the mixed ponds at Hampstead, but even that wasn't open. We drifted into May and the weather was lovely but still we were living under lockdown. And then, suddenly, a light at the end of the tunnel. Trawling through Facebook posts from swimming groups got wind of the Royal Victoria Docks open water swimming centre opening....hooray!
Slots were not surprisingly filling up fast and I snapped one up for the second session on 21st May. I felt like an excited child as I made my way across London on my bike to get there. It was 25deg outside and so despite being surrounded by wetsuit clad swimmers, I was more than happy to brave whatever the temperature was in just my swimsuit.
It was 17.7deg as I plunged in and I couldn't have been happier.
With a strict timeslot in place and the organisers anxious that no-one contravened the social distancing measures in place, I did 2 x 500m loops and was happy to come out feeling invigorated and ready to change in the blazing sunshine next to a main road.
Booking these slots became like panning for gold as I tried to grab one a week when they opened at 5pm on a Sunday. Each time we queued up to get into the water though you could hear the happy voices, all grateful that we were able to get back to our liquid passion. The temperature over the next few weeks crept up to 21deg and back down to 17deg. Not every day was sunny, far from it - one day it was so grey and the water so choppy that it felt like a sea swim. And yet still I clung onto my 'skins' status as a swimmer (no wetsuit, costume only).
As other open water venues saw how successfully the Victoria Docks had managed the situation, more slots started to pop up elsewhere and I took the opportunity to try out the Docklands Open Water Centre. It still involved an 80 minute cycle across London to get there, so even more reason not to have to carry the additional weight of a wetsuit on my bike. With some uncharacteristically chilly and windy days for summer, I was glad of the Orca 'superhero cloak' (microfibre changing towel) that my friend had sent me to protect me from the elements during my outside changing.
This is a lovely centre and I was starting to see some of the same faces each week.
I realised that the social interaction was becoming as important to me as the swimming as we shouted across to each other post swim at our socially distanced benches.
Finally I was starting to feel like myself again, that there was some solace in this anxious world.
I can dive in with a long face, and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling idiot. There is a feeling of absolute freedom and wildness.....
Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog
July heralded another great moment for open water swimming as the Serpentine in Hyde Park announced that it was re-opening. This is a member only swimming venue, and so I jumped at the chance to rejoin. Being back in this glorious spot for the first time since I was a member back in 2009 felt amazing. Other than the opening times of 5am to 9.30am, there were no timeslots, no booking and it felt so freeing. I was glad that I had kept to my skins swimming, as the Serpentine imposed a no wetsuit rule to avoid anyone hanging around for too long getting changed in the beach area. And anyway, the Serpentine is a 'real swimmers' club - formed back in the 1800s, it would feel like a betrayal to swim in anything other than a good old fashioned costume.
However, there was to be a hiatus in my Serpentine swimming bliss. With so many desperate swimmers joining and the days being so hot, numbers were causing concern to the Royal Parks and the lido was forced to close temporarily. But this is not just a club, it is a community, and they rallied together to come up with a solution. Volunteer warden slots were put in place to keep an eye on numbers and swimming was made available on alternate days to members. It is testament to this club that within 24 hours most of the volunteer slots for August had been filled and I signed up for some wardening times in September. By the end of July we were back enjoying this oasis in the centre of London.
Summer turned to autumn and as the temperature dropped from 16deg down towards single figures, I drew on my experiences doing open water swimming events in Scotland back in the 90's to remind myself that I could continue doing this. I was embracing it and challenging myself to do something that I had always wondered if I could achieve. Could I be an all year round open water swimmer? The coldest I had ever swum in previously was 10deg in Loch Rannoch (your average Scottish summer).
The thought excited me - I DO like a challenge!
By the end of October I was feeling pretty pleased with my open water swimming progress. I was loving the tingly feeling of being immersed in the cold water, and the after effects of euphoria. I had dropped the distance from 1500m to 1200m, but the temperature was about 10deg, and I was managing to go about 3 times a week, and so I was feeling optimistic. Then dammit, our spoilsport friend Covid reared his ugly head again and London, along with other parts of the UK were put into a mini lockdown. Surely if you can exercise in a park I thought, you can swim in one? Sadly not, and all open water venues were shut down. I must admit this put a real dampener on my mood. Not only was I not partaking in my now favourite activity, but with the temperature dropping throughout November, I wondered how I would ever get back to it in early December.
Enter the 'Serpies on Tour' Whatsapp group set up by a few enterprising swimmers who were seeking out 'legal' swimming opportunities. First stop, the Thames at Teddington. So it was back to my trusty hybrid bike for a 'fully panniered up' 80 minute bike ride via Richmond Park on a drizzly Saturday morning to scope out this new location. The sight that met me gladdened my heart. A small (socially distanced) cluster of swimmers who had very trustingly left their bikes on the riverbank whilst they went in for a dip. My first visit was very tentative as I slipped down the muddy gap into the river, complete with tow float for visibility. With a bit of a current that day it was akin to swimming on a treadmill as I swam one way and then spent the next 5 minutes swimming on the spot chatting to some other swimmers and generally relishing this 7deg open water opportunity. Then it was back onto the bank for flasks of coffee and being very grateful for one of my best purchases of the year - my Dryrobe! We even attracted the support of some neighbours who came out with kiwi fruit for us of all things.
Cycling home after this swim I felt very much like the 'whistling idiot' that Waterlogger Roger Deakin refers to. My spirits had immediately been lifted as I realised that no matter what Covid threw as us, we would always find a watery outlet. And again, just as importantly knowing that there was a support team of fellow swimming enthusiasts who had each other's back. It is particularly important in the cold and remote water that you don't do it alone.
And then came December - the Serpentine was open again, hooray! I was grateful for my few Thames swims to keep my acclimatisation up as the temperature was now hovering around 6deg. I had cut my swimming accordingly to about 600m or 12minutes and was becoming very aware of when the temperature dropped by even just half a degree. The afterdrop affect of open water swimming is something a lot of people aren't aware of if they have been used to warming up at an indoor changing room with heating. With such facilities strictly off the table, it is important to gauge not only how you feel in the water but how you feel for the minutes after you get out. Your core temperature continues to drop for up to 30 minutes later as the cold blood recirculates through your system. I have been guilty once or twice of overdoing it and that feeling of uncontrollably shaking and quivering as you speak is not pleasant. Then there are the unexpected discoveries.....don't leave that wet costume on the ground too long or it will freeze and stick to it! I have a whole new set of kit that I never had before - neoprene socks, gloves, hat, a small square of foam to stand on to prevent my feet from freezing on the ground post swim. Then of course my fantastic Dryrobe, hot water bottle, hand warmer and flask of hot drink to help get my temperature back up.
Yes I have been for some pool swims in our 'new normal' to do some structured sessions, but it's just not the same. The clinical pounding up and down of the chlorinated pool, no real interaction with other people. It is the community spirit of the Serpentine and open water swimming that has really been my saviour this year. The delighted giggles and gasps you hear around you as people drop into the cold water.
As I went for my final swim of 2020 today I was delighted to discover that with the air temperature at -1deg, the water temperature was 4deg. I can now officially say I have had my first ice swim!
Roll on 2021, let's hope it's brighter, and most of all that we all stay safe, well and able to keep swimming!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.