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10th Feb 2013 7:20am | By Louise Tickle
The water’s icy and the wind bitterly cold. Wild swimming in February? We must be crazy, but sod it, time to go for a dip
“Don’t bother with your bra,” says Kari. “Really, just don’t go there.” It’s good advice. Shaking with cold, my hands are rapidly turning into icy lumps.
The stinging pain is shocking, and getting worse by the second. Staggering into my pants – my friend Samantha holds them out for me to clamber into just as you would for a small child – I’m well past caring what anyone else on the beach thinks of my flailing attempts to get dressed.
Nor can I do much about my pathetic groans and yelps as the wind buffets any exposed flesh and my hands begin to throb in earnest.
As I plunge into the waters off Thurlestone Beach in South Devon, I think this is really putting the ‘wild’ into wild swimming.
Technically, any outdoor dip counts, be it a river, lake or the sea, but since the point is to really get out there and expose yourself to the elements, I’ve decided to try the most extreme version I can – and the English Channel in the depths of February is turning out to be pretty hardcore.
Kari Furre, a veteran wild swimmer and my guide today grins when I tell her I’m worried it won’t be considered proper wild swimming if I wear a wetsuit.
“The water’s at its very coldest in March, but it’s only about five to eight degrees now,” she reasons. “There are some people who love it like that, but you need to acclimatise.”
Point taken, so I’ve done as advised and borrowed a triathlon-standard wetsuit from a friend.
The sun is shining – “Our first beautiful day after weeks of rain,” smiles Kari – so all togged up and wearing the gloves and socks I’d bought that morning from the local surf shop, we march cheerfully out into the ragged waves.
I’d reassured Kari that I was a confident swimmer.
Not to show off, but this is true – it’s the only sport I’ve ever been good at. I hadn’t mentioned, however, that I’m also a very unfit one, and haven’t even swum a length of a pool for quite a few years. Too late now.
Chilled seawater starts trickling into my suit as I kick hard for the Thurlestone Arch, a rock bridge about 500 metres out into the bay.
Cold water on warm skin makes you gasp, and fast, shallow breathing doesn’t help your co-ordination or control. Added to this is the effort of swimming with your buoyancy all to cock because of the wetsuit – basically, your feet float up in the water and it means doing breast-stroke with any sort of style is quite impossible.
Kari, however, a qualified swimming coach, looks like a sleek seal in the water, sliding through the waves with seemingly no effort at all.
“Never swim alone” is a mantra dedicated wild swimmers live by and for a complete novice an experienced guide who knows the local waters is essential.
Kari insists we take short breathers and keeps checking I’m good to go on.
With her support, and almost without noticing, we’re suddenly at the arch, where massive waves are breaking over the reef beneath our feet and bashing their way through the hole in the rock.
“Fancy swimming through it?” Kari asks. You don’t swim out to an arch without going through it, I think, even if the waves are swooshing alarmingly up and down its rocky face.