The Why of Cold Water

I don’t like getting into cold water.

Actually, I hate it. Whenever I have a date with cold water coming up, my dread grows. The Channel training in Dover. The lido trips. The family Christmas Day swims. Every time I hear a family member or a friend tell someone ‘Chantal’s mad, she loves swimming in cold water’, I smile and nod while giving a small internal scream.

Allow me to explain, as best as I can if you’ve never experienced sixteen degrees or below. It is, indeed, fucking cold when you step or jump in. You take quick gasping breaths with all the alarms flashing red in your head. The cold is eating your skin.

About thirty seconds in is when your body goes fully insane: a heat, a beautiful heat, begins to radiate out from your core. You tell yourself off for not wanting to go in.

How long that state of grace will last is anyone’s guess. You remember how cold you are. The heat fades, or it sticks around in a few random places. You might feel scalding hot in places like your thighs while your hands are screaming in white agony.

If you get into a hot shower afterwards – you’re not meant to, my friend Jamie tells me off, I still do it – you discover that your nerves have inverted. The water feels ice-cold. Brain and nerves have a fundamental disagreement and brain loses.

The cold-water swimmers I’ve read – Roger Deakin, Lynne Roper, Alexandra Hemingsley, Victoria Whitworth – all luxuriate in the euphoria they feel during and after a swim. I’ve never known this. The water is simply cold, and when the shivers kick in, all I want is to be warm again. I feel despair.

No. No giddy endorphins for me.


So why do I keep getting back in?

Partly, to maintain my hard-as-nails reputation. Let’s call that twenty per cent of the reason.

The other eighty per cent –

Because it’s the closest thing to voyaging to an alien universe. It just so happens that most of the time, it is cold.

Even at its most boring, the swimming is beautiful. Parliament Hill Lido is made of steel. The water within has a sheer glacial clarity that makes me and everyone else look like we’re flying. Air bubbles are drops of mercury.

To step into open water, most of all the sea, is something else. It’s a surrender. A handing-over of myself to a realm I wasn’t born for, but still want to know. As I begin to front crawl, taking breaths of air, spinning to face the airless depths below, I am something magical. A spark of life stitching together, for a moment, two different worlds.

During my final swim of the Channel relay, the sun came up. A point of pink-gold that grew with each breath, that gave me light while the sea gave me its dark green-blue. The round ghosts of barrel jellyfish glided by. For one second my hand cupped something large, curved and – I still can’t explain this – warm.

All of it was the opposite of normality.


It isn’t all glory and transcendence. Sometimes it’s just about being with friends, shivering violently together in the queue for coffee, sharing cakes and jelly babies. Or being with family – dad and brother sliding down the algae-slippery jetty with me and into the high tide. And sometimes, it’s just funny. I’m swimming in Chichester Harbour in the summer before the relay, sensibly tethered to a big orange tow float, when I pass a man and a woman in a kayak. They stop paddling to stare. I grin. I’m a rarer species than the seals and the eels.

When we were training off Dover beach, the boys in my team had a thing about making sure they touched the far harbour wall separating us from the ferry port. Frankly, it was gross. Slimy black weed and razor-sharp limpets, and always the chance of a lurking jellyfish. They slapped their palms against it and teased me for carefully sidling up, picking a safe-looking spot, and poking the concrete with one fingernail.

The first training weekend when the water hovered between eleven and twelve degrees, they were so keen to reach the wall before turning back that we came in fifteen minutes late and were made to sit on a bench and be told off. The cold had a feast of me that time. Ice rivers in my bones. In the photo someone took of it, you can see me munching salted peanuts with a haunted expression. Forty minutes later we were ordered back in for the second swim of the day, and I did not want to go. I did not want to go.

But when I did, the cold inside seemed to vanish, and the water embraced me.


You can only be glad you’re in the water once you’ve got in. And as soon as you’ve left, it’s barely memory. As unconnected to your waking existence as a dream. Hours after the Channel relay, when I was home and beached in bed, I stared at the ceiling and could not believe it had happened.

For a moment, I belonged to another world. I was something more than human. There was only water, and brief breaths of air like thoughts of a distant past.



3 thoughts on “The Why of Cold Water

  1. Hey Chantal
    Your writing is like a warm hot chocolate after a cold cold swim. Lovely and so easy to consume. It takes me back to some painful but rewarding memories.
    The sun rise. I got out just before you on the last swim and that sunrise was so memorable. For me (swimming on the other side of the boat to you) it came up giving a silhouette of the boat and the sea horizon. We were so lucky to have been where we were, doing what we were doing with that view. That’s how i look at it anyway.
    Keep writing and sharing on FB please
    Enjoy Canada – i think you are working over there right?


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