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OSS December Dip - John C. Kirk

Dec. 4th, 2010

10:39 pm - OSS December Dip

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Every year, the Outdoor Swimming Society has a "December Dip" at Parliament Hill Lido. I went along last year, and I was back there again today. The main difference this year is that the water was a lot colder, but fortunately most of the snow had melted.

I joined the South London Swimming Club in May, so I can use the Tooting Bec Lido all year round. My plan was to gradually acclimatise to the cold, i.e. start swimming in the summer when the water is (relatively) warm, then keep swimming as it gets colder. However, I've been a bit less diligent about this than I'd intended, and the last time I went there was 30th October (5 weeks ago), when the water was about 10°C. I stopped because I caught a cold which was sufficiently bad for me to take a day off work; it's possible that this is related to the flu vaccine trial that I'm taking part in. In my absence, the water has kept getting colder, particularly in the last week, and apparently it was half covered in ice yesterday and today.

Anyway, I bought a ticket for the OSS event on Wednesday. It may seem a bit silly to pay £15 for that, when I can get in free at my local lido, but it's a fundraiser for the OSS and it's nice to have so many other people around. Back in January, the Mirror sent a journalist to Tooting Bec to try out cold water swimming (Why do people brave outdoor winter swims?), and she jumped into 1°C water without any prior experience, so I figured that I should be ok, but I did get increasingly nervous as the day approached. I didn't think that I was in any real danger of drowning, particularly with so many other people around; I wouldn't go into water that cold if I was alone, e.g. at a beach/river. However, I also wasn't sure whether I'd manage two widths of the pool, so I figured that if necessary I could climb out after one width (or immediately after getting in). I think it's good to know your limits, but you won't find out what they are unless you go outside your comfort zone. There are several good reasons not to do an event like this (e.g. if you can't swim), but I didn't want to miss it simply because I was scared.

The event description said: "10am - 1pm (TBC). Please arrive promptly as the event will start with our speakers (10.20am TBC)." Unfortunately, the trains were still a bit iffy this morning (delayed/cancelled), so I didn't get there until 10:30, and I missed Jessica Hynes' talk; I caught the end of Colin Hill's. There's a digital board up at the lido which shows the current temperature: that said that the water was 1°C and the air was 6°C. However, Kate Rew said that the board was wrong, and the water was actually 0.1°C! Either way, that's quite chilly. I keep my fridge at 3°C, so if I put a jug of water in the fridge, left it to cool, then put my hand in it, that would be warmer than the water that I swam in this morning! There's a wonderful phrase I heard recently to describe this: "Insane in the membrane".

When I arrived, the volunteers at the front desk ticked my name off on their list. They then gave me a two page disclaimer to read and sign, which is new: this basically said that I don't have any history of breathing problems or heart problems, and that I won't sue them if I die. I don't think they'll use that at every OSS event (or at least I hope not); the person I spoke to said that it was just because the water was so cold today. I also got a free swimming cap; I still have the one from last year, but I decided to wear both at once for a bit of extra warmth. The other freebie was a postcard. Back when I was a kid, swimming pools had safety signs with a list of prohibited activities (e.g. "no ducking, no petting"), as seen here. The postcard inverts that, saying "Will wild swimmers kindly indulge in..." then listing most of the same activities; some of them are redefined (e.g. "ducking" has a picture of a swimmer surrounded by ducks), but others are taken at face value (e.g. "bombing"). I can't find a picture online, and I don't have a scanner, but let me know if you'd like me to post it to you.

The changing rooms were locked (at least from the poolside): the people at the front desk suggested that I could get changed outside, but I used the loos instead. In fairness, changing outside isn't quite as exhibitionist as it sounds - lots of people take the superhero approach by wearing their swimsuit underneath their street clothes, then they simply have to strip off the outer layers. However, this works a bit better for lycra than for baggy shorts. I recently bought a Robie Robe (a cross between a towel and a toga), so I wore that over my swimsuit when I took my bags to the poolside. I intended to take sandals with me, and specifically put them out last night, then completely forgot about them this morning. I didn't want to get the inside of my boots wet, so I went barefoot; fortunately most of the snow has melted, but there was still some slush around, and the stone floor was a bit cold.

As we all lined up, I swapped nervous smiles with some of the other swimmers, and we made comments like "This seemed like a good idea at the time!" I didn't know them, but there is a nice camaraderie that comes from this type of, er, eccentric behaviour. There were too many people for everyone to jump in at once, so we went in two waves, i.e. the first people into the water did two widths and then the second group went in after they came out, to avoid collisions in the water. I was one of the first people by the poolside, but I let other people claim my space, mainly because I was still getting up my nerve.

Last year I was near the shallow end, but this year I was near the deep end. It was roughly 2m deep where I was, i.e. deeper than I'm tall. During the summer, I jumped into pools at the deep end, but more recently I've been going down the steps at Tooting Bec Lido and keeping my head above water. I still haven't learned how to dive, and I didn't fancy doing a belly-flop, so I did my standard "crouching jump": I squatted down, with my right hand on the ground, then dropped into the water. This meant that I submerged completely, and it wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. When I surfaced, I set out across the pool. The width has been variously given as 27m and 28m, but either way that's longer than a length of most indoor pools (typically 25m). I was definitely panting, and it felt as though I couldn't fully inflate my lungs. I normally do breast stroke in cold water (to keep my head out), but that was too slow today so I went for doggy paddle instead, i.e. front crawl with my head up. This also had the advantage that each arm got to spend a bit of time out of the water. I felt a bit warmer once I was about 2/3 of the way across, and I managed both widths so I made it back to my starting point. I'm not sure how long I was in the water for: probably 2 or 3 minutes, but it felt like longer.

One unusual thing about Parliament Hill Lido is that the water goes all the way to the edge. Yes, I realise it sounds stupid when I say it like that! I mean height-wise, so the surface of the water is level with the floor outside. That makes it a bit easier to get out afterwards: I was basically able to flop forward (waist upwards on the ground), then roll over to get my legs out. I then had to roll again to get my knees underneath me so that I could stand up, and as previously mentioned the ground wasn't particularly warm itself. I put the robe back on, although I had a bit of trouble finding the hole for my left arm. It took me a minute or so to figure out that I had my head through the left arm hole and my right arm through the head hole, but I'm going to attribute this to temporary brainfreeze rather than innate stupidity. I then saw that parts of my hands were blue, which was a bit worrying until I realised that it was loose threads from my robe. (I assume that it will stop shedding after its first wash.)

I'm not keen on saunas, but I do like hot tubs. I patiently waited my turn, but then someone else took pity on me and asked the people in the tub to budge up so that I could fit in too. (Apparently they can fit 10 people in there at once.) While I was standing around, I was quite surprised that my feet didn't hurt, considering that I was walking through snow/slush. After I'd been in the hot tub for about 30 seconds, then my hands and feet started to hurt! However, according to Dr Hilary Jones, this is supposed to be good for your circulation (The Times: Why women go wild for an ice-cold dunk in the sea). One of the other people in the tub mentioned that my face was also a bit blue, but I think that was more robe fibres.

After I left the tub, I got dressed. The theory of the robe is that you can use it to get changed discreetly, although I'm not quite sure how well that worked. If I have my arms outside, I need to pull the bottom of the robe upwards as I pull on underwear/trousers; if I have my arms inside then I can't reach my clothes unless I crouch right down (thus trailing the robe on the ground). Maybe you're supposed to keep one arm inside and one arm outside? Still, it kept me warm, and did a pretty good job of drying me passively. I think that lots of outdoor swimmers are fairly relaxed about nudity anyway (e.g. skinny dipping), and at least it was obvious that I made an effort. I bought the extra long robe, which came roughly down to my calves; they advised this for people who are over 6' tall, and I think that's the right size for me, although it cost an extra £2.

Like last year, I took a Thermos "food flask": the 500ml capacity will take an entire 415g can of soup, with very little (if any) space left over. That filled a hole; I'm guessing that I burnt a few calories trying to stay warm in the water. Mind you, the air temperature was surprisingly warm (6°C when I arrived, 7°C when I left), so I was comfortable without wearing hat/gloves.

There's a report of the event on the BBC website: Hundreds swim in Hampstead Heath's freezing waters. There's also a video from Sky News, which has brief interviews with Kate Rew and Jessica Hynes before and after the swim:

I'm not in that video (I was at the other end of the pool), but I do agree with Kate's comment: "Everyone's going to feel so brave after they've done this. At first it's so intimidating, but then when you get out you just feel amazing." It feels a bit boastful to describe myself as brave, but is satisfying to think "I've just done something that I didn't know I could do." Of course, now that I've managed it at Parliament Hill, I've got no excuse to avoid Tooting Bec, particularly once the roads are suitable for cycling on again. Also, if I get to know people there, I'd have some familiar faces to talk to an event like this.

Anyway, I'm glad I went. I felt very relaxed afterwards, probably because I'd used up all my stress by thrashing away in the water. If anyone would like to join me next year, just let me know!

Edit: I've found a photo of me on Facebook. I'm standing next to the stepladder thing, wearing black shorts, red cap, and goggles.