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Full moon swims - John C. Kirk

Feb. 15th, 2015

11:14 pm - Full moon swims

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As I've mentioned before, I like outdoor swimming when the sun's out: the water looks very inviting when I can see the sunlight reflecting off it. However, at the opposite end of the scale, there's a certain appeal to night swimming. (The Guardian published an article about that a few years ago.)

Technically, I've swum after dark several times, e.g. in the indoor pool underneath Croydon Grants. However, I don't think that really counts: that pool is below ground level, and there aren't any windows, so you can't actually tell the difference between day and night!

Back in June 2013, I went along to a skinny dip at the Pells Pool (in Lewes); this was a fundraiser for the Brighton WNBR, which started in the afternoon and continued after sunset. I enjoyed it, but they had floodlights up so that the lifeguards could see everything and it didn't feel particularly different to swimming in daylight.

Last year I tried to arrange a full moon swim at Tooting Bec Lido. The lido is available for private hire, so my basic plan was to organise (and pay for) the event myself, then ask anyone who turned up to chuck some money into a bucket. If it went well, I hoped that the lido and/or SLSC might be willing to organise future swims. However, this turned out to be easier said than done.

I aimed for the full moon in September: this was the harvest moon (closest to the autumn equinox), and also a super moon (when the moon is closest to Earth in its orbit so it appears bigger than usual). The EarthSky website has a bit more technical information. The full moon was actually due for 02:38 on Tuesday 9th September, so I picked Monday 8th September, since that's the same night. At that time of year, the water is about 18°C in the lido, so it's pleasant enough to stay in for an hour or so (if you're used to it).

I used timeanddate.com to check the sun and moon that day. Moonrise was due at 18:59, so that was easy. The sun times were a bit more complicated:

The Digital Photography School has an explanation of these: Beyond Sunset: The Different Phases of Twilight. Here's my less formal explanation:

The lido is run (owned?) by Places for People Leisure, and their website says that people should phone 020 8871 7198 to discuss private hire. However, that number goes through to the lido itself; when I called, they told me to phone a different number. When I called the second number, I got a very muffled voice who didn't know anything about it, so I'm not posting that number here. I then filled in the enquiry form on the website; they emailed me back, and said:
"For event hire at Tooting Bec Lido, please contact the events team at Wandsworth council on: 020 8871 7534."
That's different to both numbers that I'd tried before.

Anyway, I then phoned the council. They asked a couple of questions, e.g. how many people there would be and whether we'd be swimming. They put me on hold briefly, then said that I should email them with an event proposal. This would include what we spoke about, and any catering requests. They would then contact the lido to see whether it was feasible. I seemed to be going in circles a bit, since I initially spoke to the lido, but maybe it's about having a chain of command/single point of contact, i.e. the lido will take requests from the council but not from random people. So, I emailed them with the relevant info. In particular, I wanted to have people there from 19:30-21:30, and I'd actually hire it from 19:00-22:00 so that I could arrange things in advance (e.g. unlocking the gate) and tidy up afterwards. The lido was due to close to the public at 17:00, so this wouldn't interfere with their normal opening hours (i.e. they wouldn't be losing any money by turning away the general public).

The council team were very friendly, and they liaised with the lido on my behalf. I got a quote through, which included paying the relevant staff (lifeguards and duty manager). I won't post an exact figure here, because I'm not sure whether it's supposed to be confidential; also, I don't know whether costs vary according to the time of year. However, as a rough order of magnitude, this would have cost about £1,000.

That was a bit more than I'd expected, but I thought that it could still work (e.g. if 100 people turned up and donated £10 each), so I agreed to proceed. I also said that I'd like to make it a clothing optional event, i.e. give people the choice of skinny dipping. The council and the lido staff were all ok with that, as long as I limited entry to people who were aged 18 and over.

So, I was all set, until we hit a last minute snag. Even though I'd specified the times on my application form, the lido staff hadn't realised that this would be after dark. For health and safety reasons, their lifeguards have to be able to see the bottom of the entire pool. I can understand their concern, because they obviously don't want anyone to go unnoticed while they're drowning. When I did "The Swimmer" last year, we encountered a similar issue: we arrived at the first stop (Hampstead Heath Pond) at 07:30 but we weren't allowed into the water until 08:00. There are potential solutions to this, e.g. setting up underwater lighting or floodlights around the pool, but as I said above that seems to defeat the purpose; my goal was to swim in the moonlight. Also, we only discovered this issue on 29th August (about a week before the full moon) so it would have been a rush to organise everything. Based on that, I regretfully decided to cancel the event.

Instead, I went down to Eastbourne on 9th September with a couple of other people from the SLSC, to meet up with the Eastbourne Sea Swimmers. I must emphasise that this is a completely separate group to the Eastbourne Swimming Club, even though there are some people who belong to both groups. The idea here is to get around the legal issues by having an informal gathering in the sea. It's public property (open to all), so there's no need to hire it, and since it's not an official event there's no need to hire lifeguards: everyone participates at their own risk. However, they did encourage people to bring along glow sticks, so that we could be seen. I didn't get around to sorting that out in advance, but someone else was able to give me a spare, and I tied that around the strap of my goggles.

We left all our bags on the beach, then went into the water, and most people set off for the pier in the distance. I wasn't fast enough to keep up with them, so I just pootled along at my own pace in the same general direction, then I turned back when I saw them returning so that we'd all get back to shore at about the same time. Since I'd been swimming regularly at the lido, I didn't have any trouble with the water temperature, but I wasn't quite so used to dealing with waves and I had to adapt my stroke accordingly. When we finished, there was someone on the beach (who hadn't swum) holding up a light. That was quite useful: I would still have made it back to land ok without that, but I might have ended up on the wrong side of the groyne (the fence thing that sticks out into the water to break up waves). After that, we all went to a local hotel for a drink and a chat, then I came back to London.

Meanwhile, I've also made a few trips to Brighton, where I've met up with the Hove Sea Swimmers. (Again, this is an informal group of people who choose to swim together rather than a legal entity.) I was there in June 2014 for a summer solstice swim, then I went back in early October to make the most of the warm weather.

At the start of January, someone suggested swimming under every full moon this year. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I joined them on 4th January. In my previous post (UK CWSC 2015), I mentioned that I haven't been to my local lido very often in the past few months; that's mainly because I'm not much of an early riser, so I struggle to get there before work. So, an evening swim fits into my schedule more easily (particularly at a weekend), and the sea is open 24 hours a day.

We were in the main public section, but there were only 3 of us swimming and we had the whole beach to ourselves. (For some reason, people don't seem to fancy sunbathing when it's cold and dark...) None of us wore wetsuits, and I asked the others whether they'd feel uncomfortable if I didn't wear a swimsuit either; it's legal to be naked in public, but I try to be polite about it, particularly in a situation like this where I'm effectively a guest. It turned out that one of them was already planning to go skinny dipping, so that worked out nicely.

This was my first swim since October, so I was a bit worried about the cold, but it was warmer than I expected: we think it was about 8°C. By contrast, I heard that the lido was at 3.5°C that day. (That's why I was still a bit nervous when I turned up for the CWSC, even after this swim.) We also got quite lucky with the weather: we had a clear view of the moon all the time we were swimming, and it only went behind a cloud after we'd got out.

This swim had a different atmosphere to the Eastbourne trip. We stayed within sight of our bags on the beach, so we basically swam in circles in a relatively small area and chatted to each other. By contrast, when I go to the lido I swim widths/lengths mostly in silence, and save any socialising until I get out.

I think we stayed in for about 10-15 minutes, although I didn't check my watch. Once we'd got dressed, we went to a nearby pub (The Fortune of War). This was fairly quiet (in a good way): there wasn't any music playing, so we could continue our conversation. They do have a guitar hanging up behind the bar, which is free for anyone to borrow, but nobody took advantage of the opportunity while I was there.

It's also unusual because they sell tea and coffee behind the bar. I can certainly see the appeal of a hot drink after a cold swim, but I've never developed a taste for them. I asked whether they offered any kind of hot squash, although I knew this was a long shot, and I was pleasantly surprised when they said yes. So, I got a blackcurrant drink; I think this was a supermarket's own brand rather than Ribena, so it's not the best I've ever tasted, but under the circumstances I'm not going to be picky. Once we'd stopped shivering, we then had some mulled cider.

Last week (3rd February) I was back down there again: it was the same trio as before. This was a week night, so I came straight from work, and it's quite convenient that the only extra thing I really needed in my bike bag was a towel. Since I kept my head out of the water, I didn't need goggles or a swimming cap; some people recommend a brightly coloured cap for safety, but there weren't any boats around and we were all near enough to see each other. Similarly, we didn't bother with glow sticks or any other kind of lights on either swim. However, one useful item was a clothing bag. When I did the CWSC, they gave each of us a thick plastic bag (the size of a bin liner) to put our clothes in, and I hung onto it afterwards rather than throwing it away. This meant that I had everything in one place (rather than hunting for my pants in the dark), and if it had rained then my clothes would have stayed dry.

The February swim was a bit colder than January, although still warmer than the lido: we reckon it was about 6°C. The sky was very clear (no clouds anywhere near the moon), and the was completely flat, so these were ideal conditions. There are a few photos on Facebook, to give an idea of what it was like. We stayed in for about 8 minutes this time, then went off to the pub again. The only real downside to these trips is that I spend more time travelling there and back than I do in the water, but the social aspect makes up for it.

If anyone would like to join us on a future full moon dip, you'd be very welcome. The OSS have a full schedule, and the next full moon is on Thursday 5th March, although we may shift some of our swims to a different day depending on the weather forecast. If you're based in London, you could also take a look at Secret Adventures. They're organising a swim at every full moon, although their February swim (at a heated pool in Covent Garden) sold out within 3 hours and their March swim (at a lake near Richmond) is already sold out too.