The strange appeal of a dip in the English Channel
PUBLISHED: 16:00 14 April 2019
Come rain or shine, CHARLIE CONNELLY has swum in the Channel every day since last summer. He explains how it can boost your energy and self-esteem.
If you look closely at the photograph above, you’ll see that between the frost-covered shingle and those majestic massing clouds there’s a tiny speck of a person. That person is me. The picture was taken at sunrise one morning in January when the temperature was -5C and the tiny speck of a person that’s me was wading into the English Channel wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts.
At a time when most right-minded people were either still tucked up in bed or wrapped in enough fleecy layers to insulate a two-bedroom house, there I was going for a swim. In the Channel. In shorts.
When I moved a few years ago to Deal on the Kent coast I entertained no thoughts of becoming a sea swimmer. I’d not done any significant swimming since childhood lessons at a run-down south-east London municipal pool, all polystyrene floats, verruca socks and vending machine crisps eaten with wrinkled fingertips to add a strong infusion of chlorine to the salt and vinegar.
The thought of starting all that again in the paunchy lethargy of middle age hadn’t even crossed my mind. If I’d made a list of things I’d really like to do, ‘visit the dentist’ and ‘call a utility company customer helpline’ would have polled significantly higher than planting my face in the English Channel. Yet here I am, strolling down to the water at sunrise every morning to immerse myself in the choppy brine for as long as I can stand the chill.
This is my third year as a sea swimmer but the first in which I’ve swum all through the winter. In previous years I’ve begun in May and kept going until October, before the combination of dark mornings and a high-tog duvet triumphed over the falling mercury.
This time, somehow, I’ve just kept going, walking every morning across shingle occasionally sugared with frost – and, on one occasion, snow – down to the sea armed with nothing more than a thermos mug of tea and a determined expression.
It’s not something I’d planned particularly but I was enjoying myself so just sort of kept going, then before I knew it Christmas was upon me (I was away so missed the traditional Boxing Day sea swim by the pier but hey, us professionals are happy to stand back and let the amateurs have their day, y’know?) and I was greeting the new year by watching its first sunrise up to my neck in the English Channel. An excellent way of busting a hangover, or at least taking your mind off it.
I won’t pretend I’ve been gliding gracefully into the waves with a serene smile on my face – on particularly cold mornings I’ve entered the water bellowing swearwords I didn’t even realise I knew – but the persistence with which I’ve continued my daily swims even in sub-zero temperatures has surprised nobody more than me. What’s more, it’s good for me.
The evidence is largely anecdotal so far but cold water swimming is gaining a reputation for providing genuine health benefits. A recent study at Plymouth University determined that regular open water swimmers are less likely to catch a cold (I’ve not had one since 2017, come to think of it), while research in the Czech Republic suggests the swimmer’s immune system is boosted by the body’s production of more white blood cells.
A growing school of thought believes stress and anxiety levels are much reduced by open water swimming. One theory has it that as the body becomes accustomed to entering cold water on a regular basis the ‘fight or flight’ reflex becomes much reduced, making the swimmer less anxious and less susceptible to stress.
The body also reacts to cold water by producing higher levels of dopamine and serotonin which naturally boost mood: certainly when I come out of the water I’m almost immediately overwhelmed by an addictive feeling of euphoric calm. I also find I have more energy these days and worry far less than I used to. I sleep much better and my daily swims certainly helped me after the death of my father.
As someone not blessed with the highest levels of self-esteem my winter of swimming has unquestionably improved my confidence in and opinion of myself, from feeling physically fitter (I actually have shoulders for the first time in living memory) to being genuinely proud of something I’ve done. Coming through a whole winter with a daily swim in the English Channel feels like a tangible achievement and it’s a good feeling when I emerge back over the shingle to encounter an early morning dog walker who asks, wide-eyed, “have you been swimming?”
It’s notable, incidentally, that women passers-by enquire generally about sea conditions and temperature whereas men seem to have a specific concern for a particular section of my anatomy.
“What about your, erm...” began one man, his brows knitting as he searched for an appropriate term to use with someone he’d never met before, “...crown jewels?”
Initially I swam at dawn because I surmised there would be nobody around to point and laugh at me but it turns out that daybreak really is the perfect time for it. I have the beach to myself for miles in each direction and the shingle banks so steeply that by the time I reach the water the houses are out of sight and it’s just me, the beach, the sky, the sea and, if I time it right, the sun easing up over the horizon while I’m in the water. The only sound is the metronomic swoosh of the waves on the shore.
I’m not always alone: there have been mornings when I’ve come face to whiskery face with a seal and I’m regularly butted amidships by what feel like pretty decent-sized fish. One morning I found myself swimming among a shoal of mackerel, which was a little like being assailed by underwater hailstones.
On clear mornings I can make out the coast of France hunched low on the horizon. Some days I tread water and look across to the cliffs that rise outside Calais and think about how close they look, how I’m an experienced swimmer now, how I know about tides and drifts and weather patterns and how acclimatised I’ve become to the cold water.
I think about how sometimes people ask me if I’d ever consider tackling a full-on Channel swim and there, in the water, as the rising sun turns the surface of the sea into a million shifting golden shards around me, I look towards France and think about the answer I always give them. Christ, no.