September Swimming

Today—15 September—was the last day of the official bathing season in Scotland, a day that would have previously passed me by as just the fifteenth of September. I didn’t even know there was an official bathing season in Scotland. I thought that sea swimmers were just mad women trying to reap the benefits of cold water therapy.

On 21 June this year, The Outdoor Swimming Society organised an event they called The Longest Swim for the Longest Day. There was an article in the Guardian the next day, with photos and interviews with many of the people taking part, including some at Portobello. It was a horrible day—grey and cold.

The next day was sunny and warm. At 5pm it was 20C. I wandered down to the edge of the prom, looked at the water, felt the warmth in the sun. 

‘If I’m ever going to do this,’ I thought, ‘it’s going to be today.’

So I did. 

I pushed through the seaweed, the cold water shock, put thoughts of jellyfish and Leviathan to the back of my mind, where they didn’t entirely stay, and, after some lengthy consideration while the water lapped at my stomach, I dived headlong into the next wave. 

And, I have to say, it was quite lovely. There were distinct warm patches, which I initially thought must be where some kid further up the beach had peed in the water, but there were too many, and some pretty cold ones swirling around too, so I hunted down the warmer bits and stayed there as long as I could.

Since then I have gone for a swim once or twice per week. I always wait until 5pm or so, to give everything—the air, the water—time to warm up as much as it’s ever going to do.

Some days it’s been calm as a millpond, on others the waves crash into you and almost knock you off your feet. On these days, you feel something of the primeval power of the sea, inspiring a sense of awe, and the recognition it’s not something to be messed with.

It’s been invigorating, I’ve slept better on nights when I swam that day, and I’ve had zero menopausal symptoms since I started, so those middle-aged women are definitely onto something. It’s also been a means of some much-needed exercise, the cricket season once again having wound down, and some unidentified leg injury having thwarted my running efforts since my Peebles trip back in June.

I’ve swum on my own mostly, although you’re never on your own, swimming at Porty; occasionally with friends, twice with my sister and her family when they came up for an August visit; and the highlight was the day my 81-year-old mum tottered down to the water’s edge and joined us all in the surf—three generations in the water together. But not in the altogether. 

I have learned many things, including the phrase in the altogether, that SEPA provide daily forecasts of water quality across all the bathing waters in Scotland, that the quality deteriorates during and after heavy rainfall, that the bathing season runs from 15 May to 15 September.

And so, not having a wetsuit, my swimming odyssey has likely come to an end for 2021, with today’s swim being noticeably chillier than that first dip back in June. However, the forecast is good for tomorrow, and so the temptation to be even more hardcore—and swim outside the confines of the official season—is strong…I think I might have turned into a middle-aged woman.

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