It shall be my fifth consecutive evening swim in the harbour. Spring tides are here. I’m togged up. I head down to launch myself when the water is high, but the spirit is low, weak. Not this evening, I decide. There is no need. Why put yourself through this torture? Nobody’s forcing you. You’re a fool. (No, I’m hardy!) But the voice continues. And do you really feel so much better afterwards, or are you buying into the wellbeing hype? The sun breaks through, that last half hour where it shines low and bright before dipping into the ocean. It pours a molten path onto the sea. I read it as a sign saying, come on in, don’t forsake me.
I enter from the bottom of the south pier at a spot there is a small beach when the tide is low. For the last few evenings it has been as high as it gets, and I step from a low wall onto a submerged flat rock. From there, I make a shallow dive, take three strokes underwater, pop my head up and give it a seal shake. I stop myself from screaming and keep swimming urgently. It is a minute or two before I realise I’m not breathing properly, my breath is constrained, kettled high up in my chest. I concentrate on slowing it down. Strong and warm, strong and warm, I say aloud. Inside my head I hear the words ‘freezing’, ‘Baltic’, ‘pain’, ‘cold, cold, cold’, but I maintain my mantra of strength and heat while focusing on my strokes, how I’m moving my legs, keeping everything correct and efficient.
I want to get where I am going fast, to the end of the channel, my turning point. I am tempted to turn early, but the far boat beckons and to turn to soon might break the spell, bring disaster upon me. I shall berate myself if I cheat the unwritten rules. Swimming out is easiest as I’m propelled by a state of stunned amazement that I’m here at all. I pass the same small fishing boat with the same gull (how do I know it’s the same one?) perched on the cabin. We watch each other. I caw at it, and a couple out walking turn to look. She holds his arm tighter, as if she feels colder just watching. He points to a large mullet near to the surface. I saw it before I got in, loitering in the shallow water close to where I entered, daring me.
Turn at the end. Congratulate myself at reaching the halfway point. Return swim looks so much longer. My heart sinks (at least it’s only my heart) at what is before me. I count the harbour’s remaining boats to pass the time. Four yachts, six ribs, eight fishing boats, one lifeboat. I’m happily distracted counting, twisting my head to run a re-count, admiring the gannet painted on the boat named Skerries.
As I take my final strokes, the water feels warm. I wonder if it might be hypothermia setting in, like drunks who fall in the snow who, just before they freeze to death, are overcome with a feeling of intense wellbeing and warmth and drift off to sleep. But I exaggerate. Cold water shock is far from my state. I am, in fact, on the edge of rapture. Perhaps it’s like ingesting a drug and awaiting the ensuing exhilaration. After I have executed a rapid change (quick flash of nudity before donning jeans and an Aran jumper over damp, bare skin), I know I shall feel intense euphoria, bliss at the simple but profound sensation of being alive. My circulation-deprived fingers and toes tell a different story, sometimes for up to half an hour after I’m out, but such minor symptoms are a small price to pay for this singular elation, all the better – and this is curious, it surprises me, but I tell you the truth – for doing it alone, me and the mullet.
Staying afloat. The purposelessness of getting there and back again. The reassurance of short-lived discomfort. The release of pressure and relief from pain. An exercise in existing and enduring. Returning to the essence of life. Simple and free. The contented loneliness of the cold-water swimmer.