Words by Lottie Lewis | Images by Megan Hemsworth
I don’t really remember the first time I went for a cold water dip. I’ve grown up in the sea, snorkelling and surfing and splashing in the waves, but it was only as I got older that I began swimming with intention. Packing my bag and setting off for the coast with the goal of pure immersion. Calling the girls and organising a sea swim. Planning my mornings and evenings around the tide and sun position. Slowly and without realising it, swimming has become as commonplace in my day as my morning tea.
Aside from the pastime and the pleasure, cold water swimming has started conversations, opened doors and introduced me to other like-minded water women. It’s encouraged me to talk about my mental health and discover that we are all in this (ocean) together. Over the past few years I’ve swam alone and with my sisters and my best friends and new friends and old friends. I feel so grateful to be a part of a wonderful sea sisterhood. Through our ever-changing emotions and situations, trials and tribulations, the ocean has stayed steadfast, welcoming us back every time.
Sometimes it’s important to be alone. To settle into the rhythm of our thoughts. To know that we can do things by ourselves.
The calm that I feel when I swim solo is unmatched by any other activity.
Attuned to the sound of my dogs paws crunching in the frost, winter boots thudding against the footpath, the westerly wind in the trees overhead, my nose sniffing and the rustle of my woollen roll neck in my hair, I make my way to the water. Thoughts fly around inside my head as I pull my hat lower, my hair escaping. I take a deep breath, before pulling off my socks and wading silently into the sheltered harbour. Hidden from view and watched over only by empty fisherman’s cottages, I slide into the inky depths, my breath mingling with the steam rising from the sunrise surface. All feelings of anxiety and reproach, stress and sadness dissipate. I sink into a place of solitude, held by the gentle swell of the tide, the ocean reminding me that we are never really alone when in nature.
My sister and I cycle in the sunshine to the coast. Singing, we weave across the empty roads of the first lockdown, absolutely aware of how incredibly lucky we are to have the sea as an escape from the monotony of isolation. Our backpacks are stuffed with swimsuits and towels, bottles of water and chocolate bars. We feel giddy with freedom.
We free wheel down the final hill and bump our bikes across the golden sand. Mother Ivey’s beckons us with her turquoise tenacity, enticing us into deserted crystal ocean. Shrieking as we run towards the shoreline and diving below the surface before our toes have hardly touched the water, we remember what liberty tastes like. No rules or curfews, boundaries or behaviour, it’s as if we had forgotten how sweet the salty sea can be. Cold water swims during dry lockdown days were our salvation.
Through refreshing dips over the scorching summer, hot rocks dotted with naked bodies, burning our bums and rolling in the white sand, we reawakened our inner wild women. We stoked a smouldering fire within the sisterhood of swimming. My best friends and I decided to escape the crowds and venture west. Taking our tents and dogs, bikinis and boards, we headed to the beaches that lay down winding roads and steep descents, where the water sparkled and the crowds were sparse.
Years of carpark changing has made us feel entirely comfortable together. We immediately strip off to nothing, bare bottoms suspended in the air before diving head first into clear waters. We lounged by the coast for days, no phone signal or commitments drawing us home. We’d rinse the salt from our freckled skin in the river, before retiring to our tents under a full moon, only to spend the next day exactly how we’d spent the last; drinking tea, swimming in the sea, exploring the footpaths with the dogs and watching the sunset with mugs of wine in hand, sharing secrets and stories, wishing the summer would never end. Mid-week dreams.
Winter is easier with a tribe of sea-loving kin. I feel immensely lucky to have girlfriends who love braving the waves, diving into cold water and encouraging each other to take the plunge. The idea of the unofficial ‘after work winter swim club’ came easily; I wanted to connect all the water-women I knew. My sisters and friends, cousins and acquaintances. I organised the first meet on my Stories, simply stating the idea (cold water dipping with likeminded others), place (my favourite secret spot) and the time (the half an hour of light between finishing work and sunset). When I arrived at our meeting place there was a group of girls huddled together. A sea of faces of my favourite people, bobble hats bouncing in the wind, bags stuffed with towels and swimsuits, an assortment of knitted jumpers and tracksuit bottoms. Women from all professions and walks of life, upbringings and situations, united by a love of cold water.
The moon was rising and the light fading as we waded into the sheltered waters of my favourite swim spot. Shrieks and laughter rang through the depths of December. Each of us swimming for different reasons, but emerging from the ocean with the same range of emotions; euphoria, pride, peace. The ‘after work winter swim club’ reiterated that together we are stronger. Together we can weather the storms.
And then I was alone again. Packing my swimsuit and pouring myself a steaming flask of lemon and ginger tea. Coaxing my dog out of bed as the sun rose over the eastern horizon. Heading down to the shoreline as the first rays of the day spilled across the still surface, my breath mingling with the mist rising from the ocean. The never-silence of nature reminds me I am not alone, really. The sea birds wheel overhead and my dog takes up her sentry at the water’s edge. I sink slowly into the dark depths of late winter, and notice there’s a hint of spring in the morning air. Today I feel peaceful and the ocean mirrors my emotions right back at me.
Words: Lottie Lewis Images: Megan Hemsworth With thanks to Atlantic Blankets for the cosy companions.