The shortest day may have passed, but as the festive season comes to an end and the majority of us cold water swimmers head back to work, many of us will be struggling to find daylight time that we can use for swimming (especially if you live in the northern hemisphere). You may already have a system for night swimming, or swimming in the darkness, but some of you may not, and will be intrigued to know that not only is it possible, it is not as terrifying as it seems, and can open up a whole new world of sensory experience.
Even on Full Moon swims it is good to make sure others can see you. Tow Floats with torches inside them make you visible to other water users and swimmers.
As I started to write this, I realised that I had never been in the sea at night. I had been by it and on it but not in it. I had watched it and listened to it and if I am honest, boxed off any notion of dipping even a toe into the inky darkness of the unknown. In my mind, thoughts of night swimming linked to the sea in winter - when darkness and the cold pushes us to the warmth and comfort of being inside, I have fully embraced, and fallen in love with cold water swimming during the daylight, but why would I willingly step away from the fireside, into the unknown, icy cold, and challenging environment of the North Atlantic, in the hours of darkness?
Truth be told, answering that question was helped by reading other’s accounts of night swimming. From the serene and comforting ‘Moon Gazey Madness’ by Lynne Roper to the extreme, brutal, honest and inspiring reflections of Al Mennie as he currently swims through his 50k winter night swimming challenge, along the coast of Northern Island, to raise awareness and money for ‘depression, suicide and inter-generational trauma in Northern Ireland and beyond’ (a challenge that he categorically states is not for anyone else to even consider doing).
And so, I found myself not just thinking a night swimming experience might be interesting, but studying safety guidance, and actively planning some night swims (or rather dips, a channel swimmer or Navy Seal I am not, nor a hard core surfer with the experience, safety team and knowledge of Al Mennie).
Marking your entry and changing point with lanterns keeps you orientated and prevents a very cold search for your warm clothes.
Planning for a Dip in the Darkness
First things first, I knew I had someone else who was willing to try night swimming. But what we actually ended up doing, was swimming in the hours of 'pre-sunrise' darkness. There were a number of decisions behind this being the case, all of which centered around planning, safety and as always circumstance.
Firstly, we had selected the beach we wanted to swim at. Both of us know the location well, the access point into and out of the water is easy to navigate and light up with torches. Neither of us work nine to five, so actually selecting a period of darkness within which we could get into the water had to be planned in advance, in alignment with, yes you guessed it, tides and the weather.
Many of you reading this will be acquainted with long range weather forecasts, and if you are a sea swimmer, tide tables. Both of which, I studied far more intently than normal when planning this first ‘dark swim’. Maybe it was because I wanted to feel as in control as I possibly could, if I understood exactly what was supposed to be happening out there as I dipped into the inky blackness, perhaps it wouldn't seem so daunting. Or maybe it was because of the stern (and slightly frustrated and exasperated) look that I got from my other half when I told him of my plans. Either way, a day and time was set, head torches were charged, and alarm clocks aligned.
It was not as terrifying, nor as dark as I thought it was going to be. Both of us wore head torches, and my swim buddy had also put a torch (sealed in a plastic bag) inside her tow float. At the time we went, there was enough natural light to make out the silhouette of rocks and buildings. We could see the flash of white foam as the waves broke, and although the torch beside our towels and robes was comforting, we would have been able to find them without it. Unusually for us though, we could not see into the water. We are incredibly lucky to have clear blue seas in the Hebrides, so to look down and not be able to see your feet is a little disconcerting, and, as all of the reading I did prior to this had pointed out to me, my other senses were far busier than normal. The waves sounded louder, I moved more considerately, (not in a contemporary dance kind of way, but in a manner that avoided stubbing a toe on any hidden pebbles) and although there was no distinct aroma, everything smelt sharper.
Post pre-sunrise dip, we had planned that our next ‘Dark Swim’ should coincide with a full moon - ‘The Yule Moon’ (29th December) seemed to be the most appropriate for this. But alas, this is where circumstance comes into play. We live by and swim in some of the most challenging seas surrounding Scotland. It is one thing to dip pre-sunrise into a slight North Atlantic swell. It is quite another to head out in the darkness, into a swell that looms larger than the breakwater, with the increased tidal range that comes with a full moon - regardless of the additional light it provides. And so, I have still not been on a ‘Night Swim’ - but I will, and when I do, I am more than happy to wait for a Full Moon that coincides with better weather, one that provides a serene experience and one that is less likely to involve the Coastguard.
Post-swim changing during the dark is tricky. Firstly it is colder than normal, and secondly harder to see what you are doing. Get changed quickly, have a hot drink to hand, and if possible a fire pit or maybe even a sauna?
Night Swimming Safety Checklist
Choose a place you know well.
Swim with a friend, as part of a group, or take someone with you to hold your towel.
Mark your entry and exit points with a bright lantern / torch / glow sticks considering if the tide is coming in. Small lights are harder to spot from the water though!
Leave a light with your towels, and remember, not only will it be colder than normal when getting changed, you will also be unable to see what you are doing! (Always good to have an extra thing to think about when your teeth are chattering and hands are numb).
Wear sufficient swim footwear as walking outside in the dark barefoot can be challenging depending on whether it's sand or stones you are walking on
Head torches - If you have a red or green setting on your head torch, it makes you visible to other water users, but does not affect your night vision. A light inside your tow float will work in a similar way.
If sea swimming, study the tides and always weather forecast. Remember tides can move faster during a full moon depending on which time of the tide you choose to swim.
Enjoy the experience, and why not book Immerse Hebrides' & Saltbox Sauna's Fire & Ice Swim and Sauna on the Wolf Moon this January to try it out?