There is no doubt that a lovely snuggly wetsuit is a fine thing. I’ve had swims that were tough in the past – my longest swim to date, 11 K in the Dart last summer, and Coniston were both tough, but Brownsea was tougher. This was so even though it was shorter, both in terms of time and distance, and the cold had a lot to do with that, as well as the sickness. For the long wetsuited swims I was never in any doubt that I could do them. They were just tiring and, at times, tedious, but at least I wasn’t fighting cold. But for a large part of Brownsea I was cold, and the bottom line is that being cold isn’t very pleasant.
But, but, and but. A large part of the unpleasantness of Brownsea was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to complete it due to the cold, or at least, that I would really suffer from the cold. As it happened, I was physically well able to cope with the temperature; the struggle was almost entirely in my head. So with my two swims in the Channel; I was cold, yes, but my mental consciousness of it was far worse than the physical sensation.
My training session at the Lido today with Dan Abel was cold: water temperature 17°, air temperature 13° and a chilly breeze which meant it was colder out of the water than in, so you had to spend the whole hour submerged. And during training there are quite long chunks when you aren’t swimming but instead are standing (or crouching to keep under the water), listening to the coach, so you get colder. Yet I felt less cold than in lots of other warmer sessions and really hardly noticed it. Part of that is mental: for the last four weeks or so, every time I get in for a training session or a swim and consider the temperature, if it feels chilly, my first thought has been “It’ll be colder in the Channel and you have to stay in an hour.” The present sensation was actually made worse by the anticipation of future discomfort.
One of the longest swims I did at a low temperature was a mile swim at Tooting Lido the April before last when the water was about12°. I’d gone in to do a shorter swim and then got to twelve lengths and was resting when a friend asked if I was going to go for the mile, and encouraged me to do so. It was a sunny day and I was feeling good, so I decided to continue. A mile at Tooting is just under eighteen lengths and I remember being a bit anxious during the last six lengths that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Observers on the side could see that I’d got very cold as I was slowing down and my stroke was breaking up, although I wasn’t aware of that; I just wondered who was swimming so splashily close by me. But I finished, and was fine, although it took me a very long time to warm up. And the weird thing is that although I was worried about how cold I was getting from the point of view of possible hypothermia, I don’t remember the cold being a problem in itself; I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable and I wasn’t aware of being particularly chilly. Although this is one of the signs of impending hypothermia, and there’s no doubt that I was mildly hypothermic, it’s interesting that my sense of physical discomfort was a lot less than on other occasions. The mind is a strange and wonderful thing.