Waking to the Lure of the Sea by Sara Solnick
Waking to the Lure of the Sea
by Sara Solnick
Growing up, the idea of swimming in the sea scared me. I always loved to swim and the feeling of being in the water, but in the pool, certainly not in the cold sea, outdoors, year-round. As an adult my relationship to the sea has dramatically changed. Now, for me, to be in the sea is to be of the sea; to be of the sea is to be transformed by the shape-shifting power of this mighty body and to be re-energised by the touch of her powerful muscle. This is my story, the tale of a pool swimmer's journey to the sea and the slow shedding of my fears.
As a child I swam competitively and I spent much of my childhood summer holidays mucking about in pools. At school I loved swimming but when I started to swim recreationally, as an adult, I wondered sometimes why it was so tiring, and frankly, not that much fun. It wasn't until after I trained to become an Alexander Technique teacher that my concept of swimming evolved.
Taking a series of Art of Swimming private lessons changed my life and changed my swimming forever. I learned how to swim with ease and efficiency; to feel and flow with, rather than fight, the water. Perhaps most significantly, I realized that, though a competent swimmer, I had always been quite afraid of not being able to breathe. Easy, relaxed breathing took time to master but the new confidence it gave me was pivotal to transforming my relationship with the sea.
After these one-to-one lessons, swimming became a different activity; slow, gentle, sensuous, exploratory, fluid, peaceful. Water-borne, I experienced a newfound and joyous congruence. My body, at home in the watery medium, moves gracefully; a sensation I rarely have on land. Instead of sprinting four short lengths of free-style and feeling spent, I learned a style that allows me to swim all day if I want to. Consequently, I began to swim further with less effort and with much more enjoyment than ever before. I trained as a swimming teacher and began to play with the new ways I had learned in order to share them both with fellow Alexander Technique teachers and with friends.During this time my family life was based in London, close to the River Thames. I swam most mornings in a quiet pool near home. I loved that we were able to live near to a stretch of open water, but the call of the sea was an ever-present whisper that we hoped one day to be able to answer with a move to the Suffolk coast, where we had been spreading tentacles and making memories over three decades. I knew that swimming would always be an important part of my life wherever I went.
My dream was realised when we moved to Walberswick, a little community in Suffolk coastal heaven, in 2011. One of my first conundrums to work out was - where to swim? Many people suggested the sea, but I still equated swimming with what happened in pools of clear still water with black lines on the bottom and ends to push off from. Swimming was a moving meditation, preferably an experience with few distractions or people to collide with. It certainly didn't involve the surprises or unseen dangers that I imagined the sea might present.After trying a series of not-very-satisfactory pools, I found a private pool-for-hire in which to swim. Once a week, for half an hour, I made (and still make) the thirty-five-mile round trip. This private pool has proved to be a lovely place to swim with a couple of friends or to teach an easeful relationship with the water but it is not without drawbacks: the cost, inaccessibility and infrequency……and I wanted something more.
Ever since we first started visiting Walberswick in the 1980s, I did swim in the sea....sometimes. First, I swam in the summer, on hot days, and then, more often. In the winter of 2012 I bought a wetsuit, gritted my teeth and carried on into the cold winter months. Winter swimming really didn't feel like real swimming though. My wetsuit protected me from the worst of the water's chill but I felt constricted and constrained. I missed the lightness and flow I had learned to love. Swimming in the sea also meant I had to negotiate waves to which my newfound gentle swimming style was ill-adapted.
After a year I gave up. I felt discouraged by the torture of getting changed in the wind-chill and not really swimming properly anyway. I continued to enjoy summer sea bathing and I began to get used to the colder water as well as to gain confidence in rougher seas. Despite this, in summer, I would only actually swim (rather than bounce around in the waves) on a calm day and, even then, not for long. Come October I'd leave the sea and visit the beach to take photos of the sun as it rose in winter, enjoying the cold blast of ozone-rich salty air, and the sense of well-being that even that gave me.
In 2017 something changed. Actually a few things changed. Sea swimming presented itself anew. It became something I really wanted to be able to do. I was now at the top of the list for a village beach hut! This meant that on cold and wet winter days I could shelter out of the wind as I got dressed. I decided to equip myself to ameliorate the worst of the cold and perhaps even make cold-water sea swimming pleasurable: I bought a Dry Robe, neoprene gloves, swim socks and hat, as well as furry boots to walk home in afterwards. But I knew the real change was in my mood, not these facilitating aspects.
Why? What had happened? I was grieving. I was angry. I was depleted. And I deeply lacked resilience. A voracious reader, I discovered many memoirs, mainly by women, that made me feel the sea would be the perfect place in which to drown my sorrows. The most inspiring of these were: I Found My Tribe (Ruth Fitzmaurice), The Outrun (Amy Liptrot), Swimming with Seals (Victoria Whitworth), and the beautiful 2020 addition, I am an Island (Tamsin Calidas). All of these women, each one for different reasons, were transformed, redeemed even, by sea swimming.I knew about the health benefits of cold-water swimming but mainly I wanted to develop some resilience to life's hard knocks. Even though my own life events were nothing extraordinary, I wanted to cope better. I felt I had nothing to lose in trying.
With renewed resolve when October 2017 came and went, I carried on swimming. If the weather was particularly vile or I couldn't face getting out of bed, I'd not push it. I decided the best way to succeed in year-round sea swimming was to do it because I wanted to. Consequently, I only ventured out when the fancy took me. I soon found that on the days I didn't go I felt worse; like not brushing your teeth in the morning – something essential was missing, and it coloured the whole day.
The sea gets colder incrementally and sometimes it feels warmer again for a bit during the autumn. Rough days feel warmer than silky smooth sea days, perhaps because the added anxiety of how to get in or whether it's really safe to do so, distracts from the cold. And even though I can see the sea from the house, until I actually get down to the water's edge, I have no clear idea what kind of sea it'll be.
At first I didn't get in to swim; it was more like a daily baptism – a quick in and out. I read in Victoria Whitworth's book that your head helps regulate the temperature of the body, and that it is important to immerse your head. Even with a neoprene hat, I still find it hard to do in the depths of winter. But I do it (usually, briefly) these days. I stay in the water long enough for my breath to return to normal, and I wait until the cold numbs my skin and it feels like I'm wearing a wetsuit, but not long enough to become mind-foggily hypothermic.
The cold is always, well.... shocking! But, over time, that shock no longer alarms; it is something to observe and watch recede. I'm a huge over-thinker, and the cold prevents thinking; it is hard to cry hot tears into the sea……they just seem to evaporate. Hangovers, aching joints, heartache, fatigue; all negative feeling is frozen out or washed away in those first cold, wet moments. Re-charged, re-set – such mechanistic metaphors for what feels so thoroughly purging and cathartic – perhaps re-born is nearer the mark.Scrubbed clean of woes, slapped in the face by splashing waves, knocked down sometimes by breaking big ones; the sea's violence is elemental. She can be brutal but it's not personal; she can be mighty and she can be dangerous, but she also holds tight. The sea is like a close embrace, a life-giving, life-threatening, inert yet vigorously alive hug-giver. She seethes and soothes, she jostles and lies flat. Her moods are volatile, animated, often surprising. When full of sorrow and inward-looking, a playful sea proves irresistible. She brooks no standing apart. The sea is formidable and must be approached with caution, always, for she can kill you and will do so if you read her wrong. The sea is not tameable, cannot be coaxed into submitting to our puny human will, but she has lessons to teach and will shoulder the weights brought to her and carry them away with ease. The sea is my friend, my huge more-than-human companion. Her cold embrace makes my skin turn pink and glow bright; she makes me stronger. A morning swim in the cold North Sea is as therapeutic as anything I can think of to heal life's woes. Her appeal is addictive; it was not long before I started to go in every day.
In 2020, the year of the COVID pandemic, I have been lucky. Even during lockdown the sea has been a constant daily pleasure. More than ever I appreciate being on the east coast where the sun rises first, seemingly rousing itself each day from its watery bed. Sunrises, especially in winter, and full-moon rises on a summer night – these are the jewels that sparkle in the sea and make her face radiant and beautiful to swim across. In the summer months, beneath the sea's surface on dark nights, comes the bioluminescence of small marine organisms that transform one's limbs into magic wands that leave a sparkling trail of mini-lights in their wake. The sea offers up these gifts only to those who enter the water; they often cannot be seen from the shore.
Swimming itself is now easier. My understanding expanded and amplified. The year's many calm days allow me to play with swimming differently. I see more clearly the differences between sea and pool swimming. In the sea I am more buoyant. When I get out, I do not carry any lingering chemical smells. In the sea I can float on my back as I look up at the sky, be it grey or blue, sun-dazzle bright or opaque dull, clouds fluffy or mackerel; or swim my languorous back-crawl for as long as I like with no hard pool wall to crash into and wake me from my reveries. I am learning to sight my position better even though the sea is murky sludge-brown. I still find it hard to judge the relative pulls and drift of current, tide and waves. When I have had enough, I head in towards the shore with the waves behind me as I use their undulations to make light work of my butterfly swimming; a work in progress always. Sometimes on summer mornings I crave the quiet of the beach at sunrise with no-one else around. Sometimes I go to the beach on my own at dawn and swim solo.
When the winter comes this year and the water turns brain-numbingly cold, will I still be able to put my face in and swim? Maybe, maybe not……..it doesn't matter anymore. The sea is a beautiful place to be, but these days, a medium in which to swim is only part of what she offers me.