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Braving the beaches with the St Andrews Swimmers

After submerging herself in the gray waves of East Sands, Holly Wilde emerges shivering, her body swelled into a lobster-red hue. She has just braved the frigid North Sea, which reaches temperatures so low that fishermen have pulled frozen fish carcasses from it.

“Oh my god, I feel good,” Wilde says, wrapping herself in a coat and graciously accepting a Jaffa Cake from a friend. It is high tide, 2 p.m., on East Sands, and members of an informal sea swimming group are finishing their daily polar plunge.

“Wild swimming” – defined as swimming in natural bodies of water – has surged in popularity over the past decade, with the pandemic accelerating its rise as public swimming pools closed and travel was barred. A local group has joined the craze by convening on a Facebook page called the ‘St Andrews Swimmers.’ Motivated by a plethora of psychological, physical, and lifestyle benefits, its members join the odd dolphin and seal to brave seawater that reaches temperatures below 5°C – shrieking, laughing, and jumping into the waves.

“It’s the easiest, most joyous thing I do every day. I cannot stop doing it.” Wilde, who was afraid to venture into the deep end of the pool before she started wild swimming, says. “It’s almost like smoking, but it’s good.”

Cold water and wild swimming have become exponentially more commonplace in recent years, but Wilde and her counterparts join a tradition with a long and rich history. Cold water therapy can be traced back to as early as 400 BC in Ancient Greece when the physician Hippocrates noted that freezing water was an antidote to lassitude and pain. Later, in 1750, medical journals began to recommend natural cold water exposure as a universal treatment against diseases. US Founding Father and former president Thoams Jefferson was even a proponent of it, drawing a cold foot bath every morning to ‘maintain his good health.’

Cold water therapy has been lauded for its physical benefits. A narrative review that compiled existing research on it, available on PubMed Central, suggests that when cold water exposure is practiced in healthy individuals, it has a positive effect on the cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine systems. As a St Andrews Swimmer who took to the sea to treat her tendonitis noted, it also reduces inflammation and soreness. “The doctor told me to sit on the sofa and put my foot up,” the member said. “But after a week I couldn’t do that anymore – and the cold water was amazing.”

There are also reported psychological benefits to cold water swimming. A 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal Case Reports suggested that it was an effective treatment for depression, while a 2000 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that it can boost levels of dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being – by 530%. Despite these findings, research on the mental health benefits of cold-water swimming is in its infancy. Dr. Heather Massey, a senior lecturer at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, has been optimistically studying cold water swimming’s impact on mental health. She notes that there is, however, a dearth of empirical evidence in her subfield. She told The Guardian that more work is required to substantiate any of her findings. “What we need now is to prove [the mental health benefits of cold water therapy],” Massey says. “And we need hard, scientific evidence with properly formulated empirical studies in order to do that.”

Prompted by personal testimonies from friends and some of the existing research on wild and cold water swimming, I joined the St Andrews Swimmers to understand why they relish the sea’s formidable freeze. After reaching out to their Facebook page, which was founded in 2018 and has since since attracted well over a thousand members, local swimmer Cheryll Docherty and her two dogs welcomed me to a planned swim on a cloudy and chilling afternoon in late February. She was joined by roughly half-a-dozen other ladies, most of them middle aged or in late adulthood, but noted that the presence of a reporter seemed to have scared off some other regulars.

As we prepared to go for a swim, Docherty explained how the sea has helped her stay active while facing cardiovascular problems that restrict her from physical activities. “My heart problems have restricted a lot of the things I can do,” she said. “I can’t do anything that gets my heart rate up at all because my heart basically doesn’t function right.”

She says that she has turned to sea swimming to remain active, taking pride in her ability to withstand the bitterness of the North Sea. “I’m actually doing things that other people can’t do,” she says. “I’m going in the sea, and ninety-nine percent of people can’t do that. Knowing that makes you feel so good.”

Docherty is not alone in finding respite from her chronic illness in freezing waters. Linda Simpson, another group member, battles multiple sclerosis (MS) – a lifelong condition that affects the brain and nerves. Simpson said that though she initially gawked at sea swimming when she moved to town, it has since proved an antidote to her condition. “I showed up, and think, ‘look at all these nutters,” she said. After talking to the group member, however, she decided to give it a try: “I thought –‘you know what, if you can’t beat em, join em.’”

Two years later, Simpson says that sea swimming has become her preferred treatment. She said it has increased her flexibility and improved her nightly rest. She even ditched her walking stick because of it. “My physio[therapist] says, whatever you’re doing, don't stop because you're actually getting better,” she said. “I usually walk with a walking stick – but I'm not because of swimming,” adding with a triumphant smile – “but my doctors don’t know that.”

Simpson, like Docherty, said that sea swimming offers an unparalleled sense of fulfillment. “You come out and you know you’ve done something,” she said. “There’s no way you can describe it.” She stressed, however, that MS is an individualized disease and that cold water could be harmful to others suffering from it.

The St Andrews Swimmers said that their chosen pastime has also produced several mental health and lifestyle benefits. Simpson, for instance, noted that it is an effective way for her to mitigate anxiety. “It distresses you big-time,” she says. “You could be really worried, have exams coming up, but when you go in there, you’re not gonna worry about anything.” Another group member added that it helps her decompress. “If I've had a stressful day at work, it takes me straight out of my head,” she says.

Jake Meyers, a first-year student pursuing a degree in German, says that starting his days with a dip prepares him to deal with potential obstacles and boosts his productivity. “It kicks off my day,” he said. “I know that I will face the hardest physical challenge of the day before it’s even ten in the morning. That mindset cuts down my procrastination and serves as a valuable reference point.”

The purported mental health and lifestyle benefits of cold water swimming can partially be explained by the natural rush that accompanies it. Entering the water, your body becomes numb and undergoes cold shocks. After an involuntary gasp, you hyperventilate. Your heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket. Fats and glucose shoot into your bloodstream; adrenaline pulses through your body. You experience the same “fight-or-flight” response that accompanies emergencies and perceptions of threat.

After an initial thunderbolt, your limbs stiffen like hot glue and your body begins to calm. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released and a flow of beta-endorphin hormones generate a rush of euphoria. “Everything just disappears,” says Holly Wilde. “You can be in the grumpiest mood, but you hit that water and after about three minutes it’s all gone.”

Propelled by the chemical thrill of cold water, the St Andrews Swimmers indulge in playful ecstasy. They bounce around the waves like gleeful buoys, releasing shrieks and bursts of laughter. “It’s like childhood. It’s the best thing in the whole world,” Wilde says. “It’s just nice to act like kids.”

United by their sprightly seafaring, these St Andrews Swimmers have forged a community – regularly gathering outside of swims to share meals and a laugh. Members noted that perhaps the most meaningful aspect of their hobby has been the lasting relationships they have formed, particularly during the forced isolation of the pandemic.

“I came up here just before the pandemic, and it was the most wonderful way to meet people, to feel that you weren’t on your own in the pandemic,” says Hilary Craig, who began wild swimming as a child in New Zealand and has since become a member of the St Andrews group. “We just have a laugh every time we meet.”

Docherty added that her companions encourage her to face the sea on St Andrews' gloomiest days. “Somedays I think I'm not going in because it's too cold,” she said. “But I’m just encouraged when I see everyone else.”

The members welcomed others to join them, noting that their cohort is diverse and welcomes all ages and abilities. Docherty says that would-be swimmers are free to craft their own experiences. “Some people swim and other people like me or with health problems, we just bob. Some wear wet suits, some don’t,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter – there’s no competition. It’s just a fantastic thing to do.”

Before rushing to the shores, there are several risks associated with cold water sea swimming that interested individuals should familiarize themselves with. Dr. Massey recommends that individuals start cold-water therapy gradually, beginning by submerging themselves for less than five minutes and perhaps in the summer when sea temperatures are milder. She advises wearing neoprene socks and gloves to protect the hands and feet, and many St Andrews Swimmers recommended bringing a warm drink. More serious swimmers should consider purchasing a warm changing coat like those sold by “dryrobe.”

The first dips are the most arduous, but after as few as five to six three-minute immersions the effects of cold water shock are greatly reduced for as long as fourteen months. Members stressed that the mental and physical challenges that accompany the initial dips are outweighed by their rewards. “You have to come and try it to see the benefits because nobody comes out of that water without a smile on their face,” one member said. “Yeah, you’ll see it.”

As long as there are willing members and waves to wash over them, these thalassic titans seem keen to enlist newcomers in their ranks. They have forged a rich community and defied personal odds by braving the piercing seas, and they don’t intend to stop anytime soon.

“We call it our superpower,” Doherty says. “This is our superpower.”

Images: Charles Gorrivan

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