Meet the ‘winter mermaids’ who have been cold water swimming during lockdown

Brighton beach might not seem like the best place to be at this time of year, but for ‘winter mermaids’ like Tracey, it’s a ‘spiritual experience’ (Picture: Tracey Davies)

It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning in February and I’m shuffling down the slippery steps to the beach near my home in Brighton.

It’s three below freezing outside and there’s actual snow on the pebbles but the sea looks calm, its grey-green hue defying its 8C temperature. I’m not the only crazy here.

I wave to at least nine other ruddy-cheeked women crunching along the snowy shore in their Dryrobe, the huge mac/towelling robe that’s become the unofficial uniform of the Brighton sea-swimmer.

They are my sisterhood of the sea. We might not chat much but it’s good to know we look out for each other.

Before I can overthink it, I find my usual spot, drop my tatty tracksuit bottoms, pull on a pair of neoprene booties and shimmy off my Dryrobe to reveal a lard-white, goose-bumped body clad in only a bikini.

Like most sea-swimmers, Tracey takes the plunge in just a bikini (Picture: Tracey Davies)

Tiptoeing down to the shallows, I push through the gentle waves until the sea reaches the top of my thighs, fling myself forward into the glacial water with the obligatory loud swear and, finally, I’m awake.

Usually a fair-weather swimmer, since the first lockdown I’ve gone full mermaid and now swim in the sea three or four times a week, whatever the weather.

The sea is at its coldest during February and March but this doesn’t seem to have put off the dozens who flock to Brighton beach every morning.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ says Lynette Slight from the Brighton Swimming Club. ‘Most winters it’s just us out there but this year I’ve seen so many more swimmers about.’

Some of my fellow seabirds wear woolly hats, others are encased in wetsuits but the majority swim in ‘skins’ (the fancy word for wearing normal bathers).

Tracey loves the support she gets from fellow female swimmers (Picture: Tracey Davies)

‘We always suggest swimming with buddies,’ says Lynette. ‘As for how long to stay in, there’s no set rule – you need to listen to your own body and get out once you get cold. We’ve had a few members get hypothermia so even experienced swimmers can forget that the sea is always in charge.’

In the water, a flurry of snow whips around my ears as I paddle a swift breaststroke to warm up.

Snowflakes gently melting on my nose, I swim out further towards the horizon, a watery sun hovering just above it, and think of nothing bar being in the beautiful, briny sea.

Growing up in Guernsey, fellow winter mermaid Georgina Burrows has always swum regularly in the sea.

‘It’s something I regard as just as essential to my well-being as eating or breathing,’ she says. ‘There’s very little a swim can’t solve or at least help.’

A triumphant Tracey after a bracing swim (Picture: Tracey Davies)

According to Wim Hof, who developed the Wim Hof Method, exposure to low temperatures boosts our immune system, strengthens our willpower and even aids weight loss.

Indeed, my icy dips have been the saving of me during the pandemic and I’m not the only one: the National Open Water Coaching Association reported a 323% rise in open-water swimmers in the past year.

In 2018, the British Medical Journal published a report about using cold-water swimming as a treatment for depression, as it puts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode and helps us better adapt to stress.

‘Swimming through winter has been a tonic for my anxiety for the best part of a decade,’ says Joe Minihane, author of Floating: A Life Regained, and regular Brighton sea swimmer.

‘There’s something about the cold water that gives me a greater sense of myself, beyond my body and thinking mind. There’s something almost spiritual about the experience.’

He’s right. As I emerge from the surf like a budget Ursula Andress, my skin pink with cold, I’ve got the biggest grin on my face, proving that sea swimming in winter is the ultimate baptism of joy.

Try it. You might just, ahem, warm to it.

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