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Wild Swimming in Aberdeen

A short trip to another world

By Daniel Hesp

Photo courtesy of Daniel Hesp

Swimming has always been a huge part of my life. Literally I remember my first time in a swimming lesson asking the coach if I could control the water with my mind, learning with everyone else. Growing up, I used to swim 6 times a week for up to 3.5 hours a day – it became an obsession that relegated everything else to ‘secondary to swimming’. If humans could be separated into water and land animals, I was definitely in the first category – some kind of fish. Later on, it even influenced where I moved to uni. Being near a beach, with the opportunity to dive into the sea whenever I felt like it was a huge plus for me, and something that I frequently brought up in freshers’ week when the conversation moved from ‘what are you studying?’ to ‘why Aberdeen?’. It was something that certainly hooked me.

I’ve taken the opportunity whenever I could to swim both in and outdoors in Aberdeen, so when my newly ordered wetsuit came, I immediately wanted to try it out. As excuses go it was a good one and so my friend and I found ourselves early one morning driving down past the stadium, and pulling up to the gateway to the promenade (we all know the one). I remember it being a chilly morning, one of the ones where your first thought when going outside is ‘absolutely not’. But we were there, we’d broken past the barrier and weren’t letting wind stop us. The clouds above looked like a steel suit of armour, encouraging us to don our own battle gear and do war with the elements.

First impressions when walking out of that beach tunnel and onto the promenade are always memorable. The expanse of sea and sky are magnified by the closeness of the dark tunnel. Walking out always makes me feel childlike, any trepidation momentarily dispelled. Although I have seen the Aberdeen waves batter the beach in front of me with some force in the past, on this particular day the tide is low, and the waves are relatively subdued. I look to my friend, “definitely doable”.

Although I mentioned swimming from an early age, swimming in the sea is different.

The salt, swell and caw of seagulls combine to remind you of the primal nature of the water in front of you.

That said, psyching yourself up to actually get in the water is common between the North Atlantic and the chlorinated, temp-regulated pool - at a certain point you just need to say screw it. Therefore, a sprint and run technique is the only acceptable way to start, no toe-dipping.

Once the first shock is over, the smaller waves hurdled, I look over to my friend. The run combined with the cold-water shock shortens our ragged breathing, but the endorphins are beginning to override the earlier reservations, we are completely in the moment. To celebrate our success, we duck our heads under the waves – obscuring the cackling seagulls and our own elated whoops. I find myself trying to keep my head under for a few seconds longer than is strictly necessary as the brain freeze sets in just to see if I can.

As we make our way out to the edge of the groynes, occasionally floating on our backs, our attention shifts from the immediacy of avoiding the crashing waves, to the sea and sky around us. What once was an intimidating impression of chilling sea spray and breeze has become more familiar, even comforting as we get used to the environment. It’s one of the curiosities of wearing a wetsuit that the design requires water to keep you warm. Counter-intuitively, the more you throw yourself into the surf, the warmer you become. I see reflections of this in my own life.

As a 4th year student, I am beginning to think about the next steps in my career, and leaving the relatively dry land of university to plunge into the sometimes inhospitable career pool is an intimidating thing, the wind is biting and the swell suffocating.

However, lying on my back, drinking in the sky above and the sea surrounding me, I realise that I’m already there, reaping the rewards for the short spell of discomfort. Lying there, I’m reminded of a quote from Russian swimmer, Alexandr Popov, that has stuck with me:

“The water is your friend…you don’t have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.”

I’ve always taken this literally as it related to me and my swimming technique. But I can see it’s applicability to other parts of my life. Fighting implies the use of unnecessary energy. I’m loving the feeling of weightlessness and enjoyment in the sea, and if I can try to emulate this elsewhere, I can remove pointless stress and worry and ultimately live a more enjoyable, efficient life. This is wild swimming to me.

After a time spent in the sea, we begin to make our way back to shore. Looking back towards land, at the men and women standing on the promenade, their faces scrunched against the wind. They eye the unusual aquatic animals standing and striding through the shallows. To me, we are travellers from an exotic land, strangers that come in peace. Drying off and heading back to the car, we’re leaving the sea behind for now. But, in a very tangible and intimate sense, the sea will remain with us until the next time we want to experience another world for a while.


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