It was around 8.30 on Monday evening. The light outside was beginning to fade, though the day had been bright and the sun was still lingering. A cold breeze was blowing from the northwest.
“Let’s go swimming,” I said.
I finished reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog just a few weeks ago, and I have been quietly harbouring a desire to get out and do some ‘wild swimming’ myself since then. But that desire never actually transformed itself into action until that moment.
This is not to say that I have never swum ‘wild’ before of course. Growing up in Shetland inevitably means sporadic jaunts to beautiful sandy beaches, lapped seductively by waves that sting and bite at your legs when you dare to venture in. On hot days children splash and play in the sea, emerging blue, like tiny wet smurfs. They seem somehow resistant to the pain of the water; or perhaps they are just more stupid than adults.
“Okay,” my girlfriend replied, rather unexpectedly.
And that was that. I pulled my swimming shorts on underneath my clothes while Rachel hunted out the wetsuit that I didn’t even know she owned, and we left the house before wiser thoughts set in.
The swimming pool in Fair Isle is called Gunglesund. It is a large rock pool, 15 or 20 metres long and more than five feet deep in places. The water is remarkably clean and clear, and while, on a sunny day, the temperature can certainly rise to a tolerable level, at 8.45 in the evening, after a spell of poor weather, tolerable is certainly not an appropriate description.
Standing by the edge in my shorts, I began to regret the entire venture. And as I inched my way gradually into the pool, my regrets grew. With every step, another part of my body began screaming out in pain, begging me to get out and put my clothes back on.
The general advice in these circumstances is just to dive in and get the shock over with. I disagree.
The pain was inducing involuntary facial contortions from me, and hysterical laughter from my girlfriend in response, but allowing numbness to gradually creep up my body was certainly preferable to throwing myself in – an act of recklessness that would, no doubt, have resulted in heart failure.
Eventually I was in – swimming, after a fashion. But although the lack of feeling had fooled my body into thinking it was okay, I was acutely aware of the sheer effort that was required to fight the cold. My breaths were heavy and difficult, punctuated by shuddering, and I could already feel the muscles in my arms and legs beginning to ache.
I thought suddenly about how it must feel to fall into the North Sea from a boat. The experience would be overwhelming in every sense. In the past, fishermen would generally not learn to swim. It was better to go quickly, they thought, than to try to fight it.
But there was something addictive about the feeling of being immersed in the cold. As I swam round and round the pool in circles I was reluctant to stop. Gradually I became aware of things other than my body again: of the sea moving against the rocks, just a few metres away, of the full moon, and of the lighthouse flashing just around the corner.
But that was enough. After five minutes or so, something in me said stop. I climbed out over the sharp, awkward rocks to where our towels were, and we stood there drying ourselves, shivering and light-headed in the darkness of the evening.