There’s a lot to say about the Brighton Swimming Club. It’s the oldest in the country (founded 151 years ago, and remaining men-only until 1960s) and boasts a 94-year-old member, but it’s possibly most famous for the fact that one or more of its representatives will swim almost every single day of the year (and that’s including the recent, stormy days). What’s more, most do so without wetsuits, some hungrier members with fishing rods trailing behind, and all without a safety boat nearby. No wonder they are to onlookers as much a source of befuddlement as they are admiration – not to mention a self-confessed “huge liability” to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
So, what possesses members of the UK’s oldest sea-swimming club to continue with such a risky activity?
“Firstly there’s the endurance side of things, which is what I like to do,” says the head sea-swimming coach, 55-year-old Fiona Southwell. “To push myself in conditions that are a bit unfavourable – that’s jumping big waves and playing around in them – is what we do in the club. You’re never in control and that’s the lovely part of it. It’s the fix; it’s the rush of thrill seeking – that’s what we’re doing it for.”
Other members do it not just for the high but also for the health benefits.
“We have a couple of guys who swim with us, one with spinal arthritis and one with chronic arthritis,” says Southwell. “After their cold-water dip it shuts down the nervous system so they don’t have to take their painkillers for several hours.”
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That said, it’s not compulsory for club members to freeze anymore.
“Previously we prided ourselves on being costume-only – no wetsuits,” says Southwell. “But over the last eight years it’s changed, because 10 years ago, when I took over this post as leader of the sea section, I felt that we were vastly discriminating against a group of people who could really benefit from coming in with us, just because they felt they couldn’t cope without a wetsuit. And to continually mock them when they did wear one wasn’t acceptable. So we’ve got a whole rack now, put up there for people’s wetsuits. And you actually find that they peel them off a year or so into being members.”
Previously a schoolteacher, Southwell has, since her retirement, found time to truly immerse herself in sea swimming, though her role as head coach (for the sea-swimming section) is entirely unpaid. It can often involve up to nine hours in a kayak, with Southwell bobbing along next to her tutees, feeding and coaching them in readiness for the Channel swim she herself completed, aged 51, in 2009, in 19 hours and 22 minutes.
Is it dangerous? Almost certainly, though how dangerous is within an individual’s control. “Never bend to peer pressure” is the most vital piece of advice Southwell can give, having nearly lost her life as a result of making that mistake. “I got into a big sea and did a long, long swim one October, from Brighton Marina to the Palace Pier (about two miles). I hesitated before I got in, although I’d already swum the Channel by then, and had done bigger seas; bigger swims. I just wasn’t feeling it on that day – but because there was a group of people, I got in.”
It didn’t go well, she explains. “I was turned, about half a mile out – which means the waves were breaking out at sea. I had to pray to the god Poseidon and say, ‘I’m in your playground and I’m really sorry.’ In the end, the way I got in was to face the wave each time it came at me, so I was in control of that wave. It would take me up and smack me on my back and I’d claw my way out. And then finally I got closer and there were about three swimmers out on the beach, who made a human chain and brought me in … It took me six or seven months before I got into a big sea again.”
Needless to say, things aren’t always that grim. “Over the last six years I’ve got 100% pass rate: all my swimmers get across the Channel,” says Southwell. “It’s a 99.9% mental battle. I’ve got to say that I probably wasn’t ready for that myself until I was in my 50s and able to shut everything else away. It’s a selfish thing you have to go through. You’re out training for six hours a time.”
But for those who put in the effort, the rewards can be as boundless as the ocean.
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