Wild swimming: taking on the Basque winter sea

Before Coronavirus had us all isolated, Madlen Jones got very into wild swimming. Here’s her account based on her experience. 

I’ve often heard friends and fellow swimmers talk about the buzz they get from wild swimming. The icy euphoria that courses through your veins after a swim in the freezing winter sea. After working up the courage and the motivation to take on such a challenge, I finally took the plunge this winter and have been addicted ever since. I decided, moments after my first swim of 2020, that I wanted to record the feelings I experienced. The following journal entry, written shortly after I emerged from the freezing water, documents that swim back in January.

 Since arriving in Spain for work, four months ago, I have been feeling a growing attachment to the sea. A week without it and I feel landlocked and trapped. Fridays off work, sunny weather and glassy waves pull me to San Sebastián, regardless of any other commitments I may have. I wish I could live here, however I fear that I would never get anything done.

 Over Christmas, I got in the Welsh waters twice. Once on Christmas day, for a freezing, yet elating, minute and a half; and once to surf at Porthcawl (this time with my thick wetsuit and winter surf gear). Both of these were extremely satisfying and left me with a 24 hour buzz. I knew, that on my return to Spain in January, I would resolve to spend as much time as I could in the open water, no matter how cold, so that could feel this energy as often as possible.

Wild swimming

 This is my first weekend back and, despite only working a 2 day week, I’ve been feeling drained and not overly optimistic about the term ahead. I’m also doing dry January and am struggling to feel alive and sociable with my friends in the evenings without the alcohol kick that I normally indulge in as soon as my working week is over.

 Today, however, I decided that I must make the most of being hangover free and have taken myself to San Sebastián to spend the afternoon surfing, before the strong winds that are forecast swoop in and ruin the swell. Annoyingly, when I arrived, it seemed that the red flag warning had already gone out and the surf shops were refusing to rent out boards. Although the surf here is incredible compared to anything I have experienced back home in South Wales, I miss my lovely Superbrand shortboard that I bought last spring and have only spent one summer with. I keep making plans to fly it over when I visit home but the cost and the awkwardness continually put me off and, for now, I am still hiring.

 I sat on Zurriola beach for a while, wondering how to spend the rest of my day and watching the few surfers who had decided to brave the currents get eaten up by the white water. I then walked around the headland to Playa de la Concha, a beach that I initially decided I hated due to the abundance of tourists and lack of surf, with the intention of finding somewhere calmer to swim.

 When I got there, the sea looked more enticing than I had imagined in the afternoon winter sun. I knew immediately that I was going to get in, even though the memory of swimming in the biting Welsh sea with no wetsuit was making me apprehensive. I headed for the warmest, emptiest looking spot on the beach and began to psyche myself up.

 Families and dog-walkers looked perplexed as I changed into the swimming costume I had originally brought to wear under my wetsuit. I stretched my back and shoulders, achey from forcing myself back into an intense exercise regime after a lazy Christmas. Previous experience and biology had taught me that cold water does incredible things for sore muscles.

Wild swimming 2

 I entered the water. It was cold, but less so than I had anticipated, and I felt relieved as I walked into the shy waves. The further I walked, the bigger the waves. I dived under. The next few moments were the hardest, my head full of nails and my chest full of an ice fire I held my breath through the first few strokes. I don’t know a lot about how to safely enter cold water but I know that it is easy to panic with the initial shock. You feel your chest close up and begin to gasp for breath. You do not last long when this happens. I forced calm through my body and focussed on the white sun above me.

 I adapted quickly as my arms cut through the water and the incredible ocean energy filled my body. It was hard not to stop and take in my stunning surroundings: the low sun, the mountains, the aesthetic edge of the city. But I knew that if I stopped the cold would bite.

 I’m not sure how long I was in the water, but I know that it was a great deal longer than on Christmas day in Wales, and a lot more enjoyable. I felt that I could have stayed in longer but I was nervous about how my body would react and I didn’t want to be alone, in a city where I know no one, with hypothermia. In future, I would like to time my swims as I feel that, while in the water, my brain is putting all of its power into fighting the cold and my concept of the passage of time is jaded.

 As I was getting out, I realised that people were watching me from the promenade, sharing  glances and comments that probably referred to my stupidity (people in Spain generally have an extreme aversion to the cold). I wrapped myself in my towel and huddled into myself to create a small amount of warmth. A girl walking briskly across the beach slowed to ask me if the water was cold. Not wanting to turn anyone off going for a swim, I replied “un poquito”. She said that she has always wanted to take up winter swimming and, with very little authority on the subject, I assured her that she definitely should.

 After quickly getting dressed and still struggling to warm up, I went to get a coffee to warm my hands and insides. Aware that the surge in brain power I was experiencing after my swim was a rare one that wouldn’t last forever, I ran to buy a notebook from a shop on the seafront to record the event. Not wanting to leave the sea, I walked a little way up the headland to watch the sunset and start writing before the buzz began to fade.


Warning: If you are thinking of taking up wild swimming, do so safely! Get advice on how to avoid cold-water shock, check the currents, and take someone with you.

Madlen Iola, foreign affairs and art editor

Photos and artwork: authors own

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