Taking the plunge: Sea swims, kinship and cold-water adventures with the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and Rise Fierce.
A fantastic way to revive the senses and get the endorphins flowing (especially when there’s a luxury blanket to warm up with afterwards), sea swimming is becoming more and more widely recognised for its restorative effects. Diving deeper into the amazing benefits of this incredible activity, we team up with Sarah Walsh and Sophie Reeves of the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and Sophie Hellyer of Rise Fierce, two incredible UK-wide communities empowering women through cold-water swimming.
Living in Cornwall, the sea is a big part of our lives. But has cold water swimming always been a part of your lives too? When did you actively make the transition to cold water swimming?
Sophie H: As a kid, we were lucky enough to live by the beach. I joined the local Surf Lifesaving Club at 13 and surfed competitively from 14 years old – always wearing a wetsuit. I didn’t actually make the switch to cold-water swimming until 6 years ago. I went for an icy, 2-minute winter dip on the west coast of Ireland in just my togs, and that is when it all started.
Sophie R: I started cold water swimming in January 2020. I would be walking on the beach, looking at the sea, and just wanted to be in it! Around the same time Sarah invited me to join the Bluetits.
Sarah W: The sea has always been a big part of my life with swimming, surfing, snorkelling and gig rowing, and it’s now a big part of my children’s lives too. Cold-water swimming is perfect for me. It’s nature’s free playground! That’s what I love about the Bluetits: no fees and freedom!
Is the camaraderie and social element an important part of it? Is it something that women of all ages can get involved in?
Sarah W: The Bluetits was started by the inspirational Sian Richardson in 2014 in St David’s and we’re now international! The social element has been astounding; the laughter and fun of it all is so liberating. There is so much positivity and we have members of all ages – men can join in too! We all have made lifelong friends and affirmed old friendships. We share a uniting bond of the sea.
Sophie R: Yes, definitely being in a group inspires confidence. It wasn’t something I felt brave enough to do alone and the idea of doing it with a group of like-minded women really appealed to me. Everyone in the group is so encouraging and inspiring. We’re a group of women keeping sane by doing something slightly insane!
Sophie H: Community is the biggest benefit of cold-water swimming for me. No matter what you’re going through, it’s the consistency that’s great and seeing the same people every day. It’s how I’ve made most of my friends. With Rise Fierce, the aim is to help other women find communities. At the beginning of the year (2020), 15 women took part in a day retreat we held in Plymouth. Two months later, there are now 52 people all enjoying daily swims there.
What do you think about the fact that winter is nearly here? Does the cold ever put you off?
Sophie H: There are definitely days when it’s more of a challenge. Sometimes it can be nerves. But that’s all part of it: the more challenging it is, the more rewarding. The natural high! The good thing about cold-water swimming compared to other sports like surfing is that it doesn’t have to take a long time either. Sometimes a quick dip is all you need.
Sophie R: I’ve been looking forward to winter since March! I’m actually craving the cold water – and I never thought I would say that! But being in the cold water is not about being cold, it’s about the exhilaration. It makes me feel completely alive and free from all the constraints of life.
Sarah W: The cold is an exciting factor! You think that you can’t do it, and when you do, you feel so euphoric and incredible. It’s the best feeling. As my beautiful Bluetit friend Debs always says: “You never regret a dip!”
Is there a moment that you look forward to most about your swims?
Sarah W: Oh my goodness, yes! That first wave and how when it flows over you it takes all your worries away. When it’s flat, it is that moment of diving under for me; I love to open my eyes underwater and look up at the sunlight through the water. It makes you realise the beauty and power of nature.
Sophie H: For me, the most cathartic moment is when you really relax into it – after the initial shock of the cold. To begin with your body is tense, but then you start to accept the sensations, acclimatise, and take control of your breathing.
What are the health benefits for you? And does it affect other areas of your life?
Sophie H: There are lots of studies that show that cold-water swimming boosts your immune system and circulation. In fact, I suffered with Raynaud’s whilst surfing, but since I started cold-water swimming that’s gone. The benefits are just huge: it’s 100% empowering and you realise you are stronger than you thought you were.
Sarah W: I have struggled with my mental health and the menopause over the past few years. Sea swimming is something I can do for me and it gives me peace: it is so healing and calming. I feel incredible after a swim and I do notice if I haven’t been for a few days. As well as the swimming, friendship is a huge part of Bluetits. It’s really been quite life changing. I have an incredible support network as a result: a real community.
How can people have fun and stay safe?
Sarah W: Safety is a major priority and swimming is completely at the individuals own risk. We do work with Perranporth SLSC and have had wonderful support, training and encouragement from them. People should have a basic level of swimming and tow floats are a must.
Sophie H: Safety is the most important thing: going to lifeguarded spaces, swimming with groups, knowing your environment, packing the right equipment and having lots of warm layers like toasty blankets to wrap up in afterwards. Make sure you stay within your depths and know your exit points too. If you don’t feel confident getting in the sea, you can also go to lidos! Getting in amongst big waves, rips and blue-green algae are all no-nos.
Sophie R: If you feel the cold, wearing wetsuits is absolutely fine too. You can add boots, gloves, rash vests and wetsuit hoods to keep warm. Afterall, it’s about getting in there and feeling comfortable.
Sarah W: Warming up after a swim is important, and there is much hilarity in the variety of clothing and warming solutions that we have come up with. We are coming into hot water bottle season now: clothes and blankets are wrapped in a hot water bottle so that when you get out, you have warm things to look forward to. And a hot drink!
Sophie H: I always have a flask of hot tea!
Why is it important for people to connect with their environment?
Sarah W: Connecting to the environment gives people more understanding of how to look after it. I think we at Bluetits all have a deep respect and love of the sea and want to look after it. We instinctively pick up litter and look after the beach, and write to our MPs about protecting our seas. People are more aware of wildlife and how we protect them and care for them as a result of swimming.
Sophie H: When you are wild swimming, you’re immersing yourself in nature and that gives you a greater insight into what’s going on around you. You see the tangible effects of sewage and plastic pollution – especially after storms when huge amounts of plastic and debris wash up onto the beaches.
What’s next for the Bluetits Chill Swimmers and Rise Fierce, and how can people get involved?
Sophie H: We had to cancel most of our retreats this year due to Coronavirus, but there are still many smaller groups that are meeting all the time. We are monitoring the situation closely and are really looking forward to planning more day retreats around the UK. In the meantime, we’re still organising socially-distanced swims find out more here
Sarah W: Bluetits in Cornwall and the world is going from strength to strength. It’s incredible seeing the positive effect it has on so many wonderful women. We have many things planned for the future. After the success of International Women’s Day last March, with over 140 women dipping together, we were hoping to do this again in 2021. However, with Covid restrictions, new plans are afoot for this to celebrate women and the wonderful, inclusive, and fun Bluetits Chill Swimmers! Get in touch!
For a wonderful way to warm up after a swim, check out our luxurious range of 100% wool and recycled cotton blankets: irresistibly snuggly, warming, and versatile or our recently launched Sea Lovers Gift Set - perfect for seasoned dippers!
Images - Megan Hemsworth and Sophie Hellyer