By Poppy-jayne Jones
It’s been seven years since I joined the Devon Wild Swimmers at Plymouth Hoe, salt and sea-tide and pushing to one side the idea there may be one lone killer whale hanging beneath the bay waiting, waiting, very specifically, for my toes. If it hadn’t been for Pauline Barker and a crew of swimmers helping me that day; to get in, to exist, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened. As such my gratitude for this passion that has seen me through the challenges of early motherhood, work and day to day life I credit entirely to them.
Somehow, quickly, I became exclusively attracted to night swimming, the sparkle of city lights from out in the deep, complete darkness. I loved learning how to pack the required kit, a torch, a tow float, a hat. There was something magical about joining a smaller, observant gathering. It felt like prayer, though I’m not personally religious. Max would look out at the ocean and just know, he'd know instantly whether it was safe to go, and we all trusted him. To this day, I’d venture into fully buoyant, choppy waves if that man said it was safe, he knew the sea. Six in the evening, each week one winter we’d congregate to heal something quiet that naturally splinters in all of us - whatever that splintering may be. Swimming is, for me, the greatest of resets. Other times it is singing, writing and sometimes I combine the three, sing to the water, write in the relief of an aftermath.
There is nothing quite like full immersion, the endurance of year-round natural change. That first year, and to be honest the second I remained mostly in wetsuits. I never felt forced or ashamed of my choices, sometimes I’d pull the zip just to let cold water touch my spine, other-times I wouldn’t. When, as often I do, I take out first timers, I encourage this lack of self-assessment. As long as we are safe we should come to the water as we feel most comfortable. During the late Spring I attended meets, training sessions in Cawsand and, within my early pregnancy, my now six year old daughter came along for the ride, gently held on the ocean’s refrain. I will always remember those kicks that told me, ‘Time’s up, get me out, Mum.’ I heard her, I honoured her experience and didn’t swim again until she was nearly a year old, the longest gap since first I began.
No matter the challenges faced, swimming has been a constant. In lockdown it was everything to me. I watched as people longed for tracks, bicycle paths, gyms but for me it was the ocean, the rivers and lakes. With careful organisation, I had the fortune of a trip to Dartmoor, when we were allowed to, to smash ice with a mallet at Crazywell Pool one Winter. It was New Year’s day and there a friend and I swam, learning about ourselves, conditions and tolerance levels on one entirely alien, misted dawn. The opportunities are abundant for this hobby, you can do as little or as much as you feel safe doing. Within Plymouth there are multiple groups and spaces as well as local hidden spots you can seek in your boldness.
The tricks I’ve learnt along my journey are small to be honest, check wind speed, swim in company, watch for the slice along the water line, particularly at Firestone, take a warm flask of water to pour on your toes when you finish and splash your wrists and neck when you get in to help with shock. To be honest though, we all have and find our own way – the key is just to get in where you feel safe to start.
In addition, our city is lucky to have beautiful lidos, Mount Wise is a personal favourite of mine, it is also free so don’t be deterred if cost is an issue. These days the rivers call me, the Dart, the Erme and Avon. No book can show you the magic our county holds, it’s word of mouth, it’s sisters sharing their secrets, it’s communion with water.
This does not mean you have to go hunting for new spots to feel connected. I always feel instantly at home when I return to Tranquility or the Hoe, particularly for the Chestnut Appeal races which I highly recommend for kinship in abundance. Thanks to those beautiful spots I've now swam up and down the country, attending races, full moon meets, cave swims and more late night adventures than I care to admit. The opportunities are endless and I encourage anyone to explore them. You'll never be alone.
I suppose this blog is just a small conversation, a love letter to the wide ocean, those rushes you get from cold water, the release, and all the companions you can meet while you drift away from land and all it holds. Remember, the distance doesn’t matter, the way you swim, what you look like, how you get in, it only matters that you show up, any burdens in your hands and wash them free, take the load off, float and let yourself be. Our human experience is so fleeting, full of slippery wishes, indulge one, get a costume on and get out there, filled with your unique stories and explorations. And in that sea you can pass your wisdom to someone else, freely, in the blue. It is a community that means so much to me, and I will ever be grateful for those safe-harboured, well-held beginnings. Dedicated to the Devon Wild Swimmers.