After a year of lockdowns, social distancing and restricted freedoms, there finally seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. However, within a year many would like to forget there have also been moments of joy, of self discovery and growth.
Finding solace in the sea, Lottie Lewis sought comfort in the icy waters of the Atlantic, swimming regularly even through the depths of winter. With the cold came clarity, and amongst the uncertainty of the everyday a comfort gained from discomfort. A story of peace found in saltwater...
Adjusting to life in lockdown after the freedom of a winter spent away was hard, but I quickly found solace in the sea. In March when we weren’t allowed to drive, my sister and I would hop on our bikes and cycle to the beach, relishing in the spring sunshine on our skin and cold water on our faces. The expanse of coast and ocean was a relief and a welcome change of scenery to home, and we’d abandon our bikes on the sand carelessly before tearing off our clothes and racing towards the water’s edge, plunging into an escape from the monotony of Groundhog Day.
Over summer we were water babies without a care in the world. Swimming before work with friends, spear fishing and foraging seaweed for dinner, enjoying the small summer swells on our single fins at sunset, faces plastered with zinc. We couldn’t get enough of the ocean.
The months passed and before I knew it autumn had turned to winter, the solstice came and went, the sea temperature dropped, the days grew shorter and the nights were dark. Sea mist rose from the ocean’s surface as the cold dawn met the water, hanging in the air and gently float-ing away through the mouth of the estuary. I found myself scraping the ice from my windscreen and forcing open the frozen car door.
But still I swam.
Sometimes I was organised. I’d check the tide times before I went go to bed, knowing that when the sun rose, the little bay at the mouth of the estuary would be full, buoys bobbing in the gentle current, watched over by sleepy coast guard cottages and protected by the disused life boat station. On these mornings when my mind was calm and my mood was light I’d bring my ruck-sack packed with wool mittens, a dry hat and a flask of tea. Accompanied by my black dog I’d park outside the farm at the end of the single track road. The morning light just breaking through the low winter cloud and spilling slowly out over the river. Frost crunching beneath foot and paw we would make our way down to the sanctuary of our bay.
The hardest part, of course, is getting in. Leaving my muddy boots on the slipway and my dungarees and soft roll neck safely stowed in my backpack, I tiptoe down the boat launch to where the water lapped at the uneven concrete. Deep breath, first foot in, followed by the second. I let the breath out involuntarily as Nica takes up her sentry position at the waters edge. Taking more deep, calming breaths I wade further out into the stillness and safety of the natural harbour. The moment before taking the plunge is always the longest. Every single time, as the water reaches my thighs, I consider not doing it. I could just turn around, my swimming costume still dry, pull my fluffy socks back on and stay warm and cosy. But I am fully aware that this is the hard part and I almost bask in the knowledge that I’ll overcome it. Taking another deep breath as the icy water stings my bare skin and the pale sun slips like oil across the sea’s surface, I drop into the deep. The water is so cold it burns, pushing the air out of my lungs. My body goes into autopilot and I start ploughing towards the pink buoys in front crawl, clawing at the water with my hands, want-ing to get around the floating markers and back out of the sea as quickly as possible. My breath is ragged and the water splashes everywhere, disturbing the peace of the dawn. But I force my-self to regain control. Deep breaths, breast stroke. Calming my inhales and exhales I go into my self titled ‘zen monk’ mode and slow everything down. I head towards the white buoy on the opposite side of the bay, breathing slowly, swimming slowly. Floating on my back I watch the sun rise over the estuary, listen to the sound of the trawlers heading back from their nights work, feel the cold water wash over my freckly skin, relish in the inability for anyone to disturb me; no phone, no friends, no clients. There is nothing but me, Ni and the sea.
Other days the ocean matches my mood. The waves crash over the headland, the winds howls from the north, the sky is ominous and grey and clouds scream across the horizon. My to-do list is endless, my phone won’t stop ringing, there’s a mountain of dirty dishes in the kitchen, Nica’s whining on the sofa and I have so much on my mind I can’t concentrate. Yoga won’t cure me. Coffee won’t cure me. Days like these I stuff my swimsuit in my pocket, bundle my dog into the car and set off for the coast in search of sanctity and sanity.
Stomping along the muddy cliff path with my hat low and my hood up, my hands stuffed into my tracky pockets and Nica following along behind, we head for the tidal pool that appears at low tide. It sits below me, a body of grey-blue calm undisturbed by the raging elements. I drop my belongings on the slippery rocks and instantly splash straight in. Clenching my fists and scowling I fight the urge to retreat and resolutely sink lower into the depths of the rock pool. The cold takes my breath away but I push on, begging the salt water to lift my mood. And then suddenly the madness of the world passes. The still silence below the water envelops me. The cold is so severe and abrupt that I cannot think of anything else. My mood dissipates in an instant. Head burning with brain freeze I open my eyes below the surface and the inky depths stretch out ahead of me to the sea wall. Upon resurfacing the bubble is broken, but so is my negative mind set. Drinking in deep lungfuls of sea air I gently drift towards the wall that separates the pool from the waves, Nica skirting around the outside until she meets me where I’ve half pulled myself up to watch the storm, licking the salt off my pale face. The zen monk zone returns and I feel once again in control, watching the ripples encircle my body as I swim back to my bundle of clothes and haul myself out of the water.
When I first thought about spending a winter at home I had envisioned pints by the fire in a pub packed with locals, nights curled up on my best friend’s sofa eating Mexican food and passing around a flask of tea after freezing surfs. Of course, things turned out a little differently and there was to be no mug sharing or sofa cuddles, and definitely no pubs. Luckily for me, my friends are children of the sea too. Being able to meet someone on a wet and windy January day with the intention of stripping off and diving in has kept me sane through the winter lockdown. It seems easier to take the plunge when you have the encouragement of a woman you love by your side, laughing through gritted teeth and curing a day of working-from-home loneliness. It changes the experience entirely from meditation to shared euphoria. Whether I swim alone or share the moment with others, I never fail to find peace in my daily dips. Even on stormy days, the sea is where I seek calm in the chaos.