“All you need is a swim costume, a bright hat and some goggles.”
One of my favourite members of my swimming group (don’t tell the others!) is very fond of saying the above, whenever anyone asks what they need to go swimming in the sea. For all intents and purposes this is 100% accurate. Just get your cossie on and get in there.
HOWEVER…There are lots of other things that make the swimming experience sooo much more comfortable! The big question most people ask is “do I need a wetsuit?” Well the short answer is; no, you don’t. The long answer is; it really depends of your own personal ability, as well as where and when you are swimming, and what kind of swimming you want to do!
I started my swimming journey in late February, in the North Sea, in “skins” (the term swimmers use for non-wetsuit swimmers). I did, however, treat myself to some neoprene socks and gloves, which were a godsend, as you can imagine it was blooming cold! I know that I am quite good in cold weather, I always prefer being cold than being too hot, so I thought I’d give skins swimming a go. The first time I officially went in the sea was about 4 degrees, and I managed about 10 minutes, which I think is pretty good going (I’m still not sure why I chose February to start, why didn’t I wait ‘til June!!). If you are more of a warm weather person, you might be better off trying a wetsuit. There are lots of places you can go to get fitted for one, and you can even get second-hand ones or hire them, if cost is an issue (another bonus of skins swimming!). You can get different thicknesses too, depending if its for winter swimming, summer swimming or surfing. If you intend on swimming miles, for hours, even in warm water it’s recommended to wear a wetsuit. Doing loads of exercise in cold water, especially if you’re new to the sport, is knackering, and the suit not only keeps you warmer, but helps with a bit of buoyancy, so you can rest if you need to. Also consider if you’re planning on getting into the competitive side of open water swimming. Lots of organised events insist that you wear a wetsuit, so it might be worth the investment.
That all being said, I do know some people who began in wetsuits, and have made the transition to skins. I’ve never swam in a wet suit, but they tell me it’s much better without it… I must say that for me part of the attraction of swimming is the feel of the water on my skin. It helps me remember where I am (literally and metaphorically!) in the world and makes me feel in touch with nature! Also it’s easier to dive to the bottom to investigate a crab or some starfish without all that neoprene!
So we’ve tackled the big question, next, all the added extras that will make your life easier.
Hat – Essential I recon. Get a bright one so you can be seen from the shore and by boats. They also act as extra insulation so stop you losing heat. In the winter I wear two or three; two silicone ones with a neoprene one underneath. I find the neoprene one so cosy, and it’s got a chin strap so it covers my ears.
Goggles – Essential too. You can’t check out all those fish with fuzzy water eyes! Loads of swimmers and websites recommend a ‘particular brand’, but I prefer the ones I just got from a sports shop. Try them on before buying if you can, to check that they fit your face comfortably. If you can get tinted or polarised ones, I’d go for it. The sea can be like snow, it reflects the sun so brightly it can nearly blind you!
Robe – I also think this is essential. Something big and roomy, preferably towelling, to get changed under. There are some big name brands out there, but you don’t need anything really fancy. The first one I got was from Amazon and was about a tenner. Or you can even sew two towels together at the top and sides, just make sure the arm holes are big enough to pull your arms in!
Shoes – Sometimes where we park there can be uneven ground, or broken glass, so I always have a pair of flip flops in the back of the car. If you’re going on a bit of an adventure you could take a pair of swim shoes (waterproof shoes with solid soles and flexible tops) to protect against underwater rocks or coral. Swim shoes are rubbish on sandy beaches though, as the sand gets in all the tiny holes in the top.
Socks and Gloves – You can buy neoprene socks and gloves; they’re what surfers and divers wear too. I found they were really handy on those early days when it was cold, and I was still acclimatising. I’ll probably put them back on when winter comes around (maybe!). Oh, also if you swim in lakes it means you don’t have to feel the yukky muddy bottom between your toes! Do make sure you don’t walk around on pavements or car parks with them on, as I have learned at my peril. This will wear them out super quick!
I'll be doing another post next week all about the rest of the kit you can get. I'm thinking clothes for getting warm, things to keep your valuables in when you're swimming, and maybe the best post swim snack!
Hints and Tips:
Shop around, you don't necessarily need the most expensive or most popular bit of gear.
Get what works for you. Don't be pressured into anything. If you don't get any joy from your swim there's no point!
Ask around. The people that swim where you swim are the most knowledgeable of them all. They'll probably let you borrow or have some spare gear if you ask. I've loaned out my hats, goggles, rash guard and gloves before!
There are also more and more places to get sustainable swimwear, so if you can, buy something that wont harm the sea, and your swim will feel even better!