By Fi Bailey
Over the past two years I’ve wondered if sea swimming could become a habit for me, the way it has for the women I watch from my kitchen window. The same three women pass the end of my street several mornings a week, re-emerging a few metres from the shoreline with their smooth bright swim hats making neat horizontal lines behind them. I’ve always been put off by the public nature of sea swimming. It’s the thought of those non-bathers looking on in their coats and hats. To make the intention real I’ve arranged a date to swim with a local mermaid; one of those women who manages to swim all year round and seems to glow on land. I’ve begun to prepare for the shock of the sea in March, by dipping my fingertips into the little plunge pool at the nearby baths. The pool usually matches the temperature of sea water in spring, at around twelve degrees; it’s been a sort of dress rehearsal.
In the weeks leading up to the swim I remembered that living close to the sea was meant as a consolation, when an unwanted move took me from Argentina to Scotland in 2012. One night before the move I scrolled through aerial maps of Edinburgh; eventually landing on Portobello beach. The tide was all the way out and it seemed like a soft place to land. Maybe I was distracted by the heat, or the way my newborn son in the crook of my arm unfurled in protest each time the feeding stopped, because I completely underestimated the toll relocating would take. Instead I let these waking dreams take me to a time when I was too young or too drunk to worry about temperatures or currents. Swimming in the sea seemed the simplest thing to do; just synchronise nap time, shove the buggy break on, and enter the water alone; my then-husband already out of the picture.
We arrived in Edinburgh to a flat, miles from the sea, facing south towards distant friends who had fallen into a traditional lifestyle I was failing at. We swam a bit in the city’s Victorian baths but my son shared my fear of deep water and cried so much the staff suggested we take a break from coming.
A shift came when my son began walking and I let him lead the way. Just off a woodland path we found a nearby burn to wade in and from then on I spent the darkest hours of rocking and patting and pleading for sleep, also carving out ways to visit the water the following day; sometimes just long enough to wet our feet and listen to the sound of the current passing between our ankles. That was all it took to draw a line between night and day, to wash away a little of the worries that didn’t belong to me.
In 2016 my son and I finally moved to Portobello. I took my time to seek out company in the sea; experienced and patient company that I could follow into the water at my own pace. I also gave up on my son’s swimming lessons and let him just learn through play like we used to in the stream. It had taken me ten years to enjoy swimming and for some reason I’d expected him to do the same in half the time.
The summer I turned ten, my family camped by a pool with a ledge running all the way around it that you could just fit the ball of your foot on. The bottom was shaped like an inverted pyramid, offering several steep slopes to the deepest point, so I stuck to swimming circuits above the ledge. Late one afternoon I began a final lap of the pool. My six year-year-old sister lay on some grass trailing her arms in the water, as far as she dared go without arm bands.
Sometimes it’s the absence of noise that raises an alarm and halfway round I stopped on the ledge and I looked back across to the empty poolside. My sister was just beneath the surface, turning slow somersaults in her shiny, skirted costume like a wind-up bath toy winding down. It was real drowning, not the kind on TV when people have enough air in their lungs to shout about it. I still can replay every thought as I made my way to her across the section of pool in complete shade. As I parted the fallen leaves I wondered why none of the people nearby seemed to be panicking. Maybe it was the way my sister’s head would occasionally rise above the water, gently, but never for long enough to take in any air.
I eventually caught hold of her long enough to help her grip the edge, but I couldn’t lift her high enough on my own. Each time she slid back beneath the surface she’d lash out at me, making her harder to get hold of. I’ve no idea who it was that helped me get her out of the water, someone taller than me. We rolled her onto a patch of grass and a second later she pushed herself to a seated position and threw open her mouth letting go of the water inside.
That night I lay looking at the nail marks she’d left on my arms and legs, my sister argued she was fine beneath the surface, looking for treasure. The scars faded by the end of the holiday into silvery crescents and by the time we got home what happened at the pool was retold as a slip, a fall; brief and over in seconds. Eventually my part was written out altogether.
When the day of my sea swim comes the audience is small and the tide is out like the satellite view from eight years ago, far enough to give me the perspective I need to ignore imaginary judgements from onlookers. When I struggle with the cold as the water reaches my knees it helps to picture my son, striding into the waves in all weathers; trousers off, arms stretched out. I let each wave hit my upper body the way he does, like I’m asking for it. When I’m in above my caesarean scar and the numb patches surrounding it, the rest of my skin comes alive.
My son told me only those who have learnt to breath under water should dare go in deep. I believed that too at his age, underwater was a place reserved for other people. I thought if you learned to stay under for long enough you could find a true view of the world and your place in it.
Of course, my adult-self knows all that’s left to do is lower my shoulders and lift my feet. For the next few minutes, my joints that carry the weight of the world on land have nothing more to think about, beyond allowing my arms to gently turn me. Once, twice, back to face the Portobello skyline, with all its spires and worn sandstone, too many chimney stacks, and rows of windows; some empty, some dark enough to reflect the northern sky.
I discovered Wander Women when I began searching for sea swimming and outdoor exercise that wouldn’t impact my joints; running and yoga are no longer an option for me. I went along on a series of Fresh Air Fridays to start with, which took me to places in Edinburgh I had no idea existed; from woodlands where fresh garlic grows, to the far corners of Arthur’s Seat which offer a completely new view of the city. It’s all down to Anna that these 2 hour trips leave you with a sense of having been a really long way from the familiarities of everyday life. The food, fire and meditation are always put together with great care and consideration. I found the confidence to try sea swimming with Anna through these mini, morning retreats and I will be booking one of the overnight retreats next. Can’t recommend Anna and Wander Women enough! Thank you.