... to my wild water wanderings, salty sea swims, and other alluring alliterations.
Not Without My Goggles is a new series of emails/posts about sea swims, ocean vibes, and maritime musings. My name is Shona, I live in Wellington, I’m a former journalist and a history/conservation writer (I’ve written two maritime history books) and soon-to-be Masters student (science communication and marine biology).
This photo was taken at Lake Tarawera, April 2021. One of my favourite swims last year and it really helped me during a tough period. In previous years I never for a minute would’ve considered swimming in autumn.
Last week I looked back on my ‘Ocean swims journal’ Google Doc, which I started in early 2021 after getting into the sea almost daily and in most weather, and realised I had jotted down almost 30,000 words (and taken hundreds of photos). People tell me they’re interested in my swims, so I’m going to start publishing stories about them if you want to follow along. I also have a waterproof camera, so I can take you with me on some of the swims!
This time a year ago I could barely put my face in the water. I’d try front crawl and give up after a few spluttery strokes. I’d also never swum in the sea by myself before, only venturing in for a few refreshing dips with willing friends or family on the hottest summer days, so getting into the water alone was a big step. Having written a few books about the sea, I’d decided I wanted to get to know it better – how it felt to immerse myself in the cold water, experience the sights and sounds around me, and expand my comfort zone.
First swim-related purchase: I bought a cheap, short-sleeved wetsuit from The Warehouse to help me get in the water without freezing, and to stay in for longer than a few minutes.
Second swim-related purchase: Goggles! I bought them at the pool shop and the woman let me try them on so they actually fitted well. I could now put my face in the sea and reassure myself that Jaws wasn’t lurking below the (knee-deep) surface. That the murky dark blur was… my left arm.
I remember vividly the first day I went in the water that wasn’t a hot sunny day. The local beach was deserted, the sky was grey and moody, the water rippled from a steady cold southerly. I was nervous. But I’d been inspired by a local woman in her 70s, a friend of my in-laws’ who had been sea swimming for 40 years. Surely if she could get in the water without a fuss, I could too? She kindly came along with me that day (newbie tip: find a swim buddy) and glided through the grey water while I did some splashy breaststroke close to shore. The wind on my wet hair was cold (no swim cap: rookie mistake!). After we emerged she changed into clothes she’d brought along, flicking her towel around and expertly dressing herself in seconds while I stood there with teeth chattering (mistake 2.0! I should’ve gotten dressed immediately and had a hot drink). It took me ages to warm up afterwards, even in the shower (mistake 3.0! Better to keep my body moving than to stand still under hot water).
Gradually, I learned these lessons and more. But now I’ll fast-forward through 2021 so this post doesn’t turn into a Homer-length poem.
I signed up for swim lessons at Freyberg, thinking I’d do one or two sessions. I did many. My first lesson was learning how to blow air out underwater. Kelly Bentley was my teacher, a lovely positive person who always told me I was doing amazingly. This kept me going back and practising. If she’d shaken her head or pursed her lips, I’d have quit in a flash (such was my confidence level).
I started swimming (or dipping) regularly. I also started talking about it on Facebook and at school pick-up, expecting to motivate others to come along. While people were interested to know more, only one person actually met me on the beach: Kim. We started texting each other for swim meet-ups.
I read a lot of books about wild swimming, listened to podcasts, looked at websites, joined Facebook groups. I wanted to be inspired and also do it safely.
I became a Friend of Taputeranga Marine Reserve.
Once I could comfortably swim front crawl for 1km in the pool, I joined a swim squad (sadly that folded after August 2021 lockdown when we remained in Level 2).
I swam in the sea all year – in summer it was 80:20 sea vs pool, in winter more like the other way around. But I was in the sea every week except the two weeks of Level 4 lockdown in August (no sea swimming allowed).
I joined a WhatsApp group of local ‘wild’ swimmers/dippers after we met at a mid-winter swim event. We began meeting every Saturday morning at a quiet cove.
Most importantly, I learned that regular sea swims help to keep me calm, grateful, mindful, energised, and away from my phone.
I’ll write about all these things in more detail later. But for now, we’re in January 2022 and my goals are to keep swimming in togs only (some call this swimming ‘in skins’) for as long as I can, do a swim event, swim in more locations and further, set up a fundraiser, do sunset and full moon swims (my first dawn swim was at 5:45am a few days ago, loved the still, pink water). I’m in it more for the enjoyment than anything else – I’m not fast and I’m not competitive with anyone but myself. I want to swim safely, keep learning and exploring, and share what I’m doing with anyone who is interested.
For summer swims I go alone and swim between 500m and 1km every day, or just go for a fun dip with others (sometimes both). My personal rule is to stay within my depth if swimming alone. With others I’ll swim out to the buoy (about 100m offshore). I almost always swim on Miramar Peninsula because that’s where I live, but will happily try new places. Whenever I see a body of water now, my first question is: can I swim in it? Holidays have to involve swimming, no matter which season.
One of the highlights for me in the water is also seeing the marine life. A year ago I would jump at the sight of my wetsuit zip tag floating in the water. Haha! Now I enjoy the seaweed (so important), the starfish, crabs, jellyfish (not lion’s mane), salps, little fish… I’ll be writing about them too.
I feel like I’m done with pools for now because it’s warm outdoors, I don’t need lessons, and I want to be in nature. The sea is free, it’s nearby, it’s boundless – I don’t have to go up and down lanes and dodge other swimmers.
Thanks for reading this far. Happy swimming, even if it’s virtual! And let me know if you have any comments/questions/thoughts etc. This isn’t my first newsletter but it is my first swimming newsletter, so it’s very much a work in progress (rather like my swimming).