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The joy of cold-water swimming: How I learnt to stop worrying and love the numb

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Justin Nurse is ‘the T-shirt guy”’– the guy who went to court with SABMiller over his right to poke fun at Black Label with his infamous ‘Black Labour/White Guilt’ T-shirt, which resulted in a Constitutional Court victory in 2005 and a landmark judgment for freedom of expression in the face of trademark law.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to describe cold-water swimming as a joy. That moment when you get into the water and know that getting there is half the battle. That moment when you surrender to the water’s temperature. That moment when you find yourself lost in the middle of the ocean. That moment when you walk up on to the beach after your swim in a daze.

I didn’t start swimming because I enjoyed it. I did it because I had to. I’m talking about swimming now — in the last few months. If you want to go back to when I first learnt to swim, as a toddler, I had to then as well. I was thrown in the deep end of Newlands Pool as an infant by a fat, cigarette-smoking swimming coach as a way to learn to tread water — much to my mother’s chagrin.

And while I can’t speak to the efficacy of trauma-inducing incidents, still residing in the memory, as a way to warn toddlers such as myself of the dangers of hurtling around the lip of a swimming pool without armbands, I can testify to the merits of trauma-alleviating swimming now, in my 40s.

The joy of swimming. It was the first day of February when I met my sister for a swim at Silvermine Dam at the summit of Ou Kaapse Weg in the Fairest Cape. We were both at the end of our tether. No jobs, no income, little hope. Gym contracts had long been cancelled and lockdown had been endured. We needed something to get us out of our malaise, and there wasn’t an Instagram post in the world that could help us.

My sister had swum a bit at school and I’d played water polo. We’d grown up at the beach body surfing and alongside the pool playing Marco Polo. Our other sister was a semi-professional swimmer and now owns a swim school. On this day we were just the two overweight siblings going for a swim and none of anything else even really entered into it.

We got in the water and swam two lengths. Nobody pulled a hamstring, no one got hypothermia. We traded war stories about how shit our lives were. We agreed to meet again the next week. Which we did. This time we swam four lengths and at the end of that swim, one of us whispered the unspoken idea: should we swim Robben Island?

Fast forward 11 weeks and we were now two weeks away from swimming from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand. A distance of some 10km with a likely water temperature of around 12°C. Over this time I’ve still been swimming because I have to. I’ve swum with a seal along Fish Hoek beach, thinking that it was a Great White Shark that was stalking me. I’ve had what I thought was jellyfish engulf my face, only to find it was a plastic bag. I believed I’d been stung by bluebottles under both my armpits — only to discover later that it was chafe from the saltwater. I was swimming at Silvermine the day a father a few years older than me disappeared and was then found days later, having drowned in the dam.

I’ve lost myself out at sea off the coast of Clifton on the day when Rhodes Memorial, the University of Cape Town and surrounding suburbs were devastated by fire. In that deepwater abyss, I learnt to focus on my breath and my kick. Miraculously I discovered my core. Mostly I just enjoy when the thoughts in my head start to empty and I am filled with the gratitude of being able-bodied and alive. It’s not life or death, but it sure is close.

The water can’t tell how much I weigh. And having a natural Bentley Belt around my waist helps with the cold. And boy, is it cold. My body goes numb from the pain as I convince myself that this is what it’s like getting a tattoo. And because I’ve subjected myself to pain over the years — often in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure — enduring pain for the pleasure of delayed gratification feels kind of novel. The pain and pleasure sit alongside each other as I thrust one arm forward after the other — and then remember to kick.

I’ve been listening to podcasts on the joy of swimming. It turns out that there is a whole world of cold-water swimmers out there with years of experience and insights. In the water, though, I bung Prestik in my ears and wait for the voices to quieten. I’ve been linking up with my sister for swims when we are both in Cape Town; afterwards, we gawk at the squiggles on her Garmin that show off our route. But for the most part, this is a solo endeavour. A personal reckoning.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to describe swimming as a joy. That moment when you get into the water and know that getting there is half the battle. That moment when you surrender to the water’s temperature. That moment when you find yourself lost in the middle of the ocean. That moment when you take your cap off and the cold water rushes over your head. That moment when you walk up on to the beach after your swim in a daze.

Perhaps they are more like incremental realisations than joys. The realisation that I have invested in myself and my wellbeing. That I am mostly made of water and so being in it, surrounded by it, means that I am connecting with myself in physiological ways that I can only begin to fathom. Like a return to the womb. Swimming butterfly through the birthing canal, washing up on the shores of Blouberg Beach, to then breathe a deep sigh of joy.

Monday 3 May

I swam from Robben Island today in a shade over three hours. It was quite easy at the time; now I’m exhausted. Conditions were near perfect and the sea temp an inviting 13°C. Our boat captain (Derrick from Big Bay Events) suggested we push our start back as it’d be one degree warmer today — and it made a difference. Less enjoyable was the anticipation.

I didn’t sleep last night and this morning was a scramble that saw me naked on the boat just off the shore of Robben Island, on account of my Speedo’s drawstring having gone missing in the lining and with numb fingers incapable of prying it out. I doubt the seals would’ve minded, but there were children on arrival at Big Bay boogie boarding and they didn’t need to see a naked not-so-great-white-guy, full of the beans with his banger out, breaching the shore.

As for the actual swim, it was an exercise in application and endurance. Trying to kick as best I could and feverishly throwing one arm after the next. I thought of the people I’ve lost in my life and felt increasingly prepared to welcome death when it comes for me. The sea was a murky grey; when I pulled a hand in front of me, through my goggles it looked as if I was smearing a Milky Way of stars across my eye line with the air bubbles that I’d cupped.

A seal performed alley-oops behind me. I breathe almost exclusively to my left, but on the occasions that I looked right, Table Mountain loomed majestically, a Phoenix that has recently injured its wings, perhaps. The real metaphors were all underwater: this inverted death abyss with an infinity of bubble stars. As if life above the surface — my partner and friend cheering on from the boat — were all just fleeting glimpses that serve as fabulous roadside attractions from a far longer, far deeper astral journey that we are all on.

And so today was something of a spiritual journey to truly know this; and know that whatever is next, in whatever shape and form, will be just as vivacious. I’d like to thank all my friends and family who’ve messaged me and shown their much-needed love to me in this wonderful time. I carried you all with me today, and you carried me too. DM

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  • Marrying a (still currently retired) cold water swimmer made it very easy for me to be the supporter and spectator for these excursions. I’m into adventure sports and would crack jokes about how slow they are, but would never consider doing them myself because I’d be even further behind in reality. There’s something special about a big swim from point a to b, doing it in cold water adds a further dimension that requires combination of mental fortitude and old style stubbornness. I respect all who take up this challenge (and conquer it) and am glad that some can relay the experience so eloquently. Hope to see some inspired by this and taking it on (myself excluded).

  • Love Justin’s writing, his self-deprecating wit and knowledge shared of what we can do once we truly set our minds to it.

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