It’s December 2020, between Christmas and New Year and the temperatures have dropped. The air temperature is hovering around 2C or 3C although it says the ‘feels like’ temperature is under zero. It even manages to sleet. Karen had been determined for us to swim without wetsuits until Christmas. This from the woman who squealed like a scalded pig throughout one of the hottest early summers we have had in years claiming it was so cold, now throwing herself into the chilly Solent in December saying “It’s not too bad”. We managed with surprising ease (although I use the phrase lightly) to get to Christmas with limited extra clothing in the water and on the day itself we swam in swimsuits alone with only the addition of sparkly sequinned Santa hats and glasses of Prosecco! However, the days following were not exactly warm and the thought of the harder months ahead of us seemed slightly daunting. And so yet again, we returned to our circular conversations about wearing a wetsuit.
Until this point the only experiments with wetsuits had been Karen’s purchase of a neoprene zipped jacket. Whilst this in theory provided a layer of warmth, the slow entry of water down the back of the neck whilst swimming, partnered with the change in buoyancy, had rendered her less than excited about this progression. On the up side, the provocative unzipping of the jacket on exiting the waves and her somewhat substantial breasts fighting to get out like a pair of excited puppies escaping a vet bound dog basket, had at least provided an added moment of entertainment. Like a sort of ‘alternative’ James Bond. Not having the puppy issue myself and being in ownership of a very nice wetsuit (a gift from my husband in desperation to ensure I wouldn’t get hyperthermia at some point) I decided to give neoprene a go. And so on the 29th December I donned my wetsuit for a proper trial. I was the wetsuit experimental bunny. At home preparing to swim I squished all limbs into the soft but frankly over firm fabric encasement and became immediately convinced triumphantly that this had taken at least two dress sizes off my figure. Naively I looked in the full length mirror only to be grossly disappointed. As Karen later helpfully pointed out – even a woman we knew who has a very attractive, athletic figure looks a little ‘tubular’ in her wetsuit. There really is no hope for others such as us.
The first issue is not knowing when to put the wetsuit on. Wandering round the house with one arm in, one arm out, I was starting to sweat quite profusely but managed to get it fully on. Although the car run to the beach is no more than a few minutes I had nagging thoughts about having an accident en route and imagined being desiccated before help could arrive. I undid the zip and Velcro before setting off just in case.
Meeting up with my swimming buddy at the beach we realised that the next issue was the order in which to put on the more regular apparel. “Do I put my socks on the outside or the inside do you think?” I ask Karen “I don’t think it matters does it?” she confidently suggests. Well, for anyone intending to wear a wetsuit and neoprene socks it definitely does matter. When I came out of the water a little later the now warmed seawater trapped inside my wetsuit gravitationally gathered in the lower legs, just above the socks. I sloshed with a little difficulty back to the beach hut step with what looked like extreme oedema. (Something to store in the memory for coping in older age.) Similarly, post swimming, we agreed that my gloves would have been better tucked under the wetsuit sleeves rather than over as they now seemed to have trapped quantities of water within the arms of the wetsuit giving me the appearance of Popeye on steroids. Two lessons learned.
Entering the water for the first time in the wetsuit felt like a genuine win. You feel nothing. Karen squealed and huffed as usual but I could just glide in. You glide that is until the sea water slowly creeps in along each centimetre of your body, prolonging and empathising the submerging process. Additionally, a fizz of bubbles started to rise along the gaps provoking a fear that with all the excitment I might have inadvertently farted on entering the water. Thankfully this was not the case but merely an added part of the neoprene experience.
Now fully submerged I sense that all is very different. Karen and I have long since appreciated just how liberating the flow of cold water can feel as it surrounds you. It might sound strange but full body cold water submersion really does give a sense of freedom. With a full wetsuit the feeling is quite different. The buoyancy of neoprene is precisely one of the reasons people wear it, however for me this meant that my body had to perform an inverted banana shape to try and swim. My legs fought to the surface like expensive, overly large champagne corks and left my feet flailing in the air. Karen helpfully laughed. We didn’t quite understand how all those other ‘proper’ swimmers using wetsuits didn’t look as helpless as I did. At this point I was reminded that as a child I had owned a plastic Baloo bear soap dish that floated on his back carrying soap. Flipping onto my back I was forced to embrace my inner Baloo and began to fully appreciate the swimming efforts that that bear had put in.
“You do seem to be quite high out of the water” says Karen. “I feel like a hydrometer” I reply as I bobbed upright as though testing the alcohol levels in a giant vat of home brew.
Yes, the wetsuit kept my limbs warm but on the downside it raised my whole body on to the surface. Karen had similarly not been too enamoured by the wetsuit top a few weeks prior but as we had talked about the possibility of being warmer for so long we had managed to convince ourselves that there must be a magic bean recipe for prolonging our now diminishing swimming time. At this point in time it was 6C in the water and we were generally staying in swimming for around 15 minutes max. As we left the water, me with oedema styled legs and Karen really quite cold having stayed in longer with me, we bumbled up the beach back to ‘our’ hut.
“I reckon I just leave this on now until I get home. Less embarrassing” I said as I pulled my dry robe over the top of the damp wetsuit and emptied my legs. “No…you’re not going to leave it on are you?” exclaimed Karen, “Your car and dry robe are going to be soaked!” And because it is so easy to go along with your friend’s forthright suggestion sometimes I decided to take the wetsuit off. All was fine until the lower leg and ankle peel back. There was no way that I was going to succeed in tackling the wet octopus of a garment without help and needed Karen to assist in pulling (whilst also ensuring that she was the dutiful 2m distance from me). Two grown women battling a sodden sea creature from my feet at extreme distance from one another.
“You don’t see anyone else doing this” I said as a croc shoe disappeared into the innards of the beast.
“Maybe wetsuits aren’t the answer” said Karen.
Karen and I have made the decision to not battle any further with neoprene unless the weather is really very cold and over cast (the neoprene is yet to be revisited at this point). We may well rethink the practicalities in the summer months when swimming longer distances. But right now, we have most definitely come to the conclusion that we prefer swimming without wetsuits and neoprene, other than socks and gloves, plus our flowery hats. We regularly wear rash vests now that the water temperature is 5C (according to Karen’s trusty greenhouse thermometer). Yes, it is cold, but it’s not that cold as evidenced by daily swims. Plus … the bonus of swimming ‘bare skin’ is that you get a full body glow when you get out – what some are calling the ‘Solent Suntan’!