Boxing Day Wild Swim – Ballyholme
Surprisingly, December was one of the months I was most looking forward to in my year of wild swim microadventures. When I decided to do this challenge, I was sure I had images in my head of Santa hat-wearing intrepids, braving icy water for charity. All I had to do was find the right event.
Sadly, I looked too late, I assumed all the sea swimming events would be over or after Christmas weekend. I missed a Santa Splash on Northern Ireland’s beautiful north coast. Santa Splash 2017 at Portrush on the 17th December raised over £10,000 for Aware NI, which is amazing! Maybe next year for me!
Luckily, I did find an organised wild swim event for my Microadventure. The Sparks NI Annual Boxing Day Swim took place, as it has done for 31 years at Ballyholme Yacht Club, near Bangor. So I wouldn’t have to swim alone this Christmas.
It was a beautiful Boxing Day as I made my way to Ballyholme. I’m no stranger to the area, I teach in a school in the town. I wasn’t worried about the cold, I was more apprehensive about pupils and parents spotting me if I made a fool of myself! I arrived a little early because I hadn’t registered yet. Registration was easy; in the yacht club a guy in a down jacket with his hood up and sunglasses on took my details. Yip, sunglasses on and hood up, inside. If I had have been anywhere else except a yacht club in Bangor, I would have assumed he was on the run. I made my donation to the club’s chosen charity, Sparks NI. You can find out more about the work Sparks Action Medical Research carries out HERE.
This was the first time this year where I have been swimming outside that I had the luxury of a changing room. Getting myself dressed I immediately noticed the hot showers to the side, I’d be in there later. I put on my old shoes and headed outside to the slipway in front of the club house where quite a crowd was beginning to form.
I quickly spotted the army of divers, and Coast Guard around. In total there were around 12 Coast Guard on water’s edge, roughly six divers in the water and a safety kayak, not to mention the fully crewed RNLI Lifeboat off the beach. I think we’d be safe! The safety measures in place were not surprisingly and were definitely welcome. With the amount of people in the water, some of whom were… “not athletes”… shall we say, safety must be paramount. Many of the swimmers were still feeling the effects of an indulgent Christmas Day and let’s not forget, anyone can succumb to cold water shock.
Let’s talk about the cold, the temperature that morning was a frosty 2°C. As I write this post, 3 days later, the water temperature in Belfast Lough is just under 10°C. It’s pretty chilly. I plan on writing a little bit about “cold water shock” as part of my January Wild Swim blog post.
We lined up on the slip and a man with a megaphone told us what was happening. We were to swim in a clockwise direction around an orange buoy out in the water. The buoy was around 25-30m away hence, this really was a microadventure! Roughly, a 50m-60m swim or just over the length of an Olympic swimming pool.
The siren sounded and instead of the charge I imagined, we cautiously made our way down the slip way into the water. “They’re called ‘slips’ for a reason”, megaphone man warned us.
The water was cold yes, but our adrenaline was up. I was the second person in the water but lost my lead early. It’s hard to swim carrying a camera! Anyway, it wasn’t a race! I was already starting to lose my breath by the time I made it to the buoy. It’s crazy how much the cold affects you. In the frenzy of the turn at the buoy, there was a build up of people. Swimmers behind were hitting at my feet and I was crashing into the swimmers in front. It was a relief to get back into more open water and make my way back to the shore.
When I reached a part of the slip that I could stand on I stopped, not to catch my breath I promise, but to take stock of what was happening. This was a glorious morning for a wild swim and the sea was as flat as a mirror. Except for the 100 odd crazy people splashing about in the name of fun and charity. When I emerged from the water, I didn’t feel cold yet. Like I said, adrenaline was up. And I was still worried about looking like a fool in front of pupils I know. I did see two children I know in the water and heard that dreaded, “Hello, Mr Thompson”. Every teachers’ nightmare outside of school! Kidding… I think.
Straight into the showers where I began to shiver uncontrollably. My fingers ached. When I got dressed, after struggling with my shoe laces, I followed the crowd into one of the function rooms in the club house. To my delight, there were snacks! I was given a hot dog and a cup of coffee. I could have taken a hot whiskey (only in Ireland could this happen at around 11am) but decided against it as I had to drive back to Belfast.
In total, around 100 people completed the Boxing Day Wild Swim for Sparks NI with maybe 4 times that number watching on the shore. I have yet to hear how much money was raised for Sparks NI but when I do, I will update you all.
A huge thank you to the organisers for putting on the event and to those in charge of our safety in the water on the day and every day. And, of course, to whomever it was who made me that hotdog!