Swimming, with an axe!

You may have heard about people in the UK jumping into the freezing sea on New Year’s Day. But what if New Year’s came once a week? Marion Preez is a German landscape architect living in Edinburgh, Scotland, who takes a cold water plunge every week of the year, even when the sea is covered in 10 cm of ice.

Open: How did you start cold water swimming, Marion?
MARION PREEZ: I started one November about three years ago. I was inspired by a friend of mine who’s also East German and really promotes it. She did a challenge of taking a new woman swimming every day through the winter, and invited me to come along.

What was it like the first time?
In Scotland the water is usually warmest in September, and I’d been swimming as late as October before, but that first time with my friend it was November. I think the colder it is the bigger kick you get, more endorphins, and more emotion, the sense of “Oh my God I just did this”, which all leaves you feeling great. That November, for the first time, I got the full effect, and from that point on I was hooked.

Do you wear any kind of special gear, or do you just jump in?
Among wild swimmers there are two camps: people who wear wetsuits and people who just wear swimsuits, like I do. I had some neoprene shoes for the first year, just to protect my feet, but I lost them and never got another pair. Some people wear gloves, but I don’t. I just wear a normal two-piece bathing suit.

Where do you swim?
From where I live it’s about 20 minutes by bike or car to the Firth of Forth, in the North Sea, or about 20 minutes in the other direction to a reservoir. It’s close enough that I go swimming at least once a week, all year round.

Do you really swim in December?
Yes, I do, but I don’t exactly swim laps. As with a lot of wild simmers, for me the goal is simply to immerse myself. In the winter I usually stay in for no more than about 5 minutes. And I usually don’t put my head under water because you just get ice cream head.

Besides ice cream head, are there any dangers associated with cold water swimming?
In the Firth of Forth there are waves, currents and tides that will suck you out, so you have to be able to really swim. That’s much more serious in winter because your body tries to protect and heat up your core by pushing your blood there, meaning your hands and feet get pretty cold and swimming can be hard.

Are there safety precautions to think about?
The air temperature can get down to around -2° or -3°C, and when you get out of the water you’ve got about 10 minutes before your body temperature really drops. That means it’s key to lay out your clothes in order so you can get dressed as fast as possible afterwards. Sometimes I take a hot water bottle and stand on it when I get out, and in winter I always have a flask of tea with me in non-insulated metal so you can get the heat through the metal. In winter, if I go to the sea by myself, then I usually call my husband just to let him know I’m getting into the water and then after so he knows I made it out.

What’s the most extreme experience you’ve had?
I’d been wanting to swim in the ice for a long time, but I hadn’t had the chance until this past winter, when one day I went out and found the ice maybe 10cm thick. I only managed to get in because someone had been there hours before with an axe and opened a hole in the ice. By sunset, when I got there, the ice had already refrozen over the hole, but not very thick, and even though I’d forgotten my axe I used my metal thermos to smash the hole open again and get in.

What do you like about cold water swimming?
One thing is that living in Scotland you just don’t get much warmth, and the winters are long and dark and rainy, and after years living here I felt the winters were getting tougher. But since I started cold winter swimming you just go. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or windy or cold, you just go. You also experience nature differently – you’re immersed in nature, literally. I love hill walking but you’ve always got your boots on, and with swimming, it’s just you and the water.

Has your general cold tolerance increased?
I think I’m much more resistant than I used to be. I’ve stopped wearing full gloves in the winter (I only wear fingerless mittens) and have stopped wearing a hat as well. And when I go in my garden I go barefoot, even in winter.

Do you see this as being therapeutic?
Well, people say it strengthens your immune system but I had Covid and have been suffering from long Covid ever since – and winter swimming didn’t prevent me from getting it, unfortunately. But I definitely think from a mental health point of view it makes you feel happier and more positive just being out there and connected to nature, and with long Covid it has helped with the physical aches and pains.

Is there a sort of subculture around swimming year round?
Yes, and it really exploded with lockdown. When I first started it was only serious athletes, but when pools were closed lots of people started swimming wild. I’m even part of a Facebook group, Wild Swimming Scotland, and people swim all over.

And what’s next? Are you going to keep on cold water swimming?
I’m a cold water addict now, so I don’t see myself ever stopping.