• Sophie Ruffles

A Polar Winter

Swimming in cold water, without a wetsuit, throughout the winter might seem a bit of a crazy thing to do. But what if you have already done that for the last 3 winters and fancy a challenge?


Well, that’s what the Polar Bear Challenge is for. To push your winter swimming a little further and for a little bit longer.

In 2019 I decided to undertake the Challenge. There is an official website you can sign up to and lots of swim groups have their own challenges or like me, you can go it alone and complete it just for the fun of it.

The Challenge I chose involved swimming at least 250 metres, twice a month between 1 November and 31 March in just a swimsuit.

I am lucky enough to live a mile from a swimming lake with a sauna so finding somewhere to swim regularly wasn’t a problem, or so I thought …but more on that to come. I had also been swimming regularly in the preceding months so the gradual drop in temperature wasn’t a shock.

My first swim in November 11°C, a temperature that would usually see me reach for socks and gloves. But losing them is a bit like your first swim without a wetsuit. You focus on the feeling of cold between your fingers and your toes curling against the sharp cold. It was a wet day and the rain on water was mesmerising. 13 minutes in the water. Just a week later and 1°C drop in temperature my swim was reduced to 8 minutes before my hands started to feel like claws.

Come mid November some friends joined me in the sea at Teignmouth. The squeals of delight and shock at the cold water and red skin make me smile.


At the end of the month and on an anniversary weekend in the New Forest a quick sea dip brings dog walkers over to comment on how mad we are. If only they knew!

Come December the water has dropped to 6°C at Clevedon Marine Lake. It calls for a mince pie as a post swim treat. I swim to the platform and round twice as my skin feels likes it’s on fire. I am alone in the water but a local fisherman watches me amused. He’s wrapped up to the nines. My next swim is back in the lake and while 1°C warmer, fresh water feels colder and heavier. The lake area is flooded and mud spreads between my toes.

Post Christmas I go for a morning paddle boarding and sea swim in Portland harbour. The sea mist shrouds me.



The New Year and the temperature holds at 7°C which I think is pretty kind, although the windier days mean you’re cold before you even get in. I have a week off for a cross country ski trip to Norway and when I get back the water feels colder. It’s better to swim regularly and stay acclimatised.


In February on a trip to Scotland we can't resist a dip in the Clyde. The air and water are frigid but we come out glowing. When we return South, the constant rain puts completion of my challenge in jeopardy. My lake is flooded and closed and Clevedon lake is drained. I check local swim groups for a venue that might still be open and head to Vobster Lake for my last swim. The scuba divers dressed in their dry suits laugh at my blue skin as I head into the water. They may have the fun under the water but they're missing the glorious experience of being able to feel your whole skin tingle as it reacts to the cold water, the concentration of breathing though the cold and the elation as you seek warmth while the blood rushes back. Oh the joys of cold water swimming.




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