Lake swimming invigorating and magical

Claire O'Connell: "I call the Sunday swimming my prayer morning." Photo: supplied
Claire O'Connell: "I call the Sunday swimming my prayer morning." Photo: supplied

Annette Lees had a personal quest to swim every day for a year in the natural waterways of New Zealand. Her experiences are recorded in the recently published Swim.

Along the way, locals shared their stories of swimming in our rivers, lakes and seas.  Claire O’Connell, a Lake Wanaka year-round skin swimmer, explains her love of cold water.

The lake's quite cold in winter. There is sometimes ice around the edges. But because it's very deep, the bottom's below sea level so the body of the lake doesn't change temperature very much. It can be seven or eight degrees in winter. Mostly its around 12 degrees. A good wind will mix it all up.

I used to wear a wetsuit in winter, but not any more. I'm now a committed skin swimmer with two winters under my belt. And I love it. It's absolutely freezing when you get in, takes a few minutes for your skin to go numb so you can't feel the cold, then it's just magic. The water tastes different in winter. You can taste the ice. The lake is usually flat and clear. There is no-one much out there. And when you get out, it's the most amazing sensation. Your whole body is alive. I think it's a form of what is now called mindfulness, you're so in the moment. I can't swim for quite so long in the winter without a wetsuit, probably 30 minutes maximum. I do get some long swims in in the summer over two hours.

I see fish, the occasional eel. One fish is a friend of mine. It lives about halfway along the buoy line. There is a pair of crested grebes out there. One of them will come within a metre of me to have a look. One day they were diving and fishing underneath me, and then popped up directly beside me. They're beautiful birds.

Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand, by Annette Lees, published in paperback by...
Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand, by Annette Lees, published in paperback by Potton & Burton. RRP: $39.99
Once we boated up to Mou Waho Island, climbed the hill on the island, and swam across the lake to the little island in that lake. Then I was swimming in a lake on an island in a lake on an island. And I swim where the Matukituki River comes into Lake Wanaka. There's a sharp drop-off there, a very deep hole that is white and clean and sandy from the floodwaters that come down the river and scour it out.

I've swum in Lake Ohau. It is a very blue lake. We swam straight out because I wanted to see if it stays that intense blue, and it does. You can't see your feet in the aqua-blue water. You can taste the silty gravelly flavour of the water.

I love the chop on the lake. It's different to the sea. That's a deep rolling kind of chop. The chop on the lake is shallow. Your hand can be driven in two or three different directions. You can sense when the next one is coming. It's wonderful. You can lie on it and let it toss you about.

The first time I swam in the lake it was for the Wanaka Challenge. I panicked. I hated the crowds in the water. I got asthma and couldn't swim. I nearly drowned. Two friends had to bring me back to shore. It can be terrifying, because you can't see, you're out of your depth. It wound me up a lot. After that I thought, I need to learn to swim. I learned it's all in your head. You have to calm down, get used to the chop, get used to the cold. I did the Challenge the next year and I was OK. I was last back in, but I didn't care.

I call the Sunday swimming my prayer morning. You can't hear anything. It is a very different space, a very meditative space. It's just gorgeous. I can swim forever. Cold water is lovely.

 

Claire O'Connell: "I call the Sunday swimming my prayer morning." Photo: supplied
Claire O'Connell: "I call the Sunday swimming my prayer morning." Photo: supplied

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