Obviously I can’t say the words ‘Night Swimming’ without starting to sing the REM track of the same name. ‘Night Swimming, Deserves a Quiet Night.’ And thankfully last Friday when my friend Ashley and I swam in The Thames as part of a group with London Royal Docks Open Water Swimming it was a beautifully quiet warm night, weather wise.
To be honest, although I’ve swum in a pool many times in the dark, I can’t think I’ve ever swum in a lake or river at night – probably because I’ve always felt a bit nervous of what could happen if something went wrong. So to go on a proper swimming trip at night which was run by people who are trained to keep a watchful eye on you and rescue you if you get into trouble was quite reassuring.
Ashley and I arrived at Royal London Docks around 6.45 and drank in the brilliant views and the planes flying (very low) overhead from London’s City Airport as the sun disappeared from view behind the cranes and the swanky apartments on the right hand side of the river.
Then it was time to get changed in the nearby Oiler Room. Although wetsuits weren’t compulsory, water temperature was we’d been told around 14 degrees. That’s too cold for me to swim for than a few minutes and I didn’t want to struggle with catching my breath as well as having to worry about navigating the course in the dark.
So it was on with the wetsuit, two swimming caps and a pair of very nice booties before getting our safety equipment and briefing. However there was of course one hardy fella doing it in his budgies (no doubt a bit of a show off!) and a couple of women wearing swimming costumes and novelty hats!
Wearing a NOWCA.org wristband was compulsory. This stores information about you which may be handy if something does go wrong including any medical conditions and next of kin – not exactly ideal preparation for those of a nervous disposition, though thankfully when it comes to swimming at least I don’t tend to get too nervous.
I suppose it would be quite easy to fit each of these wristbands with a GPS chip too, so they could track exactly where you are on the river but I don’t think these wristbands have that facility. Instead we were given glow bands around our neck as well as coloured balloons that tied awkwardly to the back of our wetsuits and which tended to get caught in your arms as you swam front crawl (more of that later).
Silky smooth water
Although I have swum in The Royal Docks before (for The Great Swim a couple of years back) this experience was totally different. For a start there obviously wasn’t a competitive element which made it much more relaxed and much more about dealing with the mental challenge of swimming in a deep body of cold water in the dark, rather than the physical challenge of swimming as quickly as possible to get to the finish line.
Once I’d lowered myself gently into the water from the jetty (pictured above before it got dark) it was simply a case of catching my breath and doing a bit of head up breaststroke to get used to the chill of the water before setting off en route doing mostly front crawl.
The organisers have several courses laid out around the Royal Docks but we just took the shortest 400m route heading anti clockwise towards the cranes where there was a big red buoy. We then swam across the docks, heading to the Crowne Plaza hotel and back around next to the Emirates cable car before completing the circuit.
While some people just went round once, I headed off for a second and then a third time – each time enjoying it more than the last. The only slight problem I faced was I struggled to see where I was going, partially because I’m a bit short sighted (not helped by the fact that my Zoggs Predator Flex goggles kept steaming up), but mainly because it was so flipping dark.
It was OK at first as I followed a trail of glow balloons on the back of people’s wetsuits but as the numbers thinned and people went back in to get a hot chocolate and some food I couldn’t see where I was going. The buoys weren’t particularly well lit but I navigated by the light of the buildings on the side of the docks and looked out for the cable car which was difficult to miss.
So what was it like? Quite magical. Just a couple of complaints. I kept getting my arm caught in my balloon (dangerously so) which meant in the end I had to set it free. Also by the time I had climbed out of my wetsuit and had a shower, with a few people still remaining in the water, the veggie food had all but disappeared!
Still it was a great evening and definitely one I want to repeat some time soon. The people were all lovely, as you tend to find at these events where people have a shared experience, and the water silky smooth and not at all dirty. Great stuff.