Against the Current: Joe Minihane Talks Outdoor Swimming, Managing Anxiety and the Power of Instant Coffee
KinaMara caught up with Joe Minihane who spoke to us from his writing retreat in Brighton. We asked him about his book, Floating: A Life Regained, and how outdoor swimming has transformed his life – especially as a way of managing anxiety.
When did you start outdoor swimming and where?
It must have been Hampstead mixed pond about five or so years ago. I can remember it was a warm summer’s day, there was a huge queue and it was absolute pandemonium. I was reticent at first, but I remember easing myself in down the metal steps and that it struck a chord. I felt a real delight in being outdoors and surrounded by nature. Although I already walked and cycled a lot, this felt different – total immersion!
What do you enjoy most about outdoor swimming and what’s your favourite place to swim?
In Waterlog, Roger Deakin sums up the wonderful sense of perspective when you are swimming out of doors – he calls it the frog’s eye view. And then there’s the endorphin rush you get after a chilly swim. Of course, the fact that you are exercising give you a sense of well-being too.
As for my favourite places to swim, I love the Hampstead ponds in north London, because you’re at the heart of nature in one of the biggest cities in the world. My second stand-out swim was in the bays around Bryher in the Scilly Isles. It was September, but still very fresh. I remember the incredible experience of swimming over kelp forests and starfish and then flopping out onto these beautiful sandy beaches.
If I can squeeze in a few more, I’d add swimming down the narrow gorge of Hell Gill in the Yorkshire Dales with a pine forest either side. And Brighton beach, because it’s home!
What was your most exciting / scariest outdoor swimming moment?
There was an important moment on Walberswick beach in Suffolk. I was about half way through the swims that I wrote about in Floating: A Life Regained, but had broken my wrist and was swimming with a plaster cast.
Like any challenge, when the end isn’t yet in sight, it was starting to become stressful. Especially with the injury. But Walberswick was the first swim without the cast and it was a revelation, helping me regain the energy and excitement needed to complete my journey.
The other really exciting dip was finally getting to swim in Roger Deakin’s moat at Walnut Tree Farm. It was the last of the 70-odd Life Regained swims. Getting out of the freezing water into one of the first warm days of the year, at the end of such a massive project – well, the endorphin high was something else.
What role has outdoor swimming played in your wellbeing, both physical and mental?
I’d reached a point in my life a few years ago where coping with anxiety was increasingly challenging. As an emotion, it’s extremely pernicious. It creeps up on you unawares, out of nothing, especially if you are working alone. You can find yourself driven to distraction by the smallest things.
But getting in water calmed me down. I think that everyone needs to find a way of stepping away from the irrational anxieties in their life. Exercise does it on many levels. You find ways of putting a crisis into context. Swimming also helped me realise that the thought processes that generate anxiety aren’t normal and can be managed – it’s the perspective thing again that helps.
I wrote about this a lot in Floating: A Life Regained. That was a formative episode in my life. And now, here I am in Brighton, with a five-month-old son who’s already learning to swim!
What do you consider to be the biggest change in your life since you started outdoor swimming?
As well as helping me confront my anxiety, it’s given me the opportunity to travel to so many outstanding locations, including those inspired by Roger Deakin. I’ve met so many fantastic people as well. There’s no doubt that swimming with a group of friends is a wonderful experience.
That said, I still enjoy the opportunity to swim alone. Jessica Lee puts it nicely in Turning, the joy of simply picking up your basic swimming gear and finding the quiet spaces away from the crowds. That’s still what I love most of all.
What matters most to you when choosing a swimsuit for outdoor swimming?
For me comfort matters more than anything. I’m not a huge fan of wetsuits because they’re the opposite in so many ways! That said, I’m currently filming with a team all over the UK. Having to stand in water for 20-30 minutes at a time to make sure the crew have the best shot means that relented and dug out my favourite surfing wetsuit and a good pair of gloves and silicon cap.
What are your goals for outdoor swimming in the next year or two?
I’m looking forward to completing the film – the director is Ben Cox who has a really clear vision about what he wants to convey from the shoot, especially around the ideas of swimming and anxiety. We’ve got a few more swims to complete next summer and then everything should be ready for the final edit.
What is your favourite post-swim recovery snack/food/tipple?
When I was younger, and definitely pre-fatherhood, the post-swim drill was a quick cup of tea followed by two pints of Guinness and a burger. That was ok, as long as you had the freedom to sleep for five hours after.
These days food is less important than having a warm recovery drink at hand. One of my earliest memories of swimming was overdoing it in the men’s pond at Hampstead and being very, very cold indeed for a long time after. Black tea helped me then and it’s always a standby now whenever I’m swimming. I also want to put in a shout for sugary, milky, instant coffee. It’s much underrated but really hits the mark. Don’t knock it!
Floating: A Life Regained, by Joe Minihane, is published in the UK by Overlook Press
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