Open water swimming in Morecambe Bay provides welcome antidote to pressures of Covid-19 pandemic

Nearly 50 intrepid open water swimmers emerged from lockdown into splashdown, as they plunged fearlessly into the icy incoming tide near the Clock Tower.

Friday, 11th December 2020, 12:30 pm
Some of the MALLOWS open water swimming group enjoy an icy dip in Morecambe Bay. Picture: Tony North

And for many of those venturing into the water on a regular basis, the bone-chilling experience is proving a wonderful antidote to the pressures of the pandemic.

They point to significant benefits, both to mental health and physical well-being, after emerging from the bay, exhilarated and re-invigorated.

And the man who began the whole thing, Jon Gibirdi, says numbers are growing all the time – he launched MALLOWS (Morecambe and Lancaster Lancashire Open Water Swimming) – in 2017 with just himself on the list.

Some of the MALLOWS open water swimming group enjoy an icy dip in Morecambe Bay. Picture: Tony North

Now there are 2,000 members, spread throughout north Lancashire, many of them happy to take on the tidal challenge after finding their own swimming pools closed during the pandemic.

Jon began open water swimming in 2015 after his running days were virtually ended by knee pain. It led him to competitive events in Windermere and practice sessions in the River Lune.

He said MALLOWS took some time to get going, but word of mouth soon saw numbers surging, the group growing far bigger than he could ever have imagined.

“Lots of members have said it has helped them physically and mentally and I feel good knowing that,” he said.

“I’ve struggled at times myself but the outdoor swimming and the friends I have met have helped a lot.”

Mike Duviau, another member who believes open water swimming helps people during the pandemic, said the activity “really makes you feel alive...zingy! At first it’s that cold you cannot think of anything, but then it clears your head.”

Many of the swimmers follow a course parallel with the shore and afterwards, after a quick change in the car park and a warming cuppa, will help clear litter from the beach.

On this particular morning, things livened up when Tyson Fury jogged by, graciously declining enthusiastic invitations for him to join the group in the sea!

There are many personal reasons why people take comfort from open water swimming.

Nicola Lewis-Dixon is a fine art photographer, now creating her own video showing how the open water challenge helps the healing process.

“I had very invasive surgery (hysterectomy after stage 1 cervical cancer) in May with very limited support from the NHS because of the situation and limited ways to strengthen and exercise,” she said.

“I joined the MALLOWS Facebook page, asked a few questions and found a local lake that allowed swimming on a Thursday morning. I sat along the sidelines for a week or two, then swam along the edge, strengthening.

“Then I started to fully swim in a weak fashion and I was hooked.

“My local private lake has closed because of the latest lockdown, forcing me in rivers and the sea which, obviously because of extra dangers, has to be done with caution. But I’m not letting anything stop my recovery.

“The cold has helped my mental health and has numbed the chronic pain I suffer, avoiding the need for anti-depressants or pain medication.

“I’ve made some wonderful friends who I can wave at from a distance, and although restricted, it has been a wonderful community.”

Laura Gates, a primary school teacher, keen swimmer and outdoor pursuits enthusiast said at the beginning of 2020, she was very unfit, but aiming to work on her health and fitness for helping with rugby, which she started in September 2019.

“With the season cancelled, walking and then swimming allowed me to keep going with my fitness and weight loss,” said Laura.

“I’m now fitter, healthier physically (I have lost over four stone!) and definitely mentally healthier.

“This winter lockdown has been a lot harder with the weather being a lot worse, but being able to keep swimming is amazing and brings me such joy.

“The bite of the cold water, the adrenaline, and then the sense of peace is wonderful. With the dark evenings, being in a river or lake, floating and looking up at the stars on a clear night is just....wow!”

Jen Bourne, a single mum of young children, faces daily challenges from chronic fatigue and epilepsy.

Jen said: “I have seizures every night, ranging from 0-8 a night. I have recently joined MALLOWS so I can swim safely and also because I realised that continuing open water swimming throughout the winter was having a beneficial effect on my seizures.

“My triggers are stress and tiredness; being a single mum is a juggling act so 15-20 minutes of me throwing myself into the sea manages my health and mental health.

“When I’m not feeling great my kids are young carers for me.

“They have been taught what to do in an emergency and who to call, and First Aid, even the recovery position.

“As a result of swimming, I have a better night’s sleep.

“Then, the next day, I wake up with a spring in my step so I am sticking with the swimming. I love it.”