The Winter World Swimming Championships are taking place in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. For people who love cold water swimming, it’s the ultimate challenge of endurance and courage. At this time of year, the water is just above freezing, which tests the participants to the limit.

The swimmers will be navigating their way around the icy waters of Noblessner Harbour. This year, BBC News reports that two NHS workers from Lincolnshire have made the journey to Estonia to take part in the event. Nicola Housam and Frances Mills from Boston will not just be competing, but also attempting a world record.

The hardy pair are founding members of the Boston Bluetits Chill Swimmers, and they will both be taking part in the front crawl relay. Ms Housam, an Advanced Clinical Practitioner in Dermatology, will also be competing in the 25m and 50m breast stroke, and Ms Mills, a Specialist Family Practitioner, is also competing in the 25m front crawl.

As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the ladies will be donning a wetsuit to take part in a world record attempt for the largest ever swimming relay in Noblessner Harbour. A further 58 members from Bluetits Chill Swimmers groups across England will be travelling to Tanninn to take part in the event. 

Ms Mills said: "We are not doing this to win medals, but instead to take on personal challenges in the most beautiful of settings."

Ms Housam said: "When swimming pools closed during the pandemic, I often found myself in the River Witham with my long-suffering husband serving as my lifeguard, lookout, and kit monitor."

The Bluetits Chill Swimmers group is a friendly and supportive world-wide community with 120,000 members. It began in 2014 when Sian Richardson, a seasoned marathon runner, wanted to try an activity that put less strain on her joints, and had a go at cold water swimming. 

She soon discovered that swimming in the Pembrokeshire sea through the wintertime was a joyous mental as well as physical challenge, and other people noticed how much fun she was having and began to join her in the chilly waters. This was the beginning of the Bluetits. It’s not an official club and there are no membership fees, and anyone is welcome.

However, it’s advisable to do some preparation before jumping into the near-freezing water at this time of year. Entering water with a temperature of below 15° can put you at risk of going into cold water shock, which causes the blood vessels close to the skin to close, inhibiting blood flow.

As the circulation slows, it causes the heart to work harder, which can put even healthy people at risk of heart attacks. The shock of the cold can also cause a rapid intake of breath, which increases the risk of involuntarily inhaling water into the lungs. If you do find yourself in this situation, it is important to try not to panic as this can make it worse.

The best way to handle it is to float on your back with your head tilted back and your ears submerged, with your arms and legs spread out for stability, until you are able to call for help or swim to safety.

In order to lessen the risk of going into shock, you need to acclimatise your body gradually to the water. Everyone starts from a different level of tolerance, depending on their level of body fat and how used they are to being outdoors. In winter, it’s advisable to wear a wetsuit for insulation. Neoprene gloves and socks can properly protect the hands and feet.

The wetsuit should be made from neoprene of around 4-6mm thickness, which is a very light, flexible and water-resistant rubber. It should fit snugly, but also allow you to swim without restriction. It’s also highly advisable to wear a brightly coloured cap to make yourself more visible to other people in the water such as surfers and kayakers.

Some people prepare themselves for open water swimming by having colder showers, wearing lighter clothing, and sleeping with the window open to get themselves used to lower temperatures. When you enter the cold water for the first time, make sure that you have someone with you in case you get into difficulty. 

Pay close attention to the weather forecast. If it has been very wet rivers may be flowing more forcefully than usual, and windy weather can make seas and lakes rough and choppy. If you are swimming in the sea, be aware of the tide times and always plan your entrance and exit route from the water beforehand.

Do some gentle exercise such as jogging or star jumps beforehand to raise your core temperature and loosen up your joints and muscles. Enter the water gradually rather than rushing or jumping in. Splash some water on your face, but avoid submerging your head completely until you are more comfortable with the cold. 

As you experience the cold, you may start to breathe in a shallow and rapid manner. Be aware of your breathing, and take long slow breaths through your nose. This will help to keep you calm and thinking clearly about what you are doing. 

Don’t push yourself too hard on your first swim. Stay close to the shore and get out if you feel uncomfortable. Ten or 20 minutes is probably enough for your first attempt. When you get out of the water, have some warm clothes ready and get yourself dry and changed as soon as possible.

Have a hot drink to warm up your core body temperature. It might be tempting to have a hot shower or bath straight away, but this can cause your blood pressure to drop too quickly, so wait until you have returned to a regular body temperature.

Sarah A