Joe Minihane braves icy Brighton waters for a front row seat at a starling display
Last autumn I told myself that I was a winter swimmer. That this, finally, was the year. Yet casual daily dips off of Kemp Town beach throughout September had, by October, become weekly forays involving extra layers and nagging doubts about the tumbling temperatures.
Come November, as the pebbles turned slippery and cold beneath the worn soles of my old New Balance, these weekly forays had become fortnightly trials. By December, they were monthly missions requiring high doses of gumption and litres of sweet instant coffee for relief and recovery.
Despite swimming all over the UK in all weathers, finding solace from my anxiety in the cold and feeling the water’s grasp ease the frayed edges of my mind, I find winter swimming extremely difficult. Every year I promise myself I’ll make the transition from fair-weather summer dipper to hardy, swimming warrior of the winter. Every year I have failed, retreating to the neoprene prison that is my beaten up surfing wetsuit.
Guilt is not something I believe I should feel when I swim. But when I put on my wetsuit I cannot dampen down an acute sense of shame, as if I am failing. I am fearful I will not feel the full cold press of nature on my chest, that I will not sufficiently shove away the anxiety that has stalked me throughout my adult life. This, despite knowing that any swim is good for my condition. And that my swimming hero, Roger Deakin, was a fully paid up member of the wetsuit club. It’s just that he didn’t talk about it much.
I tell myself this on the early February afternoon when I meet Ben at Brighton Pier. Ben and I are working together on a short film based on Floating, my retracing of Deakin’s Waterlog, which was first published last year. After failing to feel the zing of single figure salt water course up my calves in January, today I am getting trussed up in wetsuit, boots, gloves and hood for a special dip. Ben wants to swim (and film) beneath the starling murmurations which occur here every evening throughout winter. To get the shots he wants, we’ll need to be in the water from the moment the birds first coalesce into their shape-shifting form until they dash into roost on the slick, weedy beams of the pier.
Ceaseless sets of rollers, peeling right to left and rising up the beach as they hit an invisible shingle bank, belie a calm sea. The water is cobalt as I wade in, out of my depth within three strides, the tide aiding my long arcing strokes, turning my languid pace rapid. The birds arrive in threes and fours as the sun slips beneath a high bank of cloud and glints off of the wind farm on the horizon.
I swim in a broad breast stroke, head back, eyes high, as the starlings become one amorphous body, their merry dance wending one way and the other as it edges along the shoreline from the burnt out West Pier towards us. On the promenade, I catch sight of a smattering of tourists braving the late winter cold, leaning over the railings, cameras and phones poised. Ben is swimming somewhere behind me, but I am only aware of the gulls cackling near the beach, the waves’ slow slump and the ethereal group of starlings which are now swirling above me, minus a single conductor, but orchestrated to natural perfection.
I have watched the starlings from the beach throughout the three winters I have lived in Brighton. Their performance is unknowable and I have actively avoided seeking out reasons for their nightly gatherings, although I am aware of there being no concrete understanding of why they feel the urge to come together like this in the winter months.
While on dry land a murmuration is mesmeric, from the water there is a sense that I am not the observer, that, as whenever I swim, I have become part of the scene. They are not doing this for me, for us, but for themselves. I lie on my back, the hood protecting my neck from the icy chill, and watch as they arc in perfect unison. Each bird’s iridescent breast sparkles as they drop towards me, flattening to a browny black as they spin skywards.
As the sun drops further, the birds do too, strung out across a hundred metres one moment, balled up tightly the next. We have been swimming for 20 minutes when the starlings begin their swoops towards the pier, as if sussing out their landing pattern. One pass. Two passes. Three. The gliding of wings during the murmuration turns to frantic flapping as the single form splits, eviscerates itself into a thousand pieces, and comes home to roost.
The sun has gone now. I splash my hands in joy on the surface and let the rollers carry me back to the beach. I might have managed a few brief minutes without the wetsuit. But I would not have become one with the starlings, been part of their world. I peel off the neoprene, bundle the sopping mass into a bin bag, and promise myself not to be so down on its abilities to gift such spectacular swims during the year’s coldest months. No more guilt, no more shame. Just swimming.
Floating: A Return to Waterlog is published in paperback by Duckworth Overlook on 5th April 2018.
Ben Cox’s film based on Floating will be out this summer. Keep tabs here.