Caught by the River

Changing at the Edge: an early morning sea swim

11th November 2021

Tamsin Grainger embraces the cold kiss of Edinburgh’s Wardie Bay.

As I went between the cottages, I wished for the sea to be clear after last time, and it is. (In fact, perhaps the steps are magic because once I was going down to the beach and I thought about seeing someone I hadn’t for months and she was there. Was that a premonition or wishful thinking?) Half a haar is down and the view is hazy, Inchkeith island and the rest of the Forth submerged in water vapour. The tide is a-way out. A gull calls a high-pitched baby cry: A-waaa, A-waaa, A-waaa. 

Hurriedly I strip off, prepared this time with my costume under my dress. Unbuckle. Unhook. Prise the butterflies from the back of my ears and cradle the studs before slipping them in my purse for safe-keeping.

Towards the water’s edge I hesitate. 

I stand still on the warm sand and feel self-conscious. What if someone has binoculars trained on me? I do it myself, from the sitting room window, watch the swimmers. Who might be spying? I close my eyes tight and look through the back of my head, but I can’t tell. When I open them quickly, there’s a fog on the retina of my right eye. I keep looking through it at the whiteness over the water in case I see a fin, like in one of those scary films. 

One step, together. 

Cool, wet, safe; no chance the creeping edge can get me from this distance. I lift my toes and there’s a moment when the beach comes up with them, gloopy, and then releases. By the time I squelch down, my heels have sunk further, like when we had to stretch our achilles tendons at the start of a ballet class. 

I’m anticipating the cold before I need to, yet in that instant it’s there. All of a sudden the sea has rushed at me, covered all ten digits and is eddying around my ankles.

Then just as quickly it swirls and trails away. 

I step back too late: though I am further up, it’s all over me again. It’s unsafe. 

    If I move toward where the edge was, to be in control, I have to wait.


I simply can’t rely on it.                                                                How can I know?

How can I prepare if I’ve no idea what’ll happen when?

The black-backed gulls scream, screech, and I look up. It’s happened so quickly; I’m high and dry, all at sea. Can’t forecast, can’t prophesy. 

I close my lids in panic this time, and focus rather than ignore the sound. In fact, it soothes. 

I listen.              I realise that I am being warned about the amount of space between us      Yes, the louder the sea-shush, the more likely it will come; the faster the sound, the sooner I’ll get wet. It’s involving, distracting. I feel it. It’s not here. Then almost is. Never, Nearly. And, Inundating. Big toes, under the soles, ground falling away. 

           To be sure that my feet will be submerged the next time, for them to be engulfed when it comes, I have to stride on further, bravely – there’s nothing else for it. 

           Slight fizzles of sand rise and my feet are burying themselves so I know it’s coming, coming. Then, when the water settles it is crystal clear, it’s transparent, so that I can count the very grains of sand.

From here I like to go in at a steady pace without stopping, and the chilling water surrounds me. When the gusset of my costume gets wet and Oh! I hold my hands to my lips and keep on going. I lift off. 

I am the only one in the whole wide, open bay. 

I hang from the surface, with the seaweed.

One white feather floats quietly, upturned at either end like a seal. At chin level, occasional insects are riding the ripples on invisible feet, bobbing from the effect I’m making. Some maintain their place, others lift at right angles, lightly so I can’t see the air being disturbed.

The ones with oar-like paddles are the Lesser Water Boatmen, and the Common Backswimmer moves around upside-down. The Whirligig Beetle, well, whirls, whereas Water Skaters rapidly skip or row. These are Water Skaters and their legs are covered in microscopic hairs which are scored with tiny grooves, trapping air in an oxygen-aura which keeps them afloat. There are brackish water ones and Sea Skaters or Holobates, one of the few insects which manage saline solutions. These keeping me company must be females because I know the males ‘sing’ by rubbing their front legs on a head ridge, or maybe it’s just the wrong time for mating.

With my human pedes I kick back, then my hands reach forwards. Kick back, reach forwards, nose to the breakwater where there’s a fishing rod at 45 degrees, and a man on the sloping rocks with a metal detector like a stiff lead with no dog at the end. I see someone else in grey who has parked his bike half way up the beach earlier, gets as far as the rocks and turns round to check it’s still there. Where there’s only a millimetre of water, an oystercatcher is running tiny steps like the stiches of a sewing machine.

I swim, and it’s not exactly like petrol, but the surface is mesmerising. Ovals morph, cells divide all around me; this must be what it was like in the primordial soup. There are horizontal, rocking shapes of sheen with thin edges, what seems like a slicker liquid. I only make small movements under the water, but they spread out and out towards the island and disturb the softness as far away as I can see.

Turning over, I backswim and scull, I try to be unobtrusive. Above me is blank except there’s one place where the sunlight sidles between golden cloud edges for a moment. A tern surprises. It looks like a sea-swift though it flutters both its virgin wings very fast, hovering, beak tipped to possible prey. A herring gull coasts over with a flashing metallic sliver of fish in its beak. I stroke the sea.

Flipping once more, I reach out for the yellow buoy — I’ve got to keep warm! It has appeared out of the mist like Scottish summits, and like those false peaks it is further away than it seems, always a bit further. It comes to me that perhaps I’ll get stung by a jellyfish and what would happen now I’m so far from the shore? I might have cramp, or react to being in such low temperatures for so long. I remember my trepidation at the water’s edge that was assuaged by listening, and so I hear the regularity of my swimming to calm myself and eventually I can see the buoy’s name, T Willie, in tall black letters. I turn, relieved and still tingling — I’m not hypothermic, then.  

On the way back, alternating backstroke and breast, swallowing briney gulps, I’m too tired to care. Two juvenile guillemots take no notice, bob on by, their tail feathers reminding me of posh-school-striped ties. Close to the beach I reach down with my legs and touch bottom to reassure, then, floating, I crocodile-swim before rising, a two-legged, taller than I really am. 

I walk out and the world has changed. 

The air wraps itself around my shoulders and then thighs like a towel which has been on the radiator except I’m actually cosy inside a chilled layer. I might have been covered in peppermint oil or Vicks VapoRub. I am a warm-blooded water-creature in chilly amphibian skin. It might be how a dragon feels.

Unstrap. Slide my dress over my head and down. Inch the swimsuit off bottom-wards, avoiding exposure. Forgotten to bring my knickers again. Shiver.

On the way home, I try not to taste the Wardie water on my lips, which ships and oil platforms have been in. I find my fingertips are curled into my palms, and when I open them back out, they’re sticky. It’s like my skin’s gleaming. If anyone were to look they’d see how shiny I am, positively polished. Looking through their eye glasses those nosy-peekers would see a flash, as though the sun were reflecting off me — it would hurt their eyes and serve them right for snooping!

At home, there’s a surprising amount of sand on the carpet and water rattles in my ears. I walk around and the rooms seem different; or is it that I’m looking at them newly? I realise, if I like, I can start all over again.  


Tamsin Grainger is a writer, bodyworker and walking artist living in Edinburgh. She also holds online events, including Death Cafes and Guided Bodywalking. Visit her website here. Her Walking Without a Donkey project, chronicling her international long-distance walks, can be found here.