Louise Dunnin’s pals think she’s bonkers. The 16-year-old loves nothing better than pulling on her swimming cossie, cap and goggles and cutting up the icy waters of the River Tay in the depths of winter.
As a member of Broughty Ferry-based Ye Amphibious Ancients Bathing Association, fondly known as The Phibbies, or YeAABA, Louise takes part in a whole host of sea-based training events throughout the year, including the famous New Year’s Day Dook.
“It’s really great fun, as well as competitive,” beams Louise as she limbers up for a training session. “Everyone is so supportive and friendly here, although my friends think I’m totally crazy.”
It’s raining and threatening sleet when I visit The Phibbies’ HQ on an exceptionally chilly December afternoon. Members are huddled together chatting outside the boathouse, looking on undeterred as a wild wind whips up the waves.
As the person responsible for the Great Outdoors section ofThe Courier, it seemed only fitting that I should experience the joys of open-water swimming sans wetsuit. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d half-hoped the session would be cancelled. Clad in hat, scarf and jacket, I’m already shaking with cold.
But there’s no time for feeble deliberation. “Let’s go!” chirps Louise as she beckons me to the changing rooms to strip off.
Minutes later we emerge in our swimsuits, Louise grinning from ear to ear and me, grimacing and begloved.
The advice from fellow member Jane Emmerson is firstly to remove my gloves and secondly, not to jump straight in. “Do that and you risk having a heart attack,” she warns. “Better to wade in gradually and get your hands wet to acclimatise and then start swimming when you feel ready.”
There are six of us taking the plunge and I’m last in line. These folk don’t mess about; hesitation seems to be a dirty word.
Dipping a toe in the water, then a whole foot, another foot, and eventually, both legs, there’s no turning back. The guys are already in and swimming so I’d better crack on.
It’s something of a surreal moment, almost an out-of-body experience, as I sink my torso into the freezing waters then start to swim. The cold is a shock, yes but once you’re in and have a place to aim for, you simply have to go with it.
Today we’re swimming from the slipway to the pier and while it must only be a matter of 200 metres away, it seems a heck of a long way.
I start with breaststroke then attempt front crawl. After a few strokes of the crawl, I’m struggling. Unlike swimming in a heated pool, or the Mediterranean, the cold River Tay hits you hard. It’s estimated the temperature is around 2C today (seriously?) and survival time doesn’t bear thinking about. Water leaches heat from the body around 25 times faster than air, so being cold for too long can be dangerous.
After a bit of splashing about, gasping for breath and gazing up to wave to onlookers (and reassure them I’m not drowning), I battle on. When I reach the pier, I’m tempted to climb out, but shouts of encouragement from the folk on dry land spur me on.
Getting back is tough. Much tougher than setting off. Muscle fatigue has set in and simpleco-ordination becomes an issue. My arms flail pathetically and my legs are like limp lettuce leaves as I paddle back to safety. Put it this way I can’t wait to get out.
Everyone else reaches the shore long before me and the sight of them all towelling off is enough to get me going. I’ve never been so grateful for my fluffy pink dressing gown . . . but where’s the mug of steaming hot tea?
It seems most Phibbies aren’t hanging about it’s just too chilly. Luckily I manage to stop Louise and a couple of other members in their tracks but most have taken to their cars and headed home for a warm-up.
My teeth are chattering in my head, my skin is red as beetroot and I’m desperate for a hot shower. “Probably a bad idea,” says Jane. “You might not feel how hot the water is and you can end up getting burned. Maybe dry off, put your clothes on and wait an hour or so. There won’t be such a shock to the system.”
Trying to write things down while we chat is nigh-on impossible, but I try. My hands are mottled blue, red, orange and purple with the cold and there’s no feeling in my fingers.
Mark Sales, 46, looking uber-fit in his figure-hugging swim trunks, takes pity on me and brings me a cup of coffee. The clinical scientist has been involved in open-water swimming for six years and absolutely loves it. “I heard an advert on the radio for a charity swim and I thought I’d give it a go,” he says. “I really enjoyed it and I’ve been hooked ever since.
“It’s a great feeling when you’re in the water and fantastic when you complete a challenge. There’s a great sense of camaraderie among members and we all look out for each other. We start training around April when the water is coldest and by May we’re doing up to a mile.”
There’s no doubt the Phibbies are dedicated to their sport. In the 130 years since the organisation was formed, they’ve never once cancelled a New Year’s Dook. “We’ve got 114 years of recorded Dooks and we’ll go out in all conditions,” says president Joyce McIntosh, 69.
“There was a really severe winter in 1989 when only 13 of us turned up, but we were determined to keep up the tradition, so we got to work breaking up the ice in the harbour with pick axes.”
Swimming teacher Joyce has been a member of the Phibbies for 34 years. She joined in 1981 after being told swimming was the best form of exercise for her severely asthmatic five-year-old son Robert. He soon progressed to swim open water for Scotland.
Joyce became the first woman Chief Ancient in 1990. An elder at Barnhill St Margaret’s Church and a keen marathon runner, Joyce has swum in the sea, lochs and rivers of Scotland, as well as abroad. “I thought the coldest water I’d been in was the River Tay,” she laughs. “But when I was in Israel I swam in Lake Galilee and that was absolutely freezing! The black flag (which indicates danger) was upso I probably shouldn’t have gone in.”
If anyone is aware of the potential risks of open-water swimming, Joyce is. “In Scotland, you can walk into a loch and feel quite safe, but it could be deeper than you think; there might be a massive drop or a shelf. You always need to assess the situation and bear in mind things like tides and wind speed.”
Why not just stick to a heated pool? It’s all about the challenge of braving the elements and getting that all-natural high, says Joyce.
Cold-water swimming boosts your immune system, burns calories, gets your blood pumping, and gives you a huge adrenalin rush. And some scientists have speculated that it increases production of what’s known as brown fat, thought to be a healthy fat that burns energy and creates heat.
What gives Joyce the biggest buzz is seeing people who might be dubious about open-water swimming giving it a go: “Seeing their faces when they achieve their goal is what drives me. Whether they swim for a couple of minutes or complete a challenge, their self-esteem is boosted. Lots of people who probably wouldn’t achieve on their own are able to pull together with the team and can do great things, like swimming the English Channel.”
YeAABA was founded in 1884 by John Barrowman, a keen open-water swimmer who encouraged local fisherfolk to take to the Tay on most days, bar the Sabbath. The very first Broughty Ferry New Year’s Day Dook was recorded in 1891.
“I wonder what our forefathers would think today of the Dook, with more than 400 taking part some years,” muses Joyce. “In the 130 years since YeAABA was born, much has changed, but the Dook tradition remains strong and is much loved, respected and enjoyed by locals and a much wider community.”
Last year the charity event had a record crowd of more than 6000 spectators and this year, Joyce hopes to achieve the biggest Dook in Scotland and get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The only slight fly in the ointment is that the 2015 Dook’s original time slot clashed with Dundee United’s football match with Dundee at Tannadice, forcing organisers to bring it forward to 11am.
“We wanted to do something really special on our 130th anniversary and hopefully this will be the biggest Dook ever,” says Joyce. “It’s great for the city and great for charity: all money raised goes to much-needed charities in Dundee. We’ve changed things a bit for 2015, with a fancy dress competition, a fun swim relay, music and a raffle.”
Certainly, 2015 looks like being an exciting year for The Phibbies, with plans to swim from the Ferry to the Bell Rock, and a team going to an event in Ireland.
“Since I joined 34 years ago we’ve done so much,” says Joyce. “The raft race was our biggest cash cow in the 80s, then in the 90s, we focused on extending the clubhouse and boat shed at a cost of £98,000. In 2000, we did a relay swim across the Tay on New Year’s Day and in 2009 we sent a team to cross the English Channel.
“In 2010, we completed our greatest challenge swimming 15 miles from Arbroath back to Broughty Ferry, and the following year we swam from St Andrews round the headland. We’re open to the idea of new challenges and we’re open to everyone. We involve people from all walks of life.”
When I search ‘survival time in cold water’ online, the results are alarming. Tolerance depends on a number of factors: body fat, build, whether you’ve acclimatised, whether you panic or remain calm, or whether you have circulation problems such as Reynaud’s Disease.
So, are Louise’s friends right in thinking The Phibbies are bonkers? After all, who’d willingly plunge into freezing waters on any day of the year, let along New Year’s Day?
“Lots of folk think we grease up and wear wetsuits,” smiles Joyce. “The Dook gives people a flavour of what we do and hopefully shows them that we’re a friendly, welcoming bunch. People ask why we don’t wear wetsuits and the simple answer is that we want to stick with tradition. We don’t want to eradicate our identity.”
Ultimately, the Dook is about having fun, raising cash for charity and keeping a 130-year-old tradition alive. And once you’ve dooked, you get a well-deserved towel, cup of tea, bar of chocolate and personalised certificate. So come on in, the water’s fine!