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The Whitby Wild Swimmer Who Began Cold Water Swimming for a Very Important Reason

swimming in the sea
Health and beauty
September 2022
Reading time 5 Minutes

Ally Brisby took the plunge into cold water swimming 12 years ago and hasn't looked back since

When having problems with her knees, Ally Brisby decided to take a dip in her local lake to see if it helped with the pain. That was 12 years ago and she hasn't looked back since, taking daily swims in open water, completing the English Channel solo swim and even starting her own sea swimming business.

Cold water swimming has become incredibly popular over the last few years and whilst for some of us the thought of getting into icy cold water for a quick dip sends shivers down the spine, there are those who get a real buzz from taking the plunge. And it's no surprise that there has been a surge in the number of open water swimmers, considering the health benefits that come with this unique sport. 

Studies have shown that immersing your body in cold water increases your white blood cell count and therefore boosts your immune system. The lower temperatures also improve circulation as your body requires your heart to pump more blood to your organs, and some people even swear by cold water swimming as an effective way to target cellulite. The high amount of calories you burn is also an attraction, as the temperature shock sends your heart racing before you've even started swimming. 

These physical advantages were part of the reason Ally Brisby, founder of Sea Swim Yorkshire, dipped her toe into open water in the first place. ‘I've always swum but it had all been pool work. Then when I found I was having problems with my knees because I was doing a lot of long distance fell walking, my husband suggested I try open water swimming instead. It all spiralled from there really,' she says.

‘I started going to a local lake and one of the guys there offered his help in coaching me towards swimming the English Channel. So, I started training towards that and about two years later I successfully swam the Channel on a solo swim. I know a lot of people end their swimming journey on a larger swim like that but it really was the beginning of it for me.'

It is not just physical benefits though – open water swimming is also good for our mental health. It's a well known fact that getting out in natural open spaces helps clear our minds, and studies have shown open water swimming relieves stress, crushes fatigue and activates endorphin chemicals which make us feel happy. 

It is this which keeps Ally going back every day. ‘Personally, I always find that it's just so calming from the mental health side of it all. When you're in the water you have to concentrate and keep checking on your own self to make sure you're not too cold and that you're okay. I think our mind only focuses on that so it just frees you of everything else that's happening around you when you're in the water,' she says.

As Ally started to swim more regularly, she decided to share her experience by starting her own open water swimming coaching business, Sea Swim Yorkshire. ‘I do everything from introductions to sea swimming, which involve getting people out in the open water for the first time, all the way to getting them to the point where they've got a little bit more confidence so they can go along with their own friends and do it in a safe manner,' she explains. ‘I also work alongside the English Channel swimmers, whether it be solos or relay teams, getting them to the point where they've got the endurance and stamina to be able to successfully complete their Channel swim.'

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In addition to her business, Ally is part of Whitby Wild Swimmers, a club which she helped her friend Ceri Oakes to found. They hosted their first swim around three years ago and it didn't take long for it to catch people's attention. ‘It started off with just three of us, now we've got more than 1,000 members in our social media group and we can easily get 30 people together on a regular basis for various swims either at Whitby or up at Sandsend.

‘The popularity has increased a lot recently. Especially with Covid and all the pools being closed, people were branching out and trying to find other activities that were safe to do with friends, in an open environment,' explains Ally.

Open water swimming might sound daunting to many, especially the thought of being in icy open water alone, but the Whitby Wild Swimmers club offers that comfort of knowing there is a group of people around you, looking out for you in the water. ‘For me, this sport has proved what generous spirits people have got out there – so many people are willing to help you and spend time with you. It has immersed me in a whole community of swimmers that are growing in numbers year by year,' she says. 

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‘It's wonderful that people realise they can get so much out of it. It's not just the swimming as exercise, it's also the whole camaraderie of getting in that cold water and the elation of the feeling that you've done it. A lot of people within the group have found very close, special friends within the swim community.'

Ally says anyone and everyone is welcome at both Sea Swim Yorkshire and the Whitby Wild Swimmers club. ‘There's a variety of people. All ages, all sizes. I think people feel that even if they've got any health issues, whether it be joint pain or arthritis, it all goes away in the water. I'm not saying it completely heals but when you're in the water you don't feel as though you've got any sort of restrictions in your mobility. So we have all different abilities, from people that like to just get in for a few moments to enjoy the cold water immersion, to people that want to get in and use it as a fitness tool, pacing up and down for an hour doing front crawl.'

It's also important to be aware of the differences between open water and swimming in a controlled environment like a swimming pool. ‘One thing that worries me about a lot of people that take to open water swimming is they go into it blind and don't do background research. In the sea you've obviously got tides and rip currents, but people don't realise in lakes and rivers there are also things to look out for, such as underwater obstacles and flood gates,' says Ally.

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‘There's lots of swimmable places all around England that are perfectly safe if you know what to look for and if you know any tell tale signs, so it's just about having that little bit of knowledge and doing it responsibly.'

For those thinking of getting involved in open water swimming, Ally recommends going with someone who knows the area whether that's with a friend or with a club. ‘Always go with somebody, never alone, and it is so beneficial to swim with people that know the area. A little bit of local knowledge goes a long, long way when you're entering a body of water.

‘Also, it might sound obvious, but remember it will be cold. No matter how long you've been open water swimming the water will still feel cold so get in gradually, be aware of your surroundings and wherever you're getting in make sure you have somewhere to get out too. I can't promote open water swimming enough, but it's just about doing it safely.'

To find out more about Ally's coaching business visit @SeaSwimYorkshire on Facebook, or to get involved in the Whitby Wild Swimmers club, join their Facebook group.

Where to Go

Thomason Foss: Starting from the picturesque village of Beck Hole, follow the woodland walk until you reach a 20-metre plunge pool set beneath an impressive waterfall.

Leeds Dock: Don't worry if you don't live near the coast, Leeds Dock provides a wonderful urban setting from which to rewild your soul and reconnect with nature. Right from the centre of the city, there are currently open water swimming sessions every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Ellerton Park: A 60-acre lake popular with triathlon and open water swimmers, plus lots of water sports too. This one is only suitable for competent open water swimmers or those under supervision.

Gaddings Dam: On top of the moors between Todmorden and Walsden, this sandy beach is said to be the highest beach in England making it a perfect place to take a dip in the sparkling embankment. Warning, the water can get rather cold due to the high altitude!

Hornsea Beach: This long resort beach, made up of mainly shingle and fine golden sand, is classified as having excellent bathing quality. It's a popular spot so you're likely to have plenty of company in and out of the water.

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