UP FOR THE CHALLENGE: Tom tries his hand at open-water swimming

Tom, far left, after taking his icy dip with the Sussex Aardvarks
Tom, far left, after taking his icy dip with the Sussex Aardvarks

THERE’S no point in lying, I don’t think I have ever gone for a swim in the sea during October and with good reason, too. It is absolutely freezing.

So I was understandably nervous when I had to take the plunge with the Sussex Aardvarks open-water swimming club, in the chilly Littlehampton seas, all in the name of the Herald and Gazette series’ Up for the Challenge.

The Aardvarks, four veteran swimmers based at the Littlehampton Swimming and Sports Centre, in Sea Road, have challenged me to go for a monthly sea swim with them, until February, a task I naïvely accepted.

Bravado aside, initially this gauntlet did not sound too bad.

I’m a competent enough swimmer.

Somewhere among the long-forgotten relics of my kitchen cupboard, I have a pair of ancient swimming trunks with a 100m swimming badge stitched across them.

I also have a wetsuit in the garage. Happy days, I thought.

That was until Aardvark member, Dave Candler, told me, with a remarkably sinister grin across his face, that to be one of the group, you had to swim in the water “au naturel” – almost.

“All you will need are a pair of swimming shorts, some goggles and a hat. No wetsuits allowed,” he said.

The group, which also included Tim Baylis, his wife Sally and Tom McMutrie, took an almost sick pleasure in regaling me with horror stories about their time swimming in the open seas.

During one choppy swim session, Tim, who has swum the Channel and competed in the World Open-Water Swimming Championships, was left battered, bruised, and with a horrific gash to his elbow.

“The sea was pretty choppy and I got caught up in the surf,” said Tim.

“It was just dragging me across the shingle, bashing me into rocks.”

Fortunately, the sea I swam in was calm.

I knew I was never in any real danger.

Most of the Aardvarks are trained swimming instructors at the Littlehampton swimming centre, whose swimming school last month received the nation’s highest marks. So I was in safe hands.

The first few steps were bearable. However, once the water reached my belly, it became bitterly cold.

As I waded deeper, I felt a burning, prickling sensation coursing up my body. Finally, after a couple of minutes acclimatising, I took the plunge.

It was a truly exhilarating – and chilly – experience.

We swam across the coast, for about 200m before stopping and treading water. We then made our way out to sea, a further 100m, before pausing to take in the spectacular view. You could see right along the coastline, from the Butlin’s dome, in the west, to the Worthing coastline in the east.

“Open-water swimming is the most relaxing and peaceful thing you can do,” said Dave.

After about 15 minutes of swimming, my body had warmed up, and I began to really enjoy my time out at sea.

The five of us called it a day after almost 30 minutes in the water.

While warming up inside the swimming centre, the group told me how open-water swimming was rapidly becoming a popular sport.

Tim said: “It had its Olympic debut during the Beijing games, in 2008.

“It’s a brilliant sport, and we have travelled all over the world to compete. But you should always have someone with you, when you swim, because it’s so easy to get into difficulties.”

The Aardvarks said the best way to get into open-water swimming was to first join your local swimming club or begin training at your local swimming pool.

As for me, I have certainly caught “the bug” and have already agreed to head out again, later this month.