Wild Swimming with Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Sarah Kennedy Norquoy moved from Cambridge, England, to the Orkney Islands with her two children in 2008, where she now lives with her husband and dog, Hope.

I have seen beautiful wildlife, including regular sightings of seals, who are very playful and curious. Sometimes you can see groups of them all bobbing their heads up. Trying to get a photo of them is like a game of whack-a-mole!

She is often described as hilariously funny, honest, and relatable: ‘A sheer drop of positivity and happiness’. When she’s not doing her day job as a support worker, you will probably find her wild swimming in the sea or dreaming about it.

The Churchill Barriers at the waters edge
The Churchill Barriers photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Q. How long have you been wild swimming?
I started in January 2019, I was approaching 50 and I gave myself a list of 49 things to do while I was still 49 and one of them was wild swimming. That’s how I ended up in the water, in January – the water was six degrees – really cold.

I hadn’t intended for it to be in January, but someone had lent me a wet suit at the time (now I just go in my swimsuit.) They lent me this wet suit and said, OK well I will meet you on Saturday and I was like, WHAT?! I think I was too embarrassed to say I can’t go through with this, so shame made me go along.

By the time Saturday arrived I was really pumped, it was just going to be a one off, I had no intention of making it a habit. I was so excited to do it, the thought of it being cancelled because of weather would have really disappointed me. That made me realise I was ready to do it.

My first swim was at the first barrier, it was quite sheltered, and it was brilliant, so memorable, I loved it! The barriers (pictured above) are particularly special too with the landscape there, the Italian Chapel overlooking where I was swimming – that’s what I love, being among history as well as the landscape and water.

Wild swimming around Orkney
Sarah Kennedy Norquoy swimming photo © Copyright Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Q. What attracted you to wild swimming?
A. I had a friend who kept talking to me about it and suggesting that my husband try it out because he has an autoimmune disease and she said it would be good for him. Then she said you should try it too and I just remember thinking ‘never going to happen!’ I don’t know what made me think I am going to give it a go, but I was hooked on it from the first time I tried. I never expected to love it so much. I would see photos online and found myself feeling a little jealous that other folk could do it.

Wild swimming at Inganess
Inganess beach photo © Copyright Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Q. Do you have any favourite locations in Orkney for swimming outdoors?
A. I have three favourite places. I love Inganess (pictured above) – the shipwreck there gives it an interesting backdrop, so I go to Inganess when I work in Kirkwall, but because I am working from home now, I don’t go there as often. I use the Point of Ness in Stromness a lot. There’s easy access to the water from the slip, plenty of parking and the most wonderful back drop of the historic fishing town as well as plenty of fishing boats sailing by. I’m also a regular at Marwick Choin, a massive low-tide lagoon that lies between the beach and the open sea. It is quite a safe spot, sheltered by the winds and tides as you have a reef that protects you a bit.

The Bay of Skaill, Orkney
The Bay of Skaill photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Q. How do you fit your swims around your day-to-day life?
A. My preferred time is to go in the morning before work, so I am up, usually about 6:45am. It really gets me focused and sets me up for the day. Nothing starts the day better than running into freezing cold water. Because I enjoy it so much, I prioritise it over housework! I tend to swim before work but if there is somewhere near enough like Skaill (pictured above) or the Choin I can nip down in my lunchbreak. As the nights are lighter, we can even go after tea. I make it a priority because it’s such an enjoyable thing for me and really helps me cope with difficulties in my life.

Aikerness beach in Evie
Aikerness beach in Evie photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Q. Have you had any particularly memorable experiences?
A. I always come back to the one I did on the 1st May 2019, my first ever May day swim. We had to get up at 4:20am to be in the water for sunrise. We went to Evie (pictured above) and I absolutely loved it – it was like a magical time because everyone else was still asleep and it was hazy, calm, and serene. There was a curious seal there bobbing his head up. It is particularly memorable because of the ambiance and everything – it was just lovely. The sense of empowerment that I had done it too – that I could get up that early in the morning is a miracle! That one really sticks with me as being extra special.

Common seal in Orkney
Common seal in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Q. You mentioned a seal – have you had any other close encounters with wildlife?
A. The wildlife has been such a bonus. I think it is important to stress that we are in their territory, they’re not in ours. I have seen beautiful wildlife, beautiful birds like oyster catchers, cormorants, and swans as well regular sightings of seals, who are very playful and curious. Sometimes you can see groups of them all bobbing their heads up. Trying to get a photo of them is like a game of whack-a-mole! I saw an otter once, the first and last time I have seen one and I wasn’t in the sea….it was when I was driving home from a swim. I know people who have seen dolphins and whales, I haven’t though. That is still on my bucket list.

Yesnaby in Orkney
Yesnaby in Orkney photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Q. Where’s the most unusual place you’ve enjoyed a wild swim?
A. At Yesnaby when you walk south to where there is a little bay. You can be in the water there and it will be completely flat and calm, but you can see the waves absolutely crashing against the rocks further out. It was an interesting, scenic, and beautiful experience…..craggy rocks and spectacular waves. It was a very memorable and unusual spot.

Orkney wild swimming
Sarah Kennedy Norquoy with crown photo © Copyright Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Q. Could you share some essential tips and essential equipment for all those new to wild swimming?
A. The RNLI says it best when they say respect the water and I really agree with that. From a safety point of view when you are trying it for the first time or even the first few times, don’t expect too much out of yourself and go with somebody or have someone nearby watching you if you don’t have anyone to get in the water with you. Just respect the fact that although there are lots of happy smiley faces and people in bobble hats doesn’t necessarily mean that your body is going to respond in the same way. So, respect the cold, the water, the tides, undercurrents and pulls. It’s really important because it comes with risk. Wild swimming is a lovely activity, but it can be unsafe. There’s no swimmer stronger than the ocean.

Personally, I believe in wearing a tow float as it makes you more visible to others using the water, particularly from boats, there are other vessels using the water – not just swimmers. It also provides you with something to have a wee rest on if you get tired. Having local knowledge about where is safe to swim is important too.

Have lots of loose-fitting clothes. Get layers on as quickly as you can when you leave the water. A warm hat, scarf and people often take a hot water bottle and a flask of a warm drink. It’s important not to stand around talking but to focus on getting dressed as quickly as you can.

Salt on my Skin book
Sarah Kennedy Norquoy book photo © Copyright Sarah Kennedy Norquoy

Q. What inspired you to write your book?
A. My book was written in response to wild swimming and how it helped me cope with my Mum’s dementia diagnosis. It was such a profound year for me, those two things running parallel that I wanted to get that message out there. I have been overwhelmed with how well it’s been received.

Copies of Sarah’s book ‘Salt on my Skin’ are available from bookstores and her website at www.sarahkennedynorquoy.com

Victoria DixonBy Victoria Dixon
Orkney and Shetland fanatic, likes to capture life through a lens, loves creating, eclectic taste in music, enjoys being a Mum; would secretly love to be a star of the West End!

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Header image: Sarah Kennedy Norquoy in the waves photo © Copyright Sarah Kennedy Norquoy