How Edinburgh wild swimming group helped one man heal after death of his wife

Derek Mackie started wild swimming after the death of his wife. Pic: Anna Deacon
Derek Mackie started wild swimming after the death of his wife. Pic: Anna Deacon
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When Derek Mackie plunges into the depths of the Firth of Forth for his regular cold water swim it is an opportunity for him to both remember and forget the loss of his beloved wife Karen.

The IT manager from Edinburgh promised his wife of 25 years that he would “keep moving forward”, and one Sunday after she died two years ago he braved the cold and made his way down to Portobello Beach to take part in his first wild swim.

Photographer Anna Deacon captured 31 wild swimmers in December. Pic: Jo Tennant

Photographer Anna Deacon captured 31 wild swimmers in December. Pic: Jo Tennant

There he met a community that helped him navigate the loss of his “amazing” wife, The Wild Ones.

He said: “We did most things together so when Karen passed away there was a massive void in my life. I promised Karen I would make sure to keep busy and active.

“I always look back and think how special my life was with Karen but I knew I had to keep moving forward. I did it [swimming] once and I knew I was always going to do it.”

Derek, 51, likens the experience of outdoor swimming to meditation, or a kind of “brain training.” He said: “The first thing that gets you, when you get in the water it feels cold no matter what time of year. That’s invigorating and then after that it was the pure enjoyment and freedom. It’s just you and all that space.

Outdoor swimming has helped Zoe throughout her journey to become a solo mum. Pic: Anna Deacon

Outdoor swimming has helped Zoe throughout her journey to become a solo mum. Pic: Anna Deacon

“I found after Karen had passed away I could think about everything and I could think about nothing. It relaxed my mind almost like brain training.”

The Wild Ones who congregate at Portobello are a “welcoming” bunch, according to Derek. A community of like-minded people from varied backgrounds who share a love of swimming in the sea – in every weather.

He said: “They’re a lovely group of people. You meet people from every walk of life and that makes the group so special. It’s unbelievably welcoming. Nobody knows your history but everybody has a story.”

Derek has raised more than £5,000 for Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland after his regular swims inspired him to tackle the Great Scottish Swim, a swim across the Corryvreckan Whirlpool and a charity swim across the Firth of Forth. Karen, who died at 50 after having two heart valves replaced, is often present when he swims. He said: “Our life together was amazing. She’s my inspiration for my perspiration. Everything I do, I have Karen in my mind.

“We had time to hold each other’s hands and talk to each other and she told me she wouldn’t have changed a thing. How can you watch a loved one pass away and not think I’ve got to make the most of every damn minute of every day.

“You only get one life and it can be short so you have to make the most of it.”

Anna Deacon is a Wild One, a photographer who along with friend Anna Neubert-Wood, launched a winter swim challenge that saw them swim in the sea every day during the month of December to raise money for mental health charity Mind UK. She invited people to join her, taking photographs of them and sharing their story on her Facebook business page. Wild Swimming Photography. Derek joined her on her 12th day and is one of the 31 stories that, for her and other wild swimmers, stand as testament to the benefits of outdoor swimming.

Anna, who usually fits one or two swims a week around her work and children, said: “I was really inspired by the fact that outdoor swimming seems to have a hugely beneficial effect on your mental health, and as I’ve been going along and meeting people it transpires lots of people are swimming for the benefit of their mental and physical health.”

However, her daily dip wasn’t without challenges as temperatures dropped and the business of Christmas intensified. She said: “Mentally it’s the thought when it’s really cold outside, especially when its sleeting and there’s heavy winds, that you just don’t want to go. But when you’ve got people with you and there’s a real sense of camaraderie then it always feels great afterwards. You’ve just got to steel yourself sometimes.”

Wearing only a swimming costume, a hat, and wetsuit gloves and socks, Anna is a hardy swimmer who acknowledges the warmth and support that The Wild Ones offer. She said: “People are very, very caring and we will always look out for each other. It’s the most inclusive group I have ever come across.”

Another of Anna’s subjects is 37-year-old Zoe King who joined her on day 13. Pictured with pink cheeks and a unicorn knitted hat, the assistant stage manager shares her story of trying to become a solo mum. Outdoor swimming has been a balm during three years of fertility treatment and a “devastating” miscarriage.

She said: “I’ve always wanted to become a mum but never really met anyone I wanted to be with forever and I realised that if I got to the age of 40 and I didn’t have kids, I’d be devastated but if I got to 40 and I wasn’t married, I wasn’t that bothered.”

At 33, Zoe made the decision to go it alone. She said: “Two years down the line you think, oh actually maybe this is never going to happen, so when I did get pregnant it was very surprising.

“But unfortunately I miscarried a few weeks later. That was devastating but in some ways you know its another step in the journey, it’s like ticking things off a list. I know I can get pregnant which is excellent.”

She has met “loads of good people” through swimming and has even lined up one friend happy to babysit on the beach: “I’m hoping the baby will be cute enough that everyone will want cuddles”, she said.

Zoe begins her first round of IVF in the spring and sees parallels between the impending treatment and her outdoor swimming habit.

She said: “The incredible thing is, getting in to very cold water is unpleasant. It hurts your fingers and your toes and it’s not nice to begin with and then suddenly a minute later it feels amazing and it’s the best thing ever - you get through the difficult bit and then you get the euphoria.

“I imagine IVF is going to be a bit like that. Lots of injections, feeling a bit crap, not a good outcome immediately but you’ve got to know that you can just get through things.”