A community united by the sea

Madi grew up with a love of the sea, sailing, surfing and swimming. We went for a swim with Madi and fellow dippers to hear how a personal challenge turned into a community united by the sea.

The sun is hovering above the horizon as a few of us gather outside a wooden green beach hut on the north coast of the Isle of Wight. It’s a frequent scene in coastal communities, the quiet hum of chatter as people come together to catch up and take a dip. We came to chat to Madi, the founder of the Dipping Society, whose weekly dips have become a ritual for many who live nearby. 

Up to 25 people congregate here every Sunday morning to take to the water. It really is every Sunday, come rain or shine, summer or midwinter. The communal dips are a social event, with chat over tea and biscuits by the beach hut. It’s a moment for everyone to catch up and bond over their shared love of cold dips. Yet the story of how this group was founded is a personal one.

The Dipping Society wears organic cotton surf towels

When a friend of Madi, who suffered from mental health problems, passed away, she decided along with her friend Kim to dip in the sea every day for a year to raise money for Mental Health UK and Shelter.  “You feel helpless when you’re going through grief,” Madi tells us, “and we wanted to do something.”

Starting in the balmy summer, they dipped their way through the bouncy waves of autumn, the frigid cold of winter, spring downpours, before celebrating their 365th dip in the summer of 2019. It was a time that deepened Madi’s connection with the sea. “You become so connected. Things like the tide, moon phases, you gradually become so in sync with it. The sea has always been a place of solace for me, but it became a lot more significant when I was doing it every day.” It’s clear that taking to the sea every day for a year develops a connection, a relationship, with the sea, noticing minor differences every day that become a comforting ritual, like checking in with a good friend. 

During their dips, the pair would be approached by passers by, asking if they could join them one day. “They were totally random people, asking us like, ‘Where do you swim? Can I join?’ They wanted to go into the sea, but didn’t want to do it on their own.” Madi and Kim told them they’d be there on Sunday at 9am. Initially it was friends who would turn up to join them. Then a few friends of friends. The following weeks, strangers started turning up. Strangers soon became friends who then brought their friends. Ever since, the numbers on the Sunday dips have been growing. People seeking a community with whom they could share their love of the sea. Every person with their own reason to be there.

“Everyone that came down had their own story. There are so many different reasons they wanted to come down, but I think a common thread was that want for community. Also, it can be easy to stay in bed on a Sunday, but if you know there’ll be people there, who will wait for you to arrive before getting in the sea, that gives you extra drive.” 

There’s a brisk breeze as we get ready to swim, everyone hesitating to take off their surf towels. There’s a strong sense of community among the swimmers, a feeling that’s very different from the surf community, which is often a more solitary experience. Perhaps that’s why sea swimmers are often the people most vocal about sewage pollution in our seas, organising protests, mobilising the public on an issue that affects us all. The Dipping Society has protested on the shores of the Solent to call for action on sewage pollution, supported by Rapanui. Madi is keen to share her love of the sea with her daughters, bringing them along on protests.

“I like getting them involved in the protests. It’s nice to nurture that love of the sea for the future generations. When they’re older, they’ll remember protesting with a giant inflatable poo!”

We brave the breeze, putting our surf towels aside as we approach the water, the sun about the dip below the horizon. After a few hesitant steps in the shallows, everyone is soon swimming around and chatting under a hazy sky.

For those lucky to live by the coast, the sea has a unifying power, bringing people together, each with their own story for being there.  The Dipping Society is just one of many groups around the country that gathers to swim. This one started with two people on a personal journey, yet became something important for many. A community united by the sea.

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