Philip Hoare on Swimming at Night in the Sea

“Every swim is a challenge to my mortality and my stupidity. They become ever more extreme with every season and every place,” British writer Philip Hoare tells me in an interview. He swims every night.  Even if it’s pitch dark, even if it’s freezing. Even when scared.

In the first pages of his book “The Sea Inside” author describes an early and dark December morning and his bike ride to the beach in Southampton. “Birds become visible and audible before the sun rises and the world awakes, a netherworld neither dark nor light, out of time.” He quotes the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet of “The Wanderer”, who “had a word for it, ūhta, ‘the hour before dawn’, as he travelled by winter, watching ‘the sea birds bathing, stretching out their wings’.”

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published in 2017 by Fourth Estate. Photo by Beach Books.

“You can be what you want to be in the dark,” Philip Hoare writes in his book “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR”. “For me it used to be nightclubs under London streets. Now it’s another nocturnal performance.” An hour before dawn he cycles to the beach, leaves everything else behind and goes into the sea.

“One magical moment; I feel like a penitent. The sea is so still it seems like a sin to break its surface. But I do. Swimming at night, with diminished sense of sight, only makes the act all the more sensual. You feel the water around you; you lose yourself in its sway. Fish bite me, leaving loving grazes.

I turn on my back, watching the stars fall.”

“The Sea Inside” by Philip Hoare” is published in 2013 by Fourth Estate. Photo by Beach Books.

“The night fades away,” author writes in “The Sea Inside”. “It’s all over too quickly.” He gets dressed again, gets on his bike again and races home. To be back soon.

“Somewhere in the woods a woodpecker hammers. The dawn is replaced by ordinary day; the emptiness soon filled by the commonplace. I can see my hands once more. Everything seems to pause in these final moments, as though the performance were put on hold, even as it begins again.”

Philip Hoare “The Sea Inside” 2013

It is impossible for Philip Hoare to stay away from the sea for too long. In “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” he admits, “for me every day is an anxiety in my ways of getting to the water. I worry that something will stop me from reaching it, or that one day it won’t be there – as it is, and it isn’t, twice a day. I’ve become so attuned to it, so scared of it, so in love with it that sometimes I think I can only think by the sea. It is the only place I feel at home, because it is so far away from home. It is the only place where I feel free and alive, yet I am shackled to it and it could easily take my life one day, should it choose to do it. It is liberating and transforming, physical and metaphysical. Without its energy, we would not exist.”

Philip Hoare continues his nocturnal performance for many years now. To follow him on Twitter is a dangerous choice as there’s a risk of becoming addicted to his online diary entries right after every nightswim. “4 am: in the darkness, on the shore, three deer clatter, like medieval familiars climbing out of the sea; a fox watches them, and me,” author tweeted this morning. A nightly message from ‘a netherworld’; he escapes alone to tell thee. Inevitably – an inspiration.

You can borrow books by Philip Hoare from the Sea Library: “Leviathan, or the Whale”, “The Sea Inside” and “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR”. May I also suggest you to read “The Channel” by Charlie Connelly where among all else he describes his early morning swims in winter.


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