Who on earth would swim off the near-freezing Co Down coast at the start of December?
Mark Simpson, a man more used to ‘splashes’ of a different kind, that’s who.
The seasoned BBC NI reporter braved the elements to take a dip at Helen’s Bay beach yesterday morning.
He posted a picture on social media, ironically looking like he would rather be there than in a warm studio.
Mark, who first took the plunge in Loch Ness in 2016 with his friend Mike Davidson, is no stranger to swimming in Baltic conditions, having been a regular member of two clubs — Donaghadee Chunky Dunkers and the Brompton Belles and Beaux Dippers — for several years.
Cold-water swimming helps soothe his aching joints, but it has also become a means of preserving his mental health following recent tragedies in his personal life.
“Two of my friends, one of them I’d known since childhood and both in their 50s like me, have died in the past year,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Swimming has been a chance to clear my head and seize the day because it has been emotional.”
Describing himself as a “seasonal” sea swimmer, Mark said that he liked to take a dip “once a week all year”.
“In the summer months, I try to go in every day; in winter, it’s getting tougher and tougher,” he added.
One of his pals, who carries a thermometer, explained that “it was 7.8 degrees at Brompton this week, which isn’t bad”.
To kick off December, he hit the water yesterday with his teacher friend Simon Cummings, from Bangor.
“We met at 7am. It was still dark and we were the only people on Helen’s Bay beach,” Mark said.
“It was wet, it was windy and the sea was rough.
“We didn’t go out of our depth, but we loved all 17 minutes of it.
“In July and August, there would’ve been 50 or 60 people there at that time of the morning, including yoga classes on the beach.”
The 54-year-old, who normally aims for “30 minutes in the summer”, said that when it comes to open-water swimming, there is a theory that “you shouldn’t stay in much longer than double the number of degrees it is”.
“As we know, sadly, there have been people killed in the water in recent years, and that’s a reminder that safety comes first,” he added.
“During storms, some people think it’s being brave and clever to go in, and at the start I was that idiot that thought, ‘Let’s go in’.
“But that’s just irresponsible because you’re not just putting yourself in danger; you’re putting people who would have to rescue you in danger. If in doubt, get out.”
Mark, who enjoys sea swimming with his 17-year-old daughter Joy and wife Catherine, said it was best to never go alone.
“Joy and I have been going in together for the last four years, since she was 13,” he said.
“Everybody needs a swim buddy. She’s mine. It’s good because she’s forced to talk to me.
“Another daughter, Grace (24), lives beside the sea in Jersey, and she’s really got into it.”
Ever the alert reporter, Mark noticed that the steps at Brompton beach in Bangor had been washed away during the weekend storm, creating a new problem for swimmers. “It’s yet another reminder that we should never under-estimate the power of the sea,” he said.
“Even us seasoned swimmers were stunned and shocked to discover on Monday that those steps had disappeared.
“They’ve been there as long as I can remember. They date back to the bathing times of Bangor.
“It’s difficult to get into the water there because it’s a very stony beach.”
Another open sea swimmer from Co Down is former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland.
“I bumped into him last night [Tuesday]. I told him I was going in at 7am and asked him if he’d like to come in with me,” Mark said.
“He replied, ‘I can’t make out what you’re saying through your face mask. I can’t hear you, Mark’.”
Sea swimming is Mark’s main sport these days because he is carrying several injuries from the days when running was his exercise of choice.
“I’d shoulder surgery last year. I need a knee replacement and I’ve arthritis in my toe,” he said.
“It [sea swimming] is good for my head, shoulders, knees and toes — that’s my big joke.”
“I use it like a cold bath, like sports teams use ice baths for their injuries in recovery. It’s very good for my joints and my mental health.”
Is there anything in the world that would stop the sea-swim fanatic from going in? Just one thing: “Jellyfish.”