It’s 10am and Sunday service is about to commence.
But this service isn’t about religion, it’s about community spirit and the healing powers of cold water dipping in helping men with their mental health.
Formed a year and a half ago, the Baltic Boys are a group of 60 guys who have formed unbreakable bonds and friendships through the therapeutic and life changing benefits of cold-water dipping in the North Sea at Aberdeen Beach.
Intrigued to find out more, I decided to take the plunge and joined the Baltic Boys for an icy yet invigorating Sunday dip.
Cold at sea, warm at heart
It was a cold yet calm February morning when I made my way to the Fittie end of Aberdeen Beach, nerves building in trepidation of the icy plunge.
My anxiety instantly eased though as I soon struck up conversations with some of the guys who were already gathered.
Warm and welcoming, Andrew Hunter explained how weekly dips in the North Sea have helped him.
“The Baltic Boys are a great bunch of people who are from all walks of life,” says Andrew, 40, who lives in Aberdeen.
“No-one is judging you, it’s about getting in there and when the cold water hits you, you forget about all your problems and it’s that laughing and joking between you that gets you through it.”
Andrew, who works in offshore wind construction, originally joined the Baltic Boys with a friend who was going through a difficult time and says that the sense of community is one of the most powerful things.
“I originally came down with a friend to help him out,” says Andrew.
“I thought it was a bit nuts but I ended up loving it.
“It gives you a buzz when you come out.
“The biggest thing for me is the community.
“There’s all sorts of studies on cold water and health benefits but the best bit for me is the people.”
As the clock draws closer to 10am, there’s a real buzz among the group as the men chat, laugh and joke.
The life changing impact of cold water
Spotting Matt Middler, the super friendly founder of the Baltic Boys, I have a pre dip chat with him where he explains how cold-water dipping has changed his life.
“For me the benefits are two fold, it’s the cold-water immersion and the friendships and community,” says Matt, 38, who works as a transformative life coach.
“You get a real buzz after it physically but it’s also great for your mental health as it’s a very mindful experience.
“When you’re in the water and your body is in an almost fight or flight response it’s very mindful, you’re very in the moment but also you’re proud of the achievement as well.
“For me, I feel like my batteries are recharged so I’ve got loads of energy and I do my house cleaning on a Sunday.”
As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety, Matt knows how important a role groups like the Baltic Boys play in supporting men’s mental health.
“I cannot process the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, it’s absolute madness,” says Matt.
“The amazing thing about the Baltic Boys is that it’s mostly banter but every now and then there’s a moment of vulnerability and it’s absolutely a space where people can share their vulnerabilities, their worries and their anxieties.
“We’ve got guys who have had experiences of suicide attempts or who’ve had serious mental health conditions or folk like myself who have dealt with depression and anxiety on and off from their teens throughout their life, that constant ebb and flow of mental health challenges.”
Taking the plunge
Making our way onto the beach, I could feel my nerves building.
Swimsuit on, there was no going back as I joined the guys for the obligatory pre swim group photo.
Perhaps sensing my nerves, kind fellow dipper Chris Smith shared some great advice as we walked towards the sea.
“Just concentrate on your breathing and you’ll be fine,” says Chris.
Gasping as I felt the icy water lap my bare legs, I decided to just go for, quickly getting my full body under the water.
“Keep your shoulders under the water so you won’t feel the cold,” came the advice from another fellow dipper.
Wooping and cheering myself on, I quickly started to enjoy myself as my body turned numb and my breathing remained calm.
As someone with poor circulation, I wasn’t surprised when people started to tell me my lips were going blue as it’s a regular occurrence.
Collectively throwing our numb hands in the air for a mid-dip selfie was hilarious and brought to life that sense of community spirit that Matt and the guys described.
After a few minutes, I made my way back onto the beach where everyone was excitedly chatting about the exhilarating experience.
Drying off my lobster red limbs, I was absolutely buzzing and felt a rush like no other as I got dressed and made my way for a coffee with the guys.
Matt kindly gave me a loan of his mini hot water bottle which felt amazing on my icy cold hands.
Post dip chat
Clutching our coffees, it was lovely to chat to more Baltic Boys about what they get from the weekly dip.
Chris Smith, who works as a chef at the Leonardo Inn Hotel at Aberdeen Airport, says he has experienced both physical and mental benefits from cold-water dipping.
“The first time I dipped at New Year I actually had a rave in my living room afterwards because I was in such a good mood,” says Chris.
“I’ve had a lot less inflammation in my knees and my back.”
Mark Thomson, 44, who lives in Aberdeen, says the Baltic Boys has also been life changing for him.
“My first dip was a beautiful sunny day, the water was really calm, it was amazing and then the following week it was sideways rain, really rough seas,” says Mark.
“It was a shock to the system but I just kept coming back.
“It’s great to be in the water and you get a buzz from it.
“As soon as I come out I’m buzzing for the rest of the day.”
Another dipping regular is Alex Thompson, 22, who is studying anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.
As part of his course, Alex carried out a fascinating research project on the power of cold water dipping.
“I was looking at the experience of dipping framed within mindfulness and mental health,” says Alex.
“What I found was that there is a challenge at every stage, there’s the challenge of coming along, there’s the challenge of getting in and walking over the stones, there’s the cold water but at the end of every single challenge there is a reward.
“When you get in the cold water people are there to motivate you and when you come out you’re greeted by everyone and then you can warm up with a coffee.
“I would personally say that for me, cold water dipping has made my studies a lot easier.
“It’s almost like a re-set when you hit that cold water, you’re only thinking about that, you’re not thinking about anything else.”
Wellbeing diary with Matt Middler
What are your top 3 tips for health & wellbeing?
1: Be kind to yourself. We’re not made to handle everything this modern world throws at us. Life is hard enough without choosing to beat yourself up as well. If your best friend was going through what you are experiencing, what advice would you give them?
2: Drink more water. As I get older this is more important than ever. I feel really sluggish when I’m not hydrated and have recently reduced my coffee intake to great effect.
3: Try cold showers. A bit of time under the cold water can be a great start to the day. If you’re new to it, simply turn the temperature down gradually at the end of your shower, and see how long you can stay. Take slow, deep breaths and know that all is well.
What are the benefits of cold water dipping?
It’s different for different people, but for me cold water immersion gives me a great sense of achievement; I walked into very cold water when my mind and body were telling me to turn back.
Many folk report that it can help with alleviating symptoms of stress and low mood. We’re always on a high after our dips and I tend to have several hours of extra energy and motivation.
There’s a growing body of research showing cold water can also help with muscle recovery and pain management. A number of our lads say it helps with the symptoms of their chronic health conditions.
As well as cold water dips, how else do you like to relax/ de-stress?
I’d like to say I go for a run or practice mindful meditation but if I’m honest, I de-stress and relax by throwing on the TV and binging a good box set. Sometimes we just need to switch off. True Detective is my current distraction.
Can you recommend any health & wellbeing inspired podcasts/books?
Can’t Hurt Me by retired American Navy SEAL David Goggins is an inspiring book detailing his journey of developing self-discipline, mental toughness and overcoming trauma. It helped me a couple of years ago when everything in my life was turned upside down.
For more information on the Baltic Boys check out their Instagram page @balticboysaberdeen