Midwinter. 7am. It’s barely light.

While many people are snuggling under duvets, Sally Bird and a few hardy bathers slip into the water off Shore Road in Sandbanks.

The sounds of laughter fill the air. You won’t hear the squeak of a wetsuit: these swimmers are made of sterner stuff than that.

I use the term swimmers in the loosest form. These are the bobbers, the splashers, the gigglers – those who rejoice in just being outside in mother nature’s hug.

“I’m having an absolute ball,” said Sally, 63, who founded the Facebook group Beyond the Blue to unite fellow sea dippers.

“We are all shapes and sizes, and from various backgrounds. I’ve yet to meet a miserable swimmer.”

Until recently, despite living in Poole for 36 years, Sally had rarely snuck a toe into the water. Then a bout of ill health made her look at life differently.

“I suddenly became out of breath. There were times I couldn’t walk from one room to another. I had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease then aspergillosis which took its toll on my respiratory system. In March 2010 I was so pleased to be finally off the steroids, but two days later I came off my bike and broke my back. So much for celebrating my 60th birthday!”

“Early last year I read how good it was for the immune system to walk on the beach along the water’s edge. So there I was at Sandbanks at 5.30am, on a beautiful morning with the sun out. I remember looking out to sea thinking I wanted to be out there, in it.”

After the first tentative dip she was hooked. “It was so cold, but so invigorating,” said Sally. She took herself to Shore Road for a quiet swim a couple of times a week thereafter.

“But then the summer ended and the Swim Zones and life guard station were taken away. Suddenly I was nervous of swimming alone.

“I wanted to join up with other swimmers, so I contacted East Dorset Open Water Swimming Club (the nearest of the clubs in the Poole Bay area) but as they frequently swam in excess of a mile, and I could only do breaststroke, they were concerned for my safety and that I would be left behind.”

In September she contacted somebody who she noticed swam from Shore Road – Glenda Cardy - and they met up for a swim at 6am. “What a character!” said Sally. “I loved being in the middle of the sea, in the dark, chatting, laughing and of course swimming.”

Glenda generally swims at 4 o’clock every morning and is recognised by her orange woolly hat aka Tangerine Dream. Then another girl joined them, Lisa. Little did Sally know she was about to start a group.

The Beyond the Blue Facebook group now has 110 members, with one living as far away as Australia. “Some people come to Poole on holiday and join us when they can.

“Providing you can swim, you are responsible for your own safety but we all keep an eye on each other. Through the group I am privileged to have met and swum with some excellent swimmers, relay and cross-channel swimmers, ice swimmers. And then there is me.”

Others moored on dry land offer sage advice to the bathers through the site such as weather warnings, tips on snug clothing, and to only stay in the water the equivalent amount of minutes as the water temperature.

The coldest Sally has experienced off these shores was about a month ago when her thermometer read 7.1 degrees. Her very first outing involved a wetsuit, but nowadays she relies on bioprene. “That’s when you have enough fat on your own body to keep you warm!” she laughed.

“Once in the sea you don’t feel cold. You feel alive. I even shouted that to myself once in the sea. I still try to go twice a week. My health has improved and I have so much more well being.”

Sally’s confidence also sky rocketed. So much so she plucked up courage to register for the Bournemouth Pier to Pier swim in July.

“I’ve even progressed to front crawl!” she said.

“Thanks must go to Jeff Sandley from The Junction in Broadstone, who has been coaching me one-to-one on front crawl. Without his help I don’t think I’d be swimming the Bournemouth Pier to Pier very quickly!”

But for Sally, one of the main reasons she slips into a cozzie twice a week is to soak up the beautiful surroundings.

“I have got to my age and only now realise what a pleasure it is to see a sunrise, especially while in the sea. I get into the sea in the dark then, on a good morning, see a fabulous sunrise. It literally throws a red light across the sea and onto the buildings along Shore Road. Just amazing.”

  • To find out more about Beyond the Blue, contact 07982 252155.