The waters around Ireland are enjoying an epic and historic invasion.
Not by rugged Norsemen on longboats, but by their native people, who have re-ignited a love affair with the sea.
Locked out of watering holes, hairdressers, cafe’s, friends kitchens, community centres and normal life, we’re finding invigoration in Ireland’s waterways, rivers, lakes and seas.
I’ve watched South Dublin enclaves like Seapoint, Dalkey and Sandycove become the epicenter of newbie sea swimmers donning dryrobes. Post swim, they disperse for takeaway coffees and chai lattes like elves in their hooded, must-have towel lined garments.
The old guard, who have been swimming without fanfare or khaki robes for years, have responded. According to social media, a sign- with the words; ‘no dryrobes, no dryrobe types’ recently appeared pinned to a lamppost in Sandycove.
It’s all in good spirits, but there’s no denying the sudden popularity of sea swimming and the great outdoors, even if hardened traditionalists are tickled that mother nature has gone mainstream.
Once empty hiking trails are packed with converted weekend hikers in instagrammable hiking wear, while seas and waterways are filling up with pandemic paddlers.
Who am I to judge? I’d be lying if I said I was an old hat winter sea swimmer. Before March came along, it was an exception, not a ritual. Every year, I weighed up the dangers of jumping into the sea unrehearsed and hungover on Christmas Day and decided not to bother.
Instead I swam several times a week in indoor pools, head down, goggles on trying to pass slow breaststroke swimmers in my lane.
But, that was then. Now, like many others, I’ve been faced with a choice- sink or swim? I’ll choose swimming over sinking into loneliness, depression and boredom.
I spoke to sea swimming expert, Henry O’Donnell from Letterkenny who is currently undertaking an epic 1200 km swim around Ireland in aid of The Irish Cancer Society and Water Safety Ireland about its virtues. “There is great healing in water,” he says. Having started sea swimming aged four, 56 year old O’Donnell credits sea swimming on Donegal’s Atlantic coast with helping him recover from a life threatening sports accident, which left him paralised for a lengthy period.
“Hydrotherapy decreases anxiety and depression. Breathing control, slows you down, therefore making you less stressed.”
But you need to respect the water, he warns. “When you’re starting out, especially at this time of year, you shouldn’t stay in the water longer than five to seven minutes, body fat depending.”
O’Donnell, who regularly swims over 20km a day, burning over 9000 calories, says taking up swimming is a great step to a healthy new life: “But sea swimming is serious.”
“It’s advisable not to jump into the water, rather wade in slowly, then build up your tolerance.” Also, the high tide crowds – especially in Dublin might be a turn off during Covid times, but don’t swim alone. “Always go with friends, don’t take any risks.”
According to research published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine, regular cold water immersion helps boost your body’s levels of the antioxidant glutathione, which regulates the process of all other antioxidants in the body, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
A Cambridge University study recently found that a ‘cold-shock’ protein was present in the blood of regular users of London’s Parliament Hill Lido (an unheated outdoor pool) the presence of which has been shown to slow the onset of dementia.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Council have studied cold water swimming as a medical treatment in dealing with depression.
It makes meeting friends more fun, gives us something to do, helps us face fears, improves circulation and burns fat. Ice swimmer Wim Hoff says; ‘The absolute cold is a doorway to the soul.”
You’d wonder what took everyone so long? By happy default, we’ve changed our relationship with the sea from one of visual appreciation to one of desire.
The dryrobe wars, the parking wars, the difficulty of getting my daughter out of a wetsuit, while not freezing to death are merely additions to my great coastal awakening.
Once you get past the initial pain barrier, which takes about two grueling minutes, it’s all fun and games. You can’t but smile at people on a Saturday morning, who would normally be doing something else, swim in the cold Irish sea, red skinned, but bullet proof.
“Good things can be found in pandemics if you look to the water,” proud dryrobe and flower cap owner Venetia Quick says.” Getting past the pain barrier is the best buzz,” the daily sea swimmer adds. “Most importantly of all though, it’s free.”