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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

How I Embraced The Supreme Smugness Of Sea Swimming...



‘We’ll just walk in but make sure you keep swimming!’ my friend Klara said enthusiastically. I laughed — my own enthusiasm waning slightly as I peered into the icy looking sea below us. It was October and we were long past the ‘Indian summer’ period. Although it was a crisp, sunny day at Sea Point, it was also what an Irish mammy would call fine drying weather — pretty windy. The thought alone of stripping down from my lovely warm puffer jacket to stand out in the Irish Autumn in just my swimwear gave me goosebumps. To then submerge myself in the Irish sea, a mass of water that never really goes above 15 degrees Celsius, seemed like complete madness and I began to question my life choices.


I had read an article hailing the benefits of sea swimming for those suffering from neurological disorders and I had been encouraged to try it out by a woman who also has MS. So, I half-heartedly agreed to accompany Klara who was an avid sea swimmer, full of the joys of its benefits, even in the icy winter months.


The sea was relatively calm for a mid-Autumn morning. I was armed with a hot tea, my towel (pre-dry robe era), jeans, two pairs of socks, underwear, three jumpers and a banana muffin to eat post-swim. It was a whole process, and I was taking the getting out part very seriously. In fact, I had considered not getting in at all and just eating the muffin with my nice mug of tea.


I held on to the rail as I dipped my toe into the water. The cold air hit the back of my throat as I gasped. It was freezing and I lacked the uninhibited gumption that accompanies most novices. I was told the best thing to do was walk slowly down the steps, allowing time to acclimate to the cold, take a deep breath and start swimming. Naturally, I then had to be reminded to breathe as my body hit the water, which felt like a million tiny pin pricks. As I was busy gulping in air and saltwater, I had an audience of semi-professional sea swimmers with their red buoys attached to their backs. They stared at me with mild fascination as I swam in frenzied circles around my friend, arms flailing, screaming profanities. I'm sure they all really enjoyed having me there.


That was a year ago. Once I returned to Dublin in August after restrictions lifted, I braved the sea yet again. This time, my 2020 initiation was at the Vico baths in Dalkey, SoCoDo. Since then, I have gone swimming most weeks with friends in Sandycove, the 40 foot, Killiney beach, Skerries, and Seapoint. We don't drift too far from the bathing areas as I'm not exactly Katie Ledecky. I go at obscure times during the day to avoid the crowds, around mid-afternoon or mid-morning, where it is usually just us and a hardy bunch of retirees. Over the summer, I even took a dunk in the Atlantic at Ballybunion beach and Banna Strand in Co. Kerry. One of the many advantages of the West Coast is that the gulf stream means the Atlantic is warmer than the Irish sea most of the year, unlike the suspicion that surrounds a warm spot at the swimming pool.


Despite my histrionics, the initial discomfort of the icy waters doesn't last long. Incredibly, after a couple of minutes, your body begins to heat up and you no longer feel as cold. The blood vessels on the outer part of your body begin to contract, so all the blood that usually flows to your extremities like fingers and toes, moves to your core, keeping it lit like a small furnace. This explains why it feels as if my backside is no longer attached to my body after I get out. That's also why the hot cuppa after the swim is so important in the colder months. As soon as you get out, the blood begins to move around your body so your core temperature can still drop once you are out of the water. The key is little and often. The more you immerse yourself in the cold, the more acclimatised you become. Your body naturally adapts to the extreme temperature change and the blood vessels become used to constricting, so you warm up quicker in the water.


I think the benefits of cold-water immersion far outweigh the panic of taking the plunge. It's a bit like getting prodded by needles. You (sometimes) get over the initial fear, but at least with sea swimming, you get a serotonin buzz instead of a puncture mark. The invigorating feeling that you experience from open water swimming courses through you for the entire day. This 'feel good' factor associated with sea swimming happens because when you shock your body with sudden exposure to cold water, it releases endorphins to cope with the 'pain'. It is also reputedly extremely good for stress reduction, can improve circulation and help strengthen the immune system. For me, it acts as a cheap form of cryotherapy, calming my nervous system. Cold therapy reduces blood flow to particular areas, which can significantly reduce inflammation. I get restless legs and fatigue so the cold water helps to alleviate my symptoms. Plus, the sensory overload is definitely a beneficial distraction, not least from 2020.


With the closure of swimming pools and gyms during this special time, a lot of people have taken up sea swimming. Or as a friend jokingly said, 'in Kerry, it's just called swimming.' There is something so freeing about swimming in the open water and it has definitely spawned a new cult-like following in the Covid era. Despite our precarious relationship with the sun, I think Irish people have a renewed appreciation for the outdoors. From our beautiful mountainy hikes to the exhilarating sea swims, we are extremely lucky to live here.


As much as I love the smugness of being lauded as brave for swimming in the sea, I wouldn't exactly call myself a 'sea swimmer'. I'm more of an enthusiastic sea dipper, and occasional vigorous sea treader. Whatever it is, I am definitely a convert. Thanks to a fellow sea splasher, I am also now a proud 'dry robe' wanker - a growing blight on the year-round swimmers brigade. Of course, I wear it as a fashion statement at all the top swimming spots, just before synching my Airpods and gesturing extensively to my effortless changing skills, facilitated only by my shape-shifting pink towel dress.


According to the Outdoor Swimming Society, your cold-water shock response can last for 14 months following a series of cold-water immersions so your body's ability to respond doesn't suddenly dissipate. This makes me feel moderately less guilty for my developing reluctance to take the plunge in late November. Even though I am dying to bring my (albeit fake) dry robe out for another outing, so I might brave it a few more times before the end of the year.


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