I have tingles in both hands. One is from jellyfish stings, one is from sensation returning after an almost two hour June swim. I can’t tell which is which. The Blue Stinger appeared in front of me at the surface, right as I reached forward. Its tentacles enveloped my hand, arm and shoulders like a net. Newer visitors, what we call the pink shuttlecocks, a transitional state of some jellyfish species are on the increase. I see occasional massive Barrel jellies down low. On good years, I’ll swim through a Moon jelly bloom, the water like jellyfish soup, thick with the solid bumping on my arms and legs. I must remember to change my towel when I get home, because it’s so encrusted with salt that it will no longer dry me, after four days of sea swimming. Apparently I am the only swimmer in the world who does not change their towel after every swim, dirty swim hobo that I am.
I return to many of my favourite caves having visited the Cave of the Loneswimmer in an earlier month; The Moon Cave, the Barrel Cave, the Drop Cave, the Waterfall Cave and of course the Cave of Screaming Terror. On two consecutive days I get stung on the face and lips in the dark of two different caves.
Afterwards, I walk through a supermarket in Tramore after a swim on a sunny day when everyone else is in shorts (an opportunity that doesn’t arise that often in Ireland). I’m wearing a hat and full length fleece Surf Fur parka. Even though I don’t feel the deep cold like the cold of February, I try to avoid the freezer aisle, because the waves of cold rolling out from the open display cabinets seems to negate both my feeling of returning comfort and the laws of thermodynamics (science joke there). I buy too much chocolate and junk food to eat in the car and feed the overwhelming hunger that can’t wait until I get home.
At home in the shower, my untanned arse glows like the old Coppertone Baby advert. I am of the sallow stock Irish, rather than the pale blue Irish, indicating that June is not the month we love to swim, but it is the month that makes some of us who are, or who we will become. somewhere in my family’s past, we interbred with some surviving sailor of the Spanish Armada, and in a totally unscientific way, explaining my love of Spain and Catalunya. My tan does not completely fade in winter, even in the northern latitude Irish winter, being a year round swimmer (if only a couple of days a month in winter) that builds that “base tan” yer mammy used to talk about, and before long people are asking if I’ve been out foreign.
I display a range of different predominant body odours: Chlorine, salt, lanolin, or Lemon Thyme from the dishwashing soap I use to remove the lanolin.
The weather cheats, lies, and plays games. One day early in June I swim for 50 minutes under heavily overcast skies and unseasonably cold air even for Ireland and take two hours to fully rewarm. A week later, another weather change, days of coastal sea fog followed by a little sunshine, a little onshore wind and the water rises to almost twelve degrees, and I swim for 90 minutes quite comfortably and by the end of June, the time and temperature have dropped again, and Force Five north-easterlies dominate the coast and weather, while the rest of Europe swelters. Afterwards I still need to have a belt on my pants, because the mini-Claw I developed stops me from being able to fasten the top button keeping them up. I look at my notes, for Junes, and Junes, and more Junes, and see 10.5 to 13.5 degrees for the first three weeks every year except the outlier that was the Herald of Climate Change, the summer of 2018.
Look closely – Loneswimmer heading out in choppy June water
Numbers grow at the Guill. Late in the month, Saturday and Sunday afternoon crowds grow. Someone pulls an inflatable “kayak” down the steps through the crowds into Force Three breezes, and I bet myself they will either drown, or retire the inflatable for ever before the end of July. Some of the dippers wait until the first sunshine of June and the water reaching ten degrees to go back in the water. I am pushing out, from the first cave of May to the first full Tramore Double in June, from the Guill to the beach, out to the Metalman and back to the Guill. I reach two hours in the water on the right day. I swim at Gararrus, Boatstrand and Kilfarassey, maybe guide someone out to Loneswimmer cave.
Jellyfish pulse in numbers, sometimes absent, sometimes waiting in the cave to sting my face in the darkness. Lobster pots proliferate. The club’s 250 Metre buoy is now out at 380 metres, and no-one believes me, because for the few that swim out to it, it’s a big deal to reach it, and no-one want to me hear say it’s a safety issue because it sits in a current, especially the people who most like to tell me I should not be swimming off by myself, and who themselves never swim more than fifty metres.
June 2019 Sandycove Solstice swim
Each summer solstice evening since 2012, we get together at Sandycove to swim a lap, or two or three, to remember and celebrate our friend Paraic Casey, who died while swimming the English Channel that year. We eat barbecue burgers right after swimming, a rare luxury of transitioning from swimming to eating with no waiting. Not everyone is there every year, but mostly, we all meet, and talk with the people who we understand and who understand us. As the years pass, the swimmers who knew Paraic begin to be outnumbered. And it’s all good, because they are new blood.
This year’s Channel Aspirants are struggling with the unusually low temperatures this year. We commiserate, talk about our own years. When I return home, I check my notes and see June 2019 is similar to June 2010.This, as much as the Channel itself, is what we share. Only we know the miles, the cold, the hunger, the gradual breaking down of our strength in preparation for the assault on La Manche. One June I swam 241,900 metres, every metre in open water. Another June I only swam 44,000. Somewhere in between there, may be the best explanation of what June is, or maybe not. Getting out of the water cold to feed, only to get back in colder and swim through The Fridge Door at Sandycove. Only we know that the gradual breaking down of our physical strength in preparation for the battlefield of La Manche is also the building of our mental strength.
June is not the month we love to swim, but it is the month that forges some of us, or who we will become.
When you look around from wherever you are reading this, whether it’s an office, at home,on a train, you can’t see The Deep. Even if you are sitting at the coast. The words have no weight. The Deep doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy-tale with which to scare yourself. You imagine it.
Step off the ladder, and swim out. Away from the pier or the rock or pontoon or boat.
Not so much away a beach. Beach are emotional crutches for swimmers because beaches have a slope. Your mind holds onto that slope, makes of it what you require, stretches it out, raises it up and so the beach supports you still and allows you to avoid the idea of The Deep. So you must go off an edge.
Can you get far away from what I think of as the horizontal emotional gravity of these objects? Get away so they lose their hold or their ability to provide you safety and a ready exit? Can you separate yourself from them?
Can you make it out a hundred metres? Two hundred?
Can you make it out to four hundred metres? It’s not a swimming ability question. Four hundred metres is nothing for you if you are a swimmer. Six, seven, eight minutes swimming. Less than two hands of time.
Yet four hundred metres puts you out away where you are starting to disappear.
If the water is flat, at around hundred metres you are on the edge of the edge, the outside of the littoral zone, skirting a swimmer’s offshore waters. Most of the world will never be there and of those that are, most will be on some kind of craft. At four hundred metres you are on the swimming equivalent of the upper slopes of Everest, and yet, there’s your swim gear, just over there, where the people are just walkinig around.
If there is chop or wind, if any observer doesn’t have the long learned skill of learning to watch water, learning to see without looking, if they haven’t visually followed you out, then they have almost certainly lost sight you. If they never saw you go, then unless the water is flat, you do not exist. You have never existed.
Do you swim out there? Do you go out beyond four hundred metres?
Do you go alone?
Out there you are not so much a swimmer. You are a boat. Your hands and forearms are the sails, your shoulders are the sheets and yards. Your confidence is the wind and your experience is the crew.
Under you is The Deep.
If you are not an offshore swimmer, and maybe even if you are, you will think about void, maybe about blackness. About a sensation that feels like it is pulling you down. You imagine the pull of The Deep is so ineluctable that you can feel it pulling you in, pulling you down.
The gravity, the emotional weight, of the horizontal distance between you and your safe exit and the number of swimmers present is inversely proportionate to the pull of The Deep.
If there is only you, and you are far off, the pull of The Deep is cosmic.
Swim out. Feel that pull. Swim back.
Could you go again. Go further?
Go to four hundred metres? Go to five?
Go out a kilometre?
When I was a teenager I read that singer Jimmy Cliff used to claim that he would swim out to sea every day until he could swim no further. And then he would turn and swim back. I wasn’t a swimmer when I read it.
It’s a good story. It’s a great claim. Now I know it’s utter bombast and nonsense.
Out there the ocean drains eternally beneath you into the abyss that is bowel of the world and you know that it will drag you down. You are a mote. You are no more than plankton on the skin of The Deep and it is the maelstrom of maelstroms. It is a black hole and its boundary radiation is fear.
But the fundamental nature of The Deep is not what you may think it is. It’s not its literal measurement of depth. Nor is not what is in it. It is not void or blackness, nor cold nor silence, nor screaming into the water until it fills your lungs.
The Deep is an idea.
The Deep is you in your own physical body of a boat, your sheets and sails and crew and wind.
The Deep is being utterly invisible and therefore not much different from being lost.
The Deep is something some people carry inside and it’s the same and different, and knowing one Deep makes me indifferent to the other Deep.
The Deep is not void, but is The Void and its inhabitants are Leviathan, Kraken, and mostly your fear, but maybe also your pain.
And because of all this, when you ask me how to swim in deep water, you are not understanding me, so I can give no answer that means anything to you.
The Deep is not the water beneath you. You do not swim in The Deep, you swim in yourself.
The Deep is imagination.
The colour of The Deep is not black or blueblack or greenblack because they are colours of water and it is more and less than water.
The colour of The Deep is eigengrau. It is the colour you see when you close your eyes.
“Loneswimmer is a brand now“, my buddy and two-way English Channel and Double Round Manhattan swimmer Lisa (Cummins) said to me one day and not as much alcohol or hypothermia as you would guess was involved.
Now let’s get this out the way. Having Lisa as friend is a bit of trial. You go through your life, people at the Guill think you’re hardcore, you are “the Iron Man of The Copper Coast”, the “real MetalMan”… (Because there’s a navigation statue called the Metal Man after a local marine tragedy. Keep up!) because you swam a few swims, a couple of Channels and things. And when I say you, I mean me. Not you. Then one day Lisa comes over and goes swimming with you (me, see how that works?). And you make the mistake of introducing her. And there goes your (my) reputation in one minute.
And from then on it’s; “you only swam one way? You didn’t even tumble-turn off France! When is Lisa coming back? She seems nice. And what about Finbarr? When is he coming back? We liked him.” As if being nice and talented and likable world-renowned swimmers is cool.
Anyway, back to the brand thing.
So I tried getting my wife to address me as THE LONESWIMMER. But she gracefully demurred. I tried dropping the THE. Still no joy. I told her that I would use THE as my first name if it was easier for her, because we are an equal marriage, but she couldn’t hear me from upstairs in the shower. My kids called me an embarrassing clown but they had been doing that beforehand so I’m not sure that’s indicative of anything except our close relationship. Work wouldn’t let me change my ID card or reshoot it with me wearing Speedoes. I did the photo shoot at my expense and everything but they wouldn’t let me add the access codes to the A4-size card I had made up. So I put it aside. (The idea that is. The A4 size ID card is here on my desk in front of me). I’ll try again when I retire. I’m a long distance swimmer, I’m here for the long haul. (Yeah, yeah, even if not quite as long as Lisa. Screw you). Maybe by that time I have a whole new circle of acolytes at the Guill and Lisa and Finbarr will have moved further away.
Nonetheless the seed was planted, the bottle cast forth on the main, so to speak. As indeed that is how I expatiate.
I was a brand! How would I celebrate? I’ll get a tattoo! Everyone has tattoos now. I’m pretty sure I saw an eight year old with a Thug Life tattoo in the Tadpoles group in the pool the other day.
But then I thought, wouldn’t that be just like those people who get their own names tattooed on themselves? In case they forget their name or are involved in a situation that will at some point be the inspiration for an episode of Law & Order? I dunno. Actually it would be worse, for I would also be like people who get professional sports teams or Apple logos tattooed on themselves. I would essentially be… Branding a Brand! So that would be a double crime against both taste and stupidity, intelligence stuff.
And then it came to me. Like those people who think by wearing an Apple logo, they are all individual and original and creative, you all could wear Loneswimmer as a brand. I would be the brand, on you!
Now as long time readers will know (and if you are not a long time reader, now is the time to start!), I have all my best ideas while swimming. I go forth to swim, bereft of ideas and return from the deep with inspiration oozing from me, virtually spurting forth in great discharging arcs. That’s an inspirational metaphor, isn’t it? And who says I don’t do inspiration.
Strangely, this magnificent brainchild did not happen while swimming but while I was emptying the compost. As I leaned over to disgorge the house bin into the main garden compost, the subtle aroma wafted upwards and hit me in the sinuses. Exactly like water of six degrees hits it (them? Is there one sinus, or are there two? Are they joined up like tonsils? Are tonsils joined up? What about the dangly bit at the back of your throat?).
As my eyes watered and I struggled to stay upright, I thought, as one dos, what one really needs in these circumstances is someone else to do this rubbish (literally, see what I did there) for one so there are no circumstances like these again. But if one’s family have all already rejected that suggestion just because one asked them to use THE as one’s new first name, then the next obvious course is to at least look good doing it. generally speaking.
And so, my epiphany is realised. Loneswimmer.com has since that fateful and inspiration day worked with some of the world’s thinnest designers to actualise and launch a new range of post cold water wear that will surely in its time be appreciated as a transformative new style that will rival matching sportswear sets and pajamas as outside wear. Surely the early items in this range will come to be seen not just as icons of stylelee, but eminently practical and much sought after.
Nothing says warmth against clammy cold skin quite like wool and we have scoured, scored, secured a supply of the best Irish ram’s fleeces, shorn at the (metaphorical) height of an Irish winter when its tough properties are at their most pronounced. Considering the intended target audience, we have eschewed any post-processing and the wool items in the range will therefore provide the additonal function of pre-greasing the swimmer with its natural organic lanolin. No silicon or petroleum-derived products, you can wear your environmental credentials in more ways than the Sunday Supplement Reader Set have ever imagined.
And so I give you The LoneSwimmer Cold Water Swimmer Post-Swim Range. . Available from the IISA website.
The IISA Cold Water Jacket
One of the core items in the range, this pre- and post- cold water swim jacket is for those people who aren’t yet International Ice Swimming Association swimmers, to allow them to feel and look like Ice Mile Swimmers until they gain the requisite additional eight stone weight.
Also suitable for Australians.
The International Ice Swimming Association’s new cold water coat
The Northern European Racer
Designed to compliment the skin hues of Northern Europeans, the originators of cold water swimming, this sweater (jumper to non-Americans) is comfortable and practical and yet designed with the cold water racer in mind.
You can stay warm before a swim, and yet one fluid move be ready to race. Afterwards you can simply step into it, pull it up and be instantly rewarming.
Cold water swimming is a part of daily routine for many people. This understated sweater subtley says “I do this all the time, I don’t even think it’s a big deal“,
but with a certain je ne saois quoi that places practiality ahead of elegance. Wear alone or as part of a functional layering system.
The Pool Ice Mile Swimmer
As part of the pre-planning for this world event, my biggest fans, the afore-mentioned International Ice Swimming Association, asked me to design an item in their signature colour just for Association Swimmers to help launch their new “Since Ice Swimming is already stupid, let’s start doing it in a pool now, so people don’t even have to have any open water experience” initiativ, bringing their world full-circle and finally eliminating any remaining requirement, except being fat. And I added a dress.
Not everyone can be a cold water monster. We are all on a learning curve and to foster and encourage our wetsuit-wearing brethern we are launching a special item just for them,
which epitomises both their joie de vivre and joie de l’océan.This item will be specially priced.
Though I had been pool swimming, I hadn’t swam in the sea in four weeks, and if I didn’t get in at the weekend I would go a month without an open water swim for possibly the first time in a decade.
On Saturday the bay was lousy and blown out in howling onshores, breakers stretching out over a mile from the coast, unswimmable even using the alternative option of swimming out through the pier entrance. But as evening drew on the temperature dropped as the weather swung anti-cyclonic. The isobars narrowed and funneled a wind down out of the Arctic circle (though no Polar Vortex), blowing southerly over Ireland, and by Sunday morning the webcam showed the bay was flat under the offshore sweeping out to sea. The residual swell was compressed by it and only escaped the oppressive dominance of the offshore breeze right as it broke onto the beach, like soap escaping from between your hands as you press tighter, enticing bewetsuited surfers into the water.
At home, before I left, I coughed a single time. A dry short cough that I recognised immediately. Even when I am not conscious of it, my body spits out this cough if I am exhibiting any physical nervousness. Before exams, job interviews, big swims. It’s a mildly annoying but long familiar symptom, and only remarkable in that I hadn’t known I was nervous. Afterall, it was just a short Sunday morning swim and I have counted many thousands of open water swims and many hundred of thousands of open water metres.
The immediate physical response to extreme cold is the sub-conscious fight or flight response. We react like we would to a physical threat. Because cold is a physical threat. Heart rate elevates, stress hormones production increases. All the Internet/Social Media posturing about cold water swimming is precisely that. Posturing. People lie about cold. For all the good we derive from it, something in cold water swimming also fosters those who see it as a platform for self-aggrandizement. They do not fear the cold, it does not make them nervous, does not make them cough. Apparently.
Since the last time I’d swam, the temperature would have dropped, but I did not know how much. What would it be? Somewhere between 6 and 9 degrees. All the world’s oceans could fill the space between those numbers when you are not cold-conditioned, and I was questioning how much cold-conditioning I’d lost, given I haven’t been trying to hold any great tolerance over the last couple of winters, content as I am with half hour swims when the temperate drops to eight degrees.
Habituation, the quickly trainable response of cold water swimmers is simply our reaction to getting into cold water. I am long habituated. I can get into any temperature, precisely because I know from long experience what the beginners do not know. Or more precisely, I know what their bodies do not know. I know it will not kill me. But conversely, I also know how much it can hurt.
Acclimatization, the more slowly trained response to staying in cold water takes longer to develop, but is not lost quickly, with some evidence that cold acclimatization is retained for up to six months without exposure.
That single cough though was my experience acknowledging I’d been out of the water and it would probably hurt. I recall a similar three-week break last spring around the nadir of the year’s temperatures, and the first swim back in temperatures around seven degrees had been significantly painful.
We have more regular swimmers now during winter at the Guill. The last year has seen an increase in new faces I do not know, daily-dipping where possible in the winter weather. Those wearing neoprene hoods and gloves are contrasted with those who wear only swimsuits, I occupy some middle ground using silicone cap, goggles (a rarity, showing how many daily dippers are not really swimmers) and silicone earplugs (the only local who wears them and though I do warn people, they all mistakenly consider them unnecessary).
Blue sky and calm water beckoned but the cold breeze caused me to dawdle before finally committing. My feet hurt as I slowly descended the concrete steps covered by the high tide as they were enveloped. A slow immersion to my chest, then the plunge forward.
I’ve previously described the first three minutes of a cold water swim but not all swims are the same. All the usual sensations of thermal shock response, gasp suppression and breathing control were present, but what was noticeable from my absence was the pain caused by the cold in my legs. Cold water swimmers don’t like to use the word pain. I am not (always) in agreement. It hurts, therefore it’s pain.
This pain manifests in two ways. First is the over-arching stimulation of the thermo-receptor nerve cells. Those thermo-receptors will transmit the same electrical signals to your brain as if you’d burned yourself. This is short-lived, lasting mere tens of seconds up to a minute or two at most. The other cold pain manifestation usually not described, which lasts longer, is akin to weakness. My legs feel powerless, lacking any muscular or motive strength, f does not appear to equal ma and I do not kick at all for the early part of the swim.
For the first one to two hundred metres, I swam with my eyes mostly closed. I am gone inward, hemmed in by the immediacy of physical sensation. I sometimes think I will make a change next time and start with the method favoured by some, of just floating first and adjusting to the cold before swimming. But each time I revert to the pattern that I have found suits me best; swim away from the discomfort and thermal shock.
I swam toward the Comolee rocks. I had thought before the swim that I might only stay in for 15 minutes. Once I reached three hundred metres, all the discomfort/pain/whatever had passed, my legs were kicking, my control was total. I am thinking about long clean pulling strokes, the water clear under me and I do not even feel cold any longer. So I stay in, swim for almost 30 minutes before emerging from this banal fountain of youth that I’d postulate was the origin of the mythological version. I am both rejuvenated and revivified, once again a newly emerged god of the ocean, so many times now reborn.
I occasionally think about the dichotomies of open and cold water swimming. There is the simple and most common dichotomy amongst cold water swimmers of simultaneously loving and hating cold water (although I am apparently the only cold water swimmer who ever says “hate” also). But there are also for me other dichotomies.
Nothing fixes you in the physical world, in the actual moment, like cold water swimming. My skin is acid, fire and ice. My feet hurt. I clench my eyes shut, my heart hammers, I use experience to control my breathing. Here, now, I am on the edge of life as we normally live it, the edge of the capability to which our human bodies have evolved, the edge to which my experience has led me. I can close my eyes, control my breath, I can swim smoothly or frantically, but there is no diversion, no getting away from now. I cannot pretend or imagine I am elsewhere or elsewhen. This is the worldy world, the water world, the real world. Swimming and cold are my entire universe.
I am cold, and wet, and swimming. If I ever needed or wanted a tattoo, would that not be everything I would never need to say? This is an entirely immanent experience and there is nothing metaphysical in it.
And yet, nothing fuels my imagination like this experience. When I swim in cold it feels like it unlocks something inside me, something I didn’t know was even present yet alone locked, a hidden door opens. It is like looking at bare dry sand from which some life suddenly sprouts. I can’t say unexpectedly, because not only have I gotten used to this sensation, I have come to trust it entirely and without reservation. It’s not revelatory in the sense of an epiphany or prophecy. It comes gradually, and often not while actually swimming. Instead, after I leave the water, my core temperature having dropped, I gradually reclaim body warmth. Indeed it seems like the cold actually drains slowly out of of me, thereby inverting what the second law of thermodynamics absolutely dictates, and into the interstice some greater sense of personal numinosity expands and words and phrases brim and feel like they will overflow.
I trust cold to show me things in myself, or in the world, that I never realised. I do not claim it always happens or that cold confers me any degree of special comprehension, maybe the cold water just pours into a gap that others don’t have. But I am content with the promise of occasional revelation, even if I am merely a dumb naked ape, wonderstruck and stupefied. I cannot expect you to understand that this experience is not a death-wish but a joyous life event, and it happens out here on the edge of life and land. Actually that’s why I occasionally think of it as a tiny death, and that it is good because there is the possibility of revelation, though I use that word with caution. In this transcendent (another cautionary word) experience, I find no evidence of or requirement for the metaphysical, the divine, the supernatural. All these years, all this time on the edge, has never shaken my profound and lifelong atheism. It is the actual power of the ocean, the deathly thrill of cold, the proficiency of my swimming. I experience wonder and need not ascribe it to anything transcendental. The sacred mundane is there to touch, and I don’t need to put a caveat on it like having the eyes to see or the faith to accept, no preconditions of belief or belonging are required, it’s a sacrament open to any who wish to try it.
No diversion, no deception are possible for me in the actuality of this swimming. I must accept this experience for what it is. I must accept myself for who I am. There is for me only truth in cold. I am not fast. I am not tough. I am not skilled. Therefore I am even more confused when I compare my experience to those people who do their swimming on the internet. But while I feel I have spent my life confused by people, in this water I have clarity, because I am in this water by myself, with the truth and need no ego out here. Maybe, each time, when I wonder if I didn’t swim for long enough, I actually swim for exactly the right length of time, and could and should butter no parsnips. Do I swim for this vision of truth? Not always, not even frequently, I am not sure if I ever actively seek it. Each time, after the swim, a gift. Unexpected, yet not a surprise.
The details of how I feel before a swim are only the preface. But the actual important part is brief. The context requires more words than the truth requires. Truth is usually simple. All the rest of our lives are complex grey shades contrasted to the fiery red of my post-swim skin, the goldgreenblack of the winter ocean.
Only the warm and the dry are deceptive. Water is always truthful. Cold does not lie.
For some years, my New Year’s post for those taking up swimming for exercise or weight management has been one of the site’s most popular and has gone viral on a number of occasions. But like with my Christmas Swim post, I wanted to change it up this year. Like so much of what I’ve written, I was thinking of what you other lone swimmers out there, who like myself, might benefit from that I’ve learned and the thousands of questions I’ve gotten over the year here and elsewhere.
I have previously said that there are no tricks or secrets in learning to swim. But while that’s true about swimming, it’s not entirely accurate about other aspects of swimming. It struck me this year when I was often in the pool while the local tri club were getting lessons that there are many coaches who themselves aren’t or weren’t swimmers and that there are things therefore that they do not know and don’t teach or teach incorrectly. So these are secrets in that experienced swimmers know them, but it can take a long time for others to learn. These are the nuggets of knowledge that get passed in changing rooms and on decks, and are part of what we might call swim culture.
Like every pursuit, this is knowledge that swimmers often don’t realise they’ve learned or absorbed over the years of practice, from swimming technique, to equipment and hygiene. So while I’ve probably not covered this completely, because it’s hard to remember everything when writing such a list, this should help collect some of the “soft” knowledge that experienced swimmers gain over time and so many new and improving swimmers haven’t yet learned, especially if they are not part of a swim group.
A single ray of New Year’s eve light and a belaboured metaphor breaks through
By far the most annoying thing for swimmers are people joining the lane who have no understanding of lane etiquette used around the world by experienced swimmers. Actually this often includes the lifeguards on duty many of whom (most in my experience) don’t understand either. Below are four simple rules. Yes, I know as a beginner you think this is too much, but people don’t play golf with a hockey stick, so I don’t know why non-swimmers think swimming is different. Here is a comprehensive explanation of lane swimming etiquette if you are inclined.
Ask or let the swimmer already in the lane know you are joining.
Don’t start swimming or turn in front of a faster swimmer.
The fastest swimmer has the right of way.
Stay aware of what everyone is doing to avoid collisions and frustration for all.
Because every swimmer in the world has an opinion and will happily entertain long discussions about goggs.
No anti-fog will last on goggles longer than a couple of months
Spit into googles for a simple reasonably effective anti-fog. Never touch the inside of the goggles.
Use a 2/3 water, 1/3 baby shampoo mix, swirl it around and rinse it out for a more effective anti-fog
Most “high visibility open water goggles” aren’t high visibility and are seriously over-priced. The google design offering the most visibility are clear Swedish goggles (aka Swedes). Which are also the cheapest.
More expensive goggles does not in any way mean better. Blame triathletes for the escalation of costs. The best goggles I’ve bought in years were €4 in Lidl the summer before last.
There is no such thing as a generic “best google” answer. Competitive swimmers/online swimmers most often respond Vanquishers or Swedish Goggles. Vanquishers are not available in Europe anymore & Swedes (Which I wear myself in the pool and I show you how to fit here) aren’t a good idea for beginner swimmers. I also wrote this article about understanding the different kinds of goggles so you can choose based on your own requirements rather than other’s opinions, because I had never once seen anything like this by any of the goggle manufacturers, or anyone else.
Silicon straps don’t last long. Bungee straps are a great replacement.
Two thirds of my swimming time is spent with my face underwater exhaling. I can see everything including guys jerking off, teenagers and older couples fiddling with each other and numerous erections.
Technique (Front crawl)
The name of the stroke is front crawl. Freestyle means that in competition you can swim any stroke, and since crawl is the fastest, it (mostly) gets used, so a lot of swimmers think crawl is freestyle and visa versa. Someone will probably even say in the comments here that no-one calls it front crawl. Front crawl is extensively used outside the US and is the accurate term.
BLABT is the acronym for the process most swim experienced teachers use to evaluate stroke and teach front crawl. It stands for:
Get horizontal in the water. Not being horizontal is the most common reason for swimming slow.
Push your chest forward and down into the water. Try to swim downhill!
Keep your head low and steady, don’t allow it to swing to the side. Imagine you are an a rotisserie spit that enters through your forehead, your whole body rotates around the centre point. If you raise your head, it’ll cause the rest of your body to sink.
Clench your butt cheeks. (Core muscles are used for position and rotation, doing this helps engage them).
In an elite swimmer, the maximum propulsion that comes from kicking is only 15% of overall speed. But to do that requires the body’s largest muscles and disproportionate amount of energy. (Long distance swimmers like myself do very little or no kicking).
Fixing the kick is important for beginners so the legs don’t slow you down or cause you to sink. Kicking wildly (especially common in runners or triathletes) is more likely to cause you to slow. This is also part of the horizontal body position above. From what I have seen most triathlete swim coaches get this completely wrong and spend far too much time focusing on a better kick.
You are not riding a bicycle. Kick from the hips, with only a little movement in the knees. New swimmers often have a big wide kick or their legs sinks, or both. This slows them down.
While reading this, see if you can point your toes like a ballet dancer. If you can’t, start stretching your ankle while watching TV or while sitting at a desk. Not being able to point your toes while swimming is like pulling a weight behind you.
Try swimming with your toes clenched into a fist. Yes, just like Die Hard. This will stop you kicking from the knees. You won’t be able to do it all the time, but it will help you understand what your position and kick should feel like.
Reach forward. No, further.
Pull back underwater. But only when your palm is facing backwards behind you, not when they are facing the bottom. This called the Catch, when your hand starts effectively pulling.
Keep pulling, then pushing backwards until your thumb scrapes your thigh.
Try to always keep your elbow above your hand, at every point in the stroke. This is not easy, and take a long time to get right.
Hum a little to get used to controlling your breath and exhalation
Try sinking to the bottom of the pool with no arm or leg movement
Rotate your head out of the water, don’t lift it. Don’t look forward or around. There is no forward visibility as part of standard front crawl, and learning this is a separate activity.
Both arms and legs alternate and all actions are smooth and continuous.
Breathing is to the side.
Rotate your hips to drive your arms to reach forward.
Buy your swim suits one size smaller than the size you think you should wear based on your street clothes because water causes fabric to expand. You can’t see it but others can.
Wear your swimsuit in the shower after your pool swim, it’s easiest way to wash out the chlorinated water. Suits will last up to four times longer. Polyester suits lasts longer than chlorine tolerant fabric, and feels largely the same.
Swimsuits are currently in a “shrinking phase”, that is, getting smaller. Male briefs are becoming more thong like with very narrow side panels, female racing suits are getting cut much higher at the rear. You can find different cuts, but it can sometimes take a bit of work.
Never wring the water out of your swimsuit, it will weaken the fibres and seriously reduce its longevity. Simply squeeze it or use a suit spinner if there is one available.
Baggy board shorts should not be used. Beginner and many intermediate swimmers have problems with drag. Board shorts add even more drag and make improving your stroke even more difficult.
If you insist on using baggy shorts, please wear something tight underneath, because I have seen too many scrotums and assholes and I’m not even a paid professional.
How you look or feel in a swimsuit does not correlate with how well you swim.
There are three materials for swim caps: cloth, latex and silicone. Cloth is comfortable but otherwise useless, usually used by hotels to keep patrons from getting hair in filters. Latex lasts moderately well but snags hairs more. Silicone which is most expensive lasts longest but is also thickest and may be too warm for some people. No swim cap lasts for ever though. I never get more than a year from a cap.
Swim caps will last longer if your dry them between uses, and better yet sprinkle with talcum powder.
If you have a problem with the swim cap coming off your head while swimming, look for ones which have parallel ridges running around the inside edge.
Pool swimming took a leap forward in the 1960s once reliable swim googles became widely available and training sessions for Olympic swimmers were able to last for 3000 metres or even a whole hour! Nowadays these would be considered short training sessions. Goggles are essential for pool swimming because most pools use chemicals to make the water safe. I have a longer post explaining the interactions of pool chemicals and people in more detail here.
Pools that have a strong chlorine or chemical smell are LESS clean than pools that have little or no odour. The less the chemical smell, the cleaner the pool water.
Pool-water colour has no relationship to pool water quality. Most pools use pool tiles to make the water look blue. Some even add small amounts of copper into the water for the same reason. (Similarly, part of the reason why quarries are so dangerous for swimming is metal leaching into the water makes them look clean while hiding danger)
Just because you’ve read that swimmers pee in the pool doesn’t mean you have to. But if you do want to stay being a swimmer, you should probably reconcile yourself to the fact that you are absolutely swimming in dilute urine. If this is really troubling you, best of luck with your sex life.
It may not be chlorine that’s making your eyes burn. The pool may have the wrong water acidity (high or low). Soda-ash is added to pool water to control this.
Use goggles. There are NO competitive swimmers who don’t use goggles. Of course, if there are too many organics (sweat, urine etc) in the pool, then more chlorine must also be added to balance the pool.
Food & drink, & peeing
Cold air in the pool deck or changing rooms, cold showers etc, evaporation of water from skin all cause the skin temperature to drop. This raises blood pressure as less blood flows and the hormone that suppresses urination is reduced. All this causes you to need to pee more. It’s completely normal.
Therefore swimmers need to be more careful about hydration. Experienced swimmers will always drink during training.
Yer Mammy was wrong. You can swim after eating. All marathon distance swimmers like myself have to eat/take nutrition during swims for example. However, your body will be using air to digest food and use energy for exercise at the same time, so you will feel sluggish at best.
Effort & Diet
It is extremely common that new swimmers, regardless of or more likely due to prior experience in other sports, underestimate the overall difficulty of swimming and overestimate how much energy they are expending. If you haven’t mastered breathing and are desperately out of breath this does not mean you expending significant energy.
Calorie consumption rates in swimming given by website, apps or wearable fitness trackers or watches cannot be trusted because the variables are too varied. Weight, water temperature, stroke, experience, rests, set and session duration all play a part. I could say it’s almost certainly less than what any of those are telling you for an hour swimming.
Pools are lower than body temperature and conduct heat away. So your body does start using energy to retain heat. The effect lasts after the swim is over. This makes swimming an appetite enhancer. Swimmers notoriously eat a lot. For beginner swimmers, you need to learn to control this.
Most people with a good but average diet will have sufficient energy in blood and liver stores to sustain two hours of high intensity exercise. So it is not essential to “pre-load” in advance of daily swimming
How much should you swim?
How much you should swim depends obviously on your goals. However since swimming is technically difficult skill, it is safe to say than more swimming is better.
But how much? As a general guideline I recommend four times a week, 2000 metres at a time is a good aim. Beginners won’t be able to swim anywhere near this distance, so let’s say 40 minutes a session.
Injury & other physical problems
“Swimming is low impact sport, with little chance of causing injury“. This is a widely repeated misconception. Apart from the obvious, front crawl injuries to the shoulders do occur, caused by overuse and poor technique. You can get injured with only a small amount of swimming.
The best ways to reduce the risk are to improve your technique and ALWAYS do a little backstroke each session. Backstroke is a stabilising exercise for front crawl. It helps strengthen the opposing muscles in the shoulder muscles to assist in keeping your shoulders balanced.
Does sleeping on your side cause discomfort? The cause is almost certainly tendonitis. This will not get better by itself, or with rest or by reducing swimming. I recommend some deep tissue massage, direct icing and physiotherapy, in that order as required, with massage & ice fixing ninety percent of problems.
Water in your ear is easiest dislodged by bouncing on the heel of the leg on the same side as the water. If this doesn’t work, have a shower and stand with your ear up under the water. If this doesn’t work, try a drop of rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit). Wear ear plugs if this is a repeat problem.
Asthma prevalence is correlated to regular swimming. The simplest and most effective treatment is to use your Daily Preventer, that you may not want to use daily.
Chlorine sensitivity causes very runny nose, sneezing, sore, red or streaming eyes. The simplest and most effective treatment is to use a nose clip. They take about one day to get used to, and are 100% effective.
Don’t swim enough
The Copper Coast
The Copper Coast on Ireland’s South-east coast is where I do most of my open water swimming. It’s the world’s best cold water swimming coast. It’s better than Cork or California!
My particular area of interest is open water swimming. There are thousands of sites who write about how you can swim better. I like to cover everything else but especially cold water swimming.
For the past few years I’ve covered Christmas swims from the practical side, aiming to give some simple advice for the irregular swimmer so they can more fully ans safely enjoy it, by prepare for and dealing with the cold during and after the swim. You can always go back and read the previous one of those articles if you are interested in some practical advice. This year I thought I’d take a slightly different approach.
As the occasional person points out, most people who do a Christmas swim do so without any preparation, experience or subsequent problem and my previous articles might be seen as excessive. But for those of us who are experienced in the subject, we know cold water swimming should always be treated with respect, and I always prefer that open water swimmers should treat each swim with consideration for safety. Afterall problems are most likely to occur when we give no thought to safety beforehand.
Apart from a few specific locations Christmas Day swims aren’t a long-standing tradition in Ireland. Of the local swims on Ireland’s Copper Coast there are two which have run for a few decades. The Newtown and Guillamene swim, which I’ve been frequenting for over 10 years (not missing a year, though about one year in every three is blown out when I am the one of a very few with the experience and desire to swim) has been running since I think the 90’s. And the Kilmurrin Cove swim which has been running since the 80’s. Galway and Dublin also have long running swims at the 40 Foot and Blackrock.
For the last few years many more Christmas have started, reflecting the growth in open water swimming as new swim pods spring up along the coast. This also demonstrates the fact that Irish people have increasingly embraced ocean life, as, though we live on an island, we have culturally distrusted the sea, for historical reasons, my father’s general being the first to start enjoying the ocean for itself.
Why do people participate? Or more pertinently, why should you try out a Christmas swim? Common reasons are that people like to feel they are in some way trying something that is the opposite of the excesses that are often associated with the holiday. A cold water dip seems the very antithesis of Christmas overeating. There are often also charitable considerations, as with the Newtown & Guillamene swim, which each year holds a collection on the days and designates a different charity as recipient. These are good reasons. People who can find a way to think of and support others who may be struggling during the holiday demonstrate the most essential human trait of compassion, and those who swim as counterpoint to personal excess seem less likely to be dominated by such excesses. But if I was to recommend trying a Christmas Swim, it would be for two simple reasons.
Christmas Swims are enormously convivial and social occasions. At the Guill, over the course of a couple of hours, hundreds of people come and swim. People from every walk of life, every physical shape, every outlook come and plunge themselves into cold water…together. The social aspect helps people to do this difficult thing, as they will always see someone else who struggles with the cold worse than they, is mor afraid of it or seems to have to more difficulty in forcing themselves, or even screams louder when they plunge in. People share tea, and coffees and soup and Christmas cake. They say hello to others home for Christmas. They come as multigenerational families, the water-hardened grandparents who in other aspects of life may be slower, encouraging children and (to a lesser degree) grandchildren, sharing an experience that has no cost and no price, creating bonds and memories. They come as friends, supporting each other, fighting hangovers or reconnecting after the last year.
And for those of you for whom such large social occasions may seem intimidating, they come as I more usually do, lone swimmers who may not feel as comfortable with large groups, yet nevertheless, we love seeing and participating in our own way. This mid-winter ceremony, held in the sacred ocean is our own holy annual rite. Because whatever else any individual ritual entails, the depth of winter is something that disparate cultures have long celebrated, and this is another way of sharing this time of year together. To do so in a group makes it both easier and brings with it the positive feelings of something difficult shared and overcome. It is very rare that someone (non-swimmers) say to me “I tried a cold swim once, and I swear, ‘never again‘”. More commonly they say “Yeah, I did that before, I though when I was getting in that I’d die, but once I was in, it was far better than I expected…I must do it again“. This experience is a communal, shared and powerful. Cold water immersion gets inside us, plants a seed that may take years to sprout, but when it does it is something we husband together. The camaraderie of open and cold water swimming transcends age and ability and outlook.
It is a fundamental part of the occasion and is the prime reason I would like you take to try a Christmas Swim. I’d like you to experience this powerful aspect of open water swimming which is not at all about the actual swimming. Because I fundamentally believe that your life will be improved by it.
I have long and often written here about various aspects of cold water swimming. When people ask why we do it, I can answer in long or poetic form or even answer what temperate is cold water. But so many people ask why and seem to struggle to understand why we do it, thinking that there must be something wrong somehow with the people who do it, that we want to at least present some answer that makes sense.
It is notable that open water swimmers themselves rarely ask why they do it. The answer is simple and does not require articulation. It makes them feel great. But other people don’t really accept that answer unless or until they experience it for themselves. The very slightly longer explanation I prefer is almost as simple. When humans are immersed in cold water, the body seeks to protect itself by stopping circulation in the extremities, arms, legs and skin, to preserve body heat. This happens immediately on immersion. It’s accompanied by thermal shock and a great inhalation of air. Their heart rate goes up, as does their blood pressure as a result. Your body feels alive, all your skin of which you were previously oblivious, is energised with sensation. Your brain releases endorphins, you are fully in flight or flight mode, without having to do either.
Even the most jaded or experienced cannot be indifferent at this moment or to these feelings. Staying in the water for a prolonged time doesn’t make it more powerful, so this result can be achieved quickly. After leaving the water, blood flow returns to the limbs and skin. And with it comes a sensation of physical well-being. What is particularly extraordinary, and why open water swimmers continue to do this, is that these profound aspects of both physical and emotional well-being do not attenuate with time or repetition. There is no desensitization, no needing a greater exposure for this payoff. Cold water therefore beats any narcotic. The shock of immersion, to which humans are by physiological and psychological nature averse, is simply the payment up front for this extraordinary payoff. While I am an open water marathon swimmer, that is most ways a different pursuit to this brief seasonal immersion. So for the Christmas Swim all you need to do immerse yourself in cold water. (You don’t even need to swim, just fully immerse yourself, but don’t tell the other cold water swimmers I said that).
Both North Channel routes. The “new” route is the more southerly of the two.
The tenth of November, 2018 sees the launch of the new North Channel Swimming Association, with a public announcement by Channel Swimmer and inaugural Chairperson Antonio Argules in San Francisco (and here on Loneswimmer).
The new NCSA announcement is made in conjunction with the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA), which has indicated it will recognise NCSA Channel Swims for the Ocean’s Seven.
Disclaimer: I have been asked and accepted that should a dispute ever arise over a swim, I will be one of a number of independent arbitrators. I have no further involvement other than being a correspondent of some of the people involved. I have also crewed a number of North Channel solo swims with Quinton Nelson and Mark Hamilton.
The team behind the NCSA includes:
Quinton Nelson, pioneering skipper who opened up the “new” route with Fergal Sommerville‘s record-setting coldest and boldest North Channel records Swim.
Brian Maharg, highly respected veteran North Channel pilot, who single-handedly kept North Channel attempts going for decades.
Maggie Gibson, still I believe the youngest ever North Channel swimmer
Mark Hamilton, pilot and probably the most experienced North Channel crew and observer
Antonio Argules, Ocean’s Seven swimmer.
Killintrangan Lighthouse, on the Scottish side of the North Channel
I am of the view that this is a good thing for the sport of marathon swimming. (I am not claiming any credit for the idea, nor have I been involved in the setup of the new association, but it has been in discussion for a few years and I am heartened to see it come to fruition).
You may ask, why? (Or maybe you won’t).
The ILDSA has had a great majority of highly reputable people involved over the years, who have all wanted the good of the sport and the opening up of the Channel. Since Irishman Stephen Redmond first completed it, the increasing popularity of the Ocean’s Seven, amongst those with the inclination, time and wherewithal to pursue it, combined with the new route, has led to a massive surge in popularity and demand over the last decade.
However I have long believed that the ILDSA has seemed more like a regional swim club trying to be a national organisation and ratifying body, but without the resources or discipline to so do. As a consequence it has often struggled to succeed at any of its primary tasks and for the majority of Channel swimmers in Ireland, it seems largely irrelevant. In addition there have in recent years been a number of internecine problems, which I have written about elsewhere (though these seem largely resolved, they were very troubling for a number of years). As someone who brought some of these problems out into the open, I may not be the most popular person in the ILDSA, but my reason for doing so was the same reason I welcome the NCSA: It is better for swimmers.
doubtless the ILDSA will continue to act as a ratifying organisation, and the North Channel will therefore have two organisations. Like the CS&PF and CSA for the English Channel, there will likely be a split between those who will say only they hold the record books, and those who have broken off. I have asked that the NCSA recognise all ILDSA swims but right now I cannot say that this is guaranteed. Nor can I comment about whether the ILDSA will so do.
I do know that the people I have involvement with in the NCSA are also very reputable.
However, I have long believed and continue to believe, that swimmers are often forgotten in the politics of swim organisations. There are similar problems with organisations in Gibraltar, Tsugaru, Lake Tahoe, Pacific North West, Great Lakes, some of which problems have not come out publicly, because swimmers can be ignored, taken advantage of financially, or had changes in conditions forced upon them. My email has no small number of swim stories from around the world, and the one unifying aspect seems to be that the swimmers feel they cannot speak about the problems, and since the community is so small, they can’t even use a proxy to describe their problems.
People on one side who claim they are for the swimmers, will in other circumstances where they are involved with an organisation castigate and blame swimmers over asking for transparency, or accountability. Swim politics is no different from any other sphere of human interaction therefore. There is and will always be a tension between those who are driven to swim, for whatever reason, and those who facilitate the need. I have the luxury of holding to what I try to be a 100% uncompromising position about honesty and integrity because that is more important to me than the swimming ever is.
Of course it’s not that straightforward. WOWSA recognising the NCSA is unnecessary, and that is itself contentious, as WOWSA, despite its name is no more or less that an advertising platform that uses swimming and the Ocean’s Seven as its vehicle. Its title belies the fact that “World” in its name means nothing really. WOWSA is also open to question about its motivations and its attempt to manipulate Ocean’s Seven swimmers to only use one organisation over another, and to threaten to withhold Ocean’s Seven ratification to a swimmer choosing another organisation.
I seem to have gone a bit off topic here from the question I asked above. Forgive me, I find I am still as passionate about swimming and what I believe are some of the problems that afflict swimmers as I have always been, but I didn’t want to go off on a rant.
For those of us with one or more marathon swims, marathon swimming is one way that we find out about ourselves. The compulsion and need to swim is overwhelming at times. If I have learned anything in all these years, it is only this, and about myself, the rest being extrapolation. The arena in which we carry out this measurement is the ocean. Despite our range of personalities and beliefs and reasons, we by-and-large swim for ourselves. And in this pursuit assistance is essential, such that I said years ago there is really no such thing as a solo swimmer. I write Loneswimmer because I think it contributes or helps swimmers learn. to swim more. I co-wrote the Global Rules of Marathon Swimming, because I thought they were essential for the future of the sport. I co-founded the Marathon Swimmer‘s Federation because I thought back then that it was essential for swimmers to be able to take more control of their sport. Not all these things have led where I hoped but the motivation remained and remains the same: What is good for the swimmers?
So I think the introduction of the NCSA is good because it will allow aspirants more choice. I cannot say that it will improve costs, reduce booking times or eliminate bureaucratic and political problems but swimmers have at least one more option.
Therefore I wish the NCSA and all its swimmers success for the future. As I also wish for the ILDSA and its swimmers.
I have been writing Loneswimmer.com for eight years. There was never any break in writing until this year. This is not a result of lack of ideas. A number of articles are in various states of progress and hopefully I will be able to return to posting on a regular schedule.
The reef. Should I say it reposes, lurks, or waits there? Whichever, it changes by weather, by season, by my direction, by my desire. It does all these things. Regardless, it posts sentinel beneath the headland of Great Newtown Head, breaking southerly seas from the eroding lower Old Red Sandstone terraces that encompass the entrance. As sentinel it protects the Cave of Light, (occasionally now called the Cave of the Loneswimmer). It sails kitty-corner to the prevailing south-westerlies, like a matador that has stepped gracefully aside from an oncoming charge, funneling and guiding the waves into the narrow gap that diffracts waves around the Head and into the bay.
The reef…sits on an invisible border between Tramore Bay and Ronan’s Bay, belonging therefore on different occasions to both and neither, guiding my way from one to another, and in that way, yet another belaboured metaphor.
The reef…marks the outside point of what I call the Tramore Double, one of my favourite regular swims, (and at six kilometres, much better than a Sandycove Double Lap) that begins at the Guillamene, reaches into Tramore Beach for the first turn, and then entails the lovely long straight three kilometre reach, best on a wind run, but more usually swim on a weather run, to use the sailing terms, passing the Guill to the Metalman and the reef, before returning back to a landbound life once again.
The reef…ofttimes is merely a marker that I pass as I head into Ronan’s Bay and the often adverse currents that are common out there. Sometimes I pass through the four metre wide gap between the reef and the Head when I pass back after swimming under and through the Headland via the caves. There’s an apparent gravity to the reef that manifests in a current that runs in the gap that pulls a swimmer closer to the rock, more hazardous on lower tides as it seeks to ground an unsuspecting swimmer. When it’s rough, you must adjust your line through away from the centre of the passage and hold closer to the coast than the reef. This is rarely a problem, as I’m usually the only swimmer.
The reef…was at first just the reef or the Metalman reef, considering its location. It had no name. Then for years I came to think of it as Seal Rock because the small twin central spires reminded me of grey seals reaching for the sky. Someone local said to me they had never heard of some of the names of places I used. For, still years ago, I trawled the old maps, I saw the reef had an old name from the tribe of the Decies: Oyen rock. Like so many names, an Anglicization of an Irish word, éin, meaning birds, therefore Bird Reef. I love the old names. I love that while there are aspects of the Copper Coast maybe only I have seen and named for myself to myself, I love that there are older names. For hundreds of years people loved this coast as I do, named the caves, the stacks, the rocks. I feel by using the old names, I am honouring the past, and honouring this coast and the people of this coast, of whom am I am but one in a line even if I am not of that lineage.
The reef..is a resting place for shags and guillemots to dry out their wings between dives. It provides a perch for gulls who ignore me. A mere eight hundred metres away on the far side of Ronan’s Bay, the same species at Ilaunglas are of a different temperament, trying to scare me when I get within a couple of hundred metres. Like any human street, those avians living within close proximity of each other are not uniform in nature or character.
The reef…has a small gap near its pinnacle. Close to high tide, water will flow through it. If the conditions are right and there’s a high tide and there is a small swell from south east or south west, the water will spill over the high point of the gap, momentarily making it look like the sea is overflowing. I know there is never enough water to swim through. But every couple of years, I stop and look and reconsider and reassess. Someday it will have eroded, long past my time here. I wonder, will anyone then want to risk swimming through a small gap? I doubt anyone has ever stood on the reef, (except me, and then I have only touched a foot to the sub-surface rocks). It’s close enough to the cliffs not to be a particular shipping hazard, and lacks any space or reason for a kayaker to clamber atop.
The reef…though only a couple of minutes to swim around is akin an entire world. Around wide tideline it’s black. Underwater there are vertiginous dun-coloured cliffs and lesser ski slopes without any snow that are bulwarks against the Atlantic. In calmer water I can swim close, like a plane overflying a mountain, when suddenly it drops away, leaving me feeling a sense of awe, for the size is not important, only the contrasts. Above surface it is black and ochre rather than white, the coastal xanthoria lichen inverting the colour of snow on normal mountains but it is still reminiscent of the Tetons, the Andes or the towers of the Karakorum. Barnacles thrive up to the tide line, as on every reef. Kelp adheres to the more protected north west side. The waves break mostly on the south and west sides, and if you look and use your imagination, you can turn draining waves into cascades of immense waterfalls. Use that imagination more and you can see Jurassic Park or Skull Island in miniature, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lost World, the shags become enormous menacing dinosaurs looming majestic over their kingdom, watching this intruder circle their shore, as I become the kaiju to invade and spur a mega-battle worthy of a trashy mid-summer Hollywood blockbuster.
Oyen reef – My Lost World
The reef…is nothing to anyone else. The reef is something I love. It can’t be seen from the shore unless you descend the cliffs, whether to shore-fish or, as I saw that one time many years ago, to have sex in a really uncomfortable place, where they likely thought they’d never be seen by anyone, seemingly miles from anywherea nd then some idiot swim pasts a couple of metres away. I see the reef and swim past it and around it, and to and from it and I don’t think too much it. It’s part of my world but my world would be poorer without it.
The reef…is not particularly special as there are millions more like it. There are also other reefs I love. All the reefs of my Playground outside Brown’s Island, the reef I found that looks so extraordinarily like a seated lion, the reef with covered scallops that no-one has ever found, the necklace of reefs that protect Kilfarassey beach. I love all reefs. These Copper Coast reefs I know better, know that some of them have particular characteristics. I love swimming them by myself. I love the barnacles on them that have given me so many scars as I love those reef scars. I love the kelp that moves around reefs like a veil providing tantalising glimpses. I love the way a wave pushedsme up toward the rock when I at in just the right place, and feel I am dancing with the water and the reef, I who never dance on land. I love the occasional anenome or starfish they harbour, the solitary or schools of fish that inhabit them.
I love the reef and feel sorry for swimmers who never leave the pool or the beach or the protected harbour and who cannot see that all of life and the entire world is in a single, mostly-submerged rock.
Around the world, 2018 has been a hot summer. I predicted early on before the heat wave that 2018 would see a lot of jellyfish, and so it transpired. I also predict that we will see early and more noticeable Sea Lice in swimmers this year, beginning possibly as early as the first week of August (in Ireland).
There two main causes are often mixed up as the symptoms look similar and both are increasingly likely in warmer waters and weather.
The Jellyfish life-cycle
Sea lice is a generic (and incorrectly used) term. For us in Ireland it is usually not as severe as in warmer waters. In this colloquial context it means tiny jellyfish polyps or copepods or anemones so it is specific to the ocean.
The effects can be worse if you are wearing a wetsuit as the polyps get trapped under it but they can get trapped under swim costumes also.
I’ve haven’t heard of anyone in Ireland who’s had a long-lasting reaction to them, also unlike warmer waters, though I do know it varies by year, and it almost always arrives as a surprise that we’ve forgotten from previous years. Regular long distance immersion swimmers may find the symptoms can become much more uncomfortable, appearing like pimples, blisters, hives or even severe hives upon hives, simply because there is more time for the exposure to happen.
One easy step to make sure to have a quick fresh water shower (from a bottle if nothing else is available, now the water is warm enough that you can this precaution which I normally warm against in colder waters) immediately after emerging, and one will generally be fine after that. It’s conceivable that a vinegar rinse would be effective also, but generally unnecessary.
There is a lotion called Safe Sea that apparently works well for this and jellyfish stings, but I haven’t seen any experienced (or otherwise) swimmer who’s tried it out.
These terms relate to fresh or brackish waters. Swimmer’s Itch may be microscopic parasites, i.e. worms, usually from snails, that infect seabirds and mammals, washed into the water as eggs or larvae which, lacking their preferred host, burrow into human skin, causing an allergic reaction, similar to scabies that afflicts many families of young children.
Like scabies, scratching will inflame the area and worsen the symptoms. Unlike scabies the parasites will at least die naturally and infected people are not infectious. It’s also safe to use a swimming pool if you have Swimmer’s Itch.
For worse cases the CDC recommends a number of possible treatments:
Use corticosteroid cream
Apply cool compresses to the affected areas
Bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda
Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths
Apply baking soda paste to the rash (made by stirring water into baking soda until it reaches a paste-like consistency)
It was the start on the June Public Holiday weekend, (Bank Holidays, as we still call them in Ireland, as I wait patiently for the Revolution to arrive so we can eat the rich), and there were Channel Swimmers at Sandycove. All was good and right, and as it should be.
Dee, who has a mind like a steel trap for dates and events, reminded me that my first ever swim at Sandycove had been on the June holiday weekend, back in 2006. All that is in the past was then in the unknown future, as all our lives are so book-cased. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know anything about Sanydcove’s then local reputation, which grew into an international reputation over subsequent years. The local serious swim group had grown since the 1990s over the years from the swimmers which included Liz and Mags Buckley (unrelated to each other and me), Mike Harris and Stephen Black, Diarmuid O’ Brien and the aforementioned Finbarr Hedderman who must have been swimming in nappies, because the dates don’t add up.
In 2006 I was not a serious swimmer. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I didn’t realise I was already becoming a serious swimmer (whatever that is), because I did not have the commensurate knowledge or experience, or any form of swimming resume. Someone once later said to Dee that even on my early visits to Sandycove that I had “the eye of the tiger“, (a cringe-worthy phrase), which was interesting to hear years later. But I still think though they were simply mistaking either my borderline OCD or my occasional social awkwardness for intensity or focus.
That first time at Sandycove I didn’t speak with or try to swim with anyone (social awardness). Off I swam by myself and double-lapped the island, (wearing a sleeveless neoprene vest), got very badly chaffed on my underarms due to the self-same vest and my lack of knowledge about lubricant (I’d been wearing a wetsuit previously), not knowing that the double lap was a goal to which many local swimmers aspire every year. I recall wondering if I’d missed the far turn of the island since I didn’t know the waters or coast. (This seems a ridiculous concern if you’ve never looked at the two-dimensional flatness of a coast seen from the water). And though I did not know it, or even realise it for many years, the June Holiday Weekend was born as a swimming weekend. And as a swimming weekend, it became also a weekend about swimmers.
In my exploration of the open water swimming year so far, I’ve used a lot of metaphors about swimming, the ocean, cold, the conditions and weather and the swimming experience. There has been less about those who share the obsession. You and me, that is, talking here. That apparent oversight comes in part because of the nature of this site, that I am a lone swimmer. Many years ago I used to say that was something thrust upon me, because there were no other “serious” swimmers on my stretch of coast. But of the many items of clarity that have come over the thousands of hours and kilometres swimming and therefore self-reflecting, one is that this origin story has changed over the years, and now, the huge majority of my swimming that is still done alone, has become by now more an essential and integral aspect of swimming for me. In my unconscious choosing of a blog title, somehow I stumbled onto the perfect name.
I need to swim alone, to do the one thing swimmers should not do. And yet I also have and need swimming friends, and swimming with them, even if done less frequently, is also essential and integral to the swimming life, (as the About page of this site has said for many years that such is what I think this site is really about).
It is certain that the trajectory of my swimming, from sea-loving newb to hardened veteran has been accompanied along the way with the creation of many enduring friendships. The aforementioned Finn and Rob The Bull, Two-way Lisa, “you only swam one way? Shur Lisa swam both directions“, Ciaran my perfectly complimentary swimming companion, The Fermoy Fish, partner in a number of adventures, Liam and Kaye, Clare, Sam, Bernard, Conor, Gabor, my Channel sister Jen, Suzie, the swimmers at the Guill, and swimmers farther beyond, in Australia, America, south Africa, Europe, so many to mention, that those of you who are very definitely on the list and are not mentioned I pray you will extend your forebearance and know you are not forgotten.
When we swim, even those of us who are as naturally and strongly introverted as me, we are making connections. Some of those connections are simply from local place to local place, some are coast to coast, and there is always home to shore, shore to home. But others are from one time to another. I link my present to my past, and create new futures through swimming. I say, “I shall swim from the Guillamene to Boatstrand by myself“. I commit myself to that immediate swimming future. I imagine being out deep, and yet being in control, and therefore I create that brief future. I take control in the one place most people cannot image taking control.
And not least we connect one person to another. Sometimes we links others in our circle together to facilitate some small or big adventure (which is a regular occurrence for Channel Swimmers). “I want to swim X, do you know anyone that can help“, in a network that spreads around the world and across decades in our small family of the “famous few”.
Six of The Magnificent 7. We never did get a shot of us all at the same time.
But I struggle for metaphors as I cannot write about people as I can write about the sea. Maybe this is the essential difference between me and you. The mysteries and terrors of the sea that so terrify others are so much less than terror to me, nothing nut freedom and joy. I can measure myself, look at the sea, and say “today I can swim such and such“. But when it comes to people I fail, I see a similar opacity in people to what most see in the sea.
I look at my swim log. Not, (never) a diary. The June bank holiday weeks varies in conditions and temperature over the years. From the unprecedented 17C at Kilfarrasey in 2018, (not so unprecedented it turns out as it was 17C in 2009) to the low of ten degrees at Clonea in 2011, and 11C in 2013. And while not every year involved swimming some place notable, nor was each public June holiday weekend a planned occasion, what I notice in my log today is how June involves meeting swim friends in some fashion or location. Later in each June, many of us get together on the Summer Solstice to commemorate our friend Paraic Casey, lost to the English Channel some five years now. Other of you have other swim friends and it’s not necessary to lose them to the sea we love to feel the same loss. But not just loss, we also celebrate our family of swimmers. We span years and abilities and backgrounds and yet we are all bonded together.
I know through time and experience, (a tautology I guess, as what else can we learn through) that I can rely on these swimming friends. I can close my eyes and see The Bull standing on Finbarr’s Beach, muscles severely contracted by cold, wild-eyed after hours in the cold, driving Ciaran and me back into the ten degree water, for just one more lap before we will make the decision to stop, and later, we do not stop. I can see Finbarr coming over for a swim on the Copper Coast, when he notoriously does not like casually swimming new locations (but he’s fine with new Channels), not because he wants to swim, but because he wants to make sure I’m okay, and if I am swimming, I will be okay. I remember swimming with Ciaran at Clonea, the first time I vomited while swimming without breaking stroke or dropping speed, and knowing I’ve moved up anther rung of the distance swimming experience. I can feel Liam’s massive arms thrown around me in an enveloping hug that transforms a swim from an embarrassment to a triumph, and I can see his tears when he speaks of his best mate Paraic, lost to the sea we know. I recall my own tears of joy shared with Sylvain and Gabor on Wissant Beach in France, or filling my googles in Dover just after Paraic was lost.
Les Magnificents on an easy trip to La Manche
Not all interactions need to be so momentous to be sure. I know I can call Owen for something, or visa versa, and either of us will usually be up for an adventure. I know I can say to Lisa, “let’s swim there“, and she will not blink or hesitate if I give the go-ahead. I see Dee, never swimming, watching to be sure I’m still out there swimming, or waiting for me to call on my way home, or tracking me from point to point along the coast while I do something stupid again.
I know most of these people this way, because this stupid cold swimming lark is the thing that we found to share. In it is a language we all understand, and even when they make fun of my language (secondhand of course, because none of them (admit to) actually read this), I feel no shred of sensitivity, because we have all been cold and tired and beaten together. We share the water and the experiences of the water. Channel swimmers bond not just through the experience of those particular swims, but the shared experience of the training and the far more numerous swims that have no name, no date. We trust each other. The experiences that become with time; “that time we did x laps of the islandin Y conditions“, or “”that time I crewed for you” or “when you crewed for me“. It’s racing the second corner of the island, when there is no race. It’s an eight-hour pool swim or a six-hour qualifier in the lake because the sea was too cold.
And it’s not just the swimming. It’s the shared food immediately afterward, and the families being as essential as the swimmers. It’s comments on this idiot’s blog by those of you I’ve yet to swim with. It’s days and weeks totaled in mobile homes and hotel rooms in Dover or Donaghadee elsewhere. It’s the tea and cake and packets of cheap biscuits, (which are the best biscuits), out of the boot of someone’s car. Barbeques at Sandycove or Iniscarra or Clonea, after qualifying swims, end of season’s or Solstice Memorials. Swimmer’s Beach in Dover. The White Horse, reading names on the walls and ceiling.It’s an early October morning before the sun has even risen for a drop into the cold water off a boat, or an early May swim to a wreck in too-cold water, or the wind blowing the wrong way so you all get the stuffing punched out of you together. It’s the trips to Kerry or France for a race or an abandoned race or a memory of a swim. It’s getting weathered out together. It’s having your best day, or getting hammered by your friend, or getting hammered with your friends, (’cause few of us can drink). It’s talking about shoulder pain and comparing injuries, and sharing painkillers and how we are all getting old and slowing down, and recovery is harder and injuries more frequent, and who is not swimming this year, and what’s your mileage and we need to get so-and-so back in the water. It’s almost never talking about technique or speed. It’s taking someone you’ve never met previously for a swim to the caves, it encouraging you to visit me for a swim to the caves. It’s swim gossip from around the world and up the road and you hating the frauds and your friends not understanding why you care so much. and you all laughing about them, because your friends are Channel swimmers, and they are all the real Gods of the Sea.
It’s talking about nothing of relevance except swimming, and it’s good to talk or think about nothing else except the conditions, some never-swum location, some race you’ve never done, some swim report for faraway, some place you want to swim or will never swim again. It’s the things they do and say and how they act, because they are all more mysterious than the sea, and as necessary. It’s talking about nothing bu open water swimming, because open water swimming is everything and open water swimming is not the same without your swimming friends, your swimming family.