A few Swimmoirs (swimming memoirs) I love

Prairie Dolphin has been on sabbatical—still swimming, just not chronicling it on the blog these days for reasons below. I am thrilled the lion]]><![CDATA[’s mane jellyfish and fair-weather swimming crowds eventually cleared off for the season after an unusually long residency, and we winter mermaids and mermen have the deliciously cold water to ourselves since mid October. I have had many glorious swims over the year starting with a blustery, very low tide, swampy Ferry Point swim down in Youghal on New Year’s Day (the sea looked like a shallow bowl of pea green soup) to last week’s refreshing Wednesday dip in Sandycove with the air cooler than the water–the water temperature not yet under 10 degrees. A fellow swimmer said to me, “It’s cheaper than psychoanalysis.” I laughed, and she said, “I said that to another woman one day swimming here and she said, ‘I am a psychoanalyst!’. And so I told her, You should tell your clients to come here for a session!”

Highlights of the year include training my little ones to be seadogs too; seeing them frolicking and braving the bracing Irish Sea in our summer holidays was a delight of a lifetime for me. My daughter shows signs of loving the masochistic cold water, charging the waves in the surf with a throaty war cry and retreating in delighted terror while my boy likes to flirt briefly with the whitecaps and his torso and then surrender promptly to dry land—hopefully next year he’ll feel the call more. After I finished writing Cadillac Couches a book about some big loves, namely music, I started my second novel In the Swim, which is also about some big loves, swimming and reading. I feel the same way about swimming as I do about music, an overwhelmingly goofy desire to express my love for it (not that it needs it) battling with words and never quite scratching the itch and needing to proselytize some more (I gotta do something with all this love otherwise I’m gonna burst.) Prairie Dolphin has been a wonderful incubator for In the Swim. So these days I save up all of my aqua thoughts for the novel in progress. In the meantime here’s a little marine content for the thalassophiles out there: a sample of my favourite swimming non-fiction. Please feel free to read in bits. I may not update for awhile and it’s a biggie. 1454159Waterlog by Roger Deakin, published by Vintage Books The bible of wild swimming. Inspired by John Cheever’s story The Swimmer, Deakin set out to swim his way around Britain, in every pond, river, lake, lido, fen, dyke, quarry and cove he could, in the manner of The Swimmer‘s protagonist who swims in all the swimming pools across Westchester County, NY, on his way home. Deakin logs his waterlogged adventures in gorgeous prose.

Deakin, like me, swims not as much for athletic reasons, but for spiritual ones. He evangelizes about aimless swimming; the whole point is to have no point. Alongside his Buddhist approach to swimming, he charts the history of the crawl and our modern swimming styles, and for me most importantly he tackles the notion that swimming in the wild is super risky. Not so long ago in this part of the world, people swam in rivers and ponds and viaducts all the time and even up and down the Thames. But now there are so many danger warnings signs and talk of rat-induced Weil’s disease that it’s ingrained in most of us, that most water sources are off-limits because of various aqua bogeymen. He analyzes the statistics on Weil’s disease and finds that swimming doesn’t pose much of a risk at all in this regard. He shimmies under fences and warning signs to gain access to many forbidden former swimming holes, reclaiming humans’ rights and thundering desires to swim. Waterlog is a call to arms for a “swimmer’s right to roam”.

Another radical notion for me is that Deakin’s love of water includes its creepy crawly companions. While I like to pretend there is nothing but me in the water, his championing of all creatures great and small challenges head on my squeamishness of all things floaty in the water near me. He doesn’t just want turquoise warm waters and sesame seed sandbeds, he relishes swims in shallow, Guinness-brown rivers, hoping to encounter eels. Eels for heaven’s sakes… Rhapsodizing, he describes swimming in the moat outside of his cottage in all seasons and admires the changing landscapes outside and inside the water—from the moorhen ducking under, to the toads’ chorus pondside, to dozens of newts canoodling just below the surface. He relishes slippery silty underfoot. He finds it all sensual. He convinces me not to be a swim prude or nervous nelly in the water and to embrace the wonders of life starting with cattails and water boatmen. And afterwards there is nothing better than a blazing hot steaming bath and cup of tea.

Deakin quadrupled my water vocabulary with exotic words like naiads, tarn, tufa, fen and his friend’s made-up one, endolphins. He is undoubtedly my swimming guru. I would have loved to have met him but sadly he had a brain tumour and passed away far too young. Waterlog has since become a classic of the nature writing canon.

Here’s Waterlog’s opening paragraph that made my socks roll up and down.

“The warm rain tumbled down from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat. Breast-stroking up and down the thirty yards of clear, green water, I nosed along, eyes just at water level. The frog’s eye view of rain on the moat was magnificent. Rain calms water, it freshens it, sinks all the floating pollen, dead bumblebees and other flotsam. Each raindrop exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst. The best moments were when the storm intensified, drowning birdsong, and a haze rose off the water as though the moat itself were rising to meet the lowering sky. Then the rain eased and the reflected heavens were full of tiny dancers: water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface. It was raining water sprites.” Hallelujah! I love his frog’s eye view. This Pisces bows to the master. 9781846144950   Swimming Studies by fellow Canadian Leanne Shapton and published by Blue Rider Press offers a grand intersection of art and exercise, a memoir on the art of doing laps and the aesthetics of a watery life. A former competitive swimmer and Canadian Olympic hopeful, Shapton is an artist, novelist and publisher in New York. Shapton’s memoir of a life in laps includes charming illustrations of swimming pools, paintings of swimmers and a photographic archive of swimsuits worn. Shapton takes us on a swimmer’s wishlist of destinations from Switzerland to St. Barts.

I’m more of a bather than a swimmer. I like to freestyle, to frolic, to somersault randomly and pretend to be a seal. I prefer open water. I like pools too, just not as much. Shapton, on the other hand, as a trained swimmer, is used to four sides and a bottom and is nervous in the sea without that clarity. When I was in high school, I admired friends like Shapton who had the discipline to hit the pool for hours every day at terrible times of the morning, week in week out. There is romance in those Tim Hortons’-coffee fueled, early morning training sessions in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter. “Ever present is the smell of chlorine and the drifting of snow in the dark.” I imagine too, that training discipline learned young, offers what HR people refer to as a seriously transferable skill. I enjoyed reading her account of the training regimes of serious swimmers and the subculture of her watery colleagues, and her goggle advice.

Shapton chronicles her life lived so far in various swimsuits (she gives us 26 photographs of swimsuits on a headless mannequin and tells us when and where she swum in them). These mini stories offer charming poetic details, like how she wore a suit to a pool in Paris and then cycle-dried on the way back to her hotel on her Vélib bicycle because she forgot her towel. How the sea tasted like “thin chicken stock from a stainless steel bow.” We meet swimsuits she has worn in Reykjavik, in New York, one she has stolen from the Banff Hot Springs, one from swimming in Olympic trials in 1992.

Where Shapton studiously analyzes Jaws and its subtexts of the carnality of sex, I studiously avoided watching it. She explains that Jaws the movie is about man versus monster while Jaws the book is about marriage and the shark is a metaphor for infidelity. Shapton tells us that her husband asks her why she is so obsessed and frightened by sharks. She does some nifty psychoanalysis and reckons that sharks represent the unknown, the darkness just below the surface, violence, loneliness—her own vulnerability in other words. I love some good psychoanalysis, I do, but I think the reason for the obsession could also be having scrutinized that movie in the first place—multiple viewings of Jaws is kind of bound to give you the fear I would think. In order for me to unafraid of the oceans I have swum in, I need to not think of sharks and their ilk at all. I have swum in the middle of the ocean off the west coast of Mexico, the Caribbean, the English Channel, the Med, lake Uganda, Crater Lake, and the Irish Sea. See no danger, feel no danger. I love the story my friend Saman told me that Luc Besson made The Big Blue to make up for the damage Spielberg did in creating Jaws, a whole generation of swimmers terrified to get in the water. The Big Blue features an unbelievably beautiful man who free dives in the stunning Mediterranean and keeps pictures of his dolphin friends/family in his wallet. He is an improbable virgin, but nonetheless you go with it for the sheer stunning cinematography of the water and him in it, the drops on his eyelashes and Jean Reno too. While Jaws is all gore and terror of the sea and its creatures, The Big Blue is all rhapsodizing wonder and beauty.

Along with Sheila Heiti and Heidi Julavits, Shapton has a new book out these days called Women in Clothes published by Blue Rider Press.

PS I have read recently that sharks, like rats, are largely misrepresented. The incidence of sharks attacking humans is still quite rare statistically. There’s a young woman Madison Stewart who is trying to change their image. (I’ve been assured there are only basking sharks in Ireland.) 17322943   Pondlife published by Bloomsbury is a poignant meditation on aging and swimming written by Al Alavarez, the famous poet, literary critic, anthologist and editor who championed Sylvia Plath in London in the late fifties early sixties. (My father as young PhD student from Brighton knocked on his door in the 60s to chat about Norman Mailer—Dad says Alvarez was very affable). Alvarez was a rugged mountain man and poker player, a Hemingway type, macho and literary. Now he is a guy who is seriously on his last, wobbly legs, barely, who prefers being horizontal to vertical.*

Like Deakin’s, his book is a log, a daily journal entry of his swims in the Hampstead Heath ponds from 2002-2011. He gives us the temperature, the context and story of the swim and how it felt. Alvarez has been swimming for over 70 years at the Hampstead Heath ponds. Pondlife is inspiring my older character in the In the Swim. He is unflinching in his description of ageing and of the betrayal of his body parts letting him down. He also gave me a big desire to go swim in the famous London ponds at Hampstead Heath (I’m no longer worried about duck poop thanks to Deakin and Alvarez). Like Smiley in John LeCarré’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Alvarez goes swimming most mornings of the week—you can see Gary Oldman paddle away in the movie version.

The infirmer he becomes the more effort it costs Alvarez to get his much-needed tonic. He hobbles day after day to the water on his arthritic legs and dodgy ankle no matter how grey and miserable the day. But he always comes away anew. The colder the water, the bigger the rush. He also thrives on the camaraderie of the regular swimmers. He is in huge pain mostly from an old ankle injury. He is a guy that used to climb mountains and now has been felled by merciless ageing. He writes that he desperately misses his old self. Swimming represents everything good to him and he feels reborn after each dip. The whole struggle is worth it for these moments of transcendence. As a fellow water worshipper I could relate.

It was illuminating to read a sweary older guy revealing the true story of getting older, no sugar coating. And also inspiring to see the magic of cold water swimming so very obviously healing and nourishing someone well into their decrepitude. Whenever people express amazement that I swim in the winter, I always tell them, it’s full of older people! If they can do it, surely so can we. But the truth is only some of us are drawn to it and love it. For us that do it is fun to experience the shock and try to articulate the nuances of cold: burning armpits, angry crotch… It doesn’t make sense for other people to do cold-water swimming if they don’t feel the call (you need to like it); hopefully they have their own version of the sublime at the ready.

“And I am falling apart. I swallow a painkiller every day but all it seems to do is dumb me down. My ankle aches, becoming more unsteady and treacherous each day; the slightest irregularity makes it give way and lands me in the mud. My back aches and my legs go numb, freeze up and cease to work; my eyesight is poor; my sense of balance is shot… I toil up every incline as though it was steep scree. *Thank God for horizontality and its three Ss, swimming, sex and sleep.

Ten days later he has two falls. Three days after that he declares in his journal he is back at last! Such is his relief to be horizontal again in the water. He had intended to go the previous day but the first winter snow made him relent. This is all in between writing long articles for the New York Review of Books and editing manuscripts.

In his acknowledgments he thanks the lifeguards who work the Hampstead ponds for keeping him alive and if not still kicking, at least, still swimming. They help get him in the water even after he’s had a stroke and has a dead leg. They get a special dispensation to drive on the Heath to the water’s edge to deliver him to his merciful dip and then they help getting him dressed in the middle of winter. I hope today he’s still getting his fix!

I also enjoyed  his opening epigraph from Tallulah Bankhead: They don’t make mirrors like they used to. 9214995   The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and published by Hawthorne Books is intense and sometimes shocking, but always a powerful and engaging memoir of a life lived in the pool. Yuknavitch flees a troubled home life with a swimming scholarship and then messes up her Olympian chances with addictions to booze and drugs. The intensity of her honesty and her visceral use of language to tell her story of chlorine and vodka and a lost baby makes for a white-knuckle reading experience. Sometimes I wanted to look away, like when I was reading how she got incredibly high before attempting her first major whitewater kayak expedition… The unflinching, foul-languaged, self-harming extravaganza felt almost too much. But the beauty of her writing pulled me back in. Glad I read it.

Alongside her swimming and growing up journeys is her training as a writer, being mentored by Ken Kesey and her PhD in English literature. There definitely strikes me as something edgy, tough, and true about the Oregonian writers I have read so far. Yuknavitch was in a writing workshop with Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed—I can imagine the fireworks. Like with Shapton I could get into Yuknavitch’s Zen groove of doing laps, doing laps, doing laps, and then more laps. The repetition soothing, calming, the quiet underwater, the chlorine… Swimming is the therapeutic backdrop for life.

Both Shapton and Yuknavitch had been competitive swimmers. Contenders. Both flee it and find themselves returning to the laps for the soothing sake of doing laps. Amen.

PS I have had this book for a good few years and never noticed until now that there is big boob on the cover! It was tragically hidden underneath a glued-on flap (modesty cover) that I only thought to pull off after seeing the real cover online… If you click on the cover you can see the modesty flap in action.

Yesterday I went for a run in Sandycove and as usual by the sea I noticed people sitting on benches by themselves just staring out to sea in the middle of a normal weekday. Watergazers Mellville called us. Us humans are so drawn to the beautiful spectacle of water. When I get a little hostile from stress, my husband inquires gently, “When are you going swimming again, darling?”

For great waterlove quotes there is nothing to top Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball…. Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip… What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…”

In recent swim fiction I enjoyed Samantha Warwick’s Sage Island and I’m really looking forward to reading Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage.

From a winningly titled new album Swimmin’ Time here’s a video from a band my brother recently recommended.

Swimmingly yours,

Sophie b

Any swim book recommendations?

Prairie Dolphin on Tour Featuring Special Guest: The Gorge Waterway, Victoria B.C.

In late September, Prairie Dolphin went on tour to Canada for two weeks. The sea in Victoria, British Columbia is freeze-your-butt-off cold, even colder than our Irish Sea. But there is now a new swimming venue that was especially cleaned up by divers and volunteers this past summer with a swanky pontoon and everything: The Gorge Waterway, where the river meets the sea and connects Victoria Harbour to Portage Inlet. They even hosted a swimming festival.

My mother is the original sea lioness. She brought me to the Gorge on a super sunny, Indian summer day with the autumn leaves orange and red. I somehow imagined the water would be warm… I climbed down the mossy wooden ladder and got in.


It was a novelty to be swimming somewhere other than the Irish Sea. This felt more like a lake. It was wonderfully still except for the floating reeds and tiny minnows scurrying around me and the odd seabus taxi pootling by and a school of kayakers paddling towards the Craigflower bridge. (more on this swim in an upcoming piece in the Globe & Mail Life section)

Another Victoria evening, down at Dallas Beach I stumbled onto a proper wild swimmer’s cairn. Cosmic, I thought…

Sunset in Victoria.

One of the many great things that happened in Victoria was I met up with a friend for lunch who had just been Stand up Paddling in a dress and a pearl necklace along with a denim coat underneath a life jacket. SUP is something I’ve seen before and wondered all about. I really dig the Hawaiian vibe. Go to this link to read all about her seal activities and watch the video, it’s super cool:

Back to Ireland and to Joyce’s “snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea”, or a place I now call I home. Jetlagged, groggy and blue, I texted the girls to say when are we swimming?

First Swim Back was the jetlag blues killer. Perfect, cold, totally transparent water did exactly what I needed it to, brought me back to my senses and filled me with gratitude to live only 10 minutes away from this chunk of bliss.

Second Swim Back or alternate title, Glowing Ladybits, was far more adventurous. It was October already and C picked me for a 6:30 a.m. swim. It was pitch black outside ( we hadn’t quite accounted for how dark it would be, that the season had changed and gone was our summer light). Luckily Sandycove had streetlights. The other help was the fluorescent, neon green plankton—at least I assume that’s what it was. All the locals drying off when we arrived were laughing about the possible meaning of the lime green glow in the water. Was it Sellafield’s nuclear waste or Thai Green Curry? I really wish I had an underwater camera that would be good in the dark too so I could show you how trippy and amazing it looked. Imagine your hands carving out oceanic Northern lights with every stroke in the black water.

I think each wild swimmer has ways of gauging how cold the water actually is. For me when I feel it in my actual bones I declare it goddamn cold. That dark morning, I was aware of my calves and forearms as stiff batons. And my ladybits were one solid cold block. That’s definitely a colder water than the kind when it’s just a scalding tingly feeling on the surface of your skin. We discussed whether I could use the term ladybits in my blog, but given all the attention the shrinking of men’s willies in cold water gets in popular culture, surely the term ladybits is fairly harmless and yet so relevant.

Apparently C’s husband thought she was crazy for going out for a swim at this time of the day in the dark but what was even crazier was that she had two others to go with her. Every stroke made a disco green wave.

I love the way we meet up, get undressed and literally step into another dimension, just like we have our own funky transformer Star Trek elevator. And the funny thing is, on our new planet we often talk about the most mundane things like how many years you wipe your kids butts for and clip their toenails.

Week Later Swim

Saw a Tarzan-like man with glamorous thick wavy chestnut brown hair swimming in the seriously stormy sea at 40 foot. Gales and floods the night before made for a rambunctious ocean and so me and the girls swam around the corner at the much mellower SandyCove.

Our cove is manageably choppy, while around the corner it’s wild. S is from Florida and likes to speculate on the whereabouts of sharks. I change the subject and call a lice summit as it’s new to my monkeys. My more experienced parent swim buddies talk me through strategies in the choppy waters involving different potions and types of combs.

Later we walked back around to see the water rage. Around the corner, behind the changing area, we were confronted with Tarzan Man using what can only be described as an elaborate butt floss drying technique, gleefully, like my 4 year old’s patented bum dance.

Despite our surprise, we agreed if we weren’t self-conscious about our bodies we too would’ve enjoyed being unabashed and naked, flapping our bits gleefully in the water and on land but that was not going to happen anytime soon…

Next swim: Foggy Warship.

C texted to say there was an Arctic front blowing in on Thursday and so Tuesday was last chance to swim in mild weather. Plus the Donegal postman was forecasting a snowy winter this year and Paddy Power was giving him good odds. We showed up again to a wild sea. An oldtimer told me to be careful because it was “lively” today. Good adjective I thought, understated.

It was foggy, there was a big grey battleship 100 yards out. I got in and didn’t even feel the cold such is my love of the experience and the quality of my boots and gloves. I wouldn’t have gone in alone, it was too feisty and bouncy. With my buddies though I was able to enjoy the big waves in the safety of numbers.

Over a big wave we suddenly saw three snorkelers and wondered what they were doing in this crazy water and where had they come from?  But they probably wondered what are those broads doing in this huge water? People often come snorkeling out of nowhere here. I like to imagine some people just have to see some marine life some days.

Those last two swims were at lunchtime and so I’ve got a new ritual of having a hot chocolate and picnic in the car, looking out to sea, which lots of other people seem to be doing too. When I first moved to Ireland someone explained that bringing a woman to the seaside and sitting in a parked car was like Blueberry Hill or Inspiration Point on Happy Days, it’s for snogging! Must drag Seadog away from his desk for swimdate one of these days.

This episode’s song*:

*spot the frog

PS: Possible name for our swim club:  No Knickers, Old Bras and Ratty Towels SC

What do you think? Suggestions?

Selkie Hits the Waves

Disclaimer: This is a doozy of a long one, sorry folks. Think of it as two in one and by all means you don’t gots to read it in one go. It’ll probably be a while until my next update as I have a big deadline (on dry land) coming up.

Since I have my new buddies to swim with I’m swimming way more often, I’m part of a scene! I did several cold 5 minute swims in January. Quick visuals that stood out: pink fluffy clouds, a twinkling/flashing lighthouse, sweet little fishing boats out and about and loads of swimmers each time. It was often colder on land than in the water. On one of the swims it was 3 degrees outside and 8 degrees in the water. How do you know? I asked a dripping wet woman who was announcing the stats proudly on her way up the stairs out of the water. She pulled out a big clunky thermometer on a string from inside her swimsuit. No messing around.

Winter swimmers’ discussions of slight variations of cold by the seaside aren’t surprising. But I’m always amazed at how much nuance there is in the weather forecast in Ireland generally, for what is normally a wettish, grey state of play. What’s to say? It may rain a bit, a lot, for a while or in bursts. Drizzle. Fog. Mist. Wind, a lot or a little. Mostly variations of water in the air. Sometimes it gets colder and then, miraculously the sun comes out!!! But people can talk about it forever it seems. Is it what strangers talk about the world over? But surely nobody is more entitled to moan about it than Canadian prairie folk.

I grew up in buttf***freezing Alberta as it was known to some of us on those “with windchill -50 degrees Celsius” days. It’s so temperate over here in County Dublin that I find it hard to actually say it’s cold. But people really want me to. Everyday in the shop or wherever someone will say: Bitter out! I say it’s not so bad, it’s sunny at least. But bitter, the wind would bite ya! Is the reply. Yesterday picking up Mancub at crèche the woman said: Cold out today, something fierce. Ya but sunny I said. (My favourite winter weather, sunny and crisp.) I never get the last word in this kind of exchange.

Soon as the sun goes down, you’ll freeze! She finished triumphantly.

It was only 1 in the afternoon. (though it is true that the capricious sun might not stay out long)

Edmontonians snort at this idea of cold. It’s 8 degrees today as I write this. And in January it often got up to 13 degrees! I feel like I’m in a constant state of spring here, so deep is the memory of the insanely freezing temperatures of my childhood. And don’t even get me started on the damp cold versus dry cold topic, I could go for hours on that.

To set the record straight, now that I’m used to it, jumping in the Irish sea in winter doensn’t involve bravery like kind people have suggested. Proper cold in my view is when your eyelashes and nostril hairs are crunchy with frost and your toes are burning even though you are wearing three pairs of socks in proper winter furry boots. Waiting for the bus and your teeth ache and you want to cry and the only way you can walk is tense with a Quasimodo hunch. Cold is getting your tongue stuck to a fence and yes I think most Canadian children have done it. Cold is rushing home after school to lie with the cats in front of the heat vent, to eat cornflakes, waiting for the heat to blast out on the boiler’s trusty ten minute cycle. Cold is when you could actually die of cold if your car gets stuck on the highway.

Growing up in Alberta my friends and I used to joke that surely there had to be some advantage to surviving those inhuman weather conditions, it had to at least make you a hardy people. We never got snowed out from school. I swear to God I never once got to stay home on a snow day. You just kept going like those snow-clearing/sand-trucks did, and once you got inside the buildings they were so overheated lots of people actually wore flip-flops and t-shirts, like we were all surfer-dude Californians or something.

So ya I can do cold. Honestly I find heat more of a challenge. I love heat, bring on the hot sweaty tropics. But submerging myself into hot water I find tricky. Especially in Ireland. In E-town I never experienced a situation where you run out of hot water. It’s the land of plenty and the world’s biggest mall, still? But here, the plumbing is more complex and perhaps more environmentally friendly as it involves planning and timing and finite resources. It’s not uncommon for my husband to top up the bath with water from the kettle! It’s like Little House on the Prairies with a Gaelic twist. I often end up with trickily heated baths. So now to not run out of hot water I let the bath fill only with the hot and let the cold in later, if I try to blend it, it just runs out and I get a very disappointing warm bath. The balance is tough to get.  What usually happens is I get unbearably hot beginnings. Hot that burns your ass Roma tomato red. If I had to choose between lowering my butt into a scalding hot bath or the freezing water I would definitely choose icy cold.

Back to the adventures of the Selkie, the mythic seal-people of local folklore.

Since I bought my very expensive and super groovy wetsuit with my dad’s money I haven’t found anyone to go wetsuit swimming with. Mostly people on the scene here at Forty Foot and Sandycove spit on the ground in disgust at the mere mention of wetsuits. I haven’t seen my Elle McPherson lookalike buddy-to-be again since she goes swimming on Saturdays and Seadog works and I have Little Chief and Bearcub to mind.

But one day, one day waiting for C and friends to arrive, two people came out of the water in suits. All the other swimmers were frozen and cursing but they were warm as a pair of freshly toasted cinnamon buns, happily gearing down, chatting about the seal they’d just seen. I seized the chance, went over, sat down right beside them, and threw myself into the conversation. She told me their swimming schedule and that they go earlier at 845 a.m., right after the school run. Talked about water conditions and mosquitoes in Canada and County Cork and kayaking on Lough Hyne. I said how I started this cold water swimming lark in October. Apparently that’s a perfect time because all the jellyfish are gone. The jellyfish arrive in May and the water is coldest in April because it’s had all winter to chill.  A wealth of information and enthusiasm, she said I was welcome to join them any morning.

Wetsuit Baptism. January 17

This was a new experience. I was nervous and worried about being late and missing my new wetsuit friends. I had previously only worn a wetsuit rafting years ago and it had ended kind of badly with a very unladylike mishap. I decided it was best to put it on at home.  People do that right? I’d like to think that on any one morning there could be all sorts of drivers kitted out in rubber on their way to the water. Nice idea, the fish all returning to Joyce’s grey mother, the sea. I felt pretty goofy though driving in rush hour all geared up. What if I got in a crash, or had an emergency and had to go somewhere dressed like this…

My new mentor laughed when she saw me. Did you do the school run like that?

I hung up my bag and put my gloves on and pulled out a squeaky toy stuck inside my boot. She helped me zip up and Velcro the back. I was snug as a bug. Warm and toasty. Happy as a clam. We agreed on a swimming plan, around the rocks and the Point, past Cavanagh’s Bay to Sandycove or out to the buoys beyond if I was up for it. If it was too hard, I could just swim around to Cavanagh’s Bay and get out there. On land it seemed like not such a long distance really.

Arrah you’re a strong swimmer aren’t ya, she kept telling me. This was not going to be like my normal beloved frolicking I realized, this seemed altogether a more athletic venture.

I approached the water like mighty Selkie the seal, for once not shivering my ass off. I am Ondine. I am warm. I am warm?!

I climbed down the steps and slipped into the water and felt

very little

except the cold on my chin. A little water trickled in to my suit like it’s meant to, but I was still warm. Constricted and breathing less easily, but warm as a toasty apple fritter. I got tired after just a few strokes but I had to keep up to my new mentors who it occurred to me were probably triathletes.

Are you okay? she yelled back at me. You’d be a strong swimmer wouldn’t ya?! I loved it when she said that. Of course she didn’t actually know me. I think maybe I am strong swimmer. I hope so. Seadog said I was. I hadn’t really put it to the test. I remember almost beating my dad who is a strong swimmer fifteen years ago in a one lap race. Hmmm. And I did do a bunch of lifesaving courses when I was thirteen. That should help. I know I was thirteen because it was before I’d ever kissed a boy and me and a girl had to practice mouth to mouth on each other! So embarrassing.

I was amazed at how quickly I had become tired. It had only been two minutes surely. I felt constricted definitely and the whole thing seemed very laborious and challenging though the novelty of it made it fun in spite of all this. I’m not sure if it was a matter of not having enough puff, being out of shape or was it the restriction of the rubber? But, ladies and gentlemen, I was indeed warm which was lovely if incongruous.

We swam around the Point where the currents hit and then on past Cavanagh’s. This was a whole new gig. I was an adventure swimmer now. Jockdom here I come. I enjoyed seeing all the new sights on my swim, seeing Dun Laoghaire from this open sea vantage point.

But it was so tiring. And the fact of the fatigue made me feel a little scared. My mentors were busy swimming for Ireland, heads down in the water, doing the serious crawl. I hated the idea of being stuck in a current. Every now and then the woman would call out to me and see if I was okay. I was grateful.

I was also damn glad I had bought a new, neon pink bathing cap. C had told me about a lingerie shop that weirdly also sold bathing caps. You could probably see my pink hat from space it was so pink. That could save me.

How much to challenge oneself? Give up or persevere? I could get out at Cavanagh’s, there was a ladder and steps. I seemed to have to ponder this dilemma a lot lately. If I gave up was I just indulging a lazy streak or was I knowing my limits? I want to get the right answer because lately, out of the water, I keep f*****g up this very situation. Twice now in Pilates and yoga class I have screwed up my lower back wretchedly and been laid up for days on end because of just this issue. Trying to get stronger, I’ve pushed myself in the wrong direction with force.

I did a few more strokes, felt a little bit more fear but not too much, a soupçon—I wanted to keep going. I wanted to be able to do it. Feel the fear and do it anyway! Ha. I was just lacking in oomph, that was the problem.

But then I looked up to see guy mentor standing on rock. Standing on water like Jesus twenty metres in front of me which made me see how shallow the water now was in places. I knew I’d be okay then. And I was okay. I was totally relieved and swam around happily all the way to Sandycove while the mentor Selkies decided to swim all the way back around to the Forty Foot. I realized how much happier I am to be swimming by the shore. Should I try to conquer the fear of open sea swimming? It is good to test oneself but I’ve swum so many times in different spots in so many oceans and lakes to know that it’s probably okay to be this kind of swimmer, a relative shore hugger not an open sea Olympian.  I used to think I wanted to swim the English Chanel, but then I realized it was just the idea of it that I thought was so cool. Actually I get bored swimming long distances (in the pool). I just want to have fun. And that’s okay. Having said all that, I will probably aim to do that swim again, just to see.

When I got out, there was practically a brass band championing me. I walked back around to the Forty Foot in my dripping suit to all sorts of Well done yous!! and cheers from the old-timers around. I didn’t realize they had been paying attention. Maybe I had rookie fear on my face at the start and blessed relief on the way back. I went back into the water because I felt I hadn’t had my proper frolic at the Forty Foot and I splashed about warmly. Freestyling is just so much more fun.

Afterwards me and the Seals chatted as we got out of our gear. We gossiped about the early morning nudist swimmers (apparently one may work at the James Joyce centre around the corner).

At home in the driveway I dilly dallied in the car wanting to listen the end of Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out.

Later that day at the school gates I saw C who had gone for a swim (without a wetsuit of course) and she said it was way colder than before. She doesn’t normally admit to the water being cold. A Forty Foot expert had told her that apparently an Easterly wind had come in and made the water ridiculously cold. I was chuffed I’d had my Selkie armour.

That whole day our bathroom smelled of drying rubber which was a mysteriously familiar smell and there was sand in the tub. I found that so pleasing, like I was a surfer dude or something, a Selkie dude. I could be a Californian yet.

Without my suit: January 19

Sunny blue sky, but only 7 degrees outside.

Swimmers going into the water joked about being insane, but were obviously hugely proud of themselves. Smug even.

Saw a Rasta man with big dreads swimming leisurely like he was in Jamaica. He must have been in for a while because his skin looked fairly red. A woman getting out of the water talked about how the cold the water had now become, shaking her head at her own masochism. Another said she’d stubbed her toe on the rocks but was too cold to really feel it.

I had a massive massive revelation. I got into the water in just my bathing suit but also with my gloves and rubber socks. It was crazy how much easier it was. Ten thousand times warmer than without those extremities being clothed. I tried to evangelise to the girls but they are attached to the ultimate freedom of no gear. But it was so much better! It took away at least 70 percent of the cold for me. I could swim and frolic forever!

When I managed to wrangle off my swimming booties my feet and lower calves were white in stark contrast to the rest of my skin which was red. I was Neapolitan ice cream.

Every swim I learn a little more about my new friends. C likes Anne Rice and Philip Pullman and toys that poop. Too cold to care we moon people as we get dressed and I learned all about Kindermusik for babies and toddlers and the grooviness of the Unitarian church from C and the delicious stuffed pork loin roast from Avoca. Turns out that S is a writer too and has a 3-year-old. J grew up right around the corner but never swam here growing up. Took it up this winter and has been swimming so much her swimsuit actually broke.

The more I go, the more I recognize the same faces, probably twenty or so people. A woman came up to offer us biscuits and another offered stem ginger chunks. I love the 40 Foot. I am verklempt over how wonderfully weird a scene it is, stem ginger chunks and all.

We are all ocean worshippers and it is such a ritual. People go through all the trouble of dressing and undressing for just a few minutes. People say it helps their immune systems. C is convinced it’s the cure-all for any malaise. Her cough. Her flu symptoms. It’s like a Lourdes. I don’t want to jinx myself but I haven’t had a cold since November. Is the sea building up my immune system? (I ended up getting a cold, literally minutes after typing that. But it was, in the world of my colds, a minor one.)

On the way back to the car I saw a school of snorkelers just by the rocks in Sandycove. I asked a man in full gear with a mask attached to his forehead standing by his car: What do you see out there?

Nothing. Not a thing, he laughed. It’s just a good spot to train people.

I asked him about the famous seals.

He gave me his rule, speaking firmly: they can play with you but you can’t play with them!

I sat in the car and listened to the new Feist album with my hair dripping wet, the heat blasting and the tea doing its job. Drove home with the hot water bottle on my lumbar.

Warning: louche ahead.

Came home and got Seadog to warm up my butt with his toasty hands. Testified to a very cold bum. Had hot shower with cup of tea inside the shower and then got out and blow-dried my body as well as my hairdo and then I was grand as the Irish say.

Little Chief says when she is a big lady she will drink tea and wear lipstick. Hopefully she’ll know too that alongside those great activities, there’s a whole world of marine pleasure out there. Already her and Mancub know how fun water is—bathtime is a universe of bubble-y good times.

My mom sends worried emails that I’m risking my life and I have so much to live for. Mom, I’m safe, honestly! C’s dad calls her on the phone to worry about her aquatic habits too.

As it turns out, I didn’t go in for another ten days or so as my back went dodgy and getting in and out of my clothes was too big a challenge to do more than once in my day.

Feb 1 I was due to get back in. And so the ritual: No way do I want to go swimming. Think about texting C to dodge. Now that C is involved I’m reluctant to bail. I don’t want to piss off my new buddies. It’s minus 2 degrees. Got the thermos ready, hot water bottle, extra clothes. Swimsuit on. Wedding ring off.

There was  a Siberian cold front sweeping west that ended the unseasonably warm January weather. Very sunny, 2 degrees outside. 7 degrees inside the water. 6 degrees last year in the water at the same time. Lots of discussion about water temperatures among the swimmers. One woman reckoned 5 degrees Celsius was the coldest it would go, ever. It was low tide at Sandycove and chaos around the corner, sometimes the ocean claims Forty Foot, changing area and all, and says mine mine mine and so all the swimmers respectfully go around the corner to Sandycove. I went down 10 steps in my booties. I can’t say enough about what a difference the booties and gloves make. Seadog suggested if I’d started with them I might not have gotten a whole suit. And that’s probably true. But I’m not ruling out my surfing/kayaking future.

Just a little clip to give you the flavour down at Sandycove (i didn’t want the other swimmers to think I was filming them so that’s why it’s short and wobbly). Note the guy doing vigorous exercises in his Speedo.

PS Apparently there is another Edmontonian who swims all the time at the 40 foot. He does 30 laps out and 30 laps back in on his lunchbreak.

PPS  A friend of mine posted a photo about swimming at a Lido in London. I’d love to do that or to have a go in the ponds at Hampstead Heath (just like Gary Oldman does in that movie Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy). I’m starting a swimming wish-list. Any suggestions?

To Wetsuit or Not to Wetsuit: December Swims

I’ve done it! Actual winter swimming. Wednesday, December 13 it was only 3 degrees Celsius outside and the word around the waterfront was that the sea was 9 degrees. The day before, Ireland had experienced a force 10 storm across the Donegal coast and its biggest ever monster wave was recorded: a 67 footer. It was calmer that next morning but still choppy and cold.

I was feeling totally and utterly unmotivated and tired as I often do early in the day. No desire to run or swim or anything except sloth about, eating chocolate, surfing the internet. I’d already gotten dressed in slouching-about clothes and put lipstick on. I didn’t want to have to wrestle myself into workout gear.

Seadog stepped up and said he’d drop off Mancub at crèche and would drive me wherever I wanted to go for a run. I’d had sleep, I had some free time, a chauffeur, there were no excuses for laziness. It was a matter of forcing it. So I decided to go for a coastal run from Monkstown to Sandycove and possibly go for a swim instead of a nap. It was time to see if I could hack real ass-freezing winter swimming temperatures.

Sure enough once you actually gear up and get out there, you’re happy enough even if you have to drag your butt up the path. It’s always a great boost to the spirit to be outdoors and especially for me to see the boats and be on the seafront. The big open sky vista over the sea taps into my prairie need for space, lots of wonderful space. The yachts’ masts clanged musically in the wind. It was blustery but cheerful.

I had Hawksley on my ipod and it was good motivation to run myself along to his chorus of stay drunk and keep f*****g stay drunk and keep f*****g and on and on––a saucy and nihilistic running chorus on that frigid morning. Trying not to wipeout on the pavement I dodged half-frozen puddles and icy patches and dogs wearing little coats and sweaters.  With several walking breaks it only took 20 sweaty minutes to get to Sandycove. Seadog was there in the car reading Murakami’s latest giant novel. I gave him my water bottle and went to go see if I could see any swimmers. There was one white-haired woman drying herself off.

Then I saw other fresh happy older ladies, with their towels in plastic bags, smiling, coming down the path from around the corner. Water was lovely. It was the air that was cold they said. Just don’t stay in too long they advised.

Almost compulsively I find myself singing this song anytime I get near the sea. Another tune from my parents’ dj set list.

Groovy version: Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside

Kiddie one: Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside (once you get past the beginning it gets better)

There was a whole bunch of people at the 40 foot. But everyone was already leaving or drying off. I chatted with people about water temperature and the wind. I said I had been making it in twice a month. Oh you’ll find it very cold then, one guffawed. And mind the swell at the steps—it’ll try to take you.

There were three male pensioners drying themselves off, getting their clothes back on. One seemed to be doing a Riverdance-ish routine presumably to heat up. Whatever works! I was going to have to go in the busy frozen sea all alone. The first challenge was getting off my two jock bras discretely. I had to use my most Houdini like skills while Seadog acted as my curtain.

And then poof! Out of nowhere an Elle McPherson lookalike with long blond locks and honey-tanned skin showed up in knee-high, high-heel boots, jeans with a gold studded belt, a perfect physique and I couldn’t help but notice, lovely lingerie. I was astonished by her glamour. It was so incongruous with the shopping bag brigade and flip-flop scene of the regulars here. Her bathing suit though was relievingly sporty.

I was thrilled I wouldn’t be alone for my first (3 degrees Celsius outside) winter swim. She told me about her encounters with seals who apparently live around the corner by the rocks. I said how I wanted to swim for longer than just the dip people seem to do when the water gets to the winter lows and she said she did on Saturdays, in a wetsuit. Her and her friends swim around the buoys for twenty minutes and more. She told me I just needed a 55mm wetsuit. She was the first ever person who hadn’t baulked at even the idea of a wetsuit when I mentioned it before.

The icy pale green water sloshed up over the steps. I was ready before Elle and so I had to bravely go down the two steps that were there when the waves receded. The last time I’d been in at this spot the tide was much lower and I had to go down many steps. So I was a little scared getting in, thinking of the others’ warning about the swell that would try to take me. I held on tight to the rail, asked Seadog for reassurance. “Arrah you’ll be fine,” he said. Arrah is a new favourite Irish word of mine. It’s like a fancy Er…

I just glided in and swam about. It stung my skin and I remembered how that woman I’d met weeks before said it felt like you’ve been waxed. A strange feeling between hot and cold.  Lovely. Not too frozen. But very tingly. A bit like the burn from a swig of cognac or whiskey. Definitely too cold for head dunking. With the tide so high it felt like I was in a burstingly full splish-splashing bathtub.

Elle didn’t swim for very long and so I got out when she did (we’re talking two minutes). She had been doing this longer than me so I followed her lead. She encouraged me again to get a wetsuit. At long last the dilemma was over: To Wetsuit or not to wetsuit, I had my answer. Seadog like myself and most of these others feel somehow that wearing a wetsuit is cheating, but what I’ve come to realize is that while a quick dip is great, I truly want to have a proper swim in the winter, in the sea, and I don’t want to get hypothermia. Anytime I see water, in any situation, in any weather I have such a strong urge to get in and now I can.

On my way out a tall old dude was doing jumping jacks on the spot, trying to warm up no doubt, but bobbing up and down he really did look like an emperor penguin. And around the corner at Sandycove there was Redtrunks Smokey from previous weeks, this time wearing blue trunks but still recognizable with his simultaneous smoking and calisthenics routine.

Seadog and I had a nice cup of tea in the car with the heat on full blast. All very exciting for this prairie girl. Feels very cosmopolitan to be swimming in James Joyce’s swimming hole with women in high heels showing up for a dip.

Later that afternoon, totally inspired by 40 Foot Elle I went and bought a Christmas present for myself from my dad: a beautiful wetsuit, black with fuchsia-coloured arms and the word ANIMAL written on the chest. They laughed when I asked for a 55mm one, doing a demonstration of how thick that would actually be. No a 5 mm one was what I needed so I could still be flexible and actually swim but stay as warm as possible. If I wanted to do a triathlon I’d need a 3 mm. Steady on! It was quite a production trying it on in the store with Mancub in the buggy demanding moooore purple rice crackers and Little Chief impatient to get to the park and the notorious hard work of cramming oneself into the tight rubber sausage casing. And then I sweated like crazy waiting for the shopgirls’ advice.

Now I move it around the house like it’s my imaginary friend. Very looking forward to my first long wetsuit adventure.

Lately, I have been trying to explain what showing off means to Little Chief but sure enough I find myself doing a great round of it at the school gates to any parent that will listen: Guess what I did today!

Since the time of writing something amazing happened: I had my first swim-buddy date December 21! And a follow-up swim December 22. And then three more swims over the holidays including New Year’s Day.

My dream came true. A woman came up to me on the school grounds and said she recognized me from the 40 Foot and I realized she was one of the ones I talked to briefly last week. I so wanted swim buddies and poof here one was. We made plans to go together and she told me to bring a hot water bottle.

Left to my own noodely devices I probably wouldn’t have gone swimming so soon after that icy 2 minute dip in mid-December. My first swim with three of my new anti-wetsuit buddies was a mild morning, 12 degrees out, but damn windy. And there were loads of swimmers. Over the holidays it became much busier. There were hung-over college kids coming to cure their headaches and Dubliners who lived elsewhere but home for the holidays headed to their favourite swim place. There seemed to be mince pies every time I went.

While I waited for my swimfriends I talked to a few oldtimers. One guy having a cup of tea said he was going in for a second swim of the day, he’d swum an hour before further down the coast and now he was recovered he’d get in again. Another guy told me he was meant to stand guard while some women went in naked earlier. Worryingly people actually looked a bit purple coming out the water.

My new friends (2 Americans and 1 Irish woman) showed up, got undressed and in the water super fast, leaving me scrambling with my socks in their wake. I wasn’t expecting such speed. I guess I must normally turtle my way in. The leader C times us and unlike all the other swimmers who were just getting in and then straight out she reckoned we could stay in the water for 8 minutes. It’s true that after I’d flapped around the water for a few minutes and broke through the cold barrier it did feel manageable. My hands and feet were ice blocks but overall it was so profoundly refreshing and the sun was kind of poking through the layers of clouds. We swam in a circle and chatted about Christmas food and school stuff and whatever. This was a great way to start the day, a crazy bit of mum (me) time.

Standing on a hot water bottle while you get changed and dried up was a stroke of genius because standing on the wet cement after a swim with cold wet feet was punishing. I noticed other women seemed to have brought carpet patches to step on. I walked my new buddies back to their cars past the revelling older people doing jumping jacks and drinking hot drinks from thermoses. One man stopped us to offer us some cake with delicious maple-flavoured icing. It’s so heartwarming how friendly this 40 Foot scene is.

Looking at my friends post-swim, I have to say they actually had blue lips and a general blue hue in their cheeks, no joke. I told them this, but they weren’t worried, these chicks are hardy mermaids! I was definitely cold, even with all my clothes on (toque, cardigan, 2 coats etc.) But after two cups of hot tea in the car with the heat blasting I felt good. And all day through the little ups and downs I had this potent memory of that 8-minute supernaturalesque morning event.

Everyone said the 40 Foot on Christmas day was a big event. C wasn’t planning on going because it would be too mobbed. She’s a good leader and she was right. I couldn’t resist walking there though just to see what it was like. It was thronged and festive like a New Orleans swimming party. Hipsters. Families. Old and young. And lots of dogs too. Handfuls of young men trying to impress with their barefoot bravado walking home. People blocks away we’re putting on their socks, still dripping wet. People jumped in with their clothes on, screeching Sweet Jaysus. It was busy. I was glad to save my special day swim for New Years.

New Year’s morning was quiet. The grey sleepy streets were mostly empty. Opposite our house was parked a double-decker bus with the driver slumped over the wheel, trying no doubt to catch up on his sleep from partying the night before. I met C at 9:30 and the sun was trying to break through the clouds. It was another awesome swim, and a shocking way to start the day and year as I mean to go on: with a salty taste in my mouth and vigour in my soul.

Happy New Year everyone! Will try to get my wetsuit in the water for my next update.

Second November Splash

“Dance Ti’ Thy Daddy Come here, maw little Jacky, Now aw’ve smok’d mi backy, Let’s hev a bit o’ cracky, Till the boat comes in.

Dance ti’ thy daddy, sing ti’ thy mammy,
Dance ti’ thy daddy, ti’ thy mammy sing;
Thou shall hev a fishy on a little dishy,
Thou shall hev a fishy when the boat comes in. Here’s thy mother humming, Like a canny woman; Yonder comes thy father, Drunk—he cannot stand…”  (sung by Alex Glasgow)

Isn’t that trumpet beautiful!!

We watched When the Boat Comes in when I was a little kid, though I don’t remember it at all, but I swear my parents sung the theme song on a loop everytime we went anywhere near the sea. It’s pretty damn catchy with the fishy dishy lyric.

Got up ready for some stressbusting and my second splash of the month, November 24. The morning post had brought no good news. Doctor had left cryptic message on my voicemail night before (turned out to be not so serious after all, but still when doctors phone, the imagination can go on a serious bender). My stress antennae these days detect the smallest signal and they like to go full out wing ding crazy. Plus, will my Mancub (new nickname for Monkey 2) always cry when I bring him to crèche in the mornings?

It was 12 degrees out, grey with a biting wind. Seadog was free and so he drove me to Sandycove, parked in what is designated as the icecream van’s casual trading spot, and waited in the car, reading his book. It’s my dad all over again: Have book, will travel.

There were loads of people changing etc and I couldn’t help but spot an unabashed big set of reddened Irish-sea boobs. Glad to see someone else’s nonchalance in the changing process. First off I went around the corner to see Forty Foot as I like to do. Water crashed up against the boulders, all the way up the stairs. There was a fit guy, dark haired, glowing face, very enthusiastic, drying himself up and finishing getting his gear together.

He said he’d just been in on the other side, the safe side and it was really really WARM for this time of year! Lovely water. He looked so refreshed. Hair still gleaming with wet. He had that born again look, like he’d just been baptized. Told me how last year it was the coldest in 20 years. In and out of the water real quick. But today it was warm. I’d never heard anyone use that adjective (in relation to the sea) in all the 8 years I’ve been in Ireland.

Around the corner it was a seniors’ social scene. Robust, full head of white-haired older folks. It felt like I’d gotten off at the 7½ floor in the Being John Malkovich movie and landed in an alternate universe of non-aging seniors. Three men and one woman smiled at me super welcomingly. A grinning Baba with a baboushka wrapped around her head and a thick Slavic accent said encouragingly: “Vind Cold! Vater Varm!!”

This was the first time I was shivering before even getting in the water. It was the damn wind. (I had by the way made sure my stuff wouldn’t blow in the water this time by putting my boots and thermos on top of my bag.)

I shivered my way down the steps. An oldtimer in the water, frowning a bit, cheered me on:  Warmer in than out, he said gruffly.

Meanwhile I could see there were a few dogs having a swim too. So I got in and swam like heck to get warm. Felt like my heart was working harder and I was gasping more because it was colder. I wondered if the water temperature had gone down since my last swim or was I just getting wimpy? It was true though like Baba said, that out of the wind, in the water it was cozier. I swam over to near where Seadog was in the car studying his book. He came out and took a crappy video on his phone. I miss my camera and its zoom.

I couldn’t believe how many older people were in the water without even bathing hats. These were freaky people who had maybe found the secret to eternal vitality/life? I have to say I enjoyed my swim but was the balance between thrill and pleasure now tipping towards thrilling? I was cold!

Speaking of thrilling I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. Was that swimmerman smoking? One of the oldies, the one who had told me it was warmer in than out, recently out of the water, wearing just his red trunks, seemed to have a long white thing sticking out of his mouth, could it actually be a smoke? I’m not sure why this delighted me so profoundly. I guess it was incongruous to this scene and a bit bad boy at the core and my rebellious soul/arrested-adolescent spirit was thrilled to the bone.

I swam hard and couldn’t resist doing three head dunks. Last once froze my forehead.

It was time to get out, I couldn’t keep Seadog waiting forever and I had to investigate if this guy was indeed smoking. I climbed up the stairs onto land and was mildly embarrassed as always by the way the swimsuit insists on clinging to the skin so I tried as I always do to discretely pull some material out from the tummy area which always backfires and creates a goofy vacuum balloon effect.

He was smoking! And it smelled heavenly. I’m ten years off the smokes, but sometimes, sometimes I sure fancy one. I breathed in gulps of the gorgeous tobacco smell as I started the job of getting back into clothes. It almost takes as long to dry up as it does to swim, what with all the awkwardness of leaning on one leg, drying the other, trying to preserve some modesty and stop things from blowing away, all with frozen fingers that don’t work so well and clothes that get stuck trying to rush them up not fully dry legs. Reminds me of when Little Chief (new nickname for Monkey 1) tries to go down the slide with her bare legs and the slide is too dry and she just squeaks her way down in starts and stops instead of the proper swoosh down.

Redtrunks seemed to be in no hurry getting clothes back on. He was going around the place, retrieving his bits and pieces and his plastic bag. And then, still smoking, he started doing his callisthenics.

Callisthenics, in wet red swimming togs with a smoke hanging out of his mouth. I love it!

Seadog says that the Royal Canadian Airforce Exercises were very in vogue in Ireland when he was growing up.

“Lovely tide,” Redtrunks said to me. It was the highest tide I’d swum in here and it’s true it filled up Sandycove like a big bathtub, the big drink.

“You’re better off changing around the corner with this wind,” he advised.

Younger mum-looking women showed up to change for their swims. They asked Redtrunks Smokey if he’s seen their friend Maggie lately. No he hadn’t. She’d been in hospital and they all agreed it’d be hard to get back into the water after that. It really was a scene of regulars here at Sandycove.

“Watch your clothes today ladies,” he told them

“Ah they’re blowing in today are they so…” one woman knowingly replied. I wish I knew about this last week! The wind was mighty and even with my steel water bottle and cocoa thermos my stuff had been blowing around this time. “Expecting gale force winds later today. Got the best of it we did,”  Redtrunks said.

My core didn’t cool down like last time, just my feet and hands were cold. I was literally chilled out, not worrying about anything at all and instead reveling in rediscovering the joy of my wool hat, cashmere cardigan and colourful thermos, thank you Stuart, full of hot chocolate. And Seadog chauffeuring.

Sitting in the car warming up we watched Sandycove waking up; what a great neighbourhood. Lots of dog walkers, dogs, moms, dads, grandparents with babies in buggies and in baby carriers. People stopping to chat with each other. New swimmers showing up, others leaving. The sounds of seagulls above and the odd oystercatcher and purple sandpiper about. I sat in the car all cozy and had a great cup of cocoa. Tried next to drink the hot chocolate from the flask directly instead of refilling the little cup and as warned it spilled all out and burned my chin, not terribly. Seadog said if he’d been filming we could have made millions on Youtube. Damn… 

I read an article about Carrie Fisher and her depression and how she goes for the odd bout of ECT. Not to trivialize the horribleness of serious depression or anything but it did occur to me I should write to her and tell her about dunking her head in the Irish sea, it could be a similar help. I also read recently that Dickens would feel so utterly scorched by the writing process that he needed to plunge his head in a cold pail of water periodically while writing Bleak House. Ten minutes doing this and I feel like I’ve had a major adventure for the day. It’s like riding a bike, it taps right into the inner kid zone. Sometimes I like to make Little Chief laugh when we walk home together and I skip a little in between normal walking to match her joyful style. Why walk when you can skip?

This whole wild swimming jag takes me back to the best part of being a kid, swimming with my parents in the oceans of the world, going ice skating and having frozen toes, and hot chocolate to warm up. All that was missing now was the smell and promise of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper for supper. I said to Seadog that I don’t really get how some swimmers just get in for a minute or two and he said, in typical Seadog wisdom: some people just want an espresso, whereas you want a big cappuccino.

Went home, had a shower and then got deuced: Two of everything, socks, pants, tops, cardigans and cups of tea and then I was sorted for the day.

Winter has finally properly hit and now it’s hovering above zero. Will be heading for my first December dip soon, and wondering if it will be enjoyable or just goofily cold making…

More piscean rhapsody

Since that last Forty Foot dip and before I started coughing for Ireland I had four more swims at Seapoint. This catch-up chronicle will be the last post before the real-time, big freezing November plunge which I have to say I’m a little queasy about. November can be the time when people sensibly hang up their togs. I’ve been googling health risks associated with cold water swimming and the good news is if you’re acclimatized it’s not a problem usually… My only preparation though this month is that moment or two before the hot water of the shower kicks in. And I’ve been dodging that cold spray bigtime.

Short version:

These are the highlights of my September morning splashes.

Sounds, Sights, Smells: seagulls, cormorants, pigeons, the smell of decomposing autumn leaves, the green DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) train whizzing by, jack hammer hammering on the street above, water splashing, the morning dog walking brigade.

Didn’t think I would go in each time, but each time I saw the other swimmers and that did it. Arriving hot with stress beforehand, afterwards leaving delirious with my new porpoising purpose.

Longer Version:

Swim Number 1:

The sky was bruising as Monty says in Withnail and I and it was chilly out. But I felt charged up with my mantra: I am brave. I am brave. I am brave I chanted as I walked down the ramp, just barely avoiding sliding in a tidy little pile of dog crap. Good thing the singing council man bleaches the steps everyday. A few people were swimming. An older lady with very muscular arms and short boyish hair. I swam about, got a slurpee headache from the cold and instinctively found it helpful to bark through the first minutes of swimming. Wooof woooof woof. (Later on I found out this makes sense, according to the internet you are meant to exhale when you first get in to cold water.) After the cold passed I frolicked gladly about and managed to crash into the Hillier, scraped my knee but not badly. When I got out of the water the woman with the good pipes was busy drying herself off. She said she was turning white from the cold and I said better than blue. She said she has bad circulation. I thought that was supposed to be one of the benefits of cold water swimming. Ha, she said she’d been swimming forever and hers hadn’t gotten any better. Maybe though it would be worse without doing it… I asked how often she swam and she said she used to go everyday for two years but she had to quit because she was getting obsessed with it. So now she stops in November.

I got dressed and decided I would add speed walking après-swim on the seafront as part of the ritual. Helped enormously to warm up.

Swim Number 2:

Another cold morning, but it was sunny! I wasn’t sure if you could swim at Seapoint at low tide. I went down there and hung up my stuff and sure enough when I looked out to sea I did a double take and saw a woman walking on the water like Jesus far in the distance. She must have been out 200 yards into the open sea, walking on a sand bar. I got in and swam in the shallow water, getting up to stand when it was too shallow and my knees were grazing the bottom. It was uneven, there were deeper bits here and there. I followed the Jesus woman, assuming she must be following the depth. A few others got in. A dark-curly-haired man who I had often noticed sunbathing and reading his book was in the water. I basked in the sunshine and icy water. It was a welcome relief to the gong show at home. Monkey number 2 had turned a corner in toddlerhood, he was now being more adventurous and smashing plates like he was at a Greek wedding and frisbeeing bowls. I was in a different time zone out here in the middle of the sea on an ordinary September morning. Temporarily unavailable. In my own Atlantis universe I could do handstands, a low-tide bonus.

After the other swimmers got out I followed suit. I headed back to the ramp and thought I was on it, but stumbled on a rock. Nothing serious, I was able to grab the railing. The seaweed made the ramp a little slippy.

Drying off, the curly-haired man said to me, “You nearly went!”


“You nearly went!”

Hmm, what does he mean? “I did get in!”

“No, you nearly went! If you miss the ramp, you can twist your ankle badly there, it’s full of rocks, you need to get on the ramp.”

Seadog told me later went meant died (or something really terrible) in this Dub-speak exchange.

I think this guy fancies himself a guardian of the place. One time when I was there with the family having a look-see he was going around the place telling everyone that he’d found something, never mind what it was, but if you’d lost something, come talk to him.

After I had done my little speed-walking strut I saw him reading his book, in his shorts, sunbathing. It wasn’t hot out that’s for sure. Still, a great way to spend your mornings if you’re not working. He was definitely getting his vitamin D.

Swim Number 3:

I was filled with no way am I gonna do this. I did it, all the while fantasizing about wetsuits wetsuit wetsuits. There were two youngins in them and they said they were toasty. The super skinny green-hatted woman I’d seen before arrived and walked in, dipped her toe and then went back to put on black sea gloves. Another oldtimer was doing jumping jacks beside the martello tower.

In the mornings I always wonder will I do this? I give myself permission not to. I put on mascara and perfume to confirm that I won’t. But I put the swimming bag in the car just in case, and sure enough the school run mania and other people swimming make it happen. Fear and a kind of positive masochism are a part of this. At night in my bed with my fuzzy socks and flannel bed sheets, I shiver thinking of the cold water. I think no way am I getting in again tomorrow. No way.

Swim Number 4: It was low tide again and a super sunny, blue sky Indian summer day: 18 degrees. There was the Jesus woman again swimming far out to sea, some big-bellied Sopranoes-looking guys standing in the shallow surf talking business. I was surprised given the temperature outside how cold the water still was when my toes hit the ramp.

A young guy with tattoos was getting in near me.

“Oof,” I said.


“Amazing how cold it is!”

“Yes, imagine for me especially, I am a Spanish”

“Oh,” I said stupidly, “Is it much warmer in Spain?”

But he was off doing his determined crawl to the horizon. I got in and I felt the usual resistance. Why bother my body thought, just get out! But watching the Spaniard crawl and the Jesus woman swimming in the distance I knew that if I persisted, if I in fact surrendered to the cold something amazing would happen. I keep re-learning you have to surrender to the cold. Let go. Give in and then the bliss happens, your body relaxes. Break the cold barrier = bliss. Would rubber speed this process up?  And then suddenly the ecstasy happened and I was communing with nature first thing in the morning, in the middle of the city. And I’d tapped into the wonderful stillness of the morning before too much of the day’s hustle and bustle has kicked off. I imagined I was a synchronised swimmer, I swam on my back and splashed my feet vigorously, making delightful arcs of water spray up in the air. The drops almost in slow motion. This has got to be the most refreshing, zesty way to start the day.

Later I got out and I saw the muscular old woman showering topless and the sunbathing guardian ..guy reading his book, oblivious two feet from her. It’s great how jiggy it is here.

Song that sums up my general feeling of well-being following swims: The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

I have been leaving my two pairs of goggles and bathing cap around the house to dry, on the radiator or counter or wherever. I especially like the aesthetic of the goggles. It gives me a thrill to see them out of the corner of my eye especially when I’m miles away from writing or adventuring and am elbow deep in the mind-numbing mountain of housework four humans can generate.

I was cheered to see two swimmers out in the bay at 10:30am on a rainy Halloween morning. Next blog update: prairie dolphin goes Hardcore in November…

PS I’m sure from now on, I promise, my updates are gonna be shorter!

PPS You know that game where people decide which vegetable they are? If I was a foodstuff after my swim, I’m pretty sure I would be a few scoops of lemon sorbet.

40 Foot/Just make a decision!

October has been a full-blown write-off. That is to say, no writing, and no swimming; just coughing and some more coughing and then even more coughing. Our house has been taken down by the flu and the chicken pox.  I am desperately hoping this fourth week of the flu, armed with drugs and an inhaler, that I will be cough-free enough to get back into the sea soon. The only problem is: it’ll be November and I’m a month grounded and unacclimatized and I see barely any swimmers out anymore at my beloved Seapoint. Terrified though I am I think it may be a great antidote to my cabin-fever and lost month blues. Before this enforced dry sabbatical I had been on an invigorating roll of getting in the water at least once a week. Here is the story of my second September dip.

My first swim at the famous 40 Foot swimming hole was unplanned. I had read about it, gone to have a close up look at it and somehow managed to become a little intimidated by it. What if all the swimmers yelled: GO AWAY, YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED HERE, YOU’RE NOT A DUBLINER FOR JAYSUS’ SAKE! It’s a much loved and historic bathing hole in south Dublin bay with steps leading down in to a deep open sea pool protected by a horseshoe of rocks. The water is always deep no matter the tide. It used to be restricted to gentlemen, often nude apparently. Now it’s a free-for-all (though no longer nudists) and you hear about the various Forty Foot swimming groups and their all-season bravado. Compared to the wide, smile-shaped Seapoint, it feels like a much more intimate swimming nook and a harder place to be anonymous.

One cheeky sunny-ish September afternoon, first week of school, my husband, (an old Dublin seadog himself), our two monkeys and some friends spontaneously ended up meeting for a beach stooge down at gorgeous little Sandycove, exactly right around the corner to the Forty Foot. That little sandy cove is perfect for small children with their bucket and spade shenanigans.

Around the corner is a great landmark: the Martello tower where James Joyce once lived and where the opening of Ulysses takes place. Goofily, the one course I found most challenging in my English lit degree was Irish lit. All I remember are stories of fishermen dying and my professor telling us that Ireland was so green that even the postboxes were green! The notoriously difficult reputation of Ulysses had aligned with my laziness to make it so it never occurred to me, moving to Dublin, to read it. I had read Dubliners, no probs. But Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, no-way-hokey-pokey as my monkey likes to say. A good Canadian friend said to me recently he was reading Ulysses to his wife. How romantic! And the obvious hit me, I should bloody well read it too. Another challenge for the winter. Will let you know how that goes…

Seadog had a swim with our friends while I watched the kids and then it was my turn. Flip-flopping my way to the entry I passed a lifeguard board outlining the various kinds of jellyfish happenings in these waters. I blocked out jellyfish thoughts and walked on vaguely remembering an article about biting seals at the Forty Foot?

Looking out from this very vista, Joyce’s Buck Milligan described the sea as a grey sweet mother which sounded comforting until he added scrotumtightening and snotgreen.

I’d say it was more of a bottle green. I walked past the wildflowers at the entrance and all the changing swimmers, had a good look around at all the signs and the lay of the watery land. This looked a lot more like diving into the open sea. The water was crashing against the rocks in great big foamy white waves. On the left side there are rocks high enough to scale and jump off. On the right the rocks are more at sea level. And beyond this little area of 10 yards wide it’s the great open sea, next stop Wales! Or if you swam right and then right again at the bottom of Ireland: America!

Was it even safe? I wasn’t going to ask anyone and reveal myself as a newcomer. I loved how a good chunk of the gang here were skin-and-bone elderly people. Obviously hardy and veteran swimmers they toted around their swimming stuff in little plastic bags. They didn’t need high-tech gear. I think I might… In lieu of fancy gear though I had this song running through my mind:  Lust for Life

After stashing my towel and flip-flops, I joined the queue going down the path, everyone was clutching the railing, getting ready to pelt ourselves off into the great big sea like a bunch of penguins in the Falklands. A teenage young woman, wearing a bra and panties, rather than a swimsuit was coming out of the water, giggling with her friend. You forget how amazing young women’s bodies are! She had a perfect, seashell-shaped bra covering her young flesh and was busy laughing at the cold while everyone in the queue gawped at her beauty. Hope she knew her own fabulousness. With the onset of 40 coming my way, I’m finally having to acknowledge that I am not younger than everybody else like I somehow often still manage to think.

Once again, I felt the strong motivator of community helping to offset the anticipated assfreezingness of the swim ahead. In the queue I was behind a woman and her 10-ish-year-old-son. She was saying to him, “I don’t care what you do, just make a decision and don’t wreck my swim.” She was using a super stern mom voice. “I have to have my swim,” she told him, “It’s not fair otherwise!”

She jumped in, swam off and her boy stood there, not budging. He was wearing a wetsuit. She swam back towards him.
“Look you don’t have to swim! For heaven’s sakes, JUST MAKE A DECISION! In or out I need my swim!”

The boy moved aside so I could go in. I couldn’t very well waffle, I had to be a good role model too and make a decision, so in I jumped. After last week’s primeval shock, it was still astonishingly cold but it was also familiar. Thank God I didn’t have a scrotum! Time to flail about.

The friends we had come with were wearing wetsuits and were clambering up the rocks on the left side for some proper diving in. I swam about, feeling maybe it was a little dangerous, all this depth and cold open sea and strong current, but mostly safe because of the people around. Surely someone would save me if a wave swept me out. Deep-sea swimming feels different to being able to touch the bottom. You are fully submerged in another element with no roof or floor, suspended in a different molecular setup than air. And that it’s a group of fellow humans bobbing about in this alternate universe makes it distinctly cheerful.

A man dove off the rocks gliding deep beneath me. I could see far below my feet his neon yellow goggles. Glad he knew what he was doing and didn’t collide into me.

Doing my somersaults front and backwards, I was thoroughly enjoying my little time out from parenting and living my aquatic dream.

Let’s just talk degrees of coldness. The coldest water I ever swam in: Oregon coast stands out in my memory. The sea off Victoria, British Columbia and glacier lakes in the Rocky Mountains. The water temperature in those places really is a problem for your body parts and most importantly it chokes you and makes it actually really difficult to catch your breath again, technically breath-taking. I think the Irish Sea is warmer than that. You can still breathe just fine. Googling average water temperatures I found some vague stats. The coast of Oregon gets to 12 Celsius in high summer, Victoria 8-10 Celsius and I couldn’t find out about those glacier lakes, but the hint is surely in the adjective glacial. The Forty Foot temperature in November 2010 was 10 degrees Celsius but in summer it got up to 15 degrees. Hmmm, November 2011 might be challenging…

It’s time I paid homage to my bathing cap. These new silicone material hats are amazing: they keep your head warm in and out of the water. I never feel fully satisfied by a swim or a bath even unless I submerge my head and go under (all of me) and in these cold waters that can be a fast track to feeling too cold to stay in the water. The silicone, oh the wonderful silicone makes it possible for me to get that plunging under water high. Sure my forehead gets a little frozen but it’s doable. Maybe this is what a wetsuit feels like, all over the body?

Meanwhile the boy made his decision. He wasn’t in. Fair enough. Thank God his mom still got her swim though. Another harried mother, I swam until I reckoned it was time to resume my role as an Adult/Parent rather than Wild Thing at Sea. Getting out after 10 minutes, I felt again a strong post-swim euphoric delight. Wrapped a towel around myself and got my flip-flops on. A few rugby looking fellas were arriving. Maybe they were doing post-match medicinal cooling. Apparently it’s great for the muscles.

Post-swim recovery was dramatically better than the last time. I didn’t even bother with a hot shower. I had stiff fingers but I warmed up much easier.