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?

First Dip

I find this blog stuff a little tricky. You might want to read the intro section first (see menu bar) or you could dive right in, either way, thanks for coming!

The first of my September Swims chronicle was on a Wednesday morning. My husband had to go to work early and so I did nappies and brea]]><![CDATA[kfast and the dual Monkey school run solo which badly jangled my nerves, again. In between Monkey 1 and Monkey 2 drop off, I dashed home, ran upstairs, tore off my clothes and stuck on my swim suit. After Monkey number 2 was handed over, sobbing and all, I parked the car on Seafield Avenue. It was 9:08 a.m and 14 degrees Celsius according to my car.

Despite the wind, cold and greyness of the atmosphere, the water down at Seapoint was still oddly inviting. But I could actually feel the cold even before getting in. Your body never forgets the feeling of big chills. Seeing everyone else doing it though makes it the thing to do. Monkey see, monkey do et en Français: Singe qui voit, singe qui fait!

I stripped down to my suit and left my stuff on the bench in good faith, hoping to God my clothes would still be there when I got out and my car keys too, and I headed down the ramp into the sea. The sky was grey like an anteater’s coat and it was windy, making mini whitecaps on the water. It was kind of a beautifully miserable morning that matched the strain of my headspace. I needed to block out my crying babies in their new schools. I needed to lose the tension in my neck. Already in anticipation of the swim and now with my feet walking in icy water, I was forgetting and losing myself in another element.

But as my brave ten toes took me down the ramp, water slowly coming up to my knees, my toes yelled in chorus F*************k me, it’s cold!!!!!! But I was committed now I’d come this far and the other swimmers seemed to be coping just fine. Unlike the beach I’d recently moved away from where you could dillydally or shillyshally forever trying to acclimatize before actually making the plunge, here the ramp stopped and you just had to go for it and get in the goddamn water, which is probably better anyway.

I’m sure it helped my cause that any desire I’d had in the past few weeks to swim had been thwarted by being with my beautiful Monkeys at the beach. You can hardly get a good swim in when you’re minding a 3-year-old and a one-year-old. One’s sucking on stones and wearing seaweed like a headdress running headfirst into the sea while the other is examining broken glass and dog crap… Being alone is a luxury and I wasn’t going to faff about it with it.

Walking beside me down the ramp was a beautiful siren of the sea. Maybe in her forties she was wearing, peculiarly I thought, black elegant gloves along with her purple bathing suit. Auburn bits of hair poked through underneath her bathing cap. She was very fit and I wondered was swimming her solution. I asked her if she swam here often, I remembered seeing her and her gloves the last time I’d been here, monkeys in tow. She said she did, but she preferred the legendary Forty Foot swimming scene as it was more social and more encouraging to go in. Unlike me she walked in the water without fuss, like a model going down the catwalk into another world. She didn’t make a sound as she entered the clear water.

There was nothing for me to do now but make the move from vertical to horizontal. And so I did.

Oooooooooooooooooooof! Oooooooooooooof!

But I kept going and flailed around as much as possible, moving every single  bit of me. Moving fast and vigorously at the beginning I knew from experience is the way to make it enjoyable sooner. It was truly invigorating even if breath-taking and shocking. It felt like my body was releasing a giant, much-needed scream.  A bald, athletic looking man swam past me, on his way out, saying, “it gets better, the longer you’re in!” which was just what I needed to hear. Sure enough after a few minutes of behaving like a coked-up manatee I felt fantastic, totally exhilarated. Stiff fingers, fresh boobs. Now I know why that one swimmer wore gloves! It’s not your forearms that ache with cold or your thighs, it’s your toes and hands and other bits and bobs.

I swam and frolicked, porpoised and floated and watched the other swimmers. There were two very serious looking male swimmers; hard to tell ages when people have caps and goggles, but they looked like athletic men between 30-50. Both had yellow hats and were doing the crawl out into the open sea. Nearer to shore was an elderly woman coming down the ramp with a lime green, extra-large bathing cap that had kind of a 3D look to it, more astronaut’s helmut than swimmer’s gear. The hugeness of her green hat in contrast with her skinny little white body gave her a classic lollipop look.

And now swimming near me was a friendly, middle-aged woman. We exchanged pleasantries about the water temperature. She told me she swam instead of taking vitamins. Said there was iodine in the water this time of year. This seemed to be a good thing as she looked very pleased about it. Focussing on the temperature, I asked, sensing it was a touchy subject: “Would you ever wear a wetsuit?”

“Definitely not!” She said with conviction.

“Oh watch you don’t bump into the rock, there’s a huge rock right near here somewhere!” she told me.


“I don’t have many goals in life, but to touch and climb on that rock everyday. Been doing it since I was eight. That’s it, that’s my goal,” she said, smiling as she paddled around me and stood up on a boulder I had had no idea was right there. “It’s got barnacles on the left side of it, watch out. But it’s smooth on top.”

I’m feeling positively verklempt at hearing this—what a great goal!! And it totally reinforces my own goal to keep swimming as much as I can and maybe, just maybe, become a winter swimmer this year?

“it’s called the Hillier; silly name I know,” she said, as she stood up and shallow dived off, swimming away.

The Hillier I thought, the Hillier, how sweet. Delirious with the cold I imagined her with her childhood friends coming up with names silly hill, sillier hillier?

I swam around. Had a relaxing pee. What’s a little more water, I justified. We’re all made up of water mostly, aren’t we? I swam in a lone sun beam, closed my eyes and blissed out in the feeling of the sun on my face.

Meanwhile I could see someone going all Jacques Cousteau, with full snorkel gear, going under right by the entry ramp, and wondered briefly if he was being a little pervy going underwater so close to shore, near the swimmers. Speaking of perverts, I caught a glimpse of someone’s willy by accident.  A swimmer out of the water was faced out to sea drying his back, probably forgetting his sea audience, he opened his arms wide like on a crucifix. I turned around quickly, following the unspoken code of not looking at someone while they are changing on the beach.

Out in the open sea I could see sailboats and a car ferry heading to Wales and a ferris wheel and glassy football stadium like a big steel swirl on the left. I used to think that industrial landscapes by the sea were ugly, unnatural. But now I see it as a city beach and think it’s beautiful in its fusion of natural and manmade.

I’ve never joined a club or group or team really but this strikes me as a scene I could be a part of. No major technical ability is required beyond being able to swim. And most importantly I think it’s super cool and life affirming. Like motorcycles, and live music, white water rafting and campfires…but it’s something I can do anytime I want.  I’ve always loved the idea of those Russian polar bear swimmers who swim in the ice in the middle of winter. That’s a bit extreme for me but it impresses me in a big way. For some people it’s parachuting out of airplanes, or back country skiing, me it’s water.

From the water I watched the various people in front of the Martello tower. There was an skinny, elderly man with lots of thick, white hair in street clothes doing mini sprints of 50 yards back and forth, obviously part of his regime. After a few minutes of this, a woman he was running in front of asked: “Getting ready for the day, Liam, are you?”

“I’m ready, Mary, I’m ready!!!” he replied, clearly chuffed with himself.

In my delirium I stayed in swimming too long. Maybe 30 minutes? I was reluctant to get out. Was that lackadaisical feeling a preamble to hypothermia? I was super relaxed. After the Hillier I had transcended the cold and I felt I could frolic around for ages. When I started actually shivering I reluctantly got out.

My senses were discombobulated. I was giddy with my achievement. But my fingers were majorly stiff and I had to try to peel off my suit while holding my towel as coverage. Sure enough the towel slipped and I karmically mooned the sea audience.

I eventually got the job done and was re-established in my warm clothes: velour trackies, fleecie zipped up to my chin. My fingers were so ridiculously stiff everything was challenging and undoing my knotted shoelaces was tricky. But I was filled with happiness. The experience had totally worked as a stress buster. Not only had it de-stressed me, it had me fantastically high! I was going to get my butt home and start a blog and call it prairie fish.

A cleaning man working for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown council was busy belting out Motown sounding songs with a huge soulful voice as he bleached and mopped the changing area. Singing about not letting the sun go down on him. It was all so lovely and cheerful that it was starting to seem like a Disney movie for chrissakes.

I raced up the hill to the car. The Canadian in me longed for an outdoor hot tub. Next time I would have the process more streamlined, better gear and a thermos for god’s sakes. I actually felt a little drunk driving home I was so giddy. Had I got a little hypothermic? This song went through my head on repeat:  Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (click on it and you can hear it!)

I had a super long, long shower, 3 cups of tea, 2 half-eaten monkey apples, a turkey and Wensleydale-with-cranberry cheese sandwich and 2 pieces of 70% Lindt dark chocolate, my favourite. Swimming had given me a massive appetite. Later on that day I practically walked into a Nutella display. Big jars on sale for 2 bucks at the local store. Had to get some for my post-swimming, shark-like appetite. Or maybe I could coat myself in it for my next swim to keep warm…