Prairie Dolphin Goes Mano-a-mano with Jellyfish and Other Tales of the Summer

Mid July there was at last some heat! Real, proper summer heat. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, two hours from low tide. I drove myself to Forty Foot as soon as I was free. I had been especially wired lately and needing thalassotherapy more than ever.

Getting there, the first thing I saw was one of the regular old-timers actually holding a real live jellyfish in his bare hands! Seconds later he lobbed it casually off into the wildflowerbed at the mezzanine level of the Forty Foot.

Meanwhile a woman and her daughter heading towards the cars post-swim told me there were loads of jellyfish but they were no problem. I must have looked nervous because the daughter who looked ten-ish reassured me again, “they’re fine!”

Lots of swimmers were coming out of the water faster than usual.

I got changed beside one of the regular women who told me in her thick Slavic accent that her heels were getting stung and that they were down below at heel level. I headed down the ladder and realized they weren’t down below anymore, they were floating very close to the surface.

There were no swimmers in the water now. Looking back to the changers I saw older, cuddlier women (my friend’s euphemism for chubbier), getting dried up, their tyres of loose wobbly flesh on display. Waves of flesh. Waves of water. It was good for morale and somehow comforting to see all this uncensored, matronly, dough-like flesh.

My desire to get in was almost equal to my fear of jellyfish. I could see dozens of them. Normally I would say there were thousands, but I’m trying to rein in my hyperbolic tendencies for wild exaggeration.

Let’s just say there were tons of them, what were they all doing here?

The Baba with stung heels must have realized she’d put me off because she came to over to tell me it was okay to get in the water. There were gaps of water in between the jellyfish after all.

Stuck on the ladder, I was seriously desperate to get in. It was hot. I was stressed. Relief was in front of me. Devouring Cheryl Strayed’s Wild that week I had been seriously inspired to up my can-do. Strayed had reminded me of the beauty of intense physical exertion. And not to be a wimp-ass. Hot and bothered and the perfect antidote was before me, how could I do not do it? I knew they were probably harmless, but I’ve never got in with so many so visible. Should I stay or should I go? Being in my swimsuit with my bathing cap and boots on was a big motivation. It would be too disappointing to not accomplish my mission and have to get all the gear off for nuffin, like Mancub says in his toddler-cockney.

Plus, having small children, I’m trying to get over my own squeamishness involving insects and other boogeymen, etc to set a mighty example. It’s good to feel the fear and do it anyway as the self-help gurus advise, not just once, in not just one way, but practicing doing scary things, within reason, to keep sharp for the wee ones.

And so I plunged in.

The water was gorgeous-delicious on my skin. Fresh, bouncy, not frozen, lovely and that’s why they like it too. Refreshing is the adjective that always comes to my mind but it is never enough of a word. The feeling is as if a profound corporal thirst is being quenched and more importantly so is a spiritual one.

Jellyfish are not out to get us specifically are they? I’m no biologist but I don’t think our blood is food for them, like it is for mosquitos.

In all my swimming life I’ve never seen so many in one area, it was a goddamn convention of them. Maybe because it’s a little cove, they all want to hang out together, like a cosy party. And I was crashing.

Bumping into them I couldn’t help scream, every single time. I’m a jumpy person anyways. I often scream at Seadog when he comes into the living room with his quiet, panther-like gait. I think I bumped about 10 of them, it felt somehow like lobbing a football with the back of my hand. But thank god I hadn’t left the boots and shoes at home. Thank God for my boot kicking jellyfish boots. And thank God for the wonderfully refreshing water.

Two stern looking women in floral bathing suits in their sixties showed up and made their way down the ladder steps. They seemed unusual candidates for morning swims with their skirted swim suits, and blond, Elnett-sprayed, hot-curler hairdos. Then one told me, while dipping her one foot in the water, that they were just coming for a quick dip to try anything to fix their hangovers. They weren’t smiling at all as they took turns dipping only their toes in the water for medicinal purposes.

Next, a busload of ten-year-old, inner-city, kayak students showed up in wetsuits giddy on a day out. Yelling holy shite and calling each other pussies. Their minders in thick Dub accents yelled: Stop coursing.  The kids couldn’t believe all the jellyfish and kept pointing. Their training involved jumping in to get acclimatized and used to the water but the jellyfish were throwing off the whole program. Some of the kids were brave enough to do it anyway and some refused and their chief yelled: “ARE YE GONNA WASTE YE MAMMY’S MONEY?!!. GET IN or go get dressed and go ome!!”

I swam in a little circle and bumped and bumped and bumped into one jellyfish after another. I screamed each single bump time and yelped at imagined ones. But not one of them had stung me so far.

A youngish guy with dark thick hair floppy hair a bit like Keanu Reeves joined me in the water just as a colony of even more jellyfish had arrived. I was relieved to have company and company that seemed unafraid. He swum further out than me but near enough to chat. He didn’t move around much and just treaded water in the midst of loads of them.

You’re kidding yourself said a women watching from the land above. There are HUNDREDS of them she told us.

Keanu said, “Arah, they’re harmless! I saw one of the old guys actually rubbing one against his arm up and down just to show the other swimmers they are harmless. They come for a few weeks and then the others come… It’s the red ones, the Lion’s Mane they’re called, they’re the deadly ones. Some of the old guys here try to catch them in buckets to get rid of them. But these ones are fine…”

Seems a bit unfair we brave some of the coldest water in Europe through the winter months and then when it finally, finally actually heats up a bit, these little fuckers show up. And these guys are the good guys. The ones that look like glass.

Meanwhile a well intentioned but grumpy old guy was pouring bleach out of a bucket on the steps to kill the seaweed and moss so the swimmers wouldn’t slip on their way out. I make a note to try to remember to bring some coins for the upkeep collection bucket. I always forget.

My friend C has now determined that winter is much better because there are no crowds of fair-weather swimmers, you can always get parking and it’s more peaceful.  It’s true it’s annoying to see all the debris at our beloved changing area, empty Lucozade bottles and cigarette butts.  I think October last year was pretty great. No jellyfish and not Arctic yet. But C’s hands still get cold in the summer. Look at this!

Next up on the summer swim menu: we had our week holiday back on the Irish Riviera. It was amazing to be back in the neighbourhood with Caliso Bay, Whiting Bay, Ferry Point, and Goat Island beaches on our doorstep.  Despite the foggy days, Little Chief, Mancub and Seadog and I charged the oceans and frolicked for hours in the soulful surf, having the beaches to ourselves in this strangely underused part of the Irish coast. Unbelievably, despite hours of packing for the trip, I hadn’t packed my swimsuit and had to make do with my husbands extra large Simpsons t-shirt that got super heavy when wet. I was jealous of the monkeys in their aerodynamic birthdays suits.

Back in the city again I had many beautiful early Sunday morning swims with C at Forty Foot and evening swims at Seapoint and Sandycove. Getting home shivering from staying in the water a tad too long I was warmed by hot little toddler hugs and Seadog’s hot lips (hot anyway but hot especially in contrast to my frozen ones). Team Kelly-Watson triumphed in the post-swim-heat-up-Prairie-Dolphin Olympics.

This summer I started taking a lot of cold showers and not because I was too turned on! Or actually, yes I was turned on by the thought of the sea in a funny kind of a way. But when I couldn’t get to the sea, I was left craving it like an addict. Hot and bothered I would put on my floral shower bonnet and shower on the coldest dial. It’s always a shock, but it does help to take the edge off. Seadog tells me fast flowing water releases negatively charged ions which makes you feel super positive! It certainly gives me a spiritual cooldown and a pep in my step to continue the day more than a hot one which just makes me sleepier than I normally am.

I noticed the different demographics of swimmers at the different times of the day on my summer program. Mornings and daytime are for seniors and evenings for partyers. Hot weather brings everyone out. The teenagers with their Redbull cans, string bikinis and “that’s amazeballs” talk, the gooners celebrating Katie Taylor’s gracious boxing win, the families with the parents having a break from being harassed by kids out of school, the blissed-out shivering young kids noodling on their kayaks, others chanting an I hate seaweed mantra but staying in the water regardless, Spanish and French exchange students looking gorgeous and ready for romance and some fat men sun-worshipping in their underpants. Seapoint becomes a real city party beach on a warm summer evening. There are so many people in the water that every now and then I imagine I see a whale in the distance, but really it’s just wetsuit-clad arms doing the crawl and spraying water like a whale’s blowhole. I can’t wait til my monkeys are old enough and good swimmers to hang out on summer evenings at the seaside.

One early evening swim was so busy with people I was actually smelling an adjacent swimmer, this portly man’s very strong cologne that seemed to be waterproof? Just then a punky peroxide blonde woman did a huge cannonball jump from the rocks above down into the water. She surfaced after a few seconds in a huge swell of water, gasping. As she hollered with cold shock the light just captured the gleaming silver stud of her tongue piercing. Meanwhile, a fregan man I’d seen earlier with wild God hair and a bunch of random food tied onto his bicycle rack showed up with a black and white dog and first got his dog swimming and then later, stripped himself down and for all to see did a full spread-eagle nude dive off the rocks in all his glory.

I often find myself rushing through tasks as if all jobs need doing fast with the unconscious objective always of getting home safe and sound. It’s maybe a hangover from years of waitressing, a job where speed and getting things done expediently just about keeps the stress of swearing chefs and disgruntled customers at bay. Everyday I have to keep telling myself: Stop rushing. Stop rushing. And what’s worse I often catch myself rushing and holding my breath. So when I’m in the water I focus of letting myself feel my fingers gleefully plowing through the water, grabbing time and holding on to it to slow it all down, to just be able to feel the water on my skin. It’s the perfect special time after or before or during a day’s stresses. And afterwards, like shagging flashbacks, I revisit my swims throughout the day in small pleasurable hits.

My favourite summer swim was the one at 830 p.m with the tide coming in high. Sunset over Dun Laoghaire, pink clouds.  In the big wavy water it felt as if we were all in one giant bouncy castle together. And it struck me how this little swimming hole, the 40 Foot, every single day of the year someone is visiting it, every single day. That night C was rapturous to discover Irish rugby legend and hottie Johnny Sexton was the guest celebrity for the evening. All of us heads bobbing around together like Lilliputians in this giant drink.

Afterwards a woman we didn’t know keen to talk about her experience told us it was her first time.

She looked like she’d seen God.

I’ll be back definitely she said.

To finish off my August swims we had another dazzling blue water and blue sky day for another 40th birthday at the 40 Foot. Boas and cupcakes, tea and coffee for the girls again, our new birthday ritual. We stayed in so long I lost the feeling in my fingers and S had to do up my bra for me. During our swimming girl chatter I learned among other things that apparently the most hardcore, everyday, swimmers have hideous toenails, it’s called 40 Foot Feet!  I tried to get photographs for you but have yet to see these gruesome toenails of legend in the wild…

This is C’s song pic: Rock Lobster

PS Here is an article about sea safety following last week’s drowning tragedy in Cornwall.

Pee is the answer?

Last Monday morning, Mancub in crèche, Little Chief at school, off to the beach I went with a great urge for water therapy. It was less than two hours from low tide but the trusty 40 Foot always provides some depth. It was sunny and quiet and the sea was gone at Sandycove, but around the corner at 40 Foot it was a bustling party of buzzing swimmers drying and changing and lounging against the wall, basking in the sun trap.

I found a place to change and got started disrobing. Everyone was looking out to sea. I looked seaward hoping to see the dolphins that are rumoured to be around from time to time. But no, all the excitement was about jelly fish. Since the water had heated up to a toasty 12 degrees Celsius the place has been awash in dreaded jelly fish. Everyone was looking at one woman, just out of the water, who was busy rubbing her thigh.

Did ya get bit?

I don’t know, it stings a little. Could be the salt she said, a little worried but mostly cheerful seeming.

People weren’t going to let those little feckers stop them from enjoying their daily water worship.

I climbed down the steps and got in the water and an older guy with thick white hair and ruddy cheeks told me he’d counted fifteen jelly fish yesterday. Just the small, white and purple kind. Today so far, there was only one spotted over by the railing. I know that kind fairly well and I don’t like them, but they don’t usually bug me. What scares the crap out of me is those portuguese men-of-war with their legendary tentacles.

I swam after an older woman who was swimming around the Point. I had only done this once, on my wetsuit outing. It was definitely easier without the suit. We didn’t go the whole way but it felt good to be drafting a senior who was being a little adventurous. Coming back I was swimming against a current which always makes me feel a bit nervous, like the power of the ocean is going to overwhelm me. Fear and respect for the sea is always in my mind. I have had my moments of being taken by the sea and tumbled along in a crazed washing-machine-like whirl enough times to know a girl’s gotta be careful.

Lots of bubbles my companion said.

What does it mean? I asked.

Well, we think it usually means the water is dirty. Keep your mouth closed she said knowingly.

It was beautiful and sunny. Blue sky and bubbly water.  I’m really pro bubbles and it’s my favourite word in Spanish: burbujas. Champagne is my favourite drink. I wasn’t going to engage in the dirty water idea. Besides, she wasn’t letting her bubble theory stop her from swimming.

I asked Seadog later what she meant. Was she talking about, god forbid, sewage?

He answered vaguely that all organic matter decomposes into methane. I interpreted that to mean it could be anything. I decided I’d like to think it was water sprites burping or angel fish farting deep under water.

Then I swam next to the jelly-fish counting guy who jerked his arm suddenly. That was one, he said, meaning jellyfish.

Could have been seaweed? I suggested.

Not so high up. I tell you the thing for it. YouRhine he yelled. That’s right. The pharmacists don’t like it because they can’t sell you their stuff. But that’s what works. YouRhine, he declared emphatically one more time making sure I heard him. I nodded dutifully, spitting out some water that had snuck in my mouth. I distinctly remember seeing on the lifeguard’s information board around at Sandycove that urine is in fact not the answer. But you gotta let people have their homemade cures if they want them. I swear by camomile for my nerves, pretzels for nausea, raw garlic for colds, and chocolate for every malaise no matter how slight.

I swam for a lovely long time. It was a proper summer swim. Afterwards drying off, YouRhine-Guy said to me, that was great! You  just  can’t  beat  it. You just can’t beat it with a stick, or 2 sticks even!! He chuckled at his own poetry. I knew what he was talking about. I felt great.

Y’know he said, there’s one kind of jelly fish that stings you and that’s the end. Goes right into your blood and that’s it. You’re Dead. He cymbaled his hands together to demonstrate. But you can’t let that stop ya, he concluded.

No indeed, we choose our risks where pleasure is concerned.

I sat on the wall and drank my Earl Grey tea in the sun and was filled with a great happiness. The whole experience never fails to tap into my sweet spot. This has got to be the most optimistic place ever; hanging out with these fit-as-fiddle seniors jumping in the  sea, you can’t help but be cheerful about the present and the future.

By popular request this week’s song is The Waterboys’ old classic: This Is The Sea

Communing Sola

I love having my new swim buddies, can’t say it enough. But I also know that I still need to do solo swims. When I swim with people, it’s jolly to share the experience. But alone, I don’t get distracted and can’t help but be mindful. Going sola, I go to a kind of nature/water-church.

Monday was the first super sunny morning in ages. The first morning that it truly felt like it could be called summer-ish. Nothing warms a prairie girl’s heart or indeed most people’s hearts like a full-blown, blue-sky, sunny morning. I checked the tides on the pooter like Mancub calls it and I could already imagine the glory of my first Dublin-swimspot love: Seapoint. It was 13 degrees Celsius according to my car and only 9:33am.

No one was there except one older guy drying himself off. He was in no hurry to put on clothes and seemed to be settling down in his towel skirt for some morning sunbathing and reading the newspaper.

In some ways it’s a lonelier experience swimming at Seapoint. The size of the bay is much bigger and lends to a bit less intimacy than the swimming hole of Forty Foot. And though the city is closer it feels a bit wilder being out in the open far away from people.

I got in and felt colder than usual. Normally I’m distracted and in such a rush to catch up to C and the others that I barely experience the freezingness.

I swam a hundred yards out. Turning back to check my bag and stuff I spotted another potential swimmer disrobing.

At first I wonder why am I in the water? It’s freeze-your-boobs-off cold. And then I wonder, has the magic gone? Where’s my thrill? And then I flap about some more and the cold wears off a bit and I concentrate on being in the moment. And in this moment there is sunshine, pure sunshine on my wet face. I close my eyes and all I see are my giant orange eyelids. I did a baptismal dunk and came up again and relished shaking the deliciously fresh water off of my face, feeling ecstatic. When I re-surfaced the first thing I noticed a hundred yards away at the changing area was the cross on the Martello tower. Hmm, I wonder is Jesus sending me a sign? Was he saying, stop flaky dabbling with Buddhism and nature worship and come back to me. Actually I think he probably is a fan of Buddha too.

I very much enjoyed Glennon Melton’s essay on the problem with trying to carpe diem all the time. And I agreed. But I think what also needed mentioning is that living in the moment is an art. Something you have to practise, daily. Like during meditation when monkey mind takes over, you have to keep coming back to your breath, let it wander and keep coming back. You have to keep coming back to the present during your day and feel all the textures and layers. And sometimes you suck at it and sometimes you are there in the now more. I totally agree with sage people who say that happiness lies in slowing down and being totally present.

In the present I look over to see what’s taking the changing swimmer at the Martello tower so long.

Just then, facing Howth and the great big sea in front of him, he opened the towel around his waist and did a big, long, naked stretch.

He’s definitely not wearing togs, unless they are nude coloured. I turn away, trying to peek without it being obvious. And I determine he is not wearing togs for sure. As with other encounters with nudists on beaches I’m the one who is embarrassed. Like I’m intruding on them. Maybe my unconscious reckons they are part of the natural habitat.

He put his towel back on.

And then opened it again, sneaking another nudie, arms-up-high stretch.

I don’t want him to think I mind (not that I enjoy it, but I’m not against it philosophically) but how to convey this? I try never to turn in his direction but that’s a little limiting, I like to frolic here and there and take in the whole panoramic view while I float and noodle on my back, and if I can see him in detail then he can see me and which way I’m looking.

I’ve read that some nudists are compulsive about it. They just yearn to feel the air on their soft places and can’t resist. He probably deludes himself into thinking I can’t see him. You can tell that he doesn’t want to freak people out, by his perpetual covering himself back up. I wonder if the sunbathing pensioner in his towel has similar urges and that’s why he is still in his towel skirt rather than back in his civvies.

Little Chief and Mancub love to parade around the garden nude in this weather. Why should we grow out of that urge or resist it? It obviously feels lovely to be free if you can be unself-conscious as toddlers can.

Maybe Mr. Naked is doing what I’m doing. Communing. Maybe this is his holy-ish thing.

I stayed in the longest I’ve done since last August, I’m sure. A few others came and went doing their espresso shot swims, while I lingered in my extra long cappuccino dip. One older lady spent ages getting into her suit. When she finally approached the water’s edge she said aloud to herself, rolling her r: Looks dirty. Ooh it’s cold. I’ll just do 3 strokes and I’m out. And that’s what she did. And then she declared her swimming season for the year had now officially started. Onlookers said to her you’re right to start slow. Aren’t you good, they encouraged her.

A couple of joggers came in to dip their toes. One of them walked in the water all the way up to her cycling-shorts-clad butt. First taste of summer and everyone gets playful.

After a good long set of alternating stretching nude and covering himself with his towel, like a matador playing bullfighter and bull, Mr. Naked put back on all his clothes. He slung his trendy messenger bag across his shoulder, got on his bicycle and rode away, set for the day ahead no doubt.

When I get back out to change I realize it wasn’t a cross I’d spotted in my religious moment after all, but just a set of changing hooks.

I had stayed in the water the longest since last August. And so I had the chills even in the heat. What is the opposite of a meltdown. A freeze-up? A lot of chocolate and tea and coffee and clutching 3 consecutive hot water bottles and I was grand… I loved the weird dry feeling of having sea salt stuck to the skin just below my eyebrows throughout the day.

P.S. Speaking of wind on your soft places, here’s some vintage Hawksley Workman: Paper Shoes. HW is appearing in my upcoming novel: Cadillac Couches, out in September!

Cinco de Mayo Supermoon Swim

After more than a month out of the water, I had a swim date for a Cinco de Mayo midnight full moon swim. I was excited and nervous all day in anticipation. I’d heard the water had gotten much colder in April. Plus, apparently there had been sightings of seasonal jelly fish already.

Here in Dublintown we had a freakish summer spell in March when Mancub was parading around the garden nude, picking dandelions and jumping on the mini-trampoline, or bounce-aline as Little Chief calls it. I even bought LC and him both some sandals so hot and sweaty were their pudgy little feet. Since those blissfully sunny two weeks, it has gone all wintry, interminable wet weather, no sun, icy winds, and temperatures stuck below 10 Celsius and not a single outing of those sandals. Summer in March. Winter in April, and May so far, more winter with never-ending rain showers. When the sun did come out one day, my eyes couldn’t cope with the novelty. All this to say it was cold.

We had been planning on going on the previous month’s full moon. But it was so wild out, our plans were thwarted by the gale force winds and small craft warnings on the news. We were, after all, small crafts ourselves.

Lots of anxious texts were exchanged the evening of Cinco de Mayo. My swim date with C was for 11:35pm. Everyone else had bailed and C seemed willing to bail if I said the word. I was feeling so excited though about this wacky endeavour that we agreed after much back and forth that we could at least go on a reconnaissance mission. We decided though to go earlier. Night time is night time and the moon would be out well before midnight.

She picked me up at 10:40. Everyone was in bed. Seadog said he’d keep his phone on beside him. In case I die? I asked. No in case you have hypothermia, he said patiently.

C and I were both wearing our swimsuits optimistically. The car temperature gauge read 4 degrees Celsius. But I was instantly relieved that I could actually see the moon. I hadn’t been able to catch sight of the supposed Perigee moon out of our windows at home without ridiculous neck contortions. Plus some full moons are never even visible because of dense cloud coverage, which is not an unusual state of affairs here in Ireland; it’s not big-sky Alberta.

I’m 40 years old and I don’t do dope or take mushrooms or ride motorcycles or party that hard: half a bottle of wine or three cocktails, one episode of the Savage Eye and two re-runs of The Wire and that’s as wild as I get these days, and that’s been the case since going down into the parenthood bunker. And I certainly don’t leave my house at 10:40PM!! That’s nuts.  And neither does C. I’m guessing our demographic may stay up late sometimes, but we don’t start our night out that late. Like Spaniards going out for dinner.

We were giddy from the sheer feralness of leaving our cozy homes at this hour. C was quite worried there’d be scary freaks out and about. Seadog had warned me there may be drunks. My instincts told me not to worry about that unlikelihood and instead had me focussing on the freezingness and darkness of our mission. Water strikes me as even more engulfing and otherworldly when it’s black.

We arrived and no one was there. Not a single person. We parked and went walking up to the 40 Foot. It  was empty, dark and foreboding—nothing like the cheerful aquatic institution of the daylight. The uneven cement path down to the water was slippery in the dark. Visibility was poor but I could see and hear the sea crashing up on to the changing area. The tide was pretty high. The moon looked good, but it didn’t look like a Supermoon particularly. I guess we were too early for that. The later in the night, the closer to the horizon it would get and closer to the sea, the bigger it would look. I have to admit I don’t know much about the specs on the moon. All I know is that sometimes, totally unplanned, I have seen the moon look absolutely massive and best of all, really yellow. I think that’s what’s called a Harvest Moon. Given the name Supermoon, I was expecting it to be like one of those if not better.

So I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it was coot as ManCub likes to say, but not hooge as I was expecting. Still, being out at this time of night in the dark was thrilling. I tried to take some photos. Turns out I have a lot to learn about night-time photography. Namely that you’re supposed to hold the camera still for a long time. We shivered in the wind.

On our way back down to SandyCove we spotted a sweet looking, middle-aged woman who looked like she shopped at Marks and Spencers. We knew she was a swimmer from the telltale towel poking out of her bag. Big relief to see one of the tribe. Sure enough a whole gaggle of people then showed up, as if on cue.

It’s the kind of community you would see in a quirky art-house film. So sweet or charmingly eccentric you can’t quite believe they’re real. But this community is real. Old people. Young’uns in wetsuits. Dog named Dog. More females than males. They arrived with their crate of tea cups and post-swim treats. And a big jolly lantern. Some old guys were even designated torch holders, acting as human lighthouses.

Not a hooligan in sight. In fact if there were any, they’d be posh ones in this neighbourhood. There were even a handful of ten-year olds. And there were loads of over-sixties and just a few of us 40-ish year olds. It was the usual type of band of merry bathers. We chatted with an older woman who had walked up from her house up the road in her bathrobe, with her dog keeping guard.

And so we disrobed and got in the water in a big, polite queue with a volunteer shining a path for us. I still can’t say enough good things about my beloved swim boots! Thank you rubber trees.

I got in and howled away at the moon immediately from the cold and for the theatrics of it, presuming others would join in a chorus. Surely that’s what you’re supposed to do on one of these pagan gatherings. But it was probably better they didn’t or the residents may have gotten pissed off. My howls tailed off as I flapped about in the bouncy, dark water.

People say the water is warmer at night because it stores the heat of the day. It’s true it didn’t seem so freezing. C and I swam about, busily checking out the scene around us, all the swimmers looking at each other as if to say, what are we doing? Are we unconsciously following some maritime ancestral instincts, are we driven here by the ancient watery forces of sea-god Poseidon? I don’t think anybody really knew why we were doing what we were doing except that swimming during a full moon makes perfect sense in a totally oddball way. We probably all need more earthy, hippie, pagan nights out like this as a detoxifying ritual to bring us back to our true feral selves, to delight in the sweetest, simplest pleasures.

I was impressed to see one swimmer had a head torch. Like a caver. It was definitely hard to see even with the moon and the street lamps.

Everyone cheered the nervous young girl for finally getting in the black water, or the drink like another swimmer called it.

C and I dunked our heads underwater once before getting out.

Drying up, the moon tucked itself in under the clouds and all but vanished. We had unwittingly experienced perfect timing; again maybe it was those old watery forces pulling us there for that perfect moon window.

We dried ourselves up and stood on our hot water bottles in warm clothes. Hot water bottles, perfect simple technology. I ate a banana. Had some tea from the thermos and was delighted to be offered a delicious dark-chocolate-cluster desert.

That night I slept terribly. I was too excited and uncomfortable, sleeping in my fleece and toque because I didn’t want to get the chills or wake up the house by turning on the shower. It was such a bad night’s sleep that the next day I felt like I was actually hungover  from a major party. And just like all good parties, I relived the best bits and replayed them in my mind the next day in my sleepy dry land life.

 The Whole Of The Moon ( a great moon song)

Turning Forty at the Forty Foot! a short-ish entry at last

(Thanks J for taking the photo and sorry S for being t]]><![CDATA[he only one with the bathing hat still on!)

I don't actually remember my twentieth birthday, does anyone? For my thirtieth I went over the top and organized a huge sleigh ride. On a dark and snowy prairie winter night I dragged out several freezing friends to sit on bails of hay on a sleigh as horses trotted us around Fort Edmonton under a bit of moonlight. I remember the quiet magic of snowflakes, seeing our breath and the horses' breath and lots of talk of cold cold butts. We warmed up afterwards with frozen margaritas in a Mexican restaurant and cocktails at the E-town Savoy. Ten years later, on a blustery island far from E-town, what could be better than cupcakes, hot chocolate out of a thermos, feather boas around our necks for glamour and jumping in freezing water to shock and delight me and my new buddies back to youth.

There's some debate about when Irish Spring actually is. It's surprisingly early according to some people: February 1. It's true that back on dry land trees were budding and many cherry blossoms and crab apple-type varieties were already starting to bloom despite water temperature holding cold at only around 8 degrees.

I was relieved of monkey-minding duties for my leisurely afternoon birthday celebration February 28th. C and J picked me up for our outing. Under her civvies C confessed she was wearing a damp bathing suit. It hadn’t dried properly since her swim the day before. That’s dedication I thought, really glad mine was dry.  We arrived and met S there. Before our swim and party we did our photo shoot for posterity with boas. They gave me a bright yellow bathing cap, the kind my grandma used to wear and a lovely card. Thank you, girls!

We swam in the icy and perfect water and discussed the fountain of youth that is the Irish Sea.  C’s other friends have been asking her what she’s been doing differently, she looks so much younger and fresher. And she says, well let me tell you… Always looking for new swim recruits she is.

I learned more interesting and endearing things about my new swim pals. C is a rabid Wilco fan, she and her buddies follow them around Europe. This is great news for me, being a fellow music freak. S was a competitive swimmer for years. Talking about getting stuck in currents she gave me the helpful tip that backstroke is best if you are ever in trouble in the water. We fantasize about saunas and hot tubs. Swimming in formation on the way out my friends looked like the flag of France with their blue, white and red hats.

That day there were a few old-timers in for good long swims even though the water was crashing up the wall, feisty and flexing its muscle. I was worried about leaving one elderly looking, very white man in by himself when we got out after 8 minutes, but another older regular told me, oh that’s Maurice, he usually stays in for 30 minutes.

All clothed and dry, clutching our hot water bottles still, we had hot chocolate and coffee and several tiny cupcakes with fists full of pastel-coloured icing on top that S had sourced locally. I was very happy to see those cupcakes, note the cheer. After I blew out the candles, made a wish and wolfed down a few of the perfect après-swim treats we noticed Frank Kelly from Father Ted was there. The girls whisperingly admired his fine physique. He graciously declined our offer of cupcakes.

March 7 we started a new Wednesday thing: run then swim. When I was doing my pre-run stretches I spotted a gigantic seal; he must be King Seal from Bullock harbour. We had a good long stare at each other. I love the sleekness and comedy of seals. And I foolishly long to hug one, but I know I should never ever try to do that.  I was glad to be on land admiring this bad boy safely from the shore where there was no chance of me hugging him or of him taking a chomp out of me.

It was a cold and windy day and a herculean struggle to run all the way to Dun Laoghaire Pier. But we did it, thanks to a Drill Sergeant app on S’s phone, and then we had a super refreshing cool down in the water. Applauding us, an old Slavic bathing regular said in her thick accent: “Thumbs up, you, you stay in long time.” We were treading water for a long time in Sandycove, talking for Ireland, almost oblivious to the cold.  We were chilling, literally! The peace of the winter swim, the quiet at the water’s edge, tunes out all stress and acts like a womb flotation tank (with a lot of quality chat). Love it. I also love discovering later in the day that my eyebrows are salty.

One day we arrive and there’s half a dozen American female university students getting dry after their swim, a circus of long soggy pony tails and people in various stages of undress. They chatter giddily about their experience. Holy crap, that was cold. Ya but you kind of get used to it. My foot is bleeding, I don’t know even know why. I’d definitely do that again. Me too. I can’t feel my toes. One of them held a towel like bullfighter, trying to shield three of them struggling with their swimsuits and modesty. A young guy came around the corner. High-pitched squeals: Go away, boys, GO AWAY! giggle giggle giggle

Summer hit this last week of March. We often seem to get a big beautiful blast of summer super early in Ireland. We’re talking up to 20 degrees Celsius. The regulars are cursing and hmphhing about the place being mobbed by fair-weather swimmers. It’s getting hard to get parking.

My friend said they were practically licking the windows at work, so desperate to get outside and J poignantly told me her son said he didn’t know why but he was in a fantastic mood. Sustained sunshine in Ireland is a freaky and joyous thing.

These boots are made for swimming and that’s just what they’ll do, one of these days these boot are gonna swim all over you… Are you ready, boots? Start swimming!

Here’s a lovely and relevant video/song that an old friend sent me. I love the lyric about toes hardening and numbing. Enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzjERZU3wbY (Frightened Rabbit — Swim Until You Can’t see Land)

Next up (maybe): Midnight swim at full moon and high tide.

 

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?