Wild about water
For some people, there is no greater pleasure than swimming in the great outdoors, where they are in their element, writes CATHERINE MACK
I HAVE WATER ON the brain. If I am near it and I can’t get into it, I start to feel slightly anxious. Cross even. The symptoms kick in pretty quickly, the cantankerous longing for total immersion eating away at my aqua-craving pores.
Rivers, lakes or sea, it doesn’t really matter: as long as they are clean and not too stormy, they will feed my wild swimming addiction.
My love affair with open-water swimming, or wild swimming as it has become known, started in childhood, when I was dispatched from Belfast to my family-sur-mer every year, where a much-loved aunt and uncle in Donaghadee, Co Down, put me up.
Rain or shine I headed to the sea-water pool tucked into the rocks in this small fishing town, which sadly, like so many waterside gems, is no more.
This love was revived, in 2009, when I went on a swimming holiday in Croatia, swimming four to five kilometres every day from one island to another. It was my first trip away totally on my own, without children, and a chance to revert to my childhood comfort zone – the sea. For a whole week I was able to literally drift into my own silent, salty world, while being supported and led by a wonderful team of instructors and fellow swimmers (swimtrek.com).
As a travel writer, I can feed my addiction from time to time, and I always have my togs in my backpack just in case.
On Inis Meáin I savoured the smooth, turquoise waters of Trá Leitreach. At the gorgeous Rathmullan House in Donegal I had early-morning dips in Lough Swilly, just a few sandy footsteps from my room, with horses galloping up and down as I followed their route from the water.
In Inchydoney, I swam in bubbling surf, and in Fermanagh I dived into the mirror-like Lough Erne at dawn.
I am not alone in my love of wild swimming, of course. There is a subculture out there, people for whom swimming is as fundamental as a first cup of coffee.
On these pages, I speak to some people who have swum in Ireland’s open waters for years. They have two things in common.
First, it is a life-enhancing experience for them; the idea of not being near water on a regular basis is not worth contemplating.
Second, they are all extremely cautious and well-informed when it comes to swimming. For each of them, wild swimming is not about endurance and adrenaline. The water is like a friend. They respect it, seek solace from it, miss it when it isn’t there, and, most of all, they love it.
‘My mother used to say: Go in forme’
Founder of Blackstairs Ecotrails, former TD for Carlow and Kilkenny
I grew up in Bray, Co Wicklow, and sometimes we would swim seven times a day during the summer. Then I married a Carlow man and moved inland, but to make sure that we were never far from water we bought an old rectory with a small lake in the garden.
We restored it and let the mountain stream that feeds it through again, filling it with glacially cold water straight off the Blackstairs Mountains. I love it most on horrible days, when I submerge myself into this lovely, silky, deep pool, run back to the house, shower and have a double espresso.
I also love to swim in the rivers of the Blackstairs – the Nore, the Slaney and the Barrow. My daughter learned to swim in these mountain rivers, in fact, with their deep peaty pools, the locations of which I keep as our secret.
Another favourite swim spot is Wellingtonbridge and Blackhall Strand in Co Wexford, which feels like something out of the last age.
Water is simply exhilarating, as there is no stress on the joints. For me, it is not about swimming distance, it is all about the element itself.
On miserable days, when I have to think twice about going in, I think of my mother who, when she couldn’t swim any more, used to say: “Go in for me.” So now that’s what I do.
‘The Guillamene epitomises wild swimming’
Editor of The Irish Times
The Guillamene epitomises the definition of wild swimming by any yardstick. It is where the deep, deep sea allows you engage with it in an all-body experience.
Sometimes it’s so shockingly cold, you feel good after emerging from it for hours afterwards. No wonder it was a place where gentlemen swam au naturale during an era of sexist bylaws. It has been described as Co Waterford’s equivalent of Dublin’s Forty Foot. Likewise, it has become a place of communal swimming. But it’s much more, notably in terms of its wildness.
It’s like a dramatic side entrance into the deepest part of Tramore Bay.
Newtown Cove is around the corner, a larger haven for swimmers, but the Guillamene is definitely for the wild swimmer. Not for the faint-hearted, one guide refers to it as a place for “confident swimmers”.
The old sign, now freshened with paint, reads “MEN ONLY Swimming Cove”; it’s a source of amusement and much photographed. You descend steep steps that run up against a cliff face, into a rocky cove. There is no sand; the surrounding dark rock contrasts with rich bluegreen salty waters. Frequently, the quiet heave of rising and falling water is a small indicator of a powerful sea on which you float like a crumb in a bath.
The large concrete diving platform is the focal point – a buttress against the giant waves when gales are up – with a series of access steps below. When you jump from it, the sea fizzes with a million foamy white bubbles as you surface. It’s so deep that the sensation is almost the same at low tide, when the dive from the platform reaches scary dimensions. Surrounding cliff faces carry minidiving platforms at a variety of heights.
From a young age I was warned to dive out – the most important safety message for any swimmer there.
Regular use helps swimmers to better read the local signs of nature. When mackerel chase shoals of sprat close to shore, it usually coincides with sustained sunny weather and warmer water. Equally, a grim day in September may contrast with warm water after a good summer.
The guardian of this small stretch of coastline is Newtown and Guillamene Swimming Club, which for more than 75 years has raised money for its development and protection from an unrelenting sea, with the help of Waterford County Council and others. For decades, the voluntary efforts of local businessman Sam Morris and friends were a lifeline; the annual gala in Newtown, with its inimitable commentary from Frank Bird, was the main fundraiser.
On my last visit, a mid-morning sun shone as the water glistened from Newtown to Brownstown Head, some five kilometres away. But as a nonregular dipper of many years, I was not going to be deceived. I knew it would still prompt a roar in shock after the initial plunge. It was getting busier. Children, more often than not in wetsuits, were performing a variety of diving stunts before parents; some approving, others horrified.
But it was the older regulars (including daily dippers, unofficial inheritors of this special place), men and women, who were quietly going about their business.
The chirpy, beautifully unique Waterford greetings, pragmatic yet ultimately optimistic, circulated before their entry to the water without fuss; no inch by inch, “ah go on . . . get in” exhortation required here.
When I looked again there must have been at least 15 people in that category, and they had swum 200m out into the bay. One or two were giving a running commentary about something. There was a lot of laughter. What a way to brighten up a humdrum day.
At that point, I understood fully why Newtown and Guillamene Swimming Club is primarily a social swimming club. Afterwards, more chat and telling indications of the presence of Guillamene regulars; their rich, salt-assisted seaside tan and glow underneath purple, goose-pimpled skin.
‘You can see the natural glittery light show take effect almost immediately’
Founder of Marine Dimensions, dedicated to marine environmental education and conservation ( marinedimensions.ie)
Although we are Irish, I grew up in the UK, with a spell in Sydney, Australia, but my real love of water began during the annual holidays to our family cottage in Sneem, Co Kerry. We were allowed to run free here, spending a lot of time swimming in the harbour, which was just oozing with marine life. This was definitely where my passion for marine biology began.
Gleesk harbour was, and still is, a favourite, too, with one of only three coral beaches in Ireland, and swimming here you can see this rare site of the Maerl, or skeletons of red seaweed, which forms the offshore reef.
One of the most magical things, when you swim there on a clear evening, is the phosphorescence in the water.
This is the emission of light by bioluminescent plankton, which makes the sea light up in the dark. It is a wonderful sight, and because it is activated by movement, if you just swim out gently and kick your feet a little, you can see the natural glittery light show take effect almost immediately.
My first encounter with marine wildlife was as a child, when a seal came right up behind me in the water. I was swimming out to an island a couple of hundred yards from the shore, and suddenly these big eyes and whiskers were right beside me, looking at me curiously. Terrified, I swam back to shore as fast as I could, but I realise now he was probably more scared than I was.