Vitamin Sea: ‘You go for a swim, and you’re free’

Review: The swimmers in this drifting RTÉ documentary find peace while all at sea

One of Kinvara’s “Traught mermaids”  in Vitamin Sea

One of Kinvara’s “Traught mermaids” in Vitamin Sea

 

One of the first swimmers we meet in this drifting documentary on the benefits of brine, recalls her first fledgling efforts in a river in Co Clare. “I have never seen anyone try so hard and achieve so little,” her instructor told her.

You would never be quite so disparaging towards Vitamin Sea (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), a show that invests clear effort in gathering together a representative sample of the nation’s coastal floaters, and whose achievements in conveying their experience can seem about as modest.

Its many subjects, drawn from around the country, are held together by an unspoken bond, a regular dip that comes across as something between suffering and serenity. (“Your body’s kind of screaming not to do it,” says one adherent. “In the water I can be as graceful as everybody else,” says another, whom childhood polio has left with a limp on land.)

But the people we meet are more fascinating for their differences, with quite absorbing life stories that, in the relentless tow of the programme, come to feel like incidental details; flotsam to its main concern.

That concern is a challenge to depict. Not because the camera, like the eye, isn’t entranced by the glint of sunlight and moonlight on the water. But because, like somebody keen to relate to you their dreams or their drug trips, the experience itself is far more fascinating to the swimmer than the spectator.

One participant, Ray Murnane, almost says as much, when he remarks, “I have no business in the car watching somebody swim.” In his case the matter is both more complicated and more painful. Paralysed by a car accident some years ago, it is a pursuit he has not returned to since, while his wife, Dee finds solace in it still.

If the programme is anchored by anything it is Ray’s hard-won effort to return to the water, or the determination of Anne Shanahan, the woman so poorly served by her first swimming instructor, to find her second, the man who allowed her find this state of grace.

In both cases, their lives on land are more compelling, each stories of tragedy, support and resilience. Like that of Mark Earley, widowed far too young, who holds his icy, pre-dawn dips in the Forty Foot as a lasting connection to his wife, Lianne, such stories might have been given more space to unfurl. As it is, too many contributors share experiences that dissolve into one another, like salt in water.

Polyphony might be the point, of course. Like the garlanded Traught Mermaids who gather to swim and rhapsodise the effects of the moon and yoga. Or Susan Steele, the marine biologist who tells us authoritatively that the human body is 80 per cent water (“Actually, 80 per cent salt water.”) but does not present sea swimming as an intellectual endeavour: “My brain just empties when I come down and look at the sea,” she adds.

That a physical undertaking can have metaphysical properties, though, is the thrust of the show, illustrated best by an aerial shot of Ciara Ferguson, in Schull, floating in the pose of a crucifix in an eternity of dark water, or Aoife McElwain, of this parish, swimming out into an expanse of waves and disappearing into the shimmer of sunlight.

Perhaps Ray Murnane puts it better than anyone, as he forgets all physical limitations in his return to the water. “You go for a swim,” he says, “and you’re free.”

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