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.
I live in Bray now, and I try to swim there or in Sandycove about twice a week, and usually as part of a group of other water lovers, as we are all keen snorkelers and divers, too. There is so much to see along here, with seabirds diving and plenty of fish, with gannets coming into Bray now, something which didn’t happen a couple of years ago, so it’s great to see them coming back.
On our summer camps, I love taking young people out to swim. Some of them have never had that experience of really submerging themselves in the sea and, eventually, when they get more confident, we can teach them to snorkel and dive to explore what is on Dublin’s doorstep in more depth.
‘Every swimmer has a secret spot’
Co-founder Café Paradiso, Cork
When I moved to Cork from New Zealand, I couldn’t believe how empty all the beaches were here. I don’t get it, because all these private indoor pools are so expensive, so unless you are rich, you have to swim in the sea.
I am spoilt for choice every day in west Cork, one of my favourites being a natural 50m pool, with a swimming lane formed by rocks. You can only swim here an hour either side of high tide, but I am keeping the location a secret – every swimmer has to have a secret spot.
So, I now swim in the sea all year round, and every day usually, sometimes a few times a day if I can time it with work. My nearest beach is the secluded Sands Cove, outside the village of Ardfield. If I’m being really good I go for a run towards Dunny Cove and then jump straight in. It’s like Greece at that spot on a good day, with a slipway so you can go in really deep, too.
The piers at Rosscarbery and Mill Cove are great for jumping off. For a calmer, lengthier swim, Lough Hyne is amazing too. From Squince Beach, you can swim out to Rabbit Island. I think I would die if I didn’t swim.
‘Water fitness is slightly different from ordinary fitness’
Publisher of the Bridgestone Guide and trainee kayak instructor for Atlantic Sea Kayaking in west Cork
Part of the reason we came to west Cork was to have the ability to swim in the sea with ease. We all love it as a family.
This year I did a lifeguard water endurance swim exam in order to try and keep up my water fitness. Water fitness is slightly different from ordinary fitness. Fit people can tire easily in water, and relatively unfit people (I fit into that category) can keep going.
I have no interest in swimming in pools. The experience is tedious. Sea water offers you waves to dance in, rocks to jump off, fish and seaweed to snorkel through, sand to get between your toes and salt to tangle your hair and dry on your face. It’s magic.
When we took our lifeguard exam, the examiner said, “Congratulations, you are lifeguards! Know now that you will never again enjoy being on the beach.” And it’s true. I’ve become very safety aware and see perils everywhere.
Anybody who is going to swim in the sea should understand tides. For two years I took part in an interisland swim, the first year as a swimmer, the second on safety in a kayak. The second swim was in hour three of the tide, which is madness, because that is when the flow is at its strongest. We spent the whole time towing people to safety.
The power of the sea and tidal streams is awesome, not anything you can fight against.
I wish I could say I was a more regular swimmer. When I do swim in the sea I always wear a wetsuit, because I want to extend the time in the water. This allows me be in the water at all times of the year. And I love it.
‘I’ve never lost the childhood feeling’
SÍLE NIC CHONAONAIGH
Presenter of TG4’s Garraí Glas
I grew up in An Spidéal, right next to the sea, so I’ve loved the water since I was very young. It’s the first thing I remember loving, actually feeling passionate about. I learned to swim at nearby Trá Mhór, and we swam most days during the summer.
I wasn’t one to play on the sand if I could be in the water, and I remember my mother standing at the water’s edge, at the end of long days at the beach, calling me out to go home. She used to call me the water baby.
I love to swim in the sea. Any sea will do, although I have a huge fondness for the cladach [stony shore] near my parents’ house. Very few people go there, so it’s nice and quiet. There’s a tiny natural lagoon, and if you arrive when the tide is out there’s some lovely snorkelling.
I’m a fair weather swimmer; spring, summer or autumn. I’m a good but not great swimmer . . . I’ll usually stay in for about 20 minutes or half an hour, more if I’m snorkelling or diving. And now my brother-in-law Paul is my snorkelling buddy, since he and my sister Deirdre moved back to Galway. He’s a water baby, too. We head off for a couple of hours, catch a few crabs and have a feast.
When I’m in the water life feels better, and every time I swim it still feels like a treat. I’ve never lost the childhood feeling that I’m being allowed to do something special.
‘ This part of the coast is really special’
Founder of Long Line Surf School, Derry
For me, wild swimming is far from “wild”. It is not about hardcore endurance swimming or fighting wild waves. It is about going out on calm waters when the conditions are fine and the light is soothing, to experience nature in a way that has absolutely no impact on it.
I was swimming out around the coves near Downhill Beach in Co Antrim, recently and swam inside one of the otherwise inaccessible caves here, only to see a family of shags [diving birds]. We all looked at each other in silence and then we swam out quietly, leaving them in peace.
I grew up around Benone Beach, so I have always swum here. This part of the Northern Irish coast really has something special in terms of caves and coves – especially up around Portrush, Mount Temple and Dunluce Castle.
You have to be extremely cautious when wild swimming. Wild swimming is still an adults’ activity, and one where you need to be familiar with tides and local conditions. I always advise people to stay clear of nonswimming beaches, and if you don’t know what the waters are like, talk to surfers there.
When we teach kids how to surf, we explain the dangers of the sea but also how to enjoy themselves. The secret is to take it in baby steps, starting in shallow waters between the ages of 9 and 11 and then by the time they are 14 to 15 years old, we take them on a guided swimming tour around the coastline. We wetsuit them up, which adds to their buoyancy,and guide them around the first cliff at Downhill Beach, entering a cave and swimming to the back of it.
During this swim, the water is never more than about six feet deep, and we are clinging close to the shore. If people get tired, we teach them to float on their backs and make a star shape. You can stay in that position safely for ages, until you are ready to take off again. It is amazing how a small guided tour like this can change someone’s confidence for wild swimming forever.
‘ I love the initial shock of the cold water’
Chairman, Insomnia Coffee Company
I have always loved swimming and was taught to swim by my father in Kilkee, Co Clare, which is still one of my favourite swimming places. These days I am lucky to live near the Forty Foot in Sandycove, Co Dublin where the water is clear and deep.
In Kilkee, I love to swim in the Pollock holes, three natural rock pools only suitable for swimming at low tide, and at Byrnes Cove at high tide. These crystal waters are always really refreshing and a great social place, too.
I was brought to a secret bathing place at the back of Long Island, near Schull, in Co Cork, that I only get to during the Calves Week sailing event every August, and I have also completed the Nore River Swim in my home city of Kilkenny (it has been postponed until August 11th this year).
I love the initial shock of the cold water, just jumping or diving in straight away, which is why I prefer to swim off rocks as I don’t like wading in slowly from the beach.
During the summer, I always keep a pair of togs in the back of the car. I love the post-swim tingle, where you fell really refreshed.
I used to swim all year round, but not for a good few years. But I have swum at the Forty Foot every Christmas morning for the past 20 years. There was a time when I could persuade one of my four daughters to join me but they just watch and laugh now.
‘I no longer feel the cold, just the sensation’
Composer and director of Anúna choir
I rediscovered the wonders of sea swimming about three years ago, although I always swam in the sea as a child, taking my first lessons in the Blackrock sea baths in Dublin, graduating up to Seapoint and then the Forty Foot, with Sandycove my ultimate aim as a teenager. My father was also a hotel manager at the Great Southern Hotel in Bundoran at one stage during my childhood, so I spent most of my summers swimming in the deep water around Rogue Rock, too.
As an adult, when I started sea swimming again it was strange at first, but I started to feel the benefits very quickly. As soon as I put my head under the water, and I always swim under water, it started to feel like the cold was rebooting my system, as if someone was pressing the restart button.
Three years later, my body has changed. I no longer feel the cold, just the sensation of something. I don’t even know how to put that “something” into words, but I do put it into my music. In fact, most of my music is about the sea. Even on Anúna’s latest album, Illumination, there is a track called Fegaidh Uaibh, based on a medieval Irish poem that tells us to look out to the west and the swell of the sea. I love the fact that this expanse of ocean, and our relationship with it, reaches back thousands of years.
When I take friends swimming who are not used to the cold, open water, I give them one piece of advice: dive in and then get out straight away. Look back at where you have been and calm your mind before getting back in again. You need to get the mind into a calm state before sea swimming. It is not a controlled environment, and we all need to respect the sea.
‘My greatest joy is getting into the sea, my wife by my side’
Sales manager and water polo player for the Guinness team
I spent my childhood in Zimbabwe where we swam in the dams as kids. It was only when I came to Ireland and fell in love with my now wife, Gillian Binchy, that I was persuaded to get into the sea properly.
We recently moved to Dún Laoghaire so that we could be beside the sea. Our favourite swims are around Dublin Bay, from the Forty Foot to Bullock Harbour in Dalkey and back, Scotsman’s Bay to Dún Laoghaire harbour wall, but my favourite is from Seapoint to Windsurfers’ Bay and back, which is about 1.5km and takes less than 30 minutes.
On this swim, if you breathe to the left you look out to Howth, its lighthouse and bright yellow gorse shining brightly, and liners passing it en route to Dublin port. Breathe to the right, and you see the Dart whizzing past. Magical.
My greatest joy in the world is getting into the sea with my wife swimming by my side. Often I wonder how I ever got from the tropical waters of Africa to the freezing Irish Sea with this amazing, hardy woman.
'The secret is always to have your togs in your handbag'
Journalist and author
I swim with my dog, a springer spaniel called Lola, regularly in the sea at Seapoint, but not as often as I would like to. I aspire to be one of those women who go in every day, religiously, but at the moment I am a bit wimpy about it.
Up at the Vico, for example, the colour of the water, that pale green, is like nowhere else. I think it is the colour that entrances me most when sea swimming; it just pulls me in.
When I swim I do a bit of breaststroke and a bit of crawl, and I always wear goggles, because if you can’t put your face in the water and look at what is underneath, it isn’t the same. Seeing the way the light comes through the water is a bit like what being in church must be for some people.
I swim a paltry distance really, choosing a buoy and doing a lap out to it and back, but I am slowly building my confidence to swim farther out to sea.
My dad reared us to be swimmers and readers, and when we were kids we used to go up to Glenmalure in the Wicklow Mountains a lot, where I remember building dams with rocks and creating little reservoirs to dive into. Our legs would be completely frozen, mind.
There are so many wonderful swimming spots in Ireland, but the secret is always to have your togs in your handbag. Especially when I am with Lola, as she just cries if she can’t go in water and I feel treacherous if I don’t bring her in. For me the cold is usually the main thing, but if you are going past somewhere like the Coral Strand at Ballyconneely, Gurteen Bay or Claddaghduff in Connemara, you just have to jump in. The more unplanned the better, in fact. And I often remember what someone told me once: “You never regret a swim or a baby.”
'Water is my element. I just love it'
Journalist and broadcaster
We don’t call it “wild swimming” of course – it is just how we always swam as kids, in streams and rivers. They were all named after local people, too, so I started out at a shallow stream called Peggy’s Wades, and then when I was a bit bigger I was allowed to cross the fields to Hegarty’s Pool.
I remember these mountain streams well, sandy underfoot and with water that was slightly brown – like a fine dry sherry – and it came up to my chest. But when I was able to swim about eight or nine strokes, I was finally allowed to progress to the river Barrow, where I still swim.
Our favourite spot as kids was always just beside the weir, because it was deep, and you could stand on its mossy stones and dive back into the depths behind it. My sister was daring enough to swim down it once into the terrific white waters beneath. The only time I tried that was by accident, and my father had to haul me out by the ankles.
I am a very cautious swimmer now, remembering my parents’ advice to always swim up river and know my exit points. My sister and I still swim together in the Barrow, near where I live, as often as we can. Favourite spots include Ballytiglea and Clashganny where, at the beginning of the year, it is muddy underfoot and the neighbouring fields are overgrown. So I bring my secateurs and shears and cut my way through the nettles, making sure I don’t touch the beautiful lilies, until I can access a bend in the river, and just swim out.
I like to swim on my back treading water and looking at the things around me, or back towards Mount Leinster.
Water is my element. I just love it.
'When I discovered the Guillamene I was blown away'VANESSA DAWS Artist
When I discovered The Guillamene and was blown away by the beauty of the bay and great cráic and banter of the guys who swim there, I became a very proud member.
Members from the Newtown Cove and Guillamene Swimming Club meet at the Guillamene every weekend throughout the year, as well as open water swimmers training for long distance and duration swim events. The only thing that would prevent a swim would be too high a swell, where exit from the water would be impossible.
This has become one of my favorite places to swim, a combination of stunning location, great humour and camaraderie from fellow swimmers and no sand, make this the perfect swim spot. There are two coves right next door to each other, Newtown and Guillamene.
This film was shot from approximately January to May 2011, and a lot of the really sunny shots are during the winter months. The film certainly doesn’t capture the cold 5 -10 degree temperatures. My filming style is short and jerky, mirroring this feeling of cold and me catching my breath as I swim.