Visit any popular coastal location at the height of summer in Ireland, and you are likely to see people of all ages in the water. But when summer comes to a grinding halt, most people stay well out of the sea for another year, thinking it too cold, too dangerous and too much effort.
But there is a hardy network of sea-swimmers in Ireland who see no reason to stop when the weather gets colder. They continue to take the plunge in winter precisely because of the powerful effect of the cold, both physically and mentally, and for the human connection.
Cormac Staunton is one of these year-round devotees. The 54-year-old Galway man has been swimming in the sea since he was a child, but it is only in recent years that he embraced the cold and decided to swim through the winter.
Staunton moved back to Galway in 2003 after a stint living in the US, and he soon felt the call of the sea. He started swimming again, initially just during the summer, and every year his swimming season got a bit longer.
“One year, March 17th became my first swim of the year. Then another year, I just kept going,” he says.
Today, Staunton swims in Salthill all year round – and he doesn't feel the cold like he used to.
“In the winter, you might go at 11.30 in the morning when there’s as much sunlight as you’re going to get for the day. You get your dose of vitamin D, and then you can head off on your way again.”
Staunton speaks of the “mini-tribes” of people who come to Salthill throughout the year. “You’ve got the early morning warriors, the people that would be in there at six o’clock in the morning, and then you’ve got the ones who come at five or six in the evening after work. You have the 11.30 crew, which is all the retired guys and older women. To listen to them is a tonic. Sometimes you’re walking down there and you can hear this laughing and roaring. They’re all just having the craic. It’s life affirming, really.”
It is this sense of community that keeps Staunton going back to Salthill every week for a dip.
“If you talk to any of the men or women down there, pretty much every one of them – or a good 90 per cent of regulars - will tell you that the main reason they’re there is for their mental health. It’s that reset button.”
The adrenaline rush that comes with being submerged in cold water has a profound impact on both the body and the mind. This is something that Gráinne Gavigan, a Dublin-based film and television editor, feels strongly about. She believes that sea-swimming in winter provides a “more intense” adrenaline rush than in summer.
“A lot of the time when we go swimming in winter, we’re only in for five or 10 minutes, but that release of endorphins and serotonin floods in and stays in your body pretty much the whole day,” the 49-year-old says. “You might be going down for a swim and be thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this’. There’s a huge nervousness that can come into play before you get into the water, but once you get in and you’ve had that dip, there’s that physical release, and there’s the psychological thing that you’ve approached something that was initially a challenge.”
The benefits are just so fantastic, physically and mentally
Gavigan has always loved sea-swimming, but up until three years ago, she approached it in much the same way as most Irish people: she only swam in the sea while on holidays during the summer. That changed in 2016 when she came back to Dublin from a stint in Connemara and thought: “I’d really like to keep this going.”
She joined a sea-swimming group which helped her to get comfortable in the sea all year round.
“That fear of the shock [of the cold water] is a huge psychological barrier, and it’s completely understandable – but it is possible to overcome if we can show people how to do it.”
For Gavigan, getting into the water in winter requires “slow acclimatisation”, as well as a hardy group of fellow sea-swimmers.
“You can’t do it overnight, or even over a few months. You have to do it over time and build up to it. The benefits are just so fantastic, physically and mentally, once you get through that,” Gavigan says.
“When you get in first, you do feel like your breath has been taken away a bit, and that’s the natural response. That’s where the slow breathing comes in. It’s an excitement all over your skin. Yes, it’s cold – but it gives you a buzz.”
In 2013, François Auerbach-Freitas set up the Dublin Sea Swimming group that helped Gavigan get back into the water. It is aimed at people who want to enjoy a gentle dip rather than a vigorous swim.
“I had started to feel a bit depressed and disconnected, and I wanted to experience and feel different things,” the 49-year-old says. “There were a few things changing in my life – a job and a relationship – and I felt off balance. I really wanted to reconnect with my body and nature. Through swimming, I made new friends, so maybe I was looking for that as well. That’s what got me into swimming – when you’re in the water, you stop thinking about anything that might worry you.”
Swimming in the sea is like going on a mini-holiday
He set up a group on MeetUp.com, and was blown away by the response. The group has almost 2,000 members today. About 20-30 people go swimming with the group all year long.
“It’s easier to swim all year round than to stop in the summer and start again,” he says. “The first time we swam in winter was a bit of a shock. Your body goes a bit numb, and you’re afraid that you’re dying in the water. Swimming at that time of year can be a bit terrifying. You think, ‘It’s winter, it’s going to be so cold,’ but it’s all in your mind. If you stop the noise in your head, it’s OK.”
Orla Mangan is also a member of Auerbach-Freitas’s sea-swimming group. The 50-year-old from Dundrum tries to swim in the sea every day during summer, and once or twice a week throughout winter.
“I grew up swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in Kerry,” Mangan says. “We always swam in the summer as children, but I never knew you could swim in winter because nobody in Kerry swam in the winter back then. It was only in my late 30s that I saw people swimming on Christmas Day, and I thought, ‘God, that’s weird, how can they do that?’ So I joined a group where everyone did it, and it wasn’t weird or unusual – and it’s not as cold as you might think. It can be freezing some days, but afterwards you just feel incredible. It’s a spiritual feeling – you just have this weightlessness in the sea.”
Mangan is not interested in swimming as a competitive sport. She gets into the sea because of how the water makes her feel.
“Swimming in the sea is like going on a mini-holiday,” she says. “You’re packing up all that stuff you have in your life and you’re getting into the sea, and it’s like another level of consciousness. You’re not worrying about anything. It makes you more positive about everything, and it resets you. If you’re a little bit down, and you jump into that sea – you get this kind of high.”
Year-round sea-swimming may seem extreme to some, but it is becoming more common. John Leech, chief executive of Irish Water Safety, says there has been a "huge increase" in the number of people delving into open water swimming in the last decade. He welcomes it and says the benefits of open-water swimming are manifold.
“More and more research is being done, but the benefits from a mental point of view particularly seem very, very strong,” Leech says. “A lot of these people don’t get into the water and churn it up like an Olympic swimmer – they get into the water, have a pleasant swim, and when they get out, they feel so refreshed and invigorated. We’d love to see more people doing it – but we want them to do it responsibly.”
Staying safe in the sea in winter
1. Irish Water Safety warns against swimming on your own in the sea, particularly in winter. Go with a friend or consider joining a group.
2. "It's really important to swim with a bright swimming cap," says John Leech of Irish Water Safety. This ensures that others can see you if you get into difficulty and it will also keep you warm.
3. Get kitted out with the right gear. Wetsuits can help keep you warm – particularly if you're not a seasoned winter swimmer – and neoprene gloves and socks/booties protect the extremities. Many sea-swimmers also wear earplugs in the water.
4. "Don't overdo it and stay in until the point where hypothermia kicks in. In the wintertime, you can just go in for five minutes, or even two minutes at a time, to see how that feels," advises Cormac Staunton.
5. Always check the weather forecast and never get into the water when conditions are bad.
6. Irish Water Safety recommends that sea-swimmers bring a tow float into the water with them. Not only will it help with buoyancy, it also makes you more visible to others. This is particularly important if there are boats around.
7. "Don't start at Christmas - swim throughout the summer and keep going. The water will get colder, but you won't feel it as much as you would if you start in the middle of winter," says François Auerbach-Freitas.