“It makes me feel amazing and so alive. I never think about the cold. I focus on the waves or the snow on the mountains or I imagine that we are in warm waters.”
So says Angela Leonard who is into her third winter, swimming every day in Wicklow harbour. “I say, I am going to swim today. I put on my togs before I leave the house. I don’t ever plan beyond the next swim,” she explains.
At about 9am each day, the sea swimmers at Wicklow harbour first walk out along the pier to check out the conditions. “We plan our entry and exit points, according to the wind and the waves. We get in, take a few breast strokes to catch our breath and then it’s head down and front crawl for 10 or 15 minutes. Regardless of what kind of swim you have each day, you never regret getting in,” says Leonard, who works as a marketing consultant.
Mary Aldridge is a competitive open-sea swimmer who mainly swims on the east coast of Ireland. She says that open-sea swimming gives people a natural high that keeps them going all day long.
“Regular sea swimmers will swim almost every day throughout the winter. If they don’t swim, their body misses it and it’s hard to start back again,” she explains. “Open-sea swimming is great for cardiovascular fitness,” she adds. And most sea swimmers who swim through the winter will tell you that they rarely get a cold.
There is also camaraderie among sea swimmers who meet in the same spot regularly. “It’s very sociable. People will text or WhatsApp each other if one of them is not there to encourage them on. And, then, there’s usually time for a quick warm drink and something sweet to eat together afterwards,” says Aldridge.
Aware that many non-regular sea swimmers join the organised charity sea swims over the Christmas holidays, Aldridge says it’s important not to wear fancy dress costumes as the combination of the cold water and weight of the costume is “a recipe for disaster”.
Santa hats worn over silicone swimming hats are okay if you’re not planning to put your head under the water. Some people also like to wear ear plugs to stop cold water seeping into their ears. However, wet suits aren’t usually worn as the seasonal challenge involves facing the ocean in regular swimming attire, encouraged by the cheering crowds watching from the shoreline.
While not wanting to spoil the fun of Christmas swims, non-regular sea swimmers need to realise that cold water shock, which is the body’s first reaction to immersion in cold water, is now considered to be more dangerous than hypothermia.
According to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), cold-water shock can cause soaring heart rates, gasping for breath, hyperventilation and aspiration of water. It can be a serious hazard, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.
Maureen McCoy, award-winning open-water swimmer and author of Wild Swimming in Ireland (Collins Press) reiterates this point. "Around 60 per cent of drowning in Britain and Ireland are due to cold-shock response," she says. "Do not jump straight in. Instead, follow the ritual of most seasoned outdoor swimmers; get in slowly, wet your arms and face, lower yourself gently, swim head up at first to acclimatise and control your breathing. Then, once you are no longer gasping or out of breath, you may put your head down and speed off."
Aldridge also warns people who aren’t used to sea swimming in the winter, to not overdo it. “The key to the Christmas swims is to obey the briefing of the organisers. Don’t try to do 200 metres – 20-30 metres is plenty if you’re not acclimatised. If you’re not physically fit, don’t go in at all and definitely don’t go in if you’ve had any alcohol.”
Generally speaking, an incoming tide – half an hour before high water – is best for sea swimming. Some sea swimmers are okay with a swell but choppy waters and windy conditions in the winter time can make the water feel a lot colder and harder to swim in. And then, once you’re out, the trick is to get dressed very quickly afterwards, put on three to four layers of clothing and a hat.
Aldridge also recommends people bring about two litres of tepid water to rinse the salt off their face and hair and to warm up their feet before putting on socks and runners.
Maureen McCoy says that a hot-water bottle is part of her essential winter kit. “It’s either already filled with my socks tucked inside the cover (heavenly!) or a spare flask of hot water ready to fill it with when I get out.”
And, remember, it’s always better to get out before you’ve had enough – rather than risk never wanting to get back in for a winter swim again. Or as many seasonal swimmers put it “get in, get out and warm up”.
Christmas and New Year sea swims around Ireland
Bray, Co Wicklow: The annual sea swim for local charities takes place on the beach in Bray on New Year's Day at noon.
Bundoran, Co Donegal: The Christmas Day swim takes place on the main beach at 12.15pm
Carlingford, Co Louth: The 12th annual Christmas Eve pier to pier charity swim in Carlingford is 3pm on December 24th. Swimmers are invited to hot soup and festive food in the Fishy Dishy restaurant in the Carlingford Sailing Club afterwards. Carlingfordsailingclub.net
Clontarf, Dublin: The annual Christmas Day swim run by the Clontarf Yacht & Boat Club (CY&BC) in aid of the RNLI is at 1pm on December 25, entering the water from the slipway across the road from the CY&BC. Cybc.ie
Derrynane and Fenit, Co Kerry: The Christmas Day swim at noon on Locke Bay near Fenit is reputedly the biggest in Munster. Elsewhere in the county, swimmers gather at noon on Christmas Day at Derrynane Bay.
Forty Foot, Sandycove, Co Dublin: Probably the busiest spot for Christmas Day swims outside of large charity events, there is usually a queue of swimmers from morning until early afternoon.
Galway Bay: 10am-1pm, Christmas morning in Blackrock, Salthill, for the annual Cope Galway Christmas swim. Funds raised will go to support homeless and vulnerable people in the county. Copegalway.ie/swim
Greystones, Co Wicklow: The town comes out to cheer along the hardy Christmas Day swimmers on the south beach around noon.
Guillamene, Co Waterford: This popular deep-water bathing spot outside Tramore is thronged with well wishers and swimmers on Christmas Day, 10.30-11.30am.
Kilkee and Gortglass Lake, Co Clare: The Christmas Day swim at 12.30pm in Kilkee is held to raise funds for the Kilkee Sub Aqua Club's search and rescue activities. A hardy band of locals also partake in a charity Christmas Day swim from 12.30pm-2.30pm in Gortglass Lake, Kildysart, Co Clare.
Myrtleville, Co Cork: Christmas Day swim at this picturesque cove south of Cork city. Myrtlevilleswimmers.com
Rosses Point, Co Sligo: The Christmas Day swim on Rosses Point starts from the beach next to the Sligo Yacht Club at noon.
Rosslare, Co Wexford: A big crowd gathers to watch the hardy swimmers who brave the waves on Rosslare Strand on Christmas Day at noon.
Skerries, Co Dublin: The Christmas Day swim at noon from the Sailing Club slipway in this North Dublin town is a long and popular tradition which draws huge crowds in good festive spirits.
Wicklow Harbour, Wicklow Town: The annual charity swim in Wicklow town is on St Stephen's Day at 12.30pm. wicklowsc.com