In recent years, it seems there has been a boom in folk trying to fend off winter by embracing it. From swimming in the icy sea to surfing and winter kayaking, what are the rewards and how can you go about these activities and stay safe?
“You can get great days in winter. Some people’s psyche tells them to hibernate as soon as autumn strikes, but those crisp winter days can be as good as summer,” says Ciaran Maguire, one of the country’s most qualified paddling instructors and a guide at Rafting.ie, which operates on the Liffey.
Over the past number of years, we have seen the number of people sinking into hibernation decrease. You only have to look at the crowds of people throwing themselves into the icy waters of the Forty Foot swimming spot in Dublin’s Sandycove on a Saturday morning to see that.
“I swim in the sea every morning, no matter what the weather,” says Michael Irvine (70), a regular at the Forty Foot. “The cold water definitely wakes me up in the morning and leaves me feeling in good spirits for the rest of the day. I also think we get to see some of the best weather as more often than not we experience spectacular sunrises, even if the rest of the day turns out to be a washout,” he adds.
As a regular sea swimmer myself, I’ve experienced both the positive energy that comes with an icy plunge and the camaraderie of fellow bathers. The all-over tingling sensation across your body is invigorating and addictive in equal parts.
If swimming is not your thing, there are a host of other ways to get out on the water in the colder months. Rafting.ie runs white-water rafting trips on the wilder parts of the River Liffey until mid-December, while Dublin-based kayaking providers Kayaking.ie and City Kayaking also offer guided tours throughout the winter.
The Sailing in Dublin club, based in the Coal Harbour in Dún Laoghaire, also remains open all year and offers a really cost-effective way to sail.
Surfing is another cracking sport for winter days, and generally surf conditions are better than in summer. And as you are guaranteed to get wet regardless, the weather matters a lot less.
Operators in Ireland’s surfing hotspots like Turf and Surf and Surfworld (Bundoran, Co Donegal), Troggs (Portrush, Co Antrim), Ben’s Surf Clinic (Lahinch, Co Clare) and T-Bay Surf School (Tramore, Co Waterford) offer surf lessons and rentals all year.
While getting in or on the water, no matter what the season might be great fun, some extra heed should be taken in the colder months. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
Wear the right gear
“I always wear mitts and a skull cap under my helmet in winter. I also wear heavier baselayers and sometimes a dry suit too,” says Maguire of his gear choices for paddling.
Dry suits are expensive, so if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, opt for lots of warm layers, starting with a merino wool baselayer next to skin. In winter, Maguire says they even double up on waterproof jackets for clients on rafting trips down the Liffey.
Surfers should opt for a 5mm wetsuit as well as neoprene booties, gloves and a hood. Luckily in Ireland, all of the providers are well equipped for cold water temperatures so will provide wetsuits when you book in for a lesson, or alternatively they can be rented separately. You may need to provide your own booties and gloves.
The majority of hardy year-round swimmers take to the water in their togs. It is a really good idea to double up on swimming caps or even invest in a neoprene swimming cap with additional ear protection in the colder months. Neoprene gloves and socks are also great for those who suffer from the cold.
Manage your temperature
“When you get out of the water, you ideally want to get a hot shower and a hot drink,” says Maguire. “You also need to wrap up in lots of warm clothes.”
However, a warm shower isn’t always good. “If you are in anyway hypothermic, it is not a good idea to shower as it shoots all of the cold from your extremities to your internal organs,” warns Maguire. “It’s all about insulation and warming slowly. Get lots of warm layers on, get in a warm room and drink something hot.”
Sea swimmers have a number of strategies for warming up post-dip. A mat to stand on is a great investment as the stone or sand underfoot when changing can be very cold. Investing in key pieces like merino wool baselayers and warm winter socks, gloves and a hat will also help you to warm up. Some even bring along a hot water bottle to tuck inside their coat on particularly cold winter days.
Heed the weather forecast
Maguire says we should all pay heed to the weather forecast. “You should only go out if the conditions are right. Listen to Evelyn Cusack the night before you plan to head out. We’ve all learned important lessons with the storms this autumn. In winter, there is even less margin for error. You get cold very quickly so you need to know what you are doing and take a little extra caution.”
If you are heading out swimming, be sure to do so when there are other people around. You might be used to swimming a good distance in the warmer months, but in winter it is wise to reduce your distance as the temperature drops, stay closer to the shore and make sure you have an easy exit strategy.
Lined with a cosy fleece, the Dryrobe is waterproof, windproof and has enough room to easily get changed inside it.
Columbia Platinum Plus 860, €199
This 800-fill goose-down jacket packs quite a punch in the warmth department. It’s also water resistant.
Northcore Changing Mat, €26.99
This tough, waterproof bag folds out into a flat changing mat you can stand on whilst getting changed.
Crean Ocean Green Bobble Hat, €19.99
This chunky knit hat is cosy and comes in three bold colour options.
Orca Neoprene Swimhat, €21.95
This swimming cap is designed to provide thermal protection for use in colder than usual water.
Gear mentioned in this article is available from the following retailers: Basecamp, Dublin 1 (www.basecamp.ie); Great Outdoors, Dublin 2 (www.greatoutdoors.ie); Wild Side Sports, Bandon, Co Cork (www.wildsidesports.ie); Adventure.ie, Laragh, Co Wicklow (www.adventure.ie); Cotswold Outdoor, Dublin 2 (www.cotswoldoutdoor.com); Wiggle (www.Wiggle.co.uk); and Crean Outdoor (www.creanoutdoor.ie).
Heather Snelgar and Roisin Finlay edit Outsider, Ireland's outdoor and adventure magazine. www.outsider.ie