How and why to sea swim: walk in slowly wetting your shoulders, if you like

There’s a reason why sea swimmers like to tell you about it: physical exhilaration, a mental time-out and social connection. What more could you want?

How do you recognise a sea swimmer? “They’ll tell you about it,” my husband always says.

Jokes about Dryrobes became a mantra among those observing the sea-swimming phenomenon during the Covid-19 pandemic. And some veteran sea swimmers even put up notices in popular spots such as the Forty Foot in Dublin’s Sandycove declaring “No Dryrobes here” to mock the newcomers.

And, I must confess that although I don’t have one of those snazzy zip-up Dryrobes that you sometimes see people wearing in the supermarket, I do possess a poncho towel version which makes getting dressed quickly after being in the sea so much easier.

In her recent book, Ebb & Flow, surfer and marine social scientist Easkey Britton quotes Caitriona Lynch, founder of a programme that introduces adults to sea swimming in Galway Bay. She said that she had never seen so many people in the sea as she did during the summer of 2020. “It was powerful. People really needed the sea. They were desperate for it. People who always do it needed it; people who never did it before needed it. They needed the sea, the water, that sense of community, doing something together and it gave them so much.”


In her book, Britton writes that pan-European BlueHealth research concluded that water environments are the most restorative of all. Research has found that blue spaces – outdoor bodies of water – are associated with a lower risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, as well as greater relaxation in adults and improved behavioural development and social connection in children.

People who have recently been bereaved have also spoken about how sea swimming can jolt them back into feeling more normal, less broken. London-based sea swimmer Lisa Buckingham wrote how as her body went into survival mode and her mind couldn’t focus on anything else, she could have a few blissful minutes of not having to think about loss. “As I climbed out, the endorphins kicked in and my shredded nervous system bathed in the feel-good hormones at a time when nothing else felt good,” she wrote.

And while there was a great surge of interest in sea swimming during the pandemic – much of which has continued – the interest in the therapeutic benefits of being by the sea – and immersing yourself in cold water – dates back to Victorian times. Then, it was seen as a perfect antidote to urban living. In January of 2023, historic garden and landscape historian Vandra Costello gave a very interesting talk to the Irish Georgian Society on how seaside resorts began to develop in the mid-18th century. She talked about the then new interest in sea bathing and the restorative powers of sea water and the development of villas and baths along the Dublin coastline.

But how did I, who grew up in the midlands with a mother who never learned how to swim and a father – who taught himself to swim in the deep ponds of the local river – discover the joys of sea swimming?

Just more than 10 years ago we came to live in Greystones – a move prompted more by my husband’s desire to be back in his native Wicklow and a choice of nearby school for one of our daughters – the sea on our doorstep became the added bonus.

But, like many others, it was only when the pandemic hit that I really took to sea swimming all year round. In March 2020, I needed something to give my mind and body an escape from the bombardment of information about the pandemic and began getting in the sea at what I later discovered was the absolute coldest time of the year to do so – many people swim right through to December but avoid January, February and March as the water temperature plummets to single digits.

For me, sea swimming has several strands to it. First, there is the challenge of doing something that has an element of fear involved. Every time you plunge into the cold water of the Irish Sea, you are a little bit scared but there is a series of impulses that make you do it again and again.

Getting ready is important: I put on my swimsuit before I leave the house. I pack my bag meticulously (towel, goggles, swim hats – usually two, sometimes three – and boots in the winter months) and cycle to one of the local swimming spots where I know others will be at a specified time. The sun might or might not be shining but it’s never raining or very windy when I venture out.

Swimming with others is hugely significant. First, there is the communal assessment of the water – is it choppy, calm, tide in/tide out or somewhere in between? Then there is the unspoken anticipation of the shock of the water in the first few minutes, following by the sense of achievement, later sometimes followed by a sheer bliss of being enveloped by the water, moving in a synchronised way with your breath, arms and legs if the water is calm or just making do, bobbing up and down with the waves if it’s not. And then knowing when to get out – when you’ve had enough – or in fact, just before you’ve had enough – so that you can get out safely and enjoy the afterglow.

And yes, it is this afterglow that drives us all back in every time. Fellow swimmers at the South Beach in Greystones readily admit to being addicted to the exhilarating feeling they have after swimming in the cool – cold – or sometimes almost freezing waters of the Irish Sea.

The physiological explanation for this sense of exhilaration is that the cold water forces the blood to rush inwardly to protect the body’s organs and then, when you get out, the blood rushes back out to the extremities and it is this experience that transmits positive vibes to the brain. I have heard scary stories from some swimmers about what it’s like for the body to go into cold shock in the water – a feeling that is almost sleeplike – but is in fact the first stage of hypothermia – not something you ever want to experience.

The key to enjoying sea swimming is to never to let yourself change your mind about getting into the water once the conditions are safe to do so. Once you decide to go in, you just have to do it. Not that you need to dive in – in fact, walking slowly in wetting your shoulders, if you like, is better so your body can adjust to the temperature slowly. Sharing the repetition of the daily or weekly or twice/thrice-weekly swim with others is almost spiritual. The chat is easy – often the same conversations are had again and again about how it was, when you were last down and the cheery wave goodbye until the next time. Occasionally, people share some personal details of their lives but more often than not, the camaraderie of being there is enough.

Another aspect of sea swimming that melts into other parts of your life is how you look at the sea. Some psychologists call it “soft focus”. You can simply be looking to see where the tide marks are on the shoreline or observing whether the waves are choppy or gentle. And this observation, or soft focus, gives the brain time off from other, more demanding activity. It’s a kind of balm for the mind and probably explains why so many people go on holidays to the seaside. If you are one of those whose work primarily involves brain activities – calculating, analysing, making connections and drawing conclusions – this soft focus is a welcome break. The reward is that your head feels clearer, sharper afterwards and sometimes, solutions you have struggled to find come gently to the surface of your mind.

And then, there are the other health benefits – the satisfying physical feeling of tiredness that helps you sleep better, the fresh sea air which keeps colds and flu at bay (at least some of the time) and the aches and pains that are temporarily dulled by the cold water.

What more would you want?Physical exhilaration, a mental time-out and social connection. But, there is another gift that sea swimming gives those who enjoy observing their surroundings. It’s a glimpse of a cormorant drying its expanded wings after its catch has been eaten; it’s watching the rare sight of a great black-backed gull sweeping across the sky or spotting a starfish underwater when the sea is clear, or having the ultimate seaweed bath when swimming after the storms have brought in vast quantities of slippery kelp to the shoreline.

This is an abridged version of a talk Sylvia Thompson gave about sea swimming and reconnection with nature at the Royal Irish Academy conference, Ireland and the Covid-19 pandemic, in Dublin this week.