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Taking the plunge when it comes to open-water swimming

‘Its popularity was on the increase before Covid, but the pandemic accelerated it’

The saltwater of the sea gives you additional buoyancy – approximately 14 per cent more – than freshwater, making it easier to swim. File photograph: Getty

The saltwater of the sea gives you additional buoyancy – approximately 14 per cent more – than freshwater, making it easier to swim. File photograph: Getty

 

If you haven’t yet taken the plunge and started regular open-water swimming, you’re in a dwindling pool.

“Its popularity was on the increase before Covid, but the pandemic accelerated it,” says Ashley Hunter, head of participation at Swim Ireland, the national governing body for aquatics in Ireland.

It has 19,000 members, most of whom are in largely competitive swim clubs all around the country.

However, it recently launched a new category of membership designed to support the wave of interest in outdoor swimming, which includes not just the sea, but rivers, lakes and canals too, he points out.

Me and the Water, costs just tenner to join, and is designed “to encourage people to join a tribe of other open water swimmers across the country, as well as provide people with guidance and advice”, he explains.

The pandemic created the perfect conditions. “Lack of access to facilities such as indoor swimming pools led those already swimming indoors to do it outdoors. Others didn’t have access to the gym or team sports or whatever recreational activity they would normally have done,” he explains.

“The ease of being able to just go for a swim has given people the physical exercise they required, and the mental health benefits they get from exercise. It was a natural release for a lot of people. What’s more, there’s no expense involved and no fancy equipment required. We’ve seen a massive increase in swimming all across Ireland as a result,” he says.

To support this swell, Swim Ireland has a range of open-water programmes across the country this summer. There is something for all levels of ability, including Daily Dippers, Beach to Buoy training and Yoga & Dip sessions, as well as mini water polo taster sessions.

Some 5,000 places have been available on the programmes, which typically last up to eight weeks and range in price from €20 to €60. Those booked in will be met by a coach, a lifeguard and Covid officer, as well as a chance to make new friends and develop what could become a lifelong hobby.

“It’s all about helping people to gain confidence, to enable them to be more independent in the open water, and to understand how and where to swim, recognising conditions and the impact of tides, winds and the weather,” he says.

A life skill

Me and the Water membership is also a way of connecting people. “It means that if you are travelling somewhere in Ireland, you’ve an opportunity to connect with people, and ask questions about where to swim or information about tides,” he says.

It’s also a way to find out of there are swim club meet-ups or events that you can join in the part of the country you are visiting.

Swimming is a life skill as well as a hobby and, he points out, with more than a year’s worth of swimming lessons now missed by young and old alike, catching up is important.

Louise Griffin sporting Blackrock Beachwear at Blackrock in Salthill, Galway.
Louise Griffin sporting Blackrock Beachwear at Blackrock in Salthill, Galway.

Until just over a year ago, Galway woman Louise Griffin couldn’t swim at all. Fed up of feeling left out when she could see growing numbers of people enjoying their daily dip in nearby Blackrock Diving Tower in Salthill, she took to YouTube and, with dogged determination, was soon doggy paddling with the best of them.

Today she is a serious daily swimmer who wouldn’t miss it for the world. “It’s addictive,” she explains.

Indeed, it’s so much a part of her life that she developed her own range of surf robes and swimwear, under the brand Blackrock Beachwear, which she promotes via a growing following on Instagram.

“I’m just in the door from my swim now,” says Griffin, who wouldn’t miss it for the world. “It resets me every single morning. Sometimes life can be a bit challenging, and swimming gives you that bit of head space. I’ve met so many friends from it, it’s a great community. This morning there were jellyfish but sure, even if there were sharks we’d probably still go.”

If it wasn’t for the pandemic she says she would never have done it. “I used to watch the people swimming in the sea and think they were only showing off that they could swim. Now I’m one of them. We’re just so lucky in Ireland to have it on our doorstep.”

Safety first

If you fancy joining the rising tide of open-water swimmers this summer, put safety first.

Water Safety Ireland recommends you always look at the wind and weather forecasts before swimming, and check the type of tides. Spring tides are more hazardous as they cause stronger rip currents on beaches. It’s much safer to swim on a rising tide than on a falling tide, so apps such as Tides Near Me can help.

The best way to get used to cold water is to start in the summer, when the water is warmer, and then swim in it regularly, gradually extending the length of time you stay in, it says. Throwing some water on the back of your neck helps to prepare your body for the cold-water immersion. Beginners and novice swimmers should always stay within their depth.

The saltwater of the sea gives you additional buoyancy – approximately 14 per cent more – than freshwater, making it easier to swim, and worth bearing in mind if you go from one to the other.

The statutory body established to promote water safety in Ireland recommends that you don’t swim alone, particularly as Ireland’s climate is unpredictable, and the sea can change very quickly.

If you do get into difficulty, stay calm. The RNLI’s Float to Live campaign has done enormous work explaining the need to stay calm and fight the instinct to swim hard or thrash about, as this can lead to breathing in water and drowning. Instead, relax and float on your back until you have regained control of your breathing.

Wear a brightly coloured swimming cap. Be aware to the dangers that boats and jet skis pose to you, similar to that of a vehicle on the road.

According to Water Safety Ireland’s research, three in 10 people who drown have consumed alcohol before entering the water. Alcohol severely reduces your ability to swim and also to respond to risks, because it impairs your judgment.

It advises against setting time goals for swimming, because how your body reacts to the cold differs depending on a variety of factors.