‘I always feel better after’: Sea swimming reopens for business

Social distancing applies but, after weeks of lockdown, the benefits are even better

Jonathan Smith emerges from the water after his early morning swim in Blackrock.

Jonathan Smith emerges from the water after his early morning swim in Blackrock.

 

“Bit more insulation since the lockdown anyway,” says Jonathan Smith, emerging with a smile from the open sea water at south Dublin Bay without any haste or the slightest shiver of doubt. “But I always feel better after this, always...”

It’s shortly after dawn on Monday and we’re down at Blackrock to meet the high tide and the first lifting of Covid-19 restrictions around open water swimming since April 11th: social distancing still applies, and as much as he’s missed being in the sea water every single day – as is his usually perfectly normal routine – it’s been an entirely understandable wait.

“There were some days at home, over the last few weeks, where I felt caged in,” Smith tells me, drying himself off in a large floral towel robe and gently unruffling his fantastically long beard. With a family member working on the so-called frontline, he’d no issue whatsoever with the restrictions – even if that meant the actual caging off of his usual swimming spots down along the Forty Foot, Sandycove and Seapoint.

Therapy

Just a few minutes in the water is enough to reacquaint the mind and the senses: there is a theory among open sea swimmers that this cold water immersion is therapy more than exercise, and while not everyone may agree, Smith unquestionably practices what he preaches.

“I was joking to my wife about this, it’s like the insurance on the car, you may never need it, but it’s great to have it. I always felt I’d a little resilience in store from the months of swimming before the lockdown, even if no one saw this coming. I think people who swam on a regular basis, maybe, were better able to cope with the whole situation.

“For people who really struggle with anxiety, not being able to get into the sea on a regular basis might have been some sort of entrapment, essentially. And I think the need for it, after times like this, will be even greater, for sure.”

Smith was raised within the sights and the smells of Dublin Bay, yet only took to open water swimming later in his life: now the 58-year-old, who runs the popular Ernesto’s cafe in Rathmines, can’t imagine his life without his daily dip.

Smith has been going swimming in the sea every day for 12 years.
Smith has been going swimming in the sea every day for 12 years.

“After my mother passed away, 12 years ago, I was getting bad pains across my chest, and a woman I was working with, Maire Walsh, asked me did I go swimming in the sea. And I said yeah, in June and July, on a balmy day, we’d head to Killiney with a picnic for the day. But she meant every day, winter and summer. And I thought she was mental. I hadn’t slept right in months, and just she encouraged me. So I was out by Seapoint a few days later, saw the high tide, and dived in. I thought I was going to have a cardiac arrest, it was that much of a shock.

“Once I got out, and went home that night and slept for five hours, I saw the benefits immediately. And after I started going every week, then every day, and learned from more experienced people than me, my patience and tolerance were greater, my anxieties became less and less. That’s there for all of us.

“In the winter, to the summer, you do go from enduring it, to enjoying it. But the payback is greater in the winter months, because the colder the water, the higher the endorphin level, the serotonin level, the higher the feel-good factor.”

Social interaction

He opened Ernesto’s five years ago, and like every business it’s taken a big hit: named after his love of all things Cuba (including Ernesto “Che” Guevara), Smith also runs a small charity bringing musical instruments to Cuban children, and much like open water swimming, his cafe has also been about encouraging social interaction.

“We made the decision to close on the 14th of March, I just reckoned it wasn’t safe for the staff, you could just see this thing gaining momentum, and thought it was best to close completely. We’re back up three weeks now, doing partial takeaway. The weather has been very conducive to standing outside, and we’re not a huge amount off, right now, but the whole situation is still evolving out.”

Through Ernesto’s, he’s also shared the open water swimming virtues with the likes of Dublin footballers Kevin McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley and singer Damien Dempsey.

“So much of open sea water swimming is actually about that social interaction, before and afterwards. In recent years, I’ve noticed more women than men too, and women of all ages. As life throws curve balls at you, you start to seek alternative remedies, to fix some angst, anxiety, or some mental strife in your life, and to me the sea has become a glowing way to do so.”

Perhaps to that list we can now add Covid-19.

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