Can lessons turn a fair-weather dipper into an all-weather open-water swimmer? Our writer takes the plunge..
It’s a sunny spring Saturday afternoon when I rock up at Coliemore Harbour for my first open-water sea-swimming lesson. The wind is whipping at the waves beyond the thick stone walls in Dalkey Sound, but the water is tranquil in the sheltered harbour down the slipway. The air temperature is around 12C, but the water is still a nippy nine-ish degrees, and I’m nervous.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been “going for sea swims” fairly regularly, right throughout the winter. In reality, though, there’s been no swimming. I suppose it just sounds better than a dip, which is actually what I’d been doing all that time. You could definitely lump me in with the all-the-gear-no-idea crowd, with my neoprene booties and shiny silver changing robe, spending more time chatting and going for coffee afterwards than actually in the sea. Despite the fact that I would go for a dip in the depths of January, I was still a fair-weather dipper, arriving only on clear days and never staying in the water longer than a few minutes.
I wondered if I’d ever dunked my head under the chilly waters of the Irish Sea? I may have jumped in once or twice over the years in the summertime, but I would’ve been straight back out just as sprightly.
And there was nothing wrong with any of that, except I can actually swim, so why wasn’t I? I’ve never been afraid of the water (just the cold — I’ve got Raynaud’s, which means my toes and fingers go numb), I’ve got no problem going out of my depth and I’m not too worried about what lurks beneath.
It was my friend Laura who asked if I wanted to join her for a sea-swimming lesson. She’d seen a group on Instagram, an account by the name of @swimwellswimfierce, led by a guy called Coach Mick. I’d heard of classes in the pool, sure, but I thought open-water swimming lessons were reserved for those ultra-energetic folk training for triathlons and half-Ironman races, whatever they are. I was used to a leisurely breaststroke with my head above the water, never challenging myself enough that I would be out of breath, and certainly never getting my hair wet. I went along anyway, because I can’t say no to a new activity and, well, I was curious.
That first lesson was more of a casual chat with Mick about safety and respecting the sea. He asked the group what our individual goals were. “I just can’t get my head around the tides,” I replied. Sure, I was aware you could look up the timetables online, so I knew when to go to Seapoint over the Forty Foot, but that’s about all. It turns out there’s a lot more to it, and things started to make much more sense as Mick spoke — serious stuff you should know before attempting any kind of open-water swim. Like which way the bay was filling in from, the best times to go and the direction you should swim to preserve energy. Mick’s currently the Leinster Open Sea Swimmer of the Year — I was in safe hands.
So here I am in Coliemore Harbour on an April day, suited and booted. I’m wearing a silicone swimming hat, a 2mm-thick shorty wetsuit (no legs), neoprene socks and gloves, and I’ve unearthed a pair of goggles from the bottom of an old gym bag. We do a few stretches before tentatively wading into the water, which still takes my breath away for the first minute or so. “In through your mouth, out through your nose,” Mick is saying, in an effort to get us to relax. The water is only waist-deep, so staying afloat isn’t an issue, but I’m still yet to go under the surface.
We talk through some swimming techniques. Each person in the group can already swim, but everyone has a goal that has brought them here today. Some have only ever swum in a pool, one woman is training for a race, and others, like me, want to gain confidence in open water and see where it takes us.
Coach explains some subtle differences between breathing and swimming techniques in a pool versus the sea and demonstrates ways to move further and faster through the water while conserving precious energy.
Then there’s nothing left to do but literally take the plunge. The first time my forehead comes in contact with what feels like icy water, I get an instant headache. It’s gone as quick as it arrives, but comes back each time I place my face under the surface. I mention it to the woman next to me, who’s experiencing the exact same thing. I’m comforted I’m not the only one, but it still stings. I’m immediately brought back to that feeling of learning to drive, where you don’t believe you’ll ever naturally move through the motions without having to complete a mental checklist. This time with the added hurdle of the shock of the cold and trying to breathe through it. Not only that, but breathe out underwater. It’s not coming naturally to me and I keep popping my head up to gulp in big mouthfuls of air while I exhale above the surface. There seems to be too much to think about; something’s got to give and it’s not going to be my oxygen intake.
It’s only lesson one, though, so I don’t feel too discouraged. No one is ever good at something the first time they try it, right? We’re encouraged to get out of the water before we start feeling too cold, but I’m keen to get the most out of the class and stay in. Mistake number one.
When I finally emerge, I can’t feel my feet, getting changed is a challenge, and I have to sit in the car with the heating on full blast for 20 minutes before I stop shivering and start to get circulation back into my hands and toes. A lesson definitely learned.
By the time I go back for another class, everything is getting a little warmer and I’m determined to heed Mick’s warning and listen to my body. It’s important to know your limits and not worry about what other people are doing. This is one situation where you don’t want to push boundaries — it’s more than okay to err on the side of caution.
I’ve also upped the ante with a neoprene hood, which I slip over my swimming cap, covering my ears in the process. Between that and the increase in temperatures, it seems to do the trick and I don’t get the forehead pain, which frees me up to think more about my front-crawl technique. I’m moving through the water more purposefully now, twisting my body to reach further with each stroke, stretching my arms out in front.
I’d always thought swimmers use the power in their legs to get ahead, so I’m surprised when Mick’s feedback is to kick less. “You’ll tire yourself out too quickly,” I’m told, and when I look at how effortless his own glide through the water is, it makes sense.
The next week, I arrive at the Forty Foot to waves crashing as the water rises up over the steps. Surely we won’t be getting into the sea today, I think. As the rest of the group turns up, we walk around to the more sheltered part of Sandycove, reminded of some of the safety information we learned on day one. This is Ireland, after all, and the sea isn’t always going to be perfectly still. While I don’t necessarily feel like getting in the water today, it’s crucial I know what to do if I ever find myself in a situation where there are waves I need to navigate.
We enter the water, hugging the shore and allowing the tide to push us in towards the beach, moving as a pod and using some of the techniques Mick has taught us when dealing with a swell. My feet find the sand and I’m relieved the lesson is over, and grateful for the extra insulation my new hat has given me. Like with most things I don’t want to do, once it’s finished I’m glad I’ve done it and, along with the tide, my confidence levels are rising.
I do some practice in the pool between lessons — truth be told, not enough, though — and I miss a few weeks while I’m away on work trips. I’m tempted not to go back, if I’m being honest. Learning a new skill isn’t easy and it’s a humbling experience, especially with something as powerful as the sea. I’ve come this far, though, so I remind myself, with more practice, like driving, it’ll all click into place soon enough.
It’s the end of May now and I go back for one more lesson. Sea temp is up to just over 12 degrees and it’s a balmy afternoon in Sandycove with very little wind around. Mick bounds over wearing a purple sweater with a neon-orange seal. “It’s a gorgeous day — let’s swim out to the second buoy.” The three of us in today’s lesson exchange worried glances; none of us have ever attempted it before.
He knows we’re able and the conditions are perfect, plus we’re reassured that if at any point we’re not comfortable, we’ll come straight back in. We set off to the first marker, getting bits of feedback along the way. I’m struggling with my breathing, taking in too much air and not breathing out enough under the water, which leaves me panicking slightly. I’m told to just take it easy and switch to a comfortable breaststroke whenever I need to, which is a relief. I alternate between the two when I can’t catch my breath.
We’ve made it to the second buoy now and just have to cut across back to the first before heading in. It’s probably 300m in total. I know my body is physically able for it but my breathing technique is holding me back, and I know I need to put in more practice in the pool when the pressure is off. We’re swimming against the tide now so Mick offers a tow, which I reluctantly accept. I hold on to his bright-orange buoyancy tow-float while he pulls me closer to shore and shows why he holds that award. We’re all pretty chuffed with ourselves afterwards — it’s a significant milestone in our open-water journey.
I realise I’ve come a long way since that first lesson and know what I need to do now, plus I’m more familiar with my limits. Maybe now I could even call myself a sea swimmer instead of a dipper. Perhaps, if I keep this up, one day I’ll be one of those extra-energetic people training for a triathlon. Oh wait, I just remembered I can’t cycle.
Check the conditions. As a rule of thumb, open-water swimming Coach Mick O’Kane of @swimwellswimfierce suggests it is always safer to swim after low tide, as the water is coming back into shore, versus after high tide, when the water is doing the opposite — running back out to sea. You can check the tides for your local sea-swimming spot online; try sailing.ie/tides.
Never swim alone, no matter what your level or ability. Conditions can change without warning, or you could get a cramp in your muscles or start to feel numbness. Sea swimming is only fun when it is safe, so try to swim with people of a similar ability.
Don’t be afraid to chicken out. If for any reason you don’t feel comfortable in the water, or don’t even want to get in, that’s okay. Know your boundaries and don’t be afraid to let people down if it doesn’t feel right. Your friends might have more of a tolerance to the cold, for example, and try to get you to stay in the water longer than is safe for you. Listen to your own body instead of going with the crowd — your ability can change from day to day.
Be prepared with adequate insulation to allow you to stay in the water long enough to complete your swim. Make sure you’ve eaten enough to give yourself sufficient energy, and bring a hot, sugary drink and a snack to have once you’ve emerged from the water. On chillier days, prepare a hot water bottle and make sure your clothes are easy to get on — tight clothes like leggings aren’t ideal if your hands are cold.
Clear goggles are perfect for murky days, but a tinted or polarised pair are ideal when the sun is out so you can safely see rocks and buoys in the water. There are lots of Irish online stores that sell the necessary gear such as dinglesurf.com.
Speak to local sea swimmers. You won’t find a more friendly bunch of knowledgeable people than those who know the area and have been coming to that same sea spot for years. Most are happy to share their expert advice and look out for you next time you pop down for a dip.
A tow-float is great for visibility and can be used for buoyancy if you need a little rest, but remember it’s not a lifesaving aid. Similarly, when buying a swimming cap, choose a bright colour that’s more visible in the water.
For more advice on open-water swimming, see watersafety.ie.
If you ever see someone in difficulty, call 112 and ask for the Coast Guard.