From apps to maps, clothing brands and even a swimmers’ coffee, we meet the people who have married their passion for the water with an entrepreneurial spirit
Originally from Kerry, Eimear had been living on the north coast of Donegal for about four years when the idea for Salty Sea Sisters, an Instagram page designed to bring women with a love of the outdoors together, took root.
“I swim in the sea, I mountain bike, I surf, I do all sorts of outdoor activities, but it can be quite hard to find other women who are into the same kinds of activities. There were no real meet-ups I could find online until around a year ago, when I come across a mountain biking page where someone was looking for other women to meet up and go biking. I responded and said let’s do it and that turned out to be Aine McCauley,” says Tangney.
The pair ended up as good friends and enthusiastic partners in outdoor pursuits. But it wasn’t long until they wondered how they could facilitate the same kind of meet-up for other women.
“Salty Sea Sisters is now an Instagram and Facebook page and a website at saltyseasisters.com — basically these are all places where women who are into outdoor
activities can meet up and share experiences with each other, whether that’s sea swimming, hiking, mountain biking or surfing. We’re really hoping that other people can make the kind of connection Ainé and I have made, because that’s quite hard to do in the modern world,” says Tangney.
The pair hope that their activities can outgrow the social media end of things and have an impact in the real world.
“It’s already started. A group of five or six women who never knew each other, but who met in the comments section of one of our posts, got together this morning to go for a swim at the Vico Baths in Dublin, and that’s just fantastic. That gives us goosebumps because that’s exactly what we want to happen.”
For Tangney, it’s important that Salty Sea Sisters is female-centred, even though it’s not about excluding men and plenty of men have attended meet-ups in the past. The key difference is that it’s organised by women for women.
“In my experience, a lot of sports meet-ups are male dominated and if you’re a guy, you’re more likely to have had friends growing up who’ve been into hiking or surfing. You’re more likely to know people already to go and do that with,” she says.
“If you’re a woman and you don’t know anyone else with the same interests as you, it can be quite intimidating to just invite yourself along with a group of guys you don’t know. So it’s definitely not a female-only thing, but rather we say it’s a platform for uplifting and sharing what women are doing. We have lots of great men in our lives.”
Earlier this year, the pair produced their first publication, a swim map that details the locations of 140 wild swimming locations around the island of Ireland, which is available from the website.
“It’s a checklist of places you can check out once we all have some post-pandemic freedom back in our lives. It’s the kind of thing we’d have loved to have access to, and so we think others might find it interesting too. It’s been a big success so far — it’s gone to all corners of the island and people are using it, taking pictures and tagging us.”
saltyseasisters.com; instagram @saltyseasisters
Peter O’Brien describes himself as a social activist and entrepreneur who focuses on climate and environmental work through his company Happenings. He organises outdoor cinema screenings, large yoga events and music festivals, but in his downtime, he’s an enthusiastic sea swimmer.
“Like a lot of people, I found myself with not much to do during lockdown in 2020 and I got more into swimming daily. But it occurred to me that to do that safely, it helps to have some information about weather, winds, water temperature and so on, and actually, it would be really helpful to have all of that in one place in your pocket on an app,” he says.
The result is The Sea, a geolocation app designed for all water-sports enthusiasts, with location pins on coastal and sea sites of interest and activities, which provide users with information on the best swimming and water-sport spots around the coast. Information included on each spot includes water temperature, tide times, swell height and wind speed.
“This is a one-stop shop for everything related to the sea in Ireland. As well as providing useful information on the best spots for swimming, surfing and kayaking, I wanted to gather like-minded people, who firstly love the sea and want to use it for their wellbeing. I know the benefits and so do all regular sea users,” says O’Brien.
“But also, it is for those who are concerned about our seas and a space for action and education. We are gathering all the sea communities into one place and creating a marine movement. Our seas are in danger — the Irish Sea has lost 90pc of its biodiversity in 100 years and we need marine-protected areas. Through our Sea Pod podcast and our blogs I’m providing a platform where these issues can be highlighted and discussed.”
To say Rachael Lee is an accomplished sea swimmer would be something of an understatement. The holder of an unbroken record for swimming the English Channel solo (9 hours and 40 minutes), it’s fair to say she takes her swimming a bit more seriously than those who just like a casual dip.
As a sea swimming coach who teaches others how to be safe in the water, she has strong opinions on the difference between serious swimming and the odd dip.
“A lot of people are into sunrise and sunset swims, but they’re really just taking a quick dip. When I swim, I train to do distances of three or five kilometres at a time, depending on what I’m training for. That’s the difference between sea dipping and sea swimming. Both are brilliant — whatever works for you is fine — but they’re not the same thing,” she says.
Many people who come to Lee say they can swim but are uncomfortable putting their face in the water and doing a breaststroke. All that’s needed, she says, is confidence, and it usually only takes a few weeks to build it.
“I’ve swum all my life and have all the licences needed to teach, but over the last year or so, I’ve started to see many more people interested in sea swimming and many more than usual getting hooked,” she says.
According to Lee, there is a huge difference between doing lengths in a pool and swimming in the sea. To start with, safety takes on a whole other level of meaning.
“No matter what the weather is like, you can easily get out of a pool. It’s warm, safe, there’s a lifeguard and you might be with a coach and so on. At sea, conditions can change extremely quickly. It can go from flat and calm to choppy and unsettled in two minutes flat,” she says.
“Visibility can drop dramatically if a squall comes in, so every time I go swimming, I check the apps. I follow ¦Windguru religiously and check it every day, and even then, I don’t get it 100pc correct.
“You also have to contend with water pollution and other issues — it can be deep, for one thing! People who are mostly used to swimming in a pool can get quite freaked out when they find themselves out of their depth and tired.”
Lee’s main goal is to help swimmers build resilience and confidence, teaching them to swim safely through having a good working knowledge of their own limits and capabilities.
“People can get into trouble if they’re with friends maybe who are stronger swimmers, and they find themselves pushing themselves too far. But I do have to say that I think the benefits far outweigh the risks.”
For graphic designer Niall Meehan, sea swimming is something he’s done all his life but it took the pandemic to make it more than a hobby. His website seastudio.ie features highly evocative art photos of the sea and portraits of the people who regularly swim in it near his native Greystones in County Wicklow.
“I’ve always had a thing for the sea, but it was around 2016 that I started swimming daily in Greystones. I got to the point, like a lot of people, where I felt like everything I was doing was for other people. My wife pointed out that I didn’t really have any time in my day just for me,” he says.
“I really enjoyed taking the kids swimming, but one day, I went alone and realised that could be the thing I do just for me. I go early so I can make it back for work. I bump into the same people every morning and there’s a real sense of community about it.”
Meehan enjoyed recording his daily swims on Instagram and it wasn’t long until he was taking shots while actually in the water. The resulting photos are often surprising and interesting, full of texture and reflected light.
“It became a way I could express my creativity for myself, as opposed to in my day job as a designer. Sea images combine my desire to make something creative and visual, with an activity I am really passionate about.”
Newer and better waterproof cameras came along and he started sharing his work on social media. As the likes racked up, more and more people started asking for prints and the idea of Sea Studio was born. Today, Meehan offers calendars, cards and art prints.
“In November and December, I was flooded with orders which was fantastic. Since then, it’s settled down but I’m really happy with it,” says Meehan.
Like a lot of people, Galway-based Louise Griffin stuck her metaphorical and literal toe in the water at the start of the pandemic in 2020. A group of friends who were regular sea swimmers persuaded her to come along on a session and she thought she’d just sit and watch. But something made her throw some swimming gear into a bag.
“Before that, my thing was racket sports and I wasn’t into the sea whatsoever. But sheer boredom made me give it a go and to my surprise, I loved it. It was invigorating and made me feel alive. But one thing I didn’t like was the whole idea of getting changed and standing on a beach with a towel flying around in the wind,” she says.
Griffin started swimming daily at Blackrock in Salthill and on one visit last year, she marvelled at the sheer number of people in the sea — something was clearly happening and more people were swimming — and the lack of any kind of merchandising.
Her pre-pandemic job involved running a nail salon, but with time on her hands and a new daily sea swimming practice, an idea started to grow. Why not put together a line of beachwear?
“I went home and said it to my husband. We both presumed that if it was possible to trademark something like the image of the Blackrock diving tower and do a line of merchandise, someone would have already done it. But it turned out they hadn’t,” she says.
Griffin had a logo created featuring the iconic tower, and then produced towelling ponchos made to help people getting changed in public. Next came surf robes and then T-shirts, foot mats and hoodies. Later this month, the company will be launching a range of swimwear.
“That’s been much harder to design and get made, because we want to offer sustainable swimwear and it turns out that’s quite hard to do. Our swimsuits are made from recycled ocean plastics and come in long or short sleeves.
“If they sell well, we hope to expand and do more,” says Griffin.
It might seem like a leap from sea swimming to coffee, but according to Pat McCardle of Dreambeans Coffee, that’s only if you aren’t a regular swimmer. If you are, you’ll know that a hot drink straight out of the cold sea is one of life’s great pleasures, particularly if it’s early in the morning when a lot of sea swimmers like to take their plunge.
“We started sea swimming as a family this time last year. It was a lot warmer then and we found ourselves going every day. We’ve six kids aged from 12 to three; they all swam every day and we’d usually bring hot drinks for afterwards. As it started to get colder in September and October, we started to look forward to the coffee we’d have afterwards more and more,” says McCardle. “But we started to notice that when you get out of the water, coffee tastes a little different. It’s something to do with the rush of blood to the head you get from a dip and the salt from the sea, but we started craving a blend with more kick to it.”
McCardle has a 20-year history in the coffee trade, working with Pat Grant of industry coffee specialist Greenbeans. Together, the pair worked on making a coffee specifically designed for drinking after a sea swim and the result was a blend they called Rising Tide.
It proved to be a hit with the sea crowd, with the result that it’s continued to be a strong seller for Greenbeans, a company that usually only deals with the restaurant and cafe trade.
“People often say that food and drink tastes different outdoors and I think this is the case here. Rising Tide has a good kick of caffeine in it, even though it’s very smooth. If you weren’t a coffee drinker, you’d notice the kick off it after a few minutes. It complements the experience of being on the beach and getting warmed up again after a swim. But obviously, people are drinking it in other contexts too,” he says. “Sea swimming has impacted the national consciousness and more and more people are doing it. It’s healthy, free, good for your head and something everyone within striking distance of the sea can do.”