The sea swimming phenomenon was a bandwagon too far, thought this landlubbing writer... until she learned to take the plunge in Waterford
‘You’d better get in. I’m going to be unbearably smug about this later,” I say to my companion as we stand on the diving platform beside our swimming teacher, Ronan O’Connor. We’ve just had a lesson in the swimming pool at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore – and now we’re outside for the slightly less controlled, much colder second part – sea swimming.
My seven-year-old had looked at me sceptically a few days earlier when I told her about the trip. “Can you swim, Mommy?”
She herself is on something of a swimming high these days. Her weekly lessons are her favourite part of the week, with one triumph following another – ditching the floatables one week, head under the water the next. She was clearly not convinced I could match her prowess.
And she might have had a point. As Ronan, who runs Ardmore Adventures, kicks off our pool lesson, I realise that whatever poor imitation of the breaststroke I had learned years ago has long since dissolved.
I thought swimming was supposed to be like riding a bike – once mastered, forever understood. This, it turns out, was a lie.
In the hotel pool, Ronan spends 40 minutes suggesting small changes to get more mileage out of my efforts – whether it’s how I push myself off the pool wall to begin a length, my arm movements, the angle of my head when taking a breath, when to kick, or the directions in which my legs should be pointing. For the first time ever, I consider how I move in the water, what impact each limb has. It makes it all much more interesting.
Eventually it's time to get into the sea. Ronan takes us through the winding corners of the Cliff House Hotel, down to a concrete diving platform with a ladder leading down into the water. This is it.
I like to chat to people about sea swimming, but I’m all talk, zero action. I made it through the entire pandemic without going anywhere near salt water, bar one five-minute dip/paddle back in June, in the beautiful weather. (And I didn’t bake banana bread either.)
Ronan is the opposite. He’s been teaching swimming and lifesaving since the 1990s, and has always been an outdoor swimmer.
“As often as I can. If I’m near the sea, I’ll get in, regardless of the time of year. I’m a water baby since birth. Every waking moment we were swimming down the pier in Garrettstown or on the beach.
“Everyone’s had this epiphany where they’re all heading for the sea,” he says, of Ireland’s collective come-to-Jesus moment in the sea during the past two years of lockdowns. Some of his swimmers, he says, might never have learnt properly as children.
“Their kids could swim, and when they went somewhere and the children wanted to go into the water, they didn’t have the confidence themselves. They felt that this held back their engagement in what they were doing with their kids. That was always there, but it just grew traction over the last 18 months.”
That sums it up for me. I love the idea of sea swimming, but find the reality deeply unappealing, if not terrifying. “I don’t want to do this,” I announce to my plus one shortly before we head to the water, just like a small child. Wisely, he ignores my sulk and throws me a towel, and we leave our room, which boasts a cosiness you don’t often see in a modern hotel.
When we get to the sea, it looks off-putting. It’s October, the water temperature is around 15ºC, and the sea is rolling up and down in a daunting way.
The entrance to the sea pool seems almost man-made, a small area encircled by rocks, opening on one side to the wider sea. It’s a sheltered spot, and it means I’m not facing the endless ocean. But never before have I got into the sea where I am out of my depth.
My companion is not keen either. He has appointed himself official photographer, so it’s up to me to get in first.
Ronan explains that the more I swim in the sea, my tolerance for cold water will increase. Taking cold showers will also help. He refers to this as “being conditioned” – the more you swim, the more conditioned you become. People who swim all year round don’t need as much gear, and don’t feel the cold as much, he says.
I’m wearing all the gear I can get my hands on. A friend has lent me her wetsuit, another lent me her wetsuit boots. Ronan has thrown in a latex swimming hat – all of which help with the cold, but conspire to look like the world’s most unflattering outfit.
Still, the wetsuit takes the edge off the cold, and allows me to focus on the other fear factors – such as waves and their unpredictability, and dark water where you can’t see the bottom.
“Boots mean that if the ground is cold in the car park or on the beach, you don’t feel that cold,” Ronan adds. ”Some people wear gloves because when they get out, even if the body feels a bit cold, their hands are still easy to use when they’re getting dressed afterwards, opening their car, making a cup of coffee.”
He advises splashing water on one’s face before getting into the sea. It helps with in-the-moment conditioning, but also means you’re less likely to get a shock, should a blast of cold water hit you in the face when swimming.
“When the cold water hits your chest, you’ve a natural instinct to gasp and take a deep breath in. Which is fine. But if you jump into the water, and go under, and then you gasp...
"It’s not that you can’t swim, but your brain is focused on the fact that you’re caught for breath because of the cold water hitting your chest, and you kind of forget about the swimming end of it. That’s where people panic if they fall into cold water.”
Or if a wave hits you in the face as you’re getting in.
It’s all about breathing, he says. “You just need to slow down your breathing: breathe in through your nose slowly, breathe out through your mouth slowly.”
I decide to get on with it. I climb briskly down the ladder and push off backwards into the water. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I gasp and splash my arms and legs about as quickly as I can, but it’s not as painful as I’d expected.
“Going down the ladder, you can always just step back up,” he points out, seeing me hesitate as the first waves hit. Know the terrain, consider how sunlight at different times of year may impact your visibility. If swimming somewhere new, be aware where to enter and exit the water.
“If you’re going down a slipway, know where the end of it is, so you don’t suddenly go into deep water and panic. It could be a case of walking down to waist-depth water, or even thigh-depth, and sitting down, so you’re getting your body immersed in the cold water.”
This means you are still in a safe depth while you get used to the temperature and movement of the sea.
“It’s grand running in somewhere if you know what you’re running into. But know the depth, so you don’t trip up. People react differently to cold water. Your body can get a big shock from the sudden change in temperature.”
After a few minutes getting my bearings, I begin making such a fuss – whooping and shouting – that guests gather on a balcony above. We wave at each other and smile. I have dunked my face fully in the water, and float about. I am insufferable.
My companion has had enough of my show antics, and wearing just togs – no wetsuit to soften the blow of the cold – he climbs onto the rocks and dives in. I silence my bragging.
“How did you get on?” a friend texts later, as we sit demolishing coffee and scones.
“Amazing,” I text back. “We’ve become smug sea-swimming bores.”