Friday 20 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: It's important to know when to strip off

'I decided to take a moonlight swim'
'I decided to take a moonlight swim'
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

For me, swimming is a solitary kind of activity. But then, for me many things are a solitary kind of activity. I have worrying tendencies in that direction.

I was sitting at home recently watching the airing of the recently released Bowie at Glastonbury in 2000. It's a great gig. And I thought how wonderful it must have felt to have actually been there. I immediately realised that I would have hated to be there. I was enjoying it much more, here on my couch, many years later, with chocolate. And you can't pause Glastonbury when you need to go to the jacks. Indeed, you'd be lucky to be able to go to the jacks at Glastonbury. And think of how many idiots would have annoyed you on the way to and from the jacks.

I've heard bad things about group swimming. I've heard stories of unmoored buoys at triathlons, an unhinged boys too, climbing over each other to get around turning points, guys literally pushing other guys' faces into the water. So I'm a sole trader. That means you have no competition, and you have no one annoying you. You just commune with nature and yourself.

Swimming off into the yonder on your own is like going to Glastonbury before everyone else gets there. Though let's not discuss the toileting arrangements. It would demean all of us.

But I do like a night swim. If there's a moon it's pleasantly eerie, the water silvery and shimmery and the moon like a giant lamp above you. And somehow, even though you can't see into the water in Dublin Bay at the best of times, there is something slightly blood quickening about the thought that there could be anything there, where you're just about to put your hand. Each stroke is a certain leap of faith.

Back when I started with the sea and I was more reckless than I am now, I used to go out with my sea swimming mentor from the 40 Foot in pitch dark sometimes. We had orange inflatable swimming floats that we would put cheap miniature torches into and off we'd go. The thing was, once you come out of the immediate little cove at the 40 Foot, it very much feels like open sea. So sometimes, as you powered towards the first buoy you might stop, and look around, and not be able to see the other guy's orange glow, and you might suddenly feel very alone in the big sea. You might even have a mild panic attack about which direction was which.

It was thrilling, but I wouldn't do it now. But a few weeks ago, when Carrie Crowley mentioned the monthly moonlight swim at Seapoint to me, I decided to go for it. Arriving out at nine on a cold wintry night, I wasn't sure how it all worked so I just watched and copied everyone else. We hung around a bit first making chit chat about how it was a shame it wasn't the night before, because there had been a lovely moon the night before whereas there was none now. This is the kind of chit chat we make at the sea, mundane but comforting discussions of temperature and weather and conditions.

Like a first timer at a sex party, I wasn't sure at what point I was supposed to take off my clothes. It was cold obviously, so you didn't want to strip off too early. But then, like a flock of birds whose collective mind tells them when it's time to migrate, or perhaps more accurately like lemmings off the cliff, we were stripping off and all heading in together. I barely knew anyone there but suddenly we were all in the soup together, doing this life-affirming, contrary thing at nine o'clock on a dark cold winter's night. And suddenly I saw the value of the collective experience, of doing something with people who have the same weird affliction as you.

And 10 minutes later we were out and drying off and warming up, and a guy I never met gave me the most delicious sausage roll I ever tasted, and we all told each other that it wasn't that cold really. And then I was back in the car, heat blasting, hot tea going into me to warm me from the inside out and feeling, for that moment, alive and invincible and bulletproof and at one with everything. For that brief time, whether through magic or religion or shared humanity and madness, I was the sanest man alive, no longer at war with myself and the world.

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