West Cork is perfectly suited to year-round open water swimming, a pursuit which has been on the crest of a wave of popularity in recent years.
Swimming for me was, at first, a medical necessity.
After a back operation in 2001, I was told to take to the water. I was a reluctant water baby, having a slight fear of the sea after a few too many ‘ducking’ incidents in my youth, but needs must, so I took some one-on-one lessons with a very patient instructor and eventually found my sea legs.
Based in Dublin, the east coast held no great attraction for me, so it wasn’t until I moved home and to the stunning south coast that I started to regularly venture out of the pool and into the ocean.
And one morning last April, along with a swimming pool colleague in Bantry, I made a dash for the Bay, with more enthusiasm than sense, but at least with a wetsuit to hide my blushes. After day three or four, we suddenly realised an addiction was brewing.
It was 7am, it was cold, but there was something enticing about the water, and the landscape around us, that made us want to immerse ourselves in the cool waves.
We knew it was getting serious when we started comparing notes about accessories, like the best goggles, swim hats and the thickness of our wet gear. It took a major turn when we started meeting other swimmers and found ourselves swapping the names of shops and websites selling high-vis floats, flippers and gloves.
Then we started measuring distances, having spotted the markers in the Bay across from Whiddy, and challenging ourselves to go further each time.
Siobhan after an early morning swim
in Bantry Bay in May.
A few months into it, we decided to swap location when we discovered like-minded souls were already swimming every morning off the pier at Snave in Ballylickey, offering more moral support. Of course, when it comes to swimming, there is safety in numbers too.
And so, the Snave Seals were born – on What’s App.
Messaging apps have transformed groups like ours – a simple call-out of ‘Anyone for a dip?’ can result in a healthy meet-up within minutes, or an exhange of a weather report, sightings of jellyfish or seals, and allowing us to easily observe the rule of no less than three swimmers at any time.
‘The sea calls me, it is where I am free, where I am held, supported and close to nature,’ says one of our most motivational members, Santhé Tanner. ‘The worries and stresses of the world can wash away. No matter what the problem or dilemma, the sea has the answer. It cures everything except madness!’
Santhé says ‘mad’ really stands for being Motivated and Determined! ‘Of course the camaraderie of my fellow swimmers is also a vital ingredient, as are the many laughs, over coffee, after.’
And the weather doesn’t deter Santhé or her regular crew: ‘No matter what the weather – dark, icy – or how tired we think we are, as we drive to the water, minds wondering “What are you doing? You could be snuggled up in your warm bed”, we have never regretted getting in the water. It feels euphoric getting out and sets the tone for the rest of the day.’
Santhé knows it’s not about Olympic swimming: ‘Each of us have our own trials and tribulations, our own goals and achievements. We are so grateful to each other for showing up for each other and ultimately ourselves.
‘I love that the ocean is for all no class or creed, no membership required. All that is required is a respect for the water and to be safety conscious.’
She acknowledges the help of Clive and Ciarán Seawright of The Water School in Ballylickey, who have been invaluable with tips and advice on technique and safety. ‘If the euphoria isn’t enough of a reason to want to jump in, check out all the health benefits and immune-boosting effects of cold water swimming!’ she says.
Dympna Daly is another member of the group, and loves the feel of the open water in the sea. ‘It feels so refreshing and exhilarating,’ she says. ‘I love the feel of being in the open totally. You are not hemmed in, like in a pool – you are exposed to the fresh sea air, and all medics will tell you it is the best air for your health!’
She says that being totally immersed in the sea water means you are absorbing all its goodness. ‘The seaweed absorbs all the vitamins from the sea and swimming in the sea is like a drug – once you see the sea, you just have to get in, even if for a little dip, and especially on a fine calm day.’
She says the fact that you have made an arrangement to meet others is the incentive many of us need to turn up, but it’s so rewarding when you do. ‘You swim and chat, laugh and swim some more! You will come away invigorated and laughing – like author Ruth FItzmaurice said, you have “found your tribe”.’
Dympna says it’s important to find a safe place to swim and always swim with others. ‘We have fluorescent rescue water buoys (they look like beach balls) and we insert bicycle lights into them for the dark mornings.
The extras, like the skin socks/boots and gloves are magic, and definitely extend your time in the water.
After that, a decent swimming neocrene wetsuit is the business, as well as a proper hat and goggles.’
Dympna always has a cheap rubber tub in the boot of her car for the wet gear and a yoga mat to stand on.
‘I tried to avoid wearing the wetsuit until, on a cold morning on October 16th, I had to relent! It is just such a palaver putting it on and taking it off, rinsing it out and drying it, but it is still worth it and means you can stay and swim in the water comfortably for half an hour – even in January.
‘You obviously need to acclimatise yourself to the sea water and I recommend next summer start swimming in the sea in May and continue after that. You’ll never know unless you try it!’
Well-known Bantry athlete Geraldine O’Sullivan is also a recent convert to the joys of sea-swimming.
‘Sea swimming for me is comforting and calming in a time of loss. It really makes life fun – as it should be,’ she says.
When asked what motivates her on these cold winter mornings, she says: ‘Loyalty to the group! And the fact that we have a safety rule of no less than three.’
One of the best-known open swimming groups in West Cork is the Lough Hyne Lappers group (pictured, below).
They have the luxury of swimming in a relatively sheltered lake – which is, in fact, seawater – the only saltwater lake in Western Europe. The more experienced Lappers even get to swim in the rapids where it enters the sea.
Declan Newman of the Lappers says there is a great dual benefit to sea swimming: ‘Open water swimming, we have found, to be the best form of exercise and meditation, all rolled into one. We swim in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and strive to keep it so. I guess we are a really a social group that swims.’
And while I ‘wimped out’ this winter and returned to lapping the Westlodge pool, I did take a few dips during this mild winter in both Lough Hyne and at Snave.
Ballyrisode is another stunning location for a swim across its pristine harbour. And, of course, if you don’t dip at any other time of the year, then you can at least join the hundreds who venture into the sea on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, where your madness is diluted in the crowds of like-minded sea lunatics!
Think about technique ... and safety
CLIVE Seawright, who runs The Water School in Ballylickey, says there has been a huge interest in open water techniques since he opened his purpose-built pool a decade ago. ‘In fact, we are hoping to start a specific course on Wednesday nights for open water swimmers,’ he said, ‘because we find we have quite a lot of sea swimmers these days.’
He says that sea swimmers can find themselves with a false sense of ability because the sea makes them so buoyant, and that when they then switch to fresh water, they can find themselves in trouble. ‘But we have no problem coming out to meet any sea swimming group to give them some advice on technique and safety,’ he added.
‘We are involved with Irish Water Safety here, so we take it very seriously.’
Their safety courses include teaching CPR and also how to deal with hypothermia. Clive’s busy 16m heated pool, with a variable depth, sees 500-700 people using its facilities every week, and employs several swimming coaches.
‘We believe we have taught thousands of West Cork people to swim over our ten years,’ he said.
‘Last week we had 37 members of Bantry Rowing Club here, learning how to capsize, and I was delighted to see that 32 of them had learned to swim here!’