October has been a full-blown write-off. That is to say, no writing, and no swimming; just coughing and some more coughing and then even more coughing. Our house has been taken down by the flu and the chicken pox. I am desperately hoping this fourth week of the flu, armed with drugs and an inhaler, that I will be cough-free enough to get back into the sea soon. The only problem is: it’ll be November and I’m a month grounded and unacclimatized and I see barely any swimmers out anymore at my beloved Seapoint. Terrified though I am I think it may be a great antidote to my cabin-fever and lost month blues. Before this enforced dry sabbatical I had been on an invigorating roll of getting in the water at least once a week. Here is the story of my second September dip.
My first swim at the famous 40 Foot swimming hole was unplanned. I had read about it, gone to have a close up look at it and somehow managed to become a little intimidated by it. What if all the swimmers yelled: GO AWAY, YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED HERE, YOU’RE NOT A DUBLINER FOR JAYSUS’ SAKE! It’s a much loved and historic bathing hole in south Dublin bay with steps leading down in to a deep open sea pool protected by a horseshoe of rocks. The water is always deep no matter the tide. It used to be restricted to gentlemen, often nude apparently. Now it’s a free-for-all (though no longer nudists) and you hear about the various Forty Foot swimming groups and their all-season bravado. Compared to the wide, smile-shaped Seapoint, it feels like a much more intimate swimming nook and a harder place to be anonymous.
One cheeky sunny-ish September afternoon, first week of school, my husband, (an old Dublin seadog himself), our two monkeys and some friends spontaneously ended up meeting for a beach stooge down at gorgeous little Sandycove, exactly right around the corner to the Forty Foot. That little sandy cove is perfect for small children with their bucket and spade shenanigans.
Around the corner is a great landmark: the Martello tower where James Joyce once lived and where the opening of Ulysses takes place. Goofily, the one course I found most challenging in my English lit degree was Irish lit. All I remember are stories of fishermen dying and my professor telling us that Ireland was so green that even the postboxes were green! The notoriously difficult reputation of Ulysses had aligned with my laziness to make it so it never occurred to me, moving to Dublin, to read it. I had read Dubliners, no probs. But Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, no-way-hokey-pokey as my monkey likes to say. A good Canadian friend said to me recently he was reading Ulysses to his wife. How romantic! And the obvious hit me, I should bloody well read it too. Another challenge for the winter. Will let you know how that goes…
Seadog had a swim with our friends while I watched the kids and then it was my turn. Flip-flopping my way to the entry I passed a lifeguard board outlining the various kinds of jellyfish happenings in these waters. I blocked out jellyfish thoughts and walked on vaguely remembering an article about biting seals at the Forty Foot?
Looking out from this very vista, Joyce’s Buck Milligan described the sea as a grey sweet mother which sounded comforting until he added scrotumtightening and snotgreen.
I’d say it was more of a bottle green. I walked past the wildflowers at the entrance and all the changing swimmers, had a good look around at all the signs and the lay of the watery land. This looked a lot more like diving into the open sea. The water was crashing against the rocks in great big foamy white waves. On the left side there are rocks high enough to scale and jump off. On the right the rocks are more at sea level. And beyond this little area of 10 yards wide it’s the great open sea, next stop Wales! Or if you swam right and then right again at the bottom of Ireland: America!
Was it even safe? I wasn’t going to ask anyone and reveal myself as a newcomer. I loved how a good chunk of the gang here were skin-and-bone elderly people. Obviously hardy and veteran swimmers they toted around their swimming stuff in little plastic bags. They didn’t need high-tech gear. I think I might… In lieu of fancy gear though I had this song running through my mind: Lust for Life
After stashing my towel and flip-flops, I joined the queue going down the path, everyone was clutching the railing, getting ready to pelt ourselves off into the great big sea like a bunch of penguins in the Falklands. A teenage young woman, wearing a bra and panties, rather than a swimsuit was coming out of the water, giggling with her friend. You forget how amazing young women’s bodies are! She had a perfect, seashell-shaped bra covering her young flesh and was busy laughing at the cold while everyone in the queue gawped at her beauty. Hope she knew her own fabulousness. With the onset of 40 coming my way, I’m finally having to acknowledge that I am not younger than everybody else like I somehow often still manage to think.
Once again, I felt the strong motivator of community helping to offset the anticipated assfreezingness of the swim ahead. In the queue I was behind a woman and her 10-ish-year-old-son. She was saying to him, “I don’t care what you do, just make a decision and don’t wreck my swim.” She was using a super stern mom voice. “I have to have my swim,” she told him, “It’s not fair otherwise!”
She jumped in, swam off and her boy stood there, not budging. He was wearing a wetsuit. She swam back towards him.
“Look you don’t have to swim! For heaven’s sakes, JUST MAKE A DECISION! In or out I need my swim!”
The boy moved aside so I could go in. I couldn’t very well waffle, I had to be a good role model too and make a decision, so in I jumped. After last week’s primeval shock, it was still astonishingly cold but it was also familiar. Thank God I didn’t have a scrotum! Time to flail about.
The friends we had come with were wearing wetsuits and were clambering up the rocks on the left side for some proper diving in. I swam about, feeling maybe it was a little dangerous, all this depth and cold open sea and strong current, but mostly safe because of the people around. Surely someone would save me if a wave swept me out. Deep-sea swimming feels different to being able to touch the bottom. You are fully submerged in another element with no roof or floor, suspended in a different molecular setup than air. And that it’s a group of fellow humans bobbing about in this alternate universe makes it distinctly cheerful.
A man dove off the rocks gliding deep beneath me. I could see far below my feet his neon yellow goggles. Glad he knew what he was doing and didn’t collide into me.
Doing my somersaults front and backwards, I was thoroughly enjoying my little time out from parenting and living my aquatic dream.
Let’s just talk degrees of coldness. The coldest water I ever swam in: Oregon coast stands out in my memory. The sea off Victoria, British Columbia and glacier lakes in the Rocky Mountains. The water temperature in those places really is a problem for your body parts and most importantly it chokes you and makes it actually really difficult to catch your breath again, technically breath-taking. I think the Irish Sea is warmer than that. You can still breathe just fine. Googling average water temperatures I found some vague stats. The coast of Oregon gets to 12 Celsius in high summer, Victoria 8-10 Celsius and I couldn’t find out about those glacier lakes, but the hint is surely in the adjective glacial. The Forty Foot temperature in November 2010 was 10 degrees Celsius but in summer it got up to 15 degrees. Hmmm, November 2011 might be challenging…
It’s time I paid homage to my bathing cap. These new silicone material hats are amazing: they keep your head warm in and out of the water. I never feel fully satisfied by a swim or a bath even unless I submerge my head and go under (all of me) and in these cold waters that can be a fast track to feeling too cold to stay in the water. The silicone, oh the wonderful silicone makes it possible for me to get that plunging under water high. Sure my forehead gets a little frozen but it’s doable. Maybe this is what a wetsuit feels like, all over the body?
Meanwhile the boy made his decision. He wasn’t in. Fair enough. Thank God his mom still got her swim though. Another harried mother, I swam until I reckoned it was time to resume my role as an Adult/Parent rather than Wild Thing at Sea. Getting out after 10 minutes, I felt again a strong post-swim euphoric delight. Wrapped a towel around myself and got my flip-flops on. A few rugby looking fellas were arriving. Maybe they were doing post-match medicinal cooling. Apparently it’s great for the muscles.
Post-swim recovery was dramatically better than the last time. I didn’t even bother with a hot shower. I had stiff fingers but I warmed up much easier.