40 Foot/Just make a decision!

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.

First Dip

I find this blog stuff a little tricky. You might want to read the intro section first (see menu bar) or you could dive right in, either way, thanks for coming!

The first of my September Swims chronicle was on a Wednesday morning. My husband had to go to work early and so I did nappies and breakfast and the dual Monkey school run solo which badly jangled my nerves, again. In between Monkey 1 and Monkey 2 drop off, I dashed home, ran upstairs, tore off my clothes and stuck on my swim suit. After Monkey number 2 was handed over, sobbing and all, I parked the car on Seafield Avenue. It was 9:08 a.m and 14 degrees Celsius according to my car.

Despite the wind, cold and greyness of the atmosphere, the water down at Seapoint was still oddly inviting. But I could actually feel the cold even before getting in. Your body never forgets the feeling of big chills. Seeing everyone else doing it though makes it the thing to do. Monkey see, monkey do et en Français: Singe qui voit, singe qui fait!

I stripped down to my suit and left my stuff on the bench in good faith, hoping to God my clothes would still be there when I got out and my car keys too, and I headed down the ramp into the sea. The sky was grey like an anteater’s coat and it was windy, making mini whitecaps on the water. It was kind of a beautifully miserable morning that matched the strain of my headspace. I needed to block out my crying babies in their new schools. I needed to lose the tension in my neck. Already in anticipation of the swim and now with my feet walking in icy water, I was forgetting and losing myself in another element.

But as my brave ten toes took me down the ramp, water slowly coming up to my knees, my toes yelled in chorus F*************k me, it’s cold!!!!!! But I was committed now I’d come this far and the other swimmers seemed to be coping just fine. Unlike the beach I’d recently moved away from where you could dillydally or shillyshally forever trying to acclimatize before actually making the plunge, here the ramp stopped and you just had to go for it and get in the goddamn water, which is probably better anyway.

I’m sure it helped my cause that any desire I’d had in the past few weeks to swim had been thwarted by being with my beautiful Monkeys at the beach. You can hardly get a good swim in when you’re minding a 3-year-old and a one-year-old. One’s sucking on stones and wearing seaweed like a headdress running headfirst into the sea while the other is examining broken glass and dog crap… Being alone is a luxury and I wasn’t going to faff about it with it.

Walking beside me down the ramp was a beautiful siren of the sea. Maybe in her forties she was wearing, peculiarly I thought, black elegant gloves along with her purple bathing suit. Auburn bits of hair poked through underneath her bathing cap. She was very fit and I wondered was swimming her solution. I asked her if she swam here often, I remembered seeing her and her gloves the last time I’d been here, monkeys in tow. She said she did, but she preferred the legendary Forty Foot swimming scene as it was more social and more encouraging to go in. Unlike me she walked in the water without fuss, like a model going down the catwalk into another world. She didn’t make a sound as she entered the clear water.

There was nothing for me to do now but make the move from vertical to horizontal. And so I did.

Oooooooooooooooooooof! Oooooooooooooof!

But I kept going and flailed around as much as possible, moving every single  bit of me. Moving fast and vigorously at the beginning I knew from experience is the way to make it enjoyable sooner. It was truly invigorating even if breath-taking and shocking. It felt like my body was releasing a giant, much-needed scream.  A bald, athletic looking man swam past me, on his way out, saying, “it gets better, the longer you’re in!” which was just what I needed to hear. Sure enough after a few minutes of behaving like a coked-up manatee I felt fantastic, totally exhilarated. Stiff fingers, fresh boobs. Now I know why that one swimmer wore gloves! It’s not your forearms that ache with cold or your thighs, it’s your toes and hands and other bits and bobs.

I swam and frolicked, porpoised and floated and watched the other swimmers. There were two very serious looking male swimmers; hard to tell ages when people have caps and goggles, but they looked like athletic men between 30-50. Both had yellow hats and were doing the crawl out into the open sea. Nearer to shore was an elderly woman coming down the ramp with a lime green, extra-large bathing cap that had kind of a 3D look to it, more astronaut’s helmut than swimmer’s gear. The hugeness of her green hat in contrast with her skinny little white body gave her a classic lollipop look.

And now swimming near me was a friendly, middle-aged woman. We exchanged pleasantries about the water temperature. She told me she swam instead of taking vitamins. Said there was iodine in the water this time of year. This seemed to be a good thing as she looked very pleased about it. Focussing on the temperature, I asked, sensing it was a touchy subject: “Would you ever wear a wetsuit?”

“Definitely not!” She said with conviction.

“Oh watch you don’t bump into the rock, there’s a huge rock right near here somewhere!” she told me.


“I don’t have many goals in life, but to touch and climb on that rock everyday. Been doing it since I was eight. That’s it, that’s my goal,” she said, smiling as she paddled around me and stood up on a boulder I had had no idea was right there. “It’s got barnacles on the left side of it, watch out. But it’s smooth on top.”

I’m feeling positively verklempt at hearing this—what a great goal!! And it totally reinforces my own goal to keep swimming as much as I can and maybe, just maybe, become a winter swimmer this year?

“it’s called the Hillier; silly name I know,” she said, as she stood up and shallow dived off, swimming away.

The Hillier I thought, the Hillier, how sweet. Delirious with the cold I imagined her with her childhood friends coming up with names silly hill, sillier hillier?

I swam around. Had a relaxing pee. What’s a little more water, I justified. We’re all made up of water mostly, aren’t we? I swam in a lone sun beam, closed my eyes and blissed out in the feeling of the sun on my face.

Meanwhile I could see someone going all Jacques Cousteau, with full snorkel gear, going under right by the entry ramp, and wondered briefly if he was being a little pervy going underwater so close to shore, near the swimmers. Speaking of perverts, I caught a glimpse of someone’s willy by accident.  A swimmer out of the water was faced out to sea drying his back, probably forgetting his sea audience, he opened his arms wide like on a crucifix. I turned around quickly, following the unspoken code of not looking at someone while they are changing on the beach.

Out in the open sea I could see sailboats and a car ferry heading to Wales and a ferris wheel and glassy football stadium like a big steel swirl on the left. I used to think that industrial landscapes by the sea were ugly, unnatural. But now I see it as a city beach and think it’s beautiful in its fusion of natural and manmade.

I’ve never joined a club or group or team really but this strikes me as a scene I could be a part of. No major technical ability is required beyond being able to swim. And most importantly I think it’s super cool and life affirming. Like motorcycles, and live music, white water rafting and campfires…but it’s something I can do anytime I want.  I’ve always loved the idea of those Russian polar bear swimmers who swim in the ice in the middle of winter. That’s a bit extreme for me but it impresses me in a big way. For some people it’s parachuting out of airplanes, or back country skiing, me it’s water.

From the water I watched the various people in front of the Martello tower. There was an skinny, elderly man with lots of thick, white hair in street clothes doing mini sprints of 50 yards back and forth, obviously part of his regime. After a few minutes of this, a woman he was running in front of asked: “Getting ready for the day, Liam, are you?”

“I’m ready, Mary, I’m ready!!!” he replied, clearly chuffed with himself.

In my delirium I stayed in swimming too long. Maybe 30 minutes? I was reluctant to get out. Was that lackadaisical feeling a preamble to hypothermia? I was super relaxed. After the Hillier I had transcended the cold and I felt I could frolic around for ages. When I started actually shivering I reluctantly got out.

My senses were discombobulated. I was giddy with my achievement. But my fingers were majorly stiff and I had to try to peel off my suit while holding my towel as coverage. Sure enough the towel slipped and I karmically mooned the sea audience.

I eventually got the job done and was re-established in my warm clothes: velour trackies, fleecie zipped up to my chin. My fingers were so ridiculously stiff everything was challenging and undoing my knotted shoelaces was tricky. But I was filled with happiness. The experience had totally worked as a stress buster. Not only had it de-stressed me, it had me fantastically high! I was going to get my butt home and start a blog and call it prairie fish.

A cleaning man working for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown council was busy belting out Motown sounding songs with a huge soulful voice as he bleached and mopped the changing area. Singing about not letting the sun go down on him. It was all so lovely and cheerful that it was starting to seem like a Disney movie for chrissakes.

I raced up the hill to the car. The Canadian in me longed for an outdoor hot tub. Next time I would have the process more streamlined, better gear and a thermos for god’s sakes. I actually felt a little drunk driving home I was so giddy. Had I got a little hypothermic? This song went through my head on repeat:  Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (click on it and you can hear it!)

I had a super long, long shower, 3 cups of tea, 2 half-eaten monkey apples, a turkey and Wensleydale-with-cranberry cheese sandwich and 2 pieces of 70% Lindt dark chocolate, my favourite. Swimming had given me a massive appetite. Later on that day I practically walked into a Nutella display. Big jars on sale for 2 bucks at the local store. Had to get some for my post-swimming, shark-like appetite. Or maybe I could coat myself in it for my next swim to keep warm…