To Wetsuit or Not to Wetsuit: December Swims

I’ve done it! Actual winter swimming. Wednesday, December 13 it was only 3 degrees Celsius outside and the word around the waterfront was that the sea was 9 degrees. The day before, Ireland had experienced a force 10 storm across the Donegal coast and its biggest ever monster wave was recorded: a 67 footer. It was calmer that next morning but still choppy and cold.

I was feeling totally and utterly unmotivated and tired as I often do early in the day. No desire to run or swim or anything except sloth about, eating chocolate, surfing the internet. I’d already gotten dressed in slouching-about clothes and put lipstick on. I didn’t want to have to wrestle myself into workout gear.

Seadog stepped up and said he’d drop off Mancub at crèche and would drive me wherever I wanted to go for a run. I’d had sleep, I had some free time, a chauffeur, there were no excuses for laziness. It was a matter of forcing it. So I decided to go for a coastal run from Monkstown to Sandycove and possibly go for a swim instead of a nap. It was time to see if I could hack real ass-freezing winter swimming temperatures.

Sure enough once you actually gear up and get out there, you’re happy enough even if you have to drag your butt up the path. It’s always a great boost to the spirit to be outdoors and especially for me to see the boats and be on the seafront. The big open sky vista over the sea taps into my prairie need for space, lots of wonderful space. The yachts’ masts clanged musically in the wind. It was blustery but cheerful.

I had Hawksley on my ipod and it was good motivation to run myself along to his chorus of stay drunk and keep f*****g stay drunk and keep f*****g and on and on––a saucy and nihilistic running chorus on that frigid morning. Trying not to wipeout on the pavement I dodged half-frozen puddles and icy patches and dogs wearing little coats and sweaters.  With several walking breaks it only took 20 sweaty minutes to get to Sandycove. Seadog was there in the car reading Murakami’s latest giant novel. I gave him my water bottle and went to go see if I could see any swimmers. There was one white-haired woman drying herself off.

Then I saw other fresh happy older ladies, with their towels in plastic bags, smiling, coming down the path from around the corner. Water was lovely. It was the air that was cold they said. Just don’t stay in too long they advised.

Almost compulsively I find myself singing this song anytime I get near the sea. Another tune from my parents’ dj set list.

Groovy version: Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside

Kiddie one: Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside (once you get past the beginning it gets better)

There was a whole bunch of people at the 40 foot. But everyone was already leaving or drying off. I chatted with people about water temperature and the wind. I said I had been making it in twice a month. Oh you’ll find it very cold then, one guffawed. And mind the swell at the steps—it’ll try to take you.

There were three male pensioners drying themselves off, getting their clothes back on. One seemed to be doing a Riverdance-ish routine presumably to heat up. Whatever works! I was going to have to go in the busy frozen sea all alone. The first challenge was getting off my two jock bras discretely. I had to use my most Houdini like skills while Seadog acted as my curtain.

And then poof! Out of nowhere an Elle McPherson lookalike with long blond locks and honey-tanned skin showed up in knee-high, high-heel boots, jeans with a gold studded belt, a perfect physique and I couldn’t help but notice, lovely lingerie. I was astonished by her glamour. It was so incongruous with the shopping bag brigade and flip-flop scene of the regulars here. Her bathing suit though was relievingly sporty.

I was thrilled I wouldn’t be alone for my first (3 degrees Celsius outside) winter swim. She told me about her encounters with seals who apparently live around the corner by the rocks. I said how I wanted to swim for longer than just the dip people seem to do when the water gets to the winter lows and she said she did on Saturdays, in a wetsuit. Her and her friends swim around the buoys for twenty minutes and more. She told me I just needed a 55mm wetsuit. She was the first ever person who hadn’t baulked at even the idea of a wetsuit when I mentioned it before.

The icy pale green water sloshed up over the steps. I was ready before Elle and so I had to bravely go down the two steps that were there when the waves receded. The last time I’d been in at this spot the tide was much lower and I had to go down many steps. So I was a little scared getting in, thinking of the others’ warning about the swell that would try to take me. I held on tight to the rail, asked Seadog for reassurance. “Arrah you’ll be fine,” he said. Arrah is a new favourite Irish word of mine. It’s like a fancy Er…

I just glided in and swam about. It stung my skin and I remembered how that woman I’d met weeks before said it felt like you’ve been waxed. A strange feeling between hot and cold.  Lovely. Not too frozen. But very tingly. A bit like the burn from a swig of cognac or whiskey. Definitely too cold for head dunking. With the tide so high it felt like I was in a burstingly full splish-splashing bathtub.

Elle didn’t swim for very long and so I got out when she did (we’re talking two minutes). She had been doing this longer than me so I followed her lead. She encouraged me again to get a wetsuit. At long last the dilemma was over: To Wetsuit or not to wetsuit, I had my answer. Seadog like myself and most of these others feel somehow that wearing a wetsuit is cheating, but what I’ve come to realize is that while a quick dip is great, I truly want to have a proper swim in the winter, in the sea, and I don’t want to get hypothermia. Anytime I see water, in any situation, in any weather I have such a strong urge to get in and now I can.

On my way out a tall old dude was doing jumping jacks on the spot, trying to warm up no doubt, but bobbing up and down he really did look like an emperor penguin. And around the corner at Sandycove there was Redtrunks Smokey from previous weeks, this time wearing blue trunks but still recognizable with his simultaneous smoking and calisthenics routine.

Seadog and I had a nice cup of tea in the car with the heat on full blast. All very exciting for this prairie girl. Feels very cosmopolitan to be swimming in James Joyce’s swimming hole with women in high heels showing up for a dip.

Later that afternoon, totally inspired by 40 Foot Elle I went and bought a Christmas present for myself from my dad: a beautiful wetsuit, black with fuchsia-coloured arms and the word ANIMAL written on the chest. They laughed when I asked for a 55mm one, doing a demonstration of how thick that would actually be. No a 5 mm one was what I needed so I could still be flexible and actually swim but stay as warm as possible. If I wanted to do a triathlon I’d need a 3 mm. Steady on! It was quite a production trying it on in the store with Mancub in the buggy demanding moooore purple rice crackers and Little Chief impatient to get to the park and the notorious hard work of cramming oneself into the tight rubber sausage casing. And then I sweated like crazy waiting for the shopgirls’ advice.

Now I move it around the house like it’s my imaginary friend. Very looking forward to my first long wetsuit adventure.

Lately, I have been trying to explain what showing off means to Little Chief but sure enough I find myself doing a great round of it at the school gates to any parent that will listen: Guess what I did today!

Since the time of writing something amazing happened: I had my first swim-buddy date December 21! And a follow-up swim December 22. And then three more swims over the holidays including New Year’s Day.

My dream came true. A woman came up to me on the school grounds and said she recognized me from the 40 Foot and I realized she was one of the ones I talked to briefly last week. I so wanted swim buddies and poof here one was. We made plans to go together and she told me to bring a hot water bottle.

Left to my own noodely devices I probably wouldn’t have gone swimming so soon after that icy 2 minute dip in mid-December. My first swim with three of my new anti-wetsuit buddies was a mild morning, 12 degrees out, but damn windy. And there were loads of swimmers. Over the holidays it became much busier. There were hung-over college kids coming to cure their headaches and Dubliners who lived elsewhere but home for the holidays headed to their favourite swim place. There seemed to be mince pies every time I went.

While I waited for my swimfriends I talked to a few oldtimers. One guy having a cup of tea said he was going in for a second swim of the day, he’d swum an hour before further down the coast and now he was recovered he’d get in again. Another guy told me he was meant to stand guard while some women went in naked earlier. Worryingly people actually looked a bit purple coming out the water.

My new friends (2 Americans and 1 Irish woman) showed up, got undressed and in the water super fast, leaving me scrambling with my socks in their wake. I wasn’t expecting such speed. I guess I must normally turtle my way in. The leader C times us and unlike all the other swimmers who were just getting in and then straight out she reckoned we could stay in the water for 8 minutes. It’s true that after I’d flapped around the water for a few minutes and broke through the cold barrier it did feel manageable. My hands and feet were ice blocks but overall it was so profoundly refreshing and the sun was kind of poking through the layers of clouds. We swam in a circle and chatted about Christmas food and school stuff and whatever. This was a great way to start the day, a crazy bit of mum (me) time.

Standing on a hot water bottle while you get changed and dried up was a stroke of genius because standing on the wet cement after a swim with cold wet feet was punishing. I noticed other women seemed to have brought carpet patches to step on. I walked my new buddies back to their cars past the revelling older people doing jumping jacks and drinking hot drinks from thermoses. One man stopped us to offer us some cake with delicious maple-flavoured icing. It’s so heartwarming how friendly this 40 Foot scene is.

Looking at my friends post-swim, I have to say they actually had blue lips and a general blue hue in their cheeks, no joke. I told them this, but they weren’t worried, these chicks are hardy mermaids! I was definitely cold, even with all my clothes on (toque, cardigan, 2 coats etc.) But after two cups of hot tea in the car with the heat blasting I felt good. And all day through the little ups and downs I had this potent memory of that 8-minute supernaturalesque morning event.

Everyone said the 40 Foot on Christmas day was a big event. C wasn’t planning on going because it would be too mobbed. She’s a good leader and she was right. I couldn’t resist walking there though just to see what it was like. It was thronged and festive like a New Orleans swimming party. Hipsters. Families. Old and young. And lots of dogs too. Handfuls of young men trying to impress with their barefoot bravado walking home. People blocks away we’re putting on their socks, still dripping wet. People jumped in with their clothes on, screeching Sweet Jaysus. It was busy. I was glad to save my special day swim for New Years.

New Year’s morning was quiet. The grey sleepy streets were mostly empty. Opposite our house was parked a double-decker bus with the driver slumped over the wheel, trying no doubt to catch up on his sleep from partying the night before. I met C at 9:30 and the sun was trying to break through the clouds. It was another awesome swim, and a shocking way to start the day and year as I mean to go on: with a salty taste in my mouth and vigour in my soul.

Happy New Year everyone! Will try to get my wetsuit in the water for my next update.