Switch off your blue-lit screen and dive into the sea for an uplifting ‘blue mind’ experience, says Siobhán Cronin.
SWIMMING is my new religion. As my husband heads off to Mass on a Sunday morning, I am packing my car with my wetsuit, my big blue gear tub, and a flask of tea and driving just a few miles further south, to Lough Hyne, a stunning tidal saltwater lake outside Skibbereen.
And I’m not the only one.
By 11.30am on any given winter Sunday, the small carpark on the lake’s northern shore is packed with swimmers of every shape and size as the local ‘Lappers’ club members mix with other regular, but less experienced, swimmers, for a weekly dip.
I’ve been coming here on my lunch break three or four times a week all summer, doing a short 450m in just my togs, before heading back to the office.
But now, with chillier waters, I have had to dig out my wetsuit again so Sundays are my new lunchtimes.
But at least now I can push it to a more beneficial 750km, my marker being a little powerboat bobbing about, close to the western pier.
When recovery from a back operation in 2001 was accompanied by a recommendation to take up yoga and swimming, I headed for the water.
Very slowly, over many years, I built up my laps in the safety of indoor pools, but once you’ve felt the sheer adrenaline rush of plunging into cold water, there’s just no comparison.
We are blessed with many spectacular locations and pristine waters around our coast, and, to doctor a well-known phrase, there’s no such thing as cold water, just the wrong wet gear.
The unusually hot summer of 2018 was when I made my first move outdoors for several months of the year — and the start of my conversion to open-water swimming.
What started as a daring moment of madness soon became a three-times-a-week ritual and, after hearing about a group of water babies in the aptly named Snave, (pronounced like the Irish word for swim, ‘Snámh’), I relocated to the cute Ballylickey harbour for a few weeks, and the ‘Snave Seals’ WhatsApp group was born.
That group has grown into a crew of up to 15 men and women that now meets every morning come rain, hail, or shine, all year ‘ round, at the Abbey slipway in Bantry.
“Some people give us little beeps of their horns as they drive past in the morning,” says Finnish woman Nina Burke, who lives locally.
Nina comes from a country which has a tradition of jumping into ice-cold water, especially after a hot sauna, but she was never a fan before she moved to Ireland.
“I used to look at people in the water here and think they were all mad,” she says. “And now I’m one of the mad ones!”
Bantry woman Santhé Tanner is a real-life mermaid who swims in her togs all year round and never seems to feel the cold.
“I’ve always loved water and swimming, so when a group of women were talking about their morning swim, there was something that awoke my curiosity,” says Santhé.
“When I arrived that first morning at the end of summer the water had never been so warm — the sunlight was magical, sparkling on the water, it was such an incredible experience. Of course, I came back the next morning and the next.
“Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was the swimming, the laughs with the others, or the coffee afterwards that was bringing me back.”
On the morning of Storm Ophelia, the group wisely decided to skip it. But Santhé struggled to face the day without her dip and that’s when she knew she was hooked.
“Afterwards I found out others had felt the same. Since then we’ve never missed a day because of the weather. You can ask any sea swimmer and I think they will give you the same reply — they never regretted getting in.”
“‘The first morning I went I felt so fresh and alive, I could not wait to go again,” says Bantry swimmer Geraldine McGlinchey.
“I keep going because with life being so busy, it’s the only time I feel completely stress-free.”
Local swim instructors Ciarán and Clive Seawright from The Water School in Kealkil have even come out in the early hours of the morning to give the Snave Seals swim and safety tips.
“The ocean gives me so much,” says Santhé.
“I feel connected, supported, free, alive, one with nature, and a part of something bigger than myself. I read once, if you can’t sleep, go to church. If you can’t pray, go to the sea.
“I go because it nourishes my soul even when my mind can give me a million reasons not to. It gives me a calm that stays with me for the rest of the day.”
Santhé also borrows a quote from Anais Nin, which she found in Ruth Fitzmaurice’s brilliantly-named book I Found My Tribe: ‘I must be a mermaid, Rango, I have no fear of depths, but a great fear of shallow living.’
Some of the Snave Seals, like Santhé, are now accomplished swimmers, but others are just happy to stay afloat for ten minutes.
Not every swimmer has goals like Elaine Burrows Dillane — the Tralee woman who became the first Kerry native to swim the English Channel this September.
All of the women in Bantry, no matter what their objectives or abilities, have found a huge mental benefit to the daily dip.
People have so many different reasons for winter swimming — from back injuries to arthritis to the social interaction to bereavement to depression, but each one of them now knows the benefit of what is increasingly being called the ‘blue mind’.
The phrase was coined by California biologist Wallace J Nichols, who has written a book of the same name.
Wallace believes most of us live in a state of modern stress from the frantic pace of our lives, which he calls the ‘red mind’.
Some neurosurgeons wear glasses with blue filters to calm their minds during brain surgery, he says, as the colour blue has a calming effect.
“The ocean reminds us we are small,” he said in a 2012 TedX talk, and that helps to relieve stress.
His research has shown that our bodies react positively to the experience of water, from the sound of a trickling fountain to standing underneath a powerful shower to throwing ourselves feet-first into a raging sea.
It seems the greater our immersion, the greater it will divorce us from today’s energy-draining, screen-laden lives.
I’ve tested his theory by going to Lough Hyne when I’m feeling particularly upset about something, and when I emerge from its cleansing waters, I have found my mood completely changed and my anxiety faded.
But the camaraderie is another big part of the attraction — especially given the huge number of women it attracts — and, of course, there’s no age limit either.
My sometimes swimming partner is college friend Helen Coughlan, a lawyer from Kildare who, having caught the bug around the same time as myself, joins me for a swim anytime she comes home to West Cork.
We have a ‘holy trinity’ of favourite swimming spots: Galley Cove near Crookhaven for its wildness, Ballyrisode Bay near Goleen for its unspoilt white sands, and Lough Hyne for its shelter on breezy days.
Each location serves a different purpose but each has provided us with numerous joyous memories and much laughter.
We round off every meet-up with a well-earned treat of sandwiches and a flask of tea as we examine each other’s latest accessory purchases, be it a new high-vis float, a cosy cape, or go-faster fins.
It’s a wonderfully social pastime — and also good for your joints, heart, muscle-toning, calorie-crunching, as well as boosting your immune system to get you through the cold winter months. It’s the perfect antidote to 21st-century living.
And there are little post-swim incentives to be found too — from mobile saunas to the Wild Atlantic Seaweed baths, at various locations along the coast.
It’s no wonder so many people are opting for less of the blue screen and more of the blue mind.
Equipment and wetsuits
In mild weather, you probably don’t need much more than your togs, and goggles but a swim hat will still retain more heat in your body.
Swim socks give extra warmth and protection from sharp stones.
A great tip is to wear two swim caps at once or a good pair of swimming gloves.
In winter, brave souls will stay in their togs but the rest of us mere mortals like to invest in a decent swim wetsuit.
Swimming wetsuits are specially designed to help you glide through the water, lighter under the arms, and are much more fragile than regular, or surfing, wetsuits.
They take a bit of patience getting on and off so you don’t damage them, but once on, they should feel like a second skin.
You can pick up a good quality new one for about €200 so now’s a good time to write to Santy.
Most surf shops around Cork will give good advice on the brands and they will base their recommendations on your skill level and your objectives.
A snorkel will take the stress out of breathing but it’s also worth investing in some one-on-one swimming lessons so you can eventually ditch the snorkel.
Feet-fins will give you an extra edge on your distance, though they take a bit of getting used to, as your legs move differently in them.
For safety and visibility for boats, a high-vis float is a great investment. It ties to your waist and floats along behind you so you won’t even notice it, but others will. Even if you are only dipping in and not doing any great distance, it’s worth the investment, they cost about €20 and are also a great buoyancy aid if you run out of steam and need to rest.
Swimming capes come in fleece and waterproof versions and are perfect for getting dressed under, or for a quick warm-up when you leave the water.
Try to have a warm drink ready and extra-warm clothes to change into after your dip.
There are many clubs around the country and a quick search for ‘sea swimming’ or ‘wild swimming’ on Facebook will reveal the nearest.
The Sandycove Island swimmers near Kinsale and the Lough Hyne Lappers outside Skibbereen both have active Facebook pages and will respond to messages.
Outdoorswimming.ie has great general information and an interactive map of good locations.
Outdoor adventure and surf shops are usually good sources of local swimming spots and groups for beginners.
This is a good time of year to build up your laps in a pool. Start slowly and add an extra two laps each day.
Australian swim coach Brenton Ford’s Effortless Swimming site on Youtube is an excellent resource for swimming techniques.