This holiday season as lots of people do their annual winter dip, we meet just some of the people who swim in our seas and ocean, not just in summer, but all year around. From grief to burnout, and from career changes to community spirit, everyone has their own reason to swim, reports Joyce Fegan.
“In June 2017, at 33, I suffered a life catastrophe which knocked me off my feet and left me feeling alone.
“My sister told me about the merits of sea swimming for anxiety and stress, so we decided to try it,” explains Amie Gavin.
For her, swimming is not about the exercise, but instead gaining control over that “flight or fight” response.
"As you breathe, the panic lowers and all negative thoughts and worries disappear,” says the 35-year-old mum to be.
In terms of transitioning from sea swimming in the summer months to winter months, it was a competition that led her back into the water during the colder weather.
“The summer ended and so did the swimming. I spent a few tough months searching for something that would give my mind the same release. As luck would have it, I won a competition to join More Chalk, a women’s strength and flexibility gym.
“Approaching the class was daunting but the trainer and girls in the class were so encouraging that within a week I was hooked.
“They were winter swimming and encouraged me along. I was nervous and unsure I could handle it. In the end it didn’t matter. We laughed and shouted as we got into the water and I was elated as I got out.
“We chatted and warmed up watching the sunrise. I felt lighter. I knew I had found my ‘thing’. I had found a group of women from all walks of life without judgement, just kindness, offering the support that comes from shared experience,” says Amie.
Now that group meets a few times a week to swim in the sea, something Amie continues in pregnancy.
“I am now 38 weeks pregnant and I have continued my sea visits. The doctor has confirmed this is safe for me and my baby. The girls have been right there encouraging me to keep running, laughing, and dipping.
“This small act has shown me I am stronger than I thought. Don’t give up on what you love when you are pregnant, it makes you stronger,” says Amie.
Mum-to-be Amie Garvin turned to swimming in 2017. She has continued ever since, including in pregnancy. She swims at the Vico Baths in Killiney, and the Forty Foot — both in Co Dublin.
“I’ve been sea swimming all my life. Growing up in Sandycove, Co Dublin, in the 1960s and ‘70s inevitably meant living a sea-affected life,” says Niall Meehan.
“Then I started swimming daily in Greystones, about five years ago, it just seemed natural to keep on going through the winter.”
However, sea swimming has become about far more than just exercise for Niall.
“The day they went back to school I went for a swim on my own — early, as it was a work day. It led to a chance meeting with some other swimmers. Then a ‘see you tomorrow?’, and a ‘yeah, sure’, began an amazing journey that goes way beyond the simple act of swimming.
“Sometimes I look back at the shore at my belongings and I feel immune from what they represent. Other times I just float. More often than not lately I am trying to create a photographic image of my swim,” says Niall.
In spite of the positive benefits Niall gets and the photos he captures, are there times when Niall doesn’t want to get in?
“Yes, there are plenty of times when I don’t want to get in. So while on one level I avoid putting limits on this experience through definition, there are certain practical aspects that can be described; the feeling of achievement, of overcoming trying conditions, the feeling of readiness, the rest of the day seems more inviting, the feeling of camaraderie, ‘you encourage me today’, ‘I’ll encourage you tomorrow’, and ‘we’ll all benefit from the group’,” says Niall.
The swim and its benefits aside, the group is the most important aspect for Niall.
You can follow Niall’s swimming adventures and pictures on Instagram @niall_verso or @seastudio.ie
Niall Meehan, 56, is a graphic designer and sea photographer. He swims at the cove in Greystones, Co Wicklow. While he has been swimming his whole life, winter swimming allows him to carve out a small bit of time for himself in his day.
“I started sea swimming on June 21 of this year. I lost my husband to suicide six years ago and the years that followed were very difficult. I decided the time was coming where I could sink or swim.
"I was suffering from stress and anxiety and I needed something to clear my head,” explains June Burke.
“When I get into the sea I leave my troubles on the shoreline — the fact that I can’t swim was only a minor obstacle that I was determined to overcome.
Her group, Snámhaí Sásta, now swims every morning at 9.15am, donning just booties and gloves alongside their togs when the colder weather kicks in.
Like many sea swimmers, the swim seems to be about the community that builds up around it.
“Snámhai Sásta is different because there’s a huge sense of community on a small beach in west Clare.
"The very first morning it was just me, I felt so good after the swim like I could take on anything that came at me that day, I wanted others to feel and experience what I did so I sent up an Instagram page @snamhaisasta.
“On day two there were four of us and on the Sunday of the August Bank Holiday there were over 400 people from all corners of Ireland,” says June.
“On Sundays I serve breakfast on the beach, hot tea and coffee and floury rolls with sausages. I have a DJ Ollie Mullooly who travels out from Ennis to do a country music disco where we dance to the likes of Daniel O’Donnell and Declan Nerney,” adds the 47-year-old.
Be it the breakfast on the beach or the effect that swimming has on June’s mood, there is a bigger “why” behind her decision to dive into the Atlantic ocean every morning.
“I get so much pleasure in seeing others happy, people have so much going on in their lives we have no idea what anyone is going through on a daily basis and if the swims helps in any way to brighten someone’s day it’s well worth it.
“I have even coaxed my mom back into the sea after 35 years. The sheer joy the swim brings to people makes me incredibly proud. My happy tribe lift me up on the harder days and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
"Spanish Point beach is filled with love, laughter and kindness each morning at 9.15am,” says June.
Mother-of-two June Burke swims in Spanish Point, Co Clare. She turned to swimming after losing her husband to suicide. A group called Snámhaí Sásta has now formed around her, and it’s moved from the water to a cooked breakfast on the beach, followed by a country music disco.
“I started sea swimming from a young age when my parents used to bring me into Salthill on summer holidays.
"I would spend the day swimming between the diving board and the raft that was the predecessor to the swim buoys, which are now in place,” explains Dee Newell.
As an adult, she began open water swimming when taking part in triathlons.
“I did my first one in 2005 in Galway. It was an Olympic distance and the swim section was in the River Corrib.
“I then did the Galway Bay Swim in 2012, and this is where the really long sea swims started. All of that training was done along the prom in Salthill,” says the Defence Forces captain.
From here, winter sea swimming became part of the 34-year-old’s life, which has now even morphed into an ‘ice swim’.
“I’ve only seriously taken part in winter swimming since 2016, when I did my first ‘ice swim’ — that is a swim in water under 5C. I did 500m and loved it,” says Dee.
While swimming started out as a hobby, because she thought it was the “only thing” she was good at, it soon gave Dee a “huge connection” to the environment, as well as a sense of mindfulness.
“Now I find I have a huge connection with the environment and nature. Through swimming I’m more aware of the weather and climate change.
We have names on all of the seas (around the world), but really it’s all one connected body of water and I find that amazing.
Distance swimming gives me a real space to myself, it’s maybe the only time I’m truly mindful,” says Dee.
But despite these benefits, like almost every other winter sea swimmer, Dee needs to motivate herself to get into the water.
“I know I need to swim everyday and to help motivate myself I started a challenge on Instagram called #deeswimber.
Seeing others get involved makes my swim the priority of each day.
“The best way to motivate yourself is make a plan with somebody even if only to have them meet you and watch you swim,” says Dee.
You can follow Dee’s swimming adventures on Instagram @dee_from_the_sea
Dee Newell, 34, is a captain in the Defence Forces based in Cathal Brugha Barracks. She swims out of Salthill in Galway when she can, but mostly swims in the Forty Foot in Dublin’s Sandycove.
“I’ve always loved the sea since I was a kid. I used to swim in the sea until September and then I decided: ‘I’m going to keep this up as long as I can’, and I didn’t miss a day,” says Lisa Regan.
“That was 18 months ago. I’m addicted, even when it’s choppy and rough and I’m laughing at myself or if it’s lashing rain.
“I know everyone there (at Salthill) now and it’s a lovely community. I’m one of the youngest, it’s a mixed bag of people and we all have the chats and a man named Paddy brings baked goods. I do weight-training every morning, collect the dog and then I go straight to the sea,” she adds.
For Lisa, a swim in the sea gives her sense of perspective as well as a sense of achievement.
"It’s just a brilliant feeling that has never subsided.
“I get a sense of achievement too, before my working day has even started I’ve swam in the Atlantic Ocean and I feel really jizzed up and my skin is tingling. I feel the picture of health,” explains Lisa.
Like many winter sea swimmers, it’s about feeling the water against her skin so Lisa will swim in a bikini as opposed to a wetsuit or with booties. However, the 34-year-old won’t stay in long in the winter.
Aside from the feeling of wellbeing the water gives her, swimming in Galway has opened up a sense of community too.
“I talk to so many people before 9am. You hear about loneliness in all age groups, but when you’re down swimming you’ll always get the warm hello and that’s part of it too. It helps with the lack of connection people are currently experiencing in the world,” says Lisa.
As well as wellbeing and community, the benefits of sea swimming have impacted her working life too.
“I’ll only work on projects that I feel really passionate about. I’m working on Cancer Care West’s Galway Bay Swim, in memory of Frances Thornton.
“I’m so invested in the environment too, especially around food and policy and procedures, where you can make actual change.
“I moved into that sector in the last four years. I decided I wanted to work in this area and with the sea swimming it’s given me a good sense of clarity,” says Lisa.
Lisa Regan, 34, works in public relations, but before she gets to the office every morning she lifts weights and then dives into the Atlantic Ocean at Salthill, Co Galway.
“I swam competitively as a child. It started out with the Community Games and then I went on to triathlons and the Iron Man. But I was the ‘wetsuit wimp’; no-one swam without a wetsuit in the winter,” says Orlagh McAdam.
“Then, I started taking the wetsuit off and went for the skins option in a race and I really enjoyed it, but it took a while to get used to it.
"He started to get into the cold water and it was the only part of his day that his heart didn’t break. The cold exposure would break his mindset.”
After making a sea swim an integral part of her day, Orlagh has even encouraged her parents to take the plunge.
“For me, I was really stressed and I couldn’t keep exercising as I was, so I said: ‘OK, I’ll do the cold exposure with a sea swim, or a cold shower, or the plunge pool in my local gym’. My parents used to think I was mental, but now they’re into it, too.
“It’s the biggest reset for your mind. You get out of that water a new person. You have the salt water and the community that forms around it,” says Orlagh.
As well as her work, yoga, and walking her dog, a sea swim is now part of Orlagh’s daily ritual.
Orlagh says the swimming “improves your mental resilience, which you bring into your day-to-day life, like when you need to make those hard calls to the bank. You just do it. Things never build up as much,” she says.
Even in pregnancy, she has got the same benefits and more.
“I’m about 30-weeks pregnant and still swimming. My mum is a nurse and my doctor is a diver, so the advice has been to do everything you’ve always been doing, but don’t get too cold and listen to your intuition,” Orlagh says.
“I’ve no interest in getting in a pool. I just love getting out there now, where there’s no broadband or WiFi, just seaweed and iodine. You’re fully immersed in nature. I’ve no swelling or aches or pain,” says Orlagh.
“There is no exercise you can do that does to your body what cold water does. It’s just a special feeling. It’s a reset button; it’s hard to explain the feeling you get afterwards, the high you get,” she adds.
You can follow Orlagh’s swimming adventures on Instagram @zenergyyoga_blackrock
Orlagh McAdam, 36, owns a yoga studio, and swims inSalterstown, Co Louth. Sea swimming acts as a “reset”button for her mind, even in pregnancy.
“I’ve been a fan of the sea for years. Last year my friend Kitty and I decided to give early morning swimming a go, that was February 2019. I found it healing and energising swimming at sunrise every morning,” says Emer Harrington.
“It started out just the two of us and then more people started to join. We had an Instagram page, @riseandswimcork, and by June there were 40 people swimming with us.”
Swimming brings Emer into the present moment and the cold water leaves her feeling energised for the rest of her day.
“I find when I’m in the sea I’m nowhere else. For me it’s really about being in my body. When you’re freezing cold you’re 100% in your body and in the moment,” she says.
“It’s the after effect and it’s the community, sharing those few little minutes of the day. For the rest of the day you feel energised.”
This year the group had a Christmas Day swim and they’re currently swimming once a week, at the weekend, at about 10am or 11am.
While their group is a mix of all ages and sexes, it has attracted lots of women.
“There are loads of women in our group, there are lots of ages and body shapes and it’s a safe place to be. Women are so brave, they’re just looking for a chance to be brave,” says Emer.
“We hang around after and chat and there are a good few bakers in the swimmers so we just share those around. It’s just so pure, you’re so cold and someone offers you that flask of tea. Someone is always going to share something with you.”
Despite the benefits, there are days when the alarm goes off and the temptation to remain under the covers is there.
“When the alarm goes off and all those voices are there saying: ‘You don’t have to do this Emer, it’s going to be cold’.
“It never occurs to me to not do it. The hardest part is bringing yourself there, the community is so powerful and they’re standing there by your side. In my head, if there are ever any doubts, I just say: ‘ah go’,” says Emer.
“Swimming in the sea just gives me this huge sense of wellbeing. It has vastly improved my life,” she says.
For swims in Cork you can find @riseandswimcork on Instagram or Facebook or follow Emer on Instagram @yogawithEmer
Emer Harrington, set up Rise and Swim Cork last February with her friend Kitty. What started out with just two friends has now attracted dozens of swimmers in Fountainstown and Inch beaches.
“I started winter sea swimming this year. In January 2019, my friend Emer and I were having this lovely evening in a wild Atlantic seaweed bath in Carrigaline.
“We were going from basking in a warm whiskey barrel to jumping in and out of the sea and then we were having a chat afterwards.
“We were just talking about the benefits of the sea and what it’s helped us with,” says Kathryn.
After experiencing “burnout” at work a few years ago, Kathryn had got a lot of benefit from the sea, so she decided to make it a more regular part of her routine.
“We were wondering if we started an early-morning swim would people come, and sure if not, it’ll be the two of us, and we’ll enjoy ourselves anyway.
“It went from two people to 10 people and it just took off and kept going.
“There are 60-odd swimmers now. And I won’t stop next winter,” she adds.
With the cold weather and the darkness of January what will make Kathryn keep going and getting in?
“It’s like pressing control + alt + delete on your system. And the colder the water the better, I’ll stay in for five to 10 minutes, but it doesn’t have to be minutes, it could just be your shoulders.
“Whenever I think: ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ I tell myself I know I’ll always feel better after I get the shoulders in,” she says.
“It’s what I get out of it is why I go in.”
Overall, she has noticed some major mental health benefits of getting into the water, as well as physical ones.
“My mood this year, mental health wise, it’s been one of my best years. I feel a lot more balanced. My sleep has improved and so has my overall mood level.
"When you feel better you have this knock-on effect, your diet is better, your relationships are better.
"We can be so stuck in our phones. I’ve had a happier year because of it,” says Kathryn.
You can follow Kathryn’s sea swimming on Instagram @yogawithkittysheehan
Kathryn Sheehan, 36, is fromLisgoold, East Cork, but swims at Fountainstown and Inch beach.
“I live in Letterkenny but I’m originally from Sligo. I swim in Portnablagh, Marble Hill, and Gartan Lake.
“We have a core group of five to six people — the Gartan Open Water Swimmers (GOWS).
“We use WhatsApp to keep it going,” explains Karen Crawford.
She started out swimming in her childhood and then as part of competitions, but it’s only in recent years that Karen has returned to the water.
“I used to swim in school and then I stopped in college. I joined a tri club in the ‘80s and ‘90s and then I stopped.
“GOWS started with a group of friends who had come together and there have been five of us over the last four years.
“At weekends we will go in, usually in the mornings and I don’t work Fridays so I’ll swim then too if I can.”
The group usually stopped in September but they decided to try and keep the swim going once a week in the winter.
“Some people wear wetsuits and some go in in their skin. Some will swim for 2km and some days when it’s only 6C, people stay in for about 15 minutes,” says Karen.
Like most of the swimmers, it’s not about the exercise but the sense of perspective that swimming gives them.
“We’ve swam at sunrise and sunset on some days. You see the sun right on the horizon as you’re in there. My heads gets lost and you forget you’re in the water, you do get a buzz.
“I’ve done things I’ve never done before. It makes you brave. You think: ‘I’m going to give this a go’, and that transfers to your work and home life,” says Karen.
“There’s the camaraderie you get out of it too, you have the chat and the flask is out and you’re putting the world to rights.”
Karen is now hoping to swim in the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden.
“It’s about how you feel afterwards, it’s the buzz you get when you’re dressed, it’s more than the buzz you get from exercise. You think: ‘Yeah I can do it, I can do these things’.
“I’m going to push on a bit now and do short distance ice swims (5C temperature and less).
“I have a life-long love of the water. It’s also a bit about age. I’m in my late 50s and I can do this. I don’t listen to the people who say ‘you’re silly’,” says Karen.
Karen Crawford is a member of the Gartan Open Water Swimmers group and swims all over Donegal. As a woman in her late 50s it makes her feel like she can do many hard things, including swimming in the Arctic Circle.