Turning the tide: choosing the sea over swimming pools is becoming a trend

Purists are abandoning pools for the open-water beauty of the sea, lakes and rivers, says Nuala Woulfe.

Turning the tide: choosing the sea over swimming pools is becoming a trend

PEOPLE are taking the plunge, swimming year-round in our seas, lakes and rivers. Devotees say open-water swimming is healthy for mind and body. Ned Denison, from Kinsale, a distance swimmer with Sandycove Island Swim Club (sandycoveswimmers.com), says there are many reasons why people of all ages and abilities are swimming outdoors.

“Swimming costs nothing. It’s healthy; you can swim if you’re 80, or even if you’re overweight, and the water quality in Ireland is very good,” he says. Denison, who travels the world to compete in open-water races, says there are three kinds of swimmer; the dipper, the triathlete, and the distance swimmer. In the last few years, there’s been an explosion in tri-clubs and people have better transport, factors which, Denison says, have also made swimming outdoors more accessible and enticing.

“In Cork, 15 years ago, three to four people swam all year round and, maybe, there were 20 to 30 regulars in the summer. Now, there is a good gang who swim all year around and hundreds in the summer,” he says.

This July, Denison will take part in his tenth Lee swim, which, he says, has been fantastic for encouraging outdoor swimming. “What’s wonderful about the Lee is that it’s different every year. For lots of swims, today, you have to be a member of a swim club. In the Liffey swim, 95% of the same people swim every year — they all know each other, but, with the Lee, you could have a grandmother there on the day being cheered on by her neighbours and family. There’s a different atmosphere,” Denison says.

The popularity of inland waterways is on a par with the sea. A regular group now swims the Blackwater around Fermoy, and interest around the Shannon is growing.

Andree Walkin, operations manager at the University of Limerick Activity Centre (ulac.ie), says the university, a few years ago, in conjunction with Shannon Development, ran outside swim events and “people came from all over the country”.

Now, interest is such that the Activity Centre runs outdoor swimming lessons once a week. “Wetsuits have made a difference; they keep people warm and create buoyancy, although some people prefer to swim in togs, even all year round. A lot of people who open-water swim tend to be free spirits,” she says.

Mike Jones, who also works at the Activity Centre, was involved in the first Killaloe Water Festival (killaloewaterfestival.com) last year: for a 3km swim and a fun ‘glow stick’ night swim on the Killaloe Canal.

“Outdoor swimming is like anything else — the more people see others swimming, the more they’re inclined to give it a go. Water quality is excellent and people from abroad are always impressed with our tranquillity,” he says.

Katherine O’Flaherty, from Newtown, Tipperary, cites tranquillity as a reason why she swims outdoors. “I grew up swimming in Lough Derg, but I also love the sea. All my family are swim nuts. My granny is 86 and still swims regularly in Dublin. I love the lake, because it’s soft, with beautiful trees, and the sea because it’s salty and harder.

“I’ll swim in the lake till about November, with a group of women. Sometimes, I run and then go in to cool off. We bring flasks of tea. It’s our outside gym,” she says.

One man who is determined to document the best swimming spots in every county in Ireland is Brian Kenny, from south Dublin, who set up a website, Outdoor Swimming Ireland, in 2010 (outdoorswimming.ie), which outlines directions to the best locations, and to their facilities.

“I mainly swim in the sea, some lakes, and very few rivers. I’ve visited about 200 spots in Ireland and I take pictures. Connemara is a favourite, but in Dublin I swim the Forty Foot, Killiney and Seapoint,” he says.

Kenny says he gets emails from people abroad who are looking for the best spots to swim on holidays here. “People don’t realise how lucky we are in Ireland. In Europe, many beaches are private, lakes are sectioned off, and you have to pay to swim,” he says.

Last year, a book, Wild Swimming, by Daniel Start, documented the best places in the UK to swim. It became a surprise bestseller.

Kenny says writing a book might be on the agenda for him, too, but, for now, he is still seeking recommendations from the Irish public.

In particular, hidden spots in Offaly, Kildare and Armagh are top of this Dublin man’s ‘swim wish list’.

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