Winter swimming sounds daunting but Tommy Barker has been doing a seasonal swim for 30 years. He says it’s an ideal way to remember a loved one or just gather with friends.
AAARGH! You know that you are alive when you immerse yourself in the sea, a river or a lake on December 25, in and around Ireland. Even if you think the shock might kill you, the truth is cold-water swimming can be good for you… in the right measures, that is.
It’s almost like, but not quite entirely like, polar opposites. Who doesn’t warm to the thought of a soaking bath, a hot shower, or a lazy snorkel or swim session off some exotic isle, in sun-bathed waters? Answer: most of us.
Now, who loves being the ice breaker on Christmas morning, dipping a toe in chilly Irish waters and then getting more immersed; head down, arms up, nether regions contracting, and body turning blue all over, like some human form of litmus paper?
Answer: a lot more people than you’d imagine.
Increasing all the time in numbers, a Christmas Day ritual for thousands of Irish people is a swim on December 25.
It’s done for fun, and very significantly for fundraising, and it also works for working up an appetite, and for justifying a thirst.
Like Mass or other services, it’s also the chance to meet up again with people you might only meet on the same beach this one day, every year, back from the four corners like migratory birds, most if not all in their pale, winter pelts and scant plumage.
Dippers and divers on the 25th are becoming as much a part of the ritual and shape of Christmas Day as caroling and carousing, visiting or entertaining family or neighbours, and feasting on stuffed turkey or warm nut roasts, then having a sip and a warming sup in front the telly to round the night out with a snooze.
However, taking a dip on Sunday next week is not exactly crossing the Channel, or rounding an island or crossing a bay. Kudos goes to those who do this sort of cold water swim all year around, praising it for its health benefits like, improving circulation and boosting immunities, releasing endorphins, and releasing stress. Do enough of it, for long enough, and it burns calories too.
Ireland’s passion for triathlons is driving many hundreds of the really fit to brave ever-colder waters, and longer swimming distances. And, if you thought that cold water was a passion killer, apparently not; it actually increases oestrogen production as well as that of testosterone and so can give an extra edge to fertility and to the libido. So, more mistletoe when you get home too?
According to, eh, passionate swimmer Maureen McCoy, who last year with Paul McCambridge co-wrote Wild Swimming, Discover 50 Places to Swim in Rivers, Lakes and the Sea (Collins Press, €19.99) the Christmas Day swim is the ideal antidote to the excesses of the run-up to the Big Day, with goodwill flowing and a tide of fun and energy.
“That blast of freshness sets me up for the day and I feel energised. It has to be the most supportive opportunity for the nervous dipper to try out winter swimming,” says McCoy.
“For the first timer, a charity Christmas Day swim or dip is the perfect place to start, as there’s usually an excited festive atmosphere, jolly hats and sometimes even costumes.
“The only demand is that dippers at least get their feet wet, with the added feel-good factor of raising money and awareness for a good cause. Surely the best way to ring in Christmas and the New Year!”
McCoy, whose own Christmas Day swim ritual is in Co Down, advises, “You are not mad, and if you are, you are in good company.
“Squeal as much as you wish, it is cold and no one expects you not to think so.”
She also counsels the inexperienced not to stay in too long. “There is always tomorrow and the next day, and the next. Don’t be pushed to swim longer or further than you are comfortable with. Bring plenty of warm clothing and a warm drink for after... and enjoy it!”
In return for even a few seconds of entering/enduring/embracing some cold water, you get great bragging rights, ones which you can trot out for the next 364 days of the year.
Truth is, the sea water temperature in December around the south coast of Ireland might hover at 10 or 11 degrees Celsius. In mid-summer, temperatures hardly get much higher, 14-16 degrees isn’t too bad some summers. Even kids do that.
However brave, or bad, a sea swim is in December in Ireland, though, spare a thought and an extra bit of respect for those who swim inland, in lake or rivers, where typically temperatures can drop below 5 or 6 degrees, or even lower after a prolonged icy snap.
Fermoy’s 2010 swim was cancelled due to reports of 10cm of ice on the swimmable section of the Blackwater. Cavan had 20cm of ice, and people cut through it.
Yet, not every Christmas Day swim is all about the cold — some are on pet days, with blue skies, and not a puff of wind.
On a bad day, when it’s wet and windy all around, even getting changed beforehand can be a killer. Afterwards is worse, when dragging rain-sodden clothes over salty, clammy skin, and when numb toes just won’t settle in a sock or a shoe, dangling like misshapen ice cubes.
Do it long enough, and you get a bit clever, you dress and undress appropriately.
A half-filled hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or mat is a lovely thing to stand on post-swim while changing, and then to embrace under a coat while chatting to fellow swimmers, friends and assorted hardy annuals for the post-swim bonhomie.
The Big Chill
I’ve been doing a Christmas Day swim for over 30 years. Over those years I wouldn’t have spent much more than an hour or two in the water. That’s in total, by the way, about two or three minutes at a time. It just feels incredibly longer.
The two no-show ‘fails’ I can think of were in 1997, after the 100mph Christmas Eve storms of that year uprooted trees, blocked roads, created monster waves, and left tens of thousands of homes without power (ours included). The other cry-off was due to a crashing hangover after a Christmas Eve party: swimming and alcohol in the blood never mix.
Swims now crop up in most popular beaches and piers, there are literally dozens along the Cork and Munster coastlines, and post-Mass/noon seems to be the time for most to kick off and dive/wade/inch in. The timing generally means the turkey is in the oven, and the dinner is on the way, so the swim is a diversion, an aperitif of sorts, on the rocks.
Our family swim tradition was started by my sister Claire and her college mates in the late 1970s, book-ending each year which also had, as a mid-year counterpoint, a midsummer’s night-time climb of Musheramore near Millstreet.
Those two opposing summer/winter events were recalled by her friend Theo Dorgan, in a poem after Claire died in 1986, in a book The Ordinary House of Love.
(1993), noting how she was always the lead ice-breaker on those swims. She died aged 29, and this year is dead 30 years, so she’s now gone longer than she lived for, making this year’s swim near Kinsale more poignant still. (Many other swims this day are held in someone’s memory, or for related good causes.)
Year-in, year-out for long afterwards, groups of my sister’s friends, their young children and us family members would meet on the beach, exchange stories, remember good times, eat mince pies and German strudel, and drink coffee fortified with whiskey. Straight whiskey too, and mulled wine. We earn it, and the simple, shivering toasts are heartfelt too.
Going into yet another decade, the tradition is in a second and even third generation now with children and spouses taking part (there’s a few wimpy abstentions, mind) and many never knew the swim-initiator when she’d been fearlessly alive and leading the annual plunge.
Numbers, naturally enough, are down year-on-year. Some years there’s only be the odd non-family face bobbing briefly in the water with suitable years of service. Delightfully, some reappear over the sands who’ve been away for years, checking back in just, you know, ‘on the off chance?’
I’d sooner do this swim than to visit a grave. Aaargh! You know you’re alive. And, you are very glad to be alive.
Splash out countrywide
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