It seems that everyone has become a sea swimmer these days, with crowds of regulars now dotting Irish coastlines every evening – tea and Dry Robes at the ready.
Record numbers of people started swimming in 2020, when the pandemic allowed us a little more time and pushed us far out of our comfort zones in many ways. Swimming challenges have popped up everywhere since and more and more little orange floaties can be spotted bobbing up and down the horizon.
There’s good reason for the surge too. Not only does swimming in cold water activate endorphins, but it also improves circulation, burns calories and helps with stress.
Sea swimming is a great way of safetly socialising outdoors too, which Joleen Cronin has especially found during lockdown.
“There’s a great camaraderie on the beach. You’ll meet a lovely group of people with similar interests that you might not have come across in another part of your life,” she says. “There’s a shared commonality and love for the sea and that’s beautiful. I’ve made wonderful friends through it.”
Joleen lives in Crosshaven, so she has always had a strong love for the sea. It was only in the past few years that she really got into swimming however.
“I’ve always enjoyed spending time on the sea. I would have been into sailing and going to the beach and all of those kinds of things growing up. That love of the sea has always stayed with me,” she says. “I always swam but I’ve really embraced it more in the last six or seven years. I try to do it as much as possible now.”
Joleen tries to get out for a swim at least four days a week, year round, and began swimming with a group at her local Myrtleville Beach over lockdown. They have also welcomed a lot of new swimmers over the past year.
“There are dozens of people that I’ve met and built really good friendships with,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see people realising what we have and actually utilising it.”
Joleen says that the biggest benefit she finds from her daily dips is that it helps with clearing her head.
Joleen’s group set themselves a challenge in February where they swam for an extra minute every day. By the end of the month, they were in the water for 35 minutes.
“There were a few days where we didn’t want to go in at all but the fact you had committed and there was a group doing it, there was a real motivation in that. We don’t clock our watches now though when we’re in. You just go in and come out whenever you’re ready to. Some days that could five minutes or it could be a half hour,” Joleen says.
“It’s all about the joy. Just switching off, getting in the water, having a bit of craic, and having a cup of coffee and a sausage roll afterwards.”
Karen Coakley, better known as Kenmare Foodie, is also an avid sea swimmer. But she only started to dip last November.
“I started sea swimming in November last year after having not swum since I was a teenager. Growing up in Bantry we always swam at the strand but my first cousin drowned when I was 13 and he was 15 so that really left a bad taste in my mouth with water for years. I just wasn’t really comfortable with it,” Karen says.
“The connection has always been there though. I started rowing about ten years ago in Kenmare and I got over the fear. Then there was something to do with the pandemic and I saw friends who were swimming and heard them talking about the benefits and how they felt and I just decided that I wanted to try it.”
Karen shocked herself when she decided to go for it. Prior to November, she wouldn’t even swim whilst abroad.
“I hated the cold. I would never swim on holidays. Every time we went to Spain or Portugal I wouldn’t even go into the pool. But on the 26 of November, myself and my friend tried it and I was hooked from the first swim,” she says.
“It was just the feeling of it. I just felt this happy feeling that afternoon and from then it became addictive. It was something that I knew I wanted to do every day and it became a focus during lockdown.”
After that first dip, Karen and her friend started to meet for a socially distanced swim nearly every day. In January, she set herself a challenge of swimming for 100 days in a row, which she completed in April.
“The days I don’t go I feel different. I’m 47 and people are starting to talk more about perimenopause and aging and things like that and I think anxiety can be one of those things that creeps into women at this age. I find that the days I swim though I sleep so soundly. I go in any day that I’m feeling agitated or down,” Karen says.
“I’m more confident in myself as well. I don’t really care about things I cared about before. It’s just a sense of wellbeing and feeling good and feeling strong mentally.
Although she is enjoying the warmer weather these days, Karen says that she does miss the rush of Winter swimming but would urge anybody who hasn’t dipped this year to get in now.
“There are so many benefits. I would urge everybody to do it. Life is hard, with families and kids, it’s not all plain sailing. Just go into the water and all of sudden everything will be fine and you’re able to deal with things better. We’re very lucky to have our ocean.”
Kela Hodgins has also long had a love for the ocean, but since she moved to West Cork with her husband to take over Dunowen House, that love has really blossomed.
“I’ve been swimming for years. I used to do it a little bit when I lived in Dublin but when we moved to West Cork I got more into it. I’m not a crazy competitive swimmer who goes around the Galley Head, I’m in and out. I do it for fun and for my own head.” she says.
Kela says that the hobby especially helped her over the most recent lockdown, when her business was closed and no end seemed to be in sight.
“I’ve always really enjoyed it and felt a great sense of relief from it but over the last 18 months it really was a lifeline for me. I really, really love it. It made lockdown so much easier, especially when our business was closed. It has been saving for me,” she says.
“I set myself a challenge in January to swim every day and it was such an outlet and a way to clear the head. I’m in my early 50s and there are very few things you can do at this age where you can scream your head off and no one will look at you funny but with swimming, you can do that.”
A group of women in Kela’s village have grown closer through swimming over the past year and have even started body boarding in Red Strand. Kela is still careful though, never going out too far into the water.
“I’m a nervous Nelly because I grew up with themovies. I can hear the song in my head. But just get over your fear and scream and shout and laugh. It’s so worth it,” she says, laughing.
For anyone scared of the cold, she recommends investing in swimming boots or gloves.
“I love my booties and my gloves. I wear them all winter. I might not wear a wetsuit all winter but the booties and gloves are brilliant if you have a problem with circulation or get cold,” she says. “There’s no harm in having a wetsuit as well. You don’t have to be hardcore.”
As Kela points out, we’re very lucky to have such easy access to the ocean in Ireland. On days like World Ocean Day, which is taking place today, it’s important to step back and appreciate our 3,000km long coastline.
There are currently 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean and there are many groups trying to combat any further damage.
“There’s a lot of people who come to enjoy the water on beautiful sunny days but the rubbish that is sometimes left behind is really upsetting,” Joleen says.
“We all have to respect our ocean and our planet. It’s quite sad when we don’t, so if we can try to think about it on days like today it would be really worthwhile and it will have a positive impact.
“We all love the water but if we have to respect it too.”