Tag Archives: Winter

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

Winter reduces my range. I swim at the Guillamenes, along the cliffs and shore of Tramore Bay.  Maybe, just maybe, I might get down to Sandycove for a lap. Days pass when I see no-one, arriving, swimming and leaving without a soul.

Spring comes with almost imperceptibly warming water and air and increase in the number of people. The winds slacken, swim time gradually extends. The rest of the Copper Coast calls out to me, to return and see what the winter has wrought, to find new experiences and new memories.

Burke's Island & reefs, Kilfarassey
Burke’s Island & reefs, Kilfarassey

Kilfarassey and Burke’s Island are always my first Copper Coast spring swim away from Tramore Bay. My playground of the island and reefs sits just a short swim away at high tide, a full circumnavigation of all takes only forty-five minutes, with optional paths around the reefs to lengthen any swim.

There was no-one else around, the tide was dropping and the sky was blue with a few actual white puffy clouds, not the usual grey-bottomed bringers of Atlantic rain usually visible. The water wasn’t quite calm, a light easterly Force Two breeze ruffling the surface and adding a nip to the air as I walked the hundred metres from the car down the slipway, crossed the stream and beach and left my sandals burdened under rocks on the sand. I lined up the zero triangle and minute-hand on my watch to indicate departure time and waded in, then dove into an incoming mushy wave.

The water was about ten degrees Celsius, according to my built-in skin thermometer. The cold shock associated with such a temperature dissipated within a minute or so as I swam out toward the windward east side of the island, stretching out my arms and shoulders.  Within a dozen minutes I’d reached the nearest shark-fin-shaped reef, and instead of a longer circumnavigation around the outside reefs, I turned west across the back of the main island. The water was a clear cool mint and jade in the cross-shore breeze, submarine reefs reaching up, old friends from previous years welcoming me back.

Another few minutes and I passed the main island and reached the inside end of the channel that divides the easterly and westerly reefs.  I was at the east side of the largest reef, a north-south ridge some seventy five metres long and reaching in places up to ten metres above the surface. Populated by birds and guillemots, mostly by Black Shags, who have always vocally disapproved of my unaccustomed irregular appearances, they threw themselves from the reef into the air, wheeling and dive-bombing and screaming their indignation at my arrival in their offshore haven.

I was swimming to The Keyhole, my nickname for the first rock arch I’d ever swum through. It’s an east-west narrow-waisted arch in the ridge, only ten metres long at the water’s surface, with a bare dogleg between the ends. There’s not much of a roof,  cut away as it is to the sides. When conditions are right, the arch, which is too narrow for most kayakers, compresses the flow and a swimmer can shoot through like a fairground water ride.

The easterly breeze wasn’t enough to shoot through at speed but the clear water gave me hope of seeing an anemone clinging to the rocks under the low tide mark, so I decided to swim through without breathing, to extend my underwater investigation.

With head underwater, I cruised west  through the arch, feeling the water flow keep me clear of the harsh sides. The quality of the sub-surface light changed, surely a cloud filtering the light entering the water, transforming it to a rich golden hue.

Under the surface was so crisp, so clear. The sand of the bottom, the encrustations of thousands of generations of barnacles on the rocks, this reef their universe, our air their outer space. The kelps and weeds waved in the backward and forward tidal stream. Ochre, umber, sienna. Jade, olive, phtalo green. Marl and charcoal. A merman’s palette of literal water colours. No fish were visible in the clear water this day, but here was every child’s daydream of swimming in an aquarium’s watery castle. No plastic scuba or treasure diver was required to perfect this idealized underwater scene.

All for me, just here, just now. All this time to see so little and yet so much. Only a double-handful of strokes on one held breath from arch end to end.

You can’t eat scenery, they say in Ireland. I was a child when I first heard that and I still knew they were wrong. Not with your mouth. But you can eat it with your eyes and your mind and your imagination. You can use it to create your soul, to fill your self.

Is the water too cold to swim?

This article is, once again, a variation of the most popular question here: “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in”?, which I’ve written about before.

Thermometer
Image by Ben+Sam via Flickr

The temperature at the Guillamene last Sunday week (October 16th, 2011) was about 13° Celsius (55° F). That’s far warmer than what most people will imagine, not far off the highest normal summer water temperature (about 15° to 16°, excluding unusual warmer pockets or days) for Ireland’s South Coast. And by the end of last week it was down to about 11.5° Celsius.

The weather is changing though, autumn and early winter storms have shown up and the water is rough most days. There’s been fog that has lasted for days,and the days of grey skies and continuous rain. Days and nights are cooler (though given the crap summer, again, in Ireland, that’s not much of a real change, only about 4° to 6° Celsius change for now.) Surely, many people will say, the water is cold!

Annual mean sea surface temperature from the W...
Image via Wikipedia

Occasional swimmers have changed to wetsuits weeks back. But experienced swimmers are still, should they desire, putting in two or three hours without wetsuits, (if they haven’t gone back to pool training or like me, have slackened off for the end of season).

So this is a critical time for those considering a big swim for next year, or wanting to improve their open water ability. Time when you should be asking yourself:

How much more do I really want to able to do?

You can stop now, leave the sea, and just do pool training. or you can retain your sea swimming. You can use a wetsuit, and get used to the sea in winter. Or you can stay in skin, and discover that for maybe another three or four weeks, it’s not that cold.

You can approach this as a multi-year project, this winter just keeping swimming regularly in rubber, maybe dumping the neoprene for a few minutes of skin only here and there, and then next year going a bit further before donning it. The only mistake is to expect to be able to handle cold without doing any work.

An important thing to remember now is Rate of Change, rather than deciding what temperature is your cutoff (because without experience you won;t know anyway). The water temperature will drop soon, (I’ll let you know when The Big Drop happens, it could be as soon as three weeks or could be as long as six or seven). The Big Drop is when the water temperature goes below ten degrees Celsius 9 50° Fahrenheit). Yes, yes … don’t tell you can even get that low, I can hear you from here.

Last year the coldest day was late November, after the coldest spell Ireland had in something like 60 years. And it recovered afterwards. By Christmas the temperature was back to normal for that time of year, at about nine degrees (48° F.).

So now is the time and chance to do address two big issues:

1: Your perception of the world around you, especially the sea.

2: Your perception of yourself, and your limits and capabilities.

I know what some of you are thinking: but this guys is already experienced at cold, and I couldn’t do it. Nonsense. Anyone can, as I keep repeating, you just have to decide whether you want to or not.

There’s already lots of writing about cold on this site, see the top menu bar up there? ^^^

Go beyond your limits. Go on. Do it. I’ll meet you at the Guillamene.

P.S. As I was wondering what images to add to this, I really wished I had one of a swimmer with a meat thermometer stuck in them. But, apart from the pictures of Gábor, this is a Safe For Work site.