It was my first night swim since the EC. Like many sea swimmers I love night-swimming. Just after midnight on Sunday morning, 16 experienced Sandycove Island swimmers took to the water in three groups to do a full lap of the island.
The water had been cold in Waterford all week, from 9.5C to 11C. The swim had looked doubtful only 24 hours earlier with south-west winds of 35 knots predicted. But the morning sea-area forecast showed a window of opportunity before the wind came up.
We all arrived around 11.30pm, the Sandycove traffic jam. The road being almost empty, I was still sandwiched between others cars heading the same way. The long northern latitude twilight had finally bowed to night, and it was getting cloudy and covering the half-moon. Good, it would be fully dark. Night-swimming isn’t the same unless it’s really dark.
I live the furthest away, but I know the island like the back of my hand, as does everyone else in the group. This would be my 99th lap of the island, though compared with Lisa, Ned, Rob, Gábor and Imelda, it’s a small number, with some of them having over five hundred or a thousand laps done. After my next lap I’m a member of the 100 Club.
I was sure Lisa had done night laps before, but she said that whenever she had tried during her Double English Channel training, the weather hadn’t co-operated, even during her overnight training swim, (the only one of us ever to have a done a full night swim … in training).
John Conroy and Ned have been running a night swim at Sandycove for the past few years to allow people to get the experience in a safe organised environment. Usually a bit earlier in the night, safety boats, lights, number count-offs, water assembly points and sticking to an inside lap. Indeed we have had a couple of night swims at Clonea beach also.
This was different. This was around the outside of the island in complete darkness. The wind was coming up and instead of predicted south-westerly, it was south-easterly, meaning the chop would be coming into our faces, rather than from behind.
This was special. Night-swimming, with friends. Queen Lisa, Liz, the Gáborinator, Rob the Bull, Ned and others, and a few people I didn’t know. Missing however were Jen, Ciarán, Liam, John, Finbarr, Sylvain, Danny, Eddie. Night-swimming in one of the world’s great swimming locations. What more could a swimmer want?
The wide experience of the group was evident in something before swimming. There were a lot of electronic night lights instead of just chemical nightsticks. All of those had been used before, in serious swims. Most of us have two of them, the little round but brighter one and the longer Lazer Stik. I’ve had my Lazer Stik for 3 years and haven’t changed the batteries yet. Of course, it’s only been used a few times outside the Channel. (These are far more visible than nightsticks.)
Ned gave a safety briefing. We were divided into three groups so we would be finishing roughly together, with quick assemblies at the first and second corners. Gábor and I would buddy up, him with blue lights, I with green.
We entered the water just after midnight. The people who’d never done a night swim were given a minute or two to see if they felt okay. At the last minute Ned decided we all needed a nightmare and decided to forego his togs. I shudder still. But understand the desire nevertheless.
Even at the cold slipway, the water felt a bit warmer than Waterford. Carol and Ned, both faster, took off after the first two groups and Gábor and I followed.
I know from talking to people that many of them are horrified at the thoughts of anything touching them underwater. I imagine the thought of it happening in complete blackness is worse, Though it was high tide, we swam through the invisible kelp on the way out to the first corner and I thought how it would scare those people.
We stopped at the first corner, Gábor had had a problem with his goggles and needed to adjust. Again, given the experience of the group, everyone was wearing clear goggles. The first few hundred metres out, eyes were adjusting from the glare of the car light at the slipway so it always seems particularly dark at the start.
At the first corner we could feel the growing chop from the wind, but the water also felt warmer. I don’t know why, but water always seem to feel warmer in the dark.
We swam to the second corner, Gábor on my left side, everyone giving the corner plenty of space for once.
The moon was hidden in clouds behind us. The world consisted of only a few colours. The neon greens and blues of the few lights I could see. Gábor there always to my left, and only a few glimpses of lights in front when we crested the occasional wave at the same time. The skyline of the far side of the island was black against the deep charcoal-hued 242424ff sky. The water beneath was void.
And in the void was one of the reasons we love night swimming, the efflorescent green sparking diadems of bioluminescence coruscating from our fingertips. So in the void were our arms and hands, the sign of humans.
We hit occasional kelp. Gábor hit a buoy on the inside of the island and I hit rope twice. The last hundred metres to the slipway was a sluice of cold water from the stream outflow. I didn’t even see the one boat I knew was moored outside the slipway.
I’ve swam for hours in the dark. There is something zen-like about it. It is utterly exhilarating and calming at the same time. This was only thirty minutes of heaven.
The wind was stronger, and stripped the heat really quickly from everyone as they changed, leaving us all much colder after a mere thirty minutes than we expected.
An almost cold hot chocolate from my flask shared with the girls in the car with a delicious bun handed from someone in the dark. And then the long drive home again.
Thanks to Ned for organising. Thanks to all my friends for a special swim.