The car park, being a winter mid-day, was empty. I was later to arrive than the “two-minute-dip polar bears”, who’d been and gone. I’ve often thought and written about these days, the empty days of open water swimming, no souls but mine and the ocean’s, grey days when getting in the water takes all my willpower, days when I could scream with the joy of the emptiness and the big sea out in front of me under a huge sky, and my ego vanishing away into the jade silence and endless sound of bubbles and movement through water. The days I do not dream of and will never dream of, but which are also the days that make me what I am, whatever I am.
The sky was overcast, the light low with the diffuse dullness of Irish winter and dirty cloud like an ash fall thrown over the country for weeks on end. South south east according to the Guillamene’s painted compass rose and my absolute sense of direction in this place, in a refulgent spotlight of sunlight, a laden leviathan of a container ship lay speared and stationary just below the horizon line, aimed away from Belleville Port, facing west, too far from the estuary to be waiting for a tide turn. My subconscious trigonometry took the twenty metre height of the cliff into account, so the curved hypotenuse of the ocean surface must arc in a gentle parabola across six or eight kilometres to where she lay moored, out in the ocean, open until the Galician coast a thousand kilometers away.
Even in the summer, even given my nature, inclination, tendency, death-wish, whatever you call it, for swimming offshore by myself, even considering that Newtown Head between us reduced that offshore distance by twelve hundred metres, well even then I never swum that far directly offshore without support. And of course it was winter. The time of short swims. Cold swims.
January. Six weeks to go to what we open water swimmers know; better than any of the drylanders, the warm ones, the landlubbers we pretend to be; as the bottom of the year, the arse of winter. The end of February, the coldest month, coldest week, coldest day, coldest water of the year, still out in front of us, then the long haul back from maybe six degrees, maybe five, maybe under five degree water through May’s false promise of warm water, to the promised land, the promised ocean of mid July and temperatures of thirteen and fourteen degrees.
My open water swimming year rarely begins until about the second weekend of January, as time is always limited around the new year. The last open water swim of last year was on the last day of that last year, two weeks, a year ago. That year was gone, a notch in my continuum of days. I can think of this as my first swim, another adventure beginning.
Father Wind, an almost constant companion here in one of the planet’s windiest countries was mercifully quiet for once. A cold day with Force One wind, sounding much stronger and more aggressive than what sailor’s term it; light air.
A light groundswell was also coming almost directly from the south, the ocean surface moving like my foot under the bedclothes, gentle, benign and full of fierce potential and I watched the water as the cat watches my invisible appendage. The direction of swell I see from how the swell refracts over the reefs at this west side of the bay. Mother Ocean is breathing.
Diffraction lines the waves up and points them north, almost two kilometres to my left, inside the bay, fooling the people of the land into thinking that all waves and all tides go directly in and out, maybe one in a thousand of them one day discovering, or being told, their eyes open wide when I explain, that the tide here doesn’t go in and out, regardless of what their eyes and experience tell them but left and right, east and west, hoping that when I explain that something they’ve taken as fact as their lives is completely wrong, they will look at the world in a new way. There this swell will coalesce and tumble and peel left and right as clean breakers onto the trá mór, the big beach of Tramore, long curls standing shapely in the absence of an onshore wind, where the surfers will drag out their boards and dot the shore while promenaders walk dogs, and they will all look at everything except the sea, look at everything except outwards for more than second or two, because to them, from their point of view, there is nothing out here, in the inhospitable cold emptiness of winter water and sky, certainly not one lone swimmer, impossible to see, to even imagine.
It’s a spring tide, and the dregs of a low tide. I descended the steps, the concrete is bitter iron in the seven degree air. Below the steps I climbed down the metal ladder, until I stood in thigh-deep seven degree water, no temperature differential with the air, all in balance, five metres below where the water will hide all this in six hours and ten minutes time and fish will look upwards and people will look downward and not see me, not see where I am. I splashed my face, set my water-eyes, started my watch to measure the time I will be alive.
Then I tore off my human disguise and entered the water, the calm water, the cold water, the terrifyingly welcoming empty cold water of Mother Ocean.