The Open Water Swimming Year – The Ideas of March

Long exposure black & white image othe steps at Guillamene Cove in March

The under-cliff steps of the Guillamene lead down into the Ides of March

We claim victory. Or survival.  We swim out into Bone Cold water, and we claim it. Metaphorically speaking, we mark the nadir of winter at the end of February out in the water, bleeding our skin colour into the icy greyblackgreen, exchanging heat for some ludicrous sense of playing a game with the ocean, that makes others shake their heads at our lack of sense, or our lack of something they don’t ask about, or don’t want to know.

Recovering heat later in a quadratic equation of heath loss, rewarming and the zero of entropy, we tell ourselves, “done“, hard part over. We’ve seen another winter to the bottom. We unhappy few. Sentinels of the North Atlantic shores.

On March 17th, 2009, I was visiting the town where I grew up. With some time on my hands, I wandered up town to see what the excruciating St. Patrick’s Day parade of my childhood had become. Back then it had been a procession of agricultural vehicles, quarry trucks, the local brass band, an occasional amateur body like the local GAA club, and maybe one float. Parades were for the Yanks. Now it was an actual civic parade with local floats. The town still has a brass band, consolidated with another, hanging onto existence for now.

Irish people learn “the weather is always crap on Paddy’s Day” as a cliché, therefore true far more often than not. 2009 was an exception. It was t-shirt weather, warm with mostly blue skies. More people out to watch the parade crawl down the main street than usual, cones and 99s in hands bought from the few newsagents open to take advantage of the crowd. Not crowded enough for children on shoulders, still a pleasant atmosphere.

I remember the parade being led by a group of five men. Four men dressed in dark suits formed a box or cordon-like phalanx. Each had a single ear-bud with dangling strand from a set of headphones in one ear, held in place by a single index finger, like each was pointing at their own head. In the centre of the cordon walked another man, smiling and waving. The town’s sole black man, a African immigrant, as Barack Obama. The sight was an exquisite and delicious mix of squirm-making embarrassment and hilarity, and a knowing nod at our own provincialism and development from where we had been. Or maybe that was just me. It will remain my favourite Paddy’s Day memory. Warmth and change in the environment that had shaped me, something hopeful about the world we wanted to see, were seeing around us, in a town which hardly saw a foreign face all the years of my childhood.

Open water swimming is not something I just do when I am in open water. It’s part of who I am, something I bring elsewhere and who I am I bring to open water swimming. They are not separate, each is a string in a knotted ball, impossible to untangle. Months are both markers and memorials. My beloved Toby’s last hours on a freezing March morning, and me like Mr Bojangles, “his dog up and died, after [so many] years he still grieved“. A black man in a small town parade becomes a personal marker of an uncommonly early spring, an indicator in each year, whom I smile and think of when I swim on St. Patrick’s Day, as I think of my terminally ill mother whom I was with that last St. Patrick’s Day of her life, her at home watching the parades from around the country on the TV. Cherished memories usually belong to our childhood, not to the year that while training for the Channel I finally become an orphan and therefore some kind of adult. We don’t see the patterns of our lives, and yet only we can see the patterns in our lives.

Back on land from the cold water of winter-in-spring, forsythia, grape hyacinths, catkins on willows and of course hordes of daffodils mark the oncoming of the land’s spring.

Most springs are about a balance between cold and hope. Pulled back, trying to lean forward.

The sea evinces no such evidence of growth. Spring has not yet touched her bosom. No kelps yet spread, no fish yet spawn.
Some people come by the Guillamene, the tourists returning, the day trippers getting out when the weather allows after a longer than usual winter. They continue to ask the same old questions, their idea of a joke I’ve heard a hundred times. “Yes, it’s still cold” I’ll reply dead-pan, not humouring them. Each year I’ll remark to someone who mentions that they did the Christmas Day swim that if they really wanted to test themselves, try swimming on Patrick’s Day, when the water temperature will be two to three degrees colder. There are no St. Patrick’s Day swims. Just St. Patrick’s Day swimmers.
All this promise. The spring of the Celtic calendar is well underway. But the land lies. Only the sea knows. Only the sea understands. Only the sea is true.

The sea has only begun to contemplate its long farewell to winter. But fickle as she is, yet she holds tight to an geimhreadh, the winter. In the water we suffer. We are still cold. The increased light is an empty promise unaccompanied by warmth. It snows this year in March. No ice cream on Paddy’s Day. The water climbs from the bucket filled with six degree water to the fridge temperature of seven degrees. On March 19th I get an email from an US company from whom I’ve previously bought paint, calling themselves Irish and advertising a St Paintrick’s Day sale.

I unsubscribe but not without telling them where to shove it.

Winter is still here. I am an aquatic Irish Sisyphus, my boulder is Cold, my hill is the Atlantic.
Beware the Ides of March” said the haruspex. He did not mention that the Ideas of March are also significant.
Toby at the Guillamene

Toby at the Guillamene


3 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year – The Ideas of March

  1. Hi,
    I really love your articles about the sea and swimming and everything.. I’m not long in this, only from winter 2015/2016 and sea temperature on my island (North Adriatic) is rarely under 8-9’C. But I love it and it changed my life. Always swim with my dog, not sure I’d ever go if he is not there 🙂
    Wishing you many years of enjoying in swimming,
    Greetings from Cres


  2. Picture the scene. It’s 54 BC and the mighty Roman Empire has begun its conquest of Britain. Unrecorded in the annals of this great invasion was a secret fact-finding mission by the Emperor himself to an island further west. One Spring morning, a couple of days after the Ides, he boards a vessel, disguised as a trader, and sails with a small crew of dedicated legionnaires, making landfall on the Copper Coast of what would one day be known by invading Vikings as Vadrefjord.

    As they make their way into a local village, they realise they have stumbled upon a festival. The native Irish folk, poorly dressed for the inclement weather, are watching a small procession of cheerless farmers and craftspeople wind their way through the tiny village. The language barrier is clearly a problem, but by a process of hand signals and a smattering of Latin, it is suggested to Caesar that this is something they do every year on this day. What do they celebrate, mused the great man? Nobody seemed to know, was the reply, but the highlight of the festival (apart from quaffing copious amounts of weak beer) was that each year, the greatest warrior from the tribe would lead the village down to a nearby cove and get into the sea for a swim.

    This seemed like total madness to Caesar, but he realises he has inadvertently become part of this parade, and before he can say ‘non casu!’, he is ordering his right-hand man to fetch his swimming costume, which, needless to say, they have forgotten to pack. This has clearly escalated from a personal challenge into an international incident, so he removes his finely-embossed leather armour, and strips down to his undergarments.

    We have no written account of what happened next, though in the margins of the great Irish manuscript, Lebor na hUidre, there is a scrawl which only recently has come to light and been translated. Some scholars suggest it may have been written by Declán of Ardmore. It appears to be in a rhyming scheme familiar to modern readers of verse. It goes something like this…

    Far from Rome’s triumphal arch
    in a linen toga stiff with starch
    Caeser shapes up to dive
    Donal shouts ‘Saints Alive’
    Beware the Tides of March!

    Liked by 1 person

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