The Open Water Swimming Year – April’s Kind of Nothing

How long are you typically here (in Ireland) for?“, I asked as I chatted with the US customs agent at US Border Control in Dublin Airport in late April.
I stared up at the official photo of the  current US President on the wall. While the agent gave me the usual interrogation about my reason for traveling, occupation, duration etc (Ireland is the only tax haven/country outside North America with US Border Control), I reminded myself again not to comment for the next four days. I was still in Ireland, but I was effectively in the US, no more foreign land can I imagine anymore.

Two to five,” he replied.

Months?“, I queried.

No, years“, he responded.

Oh. Long. Do you bring family?

He responded in the affirmative.

And how is it? What do you think?

We love it. Except April. April is kind of nothing“.

I know what he means.

We get past the nadir of late February and early March. The country once again fails to rise to my challenge of proving how tough it really is by organising official St. Patrick’s Day swims. Some years, like 2018, winter drags and spring never seems like it will arrive. Some of the early blooming flowers get a kicking by late frosts and even snow this April. A national agricultural fodder crisis looms as the livestock, long in Winterage, cannot return to the field because of the lack of growth due to cold and incessant rain making the land impassable. We’re a small enough country that I, someone who could not be accused of being agricultural, know about the crisis. At least countries with monsoon flooding know it will pass.

Winter doesn’t turn a quick corner and then wave us off, neither on land nor in the sea. We expect something that indicates we have entered the promised land, or promised water. And nothing really happens. Maybe a slightly lessening of frosts. Maybe an occasional day that promises more than it delivers. The grass on the lawn seems to growing but it’s so wet there’s nothing to be done yet and anyway the lawnmower is banjaxed. Some gold begins to creep back into evening  sunset’s colours, but it’s a Fool Gold. If April was an Internet meme, it would be “meh“.

The Third Lion

I have long thought of April’s place in the open water swimming calendar as Limbo, or Purgatory. To me this an oblivion, a place that is neither heaven no hell. Something that must be endured, that is not the pain of hell, nor the joy of heaven, neither the absolute cold of winter, but not yet the freedom of summer swimming.

The only sign of oceanic change I can detect is when I slip one Sunday morning on the concrete steps down to the sea, and I realise the algae has slowly started growing, still too early to be power-hosed off. I strike out and grab the steel rails and so prevent an injury. Some year I will be too old and my reflexes will be inadequate. I will land on my back and slide down further. I will by then be one of the older brigade, whatever nebulous reputation I now have will have been long forgotten, and someone younger, faster, fitter (but not better looking), may rush to my aid, and I will need it. Maybe afterwards someone will whisper to the person, “yer man used to be a swimmer, he had a nickname and all, everyone knew him”. And they will feel sorry for me, and promise they’ll never end up like me. But I know what they don’t know yet: They will, but I will not. Stop.

Ennui contaminates pool swimming also and I run out of motivation, the first such period this year, which experience says won’t be the last. I lose 30k plus from my swim plan during the short trip, but also the days before and after the trip when I don’t swim.

In Wisconsin, the land of 10,000 lakes if by lake you count every flood, puddle, dike, hole, building site and cheese outlet, I spend two days in a hotel 100 metres from 1/10,000th of those lakes. With water temperature the same as the sea at home, my goggs and togs are not taken out of my bag when I am wide awake jet-lagged at 5am. I have no interest in swimming more at 7°C just because it’s a new lake in a foreign country. So I do not add a new swim location to my list. I do have a disagreement with a colleague for both days about the circumference of the lake. He being a triathlete is unquestioning of his expertise and insists it is 20 kilometers around. I rate it at 6k, up it to 7k the second day, and map out the swim route for him. Neither of us are willingly to Google it but I almost admire his pig-headed willingness to pit his 400 metre sprint triathlon experience against mine. I tell him triathletes are the worst thing to ever happen open water swimming. I eat too much meat. Those two items may be related. At 5am, TV morning news, which I never watch at home, has an item about the State of Wisconsin giving 3.5 billion dollars to Foxconn to start an LCD screen manufacturing factory in the state. In an entirely unrelated story, while driving to the airport two days later to return home, I hear on the radio that Foxconn is looking for a derogation from the strict environmental water usage guidelines from Lake Michigan. Wisconsin is not a tax haven.

Elsewhere the Twitter swim brigade has taken off of course, all swimming phenomenally long distances on the Internet in water that seems to be either much colder than the Copper Coast, or much warmer.  It’s funny how the temperature on the Internet is always different from what I swim in. The Internet really is the best swim location of all.

April is a kind of nothing.
Maybe though, thinking of April as nothing, oblivion or purgatory is the result of the predominant culture in which I live. Maybe it is better to think of April as the Bardo. Here we are at a threshold, leaving one ocean’s season, waiting to enter another, and we rarely notice the phase between two states. We have lived as extreme cold water swimmers, now we to leave the cold and look forward to increasing warmth. We will leave the liminality of April and enter another phase, become something else.

Back home in the ocean surrounding our tax haven home, I’ve missed two consecutive weekends, due to travel and weather, and I pay a price. I really suffer for five minutes in the cold water, worse than any even colder this day this winter so far. Just last year on the same weekend I swam my earliest ever beach and back. This time, more pain, more than discomfort. I cannot judge the temperature with my usual accuracy. This is still winter, and any costume of spring is mere mummery. Mid April and the water has only barely nudged above 7°C and feels like it will never reach the promised heights of the Combined Twenty. It’s April. April is a month for always thinking that “last year I was better”. April is the month for really asking ourselves “what is cold water swimming?“.

I emerge after only 20 minutes and take too long to rewarm. I haven’t been back out to the Metalman yet and will likely now never return, never swim the cave again.

The next day I discover that I am not ill, so that excuse is useless.

Waves break in Nowtown Cove

April waves break into Newtown Cove


6 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year – April’s Kind of Nothing

  1. Donal the first cave with the sun high above just before it passes have you seen the light reflections there? Also found a way down to more or less safely drop into the cave beneath the Metalman. Hope to see you over the summer!


    • Hey Sam, yes, the long hallway into the cave, the light moving off the walls, rays down beneath the surface, the reefs seeeming whiter than they are, then the sudden twilight, which looked impenetrable from outside. And when you are in there, it’s not even dusk.


  2. Started swimming the Whitefish Chain of Lakes in Crosslake, MN again this yr. First outing was on Mother’s day 2018. Water temp was about between 52-56 degrees. The channel I swam in was colder cause on the big part of the lake, the cold water current from the deeper parts was running into shallow water where I was swimming. Temp drop must have been 7-10 degrees is my guess.


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