The Open Water Swimming Year – The Heralds of May

The open water swimming year is about celebration as much as anything more nebulous. Open water swimming celebrates for us lucky participants the glory, perennial wonder and eternal attraction of the ocean (and rivers and lakes to a lesser degree) and not least its and our moods. For some it’s a sail, for others it’s a fish, for swimmers it is a reach out to the horizon, staking our claim on the claimless surface arm by arm, the vastness contained and humanised and acknowledged by our small actions, the same as one fish is a symbol of all the ocean’s bounty, one full sail a metaphor for all the winds, one wave an eidolon of the world’s swimming coasts. We celebrate the ocean, celebrate our swimming prowess, hard-fought in the winter months, and we celebrate the literal and figurative freedoms we now see stretched out in front of us in the summer months.

We are more than drawn. We are compelled to return again, and again, and again. We are lost without our open water hit, drifting on land.  Like kelp ripped from a low spring tide ocean floor, we have lost our connection to our essential place. We need salt drying on our lips, vaseline in (on?) our oxters, shivering in the not-warm-enough Sun or wind. We need waves smacking us in the face, light in the deep, our own breathing modulated through water, all the world of water’s sounds reduced to our own splashing.

May promises all this and more. Driving to the Guillamene, the colours of Ireland’s late spring and early not-quite-summer, despite an occasional good day, are a sketchbook of the colours of which the rest of the world consigns to the simplistic descriptor “emerald”. Such a poor word for the sight of Ireland in May. Chestnuts change from a verdant poison-frog green as they splay out into bedraggled doilies and erect white candles above them. Cow parsley rises above a soap-green foliage from the lower hedgerows, too diffuse to match the partnering with occasional Marguerites in their more strident snow-white. Birches and willows wave unfurl light and delicate leaves, seeming to create the light breezes that bestir them on days when all else is stolid, before later in the month solidifying into maturity.

Irish fields in May with hawthorn in bloom

Subtle hawthorn on the hill

Above all, in subtle beauty if not in height, for two weeks bloom the Sceach Ghael.

The month’s name may be Roman in origin but in Ireland it shares its name with the annual glory of the Sceah Ghael, that is, the May tree, in flower. The hawthorn, that most storied of native trees, invisible to so many due to its ubiquity and less than graceful shape, each May regardless of preceding weather, faintly dusts the Irish countryside with a subtle frosting or even salting that calls out to those with the eyes to see. That our beauty is not always in the rampant verdure, but in the promise and less showy veil of Crataegus blooms, the tree of the Good Folk, the subtle and dangerous Shee, a beauty which promises not only summer, but danger for those unheeding.

Never above misappropriating folklore, I also recall the hawthorn’s old reputation as a boon for broken hearts, which surely now finds an echo for at least this one open water swimmer, newly come from the depths of another winter vanquished and departing the recent bone cold ninth circle of hell of the very late Atlantic winter. Like a herald’s flag, raised first on land as vanguard, the May bloom indicates the promise of my coming release and freedom in the ocean, beyond the confines of mere half-hours, swims so short I have needed no anti-chaffing lubricant for five months.

The hawthorn blooms like a promise to me: “You and I, we see another year newly come to flowering. Let us share this time“. All those colours of land, the new greens and the understated white blossoms, find echo in the sea, where the season finally changes, trailing the land by months.

Spring has come to the ocean. The new green of trees is transmuted and if not quite the same palette, nonetheless, the ocean captures the spring Sun and filters it into washed greens that compliment the soapy green of land. I once more swim in light from high overhead rather than low in the south. On the shore thrift comes first slowly, then bursts to its early flowering, dotted on vertiginous impossible crags, or lined along Copper Coast cliffs, most wonderful when the Sun refracts into bokeh-balls behind the green and pink clumps, some clumps to which I return year on year, and can I be the only one to remember the clump on the stack beside the slipway onto Gararrus Beach, or the clump beside the Guill steps that act as foundation for the vista of Brownstown Head? Surely someone else knows that the thrift west above Kilfarrassey is not just pink, but covers a colour range from white to almost purple? These wild flowers have more meaning for me than gardens, as they mark my places and my time. And in these land plants I find metaphors for the ocean and ocean swimming.

Blue sky with pufffy clouds over Tramoe Bay and the Guillamene swimming club sign

Big May sky over Tramore Bay

The hawthorn is ubiquitous, yet also sparse. It rarely forms dense clumps, instead filling gaps in hedgerows and dots sparse poor higher terrain like the last outpost of the old forests. It is invisible in better land where more mature broad-leaves tower above it and displace it. It is mostly white, (but occasionally is tainted a rust or pink hue), but its is not strongly visible from a distance and even looking over an area with many, the blossoms are quite and blend into the surrounding green. It is a metaphor therefore for both the sea swimmer and the sea. Enduring the cold and harsh winds, it marks exposure and endurance. Even in profusion it like the whitecaps of the sea in a Force Three wind, widespread yet unpredictable, and not always easy to see unless you know to look.

Some May days there will be a more pronounced aroma. We think of it as “the smell of the sea” and most usually assume it is seaweed or salt water on the wind, but it is really the plankton bloom, life returning in copious profusion, ready to carry the whole world’s food pyramid on their microscopic backs.

The temperature bestirs the older lobsters, and lobster pots once again stand sentinel along on submerged nylon lines, their artificial blue occasionally jarringly looming out beneath me at low tide.

Newtown Head seeen from the Guillamene rocks

Newtown Head on a May afternoon in 2013

I return to the Cave of the Loneswimmer, my first solitary homecoming each year a cocktail of anticipation and happiness, looking to see any changes to my favourite location, which all the years without me only changed slowly, until it was born when I finally braved its depths and now each year I wonder what might have happened in the winter storms. If damage has come to something so old and so new. I reacquaint myself with reefs not seen since last year, some forgotten and rediscovered the hard way. I swim my first three k of the year. Then I break the hour, leaving breaking through that barrier too earlier to others. I swim to the beach and back. think about going for the next annual target of five kilometres. Should it be done this year, or will I need to wait ’til June?

The first sea combs and jellyfish are observed deep below me. Later in the month blue stingers rise, presaging not-too-distant cnidarian blooms. The ocean upwells with nutrients such that I think I can predict that this year will be a year for even more jellyfish. Mark my words. The lazy dogfish meander through kelp when the wind shifts north-east and cleans up the visibility. Forty centimetres long of pure shark DNA in their indifference to my overflight. Crab stand proud on rocks as I pass over, twin claws raised against this monstrous surface alien. Bass and “generic fish” dart into crevices when I swim the reefs off Kilfarrasey. Harvest may be later on land but here I once again reap what the winter has held in promise for me.

But the old associated saying so widely known could also be taken as a warning to new open water swimmers, that deception of which I am so aware. “Cast ne’er a clout til May is out” referred not to the month but to the blooming hawthorn. For May also deceives. Like the Shee, the Wild Host, May also is dangerous and subtle and Good. I doubt no other month has caught so many swimmers by surprise. Each year I see, on those aforementioned occasional sunny days, coastal visitors cast caution and clothes aside and enter that water that to their surprise can still be below ten degrees. Quickly back out, I see them absorb whatever insolation is available thinking they are protected, yet subsequent immersions prove their folly, and many’s the teenage swimmer has blindly and blithely entered into hypothermia, And even when the nine-segment digital mercury moves above ten, it is not a sure thing, but a game that May plays with swimmers, often coyly withdrawn. Not so cold, then cold. Swimmers underestimate the temperature, overestimate themselves. May should not be treated as a sure thing.There are more calm days in the slowly warming ocean but storms still brew afar, sending occasional long period swells easterly across the pond or up from Biscay, and though we can now see them coming, they still arrive on European shores with a shock, because we haven’t thought to look, because it’s May.

Beautiful. But subtle.

What need have you to dread the monstrous crying of the wind?

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“What need have you to fear the montrous crying of the wind” – by Loneswimmer on Flickr
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I sometimes think of May as the most deceptive of all open water swimming months. I’ve thought during the year that would be the theme of this month’s article and in part it would be written for chief Myrtlevillian Damian O’Neill. A couple of years ago asked me for an article about May for the Myrtleville website, but I responded that I didn’t think I had anything to say about May. However as I drove to and from Tramore Bay in the last month, thinking about the open water swimming year, as I have done so much for the last year, it struck me that there is more to say about May, and most it is more positive than warnings, so Damian, this one is for you and all the Myrtlevillians.

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13 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year – The Heralds of May

  1. Pingback: May – over, but not forgotten | Myrtleville Swimmers

  2. This brings everything back, what a wonderful piece of coastline. The salt air, light summer breezes, the rolling swell charging towards Tramore Strand. The Cave of The Loneswimmer waiting for our return. Even the bloody car park towering above, a place of anticipation, fear and wonder. A launch pad into the cold green ocean. Oh and not to mention that wonderful tree on the climb to Coumshingaun. Thank you Donal

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  3. Oh I love reading your articles for the beautiful, lyrical and literary style you have and the fellowship of swimming you evoke so well. I swim in Melbourne, Port Phillip Bay actually, off Dendy street beach which is photographed by thousands of visitors each year because of the bathing boxes yet so few of those people enter the water! We of course are just entering winter however our water temperature is nothing like yours.
    If you are ever in the Antipodes the Dendy Iceburgers would make you most welcome. Thank you for the
    wonderful writing.

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    • Very kind of you to say Kerry. My next articles will be about that fellowship actually, something i don’t write enough about. If I am ever down your way, I’d love to go for a swim with you.

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  4. A wonderful read, as always. We had our first open water swim yesterday, but chose the sun-baked shallows of spring-fed Lough Owel over the sea. For shame! Lovely though. Costa del Mullingar, I think the wife called it.

    How to describe the subtle colour of May blossom, and its curious scent? It’s certainly been a good season for it this year. Alas, you have been proven correct once again about the water temperature catching people out, most recently with tragic consequences. Regular sea-swimmers certainly have their shit together in comparison to the casual lake and canal paddlers.

    As for oxters, I’ll bow to the greater wisdom of my old man. The only preposition that works with oxters is ‘under’.

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    • Thanks Declan. IOsn’t it a pity we don’t hear the word sceach as much anymore? Yes, it’s not something I want to be right about, I wrote this a few days before the accident, then held off on pushing it out for a few days. And in a quarry no less, the most dangerous of all open water locations.

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  5. I have visited 4 closed doors in a closed town to finally find coffe. I have been thinking who am I. I have seen no other this holiday morning and ask who are you. You who drive around when everyone is tucked in.. who are you out and about worrying if it’s too much to if you swim again today. Should you leave it.. go slow.. it’s the beginning of the year.. don’t rush.. your shoulder will thank you..
    Who am I this morning. And I pull in a coffee finally found and I read the words of the swimmer in May… and I know who I AM.

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    • Ah Donal, you already knew before you read any words of mine. It’s not something we can hide from ourselves. Freezing your arse off in cold water tends to wake you up to the reality of it all.

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