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.
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.
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.
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.
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.