As I drove around the corner at the No Longer Red House©, I could see a swimmer in a yellow cap ascend the slipway from sand exposed by the dropping tide, and I knew with the immediacy of complete familiarity that bypasses the slower speed of thinking, and though I hadn’t seen him in a year, it was none other than The Bull. On the road somewhere behind was Finbarr who would arrive shortly after me.
It was the start on the June Public Holiday weekend, (Bank Holidays, as we still call them in Ireland, as I wait patiently for the Revolution to arrive so we can eat the rich), and there were Channel Swimmers at Sandycove. All was good and right, and as it should be.
Dee, who has a mind like a steel trap for dates and events, reminded me that my first ever swim at Sandycove had been on the June holiday weekend, back in 2006. All that is in the past was then in the unknown future, as all our lives are so book-cased. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know anything about Sanydcove’s then local reputation, which grew into an international reputation over subsequent years. The local serious swim group had grown since the 1990s over the years from the swimmers which included Liz and Mags Buckley (unrelated to each other and me), Mike Harris and Stephen Black, Diarmuid O’ Brien and the aforementioned Finbarr Hedderman who must have been swimming in nappies, because the dates don’t add up.
In 2006 I was not a serious swimmer. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I didn’t realise I was already becoming a serious swimmer (whatever that is), because I did not have the commensurate knowledge or experience, or any form of swimming resume. Someone once later said to Dee that even on my early visits to Sandycove that I had “the eye of the tiger“, (a cringe-worthy phrase), which was interesting to hear years later. But I still think though they were simply mistaking either my borderline OCD or my occasional social awkwardness for intensity or focus.
That first time at Sandycove I didn’t speak with or try to swim with anyone (social awardness). Off I swam by myself and double-lapped the island, (wearing a sleeveless neoprene vest), got very badly chaffed on my underarms due to the self-same vest and my lack of knowledge about lubricant (I’d been wearing a wetsuit previously), not knowing that the double lap was a goal to which many local swimmers aspire every year. I recall wondering if I’d missed the far turn of the island since I didn’t know the waters or coast. (This seems a ridiculous concern if you’ve never looked at the two-dimensional flatness of a coast seen from the water). And though I did not know it, or even realise it for many years, the June Holiday Weekend was born as a swimming weekend. And as a swimming weekend, it became also a weekend about swimmers.
In my exploration of the open water swimming year so far, I’ve used a lot of metaphors about swimming, the ocean, cold, the conditions and weather and the swimming experience. There has been less about those who share the obsession. You and me, that is, talking here. That apparent oversight comes in part because of the nature of this site, that I am a lone swimmer. Many years ago I used to say that was something thrust upon me, because there were no other “serious” swimmers on my stretch of coast. But of the many items of clarity that have come over the thousands of hours and kilometres swimming and therefore self-reflecting, one is that this origin story has changed over the years, and now, the huge majority of my swimming that is still done alone, has become by now more an essential and integral aspect of swimming for me. In my unconscious choosing of a blog title, somehow I stumbled onto the perfect name.
I need to swim alone, to do the one thing swimmers should not do. And yet I also have and need swimming friends, and swimming with them, even if done less frequently, is also essential and integral to the swimming life, (as the About page of this site has said for many years that such is what I think this site is really about).
When we swim, even those of us who are as naturally and strongly introverted as me, we are making connections. Some of those connections are simply from local place to local place, some are coast to coast, and there is always home to shore, shore to home. But others are from one time to another. I link my present to my past, and create new futures through swimming. I say, “I shall swim from the Guillamene to Boatstrand by myself“. I commit myself to that immediate swimming future. I imagine being out deep, and yet being in control, and therefore I create that brief future. I take control in the one place most people cannot image taking control.
And not least we connect one person to another. Sometimes we links others in our circle together to facilitate some small or big adventure (which is a regular occurrence for Channel Swimmers). “I want to swim X, do you know anyone that can help“, in a network that spreads around the world and across decades in our small family of the “famous few”.
But I struggle for metaphors as I cannot write about people as I can write about the sea. Maybe this is the essential difference between me and you. The mysteries and terrors of the sea that so terrify others are so much less than terror to me, nothing nut freedom and joy. I can measure myself, look at the sea, and say “today I can swim such and such“. But when it comes to people I fail, I see a similar opacity in people to what most see in the sea.
I know through time and experience, (a tautology I guess, as what else can we learn through) that I can rely on these swimming friends. I can close my eyes and see The Bull standing on Finbarr’s Beach, muscles severely contracted by cold, wild-eyed after hours in the cold, driving Ciaran and me back into the ten degree water, for just one more lap before we will make the decision to stop, and later, we do not stop. I can see Finbarr coming over for a swim on the Copper Coast, when he notoriously does not like casually swimming new locations (but he’s fine with new Channels), not because he wants to swim, but because he wants to make sure I’m okay, and if I am swimming, I will be okay. I remember swimming with Ciaran at Clonea, the first time I vomited while swimming without breaking stroke or dropping speed, and knowing I’ve moved up anther rung of the distance swimming experience. I can feel Liam’s massive arms thrown around me in an enveloping hug that transforms a swim from an embarrassment to a triumph, and I can see his tears when he speaks of his best mate Paraic, lost to the sea we know. I recall my own tears of joy shared with Sylvain and Gabor on Wissant Beach in France, or filling my googles in Dover just after Paraic was lost.
Not all interactions need to be so momentous to be sure. I know I can call Owen for something, or visa versa, and either of us will usually be up for an adventure. I know I can say to Lisa, “let’s swim there“, and she will not blink or hesitate if I give the go-ahead. I see Dee, never swimming, watching to be sure I’m still out there swimming, or waiting for me to call on my way home, or tracking me from point to point along the coast while I do something stupid again.
I know most of these people this way, because this stupid cold swimming lark is the thing that we found to share. In it is a language we all understand, and even when they make fun of my language (secondhand of course, because none of them (admit to) actually read this), I feel no shred of sensitivity, because we have all been cold and tired and beaten together. We share the water and the experiences of the water. Channel swimmers bond not just through the experience of those particular swims, but the shared experience of the training and the far more numerous swims that have no name, no date. We trust each other. The experiences that become with time; “that time we did x laps of the island in Y conditions“, or “”that time I crewed for you” or “when you crewed for me“. It’s racing the second corner of the island, when there is no race. It’s an eight-hour pool swim or a six-hour qualifier in the lake because the sea was too cold.
And it’s not just the swimming. It’s the shared food immediately afterward, and the families being as essential as the swimmers. It’s comments on this idiot’s blog by those of you I’ve yet to swim with. It’s days and weeks totaled in mobile homes and hotel rooms in Dover or Donaghadee elsewhere. It’s the tea and cake and packets of cheap biscuits, (which are the best biscuits), out of the boot of someone’s car. Barbeques at Sandycove or Iniscarra or Clonea, after qualifying swims, end of season’s or Solstice Memorials. Swimmer’s Beach in Dover. The White Horse, reading names on the walls and ceiling.It’s an early October morning before the sun has even risen for a drop into the cold water off a boat, or an early May swim to a wreck in too-cold water, or the wind blowing the wrong way so you all get the stuffing punched out of you together. It’s the trips to Kerry or France for a race or an abandoned race or a memory of a swim. It’s getting weathered out together. It’s having your best day, or getting hammered by your friend, or getting hammered with your friends, (’cause few of us can drink). It’s talking about shoulder pain and comparing injuries, and sharing painkillers and how we are all getting old and slowing down, and recovery is harder and injuries more frequent, and who is not swimming this year, and what’s your mileage and we need to get so-and-so back in the water. It’s almost never talking about technique or speed. It’s taking someone you’ve never met previously for a swim to the caves, it encouraging you to visit me for a swim to the caves. It’s swim gossip from around the world and up the road and you hating the frauds and your friends not understanding why you care so much. and you all laughing about them, because your friends are Channel swimmers, and they are all the real Gods of the Sea.
It’s talking about nothing of relevance except swimming, and it’s good to talk or think about nothing else except the conditions, some never-swum location, some race you’ve never done, some swim report for faraway, some place you want to swim or will never swim again. It’s the things they do and say and how they act, because they are all more mysterious than the sea, and as necessary. It’s talking about nothing bu open water swimming, because open water swimming is everything and open water swimming is not the same without your swimming friends, your swimming family.
Even when you are a lone swimmer.