For the past few years I’ve covered Christmas swims from the practical side, aiming to give some simple advice for the irregular swimmer so they can more fully ans safely enjoy it, by prepare for and dealing with the cold during and after the swim. You can always go back and read the previous one of those articles if you are interested in some practical advice. This year I thought I’d take a slightly different approach.
As the occasional person points out, most people who do a Christmas swim do so without any preparation, experience or subsequent problem and my previous articles might be seen as excessive. But for those of us who are experienced in the subject, we know cold water swimming should always be treated with respect, and I always prefer that open water swimmers should treat each swim with consideration for safety. Afterall problems are most likely to occur when we give no thought to safety beforehand.
Apart from a few specific locations Christmas Day swims aren’t a long-standing tradition in Ireland. Of the local swims on Ireland’s Copper Coast there are two which have run for a few decades. The Newtown and Guillamene swim, which I’ve been frequenting for over 10 years (not missing a year, though about one year in every three is blown out when I am the one of a very few with the experience and desire to swim) has been running since I think the 90’s. And the Kilmurrin Cove swim which has been running since the 80’s. Galway and Dublin also have long running swims at the 40 Foot and Blackrock.
For the last few years many more Christmas have started, reflecting the growth in open water swimming as new swim pods spring up along the coast. This also demonstrates the fact that Irish people have increasingly embraced ocean life, as, though we live on an island, we have culturally distrusted the sea, for historical reasons, my father’s general being the first to start enjoying the ocean for itself.
Why do people participate? Or more pertinently, why should you try out a Christmas swim? Common reasons are that people like to feel they are in some way trying something that is the opposite of the excesses that are often associated with the holiday. A cold water dip seems the very antithesis of Christmas overeating. There are often also charitable considerations, as with the Newtown & Guillamene swim, which each year holds a collection on the days and designates a different charity as recipient. These are good reasons. People who can find a way to think of and support others who may be struggling during the holiday demonstrate the most essential human trait of compassion, and those who swim as counterpoint to personal excess seem less likely to be dominated by such excesses. But if I was to recommend trying a Christmas Swim, it would be for two simple reasons.
Christmas Swims are enormously convivial and social occasions. At the Guill, over the course of a couple of hours, hundreds of people come and swim. People from every walk of life, every physical shape, every outlook come and plunge themselves into cold water…together. The social aspect helps people to do this difficult thing, as they will always see someone else who struggles with the cold worse than they, is mor afraid of it or seems to have to more difficulty in forcing themselves, or even screams louder when they plunge in. People share tea, and coffees and soup and Christmas cake. They say hello to others home for Christmas. They come as multigenerational families, the water-hardened grandparents who in other aspects of life may be slower, encouraging children and (to a lesser degree) grandchildren, sharing an experience that has no cost and no price, creating bonds and memories. They come as friends, supporting each other, fighting hangovers or reconnecting after the last year.
And for those of you for whom such large social occasions may seem intimidating, they come as I more usually do, lone swimmers who may not feel as comfortable with large groups, yet nevertheless, we love seeing and participating in our own way. This mid-winter ceremony, held in the sacred ocean is our own holy annual rite. Because whatever else any individual ritual entails, the depth of winter is something that disparate cultures have long celebrated, and this is another way of sharing this time of year together. To do so in a group makes it both easier and brings with it the positive feelings of something difficult shared and overcome. It is very rare that someone (non-swimmers) say to me “I tried a cold swim once, and I swear, ‘never again‘”. More commonly they say “Yeah, I did that before, I though when I was getting in that I’d die, but once I was in, it was far better than I expected…I must do it again“. This experience is a communal, shared and powerful. Cold water immersion gets inside us, plants a seed that may take years to sprout, but when it does it is something we husband together. The camaraderie of open and cold water swimming transcends age and ability and outlook.
It is a fundamental part of the occasion and is the prime reason I would like you take to try a Christmas Swim. I’d like you to experience this powerful aspect of open water swimming which is not at all about the actual swimming. Because I fundamentally believe that your life will be improved by it.
I have long and often written here about various aspects of cold water swimming. When people ask why we do it, I can answer in long
form or even answer what temperate is cold water
. But so many people ask why and seem to struggle to understand why we do it, thinking that there must be something wrong somehow with the people who do it, that we want to at least present some answer that makes sense.
It is notable that open water swimmers themselves rarely ask why they do it. The answer is simple and does not require articulation. It makes them feel great. But other people don’t really accept that answer unless or until they experience it for themselves. The very slightly longer explanation I prefer is almost as simple. When humans are immersed in cold water, the body seeks to protect itself by stopping circulation in the extremities, arms, legs and skin, to preserve body heat. This happens immediately on immersion. It’s accompanied by thermal shock and a great inhalation of air. Their heart rate goes up, as does their blood pressure as a result. Your body feels alive, all your skin of which you were previously oblivious, is energised with sensation. Your brain releases endorphins, you are fully in flight or flight mode, without having to do either.
Even the most jaded or experienced cannot be indifferent at this moment or to these feelings. Staying in the water for a prolonged time doesn’t make it more powerful, so this result can be achieved quickly. After leaving the water, blood flow returns to the limbs and skin. And with it comes a sensation of physical well-being. What is particularly extraordinary, and why open water swimmers continue to do this, is that these profound aspects of both physical and emotional well-being do not attenuate with time or repetition. There is no desensitization, no needing a greater exposure for this payoff. Cold water therefore beats any narcotic. The shock of immersion, to which humans are by physiological and psychological nature averse, is simply the payment up front for this extraordinary payoff. While I am an open water marathon swimmer, that is most ways a different pursuit to this brief seasonal immersion. So for the Christmas Swim all you need to do immerse yourself in cold water. (You don’t even need to swim, just fully immerse yourself, but don’t tell the other cold water swimmers I said that).
There are sunny Christmas Day swims (2007)…
Rainy Christmas Day swims (2014) …
Only hardest core group even showed up for the Christmas Day swim in 2014.
And almost impossible Christmas Day swims (2015)…
Sam Krohn rescues someone who had been drinking and attempted to swim in rough conditions, Christmas Day 2015