I started this Open Water Swimming Year series in 2017, and did not think I would complete it all in a year. I anticipated July and August would to be the most difficult to write, because everyone understands summer, and I would struggle to say anything interesting. All writing holds this truth to be self-evident: There is more to discuss about short periods of conflict than long lives of peace. While in the greater context of swimming I have always found the conflict (which is cold and winter), to be a continual source of inspiration, for this time and this purpose such did not prove to be the case. I did not realise the treasures I had gathered inside me, but as I write it down, it becomes clear to me: I have swam all these years, written all those others words, so I could talk about this and in the writing, as in the swimming, I do not want it to end.
So many other chapters of the Open Water Calendar feel like periods of transition. We are leaving or approaching this very time. Even the coldest toughest parts of winter are in some way about summer, because by being cold water swimmers, we make the investment that allows us to enjoy this time. Summer swimming is when we feel like we arrive where we are meant to be. This is the nexus and heart of the open water swimming year. So out pour sensations and memories and expectations.
There is no fixed summer in Ireland. All you have heard about the rain and the weather is true. If there is a single predictable feature, it is merely unpredictability. Most summers are a mixture of sun and rain. Some summers are almost all rain. Some summer have more sun, no summer is all sun. The ocean does not vary so much in temperature as it’s driven by more than just sunshine. Regardless of the variation, July and early August are the traditional time for the majority of Irish people take annual vacation, because the chance of rain was slightly less. It’s also when open water swimmers most expect warmer waters. In a bad year, July ocean temperatures will rarely go above 14 Celsius, and in a very good year, they may overtop 18 degrees in certain locations (but not all) but in general we remain beneath that temperature that is the literal definition of cold water. The early weeks of August usually continue the same pattern. For the want of a better term, this is what we call summer.
But whichever kind of summer it is, this six to eight week period is the time that the ocean opens up. Even in a cool summer, this is when we range out further. The water warms past 13 degrees, and the wind eases.
It feels like I swim the whole rest of the year to give myself the capability of swimming wherever I like during this time. In surfing there is the term “free surfers“. It is used to describe those surfers who do not participate in the professional circuit competitions, but spend their lives surf adventuring. However the term is really for those tiny few who are good enough and photogenic enough to have commercial sponsors and publication deals and organised trips, so still professional but in a different way. But the term is useful. Summer is free-swimming time.
This is the time when the sea is most likely to calm, the winds are less and the surface may even glass off in the morning or evening, presenting the open water swimmer with the most coveted of all swimming conditions beyond any pool. The prevailing and intermittent currents can be visible from the shore if you just pause to observe the ocean.
I vary my locations and swim out all along the Copper Coast. On a rougher day I may swim out of Boatstrand harbour, out into the big swells, or hide behind Newtown Head. Gararrus and Kilfarassey present a whole range of options, swimming east toward the Metalman, or west through Jellyfish Alley, loops that can be strung together as the desire and strength allow. I pass untrod strands, visit tiny coves, skirt guano-covered bird-populated reefs. I seek narrow cracks between stacks and cliffs that I can swim or glide through, risking skin for a less tangible reward. I reflect that I am different to those open water swimmers who like constrained or safe locations like Dunmore East or Aquatic Park or similar. I need this open space, even when I use the open space to find crevices. Some Saturday morning I may decide to swim a three hour in the bay, or I will do my favourite swim in the world and swim 10 or 12 kilometers off from the Guill heading west along the coast, my wife meeting me at the far end. Going for a Dooley’s afterwards, (but not the one on the Prom where all the tourists go). Eating salty chips out of a bag up in Doneraile Park by the old navy canon, looking out on my realm, or trying to get half-melted emergency chocolate bars out of their wrappers.
Jellyfish, cormorants and fulmars, sand in suspension. One summer the Barrel jellyfish were so large I could push myself half up out of the water off their bells, this summer there are Lion’s Manes. Anti-crepuscular rays spearfishing past my outline and converge in the depths and has any oil painter ever seen or known of that, let alone committed it to canvas? The sudden sensory overload of the taste and smell of fish in the water that means rotting bait has drifted from a lobster pot, a mystery finally solved after over fifteen years in these waters and why the mackerel show up soon after and which I can’t keep to myself, but want to explain it to you all. Silver and green-shadowed sprats swarm and dart over golden sands beneath me while I swim into other caves of whose entrances the Sun at culmination creates other more intimidating mysteries.
All swims merge into this one Ur-swim, and that one swim is and will always be summer swimming alone on the Copper Coast. Hazy sunshine and green water, the cliffs above me, the reefs around me, when I swim out of this world and away, out into Panthalassa, the great world-ocean, the eternal sea, the same sea that drenched the hot space rocks, that created life, the same remnant sea that will shelter the last of all beneath a dying Sun. Land is mutable, sea is not, but we act as if the opposite is true. Plates and subduction zones will devour everything on land, devour and recycle the land itself, nothing will remain, all churned up in the maw of the Earth’s mantle. But tides will still flow. Currents will heat and cool, rise and sink. I add my tiny ripples to this never-ceasing relict of the world-ocean, swimming into the past and into the future at the same time. I know it is not the case, but I imagine the ripples of my wake attenuating ever smaller but somehow still lasting forever, Zeno’s paradox writ across the water. I am not just the lone swimmer, I am the Ur-swimmer, the swimmer at the end of time and even as I think this, my blood starts to rush in my head, and my shoulders flex and my skin cries out for cool salt water that I can dissolve myself into, a solution of person and ocean and time.
But wherever you are, wherever you go, whatever the temperature of the water and the strength of the wind, whatever your favourite month of your open water swimming year is, I wish you the fullest measure of the freedom of the sea and your own adventures to seek and accidentally find, and treasure.