The Open Water Swimming Year – Summer

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.

Not all my messing around is in the water – beginner photographer antics, Newtown Cove (July 2013)

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.

in tramore Bay to Newtown Head

Calm sea and sunny sky – Anglers and currents in Tramore Bay, from Newtown Cove to the Metalman – open water swimmers should take note, these are neither an oil slick nor boat wakes -on close inspection, the lobster pots all sit within this current – (July 2019)

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.

Summer swims are in parts anticipation, experience, and these long bluegreengold memories, all swims merged into this one composite.
There’s the wash of the water at the entrance to a cave, wondering if it will pull me against the rocky jamb to result in more barnacle cuts. Swimming beside a sheer rock that descends into the darkness beneath, magnifying my universe with that view, bringing to life childhood dreams of flight. Climbing a reef, because probably no-one ever has. Trying to dive back in without shredding my feet off the barnacles and because I never want to become when I no longer like jumping off things, as I know someday I surely will. Standing on some submerged reef at the right moment of tide because certainly no-one ever has, or likely ever will again as the ocean thermally expands. Surprising kayakers who have traveled from all over Ireland for this special coast an hour swim out from the nearest entry point. Eight hundred metres or more offshore, like the Hubble telescope, I look back into the past that is the shore. Annoying anglers by my mere presence in the ocean they seem to believe is their exclusive demesne, as they roar “you’re frightening the fish” at me, (fish apparently being less frightened by metal hooks and being hoist into the asphyxiating air than my passing on the surface).
Stinging Jellyfish (July 2016)

Jellyfish (July 2016)

Accidentally looking at the Sun on a breath and then superimposing that dazzle back down into the depths. Corkscrewing over for some backstroke, cerulean dome of sky above, and weaving all over the place until I corkscrew back to crawl. People who swim backstroke, the most elegant of all strokes, in open water, are the holy mad, as are us cold water swimmers. Glassy calm sunny mornings always followed by mid-day onshore breezes ruffling up the water. Starting a flat swim, getting out of chop a few hours later, only to look back back and see it was more tired shoulders than rough water, the glass gone but the surface still good.
Swiming through an offshore sea arch

The rarest of pics for a swimming photographer – a pic of myself swimming, taken unbeknownst to me by kayaker Joe McCabe one of my favourite places, source of more than one scar – The Keyhole Arch, Burke’s Island – Kilfarrasy

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.

At high tide and wearing dark goggles, I swim through, and a fractional moment past the darkest point, face down in the water, I see the slightest hint beneath me that shows the light creeping past the rock that hides the turn to the exit. Crabs of all sizes and colours stand sentinel over their reefs, knifing upward toward the alien intruder. Starfish, which I haven’t seen in a few years now, stuck to offshore reefs, the scallop reef, a flounder swimming beneath me. Once, just one July, the ocean by The Reef was filled with countless colourless spheres, some kind of spawn, that made the water thick with their unimaginable numbers. Tremulous expectation at the entrance to a new cave, and taking a couple of summers to penetrate the fear then penetrate the dark, or is the other way around? Towels and t-shirts impregnated with smeared Channel grease and dried brine. How many other small encounters or adventures have I not noted or remembered, yet which thrilled, and have synthesized into this Ur-swim of my memory?
To deliberately misquote Norman McLean: Eventually, all things merge into one, and an ocean lies over it. I am haunted by waters.

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.

I have mentioned that when I started the site almost 10 years ago, the first thing I wrote was that open water swimming is a expression of freedom. I still believe that. If anything that belief has only strengthened. In the beliefs I have, one is that freedom is far less expressed or enjoyed by most people than we believe or want to acknowledge. We are by and large constrained whether as virtual modern serfs or by our voluntary choosing of some life, or by our own personalities and backgrounds. Maybe I not know how otherwise to find this sense of freedom, and all of you others do. What is life but a mix of chosen and unchosen bonds. The sea in summer allows me to feel some measure of absolute freedom. There is nowhere on the Copper Coast I cannot swim, have not swum.

Steps to Heaven – Guillamene (July 2015)

Ocean’s 7 swimming pioneer, Irishman Stephen Redmond once said that the best feeling in swimming is the moment you touch land on the far side. But to me, there is nothing better in all the swimming I have done than to be an hour away from people on the shore, seeing Brownstown Head away west, Dunabrattin Head or Burke’s Island to the west, the Paleozoic vista reaching around me as familiar, welcoming and accepting as the eyes of my wife (to whom I considered dedicating this, but whose response would be “yuch, schmaltz” even though I am comparing her to a rocky coast).
Such freedom is best felt, best explored, best expressed, in July and early August, in summer swimming, in the perfect temperature that fits between fifteen and half and sixteen and a half degrees when I haunt and am haunted by these waters.
Driving home from the July Beginish Swim organised and swam with a group of friends I respect enormously, I reflect that while I chose June as the month to focus on the community of swimmers, my first draft of this post also spoke a lot about people and community. The next morning I am outside Newtown Head after slogging out tired for 30 minutes through two and half metre onshore swell. I turn and tread water to look back. Three fulmars are there with me, just above the water, the nearest seeming just slightly more than arm’s reach, using the wind to stay in position with me.
The Open Water Swimming year series is not really about any specific swim. It’s more about patterns, and a whole open water swimming life full of events and the features and opportunities and challenges presented by the north-eastern Atlantic ocean throughout the year. I force artificial delineations onto a smooth continuum of time,the same as all calendars. Things that happen in one month, also happen in others months. Very little is fixed in the open water swimming calendar. Your experience will be different to mine,  because you live elsewhere, and your experience will be different even if you live here, because we all experience life and the ocean on our own. I don’t know how to write about you, or how to imagine you. I can only imagine myself, and hope you find in my imagination of myself some proxy for your equally important experience.

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.

Plunge In – (July 2017)

17 thoughts on “The Open Water Swimming Year – Summer

  1. Thank you for this – it’s beautiful! I’ve just started swimming in the sea….(in April)….I can’t describe how it makes me feel but your writing helps me to understand how it can make people feel….and I love reading what you write! Sometimes it feels like an addiction….I’ve set myself a challenge/goal to swim in every month for 12 months…I’m scared but excited too! When I started to get in I would completely lose my breath – I couldn’t speak – as the water has warmed up that doesn’t happen any more. Will I experience this again as the water temperatures drop?

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    • Sorry for the delayed reply Anne.

      Yes, as it gets colder that will probably happen to some degree, but it does lessen, and more importantly, you get used to it happening, and accept it as normal. And sure you don’t need to be yakkin’ when you start swimming anyway! But temps won’t really drop until after Christmas if we have a normal winter. It’s usually still over 9 degrees on Christmas day, which is about the same as mid April. Enjoy!

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  2. Love this article. I haven’t plucked up the courage to swim further afield from the Guillamenes, still trying to familiarise myself with the conditions around the area. You capture the joy and freedom of sea swimming especially on the odd occasion when we have some sun on our backs.
    Really enjoy your blog.

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      • We did started 11pm on the 16th July and finished 11:35am on the 17th. Apart from an hour in jellyfish soup (I was the ‘lucky’ one that got that slot, the slimy sods do not congregate in the separation zone as we were told) it was a great crossing. We had a few issues getting a third swimmer (10hrs before the off Ash and I were down to a two person and no crew), but the open water community is great so we had a third swimmer, Hannah Litchfield, and crew, Ruth Williamson, who we met at the marina. After all that, we were nearly unable to get stressed during the swim.😀. No one went out for the rest of that week so we were lucky.

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          • Ash is definitely interested in doing a solo, I think Hannah has one booked and, having said I’d never do one, I’m thinking I may, but I’d want to do a 6 or 10 hour swim first before booking – I need to know I can swim for that long mentally – so much of it is mental toughness. Potentially 3 out of 3! 🤣😀🤪🤪

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  3. Having completed my first open water swim last week at the Guillemene, I would love to take this further but I lack the confidence and bravery to do it on my own.

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  4. This whole series has been inspiring. I envy your 10k swims. I’ve been recovering from shoulder surgery and have been slowly rebuilding my endurance. It’s always encouraging to be reminded of why I’m working so hard to rebuild good technique and gain strength back.

    I envy those swims through caves.

    Are those of us who backstroke through cold shock in open water counted among the “Holy Mad?” That would be a great swim club name.

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  5. I have read your posts for most of the year, having started reading when I was attempting a channel relay and looking at swimming a solo. Moving countries and injuries have plagued my swimming and I have not been in the water for more than two months! Your posts always, always inspire me and remind me of the love Of have for the water. Today it made me sad for what I am missing now. Thank you for your amazing stories.

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  6. Very nice reading.
    In Barcelona, water is seldom below 14ºC. By late March it’s already at 15, and above. Swimming here it’s like a stroll in the park. This is great, of course, we can swim almost every day.
    But I think this makes us selective, almost snobbish to when and where we’ll swim. So I’ve always had the feeling that I’m missing something, something like what you describe here, the urge to make the most of each swim as if it might be the last one of the year.
    I guess we are always longing for what we don’t have…

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