The Saving Grace of Open Water Swimming

Do you wonder about your favourite food or song or book? 

Do you ask yourself, what’s my favourite swim? Or do you maybe even tell yourself after most swims, that “that one, that one was my favourite”? Like I do?

We do this, assign rankings and preferences. But I am unsure why. Sometimes it’s idle, sometimes it’s an assertion of belonging, or belief, or emotion or experience. Is this something we are all doing even more this year-of-years? I have needed to write about this year, to write about it for myself, and by doing so, to hope that maybe I can write about it for some of you, and yet I haven’t. 

After the long break of Ireland’s first lockdown, the first day back in the water was a day in the river. What most struck me was the feeling of connection, of all the parts of my body working in harmony as I swam through the faded white catkins dropped from willows, floating like confetti on the sluggish flat high tide.  

Tra na mBo & the Copper Coast

The first spring day back on the Copper Coast, the best place in the world, was unseasonably warm both of air and of water. I left the shore, swam the reefs of my magic playground, visited the most secret of my caves and afterwards sat in the sun on the beach listening to my world and my wife and my dogs.

a compass jellyfish
Compass jellyfish

Another day there was no wind and no swell. I cruised the coast, circumnavigating stacks, visiting other caves. At the turning point I swam through an arch to a small cliff-shrouded cove, into a large agglomeration of different species of jellyfish. There was no way out of them and they continued to accumulate, they were now a seemingly endless bloom in front of me. And I stopped and laughed after I was stung from face to toe as I realised the stings were now so little to me.

No-one knows of the Lioness’s location except those I have shown

On a day with a slight north breeze which cleared the water I saw a ray swim over the kelp beneath me. I saw that the dogfish near the pier, which I hadn’t seen since I released one caught on a fishing hook some years ago, were still present and playing lazy hide-and-seek in the dabberlocks. Other days. I saw starfish on rocks, surprised a shoal of blue grey fish as long as my arm, cavorted with huge masses of sprat and mackerel and swam through schools of sand-eels so large they were like white noise on an old “TV tuned to a dead channel“, a blaze of visual interference that I couldn’t focus on except as a dimensionless plane of shifting patterns. I saw a small reef submerged at high tide captured in a solitary ray of sunlight, and I named it Taniquetil, because I must name as well as rank, and I don’t sing to myself in the water as others do but summon books and stories.

Underwater reef

I realised that two shallow adjacent barely-caves in Ronan’s Bay which I’ve previously dismissed are actually the same cave and stomach-scrapingly swimmable on a high spring tide, but only if the water is flat. I realised that from the rip current in the middle of Bunmahon beach to the sphinx-shaped rock takes longer to swim than one would expect. There’s a new-because-I-only-found-it-this-year long tunnel that is swimmable above mid tide but not at high tide and is too narrow for kayakers and it is so close to a beach that it’s notable I never saw it all these years. 

Inside a sea cave
I have to discover what lies at the deepest depth of this cave as no light penetrates past this point & I eschew artificial light

I swam to the cave where a stream falls down the entrance and rainbows dance about me. I debated cormorants, ducked from fulmars, listened to the opera of herring gulls and spied the secretive choughs on the cliffs. I stood on the grassy slope outside the Guillamene’s – “what happens at the cabin stays at the” – cabin and chatted at a distance with Maurice and Aidan and Paddy and the other Paddy and Brian and Eileen and Maura and Betty and Fintan and all the others with the bay spread out below us, and we marveled at the unprecedented number of new swimmers and cars. And then I swam away from them all.

I have swum less in 2020 than I have swum in fifteen years. There have been those masses of new swimmers at the Guill, but the rest of my beloved and glorious Copper Coast remains mostly mine though I was joined by a new friend to introduce to my oceanic home.

looking north to Newtown Head
The Metalman & the Cave of the Loneswimmer; sounds like a young adult book

It has been a difficult year, a year of loss and we have struggled, and this method I use to endure is constrained or even impossible. I could not write, and it does not feel as obvious why as it may look from the outside, because there is more to it than what it looks from the outside. As there always is, for all of us. There is something I want to write, and yet I do not know how. 

Due to lack of swimming possibilities I return to running for the first time in many years, finally overcoming an old injury by following my wife’s advice, and I enjoy it but it does not speak to me. Anyone can run and the roads, like rivers, lakes and swimming pools, do not whisper secrets to me as the ocean and winds do. I remember the exact moment after another swim that I realised that the speech of the world that I hear offshore is the real Enochian.

​T​​he ocean reels in time and you step into and then swim outside it, outside of time. You become the best version of you with the enthusiasm and joy of youth, the experience and reflection of maturity. The future is only swimming and the shore. The sea is protean. That is why it fills my imagination. It’s an asymmetric lens on who we are, who we were, maybe who we aspire to be. It transforms us as well as itself. It’s a carnival mirror and reflected in it I see myself distorted, or the distortion corrected.

The warmth is gone, both air and water but I am rejuventated. The terns flock and swoop, returned for their winter vacation. I loop reefs, swim for less time. I am cold afterwards, watched by my wife and dogs. I wonder if this swim is the best swim of the year. I often wonder this, ask myself that question, maybe as reflection or reminder to myself that ocean swimming continues to provide profound experiences I do not know really how to explain but keep trying. But if I do need to rank and sort, I will not know until next year or in a few year’s time, when the memory and sensations and emotions of one of these swims will float up unbidden as the primary memory of this year-of-years and I will a synthesise a swim of the year, of marine life, friends, flat and choppy waters, wind and waves, forge it with time and anneal it in memory. 

I have no memory of taking this photo this year. Intriguing image isn’t it?

I swim in the sea, and I have long realised that I swim also in the idea of the sea, the ocean that exists in my head. When I allow myself to be still and calm, I can feel ocean groundswell pass through the air, and through me and I rise and sink on an invisible surface, pushed and pulled by that invisible force. The ocean gives me fleeting revelations to inchoate questions I do not know how to articulate.

I can write again for these few minutes. I find amongst the reefs away from human sight the words I have sought all summer and autumn. In the cold, at least for a while, I find once again my voice.

Water is my religion and belief. The sea is my church and I but one of a global congregation. Swimming is my ritual, cold water is both my vestment and my prophesy, wind and waves are my altar. I think benedictions of wind and tide and chop before I enter the water. While I travel home, I chatter benedictions of cold. The celebratory rite I enact in the ocean is my sacrament, never needed more than now. 

I am blessed by the Eternal Ocean, by its sacred waters, and I emerge graced, for this short time. I wish the same for you all. Bless the swimmers, bless the water.

The Imperfection of Memory



20 thoughts on “The Saving Grace of Open Water Swimming

  1. Just reading this makes me stop and breathe as though I’m in the sea myself. You capture the sea and how it can make us feel so beautifully. Thank you. I don’t like the idea of all those jelly fish stings though!!! I rank my swims but yes – often I find that almost every one is the ‘best yet’!! People who love the sea are crying out for opportunities to read about it. I wonder if you might ever publish a book!!


  2. Thank you Donal,
    Your writing is beautiful. i am an open water swimmer in Puget Sound , Vashon Island, Washington State, USA. Our open water swim group has multiplied since covid has limited pool access. I have been watching Sandy Cove FB for a couple of years. I dream of visiting Ireland for a couple of months once we can travel again. I would like to swim with the sandy cove swimmers and get a taste of what it’s like to live in the country my grandparents were from. My grandmother was from Armagh, and my grandfather not to far from there. I grew up swimming off of Long Island, New York. Thinking about swimming at Sandy Cove and other beautiful places in Ireland gives me hope and excitement for the future. My group here is planning a swim around Vashon Island in segments this summer. Take care , from Mary Margaret


  3. I’ve missed your writing these past months, though understand how it might be difficult to find words in these strange times. This post elevates me while I am confined to a warm, black-lined chlorine box. You bring me back to better times—and favorite swims. All the best in 2021.


  4. Beautiful, Donal, as always. We missed your words, though not nearly as much as you were missing the sea, clearly. All the very best to you and yours in this strange time. Not that we should wish any of it away. Mañana!


  5. Donal a thought inspiring piece, it’s been a challenging year. Doing most of our swims in fresh water we discovered two new swimming spots in particular, in north Cork that were a revelation. Sourced through a bit of local knowledge an necessity.
    For me swimming this year has been a tonic and something that has kept me going. Motivation to be back in the water and looking forward to that next swim.
    Happy Swimming


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