I started new year 2021 as I had never done previously, with a swim at dawn.
I stole the veiled sunrise from the westernmost hidden beach of the Copper Coast. The horizon clouded up just before the Sun reached its fingers over to pull itself up though the rest of the sky was clear. I put my camera back in the car, changed on the frigid sand, my feet going from painful to numb as I entered the water, stumbled over some underwater rocks and stroked directly along the golden road of the Sun’s reflection out into cold and flat heaven.
Changing back on the beach not too long later, I did not anticipate I would be dry-docked for so long after. The spring of 2020 had been tough, this third national lockdown was tougher. For fifteen years I had averaged over a million metres per year. In 2020 that number plummeted to the lowest total ever of less than half a million, less even than a difficult year in 2016. Swimming is not just my joy, it is also my muse, my saviour, my redemption and it has long been medication to help deal with depression and anxiety. Swimming is for me the expression of Khalil Gibran’s “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked”. But the national five kilometre travel restriction limit was less than my distance to the coast.
The year spooled across January into the early Celtic spring that begins with February. I lost the horizon that I always feel behind my eyes, my own HUD, Head-Up-Display that I apply to the world. I took my swim box out of my car for some other reason, and it stayed out. No sand accumulated in the boot, no beach detritus shed from the dogs in the back seat. I lost any motivation to do what little else is possible in the prolonged spell of Irish cold and wet weather that we risibly call spring, when one can’t go anywhere, do anything.
Same here, same everywhere.
I have long realised that any creativity I have is an overspill of the sea. The ocean must first fill me up, saturate my brain and only then can I dribble the excess out of my fingers. It is a terrible thing to define yourself (even in part, even to yourself, even if such labels and definitions are supposedly unhelpful) by something you do, when you can no longer do that thing. A swimmer who cannot swim is a swammer. Being inducted into the 2021 Irish Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame for loneswimmer.com, for co-founding the Marathon Swimmer’s Federation, for co-authoring the first global rules of marathon swimming feels like hypocrisy when I am not swimming, and as a consequence not writing. But I cannot write for you if I cannot write for myself.
I rejected occasional messages to go swimming. For myself, abiding by the restrictions was the right thing to do. The various Irish media messages of “we are all in this together” is obvious nonsense but I cannot expect of others what I myself would not do. February passed.
My wife intervened, pressed increasingly forcefully in March that I swim, and so I finally acceded and dipped by myself back into the mother-sea on the same day the lunatic COVID deniers and anti-maskers and anti-Vaxxers and anti-reptilian protesters were on the streets of the capital, most without shame or consequence and of course all without logic or sense. My third attempt to swim was stopped by a Garda (Irish police) checkpoint on the road. “Where are you going, where are you coming from?” I didn’t lie, but when he said “it’s hardly an essential journey”, I think the look on my face must have put the lie to that. Not the Garda’s fault of course.
I felt worse as I returned home without swimming than if I hadn’t gone at all. An infuriating “look after your mental health during this time by focusing on the small things”, “mindful moments” messages played on the radio and I muttered to myself in bitterness “that is my small thing. But it’s my big thing also”.
You do what you can, until you no longer can, and by you, I mean me.
When I did return to swim I was suffused with that sense of rightness, of belonging, that I always feel. That the sea is my place, birth and rebirth, over and over, your fear is my happiness, my sorrow is my joy. This is my everything, and I have not been able to do it.
But unlike the return to swimming after the previous lockdown, I did not feel entirely whole. For one, my first few of trips have broken travel restrictions, something I did to want to do and had avoided for a long time. For another, I could feel the deepening of the physical effects that a year with no pool training and that a winter with almost no swimming had wrought.
I felt like a ship that had been too long in dry dock, or more appropriately, beached, as little maintenance of my vessel had occurred while I was dry. The sails of my shoulders had slackened, the sheets of my arms had loosened, and the rudders of my hands have lost motive force. The wooden keel of my core has dried out, no running or Pilates can substitute. Bizarrely (to me) I developed dry skin on my feet as I was no longer regularly immersed for long periods. And without sufficiently marinating in sea water, all the showers in the world could not make me feel clean.
I creak. My middle has expanded. For years I have wondered what a prolonged swimming absence would mean for me physically and now I have an inkling. All my previous swimming is gone. The fifteen million plus metres is gone. For years I have wondered what would be required to return from such an absence. That I am starting to learn.
It feels like a presentiment of aging, if it weren’t that everything feels that way if you think about it. For all these years I could head off to sea, hide myself in coves, caves and under cliffs away from the world. But if the water were warmer, I could not do that now. I will need to to refit my vessel before I undertake once more my sea-trials. A year will come when I cannot head for the horizon or round the Head by myself, or ever again.
But something does remain. The captain, my hard-won experience, is still at the helm. Though that captain also can get rusty. On the second day I swam, I forgot how the algae grows during the winter and I stepped outside the steps to allow space for an elderly gent about to exit the water, and immediately slipping on the outside concrete steps, my head ringing from what must have been a borderline concussion, one entire side from shoulder to ankle bruised and abraded and bleeding. I swam immediately and spent the next couple of days with a headache. Abrasions though are my version of barnacles, I would not be setting out to sea without accumulating new scars each year. Nonetheless, lessened as I am, aware as I am of that lessening, the cold water still welcomes me. I can still rotate and pull through and streamline and be at one with the ocean, shed fears and anxieties, become myself.
As I starting writing this, swim prospects seemed at best only occasional and irregular. But the five kilometer limit is now over, the temperature attained its nadir and has started to recover by a couple of degrees. Ten degrees, as every year, seems like it will be paradise when it arrives.
Bit I have enjoyed cold, getting cold and simply being cold in a way that feels, like cold always feels, like it’s new. Cold after all, is only our mortality immanentised, and that precious moment during rewarming that you pass from being slightly more cold to being slightly more warm is like a rebirth on land following the earlier oceanic rebirth.
With April, the siren call has increased, I am released from confinement and I have started, for surely it is just like starting, to put to sea and take my vessel back out, to add new barnacles to my hull, and let the wind and currents take me.