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“Woof, woof…wooooooof!” I howled as I plunged into the boisterous Irish Sea in October after being away from it for three weeks. I find barking helps offset the shock of the freezing water. Some people curse their way through the cold, others blaspheme.
Everybody needs one party piece, something to show off. For some it’s chicken-wing-eating contests, expert wood chopping or reciting Shakespeare’s love sonnets. For me it’s jumping into icy-cold water.
Volleyball kills my hands. I dread charades. But I have always been happy to plunge into some of the world’s coldest waters – Rocky Mountain glacial lakes, the sea off the coast of Victoria, and the Irish Sea. We’re talking about take-your-breath-away, make-your-toes-fall-off, capital-c Cold.
Growing up in Edmonton, 1,200 kilometres from the ocean, I was a parched wannabe dolphin with only shallow, reedy lakes available and a river nobody swims in. But I spent my summers in Britain, and swam in the English Channel every day.
My happiest childhood memories are beachcombing for blue glass and sea pottery at Worthing, clambering over fly-ridden seaweed to plunge into the bottle-green refreshing sea, and twirling in my mother’s arms doing water ballet.
I eventually found a way to fulfill my desire to live near the sea: I met a man who brought me to live in his childhood happy place, Youghal in Ireland’s sunny South East, a.k.a. the Irish Riviera. We lived there for seven years, swimming almost daily in summer and occasionally on Christmas Day.
Then, a move to Dublin a year ago took my swimming life to a new level. I became an all-season swimmer. I’m not hard core; I don’t go every day, like many of my companions do, but last winter I swam a few times a month in water as cold as 4C, and chronicled it joyfully on my blog.
The relationship between cold-weather swimming and writing is perfect. You meet interesting characters. A guy in his 70s in bright red swimming trunks takes a dip, then does calisthenics while smoking a cigarette to dry off. A woman swims out every day to touch a rock she’s nicknamed Hillier, her personal touchstone.
Then there are the sensory delights; the salt on my eyelids afterward, the quiet away from the shore, the cacophony of seagulls, herons, oystercatchers, terns and sandpipers. The sheer alive feeling you get from crashing into icy water on grey days.
I don’t do it for athletic reasons, or for the reputed health benefits such as improved immunity and circulation, but for the mental and spiritual boost. Swimming is a direct portal to my childhood happy zone. It changes the stations in my brain to the hallelujah-this-is-living channel.
If I haven’t been in for a while, I’ll take cold showers to practise. You have to keep your toe in, so to speak.
I was recently in British Columbia during a book tour. It’s one of those geographical quirks that the ocean in Vancouver is warm enough for swimming (except for wimps), but in Victoria it’s freeze-your-bits-off cold. My mother read in the paper about a new swimming area in the Gorge waterway. Volunteers had cleaned underwater debris and built a lovely swimming pontoon with ladders.
It was a gorgeous late September day when we went. I was expecting the water to be warm compared with the Irish Sea, which reaches 13C at its peak in summer. But it was chilly and I couldn’t dawdle. After a few minutes of vigorous freestyle, I stopped shivering and started to enjoy the mellow, lake-like water and the blazing fall colours that framed the shore. I flapped about with tiny minnows while kayaks and sweet little seabus taxis pootled by.
Back in Dublin, despite the joys of being reunited with my husband and children, I had that blue, jet-lagged feeling. As troubadour Hawksley Workman once said, your soul takes a while to catch up to your body when you travel. I yearned for my dear friends and all the other things I miss about Canada – the space, giant pharmacies, the widespread availability of red licorice, Wi-Fi everywhere.
I knew the thing to do was hurl myself back in the water. I met my swim buddies at the Forty Foot swimming hole around the corner from the Martello Tower, where James Joyce set the opening of Ulysses.
Some pensioners were celebrating a birthday with tea and cupcakes, a frequent occasion at the Forty Foot. We’d timed our arrival perfectly for the noon high tide. The water was crashing against the rocks and the harbour wall, nice and bouncy just how we like it. A seal was swimming 30 feet away, sunning its face and whiskers.
I put on my neoprene swimming boots and gloves, walked down the ladder, bent my knees and breast-stroked right into the Irish Sea. It was cold, but not Mother-of-God cold, as the Dubs would put it.
It was fantastic and life-affirming, as usual. I looked around at all us nutty swimmers, the sunbathing seal, the birds, the clouds and Howth across the water, and felt how lucky I am to live here. My soul had reunited with my body, and I was glad to be in Dublin again.
Sophie B. Watson lives in Dublin.