Back in October of 2020, I met an old friend for a swim in Salthill, a seaside suburb in Galway city on the west coast of Ireland.
In spite of the Indian summer we were having, an autumn bite in the air reminded us of what season we were in. We inched ourselves into cold Atlantic seawater, wondering out loud why this had seemed like such a good idea. “My brother is looking forward to the water getting really cold,” Sarah said. “He can’t wait until it’s too cold for all the new swimmers.”
The phenomenal popularity of open-water swimming during the pandemic had left all-year-round sea-swimmers, like Sarah’s brother, dispossessed of the exclusive cachet of a longstanding pastime. No wonder, then, when I asked around how the on-off-on-again social restrictions were impacting peoples’ behaviours, the resounding answer that came back was “the swimming.” At the same time as entire societies were experiencing what felt like nature’s way of reckoning with a human-induced crisis, people were finding solace in the great outdoors.
When I found myself back in Ireland at the beginning of June 2020, I established the daily routine of a swim before breakfast. On one of those early days, after making a beeline for the changing area, where I started layering on as many warm clothes as fast as possible, I was met with a cheerful “well done” from a young woman standing around after her swim. Next to me, a woman getting dressed said to her friend, “The water’s fantastic at the moment.” “I’ve never experienced it this good,” he replied. A little further along, a group of young men discussed mindfulness and their favourite online meditation teacher. As I readied to leave Blackrock, the popular Salthill swimming spot that was ‘men only’ until the early 1980s, I passed a close-knit group of middle-aged women tangoing with their towels and undergarments; one lady was helping her shivering friend with the fastener at the back of her bra. And so went my introduction to the bustling scene of Blackrock in a pandemic.
Anyone who’s ever ‘gotten down’ for a swim anywhere in the global north knows that the water never really fully warms up. When winter water temperatures fall to single digits, the fair-weather swimmers run off, leaving sometimes calm but mostly windswept beaches to only the hardiest of all-year rounders. Not so this year. Blackrock in November was busier than ever. Around the same time, the Irish media started putting the exponential rise in winter swimmers and the pandemic together and came up with ‘the new banana bread’ as a descriptor.
One of these ‘banana bread’ swimmers is an old school friend who started sea-swimming in earnest for the first time in June. Gillian Bogan drives home after a swim in the Ladies Beach, another popular Salthill bathing spot, with “one hand on the hot water bottle, one hand on the wheel.” One day in October, describing her almost unbroken swimming streak, Gillian started off by telling me that she had to go back over her phone to answer the question “When did this start? How did it start?”
These days, to fit a swim in with work, Gillian is at the beach by 6.30 a.m. She’s managed to maintain this routine even on days with status yellow weather warnings like the one before. By September, daylight hours had started to dwindle and the moon replaced the rising sun that had seen Gillian and friends through the summer months. “I don’t think we thought we’d keep it up. With the cold,” she said.
Months later, Gillian counts “creeping down” to ‘Ladies,’ one of Blackrock’s neighbouring beaches, for a dip under the stars as the best part of her new, early morning habit. The cold therapy is, she says, unlike anything she’s experienced before. “When I get in, I feel instantly grateful. I often get a bit teary very quickly. I feel so lucky I get to do this.” After getting down, she explained, “You’re still dealing with the same stuff but not in the same way.”
When Gillian started swimming, she didn’t own a swimsuit and showed up for her initiation on a wet, dismal day in June in a bikini. Little by little, she’s been adding bits of kit: a hooded robe has replaced the towel, and she has invested in two pairs of swimming togs. In the early days, a dressing gown would be pulled on over her swimsuit before leaving the house. Amused by the dressing gown, I ask her if she has any other special gear. “I didn’t want to be like one of the DryRobe gang, but I’m not just a seasonal swimmer anymore, I’m still at it so I deserve it,” she said. I told her that DryRobes had sold out and she laughed, comparing the demand to the one for hand sanitiser at the beginning of April.
The DryRobe, a voluminous waterproof coat lined with fleece, has become synonymous with the banana bread swimmer and symbolic of differences between newbies and lifers. At the ever-popular ‘40 Foot’ in Dublin, an iconic swimming landmark that appears in the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses, part-real, part-pretend, disgruntlement with a yuppification of the no-nonsense, all-weather pursuit was displayed recently on a sign stuck to a lamppost: ‘By Order: No DryRobe or DryRobe types,” it said. Back at Blackrock, the woman who I was having nice pleasantries with after a swim in December, told me that the men in the next shelter were discussing her DryRobe. “I am here you know and I can hear you,” she said softly in their direction. Happily, and maybe because I don’t own a DryRobe, the Blackrock swimmers had shown plenty of kindness towards me. One of the men, who my DryRobe friend was only half-seriously annoyed with, had earlier searched in his bag for a swimming cap when he saw me heading for the water without one. “I usually have spares, from Water Safety Ireland. Please wear one next time,” he said. “It’s not the water but the wind chill you need to watch out for.”
If there’s anyone that can wear a DryRobe and get away with it, it’s Paddy McNamara. Paddy is possibly Salthill’s longest running all-year-round swimmer. “I started young, 42 years ago, when I was 11,” he told me over a coffee in a Salthill café. Anyone who swims at Blackrock knows Paddy—typically, he’s slicing through the sea during a kilometre plus daily swim, or at the water’s edge with a thermometer, or bantering about; for others, he’s been the person who came to their rescue. Between November and December of last year, Paddy went to the aid of two people; one a teenager who dived from the tower and went into cold water shock, the other, a man lost in fog. “If I had one philosophy about the sea, it’s respect it don’t fear it,” he explained to me. Although his preference is for “choppy water, big waves and tough conditions,” he knows that, “Mother Nature, she’s the boss.” From time to time, Galway Bay puts him through his paces: “I had one good tumble this year where she gave me a good whack. She decided to give me a spin in a washing machine.” He’s also had to get used to certain ailments: “There are niggles and cuts that don’t heal during the winter, broken skin, chilblains, it’s a balancing act, there’s the positives, there’s slight or a few negatives.
Paddy has a well-honed understanding of what the sea gives Galway’s swimmers. Describing widowers, but also mothers with kids at school, and the retired, he says that “It might be their only interaction with someone in the day.” While sea-swimming’s surge in popularity has produced a few small ripples in recent months, particularly since older people cannot afford to be around a younger population who aren’t always cognisant of social distancing, it’s the broad spectrum of people that swim all-year-round that characterises the swimming community here. “There’s everything from a plumber to a surgeon and everything in between,” Paddy tells me. He doesn’t distinguish between those who swim-swim and the ones who “get in warm and get out warm.” “There are swimmers and dippers and we’re all part of the same family.” In COVID-19 times, the family has expanded to include people in DryRobes and the boisterous student crowd who sometimes forget that older family members might not like it when a young person pushes their gear to the side to make room for their own, or even sits on top of their stuff. But with December’s sea temperatures falling, order was restored in the changing rooms once more. “It’s back to a more genteel, quiet crowd. And some that are not so quiet,” Paddy says, with an ounce of mischief.