Embracing the Cold: Sea swimming in Dublin

It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining, it is freezing cold, or raining – at Dublin’s swimming spots, there are always people taking a bath. Many of them have been doing this every day, since they were kids. Not only to boost the immune system, but also to calm down and cope with stress. No wonder this has increased during lockdown.

With the next wave, the water touches my toes, then the rest of the foot. It is already freezing and I don’t feel like I want to get another part of my body into the water. But there must be something good about it. At every time of the year, no matter the weather, there are people swimming in popular spots like the Forty Foot and Seapoint. Adrienne McDonough and Marguerite DeBarra are two of them. The identical twins from Blackrock swam the whole past year, from the first of May last year, right up until now. 

“I swam in November, December, January“, says McDonough. At least five times a week. It was coldest in January and February. At one stage, the water got under 5°c. During the winter, McDonough even swam in the dark – at 6.30am in the morning and 5pm in the evening. “You get hooked“, the 60 year old woman says. “You get addicted and miss it then when you don’t do it.“

McDonough and DeBarra have been sea swimmers since they were kids. Like many people of a certain generation in Ireland, they didn’t go to classes in the swimming pool. Rather than that, they learned how to swim in the Irish Sea. “Even though we lived miles from the sea we came back to swim in the sea“, says DeBarra.

Usually, they swim in the local pool when it gets too cold. Because of Covid however, they decided to keep it up in the sea. They are not the only ones. Since the pandemic started, “it has taken off completely“, says DeBarra. According to her, there were always people swimming in the summer, but not in winter. Since last March however, a huge number of people have been doing what they have been doing for years. Whereas it was more older people embracing the cold before, it is now especially young people who challenge themselves regularly.

McDonough also noticed that there are people from offices meeting on Friday morning, going for a swim, and having breakfast and coffee after. “It is also a good way to keep in touch during lockdown“, she says. Whoever swims in the sea, no matter for how long or how often, is part of a community. “Everyone talks to each other.“ There are always a few people in the water. “At some point people get to know you. They say ‘hello’ and ‘oh, what do you think of the water today?’.”

Sea Swim

But it is not just the company and small talk that the twins love about sea swimming. “It definitely burns calories”, says McDonough. Before she gets into the water, she starts her sports watch to measure heart rate and burned calories. Also, the cold water is good for the immune system. According to a study in the journal PLoS One, people who take cold showers are 29% less likely to call in sick for work or school. Participants took a hot shower, then used applications of cold water for 30-90 seconds. There was no difference between the duration and the outcome, which led the researchers to conclude that cold water triggers the body’s immune system regardless of duration.

However, sea swimming not only benefits physical but also mental health. When she is alone and it is the first thing in the morning, McDonough sometimes meditates in the water. “When I meditate again later on that day, I remember that sensation of being in the water.” This helps the Irish woman to bring herself to a nice state of meditation later on. “Also, if you’re worried about something, you can’t be worried about it because you’re so cold. It takes your mind off“, she adds, laughing. 

Although you would think that the twins are used to the cold water by now, “it is always a shock“ getting in. “You think some day you’re going in and it’s going to be balmy“, says McDonough. “Never happens, never happens.“ They still have some tips for people who don’t have as much experience as they do. “Just get in, get out immediately, and go back in, come back out, and maybe do that three times”, they agree. That gets easier everyday and it takes about one week to get the body acclimatized to the cold water. “Next time spend two minutes in, then three minutes. You would be walking in no problem after a couple of weeks”, says Debarra. 

Sounds easy. In reality however, it takes some effort to get into the water. With more and more of my body being in the cold, pain starts to spread in my feet and legs. Short and sweet is what I think and dip my whole body into the water. The first few seconds I’m gasping. I feel my heart beating fast. I focus on my breath, calm down. 

After a few more seconds it gets better, the pain vanishes. The best feeling however, is getting out of the water, out of the wet bathing suit, and immediately changing to warm clothes, a woolen hat and socks. Holding a cup of hot coffee to warm my fingers, I watch other people in the water. Dressed with shorts or a bikini they swim and swim and swim, completely calm and relaxed. If I didn’t feel the 12°c cold of Dublin that day, I would have thought that I was on a summer holiday in Italy. 

Photos courtesy of Pauline Stahl 


Pauline Stahl
Pauline Stahl

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