Behind the wall opposite the tower, there’s a buzz of activity. Despite the inclement weather, four swimmers at the rocky the Forty Foot bathing spot are changing after a sea swim, their skin pink from the cold water. This is where Dubliners have swum for hundreds of years, and during covid, it’s become even more popular.
Three young male swimmers go down the steps into the chilly water — around 45 degrees. They discuss whether today is a good day to dip their heads, and then how much time is left. They stay in for just three minutes each day.
It seems short, but sea swimmers all along the coast are finding joy in the activity during the pandemic, even through the winter. Anything as a respite from being stuck at home.
Dublin’s lockdown has been strict: Restaurants and cafes are takeout only, and shops are closed. People are required to stay home, except for work, school and other essential purposes. Home and garden visits are banned. You can, however, exercise, within about three miles of home.
South of the Forty Foot, at Killiney Beach, swimmers enjoy beautiful views across Killiney Bay to Bray Head and to Dalkey Island. Nearby is the Vico bathing spot, set at the foot of a cliff and reached by a scenic walk along a path and across a railway bridge. It made headlines last May when Matt Damon, who spent the first lockdown in the area, was photographed after a swim.
Closer to Dublin city, halfway along the Great South Wall, a popular walking spot which stretches out into Dublin Bay, swimmers descend steps at high tide for a swim, while ships and ferries glide along the other side of the wall past Poolbeg Lighthouse into Dublin Port.
At another Martello tower — Seapoint in County Dublin — high tide is peak time for swimmers. On a chilly weekday morning, groups huddle from the wind in a changing shelter under the tower, while others who have already swam wrap stiff hands around plastic cups of tea.
“It’s not how long you swim; it’s the benefit you get from it,” says Tommy Ryan, 85, who swims every day at the Forty Foot. “You always feel well after it. People don’t realize the therapy you get until you start doing it — both physical and mental,” he says. “You come down in a bad humor, and go home in a great humor,” he says.
Ryan says he “dips in winter, swims in summer” and that other swimmers have become like family to him over the years. He sees them at the same time every day.
Although tradition dictates that most Dublin sea swimmers don’t wear wet suits, the uptick in swimming sparked a trend in “dryrobes,” with many newcomers turning up in the pricey fleece-lined changing robes and even hanging out in them for post-swim coffees. There’s been some good-natured rivalry between those and some “old-timers” who swim year-round and use towels to change after a swim. There were reports of “dryrobe wars,” but everyone co-exists peacefully.
Across Dublin Bay in Clontarf, Angie Morris took up regular sea swimming during the first lockdown and says she has made new friends out of it — an unexpected bonus.
The regular female swimmers have a WhatsApp group called the Dollymount Dames (after nearby Dollymount beach). They keep each other motivated, update on tide times and swim in small groups.
“You feel joyful, you just feel really happy afterward. I went this morning at 7:45. The conditions were horrible, even to walk in, it was choppy, there was lots of debris. But you feel brilliant,” Morris says.
Morris says aside from the physical benefits, it has been a good way to socialize while keeping socially distant and making new friends in the pandemic.
“As the pandemic is continuing, people are very down. It’s not normal for people not to socialize or see friends and family,” Morris says. “Even though these women weren’t my friends before, I’m seeing them every single day. The health benefit is probably joy.”
At 7:30 a.m. every Friday, the Forty Foot Walrus Winter Swimming Group meets for a 1.2 mile swim, organized by Gerard Kennedy, a long-distance swimmer who has been swimming every day for 10 years, for up to 40 minutes at a time in winter.
He says he has felt physical and mental benefits; he was diagnosed with arthritis at young age when someone introduced him to cold-water swimming. He says he swam in water as cold as 29 degrees in Antarctica without a wet suit.
He loves seeing the Forty Foot so busy since the pandemic started.
“First of all, it’s a free mental health check-in,” he says. “We all feel good coming out of it and smiling. It doesn’t matter what age you are, or who you are. It’s there for everyone, even if you just float around.”
Sea swimming is said to be good for both body and mind. Seawater is rich in minerals such as magnesium and can help skin conditions, such as eczema. Cold-water swimming has also been linked to mental health benefits and is said to lower stress and anxiety.
The sea can also be unpredictable, and safety measures are important, such as not swimming alone and paying attention to weather forecasts. Gerard stresses the importance of knowing your limits, especially for longer swims. Ryan says he has seen fatalities when people ignored warnings about rough waters.
As well as signs warning of hazards, new temporary signs at the Dublin bathing spots remind swimmers to “Swim and Go” to keep bathing areas covid-safe. Perhaps, when normalcy resume, future visitors to attractions on Dublin Bay like the James Joyce Tower and Museum may take a swim in the sometimes green sea.