Oh, Christmas Sea! – Sea seeker Hannah-Louise Dunne on taking the icy plunge

At the age of 12, I swam a mile in our local lake swim. A year previously, the annual race had been won by a talented young swimmer, who’d emerged from the pack to scoop first place ahead of her older and experienced rivals. Having trained in the same club, hopes were high for my performance ahead of my debut.

Sadly, I didn’t prove quite as speedy.

Despite valiant support from my family, I came in last place – preferring to soak in the atmosphere as I slowly reached the finishing line. A clear sign that competitive swimming was not my forte, it proved to be my last official open-water swimming event. Until this year, that is – a mere 16 years on – when I set myself the challenge of swimming through the winter, with my sights set on a dip in the freezing waters of Lough Owel on Christmas Day.

A Dublin-dweller for over a decade, at the start of 2018 I’d yet to fully embrace the rhythms of the coast. But that began to change in May when I decided to take my first swim of the year after the annual Darkness into Light walk.

Inspired and energised by the outpouring of support and determination on the walk, I went straight to the beach afterwards with friends. As the sun woke up, we headed slowly into the water, emerging (mere moments later) flushed and invigorated.

Although the temperatures were bracing, I was hooked: counting down the days until I headed out again – this time with my other half – to submerge slowly and tentatively swim the distance between the slipways.

A modest start, but the summer gave my training a welcome boost. With sea-temperatures on the up, warm evenings became synonymous with a trip out to the coast on the Dart and a race into the welcome cool of Dublin Bay.

Tide times were the first port of call on my phone in the morning, while my swim bag remained on constant stand-by – at the ready for the evening trip out to the sea.

As the summer passed, my confidence grew. I gradually increased my swim-distance, evening after evening, until I joined the packs of slickly wet-suited triathletes swimming out around the buoys marking the swimming route in Seapoint.

With renewed confidence, I began to explore other open-water spots on weekend trips, taking a dip in the (surprisingly warm) waters around Kerry on an August weekend and following in the footsteps of Gráinne Mhaol with a swim in the cove beside her former castle on Clare Island. In Cornwall, I joined my dad and sister in the (very) refreshing waters as we dodged jelly-fish and a brisk wind to take a dip on our annual family trip. While at home in the Midlands, I headed back to the lake for the first time in years, swimming by old-remembered routes with my mum as the summer sun shone down.

Along with increasing my fitness – and broadening my horizons – a dip in the sea brought unexpected benefits. Evenings in the water, concentrating on stroke after stroke, proved to be an ideal way to press pause on the day’s activities, helping me to find a way to calm and quieten my busy mind. So much so, that I became even more determined to ensure it wasn’t just a summer fling.

But with the warm weather slowly fading, could I maintain my enthusiasm and brave the colder waters? At first, it seemed unlikely. Softened by a trip away to warmer waters in Italy and France, I winced on my return dip and shivered for hours afterwards. It seemed, for a few weeks, like the love affair was over.

But then, the tides changed. Weekends without a swim left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. And queries from friends and family on my swimming adventures – thanks to my relentless updates from the sea-side over the summer (sorry all!) – prompted me to return. And it was glorious.

While the temperature started to drop, careful preparation – from packing a hot water bottle to an extra towel to stand on while changing – and a very slow walk into the water helped to make the temperatures bearable. Not only that, but facing my initial anxiety of immersion in cold water each time gave me renewed faith in my resilience. As did the inspiring dedication of long-time swimmers around Dublin who brave wind, rain and freezing cold with good humour each morning and weekend, shouting words of encouragement to me as I slowly walk in.

Once back in the flow in October, I set myself a new task – to complete the winter season without the aid of a wetsuit. Instead, I’ve an array of striped swimsuits and the help of some dedicated partners in crime. My mum has joined in the fun in a colourful wetsuit, procured from a surf-shop in Cornwall. She makes the trip up from Mullingar each weekend for our regular dip at Sandycove. Both new to winter swimming, we’re relishing the novelty of climbing down into the sea as vibrant rainbows frame the outline of Dublin Bay in the distance. There’s also the chance to mingle afterwards with our fellow swimmers and soak in the different stories that bring people to the sea.

United in our plans to swim at Christmas, we’ve even become proficient at drying off and dressing in record speed afterwards – before making a hasty retreat for some warm tea or coffee. Vanity is on hold for the moment, as trips to the sea require the ultimate off-duty ensembles. With cold fingers and toes to warm, yoga pants and big jumpers have become my winter wardrobe staples.

Visits home from the UK and breaks from study see my sisters join in the fun, while occasionally, on Sundays, my boyfriend makes the trip out along the coast for a quick dip. On other days, I head out for a solo swim, joining other sea-seekers around the coast in the pursuit of the perfect winter swim, scouring open-water blogs and social feeds on the way for new hints and tips on ways to improve my swim-kit.

And although the temperatures are dropping steadily, swimming remains the highlight of my week. Sunny mornings are a welcome reminder of the beauty of the summer’s evenings. Floating in the sea, surrounded by blue sky and rolling tides, it’s easy to forget any worries for a moment as you soak in the scenery. Colder days prove even more rewarding, as I make the trip regardless, armed with a thermos flask and double layers.

Now past my six-month swim’versary, there’s just three more swims before my Christmas dip with my family; potentially even with a festive Santa hat and our resident family dogs in tow. The scene of my debut open-water mile swim all those years ago, Lough Owel has played host to Christmas swimmers for many years, although we’ve never joined their ranks – until now.

And I have big plans for next year.

Having gladly taken leave of regular swim-club training in my teens, I’m feeling oddly nostalgic about embracing a robust training schedule again. I’ve even got a stinger suit on my Santa List, for when the summer returns with its unique set of challenges, and a list of potential open-water swim competitions saved down – just in case.

Competitions or not, I’ll be maintaining my regular dips. The perfect way to round off a week and wash away any lingering worries, swimming has given me a whole new appreciation for my downtime – and my home. With coastline surrounding all corners of Ireland, you’re rarely too far from the sea or a nearby swimming spot. And that is certainly something to celebrate.

Now, where’s my Santa hat…

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