This article first appeared below in Dublin.ie - the Dublin City Council website promoting the city's people and places
It’s an addiction. It’s life threatening. It’s awesome.
Huddling together in the bitter cold, on Friday the 13th, under a weak and feeble January sun, they all argue that there’s nothing better. Sure, there’s dramatic stories of nearly dying. But the group is adamant that the buzz is worth it. Great, they say, for the mental health. “It’s the perfect anti-depressant,” photographer Barry Delaney says. Listening to them, you hear the language of addiction, of love, of religion even.
Welcome to Sandycove’s famous Forty Foot and its crew of year-round swimmers. It’s almost like a cult. But the freezing water keeps things real.
And there’s no mistaking the sense of community. Of camaraderie, wit and banter. “It’s like a great pub,” Barry says. Indeed a few of the swimmers say they were a little too fond of the booze in their day. Here it seems they’ve found nature’s 12 steps. But get to the last step here and you still have to dive into the freezing sea.
“Yeah it’s an addiction with me,” Peter Brady says of his 30-year habit. “I didn’t miss a single day last year. I would feel absolutely guilty if I did. I am retired. It’s something to do and there’s always a bit of fun,” he says. Barry Delaney’s ocean journey started when he was struggling to give up drink. He had been shooting swimmers. And was intrigued. “I thought maybe I’ll give it a go.” And he did. And felt better for it. “I found it helped me deal with all the stuff that is going on in my head.” Barry lives just two minutes from the sea. So for him, it’s nature’s caffeine and therapy all in one. He gets up. He dives in. “Then it’s yeah, let’s go, let’s face the day.”
Artist Gary Coyle’s ocean plunge ended up with him making quite a splash on the international art scene. “I didn’t start swimming for artistic reasons,” he says. But he would be out there and would suddenly find himself awestruck. So he started to shoot while he swam and to document his daily pilgrimage. Notebooks, DART tickets, ear plugs all formed part of his first exhibition of sea photos. He even sold a number of signed jars of Forty Foot water: a sure sign of ‘making it’ in the art world! Laughing he says “Yeah I suppose it’s a profession as well as a recreation”, adding that he’s known as “the wave guy” in that world.
“Yesterday was swim number 4,845,” he says with a smile. “It’s very anal, I know.” But it keeps his engine ticking over physically, artistically and even financially. “I’ve had loads of shows,” he says, modestly. “I have a show touring the UK at the moment and I’m in a big show in the US next month. I never intended it to become art, let alone take over my life,” he says adamantly. “Talk about mission creep.” But it was such a good antidote to stress. “It’s fucking incredible, I just feel amazingly good afterwards.”
It’s not without its perils though. Barry says he was out before Christmas on a rough day and he saw a swell coming. He swam furiously towards the steps. But he didn’t quite make it. “I got spun around the railing, caught in what they call a ‘washing machine’. It was like a whirlpool. I thought ‘that’s it’.” He said he had gone in with a head full of financial woes. But when he finally managed to get out, his priorities were quite different.
Gary too had his scary tales. “You get a false sense of security on glorious days. And you think I’ll go just go a little further and further. And then suddenly you realise ‘Jesus I’ve gone way too far’.”
Staying calm and “luck” are what saved the day for him. Gary also really enjoys the social aspect. “There’s all walks of life. All different backgrounds and ages. Taking your clothes off too is a great leveller. A really good bar is an apt description,” he says.
It seems the only unruly customers are the seals. People are feeding them so they are coming in close to shore. “The alpha male is huge. Jesus Christ he is huge. And he will head-butt you. I don’t know if it’s play or not but it’s terrifying,” Gary says. “He’s the size of a small cow. And he pops up looking at you. No fun!”.
Despite it all, everyone says it’s well worth it. So if you want a taste of the fabled wit, banter and camaraderie of Dublin pubs but don’t want to drink, try a trip out to the Forty Foot. And if you balk at jumping into the Baltic waters, then just sit back and enjoy the company and, of course, the stunning views of Dublin Bay. A great way to spend a day.
Main header image -From the ‘Lovely Water’ series by artist Gary Coyle