Wild Swimming and the Benefits of Cold Water Bathing for all the Family

The Irish Sea can look so inviting but the reality is that it is often freezing cold
The Irish Sea can look so inviting but the reality is that it is often freezing cold

Liosa McNamara meets some of the those who have abandoned the local swimming pools for a wilder wet all around.

“April and May stay out of the spray, June and July swim till you die” – traditional verse

The Irish Sea can look so inviting but the reality is that it is often freezing cold
The Irish Sea can look so inviting but the reality is that it is often freezing cold

‘Wild Swimming’ is the act of swimming in seas, lakes and rivers  and as the ideologies of an authentic childhood become more popular with parents, and with reports being published that show how independent experience is crucial to the development of the human mind, families are heading to nature spots around the country to dip themselves in the cold waters of this island.

There’s nothing inherently dangerous about wild swimming, but you should always be careful around water with children. Choose spots that have the nod from the local council or if you want to go really wild and find that untouched spot just make sure it has a gently shelving slope and go in yourself to check for holes and dips that might catch the little ones by surprise.

A slimline life vest can be a great idea for those wilder swims.

Swimming in the Dargle River is popular with many Wicklow families
Swimming in the Dargle River is popular with many Wicklow families

Writer Siofra O’Donovan lives in Wicklow with her nine year old son Sherab and she regularly brings him up to meet friends at the Dargle river to let the children go for a swim all year round.

“I really believe kids need to learn experientially and I used to swim in that river as a kid.”  Siofra believes that even simple act of finding a path through the rocks into the water teaches children about themselves and the world around them.  She is not wrong, the National Children’s Bureau in the UK have recently stressed the importance of exploration  in nature for child development.

Paddling, wading and swimming are activities that most parents will remember taking part in as children, and it is in those activities perhaps that we learned as children not only how water works against the human body but how to problem solve and how to balance.  It helps us understand what signals in water mean and helps us evade danger.

The cold water of Irish rivers is often too much for most adults but children override the discomfort in order to enjoy the water.  Siofra tells me sometimes her son will be in and out of the water for hours playing with stones, paddling and swimming.

“I like feeling like I have hypothermia,” Sherab tells me very seriously.

Children are hardier than you think!
Children are hardier than you think!

Eilish Morrissey’s children Finn (10) and Caoilinn (8) are members of a local Triathlon club.  “The kids are never out of their depth when they swim in the sea,” she says, “they swim across and never out and I am always there too.”

Safety of course must be paramount in swimming, remember cold water does reduce your stamina so make sure your children never go out of their depth and drill them to always swim parallel to shore, whether in a lake or the sea.  In rivers choose a spot where the water is slow moving and stay close to the bank.  Get kids to warm up before and after and watch for shivering which is a sign they need to get out of the water.

Wetsuits can be a great help for longer periods in cold water and are usually available for less than the cost of the family membership to the local pool!

Speaking to Finn, who wears a wetsuit, after such a swim in the coastal waters off Greystones he said, “it’s a bit better but harder to swim in the sea. Sometimes the waves can go right in your face when u go to take a breath.”

I asked him about the wildlife but to this point he has yet to meet any animals on his swims,  but meeting one wouldn’t put him off, “I would probably get a shock if I saw a seal but I still prefer to swim in the sea.”

Finn Morrissey taking part in the Triathlon competition
Finn Morrissey taking part in the Triathlon competition. Photo Credit – Alan Rowlette

I also spoke to Ciara Brehony from the Another Way Education Society.  During the summer months Ciara and her family are rarely out of the water, spending as much time as possible at the beach often staying well past the crowds into the twilight hours.  They prefer Magheramore strand in Wicklow but swim regularly off Bray beach which is less than 300 meters from their house.  In fact they are likely to swim anywhere they find water.  Ciara’s son Edmund (12), who loves to swim under the water, tells me why he loves the sea, “It clears my head,” he says, “It’s like the water gets inside me and cleanses me. I like floating, it’s like flying, it makes me feel relaxed.”

Edmund loves to float in the water Photo Credit: Ciara Brehony
Edmund loves to float in the water Photo Credit: Ciara Brehony

Ciara herself feels the benefits of cold water swimming, “Sea swimming is like resetting your head.”  She said, “The kids are just so happy when they are in it, and there’s a special quality to the general mood after we’ve been in the sea, an openness or something. They really miss it in the winter months.”

Most swimmers I talked to mentioned this ‘reset’ of their heads, and studies have been done on that very subject which showed that cold water on the body can be more beneficial than prescription medications on depression and lack of motivation.

Scientists have explained this is due to the transmission of dopamine being encouraged due to the shock of the water.  They found that in a study of swimmers who swam daily for four months in cold water the subjects reported feeling more energetic, motivated and spritely than the group that swam in the pool.  Encouraging our children to enjoy cold water swimming helps them deal with stress.

So the next time the kids are in bad form, when the stresses of school take their toll and the bickering starts why not throw everyone in the car and head for some local water? You might just find yourselves ‘reset’ and feeling like a new person!

And as for worrying about their safety from shore? Well the best way to counteract that, according to Ciara, is to get in with them!


About Maoiliosa McNamara 11 Articles
39. Photographer. Student Journalist.