Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sea Swimming

In the 1920s, the famous Irish playwright and roustabout Brendan Behan lived in Donaghadee for a summer. He worked painting the lighthouse there on the harbour. I'd heard that he did this as a form of community service after being found guilty of some IRA related offence, but according to Jim Fitzpatrick of the BBC he was working for the Commissioner of Irish Lights, one of the few all-Ireland institutions which survived partition, and indeed survives to the present day. They look after all the lighthouses of Ireland, north and south. I presume they survived the upheavals and troubles of the 1920s and more recent times by just quietly getting on with their work. Politicians and similar bigmouths don't bother much with lighthouses.

Anyway, the reason I'm telling you this is because after he was finished painting the lighthouse for the day, Behan would swim across Donaghadee harbour and back. He was a great one for swimming, Brendan. Now, according to a prominent local broadcaster on Radio Ulster, someone once asked him (Behan, not the broadcaster) why he liked swimming so much.

"I don't know," he replied "I just do."

I have become a great one for the swimming myself, and I will try to answer that question.

All winter long for the last year I have been doing lane swimming at the local pool in Bangor for around days a week; sometimes more, sometimes less. Up and down, up and down, for fifty lengths or so. I usually stop when I get bored, because it does get boring, or if too many other people get in the pool and block my way. I try to go when there aren't many other people in there. Some of them are just there to clown around and have fun. That's OK for them, but they get in my way, and I don't like that.

But now that the warmer weather is here, I have taken to the seas at Ballyholme and Groomsport. This is heaven to me. There are no people swimming out there. A few souls go in paddling or up to their waists and turn back. But I am very strong swimmer now, because of all my practice. So I go way, way, way out, to where the jet skis swerve and the buoys don't.

I only ever do one stroke. Breaststroke. I hate all the other strokes. I've never learnt how to time my breathing with the crawl and I always start swallowing water. Butterfly just looks overly complex, so I've never tried it. Backstroke is OK, but the waves at sea tend to go over the top of your nose.

With breaststroke, you can keep your head above water the whole time, if you choose. Or you can do a more powerful version where your face goes under the water, but not for long. If you get tired, you can come to a virtual standstill, and just sort of float length ways. It's great.

I wear a pair of goggles and I put my head below the water. It's not really diving, because I find it difficult to stay under too long. I think I'm naturally buoyant. But I get to see seaweed in its natural state. How it is meant to be seen. What I mean by this is - when we see seaweed on the water's edge or the beach it's all limp and lifeless, like old dirty rubbish. Seaweed is meant to be viewed growing up under the water.

The only one I know the name of is bladderwrack. It grows like a black bush beneath the waves, swaying in the current. Then there is one like a long, translucent reed growing straight up to the sun. There is a green one which moves wildly back and forth like young wheat or barley in a strong breeze. And there is one with a thick brown stem and big leaves at the top. It looks just like a miniature underwater palm tree.

Sometimes, I swim out to yachts moored on the bay, but the people on the yachts snub me. They don't like me out there, invading their space. I'm not supposed to be there. That's OK. I understand this. The children might say hello but the adults ignore me.

The people on the land are friendlier. Sometimes, I'll swim from Groomsport beach to the pier and back again. The people on the pier are always surprised to see me. They often ask, "Do you do this a lot?"

"No," I reply. "I got into the water for the first time this morning, by lunchtime I'd taught myself to swim, and I'm just testing out the old sea legs this afternoon. Tomorrow, I'm swimming to Scotland."

The other question they always ask, is "Is it cold in there?" Well, it's always cold at first, until you start moving a bit. I wear a thing called a rash suit, like a half wet suit in T-shirt form. It helps keep some heat in me. My feet always remain cold, though. I think I have bad circulation. I often lose all sensation in the toe area. When I get out I bury them in warm sand until the feeling returns.

Last Saturday, a jellyfish must have stung me on the toes because when I got out they were covered in red weals. It was more than a wee bit painful when the sensation returned. So I have ordered 3mm wetsuit socks from eBay. They are made from neoprene, whatever that is. They should both keep my feet warm and protect me from stingers. I see a lot of jellyfish out there. They are beautiful but terrifying.

Anyway, why do I swim? The answer is obvious. It makes my body very toned and muscular, and women like that. I swim in order to pick up women in bars. That's pretty much why I do anything.

I look back to land from the ocean and see all the joggers on the promenade and feel sorry for them, with their red faces and poor joints. Come out and join me! But don't get too close.

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