By Peter Vandermeersch
Why would anyone swim in the sea in the middle of winter? In most parts of the world people would think you’re not completely sane if you went to the beach in January, put on your swimsuit and ran happily into the ice-cold water. Not so in Greystones, the small Wicklow town south of the Irish capital Dublin, where I moved to live in December of last year. This place must be the only town in the whole world where you have to explain over and over again that you love to live there, but are not going to go swimming in the Irish Sea, while most people huddle inside around a fire and drink hot tea to survive the bloody cold Irish winter.
Greystones is indeed a great place to live. When you enter the town, a signpost proudly declares that in 2008 this place was named the “World’s Most Liveable Community”. Though the town has changed in recent years, Greystones is still one of the most liveable communities, maybe not on earth, but definitely in Ireland (or at least along its east coast…). Behind my house sit the Wicklow Mountains, just in front lies the Irish Sea and in between there is a community of about 20,000 people. Most of the time, these Greystonians look like Normal People. Until you realise that hundreds of them think it’s absolutely normal to go and swim every single day in “their” sea.
I have to admit, though, it’s a wonderful spectacle. When the sun rises above the Irish Sea, people start to flock from everywhere to one of the Greystones beaches. Most of these people are middle aged, middle class and dressed in “dry robes” a piece of cloth I didn’t know anything about before I moved here. It’s basically a cross between an oversized towel and a winter coat with a hood, which keeps you nice and warm before and after the swim. Without much hesitation they change into their swimming gear and step into the freezing sea with the same enthusiasm that I step into my hot morning shower.
Now that I have been living here for a couple of months, I noticed that there are different kinds of winter swimmers. On one beach you have the ones who love to swim in a group as the sun rises. They make an open fire on the beach, chatting and babbling away. The swimming only seems to be an excuse to have a great get together. On another beach, you have the individual swimmers. While some members of the “social” group only go into the water for one or two minutes, the individual swimmers seem more committed. There are other differences too. You have the swimmers-who-look-professional (wetsuit, hot flask, gloves and rubber shoes) and the swimmers-who-think-it’s-summer (bikini or trunks). You have the show-offs (look at my shoulders and my tattoos) and the I-don’t-cares. You have the ones who like to talk and the silent ones.
Yet they all have a couple of things in common: they are friendly (“Of course you can take my picture”), they look great (“I’m 83 and swim twice a week”), they clearly enjoy what they are doing (“You really feel alive”) and they don’t understand why you are standing there with three layers of clothes (“You really should try it… you’ll get addicted”).
All winter long I have been taking photographs of this strange but friendly bunch and observing their rituals. Some day I’ll publish these pictures, as a mark of understanding and respect for my fellow Greystonians. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll try… to get into the sea. Since it’s a shame to live in the world’s most liveable community and not to be crazy enough to swim in the ice-cold Irish Sea.