From Lagom #3

Call of the Wild Sea

Christopher Murphy explores the importance of taking time out to recharge your creative batteries. Here he shares his passion for wild swimming and the benefits of unwinding in the sea.

Words Christopher Murphy

Photographs Dan Rubin

There are two strategies for immersing yourself into the icy cold sea off the north-west coast of Ireland: the first is the tentative, inch-by-inch approach, as you edge deeper and deeper into the sea; the second, and by far my preferred approach, is the immediate, headlong rush forwards, plunging yourself rapidly into the oncoming waves. The quicker you’re in, the quicker you can enjoy it.

Regardless of your preference, the end result is the same: as you acclimatise to the cold, you feel a rush of adrenalin. This is no heated swimming pool — far from it — this is nature in the raw.

I’ve always been a swimmer, but I only started wild swimming a few years ago, when I tired of the artificiality of indoor swimming. Indoor pools were so regimented, not to mention filled with chlorine (and who knows what else), they were expensive, and they were noisy and crowded. All things considered, the opposite of the escape I was seeking.

Swimming in the sea is natural. Even better: it’s free.

Ireland is home to some of the most beautiful and unspoilt outdoor swimming locations in the world. It has also, in recent years, become renowned as an attraction for international surfers, drawn to the mighty waves off its west coast. Aileen’s Wave — off the imposing Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare — has been decreed as the nearest thing to the ‘perfect wave’ (by scientists at the National University of Ireland in Galway, no less). Sadly, surfing passed me by, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the water, which I do, whenever I’m in Donegal.

Situated on the extreme northwest of Ireland, County Donegal is characterised by its wonderful, rugged landscape. Battered by the wind and rain in the winter, it’s considerably warmer in the summer months. A world away from my studio in Belfast (but only a three hour drive), my studio in Donegal is hidden down a lane, far from prying eyes; isolated. I come here to escape and to write, and swimming facilitates both.

It gives you immeasurable confidence to tackle the day ahead, knowing anything is achievable.

Wild swimming is magical. The feeling you get as you press forward into the sea is hard to describe. The further from the shore you get, the further you leave your worries behind. That feeling, of life’s pressures slipping away the deeper you get, is hard to beat.

As you swim out, deeper and deeper, the sea bed beneath you disappears, replaced by an empty blackness. The unknown, below, takes a little getting used to and certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. Every brush of seaweed leaves you wondering: “what was that?”

The depths below can play tricks with your mind. What appeals to me, however, is the feeling of leaving your worries behind in your wake. This — for me — is the allure of the sea. You’re sharing it with nature; you’re just one of many in there. The unknown beneath you is all a part of the appeal. Often while swimming you’ll look up and, just a few feet away, a seal will be staring back at you. Tantalisingly beyond reach, like a guardian of the sea.

The emptiness of the sea allows you space to breathe: space away from the clamour of the ever-present digitally-accelerated lives we’re all living. There’s something about the solitude, when you’re hundreds of metres offshore, alone. It’s humbling. Viewed from a distance, you’re just a pinprick, a tiny speck in the vast expanse of the ocean.

I’ve had more than my fair share of worrying moments, far out to sea, swimming against a strong current back to shore, and making very little progress. It’s at moments like these — when it’s you, alone against the sea — that you have to look deep inside yourself, as you draw on your inner resources, in an effort to get back to dry land.

Offshore swimming can be dangerous, with unexpected currents pulling you out to sea. You need to be a strong swimmer and, importantly, need to treat the sea with the respect it deserves. Do that and it will reward you amply.

The health benefits wild swimming offers, in particular its mental health benefits, are well-documented. The intense feeling of vitality when you’ve finished your swim is hard to beat.

It gives you immeasurable confidence to tackle the day ahead, knowing anything is achievable.

The crashing of waves far offshore, the persistent hiss of the surf, the seemingly endless expanse of the mighty Atlantic Ocean ahead of you — next stop: North America! — this is the appeal of wild swimming for me. The sea affords time and space to think, and I can think of no better place to reflect than out there, alone, in its icy cold waters.

Pausing for a moment, midway between your point of departure and arrival, there’s no place I’d rather be. As I float, just for a moment or two, drinking in the wonderful scenery that surrounds me, my batteries feel recharged. The sun catching the distant shoreline, my destination, I soak up the surroundings — knowing that, leaving the sea, I’m ready for anything.

Lagom #3 cover

Dan Rubin’s photos for this piece were one of our highlights from our third issue, and they look great in print. To see them printed on thick, uncoated paper stock and read all of the great content from #3, please consider buying a copy of our print edition.

Buy Lagom #3