THE popularity of open-water swimming has soared in recent years, with dryrobes and wetsuits flying out the door of shops across the county.
While Cork has always had a strong swimming contingent, a recap of the basics of safe swimming is always a good idea as the weather warms up.
Monika Power, an Austrian pool swimmer living in West Cork, started to embrace swimming in the sea at the start of the pandemic.
Now a qualified open-water swimming instructor, Monika is running open-water swim sessions along the coast, bringing basic knowledge about tides, currents, waves, and wind to new and experienced swimmers, as well as information on acclimatising, staying safe at sea, and keeping warm.
“Open-water swimming can be pretty safe if the right measures are taken and the basic open-water swimming skills become an etiquette,” Monika says.
Swimming since she was a small child, Monika has been a swimming teacher for the past 10 years, giving lessons at The Water School in Ballylickey.
For the past two summers, Monika has also been offering classes on what to know if you want to swim in the sea.
One of the main things to get to grips with is acclimatising to the cold and preparing your body for the chilly temperatures.
“With seawater still being around the 10-degree mark, cold water shock, hypothermia, and after drop can still be a serious hazard to non-acclimatised swimmers,” Monika warns. “At this temperature, it is recommended to allow the body to adjust slowly and acclimatise over time.
“Seasoned swimmers often experience cold-water swimming in a much more relaxed or mature way, as their bodies have adjusted to the initial ‘cold-water response’ and, even more importantly, have learned how to cope with a lower core temperature.
“While the ‘cold-water shock response’ can be reduced within five to six immersions into cold water, being able to handle lower core temperatures may take months of regular cold-water swimming.”
You need to give your body a chance to get used to the temperature each time you enter the water.
“Acclimatise for 20 seconds to one minute after entry and wait for breathing to normalise,” Monika says. “Flush [fill] your wetsuit with water before starting to swim.”
A top tip from the swimming instructor is to “know your limits”.
“Knowing your level of swimming and making wise decisions accordingly will enhance your swimming experience generally,” she says.
Monika says sometimes people of different abilities buddy up to swim together and the weaker swimmer ends up staying in the water too long or going too far.
The swim coach says swimmers should check regularly on the distance travelled and of course check the weather forecast, in particular wind gusts strength and speed.
“Gusts can easily overwhelm dippers or head-up swimmers [always swim into the wind and get carried back].”
For newbies to the world of open-water swimming, getting to know your swim spots is a big one.
“To begin, swim along the shore, but stay away from rocks,” Monika advises. “Know safe entry/exit points in high or low tide and be aware of other recreational open-water users [boats, surfers, kite surfers].”
Monika also emphasises the importance of knowing about any tidal changes and currents that could affect your swimming area.
In terms of group swimming in open water, Monika says a group is only as strong as its weakest swimmer.
“Familiarise yourself with their strengths and weaknesses, and be mindful of the diverse experiences of each open-water swimmer.”
Offering advice on what you need to get into open water, Monika says two brightly coloured silicon or neoprene swim hats were vital to be seen and retain heat. A tow float, which will also help you to be seen, is another important piece of equipment.
Some people like to wear booties and gloves, which can keep in heat, but Monika says they can sometimes interfere with propulsion and buoyancy in the water.
A waterproof watch is useful to keep track of how long you have been in the water.
A wetsuit will help shield you from the cold (a little bit) and ear plugs can also protect ears from wind and cold.
Just as important as being prepared for your swim, is being prepared for after your swim, according to Monika.
“Wrap up clothes in a towel or dryrobe; they will stay dry and can be handled easy. Stand on a mat or a towel to keep feet protected from cold or stones, and get warm and dry quickly. It is also recommended to have a warm sugary drink after to help heat up again.”
Summarising her advice for newbies, Monika says: “My general tip for open-water newbies is to swim in well-known swimming areas only, make sure you are well equipped and most importantly stay close to your entry point. Acclimatise and take time to explore your swimming area.
“Relax and enjoy your treat.”