The small group of swimmers stood in the pale light of morning waiting to disrobe. Like a tribal elder, the man they’d been waiting for joined them on the beach. A round of applause and cheers greeted his arrival. It was good to have him back.
es Scanlon has been swimming at Bray Beach for so long now that he can’t remember exactly how many years it’s been. But Les, who will mark his 85th birthday later this summer and never misses too many days at the beach, had to leave his love of swimming behind him for the duration of lockdown and cocoon at home.
The separation from his swim friends and the beach was painful. The sea has seen him through some of the darkest days of his life and cocooning meant he was housebound for more weeks than he’d care to remember.
Coming back to swim was, he admits, emotional, made all the more so by the reaction of his friends who cheered as he joined their group once again. They couldn’t hug him but their reaction made him feel like he was held in a warm embrace as he got ready to take the plunge.
Les is the ‘grandfather’ of the Bray Beach Bathers, a hardy bunch of swimmers who meet daily, sometimes twice a day, to swim at Bray Beach, just beside the harbour. They swim in rain, hail and shine all year long. And while on fine summer days the beach is busy with swimmers, the group is still there on cold winter days when you can see your breath in the icy cold air and there’s nobody else around.
Many of the group are over 65, although not all, and most find the matter of age an irrelevance when it comes to plunging into cold water. The shared experience of sea swimming brings them back, day in day out, and throughout the period of lockdown when much of life was upended, the certainty of the swim was life-affirming.
Les, who is originally from Shankill, has been living in Bray for many years. He says he started swimming “maybe 44 years ago”. It all started when he changed the route he walked his dog, an Alsatian called Apache, and watched as people swam in the sea near Bray Harbour.
He and Apache began swimming every day. Les swam right through the winter and continued all year long. Swimming was something that got him up and out of the house when he lost his son David 24 years ago at the age of 23, and when he lost his beloved wife Nancy 20 years ago.
Les says he knows he could’ve gotten into a terrible rut, but getting up to go to the seafront and chat to people has been a kind of therapy. “It got me up out of bed. It’s still hard – don’t get me wrong, Nancy was lovely and it was a very dark time. Going down to the sea helped me greatly,” says Les, who has two daughters, one son and nine grandchildren who all live nearby.
Linda Uhlemann (69) credits Les with getting her into the water. Married to Anthony, known as Ully, she spotted Les in the water some eight years ago. While she’d always been a keen and strong swimmer growing up in Blackrock, Co Dublin, she stopped for a couple of years as she recovered from breast cancer.
Linda recalls striking up a conversation with Les and asking if she could join him on his daily swim. She swam with him most of that summer and once September came told him that she’d wait until the next summer.
“He told me not to be a wuss and to just keep getting in,” says Linda, who now swims all year round.
The group grew to include Linda’s husband Ully (70) and her sister Deirdre and now has 13 members. “We’re a very diverse group in terms of our history but we just gel. There’s great laughs and you wouldn’t want to have any issues about your figure or be too sensitive,” she says.
“You might head down to the beach and you’ve dragged yourself out of bed when it’s still dark. But by the time you’ve come out you’re laughing. Two weeks ago we did a 5am swimrise and we’ll do a moonlight swim in August and have chips under the full moon,” she says.
While Linda says age isn’t an issue and nobody asks anyone’s ages, there’s a deference reserved for Les who brought everyone together in his own way.
“We love and respect him and we were so happy to see him come back after cocooning. All of us were in contact with him through cocooning and we kept him up to date with what was happening,” she says of her friend.
Of the benefits of her daily swim, Linda says she feels that it has literally saved her life. “I had a bad reaction to the chemotherapy that nearly killed me. I couldn’t even walk to the seafront. I never imagined that I’d get into the sea. I wouldn’t say I was depressed but I was certainly very down. Now every single day of my life when I walk across that beach I say thanks be to God I have this. It has been everything to me,” says Linda, a mother of three grown-up children and grandmother of six.
“Every one of us in the group has a different story of why they’re there. For some people there’s been sickness and death but we don’t talk about it. They know I’ve had cancer but I don’t talk about it. The whole thing is about being together as a group and laughing,” she adds.
For Margaret Boles (68), who spent much of lockdown cocooning with her husband Robin, who’s in his 80s, not being able to go for her daily swim was like having her right arm cut off.
She explains that she had major abdominal surgery in 2015 which took her two years to recover from. She took a notion two years ago that she was going to get in for a swim, something she had done regularly since childhood.
She happened upon the Bray Beach Bathers who asked her if she’d like to join them. Margaret never looked back and credits getting into the water with her healing. “For two years after the surgery, internally I felt like I was trembling. After I was swimming for about three weeks for the first time I felt kind of normal again. I haven’t stopped since,” she says.
“I’m not a great swimmer but it has taken that edge off life that can make you feel easily frustrated or easily stressed. If by chance I was away for a few days, I find I need to get back in. It’s like a top-up of mental health and wellbeing,” she says.
Research shows that engaging with ‘blue space’ or water environments, especially the sea, can improve our wellbeing, altering our bio-chemistry, lighting up our mood and lowering stress hormones.
In her work with the NEAR Health Project at NUI Galway, Dr Easkey Britton is currently engaged in finding more ways to connect people with blue spaces. But she says shared experiences of water, of being in a group, for example, can help enhance a sense of belonging, social connection and identity through shared experiences. The connective properties of water may also play a key role.
According to Dr Britton, although the mechanisms of how these activities and settings contribute to wellbeing are not yet well understood, we do know blue space has the ability to improve our health, especially our psychological wellbeing.
Margaret Boles says it’s incredible what her daily swim with friends does for her. “They’ll say to you: ‘How are you?’ and they mean it. They’re actually interested without being intrusive. Nobody encroaches on anyone else’s space. If you don’t turn up for a day, you’ll get a text ‘Are you okay?’ Those couple of words are extraordinary,” says Margaret, a grandmother of seven.
“A couple of times during the year we did a sunrise swim. We were in the water just after 5am. When you do different things like that it creates cohesion within a group that you may not get otherwise. We are doing the same thing for the same reasons.
“Everyone makes sure that everyone is okay in the water – that oversight for people creates an intimacy rather than a dependency. Whoever is out of the water will automatically turn around to see where everyone else is,” says Margaret.
After she came back to meet her swim friends after cocooning for weeks and weeks, Margaret describes herself as being like a child let loose in the candy store. “I felt this tension that something was about to happen. The others were there and they were all saying, ‘Great to have you back’. There was just acceptance,” she says.