Cold comfort: Sea swimming, as told by Natalie B Coleman and Jeanne Ní Áinle



Natalie B Coleman on sea swimming and finding your tribe in a pandemic, accompanied by a photo story by Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle. Words by Liadán Hynes.

“The shock of jumping into the cold water just kind of clears your head, and you feel connected to something else rather than just the day to day; the working online, childcare and school. It was just completely a little bubble of joy. I loved it.” Designer Natalie B Coleman had never tried sea swimming before lockdown. She was working on art director Ciara O’Donovan’s wedding dress as Covid-19 unfolded; the two became friends throughout the process, and Ciara, a lifelong sea swimmer, convinced her.

“I was doing her wedding dress, so we were kind of using the time to discuss necklines and things like that,” she laughs now. “And then Marion and her cousin Sarah joined.”

The four women featured in our photo essay by Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle got to know each other during lockdown, at first working out together, in the park, or online, which then turned into sometimes several weekly sea swims.

“It was just really nice to have that physical element in all the different ways,” Natalie says now. “Apart from the exercise. To be physically close to the girls as well. Have those chats, have our coffees and buns afterwards. Just the fun of it all, you know?”

When they most needed it, coming together to swim in the sea provided an outlet.  “It was all about restrictions and rules, and then there were these little bubbles of freedom.  You could collect these moments of freedom.”

A self-employed fashion designer who lives with her two young children, Natalie describes the importance of her circle of female friends.

“I would be lost without them. They’re just touchstones for everything. You just value it so much more I think with age, you appreciate all the complexities of everybody’s life, and you really appreciate your friends. How we nurture each other I suppose, and how we overcome things, and are supportive.  We appreciate each other’s creativity as well, and are very proud of all the achievements.”

Director, photographer and creative director Marion Bergin first began sea swimming a few years ago.  “I had somebody really close to me pass away a few years ago. Christmas is really hard when you’ve lost somebody. I am a big believer in shaking up the routine to do something exciting, so that you start associating different memories with specific occasions. So the first Christmas after that happened, rather than the usual Christmas, our family all went sea swimming. I was like ‘we need to do something that is exciting and that we can talk about’. That was my first venture into cold water swimming.”

Last summer she set up a small “swim fam” group. “I just wanted to do sunrise swims on a Friday. I invited a few people I know. It was a really special time of the week. A little slice of the day that not that many people have, because most people are asleep. It creates a really special solidarity and feeling between people when you put yourself out of your comfort zone, and do something that’s a little bit outside of the norm.”

Of sea swimming during a pandemic, Marion describes it as a necessary push back against life within restrictions. “It was just finding joy. We can be adventurous in a really small space. Find new ways to have fun. There’s a really adventurous streak that runs through all of us, that not everybody has. It’s hard to find a group of people where you can say hey, d’you want to go fling yourself into the sea at sunrise?”

“We did a couple of sunrise swims last year, and they were probably one of the highlights of the summer,” says Marion’s cousin dentist Sarah Quinlivan.  “It’s so calm and lovely, there’s a special vibe at that time of the day. When things got a bit crazy here, it was just that little bit of consistency.”

“I can’t work remotely, I’m a dentist by trade. My place of work has been closed. Everything was completely affected; any of the normal things that I do were gone. So that bit of consistency was actually more important than anything. A little bit of structure when everything else was kind of gone.”

Art director and visual stylist Ciara O’Donovan grew up in West Cork. “I have been sea swimming kind of for ever,” she says.  “My mother would always swim until October.  So I was sea swimming back in college, when everyone thought I was a lunatic. I never had people to go with.”

She describes how the four women got to know each other in the past few months, and how life in lockdown gave rise to conditions that allowed the time for this new friendship to flourish. “We hung out after the swims and had coffees and buns and chatted. It was just the four of us, and it was lovely. All of us would have been busy with our own jobs, or you’d try to arrange to meet and never actually meet up. Whereas everybody was looking for something that could relieve them of the mental anguish during lockdown. It was like ‘let’s just be girls, and go for a swim, and have coffee and a bun outside, because we’re allowed do that’,” Ciara laughs.

“We’re allowed have a laugh, and we’re allowed have the craic. We’d a total giggle. We didn’t talk about lockdown. We didn’t talk about our own problems massively, because the four of us were getting to know each other. It was more of a relief. Like a less intense relationship than you would have with your close friends.  We were just swimming and drinking coffee and enjoying the new friendship. There was no onus on it.

As restrictions have changed, they have kept swimming. “It’s like a stop, like a pause or something, between everything,” says Natalie. “You can take that time, and it’s not anybody’s. There’s no thinking about work, the mundanity of life, the problems, challenges. It’s almost like stealing time or something. Like this morning there was a seal swimming with us. Just incredible. It’s the best thing. I absolutely love it.”

Photography by Jeanne Ní Áinle