Sea Tonic

By Sara Anderson

I started sea swimming three years ago in the spring. It was something I had wanted to do for years, and I wanted company. The original sea group I was in turned out to be more of a swimming group. I was a dipper. In my depth was where I felt safe. So in October 2020, I set up another group for those who wanted to dip, at the quiet small pier – Sea Tonic. No swimming skills needs. Everyone welcome. Everyone matters. We meet at the small pier in Mountcharles, in south Donegal. It is not as boisterous as the big pier which is a quarter mile further along the coast road. The small pier is quieter, less people, much more unintrusive than the big solid pier which is a walkway for many. There is less noise, less traffic, you feel closer to nature and we can stay in our depth. 

I usually go in a couple of times a week. We put up in our WhatsApp group when someone is going and there is nearly always someone or many ones that say “Yes, I will come in too”. There is about nine core members, and then others who intermittently join us. It is the best thing I have ever done in my life. I love being in the sea with others. And when I have made the commitment in the group to meet someone, I show up. Left to myself, I would still be in the cave, dreaming about sea swimming. Throughout my life, I have been prone to bouts of depression, and I find that being in the water with others is a Sea Tonic, and it seemed an apt name for our group. It keeps my spirits up, and any time over the past few year that I have stopped for any period more than a few weeks, I notice my mood starting to dip. There is something profound and magical about being in the sea, particularly over the months when the water is really cold, something that is beyond words. And then being with other women, seeing them each week, sharing our stories, our celebrations, our challenges, sharing our love of the sea and sharing in gratitude for nature and the sea, and all that it means.

Some of the women come out regularly. I wanted to know what the sea meant to them and how it has helped their wellbeing.

Carol, is the longest member in our Sea Tonic group. We were both there at the start. We had been in another sea group who were mostly fair weather dippers. This prompted the creation of the new group.

I asked Carol, “What does being the sea give you?” 

“The sea is there for me, it gives me immersion in nature, it teaches me a greater appreciate of my beautiful home.”
“What do you get from being in the sea with others?”, I asked Carol.

“Fun, laughter, a listening ear, shared experiences. We support each other. It lifts my spirits.” 

Carol lost her partner a few years ago, and this beautiful poem she wrote says everything she felt about the sea and grieving.

The sea accepted my grief
An ocean of tears
Mine just a drop

The sea gave me life
The cold shock woke me
Forced me to breath
The sea embraced me
Gently held…while
Out of my depth. 

Betty had also lost her partner just before Covid, and a year ago had seen us dipping and started coming along. Just like someone did for me, when I joined and continued to do for a whole month, I held Betty’s hand the first time she went into the water. Betty got hooked. 

I had been going through a bout of depression, in August 2021, and was finding it hard to get motivated to go into the sea. I knew how much it helped me, but the pull was strong to retreat to my cave and hang out with my wounds. I reached out to the group, shared how I felt and Carol had offered to go in with me for 21 consecutive days. And then lots of other people started joining in. That was when we made the transition from dipper to swimmers, and over the next 21 days we swam further and further and now it is part of our ritual – about 500 m of a gentle swim. Heads up, breast-stroke, like ladies – within our depth of course.

And along the 21 days, Betty, our new recruit, felt the urge to keep going. Betty did 100 consecutive days, and apart from three days, she always had company. “To me it helps liven up my day, invigorate and freshen up everything that is going on in my head,” she shared. “How do I feel when I am in the sea with others? I feel safe and I know that everyone is there to take care of each other. Being in the sea with the community, there is no pressure. Everyone is there to help and support one another. No questions asked, no need to explain yourself if you are not having a good day. And it definitely helps my wellbeing, because sometimes you feel sad when you loose someone you love and you need to change the record in your head and swimming in the sea does that.”

Betty had told Bridget about the swimming, and along she came one day, and stayed. Here is Bridget’s story, “I’ve been swimming since I was a child. We lived beside the sea. It was something all the family did together. 

Previously, I would go for a swim, chat to a few people and come home. Being with the group in the sea is far more interesting and rewarding. We chat about what we observe around us, the wonderful colours of the sky, the sea, the colours of the surrounding trees, the sunrise and the sunsets.

Everyone contributes to the conversations and we have a lot of fun.”

And then there is Roisin, who moved up from Dublin, just before Covid, to support her son who was starting a new school.

Here is Roisin’s story, “I have been sea swimming since early childhood having grown up near the sea in Dun Laoghaire. That type of swimming was very seasonal and weather dependent. My mother was instrumental in bringing us daily but did not swim herself!

In later years, and especially in stressful times, either at home or work I found sea swimming a great stress buster. The cold water and different conversations, sometimes with complete strangers, brought an awareness that everyone has problems or stresses or good things going on in their lives. I always went home feeling better.”

The Sea Tonics idea of a group swimming was new to me but having relocated to a new place it seemed a great way to combine two essential elements for survival, especially during lockdown, sea swimming and meeting new friends. 

The Sea Tonic is an eclectic bunch of women brought together by a common dominator – sea swimming and friendship. Plus some of our group are the best bakers ever!

In the early days, we would just go in for our dip and then head home, often in our dressing gowns. As time progressed, so did we, into the luxury of dry robes. Occasionally, we would had a cuppa, and then Freda joined – Freda and her cane picnic basket. Freda, alongside Carol are our group bakers. And they are talented women. Freda is the picnic queen, she always has her basket in her boot, ready with a flask and cups for all, and often home made scones and jam. Carol makes scones too, passes on her recipes and every so often treats you to a delicious cake. Having the tea and a chat afterwards has become an important part and ritual in our gatherings. 

Here is Freda’s story, “I started sea swimming during Covid with my daughter Amy. We used to go on a Sunday, just to mark the day, as one day ran into another and it was a focus for us.

The Sea Tonic group is a wonderful social group full of fun, wisdom and kindness.

And each of us are on a journey; the sea helps us focus and grounds us. 

When I am in the sea I feel free, calm, grounded, happy and I love the banter between us. The sea gives me calmness, serenity, laughter. It brings strength and allows us to stop and be in the moment. Focus on all the surrounding beauty and just be. And I love the social chats and banter. The cup of tea or coffee afterwards and the fun and laughter. Swimming with others lifts your mood, brings a calmness, and no matter what the conditions are, you always feel so much better after a dip.”

And then there is Julie, who is also a regular. Julie has a multitude of swim suits, and hair colours and styles. And whose recent birthday we celebrated with a big picnic feast.

Julie had gone through a profound loss of her partner before the lockdown, and took up going for a swim in the sea last year. Because of restrictions, yoga was relocated to the beach, and one evening the invitation went out for a dip after the class. Initially it brought up a lot of fear and trepidation. Julie said, “I had lived in Ireland for like nearly 30 years and you’d hardly get me in the sea unless it’s a really really hot day, and then often that’s with the wetsuit as well. So I was a little bit panicked – “I can’t really say no”, “I might look silly in front of everybody else”, “I am just going to have to brave it.”

“Tossing and turning in bed, ‘I will. I won’t. Wetsuit, no wetsuit.”
Accompanied by her son’s pragmatic voice in her head, who had been so supportive during her loss: “Just get in”, “Just put a coat on”, “Just put a hat on” . As Julie walked down that beach to the sea, her son in her head, “Don’t think about the sea, don’t think about the cold. Don’t think about the waves. Just get in.”
And she did.

“I took a deep breath and as I went down under the sea, I let the breath out, and I got hooked, instantly. The sea soothed and all I could think about was the cold, nothing else and my head totally cleared.”

“When I am in the sea with others, I absolutely love Sea Tonic ladies. I just think they are such an accepting, non judgemental group. You feel very safe with that little group. Our common theme is sea swimming, dipping, so encouraging. Even outside of it, emotionally encouraging, little messages when we have not seen each other for a while. You feel like you really, really belong. And the common theme is the dipping, and it really does not matter what we all do outside of that. When we come together it is like this invisible glue that just gels. It is just very simple. It’s basic. A little camaraderie but without the “Did you hear about…?” or “Do you know…?”. It’s just little sharing of safe stories. And that’s exactly what I feel with Sea Tonic – I feel safe, I feel nurtured. I feel cared for. I feel like I belong. It is total, non judgemental acceptance and it warms my heart and makes me smile, even just thinking about the group.”

Kathy is our youngest member, she swims in a wetsuit and shades.

“I started swimming because I wanted to move my whole body again and to do it in a wholesome way, connecting to the nature around, to reconnect mind, body and soul. It has been three years for me, since having brain surgery that I felt robust enough to do it.”

For Kathy, “Sea Tonic is a wonder space created by women like myself, who want to heal and reconnect to the world around them and themselves. It is an inclusive and caring group of women. The sea allows me to let go, to have courage and face all of my physical challenges, my past challenges and feel held enough to accept where I am in my life right now.

I have a feeling of being part of a group, included, not so isolated. I feel a great sense of joy and can express it freely with others. Swimming with others gives me a sense of relief, anxiety release and helps me put life into perspective.” 

Geraldine first joined our group a few years ago, and found it very very cold. She is an occasionally dipper. Here is Geraldine looking very proud of her towel robe that she made the previous night. Geraldine said, “The sea Tonic group is like a family who encourages me to dip, like finding your tribe to help you do something in common. The sea offers support. It can be gentle, encouraging me to let go and enjoy the moment which reminds me of childhood – enjoying the sea.

It clears my head, and being part of a group helps me if I feel lonely. It is refreshing.”

I suspect that over time, Geraldine might become more of a regular swimmer. The occasional has become more frequent. The germination of the seed of a committed Sea Tonic-er.

And finally me, Sara, my story.

I love the sea. I love being in it. The sea teaches me to let go and see the beauty that is around me, whether it be a sunny day or a day like today, a rainy, windy day like today, where we all giggle and laughe at how crazy we are to be out on this “bad” day. 

The sea has a holding presence. Something happens when I am regularly in the sea. It is a felt experience, like no other. I love how I feel in it and after being in the water. I feel fully alive and present. I love connecting with the other women. I love sharing our love of the sea. There are days when we swim under rainbows.

Mayo Angelou said, “If God put the rainbows right in the clouds themselves, each one of us in the direst and dullest and most dreaded and dreary moments can see a possibility of hope. Each one of us has the chance to be a rainbow in somebody’s cloud.”

The Sea Tonic has been going now for nearly two years. At different times, over our hundreds of dips, we have been a rainbow in each others’ clouds. I hope that over the years to come, many more women will join us, and get to experience the power and the healing of the sea and community. 

It is the best.
It is Sea Tonic.