A Year in the Swim Life of Ireland's Dee Newell

Hi, my name is Dee Newell and I am from Galway, on the west coast of Ireland but have lived on the east coast in Dublin for the past 7 years.

I am an outdoor swimmer and swim mostly in the sea, sometimes in lakes and rarely in rivers. I swim all year round, always, but had it not been for Antarctica, I’m pretty sure I would never have completed an Ice Kilometre.

I consider myself more an endurance swimmer, better suited to Channel crossings, rather than cold exposure. I think I’m more useful assisting ice swimmers with safety or helping their recovery than swimming ice miles myself.

But in Antarctica, the pull was just too great. The place got to me. That Ice Kilometre was the last thing I did last year before the world shut down.

As the world shook, we were alone with nature. A group of truly humbling swimmers, none more so than Cath Pendleton, who completed the first ever Ice Mile in the Southern Polar Circle. It was a pleasure to contribute to that achievement by assisting her recovery after that historic swim.

We never complete these swims alone, and I have never felt that more strongly than during my English Channel journey in 2019.

My original window was blown out, and my dream team had long since had to go home, by the time I did get a chance to swim.

Somehow though, I still had an amazing crew on board Team SUVA - Neil Streeter's pilot boat, his mum being the mighty Freda Streeter

Channel celeb Cliff Golding was number one crewman, and the only member of the original team to make it on the boat. Recruits Gavan Hennigan and Andrew Ferguson were well tutored in all they needed to know from Cliff, who clearly knew me better than I knew myself.

They cheered me on for nearly 15 hours, all the way to France, but one moment during that crossing really stands out as the moment I realised I did in fact have the dream team on board after all.

Whether it was a tactic or not I don’t know, but Cliff went for a nap after my first feed until sunrise. This is probably the time I would have broken and asked to get out, so it was great for me that he removed himself from tempting me into doing that.

Cliff is the first person who said I would be a channel swimmer, so it was like a fairytale having him there to welcome me into a very exclusive club... The Club of Channel Swimmers.

Also on the team was my friend Andrea Baxter, who singlehandedly coordinated my 2×6 hour training swims at Abersoch Beach before the English Channel swim (an emergency confidence remedy after a failed 10 hour swim attempt in Carlingford earlier that year).

2019 swims did not end there. In September I was part of a six person relay team to swim from Holyhead to Dublin. Wales is my second training hub outside of Ireland, so it really felt like swimming home.

Wales is also where I visited Jim for meditation (also added to the plan after the 10 hr swim failure!) and where I first met Cath Pendleton for some pre-Antarctica training at Keepers Pond.

However, I chose a disappointingly warm day to visit said mecca with the water a balmy 6C!

And finally, Wales is also home of ‘The Swim Buoys’, with Swim Buoy Jack joining Cath and I for that lovely day at Keepers Pond. Jack might also have inspired the name of my next project.

Buoys Club was borne out of COVID-19 restrictions, as swim and travel bans, along with Front­line Response pressed pause on any swim plans I had post Antarctica in 2020.

A lot of people, many who had helped me achieve my swimming goals, wanted to move from dipping in the sea to swimming in the sea.

The goal we set was to make the 120 metres distance from the Forty Foot, Sandycove, Dublin to the first yellow buoy. This is a very popular swim spot in Dublin.  James Joyce used to live in the Martello tower overlooking it and the opening section of Ulysses is set there. 

What started as being a support swimmer for two friends, grew to leading a team of over 30 people to virtually complete a 13 kilometre Galway Bay swim, in relays and solos, over the month of August - raising thousands for Cancer Care West along the way.

This project hugely progressed my skills as an Open Water Swim Coach and I completed my Swim Ireland Level 2 Open Water Coaching Course alongside this challenge.

Buoys Club wound up for the winter, but the fundraising didn’t stop. In December I ran @deeswimber, a virtual challenge to complete 20 dips/swims in December. 175 people took part and over €20,000 was raised for the @IrishCancerSociety.

As the temperatures dropped everybody thought people would stop swimming, but they did not! Everyone was hooked. And the emergency services were understandably worried.

The pandemic has helped make open water swimming possibly the fastest growing past-time in Ireland.

Of course as numbers swimming increased, so too have the incidents and rescues, with the coastguard and RNLI responding almost on a daily basis one week during the summer.

With my ice swimming experience and having just completed my open water coaching qualification I took it upon myself to build on the swim knowledge I had been delivering through Buoys Club and conducted a series of open water swim webinars.

I was amazed at their popularity and had to run the Intro to Open Water Swimming six times, filling a zoom screen every time. 

The most commonly asked questions were about conditions and how to predict when and where to go for your dip.  So the next session covered tides and using the weather apps to ensure safe planning of swims. 

It has been great to see safety message spread throughout the swimming community, new and old. In 2013 when I first heard about a tow float they were hard to source and a rare sight.  They received very funny looks but now, a few years later, there are more funny looks towards a swimmer entering the water without one. 

There is a steady flow of swimming traffic at some of the more popular spots from 6am well into the evening, even now! Adventure lights has become a must-have for open water swimming, the water around here lit up like a Christmas tree before sunrise and after dark.

Hats flashing and tow-floats filled with lights, glowing like Chinese lanterns as we still chase distance while the night chases the day.

Written by Dee Newell who can be contacted via her Instagram account.

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