The sea is calmest before dawn, but in Salthill, it roars with a hundred voices.
University of Galway students crowd around Blackrock Diving Tower and plunge themselves into freezing water. They are here for Coldvember — the annual student run charity event that challenges students to forget their exam woes by going for a refreshing November swim.
“I’m cold, freezing. But glad I’m glad I came down,” says Eve Lonergan, a second year University of Galway student. She hugs herself against the wind, while water drips down her hair.
“It’s a bit of fun, and once you do it you can feel proud of yourself.”
Students rise early and make their way to the event for various reasons. For Felix O’Neal, a first year University of Galway student, it was to challenge himself to exercise more.
“Feeling a lot better now, like I’m doing something with myself,” he says.
The event has been incredibly popular with the students at the University of Galway. In a survey sent to students asking whether they had participated in Coldvember yet, 74% of the responses were a yes.
“All you have to do is just go in the water,” says Helena Canny, a member of the student committee that organizes Coldvember.
“It’s a mindset to get yourself into the cold water. Once you first go into it once, you do get the dopamine effect and you do feel amazing afterwards.”
She first attended the event two years ago and enjoyed it enough to get involved with the team.
“It’s very social, because you know the Irish love drinking, and it’s nice to do something social that doesn’t revolve around drinking”.
Beyond offering another opportunity for students to socialise, Coldvember — which is running for a sixth consecutive year — has evolved into a major fundraising event and a boom for local businesses in Salthill. Meanwhile, the participating students not only leave the water energised, but enjoy health benefits of responsible cold exposure as well.
This year, Coldvember is raising money for Galway Rape Crisis Centre, a local charity that helps and supports anyone affected by sexual violence and abuse.
“We’re just shy on 7,500 euro at the moment,” Canny says. Last year’s event raised upwards of 19,000 euro, a record that Canny’s team is hoping to clear.
Local businesses in Salthill, such as Álainn—a specialty coffee and superfood café — are enjoying seeing more customers.
“Business has been great because of Coldvember,” says Sean Fleming, Álainn’s manager. He works the coffee machine as he talks, while shivering students line up at the register.
“Definitely between 7am and 9am there’s a lot more people than there normally would be.”
Dr Nicole Burns, an expert in exercise physiology and a lecturer at the University of Galway, notes the many health benefits of cold-water exposure.
“Studies have shown cold water swimming may be associated with decreased inflammation, increased immunity, decreased depression, and improvements in cardiovascular health,” she says.
However, people with pre-existing conditions such as arrhythmia and cardiovascular diseases should take special precautions before deciding to dive in.
“Don’t stay in too long, even if not feeling cold in the water,” Burns adds.
These safety recommendations mirror the best practices that the Coldvember committee urges the attendees to follow. These include not jumping into the water right away to avoid shock, never swimming alone or under the effect of substances, limiting a swim to five to ten minutes and dressing warm as soon as you get out.
While the charity part is important, Canny says, “The main goal is for students and mental health and starting your day off right.”
Canny urges anyone who has not tried it yet to come down to the beach and participate.
“You feel amazing coming out of the water,” she says. “You’re telling yourself not to get into it, until you do, and then when you get into it, you’re just trying to keep yourself warm, and then when you come out you just feel amazing. The rush of dopamine comes to you. It’s just a great way to clear your head – you just leave all the stress in the sea.”