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At the Forty Foot in Sandycove an elderly man shuffles towards the water, holding a crisp towel in one hand. He leans on a woman for support.
“Hi Pat, take it slow,” says Micheal Forde of the Sandycove Bathers Association, a local swimmers’ group from an undulated seating area carved out of a huge granite boulder.
A tiny blue washing line, with socks and bathing trunks, flitters above his head.
“It’s his first one, since,” the woman says, talking about the recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.
Forde advises Pat to mind his step on the uneven and often slippy surface leading towards the sea.
Around the corner is Sandycove beach. Bathers relax on the sand as some paddle kayaks in the distance.
For generations, swimmers have dipped and dived into the water at Sandycove beach and the Forty Foot, yet it wasn’t until 2018 that this spot was officially deemed a designated swimming area.
Some have raised concerns about whether the change in status has actually meant, in some respects, poorer upkeep than in years past.
Meanwhile, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown is asking Dubliners for feedback on swimming spots, and whether there are other places that they would like to be deemed official bathing areas.
Official Swimming Spots
In Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, there are currently five official – or “identified”, as they’re called – bathing waters: Killiney beach, Seapoint beach, White Rock, Sandycove beach and the Forty Foot.
Councils are responsible for developing and managing these bathing waters, say current regulations.
Depending on the beach, that can mean extra checks for swimmers, including monitoring for safety, use, lifeguard facilities, and regular water samples to assess water quality.
In 2018, the Forty Foot was designated an “identified” bathing spot. That meant the council took over care of the spot from the Sandycove Bathing Association, a local swimmers’ group founded in 1880.
It also means that the council has to measure water quality at these spots to make sure water “meets stringent microbiological standards in order to protect the health and safety of people who chose to bath there”, says Ciar O’Flynn, an executive engineer with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
That’s a measure that swimmers welcome.
Such assessments are crucial, says Valerie Devitt, a Sandycove local, who says she has swam almost every day in these waters for 30 years.
“Last year, Sandycove and the Forty Foot were closed about three times because of the spillage at the Ringsend plant,” she says.
In other ways, standards have slipped since, says Devitt, a seasoned swimmer: “It’s not kept as well.”
The steps into the Forty Foot have to be cleared of the seaweed and slime that builds up fast, she says. “I actually slipped down there last year, only my pride was hurt.”
The association would have cleared them regularly, she says.
Thomas Ryan, a member of the Sandycove Bathers Association, agrees: “There’s been a disimprovement with the maintenance but we’ve never seen as many swimmers.”
Ryan says he would like to see toilets, litter bins, and repairs done on a swimming hut damaged by a storm in 2018, among other things.
“And they don’t do the steps, they’re very very slippy,” he says, too.
Fine Gael Councillor Mary Fayne says that council workers clean and bleach the steps, and fix the railings.
“You know a lot of stuff is done that you don’t notice,” says Fayne, who lives in the area and often stops by the Forty Foot.
Fayne says there is a kiosk close to Sandycove beach where people can pay 20 cents to use the toilet.
On Monday, this single-person kiosk was out of order.
Fayne says she thinks that it’s tricky for Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council to monitor the spot because it’s so popular. “It’s difficult when it’s packed and very busy,” she says.
Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council didn’t get back to queries about how often it cleans the steps, and the suggestion that the spot was better maintained in the past.
Asking the Public
While some have mixed feelings about the impact of the designation of the Forty Foot, there is a yearly opportunity for people to share how they think it’s going – and suggest other spots that they think should get the same status.
Each year since 2011, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council has asked the public which new official bathing waters they’d like. It also asks for help to review existing ones.
This year’s consultation is currently running until 22 June. (Those wanting a say can email email@example.com.)
Public participation “varies from year to year”, said a spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council.
In 2017, people suggested spots such as Bullock Harbour, Hawk’s Cliff Bathing Area in Dalkey and The Old Baths at Dún Laoghaire, according to a 2018 council report.
The council didn’t opt for those, though, because of water quality and safety concerns, the report says.
But the main criteria designation is bather numbers, says advice from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Bathing waters should attract at least 50 people in a day during peak season, and at least 10 to 15 bathers for smaller, more remote bathing areas, it says. The bigger easy-to-reach spots should get at least 100 beach users and 20 to 30 bathers a day.
O’Flynn, the council official, says they also look at location, car parking and facilities, and commercial impacts.
Devitt, the regular at the Forty Foot, would like to see the rocky part of water just past Sandycove green get more attention, she says.
It tends to be used by regular swimmers during peak times when both Sandcove beach and the Forty Foot are overrun with people.
“Before, people very seldom swam there but they are going now,” she says.
Says Devitt: “If they could do something with that and maybe take out some of the rocks — it’s so rocky there — more people could use it.”