Beginish 2011 – open water racing on the edge of the world – Part 1

When Rob Bohane and Ned Denison planned the inaugural round Beginish Island swim (race) in 2019, I doubt they realised the position it would take as an instant open water classic.

Warm water (for us, about 14C), varied course, interesting and challenging location … and a great party.

Beginish Island

This is the edge of Europe. Past this coastline, for most of the history of humanity, the whole world ended where the water is big. Ireland may have been settled from the west and south-west, but they knew the Atlantic was a beast, perhaps the greatest of all beasts. Leviathan himself is a mere minion of the Atlantic.

Therefore as a nation we feared and respected it and when we went forth on it, we went almost naked in currachs, open to the sea.  (No barques or dromonds for the Irish, the hide-covered currach belies its modest appearance and is a most capable boat on rough seas, superbly buoyant and the basic construction was amenable to scaling up to larger sizes with sails).

You can not muscle the Atlantic’s big water. If you go forth, the ancient people surely must have thought, you must go forth as a gannet resting on the surface of the deep. Only in your acceptance of the power of the sea will Lír, the god of the sea and his son Mananán grant you passage.

Out west. Where only the brave, the foolish, the lost and the blessed went. Where were only the Skelligs, and the lands of Hy-Brazil (the land under the wave) and Tír Nan nÓg (the land of perpetual youth).

West, through the course of European literature and history, has become the noble direction. The direction of hope and challenge and promise. The direction of the eternal future and hardy people.

Summers can be harsh in Kerry, which makes it hard to convince others that Kerry is paradise. Each of the two preceding years, we’ve had storms roll in as the swim was finishing. In the middle of July last year, the new wooden boat pontoon in Knightstown was ripped out by the wind and had to be replaced by concrete this year.

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Beginish island itself sits in Valentia bay between Valentia Island and the south Kerry fishing town of Caherciveen, on the famous Ring of Kerry tourist route and is clearly seen from Geokaun mountain on the island, (the above photo was from the Daily News of Open Water Swimming).Beginish island & Valentia Harbour__View_from_Mt_Geokuan_Summit

Valentia island is both fascinating and fantastic. One location has fossil tetrapod tracks, about 385 million years old, amongst the oldest fossil trackways on Earth. There’s Cullahoo rocks on the northern shore where the waters rush in and out of blowholes even on calm days. Gleanleam House has sub-tropical gardens and the tallest tree ferns in Europe because it is completely protected from frost and the Atlantic winds. The slate quarry supplied much of the slate of the capital of the British Empire and its Houses of Parliament, commerce and transportation  and kept the local population from starvation during the Irish Famine.

Valentia was once the centre of the world in fact. The  first commercial transatlantic cable came ashore here and along with the slate quarry contributed to Valentia’s unique economy and demographics. A train line ran right to the opposite shore only hundreds of metres away to take away slate and bring cable operators and dignitaries until 1966 when cable operations were finally ended. It was the original internet, inter-network.

The U.S. Coastal Survey once ran an expedition to Valentia to accurately determine longitudinal position for transatlantic navigation and there’s a commemorative Valentia slate marker base and brass plaque. The display also demonstrates egregious misuse of an apostrophe in the memorial, proving bad grammar is indeed a crime that knows no borders.

Crimes against grammar

There’s a spectacular lighthouse, Holy Wells (like every second field in Ireland it seems), sea-cliffs, Bray head. The island featured in a Guinness ad from a few years ago. (If you’re wondering where that pub is, you need to head toward Cullahoo rocks and St. Brendan’s Well off the road on the northern side , up from the bridge to Portmagee). There’s been an RNLI boat or station there for one hundred and fifty years!

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As we drove down the Ring of Kerry, taking the long way, the weather deteriorated. By the time we reached Derrrynane, visibility was down to a hundred metres, just like our last visit two weeks ago. Fog is the worst of all possible conditions for open water swimming. It didn’t bode well.

The village of Knightstown has a population of less than two hundred. Dee and I have been coming here for seven or eight years and always love it.

How could it be possible to not love the one hundred and thirty year-old Knights Town Coffee?

HQ and accommodation for the race is the Royal Valentia Hotel, so named after some British Royal or other visited an hundred years ago. We met the other early arrivals, Ned was already there, Liz and Lisa arriving soon after. Last year Ned and I had gone for a swim out toward the lighthouse, as I tried to ensure that I didn’t miss a metre of training. No so this year. Dee and I visited Fuschia restaurant for dinner, and it was terrible. We almost always go Knight Town Coffee for dinner but we decided to try a change. We deeply regretted it. Poor food, and overpriced. Never again. Back to the hotel or our usual spot in future. A restrained night before the swim commenced. And we checked the wind forecast. It was bad. Gale force westerlies. No way we could swim around the island, the north-west and west coasts would be impossible. Tim, the main organiser for the past two years, announced the backup route, up the Sound inside Valentia Island from Portmagee to Knightstown.

Knightstown's photogenic Clock Tower.

Part Two.

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