Kilmore Quay, in County Wexford, right down in Ireland’s south-east corner, is one of the best known and oldest fishing harbours in the country. The village itself is small, picturesque with many thatched houses, and like the rest of the local coast, very exposed with few trees able to survive the constant onshore winds. West of the village the beach and dunes known as the Wexford Slobs runs for mile to the entrance of Bannow Bay, east the beach runs for a few miles until it reaches the very south-east tip of Ireland at Carnsore Point.
Ireland, as I’ve often written previously, has big tides. And nowhere on the entire coast are those tides as big and strong as they are around Kilmore and Carnsore.
Four kilometres off Kilmore Quay is the little Saltee Island, with the Great Saltee, Ireland’s biggest bird sanctuary’s another four kilometres beyond that, but seeming much closer. The coast therefore is home to a particularly large range of both birds and fish.
In the late 90’s a canoeist named David Walsh wrote a detailed guide book (Oileán, the Irish for island) following his canoe circumnavigation of Ireland, aimed at fellow canoists. I don’t think he had open water swimmers in mind, but when I briefly had a loan of the out-of-print book some years ago, I quickly devoured it. I recall clearly the chapter on the coast around Kilmore and the Saltees when the author-canoist described coastal currents so strong that at the wrong time of the tide, they were impossible to canoe or kayak against.
I had looked the coastal maps and charts for the south-east many times since, and although it’s less than 90 minutes drive, I hadn’t been in Kilmore before.
St. Patrick’s Bridge, a natural rock causeway, reaches out to Little Saltee, and consequently has been the ruin of many a fishing vessel almost at home. Indeed Kilmore Quay has been home port for the many of the most recent fishing tragedies due to the ferocious storms to which the South-east is exposed.
We walked out the eastern most working pier, looking east toward Carnsore. The breeze was easterly, pushing chop into towards the pier and the tiny beach nestled in the corner. About a kilometre off I could see a line of white water looking like it was breaking for no reason, with calmer waters between. I quickly realised this must the fabled but submerged St Patrick’s Bridge, the tide being somewhere around High Water. Just beyond, seemingly about 1.2 kilometers from the beach, was a blunt black rock, a few metres high and wide. It called to me.
We walked the village, where I asked the proprietors of the flower shop, gift shop and butcher of any knowledge they may have of the inshore waters east of the Quays, especially of any currents. All I gleaned of use was that the rock was called, of course, St. Patrick’s Rock.
I’ve also said previously, a long time ago, that every field and rock in Ireland has a name. Unfortunately some times those name can be a bit, well, predictable. Many black coastal rocks are called…Black Rock. Of course if you see a black rock, and call it Black Rock, you need to be sure that it’s already called Black Rock and not Bird Rock, or something! I suppose, unimaginative as it is, St. Patrick’s Rock is an improvement.
Finally I called around to the RNLI station, situated here biggest because the marine fishing traffic and the local conditions, where one gentleman was doing a bit of afternoon work. He said there were no currents inside the St. Patrick’s Bridge. We chatted a little about local water conditions as I picked his brain for further knowledge of any peculiarities.
The Sun was nudging in and out behind clouds, with the gentlest and briefest of occasional showers as I changed into swimming gear on the road fifty metres from the beach. With the easterly breeze running toward me and guessing the distance I gave Dee an estimate of 35 to 40 minutes, 45 minutes at the outside.
The water was crisp, about 10 degrees and shallow. I aimed straight for the rock. For the swim out, the depth rarely dropped below chest high, with plenty of kelp, and the sea floor liberally dotted with scallop shells from the fishing boats. The Sun dodged and hid.
As I closed on the rock, the bottom rose again, and when I got to about seventy-five metres from the rock, I noticed that suddenly I was shooting forward, the sea floor shooting under me, as it rose to waist deep. I was at the submerged causeway and stood to grab a quick video. When I tried to do so however, I realised that even in thigh deep water, I couldn’t stand in place against the current and was buffeted and then dragged off my feet.
(Yes, I know I say Skelligs instead of Saltees in the video).
Behind me small choppy waves were breaking against the submerged causeway. They were more like standing waves (overfalls) than waves breaking on a shallow-sloped beach. They were breaking forward, but pulling hard back underneath. Next thing I was pulled over the causeway, and almost before I knew it I was on the far side of the causeway. I tried to get back onto the causeway by swimming into and with the biggest peaks, but I was still pulled back. The water was still shallow so I tried grabbing the underwater rocks to see if I could pull myself forward against the current but was unable to progress.
It was a classic rip or undertow as powerful as the lethal rip at Couminole in Kerry, or trying to swim against the flow of the East River in New York.
Rips are dangerous and every year drown people around the world, because usually because those who encounter them don’t know what to do. The land or safety seemingly very close, they continue to swim against the flow, exhausting themselves against the pull.
When you encounter a rip, there is one simple solution.
I simply turned in a 90º direction and headed inward along the submerged causeway. As I had swum out diagonally from the beach, I was still only a few hundred metres from shore. A mere hundred metres or so along the causeway and the rip current eased. With a bit of sprinting, I was able to once again swim back across the causeway, and back to my starting point, coming in just over 40 minutes after I’d started.
At lower tides, as St Patrick’s Bridge is more exposed, it’s possible there will still be a rip running south-east along it.
It was a fun little swim made so mainly by the unexpected challenge which helped to confirm Kilmore’s reputation of extremely strong currents. It’s certainly not a location for the inexperienced or easily panicked. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy the frisson of apprehension and the challenge.