All posts by LoneSwimmer

Sea-swimming is an individual expression of freedom, challenging one’s physical and mental abilities in a dangerous environment. The activity does not damage any other humans or its environment.

Copper Coast Bay to Breakers – I

Sometimes an idea is so obvious you wonder why it hadn’t occurred to you previously. Ideas or inspiration though are often just a product of two things; timing and interest.

It was a few years ago that I first heard about San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club’s Bay to Breakers swim. Ten kilometres swims are rarely exotic or interesting enough to catch anyone’s attention when they are 5000 miles away.  But I’d spent three months in San Jose south of San Francisco in the 90’s, and while most of my time was spent working, I’d loved San Francisco, the Golden Gate and the Pacific coast south of the bay.  The Bay to Breakers 10k starts in Aquatic Park, home of both famous open water swimming clubs Dolphin and South End Rowing Club (SERC) which hosts the swim. It passes Fort Point, goes under the Golden Gate, bends back around to the south west and eventually finishes on the exposed Pacific Beach.

Earlier in 2014 ,my online friend/partner Evan (Morrison) wrote a memorable and exciting race report of his 2013 Bay To Breakers swim. The report of a dangerous finish in fog, big swell while dodging rocks may sound unattractive to others, but rang all my bells.

It’s so obvious, why did it take me so long?

Tramore Bay to Annestown Beach: A Copper Coast Bay to Breakers. A shade over 10k, just for fun, just for myself.

The opportunity arose that one morning in July Dee and I had a day where it was just the right thing to do. “Want to do a swim?“, asked my non-swimming Enabler. No tide or weather planning, no crew, no boat. Just free swimming on the coast I love.

All I knew was that the Sun was high and the forecast was for one of the warmest days of the summer.

Usually if I swim a 10k by myself I have to base myself at the Guillamenes and do 2, 4 or 6k loops, allowing me to feed from my box back at the Guillamenes if required. A single direction 10k is rarely practical for a single swimmer for obvious reasons of safety and transportation at one end or the other.

But for this I could start at the Guillamenes, have Dee feed me from Gararrus and Kilfarassey beaches and finish at Annestown beach or maybe even at Boatstrand Harbour another two kilometres further on.

Instead of heading to Tramore, we  reached the coast west at Kilmurrin and drove the Copper Coast Drive route back east along the coast. As we breasted the hill above Boatstrand however, the water wasn’t in tune with the warm sunny day. Winds were Force Three to Four and the surface, while blue, was rough and the many sparkles were sign of just how rough. What the hell, I didn’t care.

Putting on the wrong googles
Swimming supermodel puts on the wrong googles

After greasing up, and using plenty of sun lotion, Toes In The Water (TITW) were just after 1.30 pm after we’d synchronised stopwatches and two hours before a quite low tide (0.2 metres). Since the coast from beyond Newtown Cove to Gararrus is inaccessible, the next time Dee would see me was when I rounded the rocks outside Gararrus, after about 3.5k.

One minute of calm water
One minute of calm water

The tiny cove was calm as I swam out to past the angling rocks.

I was less than two hundred metres from the Guillamenes when I realised two things: It was rough and choppy even in the bay and I’d worn the wrong goggles.

Since I wear Swedes when swimming by myself, I’d put on my summer clear pair (all the better to see underwater my dear). I’d brought but forgotten a pair of tinted gasket goggles, my backup Speedo Vanquishers. Swedes just don’t handle rough water for me and Vanquishers are my rough water goggles of choice, (one of the only the two great products they make). And since I had sun lotion on, that ran and impaired the seal. I should have turned back, I would have spent no more than five or six minutes and I could have restarted the count, but I choose to continue, partly because I though I could sort it and partly because things happen so sometimes it’s good to just put up with them.

I'm actually visible as single dot in the chop at 100% magnification of the full size file!
I’m actually visible as single dot in the chop at 100% magnification of the full size file!

I could barely see during the swim out to Great Newtown Head and past the Metalman. I reset the goggles three times, but couldn’t get a good seal. I swam in a blur. As I approached Great Newtown Head, I moved in close to the rocks. I felt the first real wave wrapping around the reefs, about two metres in amplitude. I stopped, pulled off the goggs again, and saw that the gap between Oyen (Bird) Rock and the cliff was impassable which alone was an indicator of the conditions ,as I know this gap well and can usually risk it. This was to be the case with every single gap or shortcut along the coast.

Goggles up, I also checked the time, and 25 minutes had passed, when this stretch usually takes about 18 to 20 minutes. Outside Oyen Rock, I once again reset my goggs, and finally, finally got them set.

I’d told Dee that if there was one place that I was most likely to be delayed, it would be crossing Ronan’s Bay to Ilaunglas . Ronan’s Bay is the next bay past Newtown Head, a 800 metres wide bay that can often times have a very strong head current, and the location where I ran directly into that still unexplained event from a few years ago.

I crossed Ronan’s Bay, and without the shelter of Newtown Head, the swell driven by the south to south-west wind was slightly larger with chop on top of it. I passed Ilaunglas, (“Green Island“, actually a yellow/green guano-covered rock) after 50 minutes, now close to ten minutes behind. Ilaunglas is one of the rocks where various seabirds are most numerous and most disagreeable of intrusion and above me 50 or 60 birds leapt skywards and kept close track of me, some dive-bombing to mere metres above my head to scare me off.

Past Ilaunglas I knew it was worth stopping momentarily. From here, the Copper Coast opens up. In glimpses from cresting waves I could see from Powerstown Head five kilometres east and behind me at the far side of Tramore Bay, ahead to Burke’s Island another five kilometres to the west outside Kilfarassey.

Passing Ilaunglas I was close in, the eddies moving me around, the swell hitting the reef and reflecting back on me. Apart from when I stopped, I could see little except water moving around me. The coast here cuts in out with three inaccessible small hidden beaches. The wind was constantly pushing me in with reefs and promontories adding to the rough surface.

After about an hour I was close to the area I think of as The Little Playground, which are the stacks and reefs east of Gararrus, not visible from the beach as a promontory reaching out from the east end of the beach entirely blocks the view. I threaded through the reefs. Seeing that the arch into Gararrus was unsafe so I had to round the outside of the promontory for the 200 metre swim into the beach through the very dense seaweed soup that accumulates sandwiched between the lee of the promontory and the Gararrus beach reefs. Dee was on the beach with the Doglet who was backing frantically as I approached. She was concerned because the three and a half kilometres had taken me an hour and twenty-five minutes. I drank half a 600 ml bottle of Hammer Perpetuum while staying in the water and while she ran back for a requested change of goggles.

Swimming into Gararrus IMG_3806.resized

 

 

Swimming for beginning open water swimmers and triathletes is like planting a tree. Twenty common beginner triathlete questions answered.

Update: The first version of this post was a horribly-written first draft accidentally scheduled to post automatically that I hadn’t realised!  Now quickly edited for the interim, sorry for the lapse in quality control.

Swimming is very much like the old saying about planting trees.The very best time to start was ten years ago. The second best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is today.

I myself did not start ten years ago but I did incrementally improve my skills and technique and open water experience and achievements.

For the beginner triathletes and open water swimmers who start asking me these swimming questions in May and June, it’s usually too late, but here are my answers to the twenty-ish most common questions I get.

I’m answering them at the end of the summer in preparation for next year, giving you lots of time, instead of last-minute useless panic…

Yes, I know I’m not a triathlete but many have asked me about swimming, and open water swimming is what I know. I was once a beginner open water swimmer also, but I get a surge in open water swimming questions especially from beginner triathletes every May and June. Though occasionally I get might get asked in November or December and tell the person to start in January. But then I don’t hear from them again until, you guessed it, May or June.

Twenty Questions

Q 1. I have a triathlon is two weeks, do you think I can do enough swim training for it?

A. 1. No, you are not ready.

Q. 2. Surely you can help me get through the swim leg?

A. 2. No, not in two weeks and asking me doesn’t mean you have “permission” to swim. Really I will help, but things are just wrong, and more importantly, unsafe.

Q. 3. I’m really afraid of open water/depth/cold/creatures/other swimmers. I don’t think I can overcome it. Can I?

A. 3. You are not a special case. Many world-class open water swimmers deal with some or all of these issues such as English channel record holder Trent Grimsey being afraid of underwater creatures. All can be dealt with or overcome or through both physical and mental training.

Q. 4. Isn’t swimming continuously for 30 minutes the best preparation for a continuous triathlon swim?

A. 4. No, you need to do interval swimming. Long distance and marathon swimmers like myself mostly train by doing intervals (aka threshold training), not swimming 10 to 20k continuously all the time. You can start introducing interval training by thinking about Zone or Heart Rate Training.

Q. 5. Is twice a week enough to swim in training?

A. 5. No, you need to swim more often. At least three times of at least 2000 metres per session is the very minimum I advise (Most open water swimmers will train five to seven days a week). That minimum is based on doing the shortest triathlons or open water swims of only about one kilometre. Maybe you should have a look at “How much do I need to swim for -x- open water distance?

Q. 6. Won’t the wetsuit help?

A. 6. Only in the wrong way. The biggest mistake triathletes make is assuming their wetsuit is a safety device and a substitute for training. Relying on it to get you through is looking for trouble and substituting neoprene for training. When you are crossing a road do you do without looking and rely entirely on the traffic to react to you?

Q. 7. A lot of the open water swimmers look, well, less fit than me. Aren’t they just using natural fat instead a wetsuit and all quite slow?

A. 7. That includes me. But no, those open water swimmers are just better prepared. Don’t be fooled by the weight, that’s a choice and sacrifice that most of us make.

Q. 8. I couldn’t ever be as good as you if I have no talent for swimming, right?

A. 8. No, it’s not natural talent, it’s been hard consistent work for me too over years.

Q. 9. I can swim 2000 or 2250 metres per hour. Is that fast?

A. 9. No, it’s slow but others are afraid to tell you. I personally define fast as 4000 metres per hour or over. So now train to get faster and learn to work with your current speed. Start with understanding how to structure a basic swimming training session and start doing interval work.

Q. 10. Can I do an Sprint or Olympic triathlon in two weeks time if I swim a lot before then?

A. 10. No, it’s too late to be ready in two weeks. Or three, or four weeks.

Q. 11. Is it too late to be ready in two weeks time?

A. 11. You should have started earlier. But swimming is like planting a tree: The best time was before today. The next best time is today. It’s not too late to be start to start preparing for some more realistic target.

Q. 12. I feel like I’m pretty good at stroke. Do I need to do regular technique training?

A. 12. Yes, your technique still needs improvement. But so does everyone else’s, including mine. Here’s some triathlete specific advice I’ve written from what I’ve seen over the years.

Q. 13. I have limited or no access to open water. Do I really have to practice in it?

A. 13. Yes, you need to swim in open water regularly. The only way to practice open water is in open water and all those articles telling you otherwise are lying.

Q. 14. Do I need to practice in open water if I’m training in a pool all the time?

A. 14. Yes, you need to swim in rough open water also and learn the techniques, as well as such skills and sighting and navigation and learning responsibility for your own safety.

Q. 15. Can I learn better technique, or speed or open water skills?

A. 15. Yes, you can learn all the appropriate skills but you can’t do it in two weeks. With running, just running more frequently will make you better, the same with cycling. Swimming and open water swimming are far more complex, and require constant correct technique training, open water skills, and experience. Have a look at the How To articles section for some of that. And I keep adding stuff, I’m working on a comprehensive three-part series on open water navigation and sighting that will cover things I haven’t seen in any of the usual articles.

Q. 16. I think I started swimming when I was too old. Do you think I can get any better?

A. 16. Yes, you can get better. Swimming technique can always be improved regardless of age. It’s just far more technical than running or cycling (as a former runner and cyclist also). I can point out multiple stories of English Channel swimmers who only started swimming when they were 40 or even older and this year alone the oldest male Channel solo swimmer record has been broken, twice!

Q. 17. So do you think I can do a sprint or Olympic or even Ironman triathlon next year?

A. 17. Yes, you can be ready for next year. Probably even for an Ironman if you train correctly, and  get the right advice. And start right now!

Q. 18. What should I do next so?

A. 18. Don’t waste the autumn, winter and spring. Technique training in the pool and interval training and do some open water swimming at the weekend, especially now while the water is still warm.

Q. 19. You’re sure I shouldn’t do it (that triathlon/swim I asked you about)?

A. 19. No, if you cannot breathe easily while swimming, you really are not ready regardless what others tell you. Your goal shouldn’t be “just get through the swim” like so many triathletes. Your goal should be to swim it easily and comfortably so that you enjoy the sport and you can improve and progress.

Q. 20. Doing it your way means everything is too far away and I won’t get started.

A. 20. Races aren’t the start, they are the finish, the result of practice and training and experience. Open water swimmers learn to study the constraints and to plan ahead. As open water specialists, they (we) can aid you in your triathlon swimming leg. If you start correctly now, and spent the time learning and training for next, you will be better, more efficient and comfortable and perform better next year. This will result in greater enjoyment and longer term engagement in the sport.

*************

The first version of this post was a horribly written first draft. Now edited and sorry for the lapse in quality control!

*

The common traits shared by so many of the questions and answers is to assume that swimming is too difficult, and then instead of treating the difficulty as a challenge, postponing actually working on the skills, from technique, to pool training, to open water training. And the next year the situation hasn’t changed and it’s all too late again.

In short, sometimes it really is too late to start if the immediate or looming deadline is wrong, but it’s not too late to start for the right deadline.

Swimming Around Hook Head

Though it sits at the tip of the Hook peninsula, the historic Hook Head lighthouse is almost more remote than some of the Irish offshore lighthouses. The Tower of Hook, as it’s known locally, is the world’s second oldest operational lighthouse, and it’s said locally that the phrase “by Hook or by Crook” arose because when indicating his intention to attack the city of Waterford (Ireland’s oldest city, and one of the largest Viking cities), Oliver Cromwell said he would invade by Hook (Head) or by Crook (village), which is on the opposite side of the estuary. It’s location and strategic importance have given the promontory a long place in Irish history.

Hook Head is a regular year round afternoon destination for us. Exposed, and located as it is on Ireland’s south-east tip sitting out into the Atlantic, it catches a lot of wind and rough water. The peninsula is low and almost treeless and it’s an attraction for a photographer, as it can be shot at dawn or sunset at different times of the year.

Tower of Hook  stormy sunset - (one of the photos when I finally knew  I was starting to get better as a photographer)
Tower of Hook stormy sunset – (one of the photos when I finally knew I was starting to get better as a photographer)

An open water swimmer cannot but visit it and think about swimming around the tip, despite the wrecks that dot the sea-floor (which attract a lot of scuba divers), and the many tragedies that have happened and continue to occur in these dangerous waters.

It was another unplanned Sunday, when the late summer weather warmed up after a cool August, the sky was clear and the Hook west webcam showed calm water. Well, it’s another local swim I’d been meaning to do, so why not today?

A few weekends before, while we still had a loan of Owen O’Keeffe’s kayak, we’d finally, finally completed an eight kilometre swim around Black Rock in Dungarvan bay starting  from the east end of Clonea. It was another challenging swim that had long eluded me, as the Rock sits out in the navigation channel and is subject to strong off-shore and cross currents I’ve encountered previously and which isn’t safe for a single unaccompanied swimmer (I do actually have safety standards). But we’d had no camera that day to  illustrate a post.

Hook is about an hour’s drive away, crossing over on the brief Passage East car ferry, by early afternoon we had parked outside the lighthouse and walked the three kilometres around the coast to the tiny eastern fishing harbour of Slade, barely protected from the prevailing south-westerlies inside the eastern side of the peninsula. Because of the extreme weather here, the small harbour is split by a double wall to give further protection, while above the village of a few house stands the ruin of another castle keep.

After a quick chat with a couple of local retired fishermen inquiring if there was anything I needed to be aware of (“be careful around the Hook, the currents are very dangerous there“), I changed and climbed down the ladder to the silted up corner of the low-tide harbour and waded out past the first mooring before setting off.

Slade harbour IMG_0960.resized
My orange cap. Always an orange cap!

The water in Slade Harbour was, by a long shot, the most foul, rank and putrid tasting water I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. But it was only about 75 metres before I reached the entrance and headed out into fresher tasting open sea, swinging right and south by the coast, carefully avoiding many hidden reefs, while Dee and the Doglet were silhouetted on the coastal path.

The tip of Hook is a mix of rocks but mostly terraced Old Red Sandstone that slopes into the sea and is a popular destination for geology students on field trips. On a sunny afternoon the terraces provided an excellent base for many shore anglers chasing bass and the late summer mackerel so I had to stay far enough out to avoid cast lines. As the coast varied I was from about 100 metres to 50 metres out.

Just after leaving Slade. Remember that rule, the water is always rougher than it looks?
Just after leaving Slade. Remember that rule, the water is always rougher than it looks? The whitecaps are an indicator of a Force Three wind.

The breeze was Force Three from the south-east, so initially as I left Slade it was into my face and the waves were bouncing and reflecting from the shore and inside reefs before I could move around the nearby rocks. People who say you should swim very close to shore have little experience of how waves can reflect back onto a swimmer and can double the rough surface caused by the wind as amplitudes collide and add up unpredictably.

Once I moved south-west from the first outcrop 200 metres from the harbour,  from my low vantage point the next way point was a low outcrop about a kilometre distant, and about 1200 metres from the harbour exit, but as I moved more south then south-west, it became obvious from my slow progress that I was swimming into a slight westerly current. As so often happens, Dee afterwards told me I was accompanied by a couple of grey seals which I didn’t see at the time.

The number of shore anglers was lessening as I moved west and the chop moved to my left. Progress was indeed slow and I didn’t reach the seven or eight metre height of the south-east side, 1200 metres from the start until forty minutes had passed, having taken twice as long as I’d expect to travel the distance unimpeded.

Swimming directly west after that point, I could see finally the tip of the light-house and occasional glimpse of Dee and the Doglet watching me and taking photo’s.

Approaching the southeast tip
Approaching the south-east tip of Hook Head.

I reached the extensive rock terraces in front of the light-house before an hour has passed and the breeze and chop shifted to behind me and slackened. I stayed clear of the reefs and hoped to catch a glimpse of one of the submerged wreck but such didn’t happen. I passed the light-house on my right as I started to progress north-west and the water completely flattened, protected from the south-easterly breeze while I could see the many visitors on the Hook and an occasional person taking the tour to the top of the light-house.

The water calms in the foreground as I round the headland, rougher water visible outside the current
The water calms in the foreground as I round the headland, rougher water visible outside the current

Regardless of weather, even in the calmest conditions some small waves will break on the Hooks south-west tip and I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.

And I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.

And I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.

I wasn’t moving forward at all. It must have taken a couple of minutes before I realised that despite the now flat water and incoming tide and even south-east breeze, there was a strong  north-west current.

Up on land my stall was immediately obvious  to Dee and to a woman whom she said was watching and who declaimed that I “must have someone watching over me from the lighthouse“.

Stuck in the current. In the far distance is Powerstown Head on the east side of Tramore bay, my usual haunt.
Stuck in the current and sprinting hard. In the far distance is Powerstown Head on the east side of Tramore Bay, my usual haunt with the Copper Coast a blue layer beyond.

I mentally and subconsciously reviewed my options and went  for Plan A – Swim Harder. I went for a maximum sprint. Of course, that’s an open water swimmers sprint, more like a pool 400 metre effort, not something that you can swim for 50 or 100 metres that you can’t maintain at that pace.

A minute, 90 seconds, two minutes, I was swimming flat out. Very, very slowly the small white breakers moved.

It took me about ten minutes to cover 80 metres. Had that not worked, I’d have next tried Plan B, Swim In a Different Direction and swum away from the Hook but my subconsciousness told me that risked being either pushed south as I swum out, or finding I’d have to swim a long way up into the estuary to be able to get back in across the current, while being swept back to possibly to where I’d been almost stopped. I also had Plan FGet Out, in reserve, and I could have reversed direction and likely got out on the reefs.

Finally through  the worst of the current. Dunmore east is visible across the estuary with a cruise ship moored off the fishing harbour.
Finally through the worst of the current. Dunmore east is visible across the estuary with a cruise ship moored off the fishing harbour.

The current lessened but didn’t disappear I continued along to my target finish destination about 500 metres along the west side at the tiny beach formerly used for launching inshore fishing craft many decades ago.

The swim was a mere 3500 metres, but it took me 90 minutes to finish, 30 minutes longer than expected.

Hook Head, like Kilmore Quay, is a challenging and potentially dangerous swimming location. It’s certainly not for beginners and should be approached with caution and only if you have a range of speeds and sufficient real confidence from prior experience and not over-confidence.

Swimming into the tiny cove with the Hood Tower behind.
Swimming into the tiny cove with the Tower of Hook behind and directly south.

As always, this mini swimming adventure was facilitated by my wonderful and long-suffering partner and the Doglet.

Aroudn Hook Head map

Dark Night of the Soul

Swimming for me, as for many of you my readers, provides a valuable part of my life, not least of which is the meditative and mostly non-stressful pursuit, where we swim not just in water waves, but also in alpha-waves. (Though occasionally the more dangerous the water is, the better for my mood and preference).

But as I’ve written recently I’ve been burnt out recently. After eight consecutive years I am skipping the 1700 metre Sandycove Island Challenge, the largest participation open water swim in Ireland, having swam it in the famously awful year of the washing machine in 2006, swimming while sick with ‘flu in 2009, swimming with a very injured shoulder in 2010, and setting a PB in 2013.

As you may know, the long (in Internet terms) history of this blog led to me developing my creative side both in writing and in photography. All three aspects of my life are now inextricably linked for me. I get ideas for articles while I’m swimming, see places I want to capture while travelling to and from swimming, go to photograph something and think I’d like to swim there, write an article that requires me to swim somewhere or photograph something else. It’s all circular and linked.

The sidebar always features my three most recent Flickr images (and therefore usually my best photographs). Many of those are not directly related to swimming but it is through photography that I sometimes end in places I’d never otherwise have visited, just as it is with swimming.

So when dealing with swimming burn-out combined with a life falling apart and enduring a seemingly interminable and very dark night of the soul, if I can’t even swim, I can still write or try to take photographs. Sometimes it’s just me and a camera or a keyboard. Readers and viewers never exist in the moments of swimming, writing or shooting.

It was on Flickr I recently discovered the little known Indian Sculpture Park in Roundwood in the Wicklow Mountains, (near Lough Dan, site of the Ice Mile Invitational). I thought for the first time in two years∗ I’d do a non-swimming related post in the pursuit of dealing with the aforementioned dark night

The park is also known as Victoria’s Way. The entrance fee is a mere €2.50 per adult and there’s no ticket taker. Put your money in a slot. Children free, dogs welcome. Enter through a (metaphorically appropriate) vagina, but one with teeth. (Also reminiscent of H.R. Geiger’s divisive surreal work).

Indian Sculpture Park entranceIMG_1191.resized

After the entrance there’s a large lawn with sculptures at each corner and the centre. The park was created by a German man, Victor Langland, who at 5 years old survived the fire-bombing of Dresden. Independently wealthy after his father died, he created the park out of his own money.

The park website is “quirky (i.e. it looks like a 90’s Geocities design from HTML 2.0 days, it’s just missing some flashing gifs). You will only find the seven main sculptures there and little other information. There is equally little information in the actual park and I had to dig around a bit online to find out more. This short Independent.ie article is probably the most informative and there’s a YouTube interview and tour here thought the sound isn’t working well for me.

Indian Sculpture Park Ganesha IMG_1203.resized

There are four Ganesha  playing instruments, including Paddy O’Ganesh on the main lawn. Ganesh is the patron of wisdom and science and the remover of obstacles. There are another two dancing Ganeshes facing these. All are about seven feet tall. One of The Musical Ganeshes aka Ganeshas (not to be confused with the horse-trading Ganeshes of Poulnamucca), Paddy O’Ganesh (its actual Park name) wears a flat cap with a shamrock and plays Uileann pipes.

Uileann pipes are the Irish bagpipes, which unlike the better known Scottish version must be played sitting down, weren’t used in warfare therefore, and have a more haunting tone. Here’s famous Irish Uileann piper Davy Spillane playing the equally famous “Caoineadh Cú Chulainn(“Lament for Cú Chulainn”, Ireland’s most famous mythological son). Normally I dislike “Oirishness” as portrayed by non-Irish people, but I really liked the honesty of this.

Indian Sculpture Park Paddy O Ganesh IMG_1194.resized

Irish monks of the fifth and sixth centuries added an Irish aspect to early Christianity and why should Hinduism be any different?

Each of the Ganesh statues had a companion, each of whom has some aspect of modernity (like a laptop) and Paddy O’Ganesh’s has a pint of “Genius”. This is better than the usual bloody Guinness of most lazy Irish advertising. These companions are apparently part of normal Ganesha iconography, one of the 4 incarnations of Lord Ganesha uses a mouse as a vehicle/mount, and hence he is also known by the names Mūṣakavāhana (mouse-mount) and Ākhuketana (rat-banner). This one wears one of those stupid Darby O’Gill/leprechaun top hats that have never existed in Ireland.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1198.resized

In fairness to the artist, he is German and this is not representative of the place and if any of the wealthy Celtic Tiger gobshites and politicians had shown a fraction of the creativeness and honesty of this place, Ireland wouldn’t be the wasteland it’s become for the past six years with so many lives devastated and even lost to despair, while so many others just went about their business.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1193.resized

Also on the lawn are other sculptures such as the Wisdom Seat (detail above, getting artsy) , which is empty and in which anyone can sit. Maybe I should have tried it.

You leave the lawn and travel though an “enchanted forest” (really, that’s the posted name) to the seven main statues.The path winds circuitously through it, most sculptures only becoming apparent in the last few metres.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1206.resized
Birth From Decay

A person is born from the decay which preceded them. The first of the seven major forest sculptures representing seven stages of life according to the signs.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1208.resized
Lord Krishna and the Demon – who came in the form of a woman to breastfeed him, and thereby poison and kill him. But the infant Lord Krishna kills her buy sucking all her blood out. The demon can be seen pushing him away whilst Krishna hangs on and kills her.

All the statues are large and carved in India, mostly carved from black granite based on Victor Langland’s designs, before being shipped to Ireland.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1211.resized

With an alternating sunny and overcast day the dynamic range of the mostly black sculptures was a challenge, with overexposed and underexposed parts. The previous few photos are rubbish as a consequence.

Indian Scupture Park IMG_1212.resized
Detail from The Split Man.

“Create Or” engraved on a sword piercing the man, while his back is pierced by another in his back which says “Die Or”. The swords are held by disembodied hands, but the Split Man holds the hands which hold the swords.

IMG_1213.resized

More detail of The Split Man. Which do you see, the Split or the Scream?

Dark Night of the Soul IMG_1231.resized

Each of the major statues is accompanied by explanatory text.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1232.resized

Dark Night Of The Soul

This is an absolutely stunning and huge sculpture. Unlike the others, this is a black bronze statue based on an original and smaller Fasting Buddha statue in Pakistan.

Dark Night of The Soul
Dark Night of The Soul – available as large print

Above is one of the better photos I shot on the day.

The sculpture that originally caught my attention and led me to the Indian Sculpture Park was The Ferryman’s End. The Ferryman’s boat sinks and without it he dies. The boat is a person’s capacity to create “bits of difference” and anyone “who creates difference and so generates realness (i.e. new worlds) is a ferryman“.

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According to this interpretation, at least through this blog I am a Ferryman who isn’t sinking, but I don’t feel that way, and it was the visual portrayal of disconnection and hopelessness that attracted me initially when I knew nothing of the metaphor or title of the piece.

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The enclosed location, the shade and the water make this sculpture appear the oldest due to lichen and moss. As with most of the sculptures the closely enclosed location surrounded by trees made photographic isolation of the subject very difficult (i.e. make it stand out and apart from the surrounds).

I could have shot more of the simple representational images but I wasn’t interested in that. Sometimes photography is not about showing the viewer simple reality, but is about showing them what or how the photographer wants them to see. Such is the approach I prefer, that I want you to see something, even if it’s not exactly how it would look “in the real world“.

It is this choice, for me anyway, that moves photography into the artistic realm, rather than photo-journalistic representation, which has its own important place.

Indian Sculpture Park Ferryman IMG_1221.resized

A plaque says the park is dedicated to the memory of mathematician Alan Turing. If you know much about computers or even World War Two’s Bletchly Park and the Enigma Project, you’ll know about Turing and his seminal place and life and subsequent tragic death.

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These stupas (there are six of seven in total) are the newest addition and while complete in place, their plinths are still unfinished and there are still assembly markings on parts. T’Interwebs says these were early Buddhist burial mounds and also represent the mind of Buddha.

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A Differential Equation m f (q)

Each stupa has some mathematical equation on it. I don’t know about any specific connections between Turing and this park. I wondered if perhaps the connection lay in Turing’s work in clarifying the difference between consciousness and artificial intelligence and the boundaries between them and the recognition thereof.

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I wonder if it’s a comment on the dissolution of intelligence in a modern entertainment driven culture, where people abdicate exploratory living in favour of passive consuming entertainment? Everyone will find different interpretations and questions.  As open water swimmers most of feel that many of the people we know otherwise don’t fully physically engage with the world outside and around them as we do.

Indian Sculpture Park IMG_1245.resizedLeaving the forest, the path winds between a few small ponds. Photographically the increasingly-grey day needed more obvious early morning atmosphere. I saw an otter leave one pond and cross the path in front of me so the well-maintained ponds are not as lifeless as they appear.

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On the surface of the last pond sits Lord Shiva, representative of enlightenment which in the Hindu/Buddhist view is the goal of life.

To an atheist like myself (note, like myself, no atheist speaks for any other atheist), this is a better goal than what seems the bile and divisiveness of many other religions which apparently care mostly about condemning people for not being part of their special club and for breaking rules which are a direct contradiction to the requirements of living a compassionate and honest life.

Indian Sculpture park A Better Mona Lisa IMG_1249.resized

(Also available as a high-resolution limited edition print).

This is my other favourite image from the park.

One of the last sculptures, I was entranced by the Hindu or Buddhist Eve, which you could easily dismiss at first glance. It sits outside a simple photo gallery (in a shed) showing the creation of the Hindusculptures in India.

It is so at odds with the misogynistic Christian portraits and statues of women that I grew up with, where women could only be whores or mothers. It’s full of honest love and compassion, the word most missing from so much religion, where compassion is only given if one accepts the particular precepts of the particular religious club.

There’s a tiny shop of Hindu and Buddhist bronzes and jewellery, which all seem quite reasonably priced if you are into that kind of thing. Certainly less than equivalent knick-knacks from souvenir shops with no meaning. The shop was unattended, payment was based on your honesty.

What you take from the park is entirely up to you. Whether a nice relaxing hour’s walk in some place that welcomes dogs (the Doglet loved it), a place to mediate or think further about your life or just a chance to appreciate some stunning and unusual art. Maybe all these or more, or less.

I expect as the years pass this place will become far better known. It’s not a destination for excitement, but I thought it was all quite extraordinary. The park is open from 12.30pm to 6pm from May until September 21st. You’ve got two days left this year.

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∗ Though it’s been a long time, I have previously featured posts of places I’ve gone in lieu of swimming.

(Some of you may have seen a briefer version of this post from my Twitter/Imgur accounts, as it hit the front page of reddit. The full context was absent in the briefer tour.  It took two years for loneswimmer to reach 250,000 views. My Imgur album of this reached 400,000 in about 18 hours, viral indeed. Writing is far harder work than photography.)

How To: Building an Open Water Swimming Toolbox

This is my open water swimming toolbox, come and have a poke around. Okay, hang on, watch where you’re putting that finger.

The toolbox is made of lycra, silicone, plastic and flesh and brainstuff. I constructed it myself because you can’t purchase one off the shelf, regardless of what some salespeople will have you believe, and you can’t borrow someone-else’s.

The tools inside are pretty cluttered but all pretty well maintained.  Like most toolboxes there’s some useless sand and greasy stuff and sticky bits  in there, the shape has bulged a bit and the exterior of the box is getting a bit old and battered and faded but looks aren’t everything and all the scratches and dents have stories of their own.

This weird-shaped thingamajig here is called Experience. It’s the tool I use every single swim. Every swim sharpens it, and makes it fit the next job even better. Curiously, the more I use it the more I know how to use it. Sometimes I open up one attachment to figure out if it’s safe to swim. Sometimes I use a different attachment to tell me if I’ll be able to get out safely. Sometimes I even discover a new use from a previously completed operation.  And occasionally I fish the whole tool out of my Speedoes if things get a bit iffy in the water and I need to measure the whole situation. It’s quite waterproof and is easily stored no matter that it seems to be bigger than when I first used it on my second swim. (The Experience tool that is, not the Speedoes or other contents thereof!).

This incredibly complex and weird-shaped widget is called the Stroke tool. It’s always important to get help learning this tool. It’s not the only tool nor even the most important but while you won’t get the job done using it alone, neither will you get the job done without it. It comes with four different major sides,  but each major use has lots of smaller increments and adjustments. Mastering this tool is a lifelong task, and you need to make sure you don’t mistake an Apprentice level for a Journeyman or Master level. I’m at about Journeyman level with this thing after years of practice. The tool also includes this dial here called Strokes Per Minute which can be set anywhere from 70 to 78 but you need to calibrate this tool to yourself and you might find you use a far lower or far higher range of settings. This whole tool is a bit tricky and also never seems to be just quite right. Make sure you read and don’t lose the manual as it’s pretty complex and you’ll find you have to refer back to it every so often. Sometimes the Stroke tool breaks down and you might have use both the Experience and Adaptation tools to get the job done. You should also realise that this tool is temperature sensitive. Funnily enough despite its complexity, it’s also a bit a like a hammer: It’s just not enough for every problem.

This blocky-looking block yoke (Irish term) is called the Training tool. You have to make this tool yourself. It’s a lot of work to build but it’s essential to balance the toolbox and to support the other tools. Occasional Maestro’s of the Stroke tool will denigrate the Training tool but people who leave the Training tool out of their toolbox will always get caught out on the job.

This roll of stuff here is called Adaptability. It’s like a more waterproof duct tape but you can stick a bit behind your ear and grab it when you need it and your hands are full. I use it to stick some of the other tools together when an unforeseen situation arises.  And unforeseen situations arise all the time, so this tool is really useful. But like the stroke tool it can’t be the only thing in the toolbox. Sometime you might want to stick a bit of experience onto a length of stroke and make it stand on a chunk of training. A bit of adaptation is yer only man tool for some jobs.

Some people will try to get you to put extra specialist tools in your toolbox usually because they are selling it. Mental toughness is a good example. It’s an essential tool. But there are some quirky things about the existing tools. If you learn to use the tools well they already do the specialist tasks, such as accurately taping the right bit of experience to the right big bit of training using some adapability and you know, you end up with a tool that does the same thing.

This is a pencil and notebook. I use this to record the jobs I’ve done.  If I don’t record what I’ve done, how will I know what I’ve learned?

These are the Checklists. No good workman starts the job without checklists.  Make sure to check the location, temperature, wind, tide, currents, exit and risks boxes for every job.

These here are the Plans.

This is Plan A: Swim Harder. Plan B is Swim In a Different Direction, Plan C is Swim In the Opposite Direction, Plan D is Keep On Swimming, Plan E is Don’t Get In and Plan F is Get Out. Every plan is appropriate to a particular situation and sometimes you might even use the whole lot. Some over-confident workmen only go on the job with Plan D and think it’ll be adequate for every situation. Don’t forget  the workman’s Seven-Ps planning rule: Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.

Never forget to bring Plans E (Don’t Get In)and F (Get Out) because when you have the confidence and knowledge and know the time and place to use those plans appropriately, you’ll have built your own toolbox and be  ready for whatever the job throws at you.

Now get out there, there are jobs waiting to be done.

Measuring life in metres

In the original Star Wars A New Hope movie Harrison Han Solo Ford famously said that the Millennium Falcon had “made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs“. I still remember how annoyed I was, because even as a kid I knew a parsec was a measure of distance, not of time. (No thanks, I don’t need any tortuous post-hoc technobabble explanations of why this may make sense).

I seem to be oscillating in and out of some kind of swimming burn-out for about a month now though it’s possibly just the annual end-of-summer slump.  I still love the sea, still get excited or interested in swimming a couple of hours somewhere new by myself, or looking forward to maybe one more long open water swim before the end of season.

But I hate the pool even more than normal, and have repeatedly found myself unable to swim a simple thousand metre warm up and when I can, I swim slower than I’ve swum in years. I’ve had shoulder pain worse than I’ve had in four years for a week and after eight consecutive years, I cannot find any reason to swim the Sandycove Island Challenge or justify the relatively high cost of entry, though it’s usually the mile distance highlight of the Irish swimming calendar. I even missed a Sandycove night swim that I’d suggested and a Ballycotton to Capel Island first time swim with Eddie Irwin, Carol Cashell, Finbarr Hedderman, and Liam Maher two days later, the first time I’ve ever missed one swim, let alone two, due to injury or illness (not that I haven’t swum while ill or injured).

A casual comment by another Channel swimmer led me back to my other magnum opus. Not this blog, but my training log. I’ve been logging all my swimming and related data into a spreadsheet since 2008. Each year I add something new, it’s got multiple sheets and fields and even some charts but at its most basic and original it’s a simple record of how far and how long I’ve swum.

I looked at the cumulative distance since 2008, and discovered that I was just a few tens of thousands of metres short of 8,000,000 metres. It was such a simple thing that I’d hadn’t thought to check.

  • 8,000,000 metres.
  • Eight million metres.
  • Eight thousand kilometres.
  • 800,000,000 centimetres.
  • Eight billion millimetres.
  • Four thousand nine hundred and seventy miles.
  • 8.0 × 1016 angstroms.
  • Fifty times around the diameter of the Death Star (apparently, I looked it up).

Since 2008, I’ve never swum less than one million metres per year. (Before 2008 I was using my old running notebook, long lost but I’d  be certain I swam another million in the three preceding years, as I recall swimming about half a million on 2007). Usually I swim 50,000 to 150,000 metres over target and going almost 500,000 over the mark in 2010. At over 850,000 metres so far this year, I’m over 100,000 ahead of the 2014 target (but dropping fast due to the current lack of swimming).

Yearly swimming metres totals chart 2008 to 2014By the end of the year, I’ll have swum the equivalent distance from County Kerry on Ireland’s south-west coast to San Francisco.

You think I’ve have something useful to say after all or about all these metres. Apparently not today. I guess this site will have to substitute as some evidence instead.

The longest time off I’ve has been after my Channel injuries in 2010 when I was (mostly) out of the water for about six weeks but I still wanted and managed to swim the Island Challenge with a barely functioning left shoulder.

So I can’t be overtrained, since I’ve been doing this for years and I’m well adapted. Some weeks later now, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to swim much at all, except a few three or four kilometre easy sea swims a week.

Which brings me back to Han Solo’s Kessel Run. A long time ago, in a life very far away,  I objected because George Lucas incorrectly measured time using distance.

Does it make me the Han Solo of open water swimming if ironically,  I now find I can do the exact same thing?

I’m not sure I could even tell you why, if you were to ask.

Somehow, my life has become measured in metres.

More brief lessons from marathon swimming – II – Marathon swimming is like childbirth

I split what was originally a single list,  because well, if you are writing every week for over four and half years, you need to make your ideas count. Also, I found that the original draft just kept growing and likely will continue to so do, so this will easily allow me to add another part at some point in the future. (Which is already started).

  • No food in the world tastes as good as [Dooley's fish n' chips in Tramore] after a marathon swim. This works for your preferred location and fast food.
  • The water is always rougher than it looks and the wind is always higher.
  • But it was better yesterday.
This wave was as high as ahouse
This wave was as high as a house, and the wind was Force 11

 

  • Chocolate, coffee and porridge is practically a balanced diet.
  • Nothing is better than porridge, (even if you hate it).
  • Every marathon swimmer should crew at least once in their life to appreciate how essential the role of crew is to our swimming.
  • It’s not the length of the war swim, but the depth of the foxhole pain of the training and who you share it with that counts.
  • Marathon swimming is exactly like childbirth. You don’t know exactly when it’ll start, how long it’s going to go on for, or how much pain will be involved. You may also beg for drugs and try to punch someone. And it’s all forgotten mere minutes after the event is over. I make this comparison with absolute male certainty.
  • You have never farted like you have farted after six hours or more of liquid maltodextrin feeds.
  • The patch of warm water that embraces you, punishes you worse when you leave it. So it’s not entirely unlike divorce.
  • The way a marathon swimmer looks after six hours in sub-ten or eleven degree water is good evidence of the evolutionary link between humans and apes.
  • The way a marathon swimmer looks after 14 hours or more in salt water is good evidence of the close link between humans and whales.
  • All Carb/maltodextrin costs twice as much as you think after you have thrown out all the prepared but unused feeds.
  • When forced to poop while in the sea, make sure the wind and tide are going in the opposite direction you are and that there’s no-one behind you.
  • No swim ever goes 100% to plan. Ever.
  • The people who ask “why” will never understand your answer. The people who understand, will never ask.

Brief lessons from marathon swimming – I – Never eat a curry the night before a long swim

There’s a discussion thread on the marathonswimmers.org forum called Tips and Tricks and I’ve been writing my How To articles for a few years. But here’s a list of brief random items I’ve learned that I threw together, which  individually are too short for articles (right now anyway, who knows what’ll be possible mid-winter when I’m out of ideas). I’m pretty certain every other swimmer would have their own additions.  More to come in the next article.

  • Never eat a curry the night before a marathon swim. No details are necessary.
  • It’s always all about the weather.

 

  • And the waiting. Never forget the waiting.
  • You can always pick a marathon swimmer out of a crowd based purely on their facial tan.
  • Never eat a banana on a boat in rough weather.
  • Seagulls are evil bastards. Their mimic all the things of most importance to marathon swimmers, such as other swimmers, boats, kayakers, dolphins and lighthouses, just to piss you off. If this is insufficient, some of them will try to vomit or crap directly on you.
  • Nothing is predictable in open water and marathon swimming.
  • You never feel as physically dirty as you do after a marathon swim. You never enjoy any shower as much as the subsequent cleansing.
  • When in doubt, add more food.
  • A bad or tough swim is more personally rewarding than a good or fast swim.
  • Classic elegance
    I wouldn’t swap it for anything
  • While in the long-term sleep is essential, in the short-term it’s less vital that you’d imagine.
  • There are people I’ve spent many hours with, whom I wouldn’t recognise without a swim cap and goggles. And visa versa.
  • Don’t believe that all the ones who do the most marathon swims are necessarily better. They sometimes just have more money. Like everything else in life.
  • Never go out on a boat without foul weather gear, regardless of forecast.
  • Just because you are paying someone two and a half grand for a  day’s work, doesn’t mean they will treat you with respect.
  • No pilot is God, nor are pilots all of equal ability.
  • There’s more than one way of feeding, and more than one type of food.

 

2014 Cork Distance Week & the Copper Coast swim

After repeated poor wet cold summers, 2013 was pretty decent by Irish standards. Or at least mid-May to mid-July were good. After that it reverted to recent type but did allow me to run a Copper Coast Distance Week swim which had been blown out in 2012 by a ridiculous summer storm which stopped swimming everywhere that day.

Cork Distance Week swimmers were to return to the Copper Coast in 2014 and for an unprecedented (seemingly for decades) second year in a row the early Irish summer was good and holding.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Cork Distance Week is a  combination of mass delusion and fringe cult for marathon swimmers. It’s often called “the toughest week of open water swimming in the world“.

For nine days in July (it’s previously happened earlier) forty, fifty or sixty open water swimmers from around the world gather in Ireland. Because only here can you be guaranteed the combination of rubbish weather, cold water, jellyfish and challenging locations* required to make you a better, stronger more confident swimmer, ready for the English or North Channels or anything else the sea will throw at you.

More than just a boot camp, it’s Base Camp for those who aspire to the big horizontal wet challenges. It’s run by Ned Denison with  occasionally-allowed assistance and participation of other Sandycove swimmers.

The week revolves around swimming twice a day for two hours per session, often moving locations for the evening swims. It culminates on the penultimate day with the infamous TBBC, aka The Torture Swim on the Saturday, of which rumours abound. As a regular repeat Torturer I can neither confirm nor deny anything you may have heard that we inflict on the swimmers. Suffice to say I believe a public inquiry, media exposure and a prison sentence are real possibilities in the future for those of us who have acted as Torturers. And I’m not even joking.

On the final day swimmers complete a six-hour Channel qualification swim around Sandycove. (Except the Sandycove locals. We usually swim more, just for local pride and Irish pig-headedness. Oh, and an insane coach).

Total weekly distances, if a swimmer completes every swim, vary from a low 85 kilometre one year to 105 kilometres in 2014, and the astonishingly high 150 kilometres in 2010, the year of The Magnificent Seven, (of which Rob Bohane and I completed 140 k). Yes folks, things really were tougher in our day. :-)

After years, and using a new-fangled device called Google Earth, in 2012 I was finally able to prove to the People’s Republic of Cork swimming citizens that in fact Ireland does have locations east of Cork which aren’t called Dublin, the only eastern location Cork people have always (grudgingly) admitted as existing.

*

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Earlier in the day, an unusually calm Kilfarassey hides its many charms

With no idea of the attending numbers, I wanted to stage a different swim to last year by moving outside Tramore Bay, which required more obliging winds than prevailing onshore.

The early week forecast was good with light winds forecast so on Monday I was able to plan for a swim at Kilfarassey for the group.

Dee & I arrived early afternoon in order to grab parking spaces as they became available, using police bollards I’d borrowed from Tramore Garda station. There was some muttering from a few people  that we’d taken spaces in the small car park but the Garda (Irish name for police) bollards, a large sign and table we set up and ready explanations for anyone asking questions helped alleviate any hostility.

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Dee and the Doglet setting up early on

Like a lot of distance swimmers, I find beaches somewhat dull. Due to the presence of the small Burke’s Island slightly offshore, Kilfarassey looks only slightly less dull than most beaches. Its treasures are hidden and only available to those who swim more than a couple of short kilometres.

Arriving later than the originally planned start time of 6 p.m.  almost half of the Distance Camp swimmers had made the two-hour drive across.

I’d chosen a complicated looping seven kilometre route. So it required guiding by kayakers and splitting the swimmers into three different speed groups. I was joined by local marathon swimming friends Owen O’Keefe and Conor Power and Alex, partner of one of the visiting swimmers, all kayaking for the event. There was also a shorter three kilometre route for swimmers wishing to have an easy swim.

Starting off IMG_3866.resizedI’m not going to do a breakdown or map of the routes here, because while I’ve shown all the parts of the swim here, I’d prefer to keep it to myself, unless I get to guide someone around it. So if you want to see and experience its delights the only way is to come here and have me take you around.

Swimming out
Swimming out

The long route featured such delights as Jellyfish Alley, The Cave of Screaming Terror, LoneSwimmer’s Playground, The Keyhole, Barrel Cave, Rat Island, The Toughest Kilometre on the Copper Coast and The Jellyfish Nursery.  Despite or because of the ominous sounding names, some original but most my own, it’s been my favourite two hour swim on the Copper Coast for a couple of years now. I usually only swim it during July and August.

The route featured multiple caves, arches which included one that prompted an explosive “you have got to be fucking kidding me“, (which is a lot of shouting for a swimmer and was a delight to me), rocks, circumnavigations of two islands, adverse currents with wind against tide, feeling utterly lost, tunnels, reefs, huge jellyfish and swimming blind into a setting Sun.

Jellyfish Alley, a gentle introduction
Jellyfish Alley, a gentle introduction

I think you can tell if you are a marathon or aspiring marathon  swimmer if all this sounds like fun.

Of those who visited, some were already LoneSwimmer regular visitors and it was great to put faces to names.

Copper Coast Keyhole Arch
The fast group after swimming through The Keyhole Arch

Adam Walker has since completed the Ocean’s Seven. Kate Robarts, Hazel Killingbeck (an incredible 16 years old, same as Owen when he became the youngest Irish person to solo the Channel), Jason Betley and Dani Lobo have all completed the English Channel. Coleen Mallon has completed the North Channel and Phil Hodges won the brutal Loch Lomond swim which had an attrition rate of 75%. A huge congratulations to all! Two others are awaiting their swims this year and more will be swimming next year. The group also included a number of existing Channel swimmers including Ned, Zoe “Matron” Sadler, Zara Bullock and Distance Camp repeat offenders Helen Gibbs and Sarah Tunnicliffe, who really should know better by now. Proof I’d like to think that Irish waters are the best swimming waters! Almost as impressive is that excluding Ned, three Cork swimmers, Fergus Galvin, Carmel Collins and Gordon Adair actually left the warm embrace of the People’s Republic to travel east, surprising since, as every Cork person knows, Cork is the world.

The Copper Coast Distance Camp swim is one of my swimming highlights of the year, even though I’m not actually swimming. My love for the glorious and little known Copper Coast  has grown year over year and I have a very proprietorial sense of ownership of its beauty and wonders that I like to share. I’ve swum every metre of all these routes, exploring new wrinkles and features but mostly doing so by myself. So it’s a thrill to share with swimmers whose capabilities I don’t have to worry about and whom I know will appreciate its challenges and beauty.

There’s also something really special for me about having a big group of Channel and marathon swimmers arrive just to swim my coast. No media, no reporters, just marathon swimmers, on a Thursday evening, doing what they do. No hype, no trumpets, none of the fake nonsense associated with so many sports or other pursuits. A simple bunch of simple-minded swimmers sharing simple water. Doing something that often takes years of perseverance and training and experience to develop, all done just for the love of a dumb thing.  If there isn’t a lesson in that, well I guess our worlds are different.

Distance Camp Copper Camp swim: Reefs, rocks, tunnels, islands, arches and caves. Oh my!I am left with one dilemma, (and you know I already have a lot of those). Some of the attendees commented that it was “the best swim ever“. There is no better compliment a swim organiser can receive. So my dilemma is: what can I do next year?

But I’ve been thinking and I’ve had one idea…

Will you be here? You really should be.

*

My thanks go to Owen, Alex and Conor for kayaking, especially on my circuitous route. To Ned for keeping the Copper Coast on the Distance Camp schedule, and for not inflicting the American camera crew on us. To Keith Garry for loan of the camera and use of the images. To Alex for stepping in as extra kayaker at the last-minute and acting as a communications conduit between the groups. To Lisa and Ned’s partner Catherine for helping out on land and of course my partner Dee, who as usual was the organiser behind the food and organisation and who kept my head from popping off.

The 2015 Distance Camp is already about one-third full and filling fast. Due to the success of the Copper Coast swim, it’s already on the 2015 schedule, for the first time this early.  Attendance at Distance Camp is by invitation only, which means you need to ask Ned Denison for an invite. If you can’t find it elsewhere, you can use the contact form on the About tab to ask me for his email privately, or contact Ned through the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

* Challenging means middle of nowhere, bad signposts, little parking, no changing or shower or toilet facilities and miles from food, often in rain and wind.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – VI – The Sharp End

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – I – Flowery crap.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone For An Early Morning Dip?

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight laps of Sandycove

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s It, I’m Done.”

Swimmer & boat
Small Universe of Swimmer & Boat

Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.

So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.

Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary.  At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.

The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.

In the English Channel it’s ZC2, in Manhattan it’s the Hudson, in Catalina it’s where the seafloor suddenly rises. The swimming hours before are just part of the price of entry.

We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.

Battling
Battling

One of the features of the North Channel according to Quinton, is that the final couple of miles outside Portpatrick are almost always bad, a local feature of the confluence of wind, tide and currents, a micro-climate different to the rest of the Channel. A good day very rapidly degenerates and the swimmer is fighting a maelstrom of white water and waves from seemingly all directions.

Killantringan
Killantringan

Fin was fighting onward, but on the boat we finally knew he would make it. He knew he would make it, because there comes a point where it makes less sense to give up than to continue, because you have already invested time and pain.

Portpatrick was clear ahead and slightly to starboard, buildings clear in the late afternoon sunlight. All along the coast were the empty hills and the wind turbines that had been vaguely visible for hours. Killantringan was north-east of us, but we were south enough to get swept in. He would not, could not be stopped now. Two laps of Sandycove, the Metalman to Tramore beach, one full lap of Dover Harbour. He would, he could.

Happy crew over a certain favourable finish
Happy crew watch over Fin and anticipate over a certain favourable finish

At 5:05 we gave Fin his feed and I got to say the magic words, the words every swimmer wants to hear, the words every crew wants to say: “This is your last feed“.

Craig and I discussed which of us would swim Fin in. I told Craig he should go as I’d swum both Sylvain and Gábor and others in and I wanted to photograph the finish.

Looking for Scotland
Looking for Scotland

At 5:45 p.m. as Craig gets ready, I make my final note of the swim in my notebook to that effect. I’m stood on the bow, my Dad’s old football whistle, now a feature of all swims I crew on a lanyard around my neck, whistling and shouting. We’ve been pushed just to the north of the small bay between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Craig, proudly wearing his yellow CSA Channel Swimmer’s cap, (as I wear my own orange C&PF Channel cap) jumps over the side at two minutes to six. His instructions from the ILDSA observer Gary and Quinton are clear. Don’t swim in front of Fin or touch him, from Gary, and given the usually dangerous cliff finish of a North Channel solo, get Fin to touch a rock and raise his arm, that’ll be enough, (standing wouldn’t be necessary, or possible) from Quinton.

Craig is on the far side of Fin within seconds, and we’re only a hundred metres from the rocks. They disappear behind waves, appear a couple of metre closer to the shore. I try to get them both in frame, the waves, the angle the boat rocking, the zoom, all make it difficult. Closer still, I see Craig and no Finbarr, then Fin and no Craig.

Craig & Fin and cliffs IMG_3566.resized

Craig is at the cliffs. Where’s Fin? And then there he is. Three or four metres away from Craig, Fin touches the cliff and pushes off on his feet trying to raise both arms, he looks like he’s pushing off a pivot turn and heading for the second lap. It’s 6:01 p.m. July 7th and Finbarr Hedderman has swum the North Channel.

Touch
Touch

Not sure if the waves have blocked our view of Fin, Craig tells him to raise his arm again. I get a shot of him like that, but I prefer the above photo,the real touch. Because it doesn’t matter if wasn’t elegant, it was real, it was what he worked for. Elegance, clarity, zoom and photographic composition are less important than the reality. The swimmer thinks of that touch, visualises, works for it, swims for it, dreams of it. The entire sport, all the words and the images, all the endurance and time are in that moment. The suffering is over, the pain vanishes, the coast is reached.

Touching an unnamed bit of rock on the Scottish Coast, never before touched by a human, probably never to be touched again, Finbarr is Neil Armstrong, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Edmund Hillary reborn, even if there are only two friends, a pilot and a crew there to see and appreciate it.

At 6:02 p.m. and back safely on the boat with Craig, Fin announces his retirement from Channel swimming.

He lasts a full six weeks in retirement before he shares his next idea with me. But I’m not telling.

***

marine traffic Finbarr & ship IMG_3317 Best Shots 5.resized

Finbarr had neither cold water nor jellyfish in the North Channel. He took a calculated risk based on training and his known capability to go early and he didn’t even have to fall back on his cold expertise. Yet his North Channel was unexpectedly tough, because sometimes the biggest challenge is ourselves. Two weeks later, though the weather stayed warm, an experienced English Channel swimmer was alledgedly pulled semi-conscious from the water. The water temperature had dropped five degrees.

Two weeks after Fin’s swim, he said”it means something to me, I just don’t know what yet“. I know he was surprised, even shocked, how much it had hurt mentally, and how hard it was. For years he’d joked how he’d forgotten his English Channel solo, but said after his North Channel that he’d remembered during the swim when memories of difficulty returned. It’s the nature of pain that we must as animals forget it when it’s not present, otherwise any species would never survive.

The mystery of the North Channel has been evaporating for the past couple of seasons. Aspirants no longer need to be successful English Channel soloists, and some North channel swimmers have recently completed it at their first marathon swim. The people approaching the North Channel already now include some less than experienced individuals, such as the one who though they could get on the boat to feed and wanted an artist on board to paint them while another crew member played the flute. This also happened in the 2014 season after Fin’s swim.

Quinton’s piloting makes swim time and the route more quantifiable. It makes the North Channel definitely quicker than the English Channel, and of course it’s shorter, with a more defined time envelope. Success rates have risen dramatically in just two years, though the overall numbers remain small for now, limited by the changeable weather as always and the mere two boats in the fleet, with the other main constraint associated with Channels swimming, appropriate tides. If the current demand for North Channel swims continues, which seems likely, then the fleet will grow and a few more years will tell us a lot more. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third pilot-boat operate in 2015 or 2016.

*

Of all the things I know or suspect or feel or hope about marathon and Channel swimming, one of the most important things I know is that, trite as it sounds, every swim is different. Profoundly, fundamentally different. Maybe it takes a crucible swim, one of those swims that puts you to the question, to make you realise this, as I realised this. Sitting on a boat, as crew we laugh and fret and chat and even worry. We don’t, we can’t, sit there and let ourselves inside the swimmer’s head.

Finbarr and I share, as do many marathon swimmers, an interest in adventure books, specifically climbing and polar adventure. Maybe it’s partly because the literature about Channel and marathon swimming in limited. Journalists can write about mountain climbing or exploration, but who can write effectively about Channel Swimming, except Channel Swimmers? And that’s a pretty small number in global terms, something we tend to forget when we are immersed in the community.

Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, the tale of the opening of the Eiger’s notorious North Face, and one of the great true life climbing books is replete with wisdom for anyone either wishing to understand these crazy ridiculous adventures, or wishing to explain them. He quotes climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young: “The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. [...]. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….

Substitute Channel Swimming for mountain adventures and the analogy is clear. When covering Channel swimming some of this applies. I can cover Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because I was there and it may stand for a generation, and no other swim will ever hold the same prestige. I covered Sylvain Estadieu, because even us Channel swimmers boggle at the idea of twenty-one miles of open water butterfly. In Part One of this series I wrote that I do these swim reports in part because I’ve had the privilege to be part of them and because these swims also allow me to bring aspects of marathon and Channel swimming to a wider audience, to share the fortune I’ve had to be part of them. But I myself by doing so have to be careful not to feed the idea that just because a swim isn’t a first or a record that it’s less important to cover.

Also, to retain your interest I split the narrative at appropriate points such as “That’s It, I’m done“. Such implies a dramatic point whereas in the swim it was part of a continuous linear event.

Like Lisa Cummins and Sylvain Estadieu, Finbarr set out to swim a two-way. Neither Sylvain nor Finbarr did, and not once I consider either a failure because they didn’t complete that goal. Each though did complete a crossing, as every Channel swimmer does, a feat of endurance and courage.  As did the other friends I know and have crewed for and didn’t cover here. There’s a quotation from Homer that I haven’t used on the blog for a few years that seems apposite: “For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea“.To dream so large and then to attempt the feat has always seemed to me a triumph in itself and success of its own and each dream alone makes me proud to be a friend of each.

Channel and marathon swimming differs from tales of mountain climbing in some obvious aspects. The time frame is usually shorter, the possibility of safe extraction is greater. It’s not an us-versus-them comparison though, and few would understand the Channel swimmer’s motivation as would a mountain climber.

But for someone writing about Channel there’s a difficulty. Every mountain has immovable features and famous landmarks, whether it’s K2’s Serac or the Eiger’s White Spider. The pitons and ropes and ladders are still fixed and still used on the Hinterstoisser Traverse and Everest’s Second Step.

Channel swimmers only have pilots, boats, water, wind, currents and locations. No swimmer leaves their mark on a Channel.

The swimmer passes and the water’s surface is immediately wiped clear of their passage. The water holds no trace. Only the stories and legends live on and to his friends, Finbarr is a legend.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s it. I’m done”

Shoulders & willpower
By shoulders & willpower

Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.

First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.

From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.

Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr
Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr

Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.

We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers.  But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.

Choppy closeup IMG_3431.resized

I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.

Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything.  A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.

While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.

Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.

*

Killantringan lighthouse with wind turbines on the  peaks
Killantringan lighthouse at 4 p.m.

In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s  are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.

There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.

From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.

Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west
Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west

By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.

That it,” he said, “I’m done“.

Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight Laps of Sandycove

Port side swimming
Port side swimming

For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.

English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig "Rubber Knickers" Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot
English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig “Rubber Knickers” Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot

It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through.  But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.

Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis
Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis

On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause  for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.

I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.

Photographer's "Artsy" feed shot
Photographer’s “Artsy” feed shot

Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.

Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.

Quinton and First Mate Mark
Quinton and First Mate Mark

A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.

Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?

Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel.  Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel,  what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!

Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throwing an gimlet eye over his swimmer
Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throws a gimlet eye over his swimmer.

So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.

It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.

The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.

Jellyfish fly-by
Jellyfish fly-by

The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.

The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:

Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.

Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.

Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.
Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.

Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.

Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.

Just after the switch to starboard
Just after the switch to starboard, clouds starting build in the west over Ireland.

The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.

During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.

Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.

A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.

The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence.  Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.

By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.

*

At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)

Calm day at sea Guy & Clare Hunter IMG_3179.resized

By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.

Weather builds in the west
Weather builds in the west

 

On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones  in the world, was barely visible in the haze.

Craig watches the thunderheads grow
Craig watches the thunderhead grow

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone for an early morning dip?

There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.

We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.

We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.

Donaghadee Harbour Lighthouse IMG_3005_01.resized
Dawn peeks behind Donaghadee Lighthouse

Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.

Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.

As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.

Apprehensive IMG_3019.resized
An apprehensive Finbarr

At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa  or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?

Swimming into the start
Swimming into the start

At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.

Swimming out to boat at start IMG_3048_01.resized

Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.

Dawn light highlights Finbarr
Dawn light highlights Finbarr

We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.

First feed IMG_3121.resized
First Feed

The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.

Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse
Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse

The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.

from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.
from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.

The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.

Ninety minutes into swim, with Mew Light house  closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape
Ninety minutes into the swim, with Mew Light house closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape. This much blue is rare in Ireland.

At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen.  Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.

For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.

Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the  second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.

Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Fin swimming IMG_3142 Best Shots 14.resized

Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d  planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium.  He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.

By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped  to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.

Inner turmoil, outer calm
Inner turmoil, outer calm

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat

Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.

The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour
The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour

I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.

Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.

I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any  swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards.  Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.

Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey  for the wider swimming community.

The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere.  While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI  boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.

Quinton casting off Donaghadee
Quinton casting off Donaghadee

His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.

When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.

Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.

Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now).   Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013.  One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.

At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.

Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won't be stuck with me on a boat for a day.
Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won’t be stuck with me on a boat for a day. Fin says he’ll take the jellyfish.

 

Finbarr Hedderman & The North Channel – I – Flowery Crap

On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.

Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us.  A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.

We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined  monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.

He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:

I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.

He still says it to me.

Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.

Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.

I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.

In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.

Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.

July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring.  Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.

July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.

Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at  next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.

 

Related articles

Tom Blower and the first successful North Channel swim.

Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route swim report – Part 1.

King of the English Channel Kevin Murphy, concerning the North Channel.

A Further Shore – VI – The Further Shore

I can say I saw another sea, but you will not understand. I do not understand. That Sea was not the sea I know. The sea is sacred to me, but this Sea was more than sacred, it was hallowed.

Beyond was not Sea open to the horizon, but only kilometres, miles, a mere league or two, to a further shore.

I cannot say much about that shore. I am moderately farsighted, growing gradually worse with age, age that I now notice.

I stood there, skin tanned from sea swimming bared to the golden light and the sky. And I saw, I saw… I don’t know. I saw different colours of gold and green.  A blackgreen that is either the colour of the abyss or distant forests. Layers of blue purple and grey that must have been mountains beyond. And further beyond, yes, I know I saw a peak. Mighty, astonishing, partially enrobed in clouds, a peak from the Young Earth. But this description isn’t what I saw, any more than a map is  the location.

Battlements and bastions of rock. Shoulders piled up, higher and higher, minor spires throwing spindrift that being so far away must have been hurricane-sized. Close and far at the same time. Higher up, the summit itself was lost to sight, a subtle interplay of colours and cloud, blending with the golden light-filled sky.

I saw a golden Sea. A tall Mountain. A Sea and a Mountain such as none have described. So little to say.

At some point I bowed my head, conscious suddenly of my breathing. I inhaled deeply, looked at that Sea again. This time I saw motes. Motes leaving the further shore, motes on the Sea. Boats or ships. The town’s inhabitants? Returning from the further shore. I could not look at that Mountain again. To sail on that Sea was incomprehensible. To swim in it inconceivable.

I must have turned down the greensward toward the town. I was dazed. I  did not hurry and I was not afraid. As I left the greensward I looked right, surely to the South now. I saw the town and harbour were situated in a shallow bay which swept south, the coast dotted with pearly turquoise sand inlets.

I looked out and saw, just outside the bay, innumerable tiny islands, scattered like pearls on silk. It vaguely reminded me of Clew Bay as seen from high on Croagh Patrick but Clew Bay’s three hundred and sixty-five islands were a pale imitation of this vista. Eastwards the sky was a vivid deep blue, almost purple. The colour of late northern evening, though the light, the time of day felt earlier.

And then I saw the Ship of the Moon risen from the east. Not the Moon. Not our tarnished recalcitrant orb. I saw the Ship of the Moon. Not a frigate or barque or clipper but a bád mór. With a bluff prow, high gunnals, a raked transom and a single main mast and foresail. Sailing into the sky, lambent, coruscating and argent. The purest silver, a colour beyond white or platinum or mithril.

I do not recall returning through the town. I saw the Ship of the Moon, then I was once more standing on the pier by the water’s edge. I looked out and saw the nearest islands. A rounded small hill, grass topped rock. A series of reefs and ridges leading right, leading south. Overhead the Ship of the Moon threw a beam, a silver road between me and the reefs. Where the beam touched the reefs I saw a vertical opening: The Keyhole Arch. A silver road, the Moon Road, that led directly from my feet over the water to my arch.

I pulled on my swim cap, my goggles. I turned back, briefly and looked at the town and the hill. The town was sinking into shadow. The green summit of the hill still caught the golden light from beyond but it threw a shadow across the harbour. Then I heard the summons of a herring gull, that plaintive wail that snares all those who go down to the sea.

I set my cap and goggles, breathed deep and dove. Out, out I flew, into the air and then I sliced the water. No cold shock, I glided to the surface and swam. I swam that silver beam toward the reefs. No longer made of light I was still made of water. Just behind my feet was the line of shadow thrown by the hill, seeping out into the bay with me. I swam, a direct line and very quickly I was approaching the reefs. Under the water the white sandy bottom showed hulls and keels, shattered and worn.

The line of reef which held The Keyhole was metres from me. I knew its hourglass shape, the narrow pointed top. I looked behind. The town was no longer distinguishable in the shadow beneath the hill. The greensward was a hint of pure emerald against the light behind the hilltop. I glimpsed left, to the north. Boats were rounding the island’s curve. White boats, with bright sails, dancing on the water. Silhouettes moving on the decks.

When I passed through The Keyhole, all I noticed was that the shadows of the entrance enveloped me, the water beneath was not as clear as earlier and it was cool. Light silt swirled around and the bottom wasn’t visible. I exited as usual into the reef channel. Brown’s Island was to my left, blocking further view. The Sun was overhead to my right, bright mid-day, no shadows. South.

I swum left through the Channel, passed close to Burke’s Island, and saw the Copper Coast cliffs and the Kilfarassey beach ahead, six or seven hundred metres away.

On the sand, my sandals were still there under the rocks. I looked back, south, to Brown’s Island, left and east, right and west. I looked at my watch and it was twelve twenty five. As I walked to the car park, I felt the familiar post-swim chill reach out for me.

I looked east again. There was no Moon in the eastern sky.

I have swum back to the Keyhole Arch since. I have even taken others there but it merely leads through the reef as it always did previously.  Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, I swam through some fracture, some interstice. Some combination of tide and time and light and mind. I swam a straight line where there were only turns, or a straight line where there was only an invisible maze. I swam beyond the sea and entered a different Sea. The other side of the Sun, the far side of the sky, beyond the wind. I do not know.

I keep trying to find my way back. My directions are no longer cardinal and I am cast adrift, knowing my arms and shoulders are not measure of this world. I could not stay but I should never have left and I am bereft.

I still dream of the sea and the swell, but now I also dream of golden light and silver water, of dancing white boats with bright sails, and a tall Mountain on a further shore, past a hallowed Sea.

Ship of the MoonPrevious articles:

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

A Further Shore – III – The Harbour

A Further Shore – IV – The Town

A Further Shore – V- The Greensward

 

July 24th, 1883

Niagara maelstrom
Photo used with permission by reddit user zxo

This is a maelstrom.

Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo  and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.

After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.

He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.

Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.

His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.

Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.

A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.

Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.

But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.

It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.

A Further Shore – V- The Greensward

Swimming is a lot of things to different people at different times, even to me. But what it isn’t, is a method of travel. We may travel long distances while swimming, we may even be swimming to a destination, but we are not traveling per se.  But somehow, I’d traveled.

The buildings stopped before I reached the top of the hill. There was no apparent difference in size or appointment between the lower down houses and those higher up.

I had not seen a single person nor heard any sounds of people. It was like everyone has just stepped out back, at the same moment.

Quite abruptly I passed the last house. How long had I walked through the town? This prompted another thought. What time was it? Checking the elapsed time of a swim is such an ingrained habit for me, yet I hadn’t looked at my watch since I’d passed behind Brown’s Island. I checked my watch. The watches start triangle was where I’d set it, at twenty-five minutes to twelve. The minute hand was a few minutes past twelve. Twenty eight minutes? Or an hour, two hours, three hours, and twenty-eight minutes? I looked around for the umpteenth time. Nothing changed. I looked at the watch again and now noticed the second hand. It wasn’t moving. Had my watch stopped?

Beyond the building was the hilltop. The crown was simply covered in a lush green lawn. The road stopped but a path was worn to the top. From up here I could see that the lower road which had led off right out of sight and disappeared had done so because the Sea reached inwards beyond that point.

I never considered stopping, the entire town seemed draped below this green crown like a mantle, with the summit the culmination of its layout. The gradient was now steep but consequently the distance upwards to the zenith was short. The steepness forced my eyes down in front and so the sudden lessening of the slope as I reached the summit was surprising.

The fifty steps up the cliff from the Guillamenes to the car park has regularly left me breathless, adapted as I am for swimming. I felt nothing similar here. The greensward opened out in a circle. There were no signs or seats or anything except grass. To my right in the distance though I could see the Sea. The lower road had curved away because there was no more land only a couple of kilometres beyond the town. I looked left and saw the grass summit descend in a gentle ridge. With the Sun ahead of me, that meant right was north and left down the ridge was south. The harbour and town were situated close to the north end of either a large island or a long peninsula leading from the south.

Ahead of me the hill fell away very gently. The slopes were covered in a patchwork of meadows, variegated vegetation delineating the boundaries, no hard fenced fields, the various colours indicating a variety of vegetation, from the vivid green of summer barley,  to dusty  ripening wheat and tall corn stalks, all different stages of growth apparent at the same time.

But ahead of me, beyond the meadows, to the West? The Sun was well down the sky. The photographer in me assessed the golden light and the shadow I threw behind me. It was a good way from setting, and a longer way from morning.

The quilted fields on the western slope ended at the Sea, which stretched left and right, sparkling into the hazy distance. I looked out over that Sea, argent and aureate. A Sea like none I’ve seen or swum. Molten metal and liquid air and lifeblood. Sacred like lifeblood. The light blazed at me again. The light blasted me. I closed my eyes, and the light did not diminish. Then, opening my eyes, I saw through the haze.

Previous articles

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

A Further Shore – III – The Harbour

A Further Shore – IV – The Town

A Further Shore – IV – The Town

Subconsciously, I’d pulled the goggles from my face, feeling the familiar discomfort around my eyes as the suction released. They dangled weightless from my fingers.

Above the seafront buildings rose a hill and a town. A road led through the near buildings to disappear into tiered houses that fronted a low hill. I was stunned. Tiny Annestown rested well back from the sea on a road up a hill, a village so small that it had neither a shop nor a pub nor a church and only a dozen houses. Bunmahon lay beyond a stream behind a beach. Stradbally was a kilometre from the shore, and anyway I knew all those villages. I just kept thinking; “I know this coast, I know this coast“. Those villages had tarmac roads, cars, electricity. Modern buildings. All I could think was to seek explanation, comparison, but I had none. My mind whirlpooled around the same vortex. “I know this coast”.

I stood there, a middle-aged slightly overweight man, on a sunny warm afternoon, wearing nothing but Speedoes which were already almost dried in the warm breeze.

It was quiet. Not silent. Peaceful. The breeze was barely audible on various surfaces. The Sea muted its gentle song behind me. My bare feet scraped the sand. I heard the guillemots croak. But I saw no-one. It felt empty. But not deserted. Everything was well maintained. It felt how the Guillamenes feels on mornings I am there by myself. Not abandoned, just that I arrive and swim and leave, without ever seeing anyone, or being seen.

You can feel a temporary emptiness, feel the lack of people, even when you can’t see all the possible locations where they may be. You’ve stepped into your own time and space in a location. Your house isn’t really empty, it’s just that everyone else is out. As I was here. Everyone was out, and I was here alone.

I didn’t look back at the Sea, but I moved forward. I ignored the building on the seafront and entered the lane leading up to the town.

By now I’d dried, but I wasn’t cold. No Afterdrop, no chill. But this was Spring wasn’t it? I should have chills, should need to be dressed. But actually I was warm. The Sun gently warmed my face and chest, feeling like a good Irish late July afternoon. The Sun not strong enough to burn. The swim cap started to feel tight and I took it off also, catching and snagging a few tiny hairs on the back of my neck in the now dry folds of the silicon.

My head scanned left to right, right to left. I was on the main road. Occasional lanes snakes off between houses. At a fork, the right hand road seemed to leave the small town and lead along the coast until it quickly curved back left out of sight. I stayed on the main road up through the town.

I looked at the houses. Individual, well maintained, but overall similar, even differences in size or shape weren’t so broad. The houses were stone of various grey hues. Roofs of slate. Brightly-coloured doors, some full, some half doors. Some half-door tops stood ajar, but I did not consider entering. Square and rectangular wooden-shuttered windows on ground level. Two or even three-storeyed, the lower floors had narrow mullioned windows while the upper floors had circular windows, and many upper floors had hints of turrets. There were flowers in window pots and stone troughs along the roadside.

There were two predominant sounds. The breeze soughed across the slate, a slight susurration. Everywhere was the murmur of water. There were small fountains between houses, and dotted in the centre of the road, with surrounding pools and low walls. Embrasures led from the fountains and narrow runnels ran down stone coursings in the lanes, joining but never widening, only deepening. What happened when there was a rainstorm?  There were shallow open rain gutters in the stone on the road sides but the house were without downpipes. The streams gurgled, fed into and out of the fountains, casting a melody of gently-playing water over the town.

On some stone beside doors, over windows, in the street on slender obelisks, were graven character or letters or runes. There were no hard angles, instead they seemed organic, flowing. I couldn’t comprehend the origin. They weren’t the ancient pre-Celtic Ogham runes. Were they addresses or names or titles? There were no apparent commercial buildings. No signs hung outside. No windows to display wares or attract custom.

I continued on. The lane wound around and switch-backed upwards.

 

Previous Articles

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

A Further Shore – III – The Harbour

 

A Further Shore – III – The Harbour

Instead of a beach, shadows loomed over me and the water went from gold to black in sudden deep shade.

A wall of dressed stone met my fingertips and loomed two metres over me. It was a pier, stone mooring bollards along the edge. There was another pier twenty or thirty metres away to my left, like the coast had projected horizontal crenellations into the sea.

There are no stone piers on the Copper Coast. Even concrete slipways are rare on our exposed shore which lacks any suitable bays as harbours.  The Copper Coast rocks are primarily Old Red Sandstone and soft limestone. Why was I thinking about stone? I sought rationality, logic. The type of stone didn’t help. No, wait, the lee side of Tramore Pier behind the concrete is dressed stone. That’s a stone pier. But Tramore pier is how many kilometres away? Eight, nine? Away from where? I’ve swum the Copper Coast, every metre. I did not know this place and Tramore is just a single angled pier. Logic didn’t help.

There were steps near me built into the pier. In the shadows in the water the light became a type of dusk. Tarzan-style, head up, two strokes and I reached the stairs. I gingerly got a foot under me, then the second, and I stood and I climbed up. The pier edges were a charcoal grey, with the main mass a slightly lighter grey. Dark grey stone mooring bollards. The surface seemed almost swept clean except a dusting of bleached sand with faint mother-of-pearl sparkles. The rock was warm and the sand very fine under my bare feet. An ever-so-slight breeze had returned, a whisper that quickly dried my bare skin as I looked around me.from this vantage I could see other piers projecting out into sea.

A harbour. But no stacks of pots. No boats, no coils of gaudy nylon rope, no hauled out punts or moored tenders. No detritus of a working harbour.

The piers were fronted with low stone buildings, one or two stories, also stone, with slate roofs. All orderly, well maintained and pretty in the austere way of coastal communities, especially in the soft light.  No electricity poles. No diesel tanks, no mechanics.

This could not be. But it was. I was just a swimmer. You can’t accidentally swim to France or to somewhere you’ve never seen, never been. Arms are too weak against the Sea, despite our desire to prove otherwise.

We swim in part because it human-scales the world. Swimming makes the world both bigger and smaller. It becomes immense against the strength of our shoulders. But it becomes small and intimate and local, limited also by our shoulders. Driving a road a thousand times is not like walking it once. Sitting on the beach a thousand times is not like swimming out to the horizon once. We remember the scale of the world we’ve forgotten in the rest of our lives, we remember the absolute importance of the horizon.

What was this place?

Where was this place?

 

Previous parts

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

I’d swum a double handful of strokes on one breath, and seen so little and yet so much. Only water, rocks, kelp, light? You don’t understand.

Time to breath and navigate, I lifted my head. Golden sunlight dazzled me, washed over me. I know it had been months, the previous autumn since I’d last swum Kilfarassey, but surely the arch only dog-legged slightly? The mid-day Sun should have been to my left, instead it was ahead. I filled my lungs and swam on, out past the surrounding reefs for a few metres, until I could swing right, to the north, back toward the beach.

Out past the rocks I swam, so that I could see past Burke’s Island to the coast almost a kilometre away. The beach. Where was the beach and the cliffs? I kicked and sat up, threading water, my hands sculling as I peered right. Was the glare on the fogged and smeared goggles, which seemed so clear underwater now deceiving me? I couldn’t see the beach. Where’s the beach? I didn’t think anything. Involuntarily my head whipped around and as it did, mere fractions of a second, I saw the dark line of the coast ahead of me.

Wait. Wait. The Sun was ahead of me and the coast was ahead of me. What? That can’t. That can’t. This wasn’t just forgetting details from last summer. This Copper Coast is in my blood, no-one, no-one knows it like I do.

Don’t panic. Everything I know about the Sea kicked in. Everything learned, every time I risked a rock or a tunnel or a cave or a sketchy entrance or dangerous exit, every time in rough water, big water, unknown water, when I was by myself, testing myself, everything clamped down inside into “stay calm, you know this, stay calm“.

I felt it in my gut. My stomach twisted but I stayed calm. The reefs looked the same. The gaps were where I expected, the reefs all lined up in relation with each other. I looked behind. The Keyhole Arch was there, of course. The raucous guillemots still wheeled and the herring gulls still cried. But when I looked again, the coast was still in front, the  green of the fields and cliffs blackened and flattened by the back-light of the Sun overhead. This was not possible.

Nothing else happened. I looked around. I felt the clamp inside my gut, controlling me, my own internal governor. The light breeze had slackened and I noticed that the surface has glassed off to an oily silken sheen, inviting me forward. A swimmer’s version of bubble-wrap waiting to be popped, the water pleading to be pierced by my arms.

Swim, it’s what I do. Just swim in, figure it out later. I’d only been in the water twenty-five minutes or so, I’d passed two-thirds of the distance already. In the ten degree water, I wasn’t more than lightly chilled as I hadn’t stopped until now.  I couldn’t be severely hypothermic, I had none of the signs. Twelve to fifteen minutes swim, and a packet of jelly dinosaurs waiting in the glove compartment. The clamp relaxed just a fraction. Stay calm and swim.

I stroked ahead. Okay, swim in. Don’t think about it. Things happen in your head when you’re alone in the water. Things you don’t tell anyone. Things you will never tell anyone. Things they would never understand.

The water was glorious. I felt the edge, the finest sharpest molecular blade-edge of cold. That perfect feeling that cold water swimmers know, and can’t understand that others don’t appreciate. Like a fire on your skin, like when you have exhaled all your air, you can purse your lips and get that fraction more out. Like a drug or a mystery. Use everything and the cold gives you that tiny bit extra. Take a surgical scalpel, and draw the back of the blade down the inside of your forearm for a hint of that edge of cold.

Under the water the water was green suffused with argent, rich like ripe avocado. I was bathing in glory and brine, swimming in light as well as water. The light poured over me and basted my skin. I could taste the light in the water, in my mouth, like salty caramel. I could hear it. I could hear the golden light. Not with my ears, but with my proprioception. When I lifted my eyes to navigate, the light blasted my goggles and made gemstones of the world, sapphire, onyx, emerald and turquoise. The light cascaded and boiled into my lungs and filled me up. Every sense, new senses, filled with the golden light.

We swimmers know how low twenty metre tall cliffs look from just a kilometre away.  How a coast become flat, every part the same distance away, three-dimensionality lost. We know both how close and how far a kilometre is. A kilometre is a short swim but twice the distance required for a swimmer to become invisible to others on the shore.

The coast closed quickly as I swam. The light gave me a grace I’d never known. I didn’t just cut through the water or slip through the light. I became the water and the golden light. I was water and light swimming in water and light.

But when I reached the coast, when I could finally see under the glare, there were no cliffs. There was no beach.

Golden light through a Copper Coast arch
Golden light

 

Previous part

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

Winter reduces my range. I swim at the Guillamenes, along the cliffs and shore of Tramore Bay.  Maybe, just maybe, I might get down to Sandycove for a lap. Days pass when I see no-one, arriving, swimming and leaving without a soul.

Spring comes with almost imperceptibly warming water and air and increase in the number of people. The winds slacken, swim time gradually extends. The rest of the Copper Coast calls out to me, to return and see what the winter has wrought, to find new experiences and new memories.

Burke's Island & reefs, Kilfarassey
Burke’s Island & reefs, Kilfarassey

Kilfarassey and Burke’s Island are always my first Copper Coast spring swim away from Tramore Bay. My playground of the island and reefs sits just a short swim away at high tide, a full circumnavigation of all takes only forty-five minutes, with optional paths around the reefs to lengthen any swim.

There was no-one else around, the tide was dropping and the sky was blue with a few actual white puffy clouds, not the usual grey-bottomed bringers of Atlantic rain usually visible. The water wasn’t quite calm, a light easterly Force Two breeze ruffling the surface and adding a nip to the air as I walked the hundred metres from the car down the slipway, crossed the stream and beach and left my sandals burdened under rocks on the sand. I lined up the zero triangle and minute-hand on my watch to indicate departure time and waded in, then dove into an incoming mushy wave.

The water was about ten degrees Celsius, according to my built-in skin thermometer. The cold shock associated with such a temperature dissipated within a minute or so as I swam out toward the windward east side of the island, stretching out my arms and shoulders.  Within a dozen minutes I’d reached the nearest shark-fin-shaped reef, and instead of a longer circumnavigation around the outside reefs, I turned west across the back of the main island. The water was a clear cool mint and jade in the cross-shore breeze, submarine reefs reaching up, old friends from previous years welcoming me back.

Another few minutes and I passed the main island and reached the inside end of the channel that divides the easterly and westerly reefs.  I was at the east side of the largest reef, a north-south ridge some seventy five metres long and reaching in places up to ten metres above the surface. Populated by birds and guillemots, mostly by Black Shags, who have always vocally disapproved of my unaccustomed irregular appearances, they threw themselves from the reef into the air, wheeling and dive-bombing and screaming their indignation at my arrival in their offshore haven.

I was swimming to The Keyhole, my nickname for the first rock arch I’d ever swum through. It’s an east-west narrow-waisted arch in the ridge, only ten metres long at the water’s surface, with a bare dogleg between the ends. There’s not much of a roof,  cut away as it is to the sides. When conditions are right, the arch, which is too narrow for most kayakers, compresses the flow and a swimmer can shoot through like a fairground water ride.

The easterly breeze wasn’t enough to shoot through at speed but the clear water gave me hope of seeing an anemone clinging to the rocks under the low tide mark, so I decided to swim through without breathing, to extend my underwater investigation.

With head underwater, I cruised west  through the arch, feeling the water flow keep me clear of the harsh sides. The quality of the sub-surface light changed, surely a cloud filtering the light entering the water, transforming it to a rich golden hue.

Under the surface was so crisp, so clear. The sand of the bottom, the encrustations of thousands of generations of barnacles on the rocks, this reef their universe, our air their outer space. The kelps and weeds waved in the backward and forward tidal stream. Ochre, umber, sienna. Jade, olive, phtalo green. Marl and charcoal. A merman’s palette of literal water colours. No fish were visible in the clear water this day, but here was every child’s daydream of swimming in an aquarium’s watery castle. No plastic scuba or treasure diver was required to perfect this idealized underwater scene.

All for me, just here, just now. All this time to see so little and yet so much. Only a double-handful of strokes on one held breath from arch end to end.

You can’t eat scenery, they say in Ireland. I was a child when I first heard that and I still knew they were wrong. Not with your mouth. But you can eat it with your eyes and your mind and your imagination. You can use it to create your soul, to fill your self.

An Analysis Of Open Water Drownings

Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).

One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.

In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.

The Irish Water Safety Association (which promotes open water safety and collates Irish drowning figures and for decades has taught people to swim in open water locations) released a report about drowning rates in open water locations, based on 25 years of data collection up to 2012 (not including 2013 which had higher rates due to an unusually good summer).

The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.

The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.

If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.

79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.

In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.

One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.

Irish drowing locationsIreland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.

The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf.  Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).

Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.

If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.

Irish drowning locations breakdownRivers are three times more likely as a location for drowning than the sea, with lakes, which are often assumed to be safer, almost equal to the sea.

Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while [] rural
drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.

The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.

Irish drowning circumstancesSwimming and walking suffered the same level of drowning. If one adds shore angling, more people drown from the shore than from getting into the water. You may recall I wrote a relevant article last year called “There’s no such thing as freak wave, coastal safety is your own responsibility.

You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.

In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.

All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.

The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.

So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.

  • As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
  • Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
  • If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest  that children under 14 should also always be supervised around  water.
  • In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
  • If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
  • Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.

Related articles

Irish Water Safety 25 year report.

WHO media report on worldwide drowning.

CDC US water injuries, 2005 – 2009.

CDC report on natural water setting drownings.

Swambivalence

wm_Custom House Keystones (6)
Edward Smythe’s God of the River Suir on Dublin’s 18th Century Custom’s House.

I live on the bank of one of Ireland’s longest rivers: The river Suir. At 115 miles length, you’ll appreciate therefore that Ireland is a small country. The river flows through three counties: Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford.

The river forms the Tipperary-Waterford border for many miles and features in the most famous Kilkenny ballad. But it is most commonly associated with Tipperary, probably due the rising on the slope of the Devil’s Bit mountain, and the meandering path it takes through the country and flowing through so many Tipperary towns, (Thurles, Cahir, Golden, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir).

I’ve lived on its bank on the tidal estuary for over ten years but I’ve never felt any interest in swimming in it. Indeed the first time I ever got into the river was a few months when I went in to rescue my aging dog from drowning.

The Clonmel to Carrick road follows the river and as the river’s cleanliness has improved over the years, and after having crewed and observed on Owen O’Keeffe’s Blackwater river swim the past two years, I finally decided last year that I might as well swim from Clonmel down to Carrick, 21 current-assisted kilometres.

Swim4Good
Swim4Good, just before starting

After a couple of weekends of walking the various sections, due to other conflicts, we didn’t even know if the swim would go ahead until two days before. The swim itself occurred on the Summer Solstice, which proved to be the best day for crew availability, water temperature, and a compliant high tide, which tops out a couple of miles above the town. Though it’s not a true tide but a river backfill from the actual tide lower in the estuary, so it’s not as easy to predict.

I would liked to have been able to do something to raise awareness for the Swim4Good campaign. Swim4Good is a swimming-based project which seeks to use swimming as a social improvement tool. It was started by Mauricio Prieto, Emily Kunze and Susan Moody. In 2013, they raised an astonishing $100,000+ for a glodal literacy campaign. But with the short notice, and our lack of bodies to collect any for charity on the route, and a lack of response from the local radio station, wearing the Swim4Good cap and this paragraph, I’m afraid, is the best I can do for now.

I’m not doing a stroke-by-stroke blog post.  The pertinent information is that I had Owen to observe and document and local Carrick distance open water swimming neophyte Conor Power to guide, each kayaking. Conor, like Owen, loves river swimming and knows the river Suir well. However, the temperature was cooler than expected at just over 13º Celsius for almost the entire swim, and I did feel it drop substantially for a mile past the confluence with the river Anner.

The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)
The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)

We started at 11.17am and I touched down beside some local alcoholics on the slipway at 2:59pm, first person to swim this stretch, in three hours 42 minutes. I’d estimated four to four and half hours of swimming so this was quicker than expected.

Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.
Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.

It felt like I hit every submerged rock between Clonmel and Carrick. There had (surprisingly for Ireland) been no rain for the previous week, and for most of the duration the depth was rarely more than waist deep.

Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas's Bridge, rougher than it seems
Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas’s Bridge, rougher than it seems

Even with the changing banks, even with faster-than-expected current, even with Dee and the doglet popping up regularly on the bank, even with trying to dodge rocks and even with not succeeding, river swimming is boring. My legs and feet were bruised and cut. I even had a (small) laceration on my upper chest.

 

Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan
Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan

Every time I’d hit a really shallow patch, I’d have to stop kicking. But then my legs would sink and I’d hit the rocks anyway. I had to stand once to walk about three metres across just outside the village of Kilseelan and I had to  bum-shuffle a couple of metres on the other side of Kilsheelan.

The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir
The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir

I saw five fish, one car registration plate and no shopping trollies. The river and water was clean. I’d entertained thoughts that if it went well, I might run it as a time trial next year, but it’s too shallow to run such an event.

 

Approaching Carrick's old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish
Approaching Carrick’s old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish

I feel only ambivalence or even vague embarrassment about the swim. The geographical distance of 21 kilometres with current assistance was probably closer to only 14 kilometres in swimming terms, so quite similar to training swims many will be doing around this time. But my shoulders were very heavy for the last forty minutes and I was happy to get out.

I mostly feel like just shrugging off the swim, and don’t feel I accomplished anything, (which is no reflection of the time and assistance of Conor and Owen). I’ve never swum more than six hours in fresh water, and I still don’t feel that I’d want to extend that time.

Elaine Howley was swimming a 24 hour lake training swim in the US at the same time (plus much more) and reported having a great time. Thus proving indubitably (to me anyway) that fresh water is more likely to promote dementia than salt water.  The sea does not engender similar feelings of ambivalence in me.

A similar duration ocean swim with less to see and less accomplished would be more enjoyable.

The Abyss

I made the image below for my American Channel swimming friend and one of the MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming co-authors  Elaine Howley.

I’ve seen a few articles on coping with open water swimming fears recently, and I though I’d take a contrary and more visual tack.

If you suffer from the open water heebeejeebies, try taking control and instead of trying to swim away from imaginary monsters, try summoning them, so you control them and become the master or mistress.

Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Nietzsche

Both the feet, and more importantly the eye, are my own … Or is it? Open Water swimming fear 2.resizedClick to embiggen. It’s make a nice desktop wallpaper.!

And here’s a video I hope you enjoy. I finally shot something good with David Dammerman’s camera, so thanks David!

I particularly recommend you enjoy what happens about 2:25 and the last few seconds.

Related articles

Open Water fears listed.