Category Archives: Locations

Various open water swimming locations

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 Hood (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 and the peninsula is low and almost treeless and it’s an attraction for a photographer as it can be photographed 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?

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.

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 east side of the peninsula. Because of the 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 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 low Old Red Sandstone that slopes into the sea and 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 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.

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 told me I was accompanied by a couple of grey seals which I didn’t see.

The shore anglers were less 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 and lessened. 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 while I could 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 south-north-west current.

Up on land it was obvious sooner to Dee and to a woman whom she said was watching and 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 do for 50 or 100 metres that you can’t maintain.

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 even 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.

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 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 directly south.

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

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 – 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

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.


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, 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.

Force Twelve - Hurricane Force

The Atlantic – III

This is the third and final part of the series on the Atlantic. I hope you enjoyed this private tour. Part 1 & Part 2.





Atlantic Trance
Atlantic Blackgreen




Permanence in Motion
Scending Wave


The Island
The Island




Storms Pass
Storms Pass


Tidal Lagoon
Tidal Lagoon


Storm Wave
Storm Wave


Night Sea
Night Sea


Force Twelve - Hurricane Force
Hurricane Force Twelve

The Atlantic – I

The Atlantic Ocean is in me.

For almost 20 years since it got its hook into me, I’ve been haunting, (in a moderate non-weird way), the Irish Atlantic coast, primarily the west, south and my own Copper Coast in the south-east.

For many years, in the depths of grim nights, I have stared into the dark and summoned the ocean as a blanket. I can float on groundswell as it pulses and lifts and lowers me. Experience the ground vibrations from huge breakers. Smell the plankton. Feel the wind tighten my face. Taste the salt. The Atlantic became as much part of me as I become a miniscule part  of it.

It’s a grey ocean. Grey, not gray, my American friends. The word was surely invented for the Atlantic. Not a dull description of colour, it’s a dimension, a world, a universe, The Soulstealer Sea. The Grey Atlantic, not the Blue Pacific. It’s a metal ocean. Steel and iron, verdigris if you are lucky. Hard.  Complete.

Welcome to my ocean.

{The photographs of the Atlantic in this three-part series are the best I’ve  taken, over a two and half year period, of various representational of elements of the Atlantic. It’s a personal, creative and a continuing journey. It is as important to me as taking the photographs to let them be seen. I feel like a photographer for once. All are better on full screen for a more, well, immersive experience.}

A Wave
A Wave
Winter Horizon I
Winter Horizon I
Winter Horizon II
Winter Horizon II
Sky & Sea
I - Swell.resized
Visitors from Far Away
The Sky In The Sea
The Sky In The Sea
A Reef
A Reef
The Storm Will Pass
Storms Always Pass
Evening Sea With Two Islands
Evening Sea With Two Islands


Force Nine
Force Nine

Images of 2013 – 2 – Swimming Locations

I didn’t think 2013 was a great year for swimming new locations for me, though early in the year I’d hoped that would be different. Unsurprising, I suppose, as the longer I’ve been swimming, the further I would need to travel to swim new locations. I’ve covered all the Copper Coast, much of the rest of the Waterford coast and I’m not a fan of river swimming, and there are no significant lakes anywhere near me. Also, I had no big swim this year, not being able to afford one, and the situation looks the same for 2014. :-(

But that didn’t stop me having a look through the year’s locations, and there were a few I’d forgotten to add to my favourites and in review the year wasn’t bad.

I’ll start with my watery home, Waterford’s Copper Coast, and most specifically Tramore Bay from my usual starting location of the Guillamenes Cove.

Tramore Bay_MG_8972.resized
A very calm day in Tramore Bay in December, made even calmer through use of a very long exposure. The orange buoy is about 450 metres out, can’t be seen from distance in the water, and what I use to test my navigation skills during the summer, requiring of myself that I reach it with no more than a 25 metre deviation to either side.

It wasn’t all good at the Guillamenes this year. The increasing litigiousness of Irish society and the nonsensical and fearfully reactionary approach of Tramore town council and my own club led to this steel monstrosity, which so incensed Wallace.

Wallace Guillamenes

Newtown Cove is only 200 metres away from the Guillamene Cove. Though I swim past it on at least half of all my swims, dependant of swim direction, yet I start there less than one time in a hundred. We did however start the distance camp swim from Newtown Cove.

Cove entrance_MG_8971.resized

My favourite other location on the Copper coast is Kilfarassey, providing as it does a range of reefs, caves, tunnels and swim distances and directions, centered around my favourite playground of Burke’s Island which sits about 600 metres from the beach. As a swimmer and blogger I use more representational images. But as an aspiring photographer, I’m increasingly drawn to try to capture more of how I feel about a place.

Burke's Island IMG_8614_01In the first two of the extraordinary five whole weeks of summer that Ireland received in 2013, while the water hadn’t yet risen above 10C, I swam more on the coast at the east side of Tramore Bay. Swimming out from Ballymacaw, Portally and Dunmore East, including finally swimming partway into Seal Cave between Portally and Ballymacaw, a scary place. I’ve never swum this wild stretch of coast without experiencing strong tidal currents running east or west.

One Saturday in June, I took some photos of an inshore fishing boat passing below the cliff walk. Three days later I heard of yet another boat from the local main fishing port of Dunmore East lost with all three hands, all of them brothers, off Powerstown Head, which marks the entrance to Tramore Bay and can be seen in the first photo above, and which is the terminus of the easternmost stretch of Waterford’s coast. When I checked my photographs, it was indeed the same boat, the Dean Leanne, with two of the three tragically lost brothers onboard, probably the last every photograph of the brothers at sea. I found a connection to the family and passed on all the photos.

Dean Leanne & Hook head

In January a group of us attempted an Ice Mile in Dublin at the Bull Wall, but the water wasn’t cold enough, even though I got quite hypothermic.

The swim route. Nothing much to see here.
The swim route. Nothing much to see here.

A few weeks later In March, the same group swam in the Wicklow Mountains at Lough Dan. For a variety of reasons I decided against the full attempt but the trip was great, and wading into ice-covered water measuring less than two degrees at the edges was … interesting.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

 In the coldest spring in over fifty years in Ireland, Dee and I took some Mexican visitors to the West Coast for the view. The howling Force Eight wind and five degree (Celsius) air meant they were unable to emerge to see much of the scenery. But apparently the most shocking thing they saw was me going swimming in Doolin harbour in a three metre swell in a howling wind and crashing waves, wearing a Speedo, with a dolphin and two fully dry-suited divers. How Dee & I chuckled.

Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars
Beyond Doonagore Castle, Doolin Bay with Crab Island bearing a full Atlantic attack. This shot was taken three miles from that wave.

I don’t think my first Sandycove trip of 2013 was until April, but I managed more Sandycove laps in 2013 than in 2012. My lifetime total is still well below 200, so joining the Sandycove “D” Club of 500 lap swimmers seems distant at best and I shall to remain content with being  “C” club member. Most of the rest of the County Cork Coast eluded me this year, despite early promises from other Sandycove swimmers. And I guess I’ve written and shown you plenty of Sandycove before.

Morning view from the outside west entrance with the sun in the east. The slipway is on the left, some of the reefs at the first corner are appearing and the tide is dropping toward low.
The Red House above is no longer red.

April and May saw me returning to my usual caves on the coast, but leaving exploration for new caves until the water warms up later on in the summer.

Newtown Cave
It is impossible to capture the range of light visible to the human eye with a camera in one photograph but I love the reflections of this shot from inside Newtown Head cave.

I made it back to Coumshingaun in the Comeragh Mountains during both winter and summer. Coumshingaun is the closest lake to me, if one ignores the 45 minute climb, but only I swim it during summer as the edge is circled with rocks and being so far from a road the risks are too high to swim in winter. 

Coumshingaun in winter (Nat Geo filter).resized

Loneswimming Coumshingaun.resized

I’m not sure if I made it out to Carricknamoan rock off Clonea in 2012, but I was back there in 2103. It’s a swim that looks simple in the picture below, taken from the slight height above the beach, and is only about three kilometres round trip, but it still requires experience as the rock is so low that it can’t be seen until the last couple of hundred metres, and there are changing tidal currents.

Carricknamoan & Black Rock_MG_4927-resized.resized

 I also completed a short swim I’d scouted in 2012, swimming out of Ardmore Bay to the wreck of the Samson, under the cliffs of Ardmore Head. (Ardmore is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland). You can take a shorter 10 minute swim to the wreck if you climb down the path to the angling point and start from there, but what’s the fun in that? While rounding Ardmore Head into the bay on the return swim, Dee took a favourite photo with mine.

Loneswimming IMG_4749.resized

While Distance Camp final weekend and the qualification and torture swims were on, I instead cancelled my planned attendance on the last weekend to catch up with a swim I wanted to do for many years, to circumnavigate Skellig Michael, the 800 feet high island peak the site of a 1500 year old ancient hermetic site, 12 miles off the Irish south-west on the end of the Continental Shelf. Another swim not for beginners, despite its short course.

NW reef IMG_7077.resized

During the summer, I also range out along the Copper Coast away from usual entry and exit spots, particularly liking to risk swimming across Ronan’s Bay, as the return trip can present currents strong enough to cut swim speed by two-thirds and generate a significant challenge.

Newtown Head and the Metalman & pillars from across Ronan’s bay

August is the summer peak for open water swimmers. Long warm(-ish) days (this is Ireland after all), warm water (16 to 17 degrees Celsius in August this year, exceptional) and races. Carol Cashell organises the local favourite Ballycotton 4 kilometres race, which is usually cursed with bad weather, late in August. It’s a challenging swim and the conditions the past two years have made it an experienced-swimmer-only race.

After the race, after the pub, I wandered back down to the tiny beach to catch the moon over the island.

Ballycotton Island moon IMG_8815.resizedSeptember saw two visits to Dover for Sylvain’s Channel Butterfly swim. So there were the usual swims in Dover Harbour,

Dover Harbour Entrance IMG_0196

…and a swim into France with Sylvain. Channel dawn.resized

Not a bad swimming year I guess, in reflection.

If the weather co-operates, when this post is published, I’ll be swimming at the Guillamenes for my Christmas day swim.

Update: The Christmas day weather didn’t co-operate. The swim was cancelled due to heavy seas, but I swam anyway and about 20 people foolishly followed me into the water. Foolish as the swell as almost three metres, and I’ve had a lot of practice at timing and rough water particularly in Tramore Bay. But everyone was safe and fun was had.

Maybe we’ll get to swim together next year but regardless, have a happy holiday and my best to you all, my friends.

Related articles

Images of 2013 – 1 – Swimming People (

The race that wasn’t

Finbarr started it with the idea of a Sandycove three-lap invitational race at the end of October. With two weeks to go and no mention, Carol Cashell and I raised the idea again and discussion ensued.

With less than a week to go the starting lineup was small. The forecast for the weekend showed the Irish south-coast would catch the spin-off of storm Saint Jude. (I know, I’ve never heard a storm called after a Saint either). Winds were forecast to be Beaufort Five minimum.

Excellent! A bit of rough water was ideal to level the field. After all the Sandycove locals have it too easy at times, when the weather blows out they just start swimming inside the island. Pfft.

The worse the forecast the better, as far as Carol and I were concerned. Although as the fastest of the group, it wasn’t like she needed an advantage. By Thursday the weather forecasters were all getting excited like we don’t have big storms every year. Jude would bypass Ireland and clobber the UK, and Ireland would be assailed by nothing worse than Force Nine or so. The worst of Saturday’s weather was due to hit before mid-day when the worst of the storm would arrive on the south coast. We were aiming for TITW at 11.30am.

Email negotiations about all the various safety requirements, race rules, evacuation procedures and volunteers led to a concise rule set:

  • Two laps, handicapped.
  • Cake to be proved afterwards by Carol.
  • No rubber knickers.
  • Finbarr was allowed to drown anyone foolish enough to get within an arm length of him (a rule on which he insisted, disguising it as English Channel Rules).

Despite beating Rob and Craig this year, I was due to get an excellent three-minute handicap over both of them, which i didn’t refuse. All’s fair. Rob Bohane is a member of the “M” 1000+ lap club, as is Finbarr and Craig Morrison is a member of the “D” 500+ lap club,. Eddie Irwin, Carol Cashell and myself are all “C” swimmers of 100+ laps. All highly experienced marathon swimmers with many and varied skills.

The local forecast for Sandycove showed winds peaking between 10am and 1pm, anywhere from Force 6 to Force 8.

Second Corner IMG_0094
Second Corner to third corner, buoy in the distance.

The second corner looked quite reasonable when I arrived, though the rain meant I could only take one quick shot. The wind was still rising. Down at the slipway, another M club member (1000+), Mags Buckley (no relation) said the water was lovely and warm but she’d stayed to the inside.

From the slipway we could see the waves breaking across the first corner, and the outside wave that only breaks when winds are getting high, reaching into the corner. The expert round beside the first corner was impossible. The normal route outside first corner was impossible. Even the cowardly route outside the normal first corner was … (f)risky. I like (f)risky.

At the last minute, the handicap and race was thrown out. Then the five others started swimming just as I was on the slipway. The water was indeed warm, an extraordinary for end of October fourteen degrees (57F).

Just getting to the outside was testing. The narrow point between the island and mainland produced an unpredictable wall to swim through, which ripped my goggles off. Going over the top resulted in a crash into the trough. Unlike a breaking wave, it wasn’t predictable. Meanwhile waves were peeling off the corner rocks where the expert Sandycovers normally cut inward. The first corner was froth but all the guys were waiting beside the outside break. I took a slightly inside line, watching for the rock that is only exposed to air in conditions like this, having seen it once last year from above in similar conditions, and therefore having its location well imprinted. I stopped to fix my goggles a second time, something that was to continue for the whole swim as they were constantly loosened by the waves. Then we were all off again.

The waves were about three metres, not at all unusual for a Tramore Bay swimmer, and in the “lumpy” category. But outside the island, things change. Apart from being in the direct path of the south-west wind coming over the Old Head of Kinsale, some wind was diverted at water level along the side of the coast. Waves climbed out of deeper water onto the island shelf to produce one of the most unpredictable of water states, that of reflected waves over rock.

First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.
First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.

The waves hit the island and bounced back, doubling up with incoming waves at different times and places, causing sudden occasional peaks of four to five metres or shelving waves to scend suddenly, like a punch of water. The 360 degree horizon was mere metres away for everyone, all of us sunken into watery bowls, except for the island’s grassy profile, the wind and rain and spume filling the air, grace in the water impossible even for a swimmer of Carol’s style.

It was excellent fun, that feeling of being hurled and thrown by an ocean that would be terrifying for beginners but feels like an opportunity to revel for a more experienced swimmer.

One moment we were two or three metres apart, the next we were thrown onto each other. I picked up a scrape, not from rocks, but from Rob being thrown onto me fingernails first.

The second corner is where expert Sandycovers risk the limit. The interface of gradually descending reef and pushing swell. How close? How much risk can you take? We love the second corner. Approaching out of the kidney bean shape, you can be too close or too far out, and even if you get a great line, you still have others to deal with. Others who put you on the reef, or risk the reef themselves, and laugh. People like Finbarr, Craig, Rob, or me. The second corner is a melee, a game of chicken played not with other swimmers but with rock. Unthinking, unmoving and therefore always triumphant rock.

But not that day. The second corner was instead a marine Jackson Pollock, the reef as canvas, the sea as paint, the wind as artist. From outside we could only see the precipice of the artichokey-feldgrau waves as they crashed onto the corner. We all went wide, to a greater or lesser extent. Carol and I cut in a little as we passed the first two hundred and seventy degrees of turn, catching a wave to pass the trailing end of the reef.

We stopped again to regroup. Past the second corner is a favourite spot of Sandycove swimmers, inside the mush, behind the reef, where if you are not racing, you can stop and chat, before you race back anyway.

Inside channel IMG_0101
Inside the island, deceptively calm an hour earlier

Assembled again we all re-started, as I grabbed the positional advantage. The visibility decreasing as the wind of the leeward side funneled around the low third corner. Then around into the inside. Sheltered from the outside storm, the visibility, already poor, actually decreased. The wind poured up the inside, driving rain and chop head-on. The Red House (now grey) took ages to pass swimming against the wind. Eddie passed on my left. Carol passed me on the right, their better strokes more advantageous in the lesser size of these conditions. Was I middle of the Channel or left of right? I couldn’t see. The water here lacked any visibility also. Any one stupid enough to be on a boat in the channel on the day better be keeping an eye out for the even-more-stupid swimmers.

Past the Red House eventually, the forward chop constantly slapping me in the face. Stay low. Get under it. I know where the slipway should be, but instead I swing left. The fourth corner seems miles away on my left. It’s an island though so I can’t get lost.

Had to line up for the first corner again. From this angle you normally approach really close in. But there are rocks beside the island between fourth and first so outward, back through the middle of the gap, once again getting hit by the waves of the narrow point. Further out this time, the waves looked bigger. Outside the corner, finally out of the head-on rain, I stopped and looked around. No sign of the others. Ha! Loneswimmer alone again.

No further waiting I set off again, enjoying the outside once more, watching for the pure white water indicative of a sub-surface reef, watching for square waves within two metres of me, sliding along the faces of the sudden peaks to surf in and swim back out, tacking and gibing my way around the island, going wider around the second and third corners to enter the inside channel again, and to cruise back to the slipway, the driving rain dropping but the water visibility still being impenetrable, until I crashed into the slipway, the other five already changed having only completed one lap each. Default winner of the race that wasn’t! Didn’t even bother towelling dry in the rain. Cakes and buns from Carol and Maura Morrison.

Thirty minutes later the wind had almost died, the rain was gone, and the water settled. We had got the timing exactly right. By accident.

I once suggested Mike Harris’s “It’s a bit lumpy, chaps” could the club motto, and this day was the epitome of that attitude. Rough water is fun (once you know you don’t have to swim through it for the next twelve hours).

Skellig Mór – Swimming over the edge of the World – Part 2

Part 1.

Magic that takes you out, far out, of this time and this world” – George Bernard Shaw on the Skelligs

It was still cloudy at Portmagee, and a few swimmers and yakkers assembled on the pier to load the boats. We were outward bound on a small fishing boat with two support yakkers and skipper Gearóid’s family out for a day trip, and left the pier at 11.15am, heading out through the calm channel.

Portmagee village

The first ever transatlantic cable came ashore at Valentia and for many years down at the extreme edge of Europe, Valentia Cable Station was centre of the communications world.

Bray Head reflected in the Channel at Portmagee
Bray Head reflected in the Channel at Portmagee earlier in the week

We passed Bray Head, moving out into the open ocean. With the kayaks the small fishing boat was cramped, and I, the only swimmer on board, had nowhere to sit as the yakkers claimed the seats, but I’m happy on a boat and the swim was due to be short.

Bray Head
Morning sunlight streaming over Bray Head – once again from earlier in the week -best viewed large

The sky was still cloudy, with no sign yet of the Sun breaking through. As we moved out west from the shelter of Puffin Island to the south, Bray Head to the north and away from the distant protective shelter of the Blaskett Islands, the swell increased. Along with the Force Two breeze, the water became choppy.  Many a breakfast has been lost overboard on the way to the Skelligs to those lacking sea-legs.

Closer to Heaven, part of the monastery at the peak- Skellig Beag and the coast in the backround
Closer to Heaven. Part of the monastery at the peak- Skellig Beag and the coast in the background

I can never steam out to the isolated crags of the Skelligs without thinking of those early monks. The Roman Empire had fallen, Europe had sunk into the Dark Ages, organised society and civilisation fragmented and hundreds of years of chaos lay ahead. Only on Ireland was the learning retained, the early Irish Christian church retaining the knowledge embedded in religion and the skills of writing, illustration and teaching. They founded the Irish monasteries, centres of learning, and then as their number grew they travelled to Scotland, down through Britain and on into Europe, carrying knowledge and artistry and the ideal of scholarship with them, many of their later European sites becoming the great European colleges. The author Thomas Cahill described this as the time when the Irish saved civilisation and it was a time of importance for the country, prior to being a nation, and the time that gave Ireland the appellation of Island of Saints and Scholars.

Some of those men though, looked west, saw a lofty peak out where there was nothing and somehow decided it would be a good place to pursue the ultimate ascetic life, the thought that the peak was already partway to heaven surely in their minds. Regardless of belief, something about the insanity and heroism of that has always struck a chord. Woollen robes, simple tools and a willingness to face the Utter Sea. Surely this resonance must strike any open water swimmer?

Skellig Beag DSCF1072.resized
Skellig Beag – (taken in 2006, when camera resolution and skill was less than now!)

Steaming out to the island took about 90 minutes. Heading for Skellig Mór, one passes the white guano-covered Skellig Beag, “small Skellig“. Skellig Beag is the second-largest gannet colony in the world after St. Kilda in Scotland, with about 30,000 breeding pairs, around 20% of the world population. Gannets, white with a yellow head and black wing-tips, are a large raucous seabird which feed by diving on fish from a height and can dive down to thirty metres. The repeated blows to the skull are the primary cause of their demise as they go eventually blind. They wheel and spin and cry in the air around the Skelligs and range far out over the sea in these very rich fishing waters.

Skellig Michael - approaching the East Landing from the South east, the new road to Lighthouse leading up left from the bottom of the picture. The huts are just below the right side peak.
Skellig Michael – approaching the East Landing from the South east, the new road to the Lighthouse leading up left from the bottom of the picture. The huts are just below the right side peak.

The rib carrying swimmers from Portmagee zipped past us before we reached the island on our slower boat, and the Ballinscelligs Inshore Rescue rib with the remaining swimmers, the charity for whom the swim was being carried out were seen arriving from Ballinscelligs Bay.

Start at Cross Cove IMG_7033.resized
Before the start at Cross Cove, the covered walkway over the cove is due to a continuous barrage of bird droppings. The steps to the top of the island run up the ridge .

Kayaks were quickly put in the water near the East Landing at Blind Man’s Cove, boats milled around for fifteen minutes while skipper Gearóid indicated the starting point would be to the west underneath the helicopter pad and in front of the covered walkway leading around Cross Cove.

The swimmers were split into two groups, a larger group of slower swimmers and few faster swimmers to start a couple of minutes later. Looking forward to getting in, I was first ready. As it turned out I was in togs for a good five minutes, but the slight breeze on this protected side of the island was warm and the Sun was finally breaking through as the clouds parted overhead so I wasn’t getting cold.

Liz and Padraig
Liz and Padraig

As I waited I heard a call of my name, but assumed there was another Donal out there, it being a name rarely heard outside Ireland but quite normal here, (by the way Donal is NOT Donald, as a name Donal goes back at least 2,000 years). But we soon noticed that a small inshore boat carried my friends Liz Buckley (no relation but we call her my fake half-sister) Chairwoman of the Sandycove Island Swim Club and her boyfriend Padraig Leahy, both strong and experienced open water swimmers.

The start IMG_7053.resized
The first wave in the distance being chased by Liz, Padraig, myself and a couple of others. Swim Organiser Tim Poulain-Patterson in the yellow kayak.

The first group was soon off, heading north-east to swim anti-clockwise around the island. And shortly thereafter I was off the boat into the water, turning to wave at Dee and then off. The calm protected water of the south-east of the island slipped past. Tim was nearby in his kayak, the other boats moving to the outside.

The Wailing Woman stone on Skellig Michael
The Wailing Woman stone on Skellig Michael

Underneath the water was deepening shades of grey-green. As we approached the northern-most point of the island, the waves of the open ocean swell were readily apparent even to a cursory sighting, crashing onto the reef.

I’d already caught a few of the slow group, and continuing my long tendency to skirt rocks closely, I moved in closer while the others moved out. Under the water as I approached the was filled with white foam. I don’t really understand why I like swimming near rocks, something subconscious from my surfing, something which I also rely on to tell me when it’s safe and when it’s not. I avoid the rocks on Sandycove first corner in a big a swell because there’s no safe close approach whereas I can skirt the second corner closely.

The north west corner of the island, calm to rough water in a few metres.
The north-east corner of the island, calm to rough water in a few metres.

I passed through the foam, an arm length from the reef, the water rising ahead of me as I swam up the hill of the swell. Then a left turn and along the north side. The boats moved a long way out, as did the large majority of the pack. Dee later told me it became very uncomfortable on the boat at that point as they were only bobbing along at swimming speed, the swell and chop buffeting the boat.

Just past the reef of the North west corner where the water became much rougher.
Just past the reef of the North east corner where the water became much rougher.

Along with the Sun directly south, and the distance out from me as I continued on ahead,any photography became very difficult. I sought a line along the north shore, against the tide also, where I would be in closer but not so close that I was caught in every wave reflected of the island, trying to find a balance that would mean I was in rough water that was combined from both sides, but not swimming too wide or close. I like rough water, as many experienced open water swimmers do, for a short swim like this.  It adds a certain frisson and liveliness to a swim.

Chris's Saddle, the Col between the two peaks.
Chris’s Saddle, the Col between the two peaks, from the North side of the island

This water was rough, certainly not for inexperienced swimmers.  I stopped to take a few photos from a borrowed waterproof camera. (Did I tell you I lost another camera to the Sea only a week ago, thanks to bloody shore anglers fishing into the swimming zone at the Guillamenes?).

The water on the north side was also colder, my internal thermometer again telling me that it was about twelve to twelve and half degrees. But the Sun was directly overhead in front of me and the shots were poor. I swam on, gradually south-west, passing the deep cut of North Cove, the older steps that were the original peak access line, visible far above in glimpses, now no-longer used. Occasional jellyfish of different types passed underneath.

The colour of the water was… rich. To just describe it as sea-green or grey-green is insufficient. In coastal waters, our water is mostly sea-green, dropping away to black from the ocean floor, which even when it’s not visible stop light. Out at the Skelligs the bottom is far below, the water dropped through shades of a grey-green. Artichoke, aquamarine and zomp, skobeloff, feldgrau and jade, malachite and viridian and midnight-green all blending and fading into each other, that conveyed the depth below us.

I remembered my first Skellig swim years ago, when the depth made me take a minute to pause and readjust mentally.  That adjustment was no longer necessary, though I don’t often get to swim in very deep water, like many other things of the Sea that people dislike, I find myself entranced by the idea of the abysm beneath, dragging myself over the watery surface by the power of my arms, the idea of the void sucking deep in my gut. Deep and rough water, what a joy.

I reached the north-west corner and along west side of the island, Washerwoman Rocks on the west outside,  the cliffs here rising sheer from the water. I know the geography of the island and stopped, because far above was a glimpse of the old disused Lighthouse. Two swimmers approached and stopped and I pointed out the Light and told them how back the 1950’s the windows had been broken out by a wave.

The old Lighthouse, jsut visible above the steep high cliffs of the sout west corner
The old Lighthouse, just visible above the steep high cliffs of the south-west corner

The old Lighthouse is over 110 metres high. Three hundred and sixty feet up. That was some wave, surely one of those rogues that we now know exist in deep water. As I crossed Seal Cove, beneath the new Lighthouse, the water calmed and as I rounded the south-west corner, it flattened out and ahead was Cross Cove.

I swung under the helipad and walkway for another picture and passed over a huge Compass jellyfish, less than a body length down. Then back to the Inshore Rib to indicate I’d finished. With stops I’d still taken only about 50 minutes, an easy fun swim. At this point it became apparent that the boat with Dee, and my clothes was far back, so rather than float and get cool, I swam back toward them, and at that point they caught up quickly.

Swimming back to the boat after finishing
Swimming back to the boat after finishing

It was a fun swim, a chance to finally swim fully around the island that I’d long wanted to complete. With the last finisher coming in after almost one hour and forty minutes swimming, it was probable that the location and conditions may have been too much for a few of the group. I doubt such a large group, 20 swimmers, will do this swim again, given the rough conditions, it was difficult for all the boats to watch everyone. Any future swims will likely and should be much reduced in number given the complexity  and safety cover needed but this one had went well and probably is a relief for Tim to have out of the way, as some swimmer’s unaware of the difficulty of running a swim in a location like this, were somewhat unreasonable in their expectations, and credit goes to him for finally getting it finished. And I’d like to thank Tim myself for allowing me to get this swim off my list.

Support boats, ‘yakkers and swimmers

Skellig Mór – Swimming over the edge of the World – Part 1

A couple of years ago I carried a swim report of the third annual Beginish race, which due to inclement weather that year , was held in the Sound between Valentia Island and the mainland of the Kerry coast, at the extreme south-west of Ireland. I called that report racing on the edge of the world.  And if you’ve swum on the edge of the world, where else is next to swim, but over the edge.

12 miles out
The edge of the know world-  Skellig Beag on the left, Skellig Mor (Big Skellig) on the right. Best on large view.

This is a two-part post, not because it’s a long or complex swim, but because the islands and nearby coast are so spectacular and such a favourite of mine that the post deserves due photographic attention.

Caherciveen statue of the Skelligs monks
Caherciveen statue of the Skelligs monks

Dee and I are regular visitors to Kerry and in particular to that part known as The Ring of Kerry, a loop of spectacular scenery that runs around the Iveragh Peninsula.  Ireland has many problems but a lack of spectacular scenery is not amongst them and the Ring of Kerry is amongst the best, and the southern-most coastal area of The Ring is my favourite place in the world and the greatest jewel in the crown of Kerry is the World Heritage site of the Skellig Michael aka Skellig Mór,  the “Big Skellig” of the pair of islands.

The Skelligs from Bolus Head

It was first settled by hermetic Christian monks sometime around the 6th or 7th Century and lies 12 miles of the south west coast, at the nearest edge of the Continental shelf. The peak rises steeply from 100 metres depth to 218 metres ( over 700 feet) of sheer rock, not a square centimetre of which was then flat. It was reached by monks in woollen habits rowing the traditional tar and hide covered rowing boats called Acuras, still around today as traditional craft, right off what was then the edge of the world. Over decades they hewed steps into the rock face, built stone Beehive huts as habitation just underneath the peak, and hauled seaweed from the rocks to make a couple of fields  that are only the size of a medium car.

All that lay around and beyond was the terrible Atlantic and the fabled Land of Eternal Youth, Tir-na-nOg. Visiting the Skelligs is an extraordinary experience. Skellig Micheal is open to a limited number of  public visitors for about four hours a day, who get there through via a restricted and licensed number of boats that are often booked a week in advance. Its offshore exposed and deep location has it sitting right in the path of regular open Atlantic swell and even in good weather the island can be impossible to land on.

Skellig Dream – (also best viewed on large)

Back in 2006 we were visiting the island, in the early days of my open water swimming, and I decided to swim off the rock (never travel anywhere without briefs, hat and goggles). It was fun, scary and made me want to swim around the island. I’d looked into organising it, but it would be complex and very expensive for a swim that was at most three kilometres long. The tide would have to be slack out at the island, with reasonable water and I’d need to pay a boat for the 24 mile round trip and waiting time, at whatever rate they might normally get for a charter.  I put it on the long finger. Beginish Island Swim co-organiser Tim Poullain-Patterson did organise a swim in 2011 for a local charity, but even for someone living locally, it was unable to go ahead for two years due to the aforementioned constraints.

Last week, while Observing a record-breaking swim in Kerry, on which Tim was support kayaker, I discovered he had finally found the weather window he needed to complete the swim and I blagged my way onto it and we arrived in Knightstown the evening before the swim at the tail-end of a spectacular week of Irish weather, the best in a decade, my second visit of the week to paradise.

Skellig from the World War II Bray head tower.
Skellig from the World War II Bray head tower.

We walked out the trail to the Second World War coastal watch-tower on Bray Head, strolled around the village, ate scallops at the scallop festival in the village and later watched the Sun sink into the Atlantic beyond the Blaskett Islands off the end of the Dingle Peninsula from the summit of Geokaun Mountain. Another day in paradise.

Vivid Blaskett sunset_MG_6881-resized
Sun setting behind the Blaskett islands, north of the Skelligs, (& uninhabited since the 1950s) from Valentia Island

Sunday dawned cloudy. Fog and cloud in coastal Kerry is ubiquitous, and we hoped it would burn off by swim start. The breeze was up from the previous  day and we drove to Cromwell Point lighthouse on the north side of Valentia Island to look at the water, which was displaying the occasional whitecaps of a light Force Three wind.

Portmagee to Valentia Bridge
Portmagee to Valentia Bridge

There would be more water movement out at the Skelligs. Departure time was 11 am at Portmagee, the village on the mainland that is linked by bridge to Valentia island and Dee and I, due to my late addition to the swim, would travel out on the support fishing boat carrying three kayaks, the rest of the twenty swimmers to travel out on large ribs from Portmagee and Ballinscelligs on the south side of the Iveragh peninsula.

Cromwell Point lighthouse
Cromwell Point lighthouse at sunset- north side of Valentia Island

On to Part Two and the actual swim.

A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 1 – Dover Harbour

Dover shingle
Dover shingle

Like my previous guide to swimming in Sandycove, there are people who live in Dover and swim there (far) more regularly than I. But also like that post, in the absence of any of the people from either place writing about the respective locations, my articles will hopefully suffice and provide some useful information for some of you.

Dover is, and likely always will be the centre of the open water swimming world, as it was the starting point for Captain Webb’s first crossing and is still to this day the launching point for the world’s most famous swim. As such it fills the place that Katmandu and Chamonix do for climbers, or Wellington for Antarctic explorers. These are locations where like-minded individuals can bump in each other in the street, on the beach or mountains, or in the pub.

Dover is a port town, the port town in British history, and is a mix of history and modern transient commerce and social deprivation. It is also the place of swimmers and for many visiting Dover may have a Channel solo or relay booked and be down for a training swim or a reconnaissance or of course their actual swim window, or just want to swim in such a famous location.

This will be a three-part post; Part One about swimming in Dover and Part Two will about Varne Ridge Caravan Park, and the Part Three will be general information about Dover and the region that might be helpful for those visiting.

The swimmers in Dover_MG_1663.resized
The Swimmers art work on Dover esplanade

The picturesque white Edwardian building along the esplanade belie the visual aspects of most of the rest of Dover, and in the sunlight the area is very pretty and well maintained. The area is paid parking seven days a week from 9am to 6pm with parking ticket dispensers situated regularly along both side of the road.

Dover esplanade south -resized

Swimming in Dover Harbour is generally done by Channel swimmers, aspirants and crew from Swimmer’s Beach on the north-east end of the beach, which is the left end of the beach facing out to sea, bounded by the first concrete breakwater.

First time visitors may often feel intimidated and change at the Bus Shelter twenty-five metres up on the esplanade, however it is fine to just jump into the group and have a chat, as that is what many of the group are also doing. With weekly tide windows many of the people visiting will also only be there a short while, and the conversations and casual meetings and chats on Swimmer’s beach are for me anyway, the very high point of Dover. You never know whom you will meet, whether it’s King of the Channel Kevin Murphy, Big Love Nick CS&PF President Adams or Jackie Cobell, or someone from Ireland…

Irish (Sandycove) Channel swimmers at swimmers beach: Rob Bohane, Ciaran Byrne, Craig Morrison and Mr Supercrew the other Ciaran (O'Connor).
Irish (Sandycove) Channel swimmers at swimmers beach: Rob Bohane, Ciaran Byrne, Craig Morrison and Mr Supercrew the other Ciaran (O’Connor). There’s nowhere to put your bags while swimming.

During the summer season from early May until about mid September, solo and relay swimmers train every Saturday and Sunday morning from Swimmer’s Beach. Swim training is carried out under the watchful eyes of Channel General Freda Streeter and her crew of lieutenants Barrie the Shingle Stomper, Irene and Michelle.

Swimmer training in Dover DSCF3042 cropped-resizedChannel training is open to all swimmers of either persuasion, i.e. CS&PF or CSA, but does require a small fee for the season which will cover all the Maxim you can swallow and solo swimmers usually start at 9am while relay swimmers start at 10am. Occasional swimmers who wish to join the group still must pay a small fee.

If you don’t want to show up for the early morning training you can of course swim at any time and Swimmer’s beach is still the usual starting point.

Dover ferry_MG_1671-resized
Ferries also enter through the harbour wall as well as entries to the north and south.

There are three very important things to note about Dover beach:

  • The large tidal range of the Channel
  • The steep beach is shingle not sand
  • The entire harbour in NOT open to swimmers

Dover Sandals IMG_0105_modified

Dover can and swimmers slipway DSCF4104-resizedCombine the first two factors and you will be entering the water at any point on a steep beach. At very low tide there is a sand bottom and climbing the shingle is a very uncomfortable or even painful experience at any time of the tide and sandals are essential, along with someone to throw them down to you or collect them. This is a lesson that once learned is rarely forgotten. There is a concrete and stone slipway to the right of Swimmers Beach which can also be used for entry and exit, but instead of rocky is extremely slippery and there is a railing that runs across the end that is often submerged, so great care should be taken when entering that way.

One of my favourite things about swimming in Dover, is the underwater sound of the stone shingle shifting and slipping.

Swim range marking on (north/left) Ferry Pier
Parallel white swim range marking on (north/left) Ferry Pier

Over the years tensions about possible hazards and safety issues between Dover Authorities and swimmers was reduced by the introduction of an allowed range for swimmers in the Harbour. This outer limit of this range is marked by a pair of parallel white lines on the ferry and Prince of Wales piers. These can be seen from land but from either side of the harbour. There are two different signs indicating range but they don’t entirely agree as one is older.

Outside swim range markings on the Prince of Wales pier
Parallel outside swim range markings on the Prince of Wales pier. The clock-tower is out of view to the right from this angle.

The easiest way when heading to the north (left) end of the harbour is to aim for the corner between the esplanade and the pier. At the south (right) end the Harbour Clock-tower roughly marks the range and is easy to see except in late afternoon when you can just swim toward the Sun. The safe way to link these points is swim a fixed distance from the shore as it curves around from North-east to South-west.

Most of Dover Harbour from Dover Castle
Most of Dover Harbour from Dover Castle

The water in Dover Harbour is generally murky.  On occasion it can be impossible to see your hands, or even your upper arms. It is also very salty which can certainly require some adjustment and having some liquids ready after swimming is essential.

There is no fixed direction as swimmers can approach the beach from either direction. Swimmers usually swim the full range from pier to pier and care should be given to sight forward regularly to avoid head-on collisions. There are also marking poles (cans) along the beach section which protrude above high tide that should be avoided at the bottom end of beach retaining groins running down the shingle into the water.

The shingle beach, groins, cans, clocktower & pier.
The shingle beach, groins, cans, clock tower & pier at low  tide.

Despite the long piers and outer harbour wall protecting the harbour, because of the size of the entire harbour, strong winds can buffet the beach and result in unswimmable conditions. South-westerly winds cam cause the notorious (to anyone who has swim them) washing machine conditions at the north (ferry) side of the harbour and significant reflected waves result from both the ferry pier and the esplanade resulting in interesting swimming.

Outside of swimming range delineated by red line
Outside of swimming range delineated by red line – click for larger

The harbour is also used for rowing and dingy sailing and training. The only time I’ve seen a jet ski enter it was rapidly removed by Dover Harbour Police, though I am unsure of the regulations surrounding powercraft, I believe they are not allowed within the wider recreational area. (Dover is also the only port in the UK with its own dedicated police force, separate from the local police force).

The Captain Webb memorial is north of Swimmer’s Beach on the far side of the road , instead of logically in front of the sea.

During the summer months the Sport Complex at the far end of the beach from Swimmer’s Beach is open for showers and lockers for swimmers, (but I don’t know the cost or time limitations as I’ve never used it).

Steep stone banks-resized
The steep shingle at Swimmer’s Beach

An introduction to swimming at Sandycove – Part 2

Part 1.

The first few hundred metres out to the first corner are the most shallow and generally considered difficult swimming on a low tide due to heavy tough seaweed. Around the fourth (nearest to slipway) corner is also very shallow and can require a long detour if approached from the third corner on a multi-lap swim.

feeds on Finbarr's beach during 2012 Distance Week's  final English Channel qualifying swim

Directly across from the slipway is a small sandy beach known to local swimmers as Finbarr’s beach after Finbarr Hedderman, who was first to start using it as a feed location during his English Channel training, a practice now common to all of the local distance swimmers, and swimmers swimming out to the island towing feed boxes behind then has raised an occasional eyebrows amongst tourists.

First corner at dropping  tide

If you have not swum regularly in Ireland or the UK, it’s important to note the tidal range, which ranges from the lowest, which rises about 3.3 metres above a ocean mean of zero, on a low neap tide, to almost six metres on a high spring tide . This tidal range has a number of implications, the first of which is that already mentioned of the much-reduced swim range on the first stretch the inside of the between the slipway and the first corner. Next is the  variation in distance around the island from low to high tide of two to three hundred metres. Navigation of the first and second and fourth corners changes significantly. The first corner particularly is a jumble of reefs submerged or exposed by different degrees during the tide with many rocks all around the actual reef of the corner. Only significant experience around the island combined with an indifference to contact and probable lacerations will allow safe navigation through these.

The second corner is a sloping terraced reef on the approach which splays out in ridges as the corner is passed. Lacking the local experience it is best to swim wide around the first and second corners.

Leading side of Second Corner as seen from the island

The island is generally described as kidney-shaped, as seen in the map. Even so locals describe it as having four sides, two short (the near and far sides) and two long (inside and outside).  and personal preference and speed dictates how the outside is swum. Whether close in to take a longer line, wide to avoid wave reflection off the island on lumpy days or straight to the second corner for the shortest line. Taking the straight line takes practice as initially it is difficult to see the line. Taking a close line results in swimming very close to into the terraced reefs which jut out into the sea at all tides. The second corner is the corner most likely to cause injury and is the one most exposed to incoming waves and swell. Most local swimmers will attest to injuries from trying to see how tight to the corner they can go, and many swimmers who get it wrong and end up on actually the reef including locals and visitors.

Yacht moored in the Sandycove estuary beside third corner
Yacht moored in the Sandycove estuary beside third corner

Crab and lobster pots are occasionally placed on the outside of the island and it is possible to swim into submerged lines. The far side can be deceptive as in direct sunlight it is possible to swim into or even behind more reefs, but it is also one of the two location’s on an island location most likely to be slightly warmer. The third corner which leads around onto the inside is straightforward for swimmer and it’s possible to swim fairly close on most tides. It is al important to note that boats, both powered and sail, that come out from Kinsale often power into the cove to berth and great care should be given to the real possibility of unfamiliar boats running over swimmers on the third and inside sides. For single laps, having come around the third corner there is a long straight to the slipway. the well-known Red House (well known to anyone who knows anything about Sandycove Island that is is to the right. The Red House is also visible through the gap from many miles up the coast to the west). The best way to head for the slipway is a matter of debate and personal preference and can be critical in races and is also one way for the most experienced multi-lapper 500 and 100 to excel.

Morning view from the outside west entrance with the sun in the east. The slipway is on the left, some of the reefs at the first corner are appearing and the tide is dropping toward low.

There are boat moorings between the Red House and the island and during summer months boats are regularly moored here. For multiple laps the line to the fourth corner is straight but the lower the tide the wider the line that must be taken to get around the fourth corner or the swimmer will either swim onto sand or into the reef just past the corner, another long outward leading and mostly submerged reef which most multi-lap swimmers have swum directly into at some point. On lowest tides swell can wrap entirely around the island and produce small clean breakers inside the fourth corner.

Sandycove Island from Google Earth high-res (annotated)
Click for better detail. Major landmarks and hazards indicated

There are other wrinkles to swimming around Sandycove Island that come with time and experience. The best way to learn those is to swim with locals.

Swimming a new location: Ardmore & the wreck of the Samson

Regular readers will know from past posts such as Ballymacaw, Portally, and Whiting Bay that when I am swimming a new location by myself, I try to understand as much as I can before I get in the water. When swimming a new location, it’s always well to remember my safety motto: The best safety decisions are made outside of the water.

Ardmore is a small and very pictureesque seaside village in west Waterford. It has previously won Ireland’s Tidyiest Village awards on a few occasions, and was the site of Ireland’s first Christian monastery 1700 years or so ago. The village is nestled into the west side of the bay under Ram Head, to provide protection from the prevailing south-westerly winds. Ardmore literally means the big height. The bay itself is shallow and there is no protective natural boat harbour (apart from a small concrete pier, with water too shallow for fishing or large boats).

It was a public holiday weekend and the Sun was shining and the day was warm. That’s consequential. We’ve had no summer to speak of for a couple of years and have just exited the coldest and most protracted spring in over sixty years. Meteorological reports of 2012 showed it started raining in early June and there was NO sunshine after that. Cold, wet and grim. Sunshine is therefore the rarest treat.

Ardmore to Samson

Ardmore is about an hour away from home, a bit too far for regular open water swimming trips. I wanted to take a close look at the route again before I’d swim it later in the summer. The potential swim is out of the shallow bay out along to the headland where it’s possible to climb down the rocks which are a popular sea angling location, around the headland and past another to the slight cove with the wreck, about 700 metres further.

Refraction patterns. Click for large.
Refraction patterns. Click for large.

From above on the cliff, with a light Force two breeze the water surface was merely rippley. The south westerly breeze was creating interesting refraction patterns around the headland. The cove which contains the Samson is slightly more protected by another headland and the wreck itself if at the cliff base. A protected path runs in a large circle past the Cliff House hotel, past the ruins of St. Declan’s Monastery, around the outside headland past the World Ward II (The Emergency as it was known in Ireland) around the back of the town past the Round Tower from the days of Viking depredations.

St Declan's _MG_4567-resized

Every indication for a swim that day was good, rather than waiting a future uncertain day. Though still cool the water had been 11 degrees in Sandycove the previous day for five laps of the island, about 8,000 metres. Out to the Samson and back was only about 3,200 metres. The day was very warm for Ireland, about 20 degrees. The sky was cloudless and during early afternoon the Sun was shining with no clouds along the whole course. Two anglers fishing off kayaks in two different locations didn’t seem to be drifting so there was no visible strong current. With the cliff path, Dee would be able to keep an eye on me for the entire swim for once and even get some photos. It seemed almost a perfect day. If it wasn’t for the jetskiis towing boarders around the moorings under the hotel. Why these exploratory swims seem to coincide with jetskiis…

We moved the car down to the slipway and I quickly grabbed a chocolate bar as a pre-swim snack. My final instructions to Dee, since I’d had a good look at the water included a 90 minute cutoff.

Donal IMG_4624.resized

I entered the flat cool water, about the same temperature as Sandycove the previous day. Dee would have to walk back up the hill, pass the hotel and out onto the cliff path.

I was past the hotel quickly and through the buoy moorings. I stopped after ten minutes to see if I could see Dee on the path. Not wearing my glasses and there’s being plenty of people walking, I couldn’t see her. I swam on and stopped before the headland, when I could see someone frantically rushing. For once I’d managed to travel quicker. I didn’t swim as close to the rocks as I’d expected due to the presence of a few sea anglers. I could see constant interest from people stopping on the cliff.

Dual lines IMG_4643.resized
Divergent wake lines

As soon as I rounded the headland, there was a bit of swell, only about half a metre though and I didn’t feel slowed down. The photo though is interesting, showing divergent wakes behind me, one from swimming, one from wave interference.  The glare was stronger and I couldn’t see anything in front of me but I knew I only had to pass the next surface rocks to reach the wreck cove. Another ten minutes and I was only able to make out the wreck by removing my goggles. I decided to approach from the far side to reduce the glare and I was at the wreck at about thirty-five minutes from the slipway. The path above the wreck is further inland due to a steep slope down, and I’d told Dee she would have to stay a couple of hundred metres back on the path to see me.

The wreck. Mine Head, site of Ireland's highest lighthouse is in the far distance.
Remains of the Samson. Mine Head, site of Ireland’s highest lighthouse is in the far distance.

The Samson was a crane barge. In December of 1987 it was being towed from Liverpool to Malta when a storm cut her loose with two crew from her tugboat off the Welsh coast. the crew were rescued and she eventually crashed a couple of hundred miles away on the Ram Head rocks and has been rusting away ever since.

Cruising In IMG_4782.resized

Under the cliff’s shelter the water was clear and cold and the direct overhead Sun made in-water photographs difficult.  There are some interesting looking caves for future swims.

Samson wreck

I spent about five minutes swimming around and taking shots as I cooled and then I struck out for the return.

Samson wreck underwater
Samson wreck underwater

After I rounded the angling rocks again, the flatness of the water was a rare treat and I sprinted for the slipway, an uneventful final stretch and I cruised onto the beach after 65 minutes, about 30 seconds ahead of Dee.

Donal swimming back from Samson in Ardmore-resized

Half-arsing transition week

In 2010 during English Channel training Coach Eilís imposed certain strictures and deadlines. One of these was that on the first week of May  we would swap from primarily pool training to primarily sea training.


May. It’s a word and name laden with the promise of summer. In Ireland and the UK may is also the name for blackthorn trees which cover the landscape, and are one of the primary trees which appear especially in hedges. (The old saying Cast not a clout ’til May is out, is often a misunderstanding, that the May referred to therein is the month when it is actually the tree. It means to not remove winter clothing until the blackthorn has blossomed). But for swimmers May can mean warming air temperatures but can also mean lingering bone-chilling cold water.

Sea pinks and vetch on the Newtown cliffs
Sea pinks and vetch on the Newtown cliffs

The days of short winter weekend 10 to 20 minutes swims are over as swimmers feel they have to start lengthening out their training times.

In 2010 the training schedule called for an hour on the first day. And that time to increase every subsequent day. The first hour was done on Sunday, the temperature was ten degrees. The second day I swam one hour and ten minutes and was moderately hypothermic, not remembering a conversation I had with one of the Guillamenes locals afterwards. Each subsequent day became harder and my times never got any longer. By Thursday I cracked, phoning Eilís and, shall we say, haranguing her.

I’ve thought of the first week of May ever since as Transition Week and I think it is the toughest week of training of the year for Sandycove Channel Aspirants. Each day is slightly tougher, each day’s cold bites a bit deeper and lasts a bit longer, and each day’s recovery takes a bit more from your reserves.

I didn’t do Transition week last year and this year I had no plans to do it until, deep shock, we actually got some sunshine on the May Holiday weekend and the tides were lining up nicely. So I decided to half-arse it. By which I mean I wouldn’t do anywhere the same amount of swim time, but I’d have a go at trying to get a swim each evening.


I started at Kilfarrassey on Saturday. The tide was high late morning and the wind was onshore. It was a longer than usual lumpy swim out to the far side of Burke’s Island where it was too rough to swim in the centre channel or through the arch. I was back at the beach after about 45 minutes and a bit chilly.

On Sunday I swam at Ballymacaw, as you’ve already seen, about the same time. But due to the cold water outside I got a bit colder.

On Monday evening I swam to Tramore Pier, just around high tide. The water was a bit choppy, the swim down took 18 minutes and the swim back against the tide took 32. I’m so used the location that I forget that it can actually display an adverse tidal current at high tide on an onshore wind. Total time was 50 minutes but I wasn’t very cold.

Tuesday evening I swam out to the Metalman, second of my usual swims in the bay. The other include under Doneraile Head and back, the beach and back, or the Tramore Bay Double, Guillamenes to beach to Guillamenes. Conditions were still choppy and the evening was cloudy and cooler. I only swam 45 minutes.

Looking over to the Guillamenes in rough water

Throughout Wednesday the winds were building, but they were south-westerly so I hoped for some shelter from Great Newtown Head. However conditions were quite rough, with about a three metre swell. I love swimming in swell, even if, as was the case there was chop on top of the swell, but as I’ve said previously, the exit in choppy conditions is usually the most dangerous time in rough water. If the water is surging up the ladder and steps more than about six feet I forego the pleasure in favour of safety but this evening displayed the exception makes rule to my own safety rules. Because high tide was now in the evening, and it was also a spring tide with a strong onshore the water was washing up to the top of the steps. I timed the swell for ten minutes and found a period of about 10 to 12 seconds, despite the onshore wind.

Gorse and pinks on the cliff above an unswimmable Newtown Cove
Gorse and pinks on the cliff above an unswimmable Newtown Cove

I went back to the cliff top and looked at Newtown Cove just in case, but it was an unswimmable whitewater maelstrom and anyone trying to get back into the cove from outside was asking to be shredded on reefs. I returned to the Guillamenes and got changed. I very gingerly but still trying to be brisk used the railing to make it to the dropoff and threw myself extremely ungracefully into a gap. I swam very wide around the outside, heading east toward Powerstown Head for 50 t 75 metres before swinging south and down into the washing machine. This is the area directly outside Newtown Cove, along which runs a reef perpendicular to the coast which cause larger waves passing over it to rear up steeply, but usually not break. Swimming through or avoiding the washing machine was one of the early peculiarities I learned about Tramore Bay. I sat in the water and tried to take a few photos, and shot some video, just for fun and swam a few circles. In these conditions I was very wary about changes to the swell period or height that wouldn’t be apparent to me in the water so I didn’t want to stay out long. After 15 minutes I was back at the cove and I carefully watched a few waves while I set my position; not too close to the steel railings to be washed on the or the rocks right beside, not too far to make it in quickly. I darted in swimming well over the steel railings usually and grabbing the left side, trying to get braced before the next wave washed around the platform and across the steps. It was close, my footing was taken but because I was the seaward side of the railings being pushed onto them I was still braced. Had I grabbed the railings on the inside or on the right side, I could have been ripped off. Sharply to my feet again and out. A very short but fun swim.

What a 3 metre swell at the the Guillamenes looks like in the water
What a 3 metre swell at the Guillamenes looks like in the water

Thursday’s winds were even stronger and ended the hoped-for seven days of sea swimming. Not a huge amount of swimming, but it was a fun start to the summer swimming. (Not a single jellyfish yet seen, which is becoming increasingly strange. I’m beginning to worry they might be preparing an ambush).

And so I call it “half-arsing transition week”.

Ballymacaw – Swimming a new location 2

I love swimming at my favourite places such as Kilfarassey, Sandycove and the Guillamenes. but I also love swimming at new places and there aren’t that many left to me on the Waterford Coast. It’s been some time since I did Project Copper Coast, swimming from Powerstown Head as far as Stradbally. There’s a gap of about two kilometres still unswum at Ballyvoyle Head, then all of Dungarvan Bay is swum (I hope to close that gap this year). There’s a long inaccessible stretch of coast with high cliffs from Helvick Head to Ardmore Bay, which stretch of coast is home to Ireland’s highest lighthouse at Mine Head and also still untackled apart from a couple of swims off Clare’s boat back in 2010. In 2011, I wrote a post on swimming a new location (Whiting Bay) and how I went about it, and this covers a similar theme of swimming a new location, but with different considerations.

Last year I travelled away from the Copper Coast closer to the Waterford Estuary, on the far (east) side of Tramore Bay and before Dunmore East, a less-travelled stretch of coast, and did an exploratory swim out of Portally Cove, where I discovered strong westerly currents running toward Dunmore East. 

The May Holiday weekend brought some very rare sun and a little bit of warmth, and a belief that I was finally recovering from a protracted chest infection. The water temperature seemed stable at around 10 degrees in Kilfarassey, so I decided I’d spent the day on the coast at the far side of Tramore Bay again.

Saleens warning sign
Saleens warning sign

We started the morning at the Saleens, the beach and channel at the east side of Tramore Bay. The channel separates the Back Bay, a tidal lagoon from the main bay and as such has a very strong current running through it.

From there we moved onward to Ballymacaw on the far side of Powerstown Head, which I’d only ever visited twice previously on a bad day and low tide. This occasion was a nice day, close to high tide. Like Portally, Ballymacaw is another tiny narrow and short high-sided cove, on the west side of the estuary but away from any  main road. If you remember, tidal range here in Ireland is about 5 metres average so at low tide both Portally and Ballymacaw Coves are almost dry and at high tide the coves are completely flooded. Prior to swimming Dee and I walked the path through the dense gorse bushes out to the old slipway, and then out beyond the cove entry for a good look outside the cove. Eastwards the next headland is Swines Head, to where I had swum from out of Portally. West from Ballymacaw is toward Powerstown Head and inaccessible from land, though the coast and cliffs are typically only about five to ten metres high, there are no roads.

Ballymacaw Cove
Ballymacaw Cove & the old slipway – (the new lens Polarizer is working out!)

The wind was fresh, about Force Three and there was plenty of movement in the water. With still cool water, it was earlier than usually to be doing an exploratory swim so it would need to be short. Not least because with my weight loss and less exposure training than usually, I’ve lost some of my hardening and feeling 45 minutes is about enough currently without wanting to push hard into a colder state. For this short exploratory swim at a new location, I had a number of things to evaluate and weigh beforehand

  • Swimming time
  • Currents
  • Rocks
  • Water state (roughness)
  • Wind direction
East from Ballymacaw to Swines Head
Looking east from Ballymacaw to Swines Head

Our walk out to the cliff outside the cove entrance gave a good view of the coast on either side. Also the water state of the sea and a good look at the rough water around the cove entrance. The cove itself was completely flat but right at the ten to fifteen metre-wide entrance there was a lot of movement in the water and reefs just visibly breaking the surface on the west side. The sea outside the cove had plenty of onshore wind, blowing south-westerly onto shore at a slight angle and the water was very choppy though with no big swell. Chop waves were one to two metres high.

Ballymacaw Cove entrance
Ballymacaw Cove entrance and the old slipway

Back at the car, I changed and explained my plan to Dee. The cove is about 300 metres long at high tide, it might take me four to five minutes to reach the entrance and the rough water at which point I would disappear from her view. With the wind blowing onshore but with a slight westerly element, I would swim into the chop. It was high tide, and though most people don’t believe me, high on the Waterford coast is NOT slack tide and I knew the tidal current would still be running east, though I couldn’t estimate any local eddy current effects which would run anti-clockwise. I also knew that there had been strong westerly currents from the west moving in this direction previously when I’d swum out of Portally and I would always choose to swim into an unknown current when heading out. The obvious rationale is that I don’t want to get carried too far away from a starting place by a strong current, and possibly have too difficult a swim back while getting cold.

So I would swim west for 15 minutes after leaving the cove, evaluating travelled distance as I went. If there was no current I would be then have 15 minutes back, plus another few minutes getting back to the beach, 40 minutes total. I wear a watch always when swimming open water so I’d be able to judge. Dee asked at what point should she start worrying, so I said 45 minutes, at which point she could walk up on the path to give her a better chance to see me.

As I was about to get ready a couple of guys were also getting changed into scuba gear. They were somewhat familiar with the cove, and indicated no items of concern, except a steep drop-off to 10 metres at the eastern exit of the cove and a consequent sharp drop in temperature. Just before I was ready to get in however, the worst of all possible arrivals, appeared in the bay: Three jetskis. Even in the flat water of the cove I didn’t want to risk getting in so I got back in the car. The jetskis tied up to the outside old slipway, and the guys came inland along the winding gorse path. they could only have come out of Dunmore East, the only possible water entrance for many miles. They came along the path, obviously heading for the pub near the cove. I had a chat and let them know I was heading out and there were already divers out there. They were nicer chaps but while I can’t be certain they were going for a drink, there was no-where else to go on that road and drinking and being on jetski isn’t illegal here, as far as I know. Another reason to add to my nervousness about jetskis.

Ballymacaw angler
Ballymacaw angler

It’s a very long lead-in for a short swim. As expected I reached the cove entrance after four and half minutes and immediately hit a line of choppy water. Just under the surface was a long reef reaching out from the west side of the entrance. I passed an angler who was positioned on rocks at the est side of the entrance and headed westward. The chop was coming south-westerly with the wind, about a metre and a half high. The jetskiers had warned me it was “big out there”. One a half metres of chop isn’t big, just messy and slow. After fifteen of grinding through it, I had travelled the glorious distance of maybe 400 metres! The westerly tidal current I’d expected was running strong. I released Duck #4 and turned back to the Cove entrance, impossible to see from seaward unless you are directly in front and close. The swim that had taken 15 minutes out took 5 minutes back!

Ballymacaw Cove entrance
Ballymacaw Cove entrance from the sea

Getting into the cove was quick over the reefs with the waves at the reef entrance providing a quick surf into calm water. I’d had been 30 minutes, so I swam to the beach in the warmer water at the high tide mark, and turned back for a couple of laps. I’d forgotten how tough it was to swim out of water that had helped you recover from much colder water. Warm water  feels nice…if you are not leaving it for cold water. Swimming back out the cove was brutal. The warmer water had restarted my circulation so I had inadvertently initiated Afterdrop, cooling faster, and now I was hit by colder water again. I lasted another 10 minutes  before I I was out of the water.

But the purpose of the swim, an initial scouting swim at a new relatively unknown location, though short, was successful. I’d like to stress that when swimming a new location, having a plan, an understanding of the constraints and possible problems and an idea of how to approach it, are all important.

I repeat that tides are a vital consideration for many locations and a solid understanding is essential for safety and swimming new locations in tidal areas. 

Sea pinks against the sky. yes, it's time for me to start taking lots of photos of sea pinks again.
Sea pinks against the sky. Yes, it’s the time of year for me to start taking lots of photos of sea pinks again.

Spring is swum

Real spring arrived most tentatively and late in Ireland this year, following the coldest early spring in 50 years. The water has been cold at its usual lowest point in late February, but recovery from the bottom took longer to occur than usual and many of the coldest days swimming have occurred after the normal coldest point of the year.

My swim times have stayed short, shorter than in a few years, swimmers have widely been commenting about the combination of cold water and cold air making weekend open water swims difficult and brief, not complaints often heard amongst Ireland’s experienced cold water swimmers.

But finally, only two weeks, the northerly air flow shifted away and temperatures moved about low single digits.


This prompted my first visit of the year to Sandycove. How did it get so late? Only a week previously the water temperature in Tramore Bay had still been only seven degrees, but the Sandycove visit provided a lovely ten degrees. Having been ill with a chest infection for a few weeks, I’d approached the swim with slight trepidation (the only time I’ve ever thought I might have a problem with a lap) but on measuring the warm water that concern disappeared and Owen, Dave Mulcahy and I each cruised around for a pleasant sunny lap, Owen being faster was first around and utilizing his new Finis GPS for a map of a standard high-tide island lap. Some chat was had afterwards, with Mike Harris and Ned Denison out for a visit also. Ned indicated that he wouldn’t be integrating my suggested Copper Coast swim into this year’s Cork Distance Camp, “as it doesn’t suit“, whatever that means. I’ll just have to get some of the swimmers over myself!

Saturday just gone was also a mild sunny day, with light fresh northerly breeze not being too cold and therefore ideal for jellyfish-hunting. This is what I call my early spring loops of Kilfarassey’s Burke’s Island. I abandon Kilfarassey’s playground except for beach walking during the winter months as its southerly aspect is too exposed for the depth of winter and I can look forward to returning to it with increasing anticipation as spring progresses. With a light offshore and a sunny sky, the island, whose nearest point is only about ten minutes away, looked inviting. The tide was low, just off a spring and the guard-line of reefs that separate the island from the mainland were showing.

Burke's Island
Burke’s Island, low tide, offshore

I was concerned that Waterford’s deeper and more exposed water, almost always colder and slower to respond than Cork’s, despite being only about 60 miles apart, would still be only seven to eight degrees, but it was also ten degrees in the sun-warmed beach-edge water of Kilfarrassey, I doubt the Guillamene’s deeper water would have so improved.

It’s a shallow entry, and as I waded in there was a horse being ridden out in the shallows, the rider looking askance at me. The island and a string of reefs protect the beach, but once past the half-way point of the island the water depth starts to drop and I swum counter-clockwise around the outermost reefs, stirring up all the sea-birds who are far out from the mainland and therefore unused to much human traffic excepting the occasional kayakers or local fisherman. As I passed the island the temperature gradually dropped, and I guess the water around the island was about nine degrees.

The channels at the back of the reefs & island – my playground

Apart from the main island, there are actually lots of reefs and rocks and I swam into the main channel at the back of the island through many of these, my secret playground. The tide had now bottomed and heavy kelp was visible above the water. The first sea-anemones I’ve seen this year were visible on a couple of the deeper rocks and the water was crystal clear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd what would a day to Kilfarassey be without a swim through my favourite arch, which I’ve termed the keyhole, about 25 metres long and always fun even on a calm day, though narrowest at low tide.

Kilfarassey is the location where I see (and suffer) jellyfish the most, it’s exposed and deep enough with enough calm pockets, reefs, currents and caves to hold many of them in place, but there were no jellyfish this day. The first jellyfish scouting expedition returned without a single one encountered, but it won’t be long now before our annual battles begin.

The swim was only forty minutes. But forty minutes of cold, clear heaven. Forty minutes where for the first time in weeks I felt I was where I was supposed to be, the first place where I’d felt truly and utterly free for some time, when I remembered that I started this blog over three years ago by exhorting you all to seek freedom. I write about the safe way to swim, the educated way to swim and I write about the mechanics. But it is this sense of freedom that is so essential for my own psyche and so fundamental to my own reasons for swimming. In the water, outside the island, over half a mile from the mainland, that I am ineffably myself and in that place of so little control that I feel so much confidence.

Learning the sea at Doolin Bay & Crab Island

The Cliffs of Moher, (aka The Cliffs of Insanity in the Princess Bride movie)
The Cliffs of Moher, (aka The Cliffs of Insanity in the Princess Bride movie)

I want to take you on a trip out west. Not south-west to the island that you could expect, Sandycove Island. This time, it’s west to County Clare we go and a different but also special bay and island, another island that like Sanycove, many have seen but few have known and fewer have appreciated, a few of those whose hearts are given to the sea each in their own way; surfers, divers, and this one swimmer. Before the Copper Coast and Sandycove Island and the English Channel it’s the place where I learned the most about the sea, even though I was not often aware what I was learning.

First sight of Crab Island & Doolin Bay with a big swell
First sight of Crab Island & Doolin Bay with a big swell

Crab Island is on the west coast of Ireland, about 500 metres off Doolin Pier, in County Clare to be precise. The island itself is the remnant of the mainland,  If you know how to approach Doolin in the best way, taking the tiny back hill road from Lahinch over the hill, you will crawl along, carefully avoiding the occasional local inhabitant and/or surfer who knows this road. You climb up out of Lahinch, up the hills at the land side of the Cliffs of Moher, and half a mile before you cross the coast road, you will crest the hill. The spectacle of the Aran Islands, the Clare coast, outer Galway Bay, Doolin Bay and Point and Crab Island suddenly present themselves, no slow unveiling but a dramatic entrance.

Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars
Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars. Inissheer Island is on the horizon.

If the sea is in your heart and blood, and if a westerly Atlantic ground-swell is running, I cannot describe the sensation of excitement mixed with awe and fear, that the sight of the swell roaring off Crab and into Doolin Bay can bring, and that fear can only come from personal experience.

Crab Island (just Crab as it’s known) is legendary amongst Irish and a few of the world’s surfers. Big Crab describes when a westerly groundswell, originating in the western Atlantic or Caribbean hit the west coast, with an easterly off-shore wind, is a notoriously heavy wave with a technically difficult right-handed wave (which means it breaks from left to right as you ride it).

Breaking Crab, lethal at high tide
Breaking Crab, lethal at high tide

Crab can hold very big waves and regularly breaks boards and bodies. A heavy wave is a surfer’s description for a wave that has volume, front-to-back depth, and speed. The rest  would call it a serious or scary wave. Heavy waves can be moderately sized but generally these are the waves that grace the covers of surf magazines and that the surf companies use for their ads.

The notorious wave breaks on the outside of the tiny island onto a series of flat reefs, the only hint of mercy, though a hard rock is still a hard rock, and is impossible at high tide. A deeper channel separates the island and is the most usual access and exit, but when the swell is big enough, the wave outside the island can break the whole way across the channel.

The most obvious breaking wave, the one that grabs the attention of anyone land-side because of its closeness and immediacy is Doolin Peak, which breaks right in front on the limestone terraces. Standing in front of this wave is like standing in front of the ocean’s maw, where the ground can shake and even the landlubbers realise how insignificant we can be compared to the sea.

Doolin Point A July29 03 (cropped)
Doolin Point breaking big. Spring 1999

And then, south and left of the peak is Doolin beach and bay, more forgiving than Crab but which nonetheless can hold a big wave.

Doolin Point_MG_2364-resized

Holding a wave means that a  particular location will allow waves to break cleanly as the swell size grows. Most locations can’t hold a big wave, most beaches can’t hold a big swell as the bathymetry, (the shape of the sea bottom) transition is too gradual from deep to shallow. Reefs like Crab allow a sudden transition from deep to shallow, which increases power, speed and predictability.

Doolin beach
Doolin beach. Bigger than you think.

In recent years the discovery of one of Ireland’s two globally known tow-in wave spots, Aileens (discovered by Waterford surfer and Clare resident John McCarthy, the other being Mullaghmore in Sligo), only a few miles away under the Cliffs of Moher, has eclipsed Crab but only because for the media and the average viewer, big is the only measurement that counts.

But you should visit Crab Island if you can as soon as possible. Because as we all know, anything good in Ireland will be touched if not ruined by uncaring planning decisions, and there is a current proposal to extend the Aran Islands ferry pier to such an extent that it will threaten the existence of these famous waves and location by forcing backwash of the wall back into the breaks. Efforts to contest or change the proposal continue.

Cliffs of Moher from Doolin Point_MG_2404-resized
Cliffs of Moher seen from Doolin Point, their immense height not easily apparent

 What did I learn at Crab and Doolin over my years visiting?

  • I learned about ground-swell. Transatlantic, two thousand miles swell. Swell that reaches to the horizon.
  • I learned about waves so big and powerful and close that the dry land you are standing on quakes when they break.
  • I learned about a sound that I can never describe; a sound that is difficult to record, the sound that only comes with big swell. A sound that combines the wind, the muted roar of  breakers, the scrape of rocks on the sea bottom. A sound that is almost below sound, that you feel as much as you hear, but if you aren’t attuned to it, passes you by. 
  • I learned the effect that minute shifts of wind have on the sea state. Crab is notorious for requiring just the precise amount of wind, from just the right direction. Too strong and you can’t launch off the lip, any hint of south or north in the wind and Crab becomes impossible or blown-out.
  • I learned about being offshore. Paddling out on a board to get to somewhere dangerous at sea with no possibility of assistance. Sometimes even on a surf-board the paddle out could take twenty-five minutes due the heavy wash into the channel. From the main-land the island looks so close, from the break on the far side, the mainland looks so far away.
  • I learned limits. Crab was sometimes at the limits of my ability, often beyond and which it was on any given day I only found out when I was out there. I once surfed there for three hours, on my biggest board, on the biggest day I’d ever seen there, and only caught one wave. And that one wave still sometimes looms in my dreams.
  • I learned the terror of being at the top of a two storey high wave looking down, with rocks in front of you and a nuclear mushroom cloud of white water to your left and behind you. And you not sure your board is big enough or you can paddle fast enough or have the skill to go right, down the line and into the safety of the Channel. But it’s too late, and you have to commit, you have to commit 100% or you will be crushed.
  • I learned about being prepared for the sea, having once been slammed head first into the outside reef of the island by a big set wave as I was clambering across, and then dragged across the rocks, destroying the board, and surviving inly because I never surfed Crab without a helmet, that simple precaution saving my life.
  • I learned another time what it is like to be sure the sea is about to kill you and what it is like to be about to die, which all happened in a few seconds as I rode a big one into the Channel and then had a multiple wave hold-down..
  • I learned what it is like to then not die, to be spit out by the sea and to know you can never explain what those few seconds were like. Seconds that were valuable years later, seconds that came back when I was in the Channel, when people asked me what went through my mind when I was trapped under the pilot-boat. When all I can say is how bright the bottom of the boat and the sea was turquoise with sunlight gleaming in rays past the keel. When in truth I was also thinking about that green deep under the water at Crab that I knew would be the last thing I saw.
  • More than anywhere else, I learned to never step into the sea without respect for it in my heart, and even when it might not be conscious respect, Crab crashed it into my bones until it became part of me.
Swimming with a bottlenose dolpin at Doolin Pier
Swimming with a Bottlenose dolphin off Doolin Pier, yours truly in the orange cap, the scuba divers were a bit… surprised that I was in without a wetsuit. The water temp was 6.8C.

Recommended links

A Tour of Lough Hyne (

There’s no such thing as a freak wave (


A pictorial tour of my 2012 open water swimming locations

This post is now part the My Swimming Life, 2012 series.

I must start with the Guillamenes and Tramore Bay and Kilfarassey of course, my main swimming locations.  My usual range in Tramore Bay is between Newtown Head (under the pillars) to the beach, along the west side of the bay, most of the range seen in this first photo, with much less regular venturing across or out deep. (I also regularly leave the bay by passing around Great Newtown Head into Ronan’s Bay).

Tramore Bay
Tramore Bay, May 2012

Swimming range in Kilfarassey is mostly based around swimming out and around Brown’s island, Yellow Rock and the big arch. Once the water warms up I will up past Sheep Island.

Kilfarassey, August 2012
Kilfarassey to Sheep Island August 2012

Other locations on the Copper Coast: Bunmahon, Gararrus and Ballydowane. I didn’t, that I recall, swim at Kilmurrin, Ballyvooney or Stradbally this year. Funny how you just don’t make it to some places each year.

Tankardstown, past Bunmahon & to Tempevrick
Tankardstown, past Bunmahon (in behind the middle medium island) to Tempevrick
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island
Gararrus across to Sheep Island
Gararrus across to Sheep Island with Eagle Rock just visible behind

Clonea beach, but only a couple of times. I didn’t swim at Baile na Gall.

Clonea beach across Dungarvan Bay to Helvick Head, new Year's Day, 2013
Clonea beach across Dungarvan Bay, past Carricknamoan, to Helvick Head, New Year’s Day, 2013

Sandycove, Garrylucas, Ballycotton, Myrtleville and across Cork Harbour.

Sandycove panorama
Sandycove panorama, the first and fourth corners of the island to the Red House
Garrylucas, April 2012
Garrylucas, April 2012. Most boring photo of the year?
Ballycotton Lighthouse
Ballycotton Lighthouse
Myrtleville beach at dawn, Oct. 2012
Myrtleville beach at dawn, Oct. 2012
Roche's Point to Power Head
Roche’s Point to Power Head

Round Beginish Island, but I missed swimming at Derrynane, Finian’s Bay or Kells this year, which are usual Kerry locations for me most years.

Valentia Island and Sound panorama with Caherciveen bay and the small islands, July 2012
Valentia Island and Valentia Sound panorama, with Caherciveen bay and the small islands, July 2012

Kingsdale to Deal, Dover Harbour, and Cap Griz Nez.

Kingdale Beach
Evening on Kingdale Beach
Dover Harbour from Dover Castle, July 2012
Dover Harbour from Dover Castle, July 2012
Les Hennes to Cap Gris, July 2012, taken on one great day with good friends.
Wissant beach to Cap Gris nez, past the WWII bunkers, July 2012, taken on one great day with good friends.

Inishcarra, Coumshingaun and Bay Lough are the lakes I can recall swimming. First year not swimming in any of the Kerry lakes for a while.

Inishcarra reservoir
Inishcarra reservoir
Coumshingaun Lake panorama
Coumshingaun Lake panorama, Comeragh Mountains
Bay Lough
Bay Lough, Knockmealdown Mountians

And of course Coney Island’s Brighton Beach and Around Manhattan.

Brighton beach, Coney Island
Brighton beach, Coney Island
Lower Manhattan
Lower Manhattan

All photos are of course my own.


Lake swimming

I have an irregular Brazilian open water email correspondent who is a lake swimmer, and is too far from the sea to have ever been able to swim in the ocean. He writes about the wildlife he loves on the banks, the calm warm (high 20’s!) water and the serenity of lake swimming and can’t really get his head around the existence of jellyfish and cold water and why on earth we swim in such.

We see things differently. The biggest advantages of lake swimming for me are twofold: after May lakes are warmer than the sea, and secondly they are generally calmer. So it’s almost purely utilitarian for me, using lakes to supplement training, to take a break from rough and/or cold water, and to get a long swim in on a day when the sea might not otherwise comply.

I don’t actually have any decent sized lakes near me, Ballyscanlon Lough is only about 400 metres long.


So when a long lake swim is required the primary choice for the Sandycove swimmers is Inishcarra Reservoir on the Lee river. It’s a hydroelectric dam reservoir in the valley above Cork City. From the normal start it’s about 1600m to the usual turn point near the pump house, and a further 1100 metres to the dam itself if you require a longer swim, just so you can tumbleturn off the Dam.

The other popular choice is an anti-clockwise loop, since the lake is only about 700 metres wide this doesn’t add a lot of time between feeds.

Ciarán Byrne and I had a five-hour swim there last weekend, deciding to forego rough and cold in favour of a predictable location. We must be getting soft but frankly I’ve had enough of rough water swimming for the moment.

Lake swims start out nice, warm and calm. But in comparison to my Brazilian swim correspondent’s feelings, over a long swim I find them far less interesting. Fresh water at least means no sore throat as happens in the sea. But the water is darker so there’s less or nothing to see underwater and the loops and laps tend to be more monotonous. But most of all is the lack of buoyancy. I have no small sense of admiration for people doing 12 or 18 hour swims in lakes like Michigan, Memphremagog, Lough Ness.

After only four hours in a lake, my shoulders are getting heavy. My longest lake swim is six hours and my shoulders and arms were leaden afterwards due to the lack of buoyancy.

I have no plans to ever swim longer than six hours in a lake.

Lee Valley
Lots of thrift.resized

The Copper Coast: a Thrifty shore

Powerstown head from the Guillamenes

Sea Thrift that is, Armaria maritima, also known as sea pinks.

First thrift of 2012

Ireland’s Copper Coast has a lot of it, growing all along the coast on the cliff edges, in rock crevices and stony ground where nothing else grows.

Growing on otherwise clear stony rockfall

It’s a perennial which has a high drought and salt tolerance, in fact it seems to do best in the driest, most exposed locations, especially along cliff edges.

Faded Thrift on clifftop above Kilfarassey

Older plants will grow larger clumps of leaves and roots.

On top of a rock spire at entry to Gararrus

It’s apparently highly copper tolerant, and flourishes along the Copper Coast, and in fact if the Copper Coast were to have an icon flower it would have to be the thrift, which displays a subtle range of colour from pink to mauve and purple from plant to plant.

Its season is early summer, so the coast is rampant with it at the moment, one of the signs of summer for a south-east open water swimmer, water reaching 10 degrees Celsius, and passing the thrift on the steps down to the Guillamene.

When I think of it, and therefore the photographs I take, are as I most commonly see it, silhouetted against the sea or the sky, framing events in the sea, or faded but still present during the winter, and always standing against the onshore Atlantic winds.

Thrift & Sheep Island, sea, sky and flowers.

When you can appreciate thrift in such extraordinary scenery, why would you want to trap it in a domestic garden?

Thrift against sea and canoes at Kilfarassey

It seems I’ve taken a lot of pictures of thrift (there are 98 tagged in my library so far and many more I still want to take, so you can image it was difficult to choose just a few), from early season buds, to summer blooms and late season stragglers to dead winter flowers.

Winter Guillamenes thrift

Apparently … I love sea thrift.

Hook & reefs.resized

A visit to Hook Head

Hook Head is one of our favourite places in Ireland. I’ve been lucky enough to finally get a new halfway decent camera so I wanted to take a visit to the Hook for some long-hoped-for photos for the site. A long flat low bare almost treeless peninsula in the south-east, at the other side of the Suir-Nore-Barrow estuary, it stretches out into the Celtic Sea and at the end is Hook Lighthouse, reputedly the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. (You’ll have noticed by now that I have a thing for lighthouses). Unlike most lighthouses, there are actually public tours and inside the modern tower are the older walls of the 13th century tower

Estuary up toward Waterford from above Passage East

The fastest way to the Hook from Waterford is on the car ferry at Passage East, the trip across the estuary takes about 4 minutes.

Passage ferry

Just outside Duncannon is an old lighthouse for the inner estuary.

Duncannon Lighthouse (1774)

Halfway down the est side of the estuary is town of Duncannon which was used as a military Fort to protect the entry to the estuary.

Duncannon Windsurfer (taken on greyer day)

Duncannon beach is very popular with wind and kite surfers.

Duncannon Fort & Hook Lighthouse in the distance
Hook reefs


The currents round the Hook are pretty vicious and it catches a lot of very rough water, howling winds and big unsurfable waves. It’s also a great spot for whale watching.

Before the Hook on the west side is an old small fishing slip, with only mere nubs of rusted iron stakes left in the rocks, which is a nice walk where few of the visitors go.

There are some interesting blowholes in the rocks, with a northerly offshore wind and flat water that day, they weren’t providing any entertainment but I took some a very short video there previously.

The dogs like the area.

Scout on the reefs on the reefs
Lighthouse & buildings from the gate

The (probably apocryphal) story told locally is that that the phrase “by hook or by crook” derives from Hook Head, referring to Ireland’s historical bete-noir Oliver Cromwell who stated his intention to invade by Hook Head or by Crook Head, which is on the opposite side of the estuary.

Lighthouse from the road

The old residential buildings are used for a café and gift shop and children’s art gallery. The café serves the largest chunks of cheddar in their Ploughman’s Lunch!

Lighthouse from below the road
Hook lighthouse

Unsurprisingly for somewhere with a lighthouse, the area is surrounded by exposed reefs.

The dogs would happily stay playing around.

Time to go you say?

The first monastery (St. Dubhan’s) was built on the peninsula in the 5th Century AD and there are still remains of a later Church on the same site. In Irish the Hook peninsula is actually named after this Church.

Dubhan's Church

There’s a great view of the whole estuary, and the western bank including  Crook Head, Dunmore east, Creaghan Head, Woodstown and Passage East.

Waterford to Passage East to Dunmore & Crook Head (size has been reduced so it loads quickly)

When we got home Toby would have stayed in the car. He loves the car.

Thinking of a visit? The Hook Lighthouse webcam is my favourite webcam.

Hook Head webcam.

Related articles:

HookHeritage website.

Lighthouses of the North Atlantic –

Sailing from Crosshaven to Dungarvan –

Tall Ships Waterford 2011 –

Passing Roche's Point

Sailing from Crosshaven & Cork Harbour to Dungarvan

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day on Clare’s Orcasailing from her over-wintering berth in Crosshaven (on the west side of Cork Harbour) back to Dungarvan. (Thanks Clare). Click all pics for larger sizes.

Leaving Crosshaven

Crosshaven is the home of the world’s oldest sailing club, RCYC.

Outside Crosshaven
Outside Crosshaven

Cork Harbour itself is considered the finest natural harbour in the islands of Ireland and Great Britain. Winston Churchill made a speech after  WWII telling the Irish people we were lucky he didn’t just take Cork Harbour. (Yeah, that’s one of the Churchill speeches that gets less publicity).

The Skipper
The Skipper

Each side of Cork Harbour is protected by old Forts.

Fort on west side of Cork Harbour

The day started out beautiful, sunny, blue skies and flat water. And no wind.

Approaching Roche's Point from inside Cork Harbour

Roche’s Point Lighthouse is famous as a Sea Area Weather Forecast location, and is situated on the east headland at the entry to Cork Harbour.

Spike island & Cobh

Cobh (pronounced cove) used to be known as Queenstown, famously the last port of the Titanic (Titanic 100 week there this week). Spike Island was a prison and is now one the three Triple Crown Of Prison Swims (Spike, Alcatraz, Robben) which only Ned Denison and Mike Harris of Sandycove and Gary Emich of San Francisco have completed.) The harbour is so large there are a few islands within it.

Exiting Cork Harbour

The water always seems to be choppy around the harbour entrance with strong currents running.

Roche’s Point Light is very pretty on a nice day.

In 2008, Danny Walsh, Eddie Irwin, Ned Denison, myself and Niall O’Cruallaich swam from Roche’s Point to Power Head, from a boat drop. Niall and myself swam most of the way back before the tide stopped us.

Roche's Point to Power Head (Power Head is the furthest away headland in the photo), Roche's Point is just behind)

Ballycroneen, home of Channel swimmers Liam Maher and Eddie Irwin, is on the next stretch of coast after Power Head.


The Magnificent Seven did a 5 hour swim here on the first week of Ned’s Distance Week in 2010. We started 3 hours before all the remaining campers arrived, and finished an hour afterwards, with an hour of unscheduled racing in between. (I just remembered that was another time I fell foul of Finbarr on a buoy turn and Rob ran me into a canoe).

Ballycotton island in the distance

The next headland is Ballycotton village with Ballycotton Island and Lighthouse just off the coast, home to Carol Cashell’s late summer great Ballycotton 4k swim, for advanced open water swimmers only. (I also just remembered I never wrote up that swim last year). Tough conditions. Great swim.

Ballycotton Lighthouse

Ballycotton Lifeboatis one of the most famous of RNLI stations for its multiple famous rescues, especially the 19365 Daunt Lightship rescue, having received multiple RNLI medals, two Gold, seven Silver, eight Bronze. After passing Ballycotton there’s the long flat sweep of Garryvoe, before the coast turns past Capel island across Youghal bay, a long sail north-east before reaching Ram Head and Ardmore, site of Ireland’s oldest Round Tower and possibly the oldest Monastery in the country. With a large telephoto lens the photos are just too dull and the coast too far away.

Traditional fishing boat off Youghal

After Ardmore, the coast changes to the beautiful rugged sandstone cliffs of the Copper Coast I showed you so much of last year. The next landmark is Mine Head, Ireland’s highest lighthouse, also a radio call station for the Coast Guard, and well-known to everyone who’s listened to an Irish sea area forecast.

Approaching Mine Head

 By this stage the sunshine had long departed but the wind never picked up past low Force Three.

Looking back at Mine Head

From Mine Head it’s a quick run to Helvick Head at the end of the Ring peninsula, the entrance to Dungarvan Bay.

Approaching Helvick Head with the Comeragh mountains behind Dungarvan. Bracken burning high on the mountains

We were outside Dungarvan Bay a bit early, and Clare needed to wait an hour for more tide and draft for the boat. So we sailed past Carricknamoan rock, one of my turning points for swims, but just a rock so not very exciting. Then a tack left us facing Helvick Head with Mine Head jutting out in the distance.

And back past Ballinacourty Lighthouse on the other side of the bay.

In the bay we saw flight of Mallards returning to the Back Bay tidal lagoon behind the long Cunnigar spit of land that stretches out from the Ring peninsula.

Fight of Mallards
Helvick Head, Pier and Ring

Across the bay was Helvick Pier, destination for the Helvick swim. (Study the photo to get a good line if you are swimming this year).

East (town) end of Cunnigar, behind stretches out the flat calm expanse of the Back Bay.

Heading into Dungarvan past the end of the Cunnigar.

Approaching Dungarvan

Only two hundred metres or so from Dungarvan, the end of the Cunnigar is a popular beach angling location and subject to extremely strong tidal currents.

Dungarvan Lookout. Clare looks out from her house everyday.

Past Orca’s normal mooring  at the Lookout to go into the town pontoon to pick up a dinghy.

Abbeyside Church

Passing around the old town walls into the inner harbour.

Finally, back in Dungarvan, a fantastic day at sea again, thanks to the Skipper.

Inside the town harbour approaching the pontoon.

Unusually good weather

The weather in Ireland has been broken for the past five days. It didn’t operate as normal. It’s the end of March and instead of the usual dull cold grey, it’s been warm, bright and sunny. So like quite a few others I changed to a few days of sea swimming and even did a 5k, which is a first for me for March. Last year I didn’t do 5k open water until June, in 2010 it wasn’t until the middle of May.

My assertion is, despite belief to the contrary, Irish people are actually optimistic based on the single fact that whenever the weather the good, we believe it will last forever,  even though we’ve had entire summers without five consecutive days of any good weather.

I’ve recently purchased a Kodak Playsport camera, which is waterproof and shoots HD video, for a very reasonable price of about £80. So finally, finally, I’ve started taking some video of Tramore Bay and Newtown Head to share my playground with you all, instead of just the usual static images. The water is still only 10 degrees Celsius so I couldn’t spend too much time floating and getting cold, but I’m delighted to have made a start. A couple of these were shot on cold bright days a few weeks ago.

Don’t forget to select YouTube’s HD option for each.

Lowest low tide of the year. Shot with camera sitting on rocks underneath normal low tide mark.

Looking out to the Metalman and Newtown Head.

Looking up at the Guillamene.

Out further toward Newtown head

Suddenly … Gráinne!

Newtown Head. Wait for the underwater bit at the end, and see the colour of my dreams.



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

A Sandycove legend guest post: Finbarr Hedderman

Getting blood from a stone would have been easier than getting this article out of Fin. He was the first person I requested to do a guest post, a very long time ago, and many times since.

Fin is Sandycove personified (along with Mike Harris, Lisa, Ned, Stephen Black and Imelda). But don’t tell him I said that or it’ll go to his Cork head! :-)

Fin was born with the affliction of being a Cork person, so therefore he already knows he’s better than the rest of the world by default, since everything good in the world can be found in Cork. (It pains me as a Tipperary person to agree).

In his video tour of Sandycove Island below, towards the end he mentions a beach on the island that the Channel and marathon swimmers use for a feed station. What he doesn’t tell you is that it is actually known to us as “Finbarr’s Beach”. I can also tell you that you should never try to pass Fin on the inside going round a buoy if you don’t want to learn to swim with a partial concussion. (I speak from experience).

If you go to Sandycove, Fin will be there. Therefore go to Sandycove.


I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see the loneswimmer’s recent tweet that his website was now two years old; this meant that it has now been nearly two years since he started badgering me to write a guest post. Yet I couldn’t think what should mark my entrance into the blogosphere, my channel swim was so long ago I only remember bits and pieces of it and I’m not training for anything in particular at the moment; so nothing there to touch on. However I still retain a real grá* for swimming; it’s something I want to do nearly every day of the week, so maybe…

My swimming is based at various locations at the moment: I work in Clare during the week so I train with the masters section of Ennis Swimming & Lifesaving Club; I play water polo with the Cork Water Polo Club so I come down once a week to Cork to train with them and afterwards I join with the masters session of Sundays Well SC. But when the weekend rolls around there is only one place I like to swim and, despite the fact it’s January, this can only be in the sea around Sandycove Island, outside Kinsale in County Cork. This weekend I completed my 916th ever lap around the island, and I’m delighted to say it places me at number 5 on the leader-board of Sandycove laps. Later this year I hope to join Steven Black, Mike Harris and Imelda Lynch in the exclusive Sandycove “M” Club when I complete my 1,000th lap.

So for my first guest post I whipped out my new waterproof camera (thanks to my sister for the Christmas gift) and thought I’d introduce you to the Island we in Cork love so much (I must apologise before you watch it the team behind the movie especially the director, camera man, and script writer were fairly poor) and look out for the cameo’s from the loneswimmer’s hero Lisa.

And there you have it, a little intro for those of you yet to visit and a reminder for you who’ve already been.

ps: follow me on twitter: @mrfinbarr

*grá is the Irish for love.