Bunmahon lifeguard flag
I had some nervousness about this swim for a few reasons. Having previously discussed my familiarity with Bunmahon, I’ve written about the dangers on the beach. These don’t worry me because it’s a very localised danger, for inexperienced or non-swimmers, that covers an area of a few dozen metres squared.
But I recalled a couple of times surfing there in clean large groundswell, when a strong south-westerly current developed pulling outward and around the headland at the west end of the beach and it was a current from which it took a look of paddling work to extract myself.
So I was apprehensive that there may be a continuous current running west and I’d be swimming back against it. My plan was to start to Bunmahon though and go westwards. I could have started at Ballydowane and come eastwards, but again I knew even less about the currents outside Ballydowane. So I decided the devil you know (or at least suspect) is always better.
When I got there it was about low tide or slightly after so for this area that meant I’d be running into a slightly increased tidal current, and, I’d be swimming a location of which the only knowledge I had, was my OSI map and Google Earth. Like all these swims, sailing maps are useless because it’s too close to rocks. The coast stretches south-westerly for most of the planned swim, changing to westerly then north-westerly ending in Ballydowane cove.
So I had to be more analytical about this swim, from a theoretical angle.
I decided I would swim try to get to the edge of Ballydowane cove as my target before tuning. It was hard to estimate possibilities. I decided to assume I’d start with a tail current, if it wasn’t present. The coast out there was complex, not the straight length of Annestown to Kilfarassey, nor the under cliff nature of Tankardstown. More like Dunabrattin Head but without a similar “wave-catching” setup. But potentially the current was also likely run in the opposite outgoing direction by the point at which I hoped to reach before turning, and to speed up, caused by John’s Island, into Ballydowane Cove.
Currents are more like to appear the flow is interrupted or compressed so islands or headland are usually the areas of concern. Also there were smaller landward smaller stacks and almost-headlands, and plenty of reefs. All I knew were the triangular rocks of — from seeing them from the cliff top from a few miles away, which was useless since I could only estimate which ones there were from the map but even know the shape of something is can be useful. Big triangular rock somewhere between Bunmahon and Ballydowane, but had to be one of the one that after the first third of the swim. Having maps doesn’t solve all problems since I wouldn’t have them with me in the water. Though I suppose I could have brought it in a ziploc bag. And maps are useless for vertical shapes, or remembering which headland was which until I’d swam passed them.
Currents visible outside St. John's Island & Templebrick
If the currents were a real problem, though, I had at least some exit points between reefs where I could potentially walk a hundred metres or so, and there were a couple of these. Also, since it was low tide starting going more into a rising tide, keeping inside the outside points might reduce potential flow, (though sometimes the exact opposite can happen). But then again I didn’t know how much area might be exposed by the low tide and force me out.
So what I ended with from my gedankenexperiment was a range of possibilities, of things that could happen that I might have to deal with, and therefore I wouldn’t be surprised.
Last things, given these possibilities: let the Bunmahon beach lifeguards (Bernie & Kate, hi ladies!), know I was heading out (I’d met them earlier in the week). And bring a bottle. I decided to forego a carb addition, I was estimating approximately anything from one hour thirty minutes (unlike) to two hours thirty (slightly more like, but think probably around two hours to two hours and fifteen minutes. Water would be sufficient but the sun was out again and I would be better to have it, so I put my trusty remaining OTG bottle, survivor of the Channel, and much else, on a string and d-clipped to my togs again.
Outward around the coast was straight forward, keeping away from reefs. About fifteen minutes saw the far east end of Bunmahon beach disappear and I passed lovely names Slippery Island, which with the tide out and its craggy sides was neither. And around then the triangular island of Templebrick that I know from the cliff top appeared. But it wasn’t really triangular from here. It was the shape of the dorsal fin of a porpoise, curving up out and back and underneath and there were two of them, large and small and black in shadow of the east side with the sun shining from the south-west ahead.
Templebrick Islands outside Bunmahon. If you swim around the back quite close, that rock arches out over you.
Swimming on a bright day is great, but on the coast it also brings deep apparently impenetrable shadow until you are close enough to see into it.
I passed outside the two islands, as they turned out to be. Passing, and having passed, the two islands I checked and double checked for currents. The first check however was initiated by something unusual, a large splash within a metre of my right arm. It seemed maybe one of the birds had dived right near me, but nothing came up near me, though I’ve often seen that Guillemots will usually emerge a distance from where they entered. On that check there was no noticeable current, thought on the second only a few minutes later, I’d picked up a slight tail current. But it didn’t seem too strong to come back against. So I decided to continue.
If you understand this, you understand Ireland ...
The track was now changing to westerly with the tall bulk of St. John’s island outside Ballydowane slightly north-west of me and I seemed to close the distance fairly quickly one of the scenarios I’d thought possible.
Poppies & daisies over Bunmahon
The colours of the coast here were spectacular in the southern sun, with deep golden lichens, the vegetation on the cliff varied and even the faded sea grasses growing in the salt wind and poor soil still had the vibrancy of summer verdure. There was a small estuary, where the lower cliffs dropped to shambles of broken rock and an invitational path inland that I later saw was marked on the OSI map as Coomeenmacarren.
On the map it’s a negligible but beautiful Irish word, the Coomeen-, indicative of its hollow topography, not jumping out at you until you see it physically, and separating Coomeenmacarren from the back of St. John’s Island is a short couple of hundred metres of vertical red sandstone cliff and fronted by a deep red sand beach, eroded from the cliff, glowing in the sunlight like almost consumed embers, which only say warmth, and not danger.
St. John's Island from Ballydowane
I reached outside the looming bulk St. John’s and into the edge of Ballydowane Cove, my watch indicating fifty-five minutes had passed and it was time to turn rather than swim into the beach and back. I took some water and started back.
I didn’t watch the time closely as I felt relaxed with no great difficulty and decided to go inside the Templebrick islands, stopping once again at another location where all the Phalacrocoracidae seemed to congregate, each looking like they were imagining having their picture taken for their album of 80′s New Romantic covers, Cormorant and the Guillemots, so that they were all trying to strike the most dramatic pose just in case Annie Leibovitz happened by with a Hassleblad. There’s something endlessly interesting about these birds.
Passing behind the island turned out to be difficult and the way through and over the kelp and reefs was circuitous before I emerged at the far side. For here I continued for about six or eight minutes to the inside of the next reef which required a reroute to outside. I decided to have a drink, pulled the string that had been trailing me and … my bottle was gone. Only the large lid remained, large enough that it had been catching water and straighten in the string enough that it seemed the bottle was there. It must have been on those shallow reefs and kelp on the back of Templebrick. I could turn back, maybe ten minutes, who know how long looking when anyway, the bottle would probably still be either moving or stuck on reef or trapped in kelp that I might not see.
No. This was fitting. Let it go. Farewell sweet bottle, yellow bottle, favourite bottle, God of bottles, the perfect bottle, that bottle that has survived the English Channel when its sibling was lost in the boat accident. The bottle than only last week I’d written a draft post on and which would now be its obituary. And yet, was it not fitting that this Nalgene OTG bottle was lost at sea? Is that not the very existential crux of everything a sports bottle or an adventurer is? Somewhere out there, is the bottom half of yellow bottle with #1 and DONAL written on it and affixed with transparent duct tape (an invention which should have been awarded a Nobel prize, yes, I know inventions don’t get Nobel prizes, duct tape should be the first). Should you ever find that bottle, well, use it well. I’ve kept the lid, someday it will feed me again.
Note to self: Next time put your email or website on the bottle also, you bloody idiot.
And then an uneventful finish now against another slight adverse current. The return in fact took me almost twenty minutes longer than the outward, finishing in over two hours and five minutes. Another leg of Project Copper done. An interesting but somewhat scary leg again, this time because of the isolation, there are no roads near the cliff-tops, no houses, nowhere you can be seen from and nothing you can see except the headlands of Ballyvoyle and Dunabrattin miles and miles away along the coast on either side, no fishing traffic and not many kayakers. This is quieter end of the Copper Coast, the coast I’ve set out to conquer, in my own way.
Bunmahon to outside Ballydowane Cove