Tag Archives: Beginish

Beginish 2011 – open water racing on the edge of the world – Part 2

Part 1.

As part of the Cork Distance week two years, some of the attendees swam the inside of the Valentia Sound, to literally test the water. Rob and Lisa were the only two in this year’s swim who had been present. We knew the race would be longer, about 7.4k versus the 6k around the island. That was a big step up for some of the people signed up, but made little difference to the experienced distance swimmers. And added to that was swimming into a tide with a following wind, which would make choppy conditions and the swim would take longer.

Ned & Tim giving safety briefing. Gabor is wearing a giant condom (wetsuit)!

Start in Portmagee, up the Sound, three obligatory check-in boats, with a dog-leg around after the third boat check in, over a shallow reef and into the pontoon in Knightstown.  You’ll recall I’ve talked about tides, islands and amphidromes before. Valentia would be like Ireland from a tide point of view, just in miniature. At some point on the back of the island, nearer to Knightstown, there might be a place where the tides could change or clash as they wash around the island from two directions.

Portmagee from bridge

Saturday was indeed blowing strong westerly winds. After the safety briefing, we all drove over to Portmagee, sharing cars. We milled around the pier waiting for a slightly delayed start, but since it wasn’t cold we weren’t too bothered.

Craig, Donal, Ciaran, Rob. Rob & Craig are goading each other.

We would be going out in 12 waves. I was in Wave Number 9, 3rd last, which also included, Rob, Ciarán Craig. Also in the wave was Sandycove swim local Fionnula Walsh, one of the large number of travelling New Zealand under-18 swimmers and another girl. The four of us a handsome bunch indeed.

At the start we were to swim to the left of the wooden structure under the bridge, then it was up to everyone how to proceed up the Channel, staying to the island side of the check boats.There was only room for two swimmers at a time entering. And Rob grabbed pole position from the group. Third away, I had a poor dive, way too deep, surfaced and we were off. First order, don’t let Rob get too far away.

I felt the start was pretty fast, too fast for a long swim. But what can you do? Hang on, see what happens.

Donal chasing Rob at the start

From there out Ciarán and I were together, with Fionnula right there also. It was hard to say exactly where Rob was.

In the first 20 to 30 minutes we swam by a few trailing people from the preceding waves. And were in turn passed by others from the three waves after us. I’m sure one or two weren’t happy but I don’t recall actually swimming over anyone.

Thirty minutes of digging, the three of us side by side. Ciarán and I have swum shoulder to shoulder for what much be over a hundred thousand metres.  It’s what a lot of swimming is about with friends.

For a short while it was just Ciarán and I, Fionnula having moved to one side. I’d had a brief glimpse of Rob off to the right, no more than 20 metres ahead. I had a quick navigation check and found that the first check boat, usually traditional fishing boats for the Beginish swim, was too far out for us. I called Ciarán, and we swam over and checked in. But this time the channel was opening up. What looks like a relatively narrow stretch of water from land is very wide when your eyes are only two centimetres above the surface.

After that, we came together with Fionnula again, occasionally swapping positions. So much water, and seemingly so little room. Ciarán and I are content swimming together, but I had a feeling from glares through her goggles that Fionnula wasn’t as happy about it.

The wind was behind us. Regularly we’d get waves or surges impelling us forward. None was ever enough to allow anyone to break free. This was the race.  Those of us remaining from Wave 9. A few in front. A few behind. Like a cycling time trial. The essential rule is catch the person is front and don’t let the person behind catch you. 70 swimmers but our race would only be with those in our rough speed range. We were never going to threaten Ned or others for position.

By about an hour I was looking for the second check in boat. I was convinced I saw quite far in toward the coast. I left the others to angle across. At my next stop, still a couple of hundred of metres from it, who was there but Lisa. A few words, she told me that wasn’t the next boat. And off I went. Now the others had some distance on me. I took a long diagonal outwards, and coming into the actual second check-in boat, identified by the large buoy on the roof, I was just behind. I had a good check-in, no time lost at all. The boat had some swimmers aboard, obviously relayists waiting for their team-mates to arrive.

Once again the three of us were together. Nothing surprising about this when you’ve done lots of sea miles. Speed difference become obvious immediately at the start. Tiny discrepancies break up groups and lead to solo swims or swimmers with no apparent difference seeming inseparable.

After check-in two, we seemed like we were far out. There were a few of the young New Zealand guys close by and a wetsuit swimmer inside of us, 50 to 75 metres away. Al thundering on. Gradually, I started to see what I took to the point or bend on the left in the distance. After leaving the second boat, I decided it was time to make a move. We’d already been swimming at distance race speed since we couldn’t separate. It wasn’t like I could just pull a different speed out. A sprint would be insane. By now though, after an hour and half, I had moved past the stage to worrying about conserving energy.  I started to hope we were moving fast and would finish inside two hours. I went wide. A big risk, adding more distance, but using an old move from my cycling days.

Swimming by myself, I knew I would concentrate on my stroke more than swimming with the two guys, I’d get a fraction more length per stroke which might accumulate to a slight difference.  It might work. Usually if I’m swimming with someone who’s a fraction faster, it works the other way around. The problem was I’d have no idea whether I was successful or not until the end.

After a while I started coming in. The wetsuit swimmer I thought had dropped behind, despite the better line. The New Zealand guys were still close, but concentrating on keeping each going, as I gathered from hearing them once while I was breathing and they were close.

The third check-in boat was out wide. Too wide for most it transpired.  It was perfectly lined up for me. And I kept moving in. And there was the turn. We’d been warned in the safety briefing about a suddenly shallowing reef after third check-in, which we would have to move out to avoid. There it was. Stoney bottom. Even with my poor distance vision without glasses, I could see the pale fish warehouse on the point across from Knightstown.

Outside us was the Valentia RNLI lifeboat, just keeping an eye out.

Quickly I came upon two non-wetsuit swimmers. Young. More New Zealand guys. Looking a bit disorganised. Keep my head down and  keep going. They tagged on behind. There was a worry they’d stay on my legs now that they someone to follow and be able to pull out a sprint for the final push that I couldn’t match. They were obviously faster since they were a good way ahead, and inexperience was their disadvantage. Maybe cold also.

Into the left, turning toward Knightstown.

And there was Rob. On my right. Right there, two metres away.

We’d once done a Speckled Door where we came back together, separated for 30 minutes, each thinking we had the better line, him wide, me inside, and came together in exactly the same spot leading to Sandycove.

And here we were again. This was all the race was about. Just me and Rob. I was on the inside for a few seconds before he saw me. The water was shallow. Shallow. More shallow.  I was passing him. He couldn’t handle the shallow reef. I kick arse on shallow reefs. Rob says he can take five metres out of others on Sandycove’s second corner and that I can take another five metres out of him. I was swimming with a 4 centimetre long scar on my right ribs from going shallow in the six-hour Sandycove swim only the weekend before. He had to go wider. I had him.

Colonial Knighstown houses

There were the old British houses ahead on the left. This final section was it. Everything before was the entry. It was one hour and fifty minutes.

As I passed into slightly deeper water, I risked a glimpse back. Two people were trying to walk off the reef. It was almost ankle shallow. the New Zealand guys must have caught Rob. Was Rob standing?

Head down. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Two beat still. Long stroke. Maximise. Those houses are taking time coming.

Oh, oh. We must be hitting the tide change section. Anything was possible here.

Valentia Lifeboat

Ok, I’ve reached the houses. That took longer than expected. There was the large Valentia RNLI Severn-class lifeboat moved in to moor.

Damn, the house are still on my left. Dammit. This is like swimming in crude oil. Progress is tiny.

Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull.

This is like pulling yourself through treacle. Houses are finally passed.

There’s the pontoon. People. I see people. Don’t break now.

Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Six beat. Hold it.

There it is. There’s no-one around me. Two hundred metres. Sprint. I’ve broken Rob.

Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Eight beat.

Pontoon. Right in. Ladder. Momentary pause. Climb up. that’s it.

Rob reaches down and helps me out, his hand cut from the shallow reef bleeding down over me.

I roar with laughter and chagrin and disbelief.

Nothing left for it but to have a party.

Postscript: Rob used his local knowledge. He thought, even with me in front, that he could still hopefully pass me in the last 1500 metres because of that knowledge. And for this swim it was very significant. No, I’m not saying what it was. Maybe I’ll get to use it in the future. Though not against Rob, I guess.

That’s the nature of Open Water swimming. It’s not just about the speed. Rob came in third Male non-wetsuit. I came in next but was fifth overall as Eddie, starting in a wave behind us, held enough time to pass me. My time was 2:14. Ned’s was around 1:55 and he was first for the third year running. Sandycove swimmers were first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh in the male non-wetsuit category, with Ciaran and Craig coming in after me, having passed the others. Fionnula was first in Female Non-wetsuit. One of the Under-18 New Zealand guys came in with a blistering, unbelievably fast 1:38. Eight swimmers abandoned due to the tough conditions and extra distance. Extra dropouts were expected due to the conditions and the crews had all been warned of the possibility. Some swimmers took over three hours, a great achievement for such a tough swim. All were agreed the last 1500 metres were a nightmare of infinitesimal progress.

It was, again, such a great swim, and so much fun, that I thought it might be interesting to see it from the inside of my head, as it were.

That night we all got hammered again. Those pictures are not so good. thanks to Dee for the great race pics.

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

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

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

Beginish Island

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Crimes against grammar

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


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

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

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

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

Knightstown's photogenic Clock Tower.

Part Two.

It doesn’t matter

Edit; Hmmm, a sudden surge in interest in this post on a day where I get abused? So you do know behind the front page I can see where traffic is coming from, right? Chuckle.

-I’d had a bad morning. It had been the worst day I had this year, I think. So I went for a swim, ’cause that’s part of who I am now. It had to be in a hostile environment. Very hostile. So I put on the armour I worked hard for, the Irish green, and which I am very proud to wear. ‘Cause you know you can talk all you want, but you don’t get the green because you know how to say “energy systems”. You earn it.

Donal, Ciarán, Coach Eilís, Jen, Rob, Gábor

So I sauntered in. And I looked at them. And I smiled.

And as I swam I told myself: “This doesn’t matter, you are the swimmer here.  You have friends that you love helping out and swimming with. There are people out there whom seem to respect what you say. You can feel the water. There’s only one way to get that feel, and it’s not on paper. You’re 1134. No-one can take that away. And yesterday you passed half a million metres for the year so far, maybe it’s time for some more chart porn. You know how you love charts. And what about the crazy swimming idea you had yesterday? We need to work on that. Go find some figures for that equation from last night and arrange some testing with Clare. We might be able to get Alan C. involved. Hey, a swimmer travelling across the Atlantic to train with me! “

But by that stage I was probably approaching schizophrenia territory. So I busted out a fast (for me) 10 x 200m main set ’cause I am swimming better this year, I hope… It all went better than expected, (the swimming that is).

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Coming soon: the whole story.