Tag Archives: Burke’s Island

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden light through a Copper Coast arch
Golden light

 

Previous part

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

SandycovePanorama.resized

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.