Tag Archives: Carmel Collins

2014 Cork Distance Week & the Copper Coast swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Kilfarassey IMG_3834-IMG_3837.resized
Earlier in the day, an unusually calm Kilfarassey hides its many charms

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

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

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

Dee & Doglet setting up  IMG_3832.resized
Dee and the Doglet setting up early on

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

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

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

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

Swimming out
Swimming out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you be here? You really should be.

*

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

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

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

Lough Dan Ice Mile Swim Attempt

Late last week the opportunity to make another Official Ice Mile attempt was offered by Dublin and English Channel swimmers Fergal Somerville and John Daly, this time the attempt to be made in Lough Dan, up in the Wicklow Mountains. Since the previous attempt I had already turned down another opportunity the previous week in the Kerry Mountains, (a report of which I’ll have for you soon).

I told Fergal I wouldn’t be able to make it, and that was still pretty much the case only 24 hours beforehand. However, after a night with four and half hours sleep, lying awake at five a.m., I decided I’d at least attend, and maybe consider it. And so it was that Dee and I left at seven a.m. for the estimated two-hour journey up. Passing Hollywood, (not quite like the better known, younger and more brash American version) we rose gradually up to the Wicklow Gap, and minus four degrees air temperatures with two inches of snow, staring down the long miles of the Wicklow Way to the dawn sun briefly breaking the clouds and shining on the distant Irish Sea. It was stunningly beautiful of course, and nerve-wracking to drive. We were driving almost an hour from when we encountered the first snow and ice before we arrived at Lough Dan just before nine-thirty a.m.

The Wicklow Way and the Irish Sea on the horizon
The Wicklow Way from the Wicklow Gap with the Irish Sea on the horizon

Lough Dan is a Scout and hiking centre and site for overnight camping in the snow, so there were many people about and most of the swimmers and crew were already present. One swimmer from the previous attempt would not be with us, having decided to attempt it by himself, and instead Carmel Collins, a Sandycove swimmer, joined us. We moved the cars down as close to the lake edge as we could, about a hundred metres, and proceeded to check the temperatures.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

3.7C
3.7C

The tiny bay from where we had lake access was about only ten metres across, and half-covered in ice. So it was immediately obvious the temperature wasn’t too high this time around. And there was no wind, which is important. My first measurement in the shallow water indicated the horrifically low reading of 1.4 degrees Celsius. I moved out along the rocks delineating the east side of the cove to get to deeper water and took a long measurement which read 3.7 º C.

Ice in Lough Dan cove_IMG_1309.resized

An Official ice Mile, as you probably know, requires water temperatures of 5 º Celsius or less, measured at three different locations, by temperature probes reading 30 centimetres below the surface. 

The swim course would be a 400 metre loop, beginning at a pontoon about 50 metres off the shore, and leading down into the lake and back, with four full loops required for the pre-requisite 1650 metres, with a little extra distance padding built-in for anyone swimming the full course.

RIB going in through ice
RIB going in through ice

We had a RIB (rescue boat) and a kayaker, a doctor and plenty of other helpers. Irish English Channel record holder and paramedic, Mr Awesome, Tom Healy, and his partner Rachel were also on-hand for extra safety along with others including Vanessa Daws, artist, open water swimmer and video documentarian of the Irish open water swimming scene.

(Note: I only met Tom for the first time in Dover when both he and Alan Clack were preparing to swim their respective solos on the same day). I met him and Rachel again the day afterwards, and I rubbed the tattoos on his arms. “No. they don’t come off” he said. “Actually“, I said, “I was checking if the awesome would rub off on me“).

Ice in Lough Dan cove
Ice in Lough Dan cove

We had to wait a while longer than expected before we could start, (and why that is, is a story I hope to return to soon in a separate joint-authored post with Finbarr Hedderman). I thought about the swim, thought about how little sleep I’d had in the previous 48 hours, about how my weight is only one kilogram higher than it was for the previous attempt, thought about how the water was colder than I expected or hoped, (4.9 to 5.0 would have been my preferred but difficult to achieve temperature). I thought about the 40,000 metre training week I’d just completed, without expecting this as the end and even the fact that I hadn’t been in the sea for almost two weeks, my longest absence in a year. I thought about my distracted mental state. And I thought most importantly about whether I wanted to actually to attempt the full swim, and decided I didn’t. I realised I was not capable of it that day. So I decided I’d (almost) certainly only do a half-mile. After all, it would still be a decent swim, in water colder than I’d ever had an opportunity in which to swim.

From left,Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel
From left: Vanessa, Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel

We had the safety briefing, and just after eleven a.m. Fergal, John, Patrick Corkery, Colm Breathnach, Carmel Collins and myself finally entered the peat-black water with Vanessa in her wetsuit and her trusty Go-Pro. I dislike slow entries, while I also don’t like to dive into cold water I don’t know. So wading out behind Fergal, I got my hands and face in for a good splash, let my breathing settle for a few seconds and then started swimming, while it was still shallow and everyone else started swimming virtually immediately.

Start, wading in, I'm into the water
The start, wading out, I’m swimming. The yellow pontoon was the start and turning point

As you’d expect, water somewhere between three and four degrees really hurts. I hope you didn’t expect me to say something more profound. As with all cold water it hurts most in the hands, feet and sinuses. It just hurts more acutely and more quickly. I seem to have control over the sinus pain this year, (I’ve only noticed in retrospect) and each year I’ve noticed some improved aspect of my cold tolerance. This water didn’t cause any stabbing sinus or face pain. But my hands and feet were immediately painful and the pain didn’t abate. And I was almost unable to kick from the start, as kicking when your feet are painful with cold seems to increase the pain. By not kicking, the blood also flows more slowly in your body. It’s not really a conscious decision, just one of those possibly individual quirks of cold water for me, though it’s then more difficult in the reduced buoyancy of fresh water lake to maintain a horizontal streamlined position.

Once past the left side of the tiny cove, I immediately went too far to the left, while most of the rest went too far right and we met at about 100 metres out half way to the buoy. Patrick, Fergal and I were together to the first turn, with the kayaker providing a watchful eye, with me inside on the turn. I came out of the inside turn somewhat at a disadvantage to Patrick, shall we say. I’m normally up for the full contact aspect of open water swimming, but this swim wasn’t one where I was so motivated. Patrick and I stayed together with Fergal in front pulling a few metres ahead. We touched the pontoon at 400 metres and turned back. Approaching the end of the third leg Patrick and I were still together and I was going to get caught between him and the buoy again, so I dropped back and swam over his legs to his right side to go wide around the turn, which allowed him to open up five metres. It wasn’t relevant, I was heading into my final 200 metres.

Donal finishing
Donal finishing

Approaching the pontoon again, I somehow got a mouthful of water, in flat water! Which made me splutter, and further confirmed my decision that today wasn’t my day. I swung right, and into the cove. It was very difficult to walk over the stones of the hidden lake floor with my painful soles and Tom Mr Awesome Healy waded out to assist my landing, such as it was. Dee and Carmel’s partner Gordon helped me get dressed, and we moved back the car. I’d swum somewhat over 800 metres, I was in the water for 16 minutes. I wasn’t obviously as hypothermic as I’d been after the previous attempt, in fact I was able to kind-of-jog back to the car.

Twelve minutes or so later Colm finished first, as always, followed by Fergal, Patrick, Carmel and John. Since we were back at the car however, we don’t have photos of the rest finishing.

It was a fantastic achievement for them all, and all deserve Congratulations: Fergal Colm, John, Patrick and Carmel. There were different levels of post-swim hypothermia but that is to be expected of course. The safety cover and assistance and help were excellent, top class in fact, with no worries about anyone. I recovered in about 40 minutes, unlike the much longer recovery of the previous attempt.

I have never been so happy with a decision to NOT complete a swim. I’ll repeat my favourite safety aphorism for you again:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

I’d left myself the small possibility of attempting the full swim but I knew before I started that it wasn’t likely. My weight hasn’t changed much, I’m still lighter than in three years at least, but most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but it would come at a physical price. And I also know that sometimes that pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do. The full mile would have been too far for me. It was a fantastic achievement for the five swimmers, as it is for all ice mile swimmers. By exiting to plan, I didn’t encounter, or cause, any of the safety issues that we’ve seen or heard about on a couple of recent ice-mile attempts in various location. I also had a fantastic experience by reaffirming to myself that I am capable of entirely making my own safety decisions for myself, regardless of what anyone else is doing and as such the day was an enormous success for me also.

You sometimes hear marathon swimmers say they swim to find their limits, and this was one of those times for me. I am very happy with the exploration.

Check out Fergal’s report on his blog.

(On the way home we stopped in beautiful Glendalough, where it almost seemed someone had helpfully placed a single washed-up log, ideal as a photographic focal point!).

Glendalough upper lake
Glendalough upper lake