Tag Archives: Guillamenes

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

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”.

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.