Instead of a beach, shadows loomed over me and the water went from gold to black in sudden deep shade.
A wall of dressed stone met my fingertips and loomed two metres over me. It was a pier, stone mooring bollards along the edge. There was another pier twenty or thirty metres away to my left, like the coast had projected horizontal crenellations into the sea.
There are no stone piers on the Copper Coast. Even concrete slipways are rare on our exposed shore which lacks any suitable bays as harbours. The Copper Coast rocks are primarily Old Red Sandstone and soft limestone. Why was I thinking about stone? I sought rationality, logic. The type of stone didn’t help. No, wait, the lee side of Tramore Pier behind the concrete is dressed stone. That’s a stone pier. But Tramore pier is how many kilometres away? Eight, nine? Away from where? I’ve swum the Copper Coast, every metre. I did not know this place and Tramore is just a single angled pier. Logic didn’t help.
There were steps near me built into the pier. In the shadows in the water the light became a type of dusk. Tarzan-style, head up, two strokes and I reached the stairs. I gingerly got a foot under me, then the second, and I stood and I climbed up. The pier edges were a charcoal grey, with the main mass a slightly lighter grey. Dark grey stone mooring bollards. The surface seemed almost swept clean except a dusting of bleached sand with faint mother-of-pearl sparkles. The rock was warm and the sand very fine under my bare feet. An ever-so-slight breeze had returned, a whisper that quickly dried my bare skin as I looked around me.from this vantage I could see other piers projecting out into sea.
A harbour. But no stacks of pots. No boats, no coils of gaudy nylon rope, no hauled out punts or moored tenders. No detritus of a working harbour.
The piers were fronted with low stone buildings, one or two stories, also stone, with slate roofs. All orderly, well maintained and pretty in the austere way of coastal communities, especially in the soft light. No electricity poles. No diesel tanks, no mechanics.
This could not be. But it was. I was just a swimmer. You can’t accidentally swim to France or to somewhere you’ve never seen, never been. Arms are too weak against the Sea, despite our desire to prove otherwise.
We swim in part because it human-scales the world. Swimming makes the world both bigger and smaller. It becomes immense against the strength of our shoulders. But it becomes small and intimate and local, limited also by our shoulders. Driving a road a thousand times is not like walking it once. Sitting on the beach a thousand times is not like swimming out to the horizon once. We remember the scale of the world we’ve forgotten in the rest of our lives, we remember the absolute importance of the horizon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
These are the final of my favourite photos from 2012. In the course of doing this series I’ve been very happy with the overall result and some of the rediscoveries. I’ve been reading a lot about photography lately, and one of the things that resonated most was actually a comment, to try to find the things that speak to me and about me and for me most. And there’s little doubt that for me, that is the sea, a difficult subject , and the Irish coast, and my swimming life. After putting this series together, My Swimming Life 2012, I’m already somewhat apprehensive about 2013′s images, maybe 2012 was a high-water mark for me.
Here’s another pictures of the English Channel. Dawn, leaving Dover and Shakespeare beach and evening returning to Dover Harbour, a slight hazy fog under the Varne cliffs. This photo became the banner image for the marathonswimmers.org forum.
I crewed for Owen O’Keefe for his final Blackwater swim and took a nice picture of the Youghal bridge.
And if you’re a regular here, you know how I love the Copper Coast and sea thrift.
That big storm in August gave me some great opportunities and one of the most viewed posts of the year. Knowing the area and the sea conditions probably allowed me to find the best vantage points of any of the droves of local and better photographers who were out that day.
Below is an image I’ve imagined capturing for a couple of years. Apart from the New York night image in the previous post, this is my favourite of all the photos I’ve taken this year.
The Skellig Islands, possibly my favourite place in the world, a World Heritage Site, often seem to me to be almost a dream of the sea. It also surprises me how few Irish people seem to have visited, but being 12 miles of the south-west and requiring advance booking of boats, in notoriously unpredictable weather,maybe that partially explains it.
Anyway, these are my favourites, a year of swimming and the sea, I hope you enjoy them. If you have a favourite I’d like to know? So here’s a poll where you can choose three
Wait. Just thirteen between both posts? Initially it was twelve, but these two (above and below) had to be included. I found the image below after I’d gone through all the other posts. I’d completely forgotten it. (Thanks to Catherine Drea for processing advice!) It was taken on that same day of torrential rain in August that I took the picture of Brown’s Island in the rain, while passing through Tramore looking back at the storm clouds gathered past Powerstown Head.
I’m proud of these photos. Let’s hope 2013 produces some great images. In the meantime Riana convinced me to sign up for blipfoto, where I am trying to pursue a photo-a-day project to improve my technical and composition skills, and I am already very glad she did, even the days I struggle. If you want to see my daily (often a real struggle) attempts, pop on over or follow the updates from my Twitter account.
Last year on New Year’s day I wrote about my thoughts of the coming year. I’m haven’t done a retrospective, if you follow the blog, you have a good idea of what happened. I originally just thought I might just round-up some of my favourite photos that I took during the year which then led to this series of My Swimming Life 2012. This is the end of that series, with the first of two parts, of my favourite photos from the year.
This site has meant I have gradually become more concerned with getting appropriate and useful images. This year I was fortunate to capture a few that I really like. There are black and white versions of a few of these in the Kindle Screensaver post, but here are medium resolution colour images, (good enough for screen-savers). Some of these I haven’t shared at all previously. I did discover over the course of this series that I’d taken more good shots than I’d realised and discovered a couple I hadn’t realised at the time, which was why I did my 2012 swimming locations, some faces of 2012, and the two posts on my Almost favourites of 2012.
I have high-resolution versions of all of these suitable for printing at larger sizes. This isn’t a commercial site, but should you like a high-resolution printed print of any of these, contact me directly and you can purchase any and we’ll out how to get prints to you.
I’ll start with dawn in the English Channel, leaving Dover and Shakespeare beach.
Next of course is Trent Grimsey, on the way to setting the new English Channel world record. I doubt I’ll ever take a better swimming photo. Everything was right, the position, the light, the sense of motion,and of course, Trent helped with that Mona Lisa smile! I’m proud of this photo.
Lisa came over for one weekend of horrible summer weather, and I took that one great shot with my Kodak PlaySport, swimming out to Brown’s Island, rain on calm water.
Alan Clack was here twice this year, in preparation for his English Channel solo. The weekend before we left for Dover, we climbed up to Coumshingaun for some cold water training beneath the 1000 foot tall cliffs. Since then I’ve noticed that Coumshingaun is being used as the backdrop for one of The Gathering advertising posters.
Another I took that day in Coumshingaun I was also pleased with, that will make any swimmer want to take a dip there, t he blue sky reflected across the glacial corrie.
And of course I went to Manhattan for MIMS 2012 where I took possibly one of the best photos I’ve captured. And without having a tripod. So we’ll pause here and return with the last seven in the next post.
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).
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.
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.
Clonea beach, but only a couple of times. I didn’t swim at Baile na Gall.
Sandycove, Garrylucas, Ballycotton, Myrtleville and across Cork Harbour.
Garrylucas, April 2012. Most boring photo of the year?
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.
Kingsdale to Deal, Dover Harbour, and Cap Griz Nez.
Dover Harbour from Dover Castle, July 2012
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.
Bay Lough, Knockmealdown Mountians
And of course Coney Island’s Brighton Beach and Around Manhattan.
In the middle of a horrible summer, some swims can still just be so much … fun. You don’t always need racing or swimming big distance or doing challenges. Sometimes just easy swimming with a friend can result in a truly memorable swim. Here’s a quick reminder of how stunning Kilfarassey can be for two days of summer, when all these people decide to show up on my normally almost-abandoned playground.
A recent visit by English Channel superstar Lisa Cummins saw us doing a couple of fun swims on the Copper Coast, as my attempt to introduce this incredible swimming location to others continues. The first day we had a great swim at Kilfarassey around the playground of Burke’s Island.
Swimming out, a heavy squall we’d seen approaching from the South East caught us on the flattish low-tide and resulted in one of these beautiful views of rain hammering the surface into a beaten grey/green cloth.
Shortly afterwards the sun came out and we swam around the very low channels and reefs, having to forego a couple of options as the tide was too low. We got pulled and pushed through the main channel after watching it from outside to see if we could enter it between waves and had to pull ourselves over kelp in a few places. Lisa and Owen O’Keeffe, another recent visitor, have both commented on the thick leathery nature of the kelp (kelp/mayweed/sea hedgehog) on the Copper Coast, something I’d never thought of, so used to it am I at low tide, but it’s very different to the Japweed and Deadman’s Bootlaces seaweed more common at low tide around Sandycove Island due to the fresher nature of the water there, and if you hit a big patch of the Copper Coast kelp at low tide, you can’t swim through it, but must pull yourself over it.
Then we shot the Keyhole arch at a nice speed …
…and a great visit into the Barrel cave under the island. (I just call it the Barrel cave for no particular reason, like the names I have on some of the others, just what comes to mind).
Sea Thrift that is, Armaria maritima, also known as sea pinks.
Ireland’s Copper Coast has a lot of it, growing all along the coast on the cliff edges, in rock crevices and stony ground where nothing else grows.
It’s a perennial which has a high drought and salt tolerance, in fact it seems to do best in the driest, most exposed locations, especially along cliff edges.
Older plants will grow larger clumps of leaves and roots.
It’s apparently highly copper tolerant, and flourishes along the Copper Coast, and in fact if the Copper Coast were to have an icon flower it would have to be the thrift, which displays a subtle range of colour from pink to mauve and purple from plant to plant.
Its season is early summer, so the coast is rampant with it at the moment, one of the signs of summer for a south-east open water swimmer, water reaching 10 degrees Celsius, and passing the thrift on the steps down to the Guillamene.
When I think of it, and therefore the photographs I take, are as I most commonly see it, silhouetted against the sea or the sky, framing events in the sea, or faded but still present during the winter, and always standing against the onshore Atlantic winds.
When you can appreciate thrift in such extraordinary scenery, why would you want to trap it in a domestic garden?
It seems I’ve taken a lot of pictures of thrift (there are 98 tagged in my library so far and many more I still want to take, so you can image it was difficult to choose just a few), from early season buds, to summer blooms and late season stragglers to dead winter flowers.
Recently I wrote about how I consider safe entry and exit points and possibility of swimming at all tide times to be a critical requirement of a good open water swim location.
Kids growing tend to think the whole world is the same as their local experience. Though I didn’t live by the coast growing up, it never occurred to me that the seashore was different in other places. In Ireland, if you were visiting a new beach, you knew you had to be careful of incoming tides and of not being cut off. The first time I visited the Mediterranean I was really surprised by how little the tide seemed to move. So even now I tend to forget that tidal access and depth is not an issue in many places in the world. But it’s far safer for someone who comes from a high tidal range location to travel to a low range area than the opposite.
Many people now know the Bay of Fundy in Canada has the world’s highest tide, due to estuarine forcing (pushing more water into a smaller space), with a height of up to 15 metres and the lowest tidal regions are called amphidromes, with no height change.
Tidal range is the height difference between low tide and high tide. The tidal range in Ireland averages six metres. This is called a Macromareal tide, a tidal range above four metres. The average open ocean tidal range is only just over half a metre. And the Mediterranean is micromareal, less than two metres range. In between, from two to four metres range is mesomareal.
Why this is the case I explained a long time ago in Tides for Swimmers, Part One and Part Two.
In the English Channel the range about seven metres. Even average is misleading. During a low neap tide, the range in Ireland can be as little as four metres. During a high it can be as much as seven metres. In Ireland on a neap tide the low will not drop to as low as the open water mean of 0 metres, but might only drop to 1.3 metres, and will only go up to over just over 4 metres, whereas during a spring tide, the range may be from 0.0 metres to over during the spring spring and autumnal spring tides. Spring spring is not a mistake, it the spring tides that occur during spring.
Today in fact is a neap tide, and in Tramore the neap tide is 0.5 metres and the high tide is 4.2 metres.
There are a few serious safety implications of this.
Will you have a planned known safe exit if the water is going to be a different height to when you start swimming?
What will be the effect of the tidal current where you are swimming? The greater the tidal range, the greater the tidal current.
What different challenges will come into play on your planned route at different tide times? Will dangerous reefs appear? Will swim landmarks disappear?
What happens if you show up in a new country and have no idea of the tidal range and want to swim? Well as always, first check with locals before you swim.
But how do you recognise a high tidal range? The simple answer is to look for the high tide line.
On a beach that will be a line of debris, twigs, leaves, kelp or rubbish or even a change in the sand quality.
Don’t assume that a high tide line won’t happen the day you are swimming. Was the moon full or dark the previous night? If either, it’s a spring tide. A half-moon is a neap tide.
If there’s no beach, rocks are even better indicator. The difference between the low and high tide point is called the intertidal zone.
Around Ireland and elsewhere, rocks that close to the high tide mark will get covered in a salt resistant lichen, Verrucaria maura, making the rocks black.
Verrucaria maura doesn’t start at the low tide mark by the way, it generally starts at about the mean high tide point, HWA.
The rocks beneath the low tide point will retain their original colour, the rocks above the high tide line will often be yellow or orange with less salt resistant lichens such as Xanthoria parietina or Caloplaca marina, all of which are visible in my Copper Coast Swims. Of course sometimes the rocks are dark anyway, but high tide lines are easy to see. Here are the rocks on the far side of the Guillamene Cove at about mid tide.
It is still difficult to appreciate just what that range can mean. So … some more photos I’ve taken.
Here’s the Guillamene from the cliff top road. At low NEAP tide, all the steps are exposed. At low SPRING tide, there’s a ladder below the steps which is exposed to about 4 or 5 steps. Look at the colour range of the rocks. At the lowest point and up they are a sandy limestone colour (and covered in barnacles) and get blacker as they get higher. On a high spring tide, without any wind, the water reaches to just under the front triangular platform. Just above that line the rocks are completely black from the lichen.
Newtown Cove at high neap tide.
And at about mid tide.
And low tide. From this vantage point it might not look like much. But if you look at the full size image, you can see that there is a ladder exposed on low tide.
Considering hazards, this photo below of the west end of Kilfarassey gives an indication. With the tide only about one metre below high in this image, various reefs are starting to appear. Almost all are covered at high tide, some of them only centimetres below the mean high water surface on a calm day.
A 6 metre tidal range (almost 20 feet) is the height of a house, three times the height of a tall person. It’s very very significant.
So be safe, and take note of the conditions, tide and tide range and plan accordingly.
I’ve swam about 54,000 metres to cover the 25 kilometre coast, which were swum as a series of out and back swims, so every metre of coast was swam twice.
With the experience I’ve gained of the various currents on this stretch of coast, I now know there are longer swims that could be done unsupported, and still allow a decent safety margin (by my standards anyway). But I had to do it the way I did in order to learn that.
I’ve passed what must be literally hundreds of caves along the whole coast, many small, some big, a few huge, some rarely exposed to the sea, and many, usually the biggest, only visible from swimming out at sea. I’ve swam around every large rock on the coast and found the names of places and rocks I’ve always wondered about. Apparent synchronicity is usually an emergent feature of deeper interest.
I’ve walked miles of occasionally precarious cliffs photographing places I’d swam or planned to swim and I’ve climbed over hedges, walls and hopped many an electric fence and ditch, visited historical sites, and walked across what’s left of a few neolithic promontory forts. I’ve taken hundreds of photos for your edification and enjoyment (and have shown you the best ones) and written thousands of words, which has often taken longer than the actual swimming.
I’ve seen emerald samphire and orange crocosmia, blue grass and vivid red poppies and verdant ferns, actinic sea-holly festooned with beautiful metallic six-spot burnet moths, and heathers and daisies and daisy-like flowers, grey sea-ivory and a few faded remaining sea-thrift all along the cliffs and come to appreciate even humble lichen, Verrucarria maura, and particularly Xanthoria parietina, which adds so much colour to this coast.
I’ve seen almost every kind of local bird including Cormorants, Guillemots, Shags, Swifts and Swallows, Herring and Greater Black-Backed gulls. I think I saw some Kittiwakes, a few Gannets, lots of Fulmars, occasional Terns and Sanderlings and other small birds I don’t recognise nor can separate. Herons, two Kestrels, a curlew and two groups of my new favourites, shy cliff-top Choughs and I was dive-bombed by fifty of so gulls off Gull island at the eastern edge of the coast, and I swam right off Google Earth’s current high-resolution map range.
I’ve seen, of course, all the local jellyfish, sprats, crabs large and small, and an occasional larger fish emerge from the green, usually only visible on northerly winds and around reefs, bass and mackerel hunting on the reefs and I’ve seen starfish and anemones and a seal, though less fish that you might expect, since I suppose they think of me as a particularly splashy seal.
I’ve talked with kayakers, lifeguards, fishermen (haven’t met any fisherwomen), divers, surfers, spearfishers, Paula from the Copper Coast Geopark office, (who introduced me to a great new book on the Waterford Coast which helped me identify various plants and fauna and place names), Ryan the 4th year UCC Geology Major who had a headache from all the different rocks in tiny Ballvooney cove, tourists and locals, children and adults and dogs.
I swam in calm and rough, chop, wind and groundswell, sun, rain and cloud, onshore and offshore and no wind and all tides. I’ve been scared and exhilarated and excited and delighted and entertained. I’ve swum through tunnels big and small, and sea-arches, around islands of every size on this coast, and into and across caves, coves, estuaries and bays.
I’ve started to think about geology more, and recognise both the transient and permanent natures of our coasts more than I ever did as a surfer, and seen the damage the Copper Coast is suffering from coastal erosion (up to 2 metres per year, in some places).
I haven’t seen a stretch of coast that doesn’t have some item of rubbish on it. I had the wits frightened out me by a large plastic bag floating (neutrally-buoyant) upside-down in the sea, and I contributed to the pollution by losing my own nalgene bottle on one swim.
I actually finished Project Copper a week ago, but it takes time to write all this up. I didn’t set out to do a swim every day. One day was lost due to fog, another due to Carol’s Ballycotton swim.
Doing it in this incremental fashion gave me all these experiences and awareness and knowledge that a normal marathon swim wouldn’t have unveiled, and it’s been a pleasure to share as much of them as I could with you all.
I’ve seen all the colours of open water swimming. I’ve confirmed my long-held belief that Waterford‘s Copper Coast is one of the most beautiful and under-rated stretches of coast in Ireland.
What did I learn? You can find adventure anywhere. You don’t have to swim the English Channel or cross the Antarctic or spend a fortune. There are plenty of Firsts out there if you want to seek them out.
Go to the sea. It’s waiting, always, always waiting for you.
Guillamene to Sheep Island: Exposed. No exit from Guillamene to Garrarus. Westerly current. Higher marine traffic. About 9.5 kilometres.
Kilmurrin to Boatstrand. Various strong and often contrary currents. Water can be very rough when not rough elsewhere on coast. Interim exit possible only on west side of Dunabrattin head. About 4 kilometres.
Kilmurrin to Tankardstown. Strong westerly currents. Water can be rough when not rough elsewhere on coast. Exposed, no exit, scary. About 4 kilometres.
Annestown to Kilfarassey. Along long beach, easy exit from water almost entire length but a long walk along beach which is cut off on high tide. Watch for hidden reefs along surf line. About 5+ kilometres.
Annestown to Boatstrand. Can pick up and amplify swell when nowhere else does at Boatstrand end. Safe exits. Lots of pots and lines and some fishing boats and possible seals near Boatstrand fishing harbour. About 6+ kilometres.
Kilfarassey. Above mid tide only. Lots of hidden reefs. Easterly current between Sheep Island and Brown’s Island. Surging waves on beach above mid tide. About 6+ kilometres. Possible exits on about 70% of length.
Bunmahon to Ballydowane Cove. Exposed and hidden from rest of coast. Westerly currents. Hidden reefs. About 5+ kilometres. Possible exits but no way to walk back, except first kilometer on low tide.
Ballydowane to Ballyvooney. Westerly currents at Ballyvooney end, easterly current at Ballydowane end, reaching St. John’s Island . No exits. About 6 kilometres.
In 2010 while Channel training I did the majority of my Waterford training at Clonea, trying to eek out some fractional comfort from the average extra 0.25 degree Celsius water temperatures, after spending the previous few years mainly swimming at the Guillamene, where I returned again last winter and this spring and early summer.
But by mid summer I was looking for another location and this time as I explored it more, I grew enamoured of Kilfarassey as a swimming location and it was influential, along with the Guillamene to Sheep Island swim, as the genesis of the Project Copper idea. I was looking forward to talking about Kilfarassey particularly. Prepare yourself for effusive gushing and lots of photographs. In fact it was hard to reduce the number of images I wanted to use here.
At high tide most of the surrounding beach is cut off from the small car park but at a mid to low tide it’s possible to get around the headlands and walk from the west end of Kilfarassey beach to Garrarus car park, three kilometres away.
Right in front of the car park is Brown’s Island, which looks like a single island from the road but is actually a collection of rocks and the larger island in a line.
To the west end of the beach is a very large sea arch, passable from about half-tide, or lower if you are swimming, since it’s protected by reefs on the east side, but through which you can still swim. This arch could fit three or four swimmers side-by-side and is as high or higher than a room and about 50 metres long.
All along the beach are reefs peeking out are various tides but at high tide giving the impression of fairly empty water.
There are two particularly tall and imposing sea-stacks, one at either end of the beach, the one at the west end called Yellow Rock.
The western arch end is only about ten or twelve minutes swim from the car park, the east end is further, about twenty minutes or twenty-five minutes away.
At the eastern end , around an outcrop of cliff, is the rocky section down to the next promontory and Sheep island outside it. The promontory itself looks like an island with a sandy gap between it and the cliffs.
Sheep Island is separated by a narrow gap of only a couple of metres. And there is a long narrow tunnel about 75 to 100 metres wide through the back of the promontory. There is a very big sea stack just west of Sheep Island, which I’ve dubbed Orthanc for myself, onto which you can climb on a very calm day with a nice jumping location on the south-west side, from about 4 metres up. There are reefs all over the place down here, and the outside of Sheep Island picks up a stiff easterly current, but even on a rough day, I’ve been able to swim in the narrow gap separating Sheep Island from the promontory.
Once beyond Sheep Island to the east you are into Gararrus Bay, with the island I’ve previously dubbed The Watchtower just on the other side of Sheep island, on the Gararrus side.
There are huge arches through the promontory inside Sheep Island, which can just be swum at high tide and are portaged by canoeists.
On prevailing onshore winds the area is of course rough. I’ve swum out to Brown’s Island, it takes about 10 minutes to get to the near side on a calm day and you can add five minutes for a rough day, and another ten to circle around to behind all the rocks on the far side.
Once out at the island, there are plenty of opportunities for swimming between the rocks, in fact it feels like there are two arms of reefs reaching out from beyond the the main island that you can swim between, and the largest of the reefs also has another narrow, one-person-wide tunnel through it. The reefs are light coloured rock beneath the water and on a sunny day are fascinating with the variation of colour and shape and kelp and fish. There’s something that I love about looking at the steep reefs while that drop off suddenly underwater, it’s like flying around mountains.
The only downsides of Kilfarassey are its exposure to onshore prevailing winds, and the fact that at low tide too much reef is exposed, restricting the area that can be swum. On a bright day the area is spectacular from the cliffs, although this also applies to the entire Copper Coast.
There are all the usual Mid-Waterford coast sea birds in the area along with choughs and plenty of cliff to walk on both east and west sides of the car park.
The erosion of the cliffs can also be easily seen, there are regular overhangs where all that is left is the final bed of topsoil with plant root systems holding it in place, so keep your distance from the edge.
Kilfarassey has become a swimmer’s paradise for me. I wanted to wait until I’ve done a lot of swimming there before I “unveiled” it here, as it’s not like I’ve discovered it, though I guess like the rest of the coast no-one has anywhere near the same amount of experience swimming it as me.
The entire coast is hugely popular with canoeists and kayakers for the variation in geography, and it’s been many the time that I’ve been getting in the water this year after passing Mick O’Meara’s seapaddling.com‘s van. Mick is a veteran of a round-Ireland canoeing expedition, who arranges trips and training all the way along the coast and the gallery on his site shows a lot more of the arches and tunnels, since he can actually carry a camera with him. I’ve actually talked to more canoeists this year since I started moving up and down the coast more, but have yet to talk to Mick at sea. Mick, I’m the guy in the orange hat!
In fact one day I swam around the back of the Brown’s Island rocks, and there, standing precariously on one of the small rocks, was a guy in a high-vis lifevest. He had his kayak (not canoe) hoisted onto the rock and he was barely balanced there. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. I stopped to talk. But it turned out that he was Polish, and didn’t seem to have great English. I asked if he was okay, which made me laugh afterwards, he had a boat, I had a pair of goggles and we were a kilometre from the coast, what could I do?
On this picture I didn’t even know there were divers out there until I saw the photograph.
I picked one particular swim for this post, and, given how long this post already is, I’ll only give brief synopsis.
West from the car park, around Yellow Rock, through the arch, back around the promontory, across to Brown’s Island and outside reef, weave through the reefs and swim through the small tunnel in the second rock, swim around the big island, then strike out across to Sheep Island, passing Orthanc on your left, a swim that feels a bit longer as you are swimming into an adverse current, swim back out around the outside of Sheep island, again weave through the reefs and swim in the narrow gap separating Sheep Island to the big promontory, swim the inside of Orthanc, up along the beach, back out around the next reefs and into the main beach. There are plenty of variations.
Oh, there’s one other problem with Kilfarassey. I’ve been swimming it solo, when I want to share with friends. Describing it is like being Steven Black, Mike Harris, Liz or Finbarr fifteen years ago trying to explain Sandycove before it became the world-famous swimming location it is now. Kilfarassey is fantastic, and right now it feels like I’m the only swimmer that knows it.
Hope you enjoyed this post. If you feel like exploring Kilfarassey, drop me a line.
Back at Annestown within a couple of days, when I doubt I’d been here for a year.
I’ve described Annestown from a surfing point of view in the Annestown to Boatstrand post. When I arrived, it was a bit different. There was some actual groundswell (not very large), the sky was blue and the day was warm. Hooyah.
(I’d originally written that sentence as “when I showed up”, which made it seem like it was an event, which made me laugh when I re-read it).
The tide was dropping and near low tide. This could mean only one thing. And a walk up to the cliff edge only confirmed it.
Surfers on the reef.
Obviously surprised by the timing and sudden brief swell there were only four out, with a couple on the way. How many times have I climbed the cliff myself to look down at the reef over the years?
I’ve often been out there myself surfing, wondering and talked vaguely about the long beach disappearing east, if there were more surf-able reefs further on? I’d heard there might be. But one of the surfer’s sayings is never leave a good break looking for a better one. And this could be a very good break. And I recall what it was like to sit there, with Brown’s Island on one side, a seemingly endless beach on the other, cliffs in front and waiting for swell, and how everything seemed so big.
My friend Bill, who grew up surfing in San Diego in the 60s, once told me that he’d never had to paddle more than about a minute to get to waves. Part of that is the small California tidal range, maybe other reasons. On a different subject, maybe some day, if he agrees, I’ll publish my story about some of Bill’s adventures here. I wrote some of them up last year, he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and he’s got stories that will chill you.
It’s completely normal for surfers in Ireland to have to paddle five minutes to break, maybe more, Crab Island, a world-famous and pretty dangerous surf location in Clare can take up to 20 minutes depending on conditions. But even as a surfer a 20 minute paddle on a board is a long time. You don’t really do that voluntarily. Not like you do as a lone swimmer.
The low tide had drained the gap between the coast and Brown’s Island. So I walked across the new sand, meeting local surfer and ex-pat Aussie Brett, whom I hadn’t seen in years, probably the best longborder in the country, before stumbling and falling across the rocks. I gave up and crawled into finger deep water and dragged myself through the kelp and across the rocks, and within a long 20 metres I was into clear water.
Taking a direct line along the coast I swam along the line of the swell, and came to the Reef within minutes. It was odd, swimming through the surfers, bringing back a host of memories. I didn’t stop to talk, just swam though the bunch, precisely on the line of the pre-breaking wave. I wondered what my reaction would have been back then if some lunatic with a swimming cap and nothing else swam through the pack, heading into the distance. I’m pretty sure I would have thought that as a surfer I knew more, that the poor swimmer was obviously either 1:) an idiot, 2:) ignorant of the sea, 3:) demented, 4:) all of the above.
I swam toward the promontory, passing various unsurfable reefs, the straight cliffs high and bright in the southerly sun, reminiscent of Dover and the White Cliffs.
I reached the promontory at around forty minutes. The water past Hawke’s Cliff at this end wasn’t as nice, though the wind hadn’t changed. Once again it was probably the effect of the swell being pushed and compressed into the area between the beach and the promontory, and since it needed somewhere to go, it pushed back out in channels, and reflections.
One look at the large sea arch, one of the largest on the local coast, I knew it wasn’t safe to swim though on the swell, so I swam around the promontory and over the large sea stack, with Kilfarassey beach directly in front of me, less than ten minutes away before turning back and swimming under the promontory to inspect the entrance on the opposite side of the promontory, but the reefs at the entry were exposed, leaving only a narrow entry, ad the arch too unsafe in the swell even from this side. No matter, I’ve swum through it before.
So back around the promontory and back down along the beach beneath the cliffs, the conditions improving and the water calming once I passed about halfway down the long straight stretch. halfway down I swung outward to pass two reefs on the other side, with the swell dropping quite quickly, as it usually does, unlike chop.
Once again I swam through the surfers, but as I approached Brown’s Island I could see the tunnel was exposed and dry, so I turned outward, to swim around Black Rock. How many Black Rocks and Gull islands are there around Ireland’s coast I wonder, or even around the world?
The current from a few days previously was against me, but the distance was short, and once on the outside, I stopped to appreciate the view and bird population on the outside, with this being one of the few places which had Cormorants, Guillemots and Shags all together along with the usual Herring and Lesser Black-Backed gulls.
From there it was a five-minute swim into the beach with the dropping swell, where I body surfed a few waves and used the last wave to lift me up and put my on feet in knee-deep water. Another slightly over five kilometres new swim.
I had a plan for a swim last week, but I was let down again by my kayaking friend.
What to do, what to do?
Friday’s forecast was pretty good. Very light onshores. I wanted something new. So I decided it was the apposite day. I had a pretty decent breakfast and was ready to go.
When I arrived at the Guillamene the tide was an hour past high and the place was buzzing with people. There was even some sun in the sky but the wind was bit friskier than forecasted, enough to catch the irregular beams of sunlight and cast them about like spotlit rhinestones in a Christmas window, putting on a showy invitational display.
The Scarf current was plainly visible, this time stretching away toward the dunes.
I put on some suntan lotion and attached a D-clip to my togs. Jimmy from the Newtown & Guillamene club told that the local fishermen said the currents where I was going were too strong, according to the local fishermen. I told him I believed the fishermen were wrong.
Onto the D-clip I attached a metre-long string with a bottle with a sachet of Go-Sport carb added (I’m out of Maxim).
I looped away on my normal outward course toward the Metalman and Great Newtown Head. The water was choppy to the front. I was already about three minutes behind normal by the time I read the Head. I swam in below the head between the rocks and Seal Rock, a three metre gap that should only really be swam in Force 2 or less.
From there I swam across toward Illaunglas, passing the rock before it. I’d allocated about 20 minutes between each waypoint so I could track my progress.
I think of Illaunglas as Cormorant Rock. It’s actually a small black reef and the rock of the coast, which is white from the guano of the cormorants and herring gulls that are always there. As I passed they took to the air over me for almost 10 minutes.
Each of the three promontories between Newtown head and Garrarus are sites of neolithic forts.
On the coast all along here but particularly on either side of Cormorant rock are very large sea caves, facing almost directly south-east and south respectively, and therefore in the high August sunlight looking like black dark ocean gates to the Land of the Aes Sídhe, the underworld land of the Unseely Court and the Good Folk.
At about 45 minutes I was passed another unseen border and I was into water I’d never swum before. From the Guillamene it is all cliffs. There are some small beaches but they are inaccessible at the foot of the unstable cliffs. The last possible exist point is the foot of Newtown head under the Metalman, where it would be possible to climb the cliff and walk along the edge for twenty minutes back to the car park. Not exactly ideal if you are in togs. This swim was a commitment, a Lone Swim.
It continued to be choppy with the chop coming toward me from front and left.
From Illaunglas however I was passing one of my water borders from the outside, from the unknown water section into an area with which I was again familiar and which I think of as Wonderland.
The next twenty minutes took me toward Burke’s Rock on the outside of Garrarus, familiar water again.
With the tide dropping one of my plans to swim through what I call the Wonderland Hole wasn’t possible. I swam between the outside of the Garrarus rocks and inside Burke’s Rock with two fulmars keeping station above me.
From there I was heading across Garrarus bay. As I swam toward The Teeth, I could see three cars parked above the beach, I was back to a location where I could again exit the water, but with my car miles away, it wasn’t have been much use.
From Burke’s Rock, I swam between the reefs that I call The Teeth, because there are two lines of them and on a dropping tide you can’t take a direct line through but have to weave between.
From there I swam across on a slightly curving inward course toward Sheep Island. Sheep Island marks the end of Kilfarassey beach and was my intended destination.
I wasn’t the whole way across. It was one hour and thirty minutes, which I’d set as my turning-back time. I stopped and thought about it. Then I decided and I continued on.
1 hour 40 minutes. Just inside the smaller island I call The Watchtower. Yes, I’ve been giving swim names to a lot of the features along this coast.
I took my carb drink, gulping about half of the 750ml. Then I started back. This time I decided to go outside of Burke’s Rock. The chop was now slightly behind me. It drove me a bit too far inward approaching Illaunglas and I had to swim outward to pass Cormorant Rock, many birds once again taking wing and skimming down close to investigate as I passed. One hundred metres or so I took half the remaining carb and headed for Newtown Head once again being driven inside the head. At two hours twenty-five I took the remaining carb drink, swam inside Seal Rock again with the chop behind me, but knowing that approaching it from this side if I took the left side of the short passage it would be deeper and safer. I passed within fingertip distance of the rocks and then looped deliberately outward for the final leg with the chop now finally behind me. The last twenty five minutes were tiring.
I reached the Guillamene three hours and ten minutes since I’d started. Nine kilometers total. I’d picked up ten minutes only on the return, indicating I’d hit something that slowed me. After I used Google Earth to figure it out , I realised that the whole expedition took longer than I’d expected, since the distance was only about 9k. Obviously I’d lost more time on the outward after passing Newtown Head, and I picked up less on the return than expected.
A good, and new, unsupported swim, with a sufficient amount of scary for me. Just to note, though I was swimming part of the coast I hadn’t swam before, I’d actually, as I’d obviously taken the above photos from the cliff tops and also knew the area of the turning point from swimming it.
I’ve often swum for longer than 3 hours by myself, but I’ve been working from a location that I return to during the swim such as Sandycove, Clonea or the Guillamene. I’ve swum further unsupported in less time (Tramore bay over and back). But this was the longest time unsupported without returning to a base. And in new water.
It’s similar to a Speckled Door over and back swim in Sandycove. The same lack of exits along the coast, and a swim which you wouldn’t normally do by yourself.