Tag Archives: Owen O’Keeffe

Swambivalence

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Edward Smythe’s God of the River Suir on Dublin’s 18th Century Custom’s House.

I live on the bank of one of Ireland’s longest rivers: The river Suir. At 115 miles length, you’ll appreciate therefore that Ireland is a small country. The river flows through three counties: Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford.

The river forms the Tipperary-Waterford border for many miles and features in the most famous Kilkenny ballad. But it is most commonly associated with Tipperary, probably due the rising on the slope of the Devil’s Bit mountain, and the meandering path it takes through the country and flowing through so many Tipperary towns, (Thurles, Cahir, Golden, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir).

I’ve lived on its bank on the tidal estuary for over ten years but I’ve never felt any interest in swimming in it. Indeed the first time I ever got into the river was a few months when I went in to rescue my aging dog from drowning.

The Clonmel to Carrick road follows the river and as the river’s cleanliness has improved over the years, and after having crewed and observed on Owen O’Keeffe’s Blackwater river swim the past two years, I finally decided last year that I might as well swim from Clonmel down to Carrick, 21 current-assisted kilometres.

Swim4Good
Swim4Good, just before starting

After a couple of weekends of walking the various sections, due to other conflicts, we didn’t even know if the swim would go ahead until two days before. The swim itself occurred on the Summer Solstice, which proved to be the best day for crew availability, water temperature, and a compliant high tide, which tops out a couple of miles above the town. Though it’s not a true tide but a river backfill from the actual tide lower in the estuary, so it’s not as easy to predict.

I would liked to have been able to do something to raise awareness for the Swim4Good campaign. Swim4Good is a swimming-based project which seeks to use swimming as a social improvement tool. It was started by Mauricio Prieto, Emily Kunze and Susan Moody. In 2013, they raised an astonishing $100,000+ for a glodal literacy campaign. But with the short notice, and our lack of bodies to collect any for charity on the route, and a lack of response from the local radio station, wearing the Swim4Good cap and this paragraph, I’m afraid, is the best I can do for now.

I’m not doing a stroke-by-stroke blog post.  The pertinent information is that I had Owen to observe and document and local Carrick distance open water swimming neophyte Conor Power to guide, each kayaking. Conor, like Owen, loves river swimming and knows the river Suir well. However, the temperature was cooler than expected at just over 13º Celsius for almost the entire swim, and I did feel it drop substantially for a mile past the confluence with the river Anner.

The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)
The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)

We started at 11.17am and I touched down beside some local alcoholics on the slipway at 2:59pm, first person to swim this stretch, in three hours 42 minutes. I’d estimated four to four and half hours of swimming so this was quicker than expected.

Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.
Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.

It felt like I hit every submerged rock between Clonmel and Carrick. There had (surprisingly for Ireland) been no rain for the previous week, and for most of the duration the depth was rarely more than waist deep.

Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas's Bridge, rougher than it seems
Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas’s Bridge, rougher than it seems

Even with the changing banks, even with faster-than-expected current, even with Dee and the doglet popping up regularly on the bank, even with trying to dodge rocks and even with not succeeding, river swimming is boring. My legs and feet were bruised and cut. I even had a (small) laceration on my upper chest.

 

Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan
Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan

Every time I’d hit a really shallow patch, I’d have to stop kicking. But then my legs would sink and I’d hit the rocks anyway. I had to stand once to walk about three metres across just outside the village of Kilseelan and I had to  bum-shuffle a couple of metres on the other side of Kilsheelan.

The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir
The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir

I saw five fish, one car registration plate and no shopping trollies. The river and water was clean. I’d entertained thoughts that if it went well, I might run it as a time trial next year, but it’s too shallow to run such an event.

 

Approaching Carrick's old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish
Approaching Carrick’s old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish

I feel only ambivalence or even vague embarrassment about the swim. The geographical distance of 21 kilometres with current assistance was probably closer to only 14 kilometres in swimming terms, so quite similar to training swims many will be doing around this time. But my shoulders were very heavy for the last forty minutes and I was happy to get out.

I mostly feel like just shrugging off the swim, and don’t feel I accomplished anything, (which is no reflection of the time and assistance of Conor and Owen). I’ve never swum more than six hours in fresh water, and I still don’t feel that I’d want to extend that time.

Elaine Howley was swimming a 24 hour lake training swim in the US at the same time (plus much more) and reported having a great time. Thus proving indubitably (to me anyway) that fresh water is more likely to promote dementia than salt water.  The sea does not engender similar feelings of ambivalence in me.

A similar duration ocean swim with less to see and less accomplished would be more enjoyable.

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.

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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.

Coumshingaun.resized

Summer in Ireland – Mountain lake swimming 1

Back in June after the Cork Distance Week, Owen O’Keeffe, aka the Fermoy Fish, Ireland’s youngest ever English Channel swimmer, suggested a swim in Tipperary’s Bay Lough, up in the Knockmealdown Mountains.

And so it was that the Fish, Dave Mulcahy, myself and Jen Schumacher, visiting Ireland for the Camp from California, met one morning in early summer at the car park two kilometres from the lake, which is at the end of a long boreen (small road).

I never knew the lake as Bay Lough, when I visited it on summer Sunday afternoons as a child. It was always the haunted lake, the bottomless lake or the Vee lake. The Vee is the scenic drive up through the Knockmealdown Mountains.

Bay Lough

The lake is a glacial corrie, scoured out of the mountains during one of Ireland’s regular glaciation periods, the last of which ended 18,000 years ago. There are stories about the lake the two of which I had remembered was that it was allegedly bottomless, and that no-one could swim across it.

Both superstitions seemed reasonable to a credulous teenager, even though the lake is modest in size. The lake and environs are very scenic, in a grim desolate way. I clearly recall on every visit how my father would try to skim a rock across the lake, never succeeding. Never did I see anyone swim in it, not even my Dad, no stranger to doing stupid things outdoors himself, a trait I seem to have inherited.

It’s a pretty small oval lake, maybe four hundred metres on the long axis, two hundred on the short axis. The pass looks down on the Golden Vale, valley of the Suir river, often said to be the richest and most agricultural land in the world.

The Golden Vale, Slievenamon mountain in the distance

The mountainside is covered in rhododendron which blooms in late May and early June and can be pretty spectacular, if you ignore the fact that it is an invasive highly aggressive bloody big weed. Mountain lakes tend to be a bit colder than the lower ones, the temperature was about 9 or 10 degrees Celsius. The water is dark and peaty from the mountain run-off, and underneath it’s black as pitch, the blackness that inspired the legends of bottomlessness, and the cold dead hand of the poor drowned Colleen Bán, with whose legend I tried to scare Jen. Channel swimmers aren’t easily scared.

There’s a misogynistic legend about Petticoat Lucy, the Witch of Bay Lough that’s worth reading, just for the context. This bit though is true: “If you were ever to visit the lake itself you will be struck by the feeling of loneliness that surrounds the area.”

A nice little swim. No legs were grabbed by the cold dead hands of the lost souls of the lake.