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Stephen at Fastnet

“I Know Nothing” – Amazing Stephen Redmond talks about 2011

Stephen Leaving Baltimore for Fastnet

There are swimming legends around the world. Little known outside our sport.  Some past, some current. In a country with a very small population of only four million, Ireland is only occasionally successful in International Sport, and we celebrate our sporting heroes as a consequence.

But in Open Water Marathon swimming, we excel.

World Open Water Woman Swimmer of the Year for 2010 was Anne-Marie Ward. Lisa Cummins was nominated for the same for 2009 for her astonishing Double English Channel. Julie Galloway-Farrell, whom we’re happy to claim as our own, is nominated for Performance of the Year and Ned Denison, (Irish to all intents and purposes, don’t let the accent fool you), is a 2011 Inductee of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.

And in this group is Stephen Redmond, from West Cork, currently pursuing the Ocean’s Seven, with the Gibraltar, Catalina, English and North Channel’s already behind him and an unsuccessful Molokai also. (Irish Open Water swimmers respect the North Channel above all others). This year Stephen ALSO soloed Fastnet Rock, never previously done, (Ireland’s Teardrop, so-called because it was the last shred of Ireland so many emigrants saw as they left for the shores of America).

Sailors the world over know of Fastnet, notorious for its winds and rough water, the turning point in one of the world’s toughest yacht races. (This year, a group of us, all serious and experienced open water swimmers, were to attempt a Fastnet relay, and in four periods of waiting, we never got weather that would a relay could swim, which can tolerate much rougher water).

Stephen writes below about his incredible year. I feel humbled and proud to just be able to read this and share it with you.

Remember, if you are live in Ireland, visited here, want to visit here, are one of the 70 million Irish around the world, have ever heard of Ireland, or have ever even worn green, click here to vote for Stephen Redmond, for World Open Water Male Swimmer of the Year.

I Know Nothing, 2011 – Gibraltar

2011 has been a serious and busy year. Looking back, I have met some incredible people who have helped me get this far. I have worked with and sought the advice of people around me who have shared, encouraged and kept me going when I really thought I could not go on. My wife Ann, my kids Steve and Siadbh, Ann’s mother Delia, my brother Anthony and my family, are the rock where it all starts. These are things we all rely on and fall back on when we have nothing left and they have gotten me through to the other side every time.

My first swim of the year came suddenly in May when a slot opened in Gibraltar. A friend of mine had a slot for early May and the Gibraltar swim association had agreed that I could also swim the same weekend. Doubts whether we had enough training put in and very little open water swimming done, all had to be put aside as we entered the water in Tarifa in Spain.

Dave Williams was Feeder/animator for this swim. With one swimmer of either side of the Rib we only had a five or six-hour window of opportunity for this swim. The wind had blown a steady Force 4/5 since we set foot in Tarifa.

You all know the drill. Being so early in the season we were the first to attempt Gibraltar this year.

Factors that made it a really tough swim were that this was Ivan Holloway’s (also from Stephen’s home town of Castledermot, Co. Kildare) first Channel swim, time was short, we both stroked at different rates, and every time we stopped for feeds the boat asks us to go faster. These all eat into you until you think you are swimming like a beginner, sighting constantly for the point boat, and a false sense of security, with the water being so calm.

We soon realize that the reason we are being forced to swim hard is the mental (Editor’s note: crazy) tide and currents that greet us when we get closer to Africa. I seriously think we are going to have to get out, as we cannot see the point boat or Ribs for long periods, and tanker traffic is constant. Miraculously we get in in five hours. Dave joins us for the swim into the shore and we all realize how lucky we are to have made it.

I KNOW NOTHING – Home & Fastnet

Lough Ine, Stephen’s home training location in West Cork

We regroup at home. Friends Dave Williams and Noel Brown are incredible, shouldering the organisation of the next swims. The logistics of getting to these distant swims weighs heavily, and much of my time lapping Lough Ine (above) is taken up with this.

Steve Munatones has a lot to answer for, putting this mad crazy idea into my head after we completed the North Channel. A lot of work goes into trying to make the swimming effortless and efficient as possible. Time is also given to the mental aspect of the swims as I find this a huge part of the swims. If I allow doubts into my head they tend to block out the positives and build momentum like a chemical reaction. I try to put my head in a freezer, locking down all ideas except; the finish of the swims, what will it be like?; what will be the taste and temperature of the water?; what kind of beach?; making the last stroke that propels your hand into the land; and the blinding clarity that it all makes sense for a second before you realize that it’s over.

A lot of experimenting with kicking, feeds, gels, and kit. All take time, and training is like a war as much as possible when I have time then work, and home, FAMILY. Then start again.

We decide to go for Catalina in October if I can get a slot. So the summer is very busy. I need to get a decent build-up swim and my old obsession swim come back to me of swimming around the Fastnet Lighthouse, either from Schull or Baltimore.

We eventually decide to try Baltimore around the Fastnet and into Schull. Taking advice from Denis Griffin, a local fishermen who tells me I am crazy. But we already know that his knowledge is beyond belief, advising that it can only be attempted on slack tides and that we have to reach the Rock at a certain time or we can forget about completing, the tides being so strong and weather so quick to change out there. The shortest distance for the swim being 24 miles, it is a monster. But I need to test myself so we know we can face Catalina. Questions about whether it is to close to the swim are there always.

As I train another insane idea come to mind and I wish they would stop but it seems to be the way.

Could we ever go onto Hawaii and Molokai and attempt it if we are successful in Catalina?

I know forcing swims is a recipe for disaster but having discussed with my doctor and support team and looking at the possibility of completing the Seven Channels and making it a Irish and World First and competing with some of the best elite swimmers in the world is bloody daunting but worth a try. (I will have to stop listening to the voices, I think they are trying to kill me).

We attempt the Fastnet swim on the morning of the 17th of October 2011. Calm  weather and sun greets me and seeing as this is the fourth attempt since July, just to get in the water, I thank the gods. The Fastnet Yacht race is still in full swing, it being only two days since a multi-million yacht lost its keel and over-turned at the rock, so we have to be careful to keep out of the way of traffic out there, as if there was not enough problems.

My support team are friends who have all completed Ironman Triathlons but as we have the briefing for the swim and I describe what is going to occur, and what they may have to do, they all realize this is a daunting task. When I tell them that they cannot let me back onto the boat unless I am dead, they realize that it is going to be a long day.

Stephen at Fastnet

Long eventful puking, sick stomach, begging to stop, but they never once panicked and were brilliant in the extreme. We ended up swimming 26.5 miles in thirtenn hours and thirty minutes in water temps of 12 to 14 Degrees Celsius, (53.6 to 57 Degrees Fahrenheit). Never had so many prayers and deals been made to never swim again if we got this swim. And utter disbelief as I rounded the pier in Schull  to see Denis Griffin on the pier.

Through the tears in my bloody mask we had both waited a long time for this moment and still I wonder how we did it.

I KNOW NOTHING – Catalina

Training goes on as we approach Catalina with great fear. Getting to these places is the hardest thing of all.

And as we finally get into LA. we realise we are on the edge. The hotel is right on the water, near our boat so meal and bed. In Los Angeles another Irish contact Brian Carmody helps with the hotel and our recovery strategy if we intend to go onto Hawaii.

One day’s rest and prepping and it’s onto the boat for a steam over to Catalina Island, to start the swim at 1.00 am. I am in denial as this is the first time I have ever got on a boat to swim at the time booked for swim. Normally the wind follows me wherever I go and we are always hanging around waiting. I’m shocked. So little time to rest after flight, preparing kit and gathering stores for the boat.

We have an engine starter problem which is fixed and we are not delayed too long, nerves jangling jangling, thoughts of “have we taken on too much, so far away from home?”. Enough. We try to sleep going out. It  seems a long way. Jesus, nerves. Given a shout up by Anthony, my brother and my traveling companion. The poor bugger is suffering with sea sickness. A long delay at the start trying to get us in close to shore. It’s really really dark. At last we are in.

I got pretty cold standing around and try to swim in over a kelp forest. In the end I swim/roll over them. After jarring my shoulders in the kelp I reach land exhausted and this is only the start! Not a good feeling.

I swim with a paddle-boarder next to me from the Catalina Swimming Association, which is new to me, and awkward and hard to see and avoid the board. Gracie is talking to me which I am not used to and I feel she is trying to tell me something or I should stop. Stroking at about 54 strokes per minute but the phosphorescence is like a welding arc under the water. Jesus, bad news. First feed down is a bit slow as it’s done off the board, I’m not enjoying this. The doubts, the doubts. This is their golden time. After hours Forrest Nelson (Editor: another Nominee for World Open Water Male Swimmer of the Year) comes in. I am amazed by the care taken by the Catalina Swimming Association. It is humbling to come half way around the world and meet strangers who will do anything  to see you succeed and indeed Forrest, and Marta my observer got me through the monster.

I can only assume the journey and the quick lead into the swim affected me but my stomach locked up and six hours in, I treaded water for 15 minutes pleading to stop….

Two miles to go on Catalina

Never a ladder down, nothing. In the end Anthony pushed the one button that he knew would stir anger and a refusal to quit in me. He explained to Forrest to come out to me and quietly tell me that my kids had just called to see how we were and they had said that I should not give up. The tipping point of the swim. How did Forest know this?? Middle of the channel cursing them all, abuse flying, it was such a surreal moment that I had no other choice. A Milky Way was flung to me and I just put my head back in the water and got going again.

Utter joy and humility are what we should all feel . This swim bought them. We finished in twelve hours and thirty minutes to cheers and much laughter. At this point I did not want to see water again for a long long time. No way was I going to Hawaii!!

We had a great meal with my support team, enjoyed talking, also met the smiling man Steve Munatones, who caught me for a sound bite of how tough the swim was.

Great to meet the man who was a huge help to us in LA and with the rest of trip and future swims as well. We stagger back to room and collapse to black sleep for six hours.

I KNOW NOTHING – Molokai

Waken early to texts and calls from home. I feel neither here nor there. A call from home tells me to try one day of recovery before deciding to come home. After all we are so close and have our deposit paid on boat. Discussions with Anthony and Steve Munatones and support team at home. By the end of the day I feel pretty good. The warmer water has not taken as much as the cold water does out of my shoulders. Next morning we decide to go onto Hawaii and arrange flights and accommodation. I have to cancel Catalina thoughts for the time being and begin a blank page for Hawaii. It’s pretty hot here. We get into the hotel very tired from flights but realizing we have three good days to prepare for the swim.

These days go well and I feel strong and recovered. I swim in the sea every day. It’s very salty and the waves have incredible power. The Skipper is okay for Wednesday so off to Molokai on Tuesday. Nerves in overdrive again. You are even further from all we know  and are the phones are not really working here, so little contact with home. I tell you the hardest jobs are the support team. Remaining positive and getting me through swims and airports is an unenviable task. We get to Molokai  Island and the hotel. We are in the wilds now, that’s for sure.

We meet the skipper and steam around the island around five thirty A.M.. I start greasing up. Dark, dark, dark again. Into the water after a briefing and into the island over reefs. I get taken by waves and slammed. Spear tackled and scratched badly. A disaster, I lose my goggles and cap. Violent stuff,a bad start. On the beach, I scout around to see if there was anyone up. Nothing, so I signal boat and start to swim out to get spare goggles and cap. The first two hours go in a flash, the water great and warm as a bath, the feeds are great, this is good. My left eye got a fair doing from the water and is closing up. But time to get on. I swim just under eight miles in the first two hours. Great.

Then gradually the water and swell starts to get a lot rougher. Anthony tells me on the next feed that we are getting hit by a strong head current and large waves. Molokai was having fun with us. This swim was different again. Jesus, I shorten strokes to deal with swell and increase rate. The boat is a fair distance away looking for better water to see if we can get away from  this awful current. The first shark wander into view. Nice clear water, I can see them a long way off. Bugger. What is it? Why it is that it is smiling? Bloody film’s bloody music. In the end it has no interest and wanders off. Lots of small jellies, stinging away. Amazing clarity in the water but the waves are like being caught and thrown like a stick and we are up to our necks in it this time. Feeds continue great, I feel much better than Catalina and full of energy. After around nine hours, which I judge by the sun on my left, the skipper is having problems holding the boat as I feed with waves coming over the side of the boat. Poor Anthony is soaked. He tells me we are nearly half way but making very  slow progress against this current. More sharks and tuna all day. I’m long getting used to it now.

We carry on, constantly sighting the boat. You are on your own with your own thoughts but my head is very positive. We know nothing about pain really or how far we can really go any way. On to darkness now and still in huge swells. The next feed and the Skipper delivers an ultimatum that we are just over half way. Eleven hours into the swim and have another fifteen hours to complete , he is not happy that they are losing sight of me on the boat for long periods of time, which I did not realise.  I decide to swim on, to see if we can get out of this cursed current.

At the next feed, we talk again and he tells me that he has never seen a current like this in the Channel. Anthony is distraught, knowing that we must come out on safety grounds. There have also been a lot of sharks scouting around for the last few hours or so.

Terrible to be honest , the Skipper tells me he cannot guarantee that I will not be lost, even with a shot of glow sticks on, and advises me to come out after eighteen miles and eleven hours and thirty minutes.  The steam back is very long and very quiet. We clean up and chat and realise the water beat us and we could have gone on for many hours.

A steep learning curve indeed and we have learned so much for when we come back. Which we will.

I KNOW NOTHING – 2011

The whole year has gone so quickly and we have met great people and learned so much.  I am delighted to be nominated for the WOWSA swim award I hope you will vote for me and we will complete the remaining Channels next year. I hope for your continued support and  realize how lucky I have been. Great people, great water, great swims and so many great swimmers . We have all come too far to fail. Thank you for your support.

Kind regards,

Stephen Redmond

Click here to vote for Stephen Redmond, for World Open Water Male Swimmer of the Year