As part of the Cork Distance week two years, some of the attendees swam the inside of the Valentia Sound, to literally test the water. Rob and Lisa were the only two in this year’s swim who had been present. We knew the race would be longer, about 7.4k versus the 6k around the island. That was a big step up for some of the people signed up, but made little difference to the experienced distance swimmers. And added to that was swimming into a tide with a following wind, which would make choppy conditions and the swim would take longer.
Start in Portmagee, up the Sound, three obligatory check-in boats, with a dog-leg around after the third boat check in, over a shallow reef and into the pontoon in Knightstown. You’ll recall I’ve talked about tides, islands and amphidromes before. Valentia would be like Ireland from a tide point of view, just in miniature. At some point on the back of the island, nearer to Knightstown, there might be a place where the tides could change or clash as they wash around the island from two directions.
Saturday was indeed blowing strong westerly winds. After the safety briefing, we all drove over to Portmagee, sharing cars. We milled around the pier waiting for a slightly delayed start, but since it wasn’t cold we weren’t too bothered.
We would be going out in 12 waves. I was in Wave Number 9, 3rd last, which also included, Rob, Ciarán Craig. Also in the wave was Sandycove swim local Fionnula Walsh, one of the large number of travelling New Zealand under-18 swimmers and another girl. The four of us a handsome bunch indeed.
At the start we were to swim to the left of the wooden structure under the bridge, then it was up to everyone how to proceed up the Channel, staying to the island side of the check boats.There was only room for two swimmers at a time entering. And Rob grabbed pole position from the group. Third away, I had a poor dive, way too deep, surfaced and we were off. First order, don’t let Rob get too far away.
I felt the start was pretty fast, too fast for a long swim. But what can you do? Hang on, see what happens.
From there out Ciarán and I were together, with Fionnula right there also. It was hard to say exactly where Rob was.
In the first 20 to 30 minutes we swam by a few trailing people from the preceding waves. And were in turn passed by others from the three waves after us. I’m sure one or two weren’t happy but I don’t recall actually swimming over anyone.
Thirty minutes of digging, the three of us side by side. Ciarán and I have swum shoulder to shoulder for what much be over a hundred thousand metres. It’s what a lot of swimming is about with friends.
For a short while it was just Ciarán and I, Fionnula having moved to one side. I’d had a brief glimpse of Rob off to the right, no more than 20 metres ahead. I had a quick navigation check and found that the first check boat, usually traditional fishing boats for the Beginish swim, was too far out for us. I called Ciarán, and we swam over and checked in. But this time the channel was opening up. What looks like a relatively narrow stretch of water from land is very wide when your eyes are only two centimetres above the surface.
After that, we came together with Fionnula again, occasionally swapping positions. So much water, and seemingly so little room. Ciarán and I are content swimming together, but I had a feeling from glares through her goggles that Fionnula wasn’t as happy about it.
The wind was behind us. Regularly we’d get waves or surges impelling us forward. None was ever enough to allow anyone to break free. This was the race. Those of us remaining from Wave 9. A few in front. A few behind. Like a cycling time trial. The essential rule is catch the person is front and don’t let the person behind catch you. 70 swimmers but our race would only be with those in our rough speed range. We were never going to threaten Ned or others for position.
By about an hour I was looking for the second check in boat. I was convinced I saw quite far in toward the coast. I left the others to angle across. At my next stop, still a couple of hundred of metres from it, who was there but Lisa. A few words, she told me that wasn’t the next boat. And off I went. Now the others had some distance on me. I took a long diagonal outwards, and coming into the actual second check-in boat, identified by the large buoy on the roof, I was just behind. I had a good check-in, no time lost at all. The boat had some swimmers aboard, obviously relayists waiting for their team-mates to arrive.
Once again the three of us were together. Nothing surprising about this when you’ve done lots of sea miles. Speed difference become obvious immediately at the start. Tiny discrepancies break up groups and lead to solo swims or swimmers with no apparent difference seeming inseparable.
After check-in two, we seemed like we were far out. There were a few of the young New Zealand guys close by and a wetsuit swimmer inside of us, 50 to 75 metres away. Al thundering on. Gradually, I started to see what I took to the point or bend on the left in the distance. After leaving the second boat, I decided it was time to make a move. We’d already been swimming at distance race speed since we couldn’t separate. It wasn’t like I could just pull a different speed out. A sprint would be insane. By now though, after an hour and half, I had moved past the stage to worrying about conserving energy. I started to hope we were moving fast and would finish inside two hours. I went wide. A big risk, adding more distance, but using an old move from my cycling days.
Swimming by myself, I knew I would concentrate on my stroke more than swimming with the two guys, I’d get a fraction more length per stroke which might accumulate to a slight difference. It might work. Usually if I’m swimming with someone who’s a fraction faster, it works the other way around. The problem was I’d have no idea whether I was successful or not until the end.
After a while I started coming in. The wetsuit swimmer I thought had dropped behind, despite the better line. The New Zealand guys were still close, but concentrating on keeping each going, as I gathered from hearing them once while I was breathing and they were close.
The third check-in boat was out wide. Too wide for most it transpired. It was perfectly lined up for me. And I kept moving in. And there was the turn. We’d been warned in the safety briefing about a suddenly shallowing reef after third check-in, which we would have to move out to avoid. There it was. Stoney bottom. Even with my poor distance vision without glasses, I could see the pale fish warehouse on the point across from Knightstown.
Quickly I came upon two non-wetsuit swimmers. Young. More New Zealand guys. Looking a bit disorganised. Keep my head down and keep going. They tagged on behind. There was a worry they’d stay on my legs now that they someone to follow and be able to pull out a sprint for the final push that I couldn’t match. They were obviously faster since they were a good way ahead, and inexperience was their disadvantage. Maybe cold also.
Into the left, turning toward Knightstown.
And there was Rob. On my right. Right there, two metres away.
We’d once done a Speckled Door where we came back together, separated for 30 minutes, each thinking we had the better line, him wide, me inside, and came together in exactly the same spot leading to Sandycove.
And here we were again. This was all the race was about. Just me and Rob. I was on the inside for a few seconds before he saw me. The water was shallow. Shallow. More shallow. I was passing him. He couldn’t handle the shallow reef. I kick arse on shallow reefs. Rob says he can take five metres out of others on Sandycove’s second corner and that I can take another five metres out of him. I was swimming with a 4 centimetre long scar on my right ribs from going shallow in the six-hour Sandycove swim only the weekend before. He had to go wider. I had him.
There were the old British houses ahead on the left. This final section was it. Everything before was the entry. It was one hour and fifty minutes.
As I passed into slightly deeper water, I risked a glimpse back. Two people were trying to walk off the reef. It was almost ankle shallow. the New Zealand guys must have caught Rob. Was Rob standing?
Head down. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Two beat still. Long stroke. Maximise. Those houses are taking time coming.
Oh, oh. We must be hitting the tide change section. Anything was possible here.
Ok, I’ve reached the houses. That took longer than expected. There was the large Valentia RNLI Severn-class lifeboat moved in to moor.
Damn, the house are still on my left. Dammit. This is like swimming in crude oil. Progress is tiny.
Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull.
This is like pulling yourself through treacle. Houses are finally passed.
There’s the pontoon. People. I see people. Don’t break now.
Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Six beat. Hold it.
There it is. There’s no-one around me. Two hundred metres. Sprint. I’ve broken Rob.
Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. Pull. Pull. Eight beat.
Rob reaches down and helps me out, his hand cut from the shallow reef bleeding down over me.
I roar with laughter and chagrin and disbelief.
Nothing left for it but to have a party.
Postscript: Rob used his local knowledge. He thought, even with me in front, that he could still hopefully pass me in the last 1500 metres because of that knowledge. And for this swim it was very significant. No, I’m not saying what it was. Maybe I’ll get to use it in the future. Though not against Rob, I guess.
That’s the nature of Open Water swimming. It’s not just about the speed. Rob came in third Male non-wetsuit. I came in next but was fifth overall as Eddie, starting in a wave behind us, held enough time to pass me. My time was 2:14. Ned’s was around 1:55 and he was first for the third year running. Sandycove swimmers were first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh in the male non-wetsuit category, with Ciaran and Craig coming in after me, having passed the others. Fionnula was first in Female Non-wetsuit. One of the Under-18 New Zealand guys came in with a blistering, unbelievably fast 1:38. Eight swimmers abandoned due to the tough conditions and extra distance. Extra dropouts were expected due to the conditions and the crews had all been warned of the possibility. Some swimmers took over three hours, a great achievement for such a tough swim. All were agreed the last 1500 metres were a nightmare of infinitesimal progress.
It was, again, such a great swim, and so much fun, that I thought it might be interesting to see it from the inside of my head, as it were.
That night we all got hammered again. Those pictures are not so good. thanks to Dee for the great race pics.