Ballymacaw – Swimming a new location 2

I love swimming at my favourite places such as Kilfarassey, Sandycove and the Guillamenes. but I also love swimming at new places and there aren’t that many left to me on the Waterford Coast. It’s been some time since I did Project Copper Coast, swimming from Powerstown Head as far as Stradbally. There’s a gap of about two kilometres still unswum at Ballyvoyle Head, then all of Dungarvan Bay is swum (I hope to close that gap this year). There’s a long inaccessible stretch of coast with high cliffs from Helvick Head to Ardmore Bay, which stretch of coast is home to Ireland’s highest lighthouse at Mine Head and also still untackled apart from a couple of swims off Clare’s boat back in 2010. In 2011, I wrote a post on swimming a new location (Whiting Bay) and how I went about it, and this covers a similar theme of swimming a new location, but with different considerations.

Last year I travelled away from the Copper Coast closer to the Waterford Estuary, on the far (east) side of Tramore Bay and before Dunmore East, a less-travelled stretch of coast, and did an exploratory swim out of Portally Cove, where I discovered strong westerly currents running toward Dunmore East. 

The May Holiday weekend brought some very rare sun and a little bit of warmth, and a belief that I was finally recovering from a protracted chest infection. The water temperature seemed stable at around 10 degrees in Kilfarassey, so I decided I’d spent the day on the coast at the far side of Tramore Bay again.

Saleens warning sign

Saleens warning sign

We started the morning at the Saleens, the beach and channel at the east side of Tramore Bay. The channel separates the Back Bay, a tidal lagoon from the main bay and as such has a very strong current running through it.

From there we moved onward to Ballymacaw on the far side of Powerstown Head, which I’d only ever visited twice previously on a bad day and low tide. This occasion was a nice day, close to high tide. Like Portally, Ballymacaw is another tiny narrow and short high-sided cove, on the west side of the estuary but away from any  main road. If you remember, tidal range here in Ireland is about 5 metres average so at low tide both Portally and Ballymacaw Coves are almost dry and at high tide the coves are completely flooded. Prior to swimming Dee and I walked the path through the dense gorse bushes out to the old slipway, and then out beyond the cove entry for a good look outside the cove. Eastwards the next headland is Swines Head, to where I had swum from out of Portally. West from Ballymacaw is toward Powerstown Head and inaccessible from land, though the coast and cliffs are typically only about five to ten metres high, there are no roads.

Ballymacaw Cove

Ballymacaw Cove & the old slipway – (the new lens Polarizer is working out!)

The wind was fresh, about Force Three and there was plenty of movement in the water. With still cool water, it was earlier than usually to be doing an exploratory swim so it would need to be short. Not least because with my weight loss and less exposure training than usually, I’ve lost some of my hardening and feeling 45 minutes is about enough currently without wanting to push hard into a colder state. For this short exploratory swim at a new location, I had a number of things to evaluate and weigh beforehand

  • Swimming time
  • Currents
  • Rocks
  • Water state (roughness)
  • Wind direction
East from Ballymacaw to Swines Head

Looking east from Ballymacaw to Swines Head

Our walk out to the cliff outside the cove entrance gave a good view of the coast on either side. Also the water state of the sea and a good look at the rough water around the cove entrance. The cove itself was completely flat but right at the ten to fifteen metre-wide entrance there was a lot of movement in the water and reefs just visibly breaking the surface on the west side. The sea outside the cove had plenty of onshore wind, blowing south-westerly onto shore at a slight angle and the water was very choppy though with no big swell. Chop waves were one to two metres high.

Ballymacaw Cove entrance

Ballymacaw Cove entrance and the old slipway

Back at the car, I changed and explained my plan to Dee. The cove is about 300 metres long at high tide, it might take me four to five minutes to reach the entrance and the rough water at which point I would disappear from her view. With the wind blowing onshore but with a slight westerly element, I would swim into the chop. It was high tide, and though most people don’t believe me, high on the Waterford coast is NOT slack tide and I knew the tidal current would still be running east, though I couldn’t estimate any local eddy current effects which would run anti-clockwise. I also knew that there had been strong westerly currents from the west moving in this direction previously when I’d swum out of Portally and I would always choose to swim into an unknown current when heading out. The obvious rationale is that I don’t want to get carried too far away from a starting place by a strong current, and possibly have too difficult a swim back while getting cold.

So I would swim west for 15 minutes after leaving the cove, evaluating travelled distance as I went. If there was no current I would be then have 15 minutes back, plus another few minutes getting back to the beach, 40 minutes total. I wear a watch always when swimming open water so I’d be able to judge. Dee asked at what point should she start worrying, so I said 45 minutes, at which point she could walk up on the path to give her a better chance to see me.

As I was about to get ready a couple of guys were also getting changed into scuba gear. They were somewhat familiar with the cove, and indicated no items of concern, except a steep drop-off to 10 metres at the eastern exit of the cove and a consequent sharp drop in temperature. Just before I was ready to get in however, the worst of all possible arrivals, appeared in the bay: Three jetskis. Even in the flat water of the cove I didn’t want to risk getting in so I got back in the car. The jetskis tied up to the outside old slipway, and the guys came inland along the winding gorse path. they could only have come out of Dunmore East, the only possible water entrance for many miles. They came along the path, obviously heading for the pub near the cove. I had a chat and let them know I was heading out and there were already divers out there. They were nicer chaps but while I can’t be certain they were going for a drink, there was no-where else to go on that road and drinking and being on jetski isn’t illegal here, as far as I know. Another reason to add to my nervousness about jetskis.

Ballymacaw angler

Ballymacaw angler

It’s a very long lead-in for a short swim. As expected I reached the cove entrance after four and half minutes and immediately hit a line of choppy water. Just under the surface was a long reef reaching out from the west side of the entrance. I passed an angler who was positioned on rocks at the est side of the entrance and headed westward. The chop was coming south-westerly with the wind, about a metre and a half high. The jetskiers had warned me it was “big out there”. One a half metres of chop isn’t big, just messy and slow. After fifteen of grinding through it, I had travelled the glorious distance of maybe 400 metres! The westerly tidal current I’d expected was running strong. I released Duck #4 and turned back to the Cove entrance, impossible to see from seaward unless you are directly in front and close. The swim that had taken 15 minutes out took 5 minutes back!

Ballymacaw Cove entrance

Ballymacaw Cove entrance from the sea

Getting into the cove was quick over the reefs with the waves at the reef entrance providing a quick surf into calm water. I’d had been 30 minutes, so I swam to the beach in the warmer water at the high tide mark, and turned back for a couple of laps. I’d forgotten how tough it was to swim out of water that had helped you recover from much colder water. Warm water  feels nice…if you are not leaving it for cold water. Swimming back out the cove was brutal. The warmer water had restarted my circulation so I had inadvertently initiated Afterdrop, cooling faster, and now I was hit by colder water again. I lasted another 10 minutes  before I I was out of the water.

But the purpose of the swim, an initial scouting swim at a new relatively unknown location, though short, was successful. I’d like to stress that when swimming a new location, having a plan, an understanding of the constraints and possible problems and an idea of how to approach it, are all important.

I repeat that tides are a vital consideration for many locations and a solid understanding is essential for safety and swimming new locations in tidal areas. 

Sea pinks against the sky. yes, it's time for me to start taking lots of photos of sea pinks again.

Sea pinks against the sky. Yes, it’s the time of year for me to start taking lots of photos of sea pinks again.


5 thoughts on “Ballymacaw – Swimming a new location 2

  1. ”It’s big out there” they sound like fair weather jetskiers:)

    Donal would you be able to point in the direction of finding out about and understanding these currents and how they behave? Is there a website or is this information picked up from locals?


    • Hey Sam,

      There is no online location that I know of, though I haven’t looked recently. Thought Dept of Marine have a tiny jpg the Irish tides buried somewhere and only marginally useful because of the size. It came from a book though so they couldn’t reproduce it at full size. I picked my knowledge up from a variety of sources. I used to believe/accept the standard surfer’s wisdom about Irish tides for years until I started swimming. My sailing friend Clare was the first to start to open my eyes. I contacted the Dept Marine and they gave me the results of computer modelling they’d done on the Irish tides. I crossed referenced this with my other most valuable resource, the South West Cruising Club sailing charts of Irish tides & the two correlate. Along with this was a book called Oilean by an Irish kayaker called David Walsh, that I had on loan from Clare also, that gave what he encountered when kayaking around Ireland. Out of print now though. And of course there my own experience by now. I swam to the pier on Monday evening, 18 minutes about average, high tide, little bit choppy. Took 30 minutes to return! Yet we (or certainly I) rarely think too much about currents at that side of the bay itself.

      I’ve got some maps I’ll email you.


      • Thanks for the detailed reply Donal and those maps would be great! The flux is one thing and the currents another. I guess I am approaching this as I would with surf/beach safety in that it pays to know how the waters is behaving or likely to. I know at least our snorkeling will become more exploratory along this coastline so thanks again for the leads they will be invaluable when the conditions as they always do change out of the blue.


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