I’ve been meaning to put this post for the past two years before the start of each year’s Distance Training Week!
Let’s start with a caution: Sandycove Island in Cork is a location for experienced open water swimmers. It should not be dismissed because it is (now) well-known or because there are many local swimmers. You should as always be aware of the tide and wind conditions and it is preferable to swim around the island with others according the local schedule. Any of the most experienced local swimmers can tell scary stories about swimming around the outside.
I’ll also point out that there is a Sandycove Island Swim Club website. Tide times are not posted at the slipway but are posted on the website in the daily schedule (below). There are six current swimmers (crowned with special M Club swim caps) in the Thousand Plus Lifetime Laps club. There are more members of the 500 Lap L club and I myself am a far-flung member of the C Club (100+ lifetime laps) having only notched up about 150 laps, (but given I live two and half hours away…). A minimum of ten swims in different weather and tide conditions will start to give a good understanding of a particular location and obviously the more one swims at any location the better one understand its vagaries. Any of the C club members or up have a very good understanding of the island and have come to understand a lot of the finer points, in some cases literally.
Organised swims according the club schedule are held about one hundred and fifty days of the year and the annual calender is on the website (2013 schedule). With intermediate and distance and triathlete swimmers all swimming locally there is nearly always someone around for the scheduled swims. Sandycove and Sandycove Island are situated on the south-west Irish (Cork) coast outside the town of Kinsale. To the general population it is not anywhere near as well-known as Ireland’s other more famous swimming location of the same name but is better known amongst open water swimmers and is the swimming home of many experienced long distance and proficient sea-swimmers.
The group includes three Triple Crown swimmers, and currently nineteen English Channel soloists with many more swimming achievements, a list of which is kept on the Sandycove Swimmers website, (updated at the end of each swim season). A few miles to the west of the cove is the Old Head of Kinsale, which stretches out six kilometres and protects this stretch of coast from some of the prevailing south-westerly swell and storms. The cove offers the possibility of inside laps when the conditions outside the island are too rough and it’s possible to swim up into the usually warmer estuary behind the island (which also has more boat moorings) but not on low tide.
A south-easterly wind is generally considered the worst condition for swimming anywhere in the cove, and in this wind even the inside of the island is exposed with only the very short near (west) side being protected.
Around the island swimming is almost exclusively anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise for my North American friends) around the island, partially due to being easier to navigate the various rocks and because it is easier and safer to navigate into the cove from outside the island. Since the direction is now established it is therefore safer to be swimming in the same direction as others. Anti-clockwise swims tend to only occur on multi-lap long swims that go through the low tide period.
Water temperature around the island is variable, as is depth. Amongst the coldest parts is the shallow entrance where all swims start at the slipway, as there is a cold stream feeding in. The stretch out to the first corner is slightly warmer. Passing outside the “first corner” is usually cold especially having transitioned from warmer water inside. Inside the island, protected from the exposed sea, or after the second corner where the river estuary can improve temperatures can also be warmer but not necessarily so. On occasion, these conditions can reverse with the outside being warmer. This variability and daily unpredictability is part of the difficulty and attraction of Sandycove for long distance training and it is common to hear it said that the temperature range around the island can be two degrees on a single lap. This may sound insignificant but the difference between ten and twelve degrees Celsius is very wide.
There is sea life. There is at least one local common seal, not often seen but which does occasionally shadow swimmers. The protected location means jellyfish infestations are light and the far side of the Old Kinsale Head only a few miles west has much higher numbers. The waters are home to the usual denizens of seabass, sprats and shellfish and occasionally mackerel shoals outside.
The water is clean though it does taste somewhat interesting as one swims the last hundred metres into the slipway. Water visibility has the same range as the rest of the Irish coast from clear to impenetrable with the clearest days usually following a northerly wind (and therefore often the coldest days).
Apart from windless days, the calmest conditions are on northerly and north-westerly winds as these are offshore for both of the two “long sides” of the island. Calmer days are not often the warmest unless during an unusually sunny long spell during the summer. Long periods of windlessness or sun are rare in Ireland.