Though it sits at the tip of the Hook peninsula, the historic Hook Head lighthouse is almost more remote than some of the Irish offshore lighthouses. The Tower of Hook, as it’s known locally, is the world’s second oldest operational lighthouse, and it’s said locally that the phrase “by Hook or by Crook” arose because when indicating his intention to attack the city of Waterford (Ireland’s oldest city, and one of the largest Viking cities), Oliver Cromwell said he would invade by Hook (Head) or by Crook (village), which is on the opposite side of the estuary. It’s location and strategic importance have given the promontory a long place in Irish history.
Hook Head is a regular year round afternoon destination for us. Exposed, and located as it is on Ireland’s south-east tip sitting out into the Atlantic, it catches a lot of wind and rough water. The peninsula is low and almost treeless and it’s an attraction for a photographer, as it can be shot at dawn or sunset at different times of the year.
An open water swimmer cannot but visit it and think about swimming around the tip, despite the wrecks that dot the sea-floor (which attract a lot of scuba divers), and the many tragedies that have happened and continue to occur in these dangerous waters.
It was another unplanned Sunday, when the late summer weather warmed up after a cool August, the sky was clear and the Hook west webcam showed calm water. Well, it’s another local swim I’d been meaning to do, so why not today?
A few weekends before, while we still had a loan of Owen O’Keeffe’s kayak, we’d finally, finally completed an eight kilometre swim around Black Rock in Dungarvan bay starting from the east end of Clonea. It was another challenging swim that had long eluded me, as the Rock sits out in the navigation channel and is subject to strong off-shore and cross currents I’ve encountered previously and which isn’t safe for a single unaccompanied swimmer (I do actually have safety standards). But we’d had no camera that day to illustrate a post.
Hook is about an hour’s drive away, crossing over on the brief Passage East car ferry, by early afternoon we had parked outside the lighthouse and walked the three kilometres around the coast to the tiny eastern fishing harbour of Slade, barely protected from the prevailing south-westerlies inside the eastern side of the peninsula. Because of the extreme weather here, the small harbour is split by a double wall to give further protection, while above the village of a few house stands the ruin of another castle keep.
After a quick chat with a couple of local retired fishermen inquiring if there was anything I needed to be aware of (“be careful around the Hook, the currents are very dangerous there“), I changed and climbed down the ladder to the silted up corner of the low-tide harbour and waded out past the first mooring before setting off.
The water in Slade Harbour was, by a long shot, the most foul, rank and putrid tasting water I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. But it was only about 75 metres before I reached the entrance and headed out into fresher tasting open sea, swinging right and south by the coast, carefully avoiding many hidden reefs, while Dee and the Doglet were silhouetted on the coastal path.
The tip of Hook is a mix of rocks but mostly terraced Old Red Sandstone that slopes into the sea and is a popular destination for geology students on field trips. On a sunny afternoon the terraces provided an excellent base for many shore anglers chasing bass and the late summer mackerel so I had to stay far enough out to avoid cast lines. As the coast varied I was from about 100 metres to 50 metres out.
The breeze was Force Three from the south-east, so initially as I left Slade it was into my face and the waves were bouncing and reflecting from the shore and inside reefs before I could move around the nearby rocks. People who say you should swim very close to shore have little experience of how waves can reflect back onto a swimmer and can double the rough surface caused by the wind as amplitudes collide and add up unpredictably.
Once I moved south-west from the first outcrop 200 metres from the harbour, from my low vantage point the next way point was a low outcrop about a kilometre distant, and about 1200 metres from the harbour exit, but as I moved more south then south-west, it became obvious from my slow progress that I was swimming into a slight westerly current. As so often happens, Dee afterwards told me I was accompanied by a couple of grey seals which I didn’t see at the time.
The number of shore anglers was lessening as I moved west and the chop moved to my left. Progress was indeed slow and I didn’t reach the seven or eight metre height of the south-east side, 1200 metres from the start until forty minutes had passed, having taken twice as long as I’d expect to travel the distance unimpeded.
Swimming directly west after that point, I could see finally the tip of the light-house and occasional glimpse of Dee and the Doglet watching me and taking photo’s.
I reached the extensive rock terraces in front of the light-house before an hour has passed and the breeze and chop shifted to behind me and slackened. I stayed clear of the reefs and hoped to catch a glimpse of one of the submerged wreck but such didn’t happen. I passed the light-house on my right as I started to progress north-west and the water completely flattened, protected from the south-easterly breeze while I could see the many visitors on the Hook and an occasional person taking the tour to the top of the light-house.
Regardless of weather, even in the calmest conditions some small waves will break on the Hooks south-west tip and I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.
And I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.
And I could see the small white breakers below the Tower.
I wasn’t moving forward at all. It must have taken a couple of minutes before I realised that despite the now flat water and incoming tide and even south-east breeze, there was a strong north-west current.
Up on land my stall was immediately obvious to Dee and to a woman whom she said was watching and who declaimed that I “must have someone watching over me from the lighthouse“.
I mentally and subconsciously reviewed my options and went for Plan A – Swim Harder. I went for a maximum sprint. Of course, that’s an open water swimmers sprint, more like a pool 400 metre effort, not something that you can swim for 50 or 100 metres that you can’t maintain at that pace.
A minute, 90 seconds, two minutes, I was swimming flat out. Very, very slowly the small white breakers moved.
It took me about ten minutes to cover 80 metres. Had that not worked, I’d have next tried Plan B, Swim In a Different Direction and swum away from the Hook but my subconsciousness told me that risked being either pushed south as I swum out, or finding I’d have to swim a long way up into the estuary to be able to get back in across the current, while being swept back to possibly to where I’d been almost stopped. I also had Plan F – Get Out, in reserve, and I could have reversed direction and likely got out on the reefs.
The current lessened but didn’t disappear I continued along to my target finish destination about 500 metres along the west side at the tiny beach formerly used for launching inshore fishing craft many decades ago.
The swim was a mere 3500 metres, but it took me 90 minutes to finish, 30 minutes longer than expected.
Hook Head, like Kilmore Quay, is a challenging and potentially dangerous swimming location. It’s certainly not for beginners and should be approached with caution and only if you have a range of speeds and sufficient real confidence from prior experience and not over-confidence.
As always, this mini swimming adventure was facilitated by my wonderful and long-suffering partner and the Doglet.