The weather on Saturday the second of July was horrible. The air was cool, a mere 14 degrees. It had been raining for three weeks, and the early promise of summer, a sly murmur spoken over a mere four days at the beginning of June had long vanished and the water temperature had dropped back two degrees. The only two memorable features of a 90 minute swim in Tramore Bay had been how cold I was by the end with two complete Claws, and thousands of stinging jellyfish in the bay, more than I’ve seen in years.
Sunday dawned with rare sunshine, so I wanted to drink in some much-needed sunlight. The cars of the fair-weather swimmers missing the previous day had returned and dotted the car park and as I walked toward the cabin (“what happens in the Cabin stays in the cabin” posted inside the door, an intriguing promise I’ve never seen made good) I saw a Navy ship out in the bay maybe a mile from the Guill. Inward from our position she lay toward the beach and well off the pier, something I’ve not seen previously as the bay is too shallow for large craft with deep drafts, and even yachts with moderate keels are unusual in the bay. With the tide almost low, she wouldn’t be going anywhere soon, as a long sandbank stretches across much of the outer bay, utterly invisible until you steam, sail … or swim over it, when it catches and amplifies any swell.
I knew I had a new swim destination for my swim. I would swim out, circle the ship and head back to Doneraile Head under the park, then return to the Guillamene into the incoming tidal current, an easy round trip of three to four kilometres.
Conversation in the cabin informed me that the ship was present for the bicentennial commemoration of the wreck of the Sea Horse.
Just before I set off from below the diving board out toward the ship, she blew her siren twice, a sound marathon swimmers will often associate with the start of a swim, as I heard in the middle of the night on St. Margaret’s beach, and other locations, and with other people, as I stepped in the water. And with this sound and my own memories and the memorial of marine tragedy,instead of my more usual swim along the coast, I set off away from the shore.
The wrecking of the merchant marine vessel The Seahorse is an event still notable in Waterford and Copper Coast culture. Less well-known is the larger tragedy of which she was part. For those of us who haunt the bay in our various capacities and interests, though it happened two hundred years ago, the Sea Horse is not forgotten and looms over the town, in names and memorials, both figuratively and literally. Doneraile park on Doneraile Head, under which I swim whenever I swim to Tramore beach from the Guill, holds the memorial obelisk for those lost at sea that dreadful day in January, 1816. Indeed there was a memorial service held just the previous evening by and for the families of those lost all those generations ago.
Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in June 1815 and after twenty years of war, peace returned to Europe, and with peace, the various armies returned to their homes. The 2nd Battalion of the 59th (2nd Nottinghamshire) Regiment has been in a supporting role at Waterloo but had fought in the Peninsula (so possibly with Wellington), and had returned to Dover and Deal (another place I’ve swim) up the Channel for a couple of weeks furlough, before embarking once again to Ireland for garrison duty (essentially a force to keep the Irish subdued). Two marine transports, the Lord Melville and the Sea Horse being the vessels. The larger Lord Melville took 450 people while the 293 ton Sea Horse took 394 of whom 16 were officers with 287 men, 33 women and 38 children, both leaving port on January 25th. They were joined in Ramsgate, (home port for some of the current Channel swimming pilots) by another ship, the Boadicea. These three ships though were only part of a larger fleet of thirty troopships estimated to have been carrying up to 10,000 people.
They rounded Lizard Point in Cornwall just after darkness fell on the 28th (where youngest ever Irish channel swimmer Owen O’Keeffe completed a pioneering 10k swim) and entered the Irish sea and what later came in WWII to be called the Western Approaches. The weather had been good and I can well imagine it, the calm steel grey surface under a low sky, the light pale and low even in the mid-day, January the month of lowest light and Sun elevation, the Sun seeming barely above the horizon to the south. But on the 29th the weather changed and the wind freshened from the south south-east.
I’ve occasionally remarked that a south-east wind is the worst for swimming on the Copper Coast. But locally, amongst those who know the sea, surfers, sailors, and this one lone swimmer, know that the worst storm for the south-east of Ireland may not originate out in the Atlantic, but instead in the Bay of Biscay. Prolonged storms off the coast of France are notorious for their destructive nature and the fetch is far enough to only amplify the storms waves sent north-west to Saint David’s Channel and the Celtic Sea, that stretch of sea along the south Irish coast. I do not know if that was the origin of the tragic storm, but my years on this coast makes me wonder.
By late afternoon the Sea Horse was approaching Ballycotton Island and lighthouse (Ballycotton is home of what later came to be one of the most decorated RNLI rescue stations anywhere) heading toward Cork Harbour, Europe’s finest natural harbour and home of the Myrtleville Swimmers, Cork’s most egalitarian open-water swimming pod). The Lord Melville and the Boadicea had fared better and progressed onward. The Sea Horse was alone.
Then the Mate of the Sea Horse, John Sullivan, a local man by that oh-so Cork name fell and died soon after, a vital loss of local knowledge of the coast. James Acland, one of her crew found him “with scarcely an unfractured bone; he was senseless“.
Do you know a coast well? Do you know all its features? Do you know what it looks like from four miles out, or even a mile? Do you know where the reefs and currents are? All coast looks much the same from out at sea, all you can see is whether it’s high or low coast, cliffs or fields. Swimmers planning a first crossing of Tramore Bay think they’ll just head for Great Newtown Head. Never do they realise that from only a mile out, Great Newtown Head is invisible from the east, despite the name. Experience is everything, whether swimming or sailing.
With a push from the SW breeze to which I was exposed now I was offshore and no longer protected by the cliffs on the west side of the bay, I reached the grey Navy ship in about 25 minutes, just about a mile out. I’d stayed on her port side as I approached, pointed as she now was out to sea, having shifted mooring. I was not willing to cross her bow line until I knew it was safe. Once I got to within 100 metres away I could see her anchor lines were still out so I crossed her bow to her far (offshore) side for some photos. I wanted a photo of her with Doneraile Park and the memorial in the distance. The LE Orla is almost three times the displacement of the Sea Horse, with a crew of 39, over twice the crew of 18 of the Sea Horse. As I took my photos, I waved to the Bridge Officer out on watch out keeping an eye on me. I threw a quick hello and comment across the water to him. As I swam toward the stern I heard the call over the tannoy; “swimmer on the starboard side“. A mile and half from the beach, I’m sure the contrast with the reason we were both indirectly in that location struck him as it did I.
I pulled up again behind the starboard stern to shoot her with the Metal Man in the distance. Then I waved again to the crew working on the rear deck and set off for Doneraile Head and the orange boats of the RNLI inshore rescue RIBs I could see on exercise in the distance below the park. As I headed toward the shore I thought briefly of what more I could remember of the story of the tragic ship and the account of James Acland, one of her crew.
Minutes later, not wishing to over-egg the pudding, I once again had a very close call at sea.