There is an imaginary curving line I could identify starting at The Garden, that sheer-walled hint of a cove in the cliffs on the western side of Tramore Bay. Such a line would terminate over four kilometres east at Brownstown Head on the other side of the bay and it delineates where the open ocean waves kick up in size as they advance on the coast and as I leave it, deep water waves, not the combers they become as they break on the shore. The bottom of the bay smooths out, and I think from the feel and look of the water that there is a sea-floor sandbar of sediment running east ten or so metres beneath me, deposited by the prevailing westerly current where the bay begins its continuous three kilometre rise to the beach.
Many years ago in the dark of the small hours, while swimming in a two-way relay from France back to England, the feel of the water changed during one of my legs of the rota. When I emerged I told the pilot (noted long-retired Channel pilot Dave Whyte) that something felt different though the wind hadn’t risen any more. He told me we were passing over the infamous Goodwin Sands, wrecker of so many ships. Water changes in how it feels, if you learn to trust your perception and if you develop your experience.
In my swimming lexicography, beyond the Metalman and past the Metalman have two different meanings. Past is a turn west around Great Newtown Head and The Reef, heading into the playground of Ronan’s Bay, my normal route. But beyond means due south. Leaving the Guill, leaving the coast, leaving the country, heading on a southerly bearing. Past the step-like outcrop on the brow of the Head, past the outside reef falling away west. Straight out. There’s a flag and a buoy over a lobster pot out there, like the last or first marker of Ireland, maybe four hundred metres out. A nervous four hundred metres, four hundred metres you feel in the weight of your shoulders, the frequency with which you look forward and back, your increased chance of swallowing water.
It is something I love, on a warm day in bigger waters, as the winds rise again when we have passed the zenith of summer, (if such can be said in Ireland without irony), to sit up somewhere outside that line, beyond Newtown Head and the reef, and watch the waves loom in front of me and charge past me. I could call it treading water, but it’s really not because it takes no effort. The ocean’s buoyancy raises me like a vast hand, dropping me down in the troughs between waves. Then I am lifted skyward over the typical double-bump of the next oncoming wave from the trough that occurs somewhere metres in front of the crest and misleads most people from being able to read the true size of a wave. Wave size can be more clearly appreciated using the surfer’s trick of looking at them from behind after they pass. If I swim across Ronan’s Bay, to where the deep water reaches further in toward the cliffs, the conditions produce what I think of as “big water swimming”, two kilometres from the nearest exit point, east or west. I have not checked but there must be a small craft warning in effect in this wind and these waves on this day. Sunny though it is, no powered craft will be out here this Sunday.
Here, though I cannot see them nor feel any evidence of their presence through touch or sight, I believe the sea around me is teeming with mackerel. As I face south and nothing but sky and water, a seal rises with barely a ripple in the face of a wave only metres from me. He submerges, emerges, submerges. My wife sees malevolence in their gaze, I feel no such emotion. I see the seal. It sees me. I can tell you no more, I do not like to anthropomorphise. We are both here. I will not bore you or myself with trite comparisons.
In the air around me are scouts from the Ilaunglas Mafia, that large flock of different bird species that make their home a kilometre west on the eponymous island and so vociferously and aggressively object to my presence when I pass close.
I am no twitcher, but I do not understand how can one inhabit or visit the sea without appreciating those who also inhabit its sky. If you are always concerned with racing, you miss the real life of the ocean. Fulmars, amongst my favourite of all creatures, bank and skim above the rising and falling surface. I am always astounded by their capability, only unveiled in stiff winds. They glide more than the herring gulls or kittiwakes and share the rising gusts above the cliffs with those same herrings gulls. When they flap their long thin wings it is less powerful than the muscular aggressive beat of the great blackbacks. They share a similar but slightly lower space to the black cruise missiles that are the cormorants and shags, between the trough and the crest, without succumbing to the wave face.
How are the fulmars not whelmed by their gambles and gambols above the changing ocean surface? They revel in rough days, performing impossible feats in the indeterminate zone here close to the water surface. If you take a long exposure photograph, their territory is the ghostly haze that is the space only sometimes occupied by water. This area is the ghost of the sea. Neither bird nor water are substantial or still enough to create a solid impression on the sensor. Are fulmars not the very definition of elegance and mastery? Why does the world not sing of their astonishing prowess? Why is the fulmar not the most beloved of seabirds? Is it only its lesser size that makes it less notable than its famous cousin the albatross? Three metres in front of me one approaches, its tubenosed head and beak that may give partial answer to my question aiming at me. Still oncoming, I think this is the time I will suffer the full onslaught that gives these birds their name. There will be no moving water over my back to make it slough off me. I will finally receive its “foul sea” attack, full in my face and I will not flinch if I can help it. And then a wavelet intervenes, an invisible ripple that is lost in the rest of the movement, if, that is, you are not neither a swimmer or a surface-caressing seabird. The fulmar drops its webbed feet and takes two running steps off the water, does a balletic relever, a tiny push upwards only a few centimeters, and drops into the water a body length away, the same way as I use a breaking wave on a beach to lift me and deposit me on my feet.
A flock of small birds I don’t know pass over toward the Head. Was that flash a tern, that treasured black-tailed migrant sometimes so hard to see, diving? More fulmars and adolescent speckled-brown herring gulls can be seen. Not falling in an attack wing into a shoal on the surface. It is merely these cumulative clues, the waves, the water temperature, the time of year, the sense that is like a fruit a day past it full ripeness. And so I think the mackerel are here.
The water is fifteen and a half degrees and warm. The sky is mixed blue and grey-white clouds, and will turn to rain for the last few hundred metres before I exit. I resolve to remember this. All of it. This five or ten minutes of these sights and pleasures. How long will I hold this before it joins the other days, swims, sights, feelings? In the Summer episode of this series, I wrote of the Ur-Swim, that is the amalgamation of all swims. Now I speak not even of an Ur swim, or one swim, but of this one period during this one swim. I am there by myself, I do not think of you. But I think of you now, and describe it and we are back there together. Don’t worry about the waves, they are not breaking for the water is too deep. Don’t worry about the wind, because I am a member of the informal Force Five club, those people who were cursed or were blessed, as I feel, with Force Five winds during their English Channel Solo. I had six hours of it, and I am here with you. And anyway, when we use Force to describe wind, most people misread the term. Let us call it by its other description, a fresh breeze.
We are capable, as close to masters of this domain as we can be for mere apes. There is no fear out here. This is home. The waves wear whitecaps because of the stiff south westerly breeze, which is not strong enough to blow spume. Look over at the cliffs. Black and orange, algae, green grass and heather/furze crown. The water is neither opaque nor clear. We can see our hands in the water as through a veil. Wind-raised sediment and sand. The water is its most usual soapy green with an added touch of milk.
We rise and fall. Kick of a leg, face the shore, zero bearing, see the two church spires on the hill over the town three kilometres away. But this is not urban swimming. Flick a foot and wave a hand again. The twin navigation pillars atop the long low black line of Brownstown Head four kilometres away. Spin again, back due south, one eighty. There’s the Asturian and Catabrian coasts of Spain, away, away, away down south, had we eyes to see around the curve of the Earth, which should be called Ocean. Here comes the next wave. Beyond that is a dark line that tells of what could be a larger wave, but is now more than a slight shadow cast before the crest overtops and creates a false sense of looming. Another flick, we are at two hundred and seventy degrees, into the west. Little Rock peeks up, Ilaunglas. On the headland I see something I have never noticed though I have seen it a thousand times, the terrifying unprotected sinkhole, that gave me a nightmare after I saw it first, is visible from here. Its aperture is angled down to the sea and I can see it from here, the perspective confusing, that I can see into a hole 30 metres above sea level facing the sky, from sea level. Beyond Rat Island is hazy but visible in the distance past Ilaunglas.
A final small hand-wave, no kick, and there is Newtown Head, bearing 310, north west of me. Loneswimmer Cave again. It strikes leftward up the cliff, narrowing as it does. Above it the old white navigation pillars are one-dimensional as the Sun approaches noon behind me. On the centre pillar the Metal-Man himself points directly out to sea, directly out at me. I can hear him. Can you? Listen, above or maybe below the sound of water and wind.
What else can I say? Not for the first time, I wonder how can I ever write of water again, of swimming again? I am not just writing of the ocean and swimming though. Sometimes I think I put too much of myself into this, and each description bleeds more out of me, leaves me bereft and exposed, scared by what I have written. Empty of words, empty of something I can’t identify or name, and I shall never be able to write of it again, unless once more, on another swim, the ocean will replenish me. For to others, surely this is only swimming, only the sea, and the rest is hyperbolic flowery crap, as my friend Finbarr calls it. The Channels and marathon swims are the badges used to declare that we have passed though apprenticeship to at least journeymen of the sea. For some they are the point and the goal. I was like that. I needed the achievement, so that I could set them aside. But then, when I had achieved what I wanted and felt nothing left to prove, somewhere, in the long solo hours of lone swimming, I continued to find the most important treasure. Out there, by myself, I could see and hear what the big swims sometimes hide. I could find the ocean, and in it myself.
As with the mountain climbers, the Arctic adventurers and the desert wanderers, so too with the ocean swimmers.
I ride the swell back to the Guill. Three and four metre waves are a train behind me. Some overwhelm and fling me down, others catapult me forward, and I am not spear-like or elegant but I am the Sea and I am those breaking waves, for only offshore breakers are clean and direct, all other waves are a tumult of power and aggregated misdirection.
As always the waves diffracting around the Head push me wide out into the bay, away from the shore and as ever in these conditions, I end up approaching the Guillamenes from the east, rather than the south. A seal, some birds, wind and waves. Nothing new. All new.
I decide to spend a few hours with my camera on some of the more inaccessible headlands, because for all that I have described these views here and previously, and though I prefer the mutability of words to more accurately convey the changing nature of the sea and swimming, nonetheless, I resolved to take some new photos of this most extraordinary and beloved coast. I realised that this was an activity I sometimes engaged in after a warm swim, when I am not thinking about eating or rewarming. Open water swimming is always about more than swimming.
Memorial for Eamonn Crotty, with the Metalman across the bay
This year I find a small memorial iron cross facing west on the very edge of a cliff, for a boy named Eamonn Cody, lost in 1977, who, had he lived would be close to my age. I divert by at least ten metres around the terrifying gravitational attraction of the bottomless clifftop sinkhole with its clay edge by at least ten metres. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I divert by at least ten metres around that aforementioned terrifying gravitational clifftop sinkhole with its clay edge . It’s not on the 188 OSI Map, but it does show on the 2000 aerial map. When it appeared, how did it happen? How deep is it? I need a drone just to see down into it. Any of you got one and want to come take a look and have your dreams inhabited?
I clamber over tufts of blue green coastal grass never grazed by cattle or sheep, fall into waist-deep holes hidden under that grass, get scratched by briars, and windblown by the onshores I peer from a precarious rocky outcrop on the cliff top directly down into the blowholes, while they erupt beneath me. I spend a couple of hours watching those same waves I so recently swam break on, over and around, that is called, funnily enough, Twelve Birds. It provides a masterclass in appreciation of the mechanics of waves, and I fall absolutely in love with yet another reef, one I’ve passed for years.
And so in the middle and latter days of August, I think about the “other side” of Great Newtown Head. Regular visitors have seen the east side, know of the Metalman, but oh so many less have seen the west side, and only a handful have seen it while swimming those waters. And I have taken you out there or will take you out there, and if you have not come here yet, let us just agree, like Jerusalem, “next yearon the Copper Coast“. So I came to associate the other side of Newtown Head with the other side of summer. Everything is vibrant. Cliff heather and early (for it is winter flowering) gorse flowers, purple and yellow. The sea is dark turquoise from this height. The cliffs are an artist’s palette. And yet in it all, we have passed summer’s zenith, its culmination, if you will, and are somewhere in one of those transitional times once again. The water is still warm but the clouds are thickening and any day now I will start wearing a jumper after swimming again.
The paradise that is Ronan’s Bay in August, to Newtown head and the Metalman pillars, & across T-Bay to Brownstown Head in the distance.
No man owns beauty, and those that think they do merely borrow it. I am both covetous of and yet eager to share the beauty of Ireland’s most underappreciated and little-known coast, and in particular the twentyish kilometer stretch of the longer kilometre Copper Coast that includes all my regular swim locations. This coast runs fractal from Newtown Head to the western end of Kilfarrasy and all the way along my soul, should I possess such a thing.
For some of us, some place in this world possesses us, takes us over from inside. Ice or desert, mountain or ocean, the tangible physical reality becomes some part personal metaphor and some part of our inner life. So with me, and this coast. What need I warm waters, sandy beaches? Give me sandstone cliffs and skerries and barnacles, those horrible little bastards. Give the fresh feeling and desire than comes from salt water under eighteen degrees. Give me rough or smooth soapy jade blackgreen or yellowgreen water, with no easy or close exit. Give me fulmars, and the pterodactyl cormorants drying wings in the Sun. Give me forgotten coves and reefs with no name save those I have given them, unknown otherwise except in my heart. Give me sea to swim and reefs to watch. Give me no sounds except wind, waves breaking over me, and my own breathing bubbling into the depths. Give me an ocean large enough to fill my longing and a short coast that is the whole world.