In the years before I’d swum into Loneswimmer Cave, when I rounded Great Newtown Head, if I wanted to progress west into Ronan’s Bay, I either had to swim around Oyen reef, or through the four to five metre gap between the reef and the base of the cliff. It was the same as most coastal swimming with only two optional directions, forward or back. (And then later I added a third option of “through”).
The base of the cliff slopes out into the water, black and ochre, craggy, sharp, barnacle-encrusted and not at all inviting. As the tide drops, the terraced base becomes more exposed. It’s possible to climb directly down the cliff to the terrace on a narrow path, which at one point toward the top is less than thirty centimetres wide. But even the September mackerel anglers who appear under Newtown Head casting for their primary silvery prey, and their secondary target (me), always stay on the more sheltered east/bay side of the Head. I only know of the path from one of my land-based explorations of the coast. It was easier to descend than to climb back upward, when the throat-closing narrowness and drop on both sides became more apparent and scary.
Returning from a late season low-tide swim where I’d swum out around the reek on the outward journey, and across Ronan’s to Twelve Birds, I aimed for the gap to pass back into the bay. The sky was blue, the air warm and the water still welcoming.
I don’t see a lot of shore-line detail while swimming, not least because I wear distance-correcting spectacles normally but usually forego prescription googles for most swims. I can see pretty well, just not sharpness. But as I approached the gap, within the last ten or so metres, I noticed that there was someone on the terrace. Another couple of metres and I noticed there were two people. And another couple of metres, and I noticed they were a couple. And I saw they had not yet seen me, because they continued…to have sex.
At a distance in time, it does seem like the best thing would have been to stop, have a good gander and yell out “go on ya good thing” in a Dustin the Turkey* imitation, and swim away. However, at the time, I merely kept swimming. As I passed closest it was obvious that they’d seen me. I kept my normal bi-lateral breathing pattern, so I saw little, except the apparent consternation indicated by the frantic movement as the lady, well, dismounted the gentleman.
It’s a memory that still elicits a faint smile. I think of them asking “what the hell?”. I’m foregoing the chance to insert the more obvious expletive, because I’s classy, I is. They must have thought they were as private in their outdoor adventure as possible; at the bottom bottom of a cliff a thirty minute walk to the road. Then some orange idiot in a Speedo swims past in what must have freezing water (to their view) and miles from anywhere (not really, less than a mile by sea).
So I thought that story would be a good metaphor for October, and the final installment of my open water swimming year series.
October strikes me as a time of still possible opportunities, or maybe diminishing opportunities depending on your viewpoint: The couple, wondering that sunny morning if that was the day they could fulfill a fantasy, and the guy, surely a local who knew of the path, saying “I know a place, guaranteed perfectly private”. (I say guy, not because I think all anglers are men, but because I have not seen any female anglers at the foot of Newtown Head, they tend to sensibly stay back at the rocks at the Guillamene): Me, the swimming idiot, taking the opportunity to swim out to Illaunglas for possibly the last time of that year.
I pause, and think of other Octobers.
Crewing an English Channel solo, the sun setting early and the night cold, the water cooling and the day short for a long swim. Jumping off a RIB at Roche’s Point at dawn to swim back across the entrance to Cork Bay to Myrtleville as the Sun rose above the horizon, a swim that left us all needing a couple of hours to warm up afterwards, because all we did was stand around and eat cake for breakfast.
Three days from the end of October, in a stiff Force Five wind, after writing the first draft of this, swimming the first new location I’ve added in ages.
Taking a visitor out for one of the last cave trips of the year, where stopping to appreciate the view significantly increased the post-swim afterdrop.
Swimming one year for ninety minutes during the old Celtic festival of Samhain, that you call Halloween, wondering if I could write a swimming horror story, and going home cold to rewarm and write The Awful Cave that evening, and all the people who thought it was true, even if it was only a pastiche. Subsequently Celtic Samhain and swimming are inextricably intertwined in my mind, instead of ghosts and bobbing apples, so maybe it’s appropriate that this is the final Open Water Swimming Year installment. Samhain, that the world later called Halloween, marked a time of change. The Sidhe leave their Underworld summer Mansions to relocate to their winter mansions. The dead are remembered, because once we thought they walked abroad. The living, the dead and the Trooping Aos Sí all share the world at this time. You make pumpkins lanterns, because hollowed out turnips may once have been used to carry fire. We mark the dying summer, the coming winter. Samhain was not a day, but two or three days. I possess not a whit of supernatural or religious belief, but the old stories are deep in our Irish psyche, and why would we forego them in favour of the mass stories written by committee.
I think of rare sunny if no longer warm October days that intersperse the increasing blown out and more common unswimmable windy days. Looking at Mare’s Tails high in the sky that indicate a change in weather is coming, even when the forecast is different.
A tourist saying “it looks cold down there”, me replying “no, it’s great, still twelve degrees” and them looking at me like they’ve come across a mad Irishman. And maybe they have.
I think of the Sun sinking behind the cliffs to the west while I was in the water out at the island, swimming back to an empty beach, MR James and the sound of bells rolling across the water. Looking at blown out Dunmore, Hook, Guill, Kilfarassey, hoping the wind will die by tomorrow.
There are still plenty of people at the Guill on a decent Saturday or Sunday morning. More now even than years past, with a big increase in numbers in the past couple of years. I think our sport is becoming cool, instead of just cold.
Should I reread what I wrote in the first Open Water Swimming Year entry, for November, to see where I deliberately started this series, just under two years ago? I think not. Each year brings change, each year holds a connection to the previous, I strive to see the continuum, and use events to present the whole, as the calendar hanging in your kitchen is noted not by the progression of individual days, but of birthdays and vacations and notable events. If I started this series again, it would be different, and it would be the same.
Is October an end, or a beginning? Does it even matter?
October is windy, but not always too windy. October is cold, but far from too cold. October is late, but it’s not too late.
You could stop now, start again next year in April or May. Or you could think, “well, this is okay, I’ll keep going to November, see how that is, see how I’ll get on. And then maybe the Christmas swim won’t be such a shock. And then I can see from there”.
Or you could just say to herself or himself, “let’s go for a shag out on the coast, it’ll be grand, there’ll be no-one there”.
Take the opportunity. Whatever it is.
See you out there.
For those of you here from the start, thanks for sticking with this series which has taken me two years to write. For those of you are new, welcome.
* Apologies to my majority non-Irish readers. While I normally use Irish words and phrases and don’t like to edit them out in favour of an international homogenisation of language, I usually trust you will either (preferably) work out what I mean from context, or google it, but explaining/googling Dustin the Turkey is like explaining Father Ted to a UK audience. You will see the words, and think you understand, but you really won’t. For those of you who don’t know either Father Ted or Dustin, I’m sorry for your troubles.