A Day Out At The Beach

The holidays have arrived! Today’s swim was marked by a number of firsts. It was the first day the whole family came with me. It was the first bank holiday weekend of the summer. It was possibly the first time anyone has landed in Curracloe in Wexford having made their way slowly from Dublin city by swimming without a boat.

After the last day where I finished short, I needed to catch up that extra distance to Curracloe to guarantee success crossing the bay next weekend. Once at Curracloe, it’s a little over 4 KM to the end of the spit where the estuary opens up. And! Spoiler alert! I did make it to Curracloe today so the plan of two if not three days swimming next weekend seems quite achievable.

I proposed to Jen the previous weekend that if the weather was fine, that we would go as a family to the beach for the day. In principle she thought the idea was ok, but that her preference was to go if it wasn’t too sunny so that the beach wouldn’t be overcrowded with Dubs invading Wexford for the weekend. Windguru intonated that the conditions would be exactly what she was looking for, pleasant but not overbearingly sunny.

In terms of planning for the swim itself, the logistics were simple. We would all drive to Ballyconnigar, I would change and get in the water and set off down the bay to Curracloe. Jen would take the children and the car and make their way casually to Curracloe, where they would set up on a rug on the beach and hang around until I arrived between an hour and a half and two and a half hours later. No bicycles, no hills. It was the distance swimmer’s paradise. The fact that my children might also feel a connection to what I was doing now they were witnesses also counted for something. Up to now the whole adventure was something they had only heard about.

We had no strict deadlines as I knew that whatever the tidal current app foretold, the truth is that at the shore it was going to be less than a knot either in or against my direction. As such there was no race to get going asap in the morning. We got up leisurely and had a family breakfast. Jen made sandwiches for lunch to augment the biscuits and crisps we packed. I packed my swimming bag and another swimming bag for the children. Jen is not a swimmer. She understands how it helps me in life but she was never exposed to the world of swimming as a child, so she is hesitant about going in the water. The dog was also coming and she definitely is not a water animal.

By the time we were setting off it was noon and Dublin was getting cloudy. I had every confidence in Windguru that the conditions at our destination would be what everyone wanted. Seán and Rose commented that it didn’t look sunny as we drove through South Dublin, but I distracted them with the mental picture that we were going to a beach that was akin to the beaches of France. Approaching Bray on the N11 we hit traffic queues, so out came the sandwiches and crisps. Everyone was in good spirits.

I was able to show off my recently acquired knowledge of the country roads of Wexford to Jen. I was co-pilot as it’s a long standing norm in our house that Jen drives on long Journeys. The excuse being, that she is a bad passenger. I have long since given up on that argument and I have no problem with other people’s driving. I should clarify that. I do have a big problem with the way a lot of Dublin drivers treat cyclists on the city’s streets, but as a passenger in a car that is being driven safely, I don’t get jittery.

We arrived at Ballyconnigar at around half two and the others stretched their legs while I got ready. The car park was overflowing  and it was quite sunny, but a degree of cloud cover was expected. The children played on the rock wall that halted the coastal erosion of Ballyconnigar car park, and it wasn’t far from high tide so the water went right up to the wall. When I was ready, I said my goodbyes as I had to walk and climb north for 400 meters over rocky wall terrain to get to the last day’s finish. The dog followed me for a bit which caused a bit of amusement before I ordered her back to her mother and she acquiesced.

The climbing over the rocks wasn’t as easy as the last time because I wasn’t in neoprene socks today, nor had I brought the gloves I had thought important previously. Hopefully this was going to speed up things somewhat. I approached the start point and there was a stroller standing there as if some kind of steward in place to verify the rules were being obeyed by returning to the exact location. There is part of me that wonders just how many people are aware of what I am doing. I have advertised the blog in work, on public forums and amongst the swimming community I am involved with. Not to mention all the people who would have previously seen me on a bike in a wetsuit on country roads and all the fishermen we have appeared to from the horizon. Today I was to discover that the beaches were full and I was to swim past over a thousand sun and water bathers along the 5.5 km stretch, and surely there would be some intrigue there.

Once in the water I started swimming slowly. Instantly I knew it wasn’t going to be a fast day, while at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to drag on for an eternity into one of those swims where I would be getting angry. Jen and the two were still on the rocks as I swam up to them and the children were very excited to see me draw alongside in the water. It was very shallow, but in that kind of water it is more comfortable to hunch down and stay submerged up to the shoulders. Jen took a few photos and I waved my final goodbye and set off.

The rocks were great in the sense that they conveyed that I was moving. They conveyed it wasn’t fast but they showed I clearly wasn’t working against a current. There were no waves to speak of and breathing was easy on both sides. After less than ten minutes I was clear of the rock wall of Ballyconnigar and it was just the long bay ahead of me to the South. Curracloe was on the horizon, but it was compartmentalised by the fact there weren’t numerous headlands between here and there.

The water was very sandy but I could just about make out the sea bed less than a meter below. Repeatedly throughout the swim, I had to stand up and walk out a bit, but I had done this so much since Cahore that it no longer annoyed me. Or maybe it was the fact that the swim wasn’t prefixed with an hour cycling up and down hills. I was all the more thankful for this when we were driving to the start point and we had to climb a really steep and long climb in the car.

I watched the beach walkers, some with dogs walk alongside me. I couldn’t stay with them for long and I wasn’t considering upping the pace to try and keep up with them. I was stopping regularly to get some sort of validation on my progress and while the bathers and groups on the beach I passed dissolved out of view, Curracloe too remained on the horizon. I remembered some of the landscape from the walk on the last day, and in my memory the cliff-like vista merged into a more vegetative backing to the beach about a kilometer north of Ballinesker. Once at Ballinesker, I was going to be on the home straight.

Once you know you are on the home straight in a long swim, the happiness index jumps up and all the woe washes away. When I got to this vegetative section I was telling myself, I was past the halfway point. I didn’t feel ecstatic about that but I did feel in control. Realistically, a 3 KM per hour pace is quite acceptable and it is unreasonable to expect more, yet so often hope blends into expectation. I was watching the watch and because neither Ballinesker or Curracloe were presenting themselves, my mind started to get impatient. With impatience came the feeling of pressure so I started counting strokes. The magic number of 200 came to me and I set myself the challenge of counting 200 strokes without losing count. The counting was clearly the challenge as opposed to the effort.

Breathing bi-laterally (every three strokes), I started. 1-2-3, breathe, 4-5-6, breathe, 7-8-9. Usually I get to thirty or forty and I lose it. I was comfortable breathing bi-laterally which is indicative of not being too tired, and as long as I kept breathing every three, I decided that would help me keep the tempo. It worked and this was a new skill that just twigged after forty years of swimming. I successfully counted to 300 without dropping count or strokes. And then I stopped and looked back and the rocks at Ballyconnigar were finally on the horizon, and in the distance to the south was a mass of beach goers, which could only mean Ballinesker.

It was about an hour and a half into the swim when I could clearly see the lifeguard station of Ballinesker with a throng of people below it. In the water there were children, SUP enthusiasts, and young men playing water volleyball. I was getting tired but still able to swim through and around all the people enjoying the water ten minutes later. I noted to myself that the SUP enthusiasts might actually be lifeguards patrolling the bathing areas. I remember doing something similar as a lifeguard in college in America.

At Ballinesker I could see another throng to the south and this could only mean Curracloe. I was tired at this point but I was able to gauge that I was still moving steadily as I passed the bathers. I was now on the home straight. The tiredness made each stroke laboured and I knew with this level of fitness in these conditions, that a 10 KM swim would be nigh on impossible, unless I had the freedom to complete the swim part in four or five hours. After next weekend the hope is to spend the summer doing swims no less than 8 KM and often 11 KM, with a 13.5 KM spanner in the works for good measure. What was that I said about the morphing of hope into expectation?

Approaching Curracloe, I was beginning to wonder about my welcoming party. Had they arrived? Were they waiting on the beach? I was catastrophizing that they ended up in a car crash or possibly couldn’t find parking at Curracloe. I would be forced to ask a stranger to borrow their phone. I would be stranded at a beach in Wexford unable to see my wife in hospital and unsure who I could call to drive from Dublin to Wexford to rescue us all! I swam alongside the lifeguard hut and stopped to consider where my family might be and with delight I became aware of my son Seán and daughter Rose wading towards me, shouting ‘Daddy!’. My fears and paranoia vanished instantly and the feeling of success was back.

We had a relaxing drive back to Dublin, with a bit of sightseeing at Kilmuckridge and the holy grail of the promised McDonalds at the Gorey motorway service stop. All was right in the world.

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