Between A Rock And A Hard Place

As I ratchet up these expeditions, I can comfortably say, no two days swimming is the same. Furthermore, it is safe to say that each one presents it’s own challenges. Yesterday was always going to be ambitious and filled with trepidation and when it came to pass, it truly was an expedition.

The object of the day was to swim between the points of Rosslare Strand’s southernmost point and a beach about 2 kilometres north of Carne beach. Carne being the place that lends its name to Carnsore point, a further 3.5 kilometres south. You might think that sounds straightforward but then throw into the mix, a swim across Rosslare harbour bay, a swim around Rosslare harbour itself, closely followed by a sudden surge in south winding currents along a coast line I had no knowledge of, after which there is another 6 kilometres of water to the finish. Unbeknownst to me, that 6 kilometres was littered with perilous rocky shoals. More of that later.

I had numerous pleasant exchanges with Captain Tom Curran (Rosslare Harbour master) via email in the preceding days so as to establish a safe window to get across the mouth of Rosslare harbour. On this Thursday, the optimum time was somewhere between when I could get to the start after setting out from Dublin after the school run and before when the 2:30 arrival from Cherbourg rocked into shore. Again this is uncharted territory for me and I suspect it is also for Tom, however he was nothing but accommodating. In years to come, if this coastal challenge thing takes off in the same way as climbing Everest or crossing the English channel, he may come to regret having facilitated me.

The road down was all motorway or national road until the last 5 kilometres to the finish point at Old Mill Bay Beach. It took longer to get to the latter stretches of rural Wexford, north of the estuary. I arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule, and quickly set about surveying the finish for a recognisable landmark. Luckily there was the gable end of a flat roof peering over the forestation at the entrance to the beach, and it was enough to be sure the finish wouldn’t be ambiguous.

As I was getting ready back at the car, I parked my bike up against a gate at the back of the car park. Minutes later a young farmer came by and assumed the bike was locked to the gate he wanted to access. I apologised for being in the way as he cursed the thought of someone having disabled his gate and absconding. He was relieved it wasn’t the scenario he first envisaged and I made a mental note not to lock my bike to his gate the next day I’m back here.

The sun was shining brightly as predicted by the servers in Windguru, and I knew timing was of the essence as things would turn in the late afternoon. In the back of my mind I am always wondering how accurate the forecasting is, especially when you start timing the swims to within an hour of getting rougher. With the climate we have, you have to be flexible and opportunist with these things. As a consequence the cycle from Old Mill Bay beach to Rosslare strand was a lovely summer cycle with the domineering perception that it wouldn’t last forever.

For about one hundred metres on the route from the finish to the start, I had to join a national road (the N25), and I’m left wondering if this is another first? The first wetsuited cyclist on a national road? Also there were only 2 inclines of note, so walking was kept to a minimum. I got to the cliffs where I would lock my bike at noon. The bike was to be locked to a reflector sign which indicated the end of the road and if you were a car and to carry on, you would suddenly lose significant altitude quickly. I rang Tom for a final briefing before setting off.

The phone rang for two minutes and there was no answer. I didn’t panic, but Tom had indicated that it was important I contact him in case there were any last minute changes to the harbour timetable. I rang again a few minutes later and after a while, he picked up. I had inadvertently interrupted him in something, but thankfully he answered and clarified it was all systems go. I rang Jen to tell her to expect a call by 5 or 6ish and had a protein bar for lunch washed down with some tap water in a recycled plastic bottle (I know Niall would approve!).

I had to then climb down the cliff to the beach and walk south for twenty minutes, and on the beach there was only one other stroller and another exercise enthusiast. Going through the final prep, I was no clearer as to any prevailing currents as the tide was quite out and the beach had a very gradual incline. I was wading for two minutes before I was waist deep and ready to swim.

I had pictured a worse case scenario of taking an hour to swim to the harbour and across its mouth and I stopped every ten or so minutes to get a picture of progress. A recent visit to the opticians had clarified that my eyesight had deteriorated (as expected with age), so my prescription goggles no longer had the clarity they had when they were purchased. As a result everything appeared ‘over there’. The start was ‘over there’. The harbour was ‘over there’. The coast I was roughly 400 metres off, was ‘over there’. I could see some small craft anchor buoys up ahead and as I got closer to them I could tell they were moving to my left quite quickly. This meant one thing. A strong flow southwards.

I passed the port guidance buoy, around which all the huge passenger ferries took their instruction. It seemed like a very marine viewpoint but I was cognisant that I had to be very careful from here on in. I had many concerns about the unknowns about the Irish sea side of the harbour and onwards. This was uncharted territory. As I got closer to the lighthouse at the end of the external pier. The water got very tempestuous. There was a rock wall sticking out from the pier in a groin-type manner. I took one last look at the harbour and noticed a big sign on the wall of the entrance indicating the radio channel to be used, though I don’t know in what circumstances.

I was tired at this stage as I had been swimming for 40 minutes with only four or five 20 second breaks throughout. I had my watch on, so I knew I was in no danger of rubbing shoulders with the ferry from France, but I was very apprehensive of what lay ahead, of which I knew nothing. Around the wall, it was fight or flight. The currents swept up and I could feel my stroke being ineffective. It was like a fast flowing river and there was no choice in the direction I was to take.

There was an overbearing stench of dead fish or whatever the unpleasant smell is you get in fishing ports. All I could think of was that it was stomach turning but there was far more to worry about. And then I saw the ground beneath me. It was almost heaven sent in its appearance. It was quite clearly sandy and shallow. I put my feet down and although I couldn’t stand up because of the current, I felt a reassurance of not being out of my depth. It enabled me to catch my thoughts for a moment and stop panicking. The main thing was that the current wasn’t taking me out to sea.

After a minute, I could see there was the beach eponymously named ‘Rosslare Harbour Beach’ opening up ahead. I wondered how long the current would continue to sweep me along, but I also was taking solace from the fact I had missed the ferry. Once I had been pushed (realistically swimming wasn’t a key aspect of it at this juncture) beyond the harbour perimeter, the water calmed down and I was back onto sandy shores. The sun was bright and there were a few people on the beach and I was back swimming. There was still a significant push in the right direction, but I was back in control.

I had planned a chocolate and water break at the 5 kilometre point which was another sharp turn on the coast. At this juncture, I had pre-empted being compromised and being swept out to Tuscar, so I knew I had to play it carefully and stick close to the shore, at least until I established the terrain and the conditions. This point is called Greenore point and as I was swimming down Rosslare Harbour beach, Greenore was ‘over there’. I could see rocks going out into the sea at Greenore from a distance and I had seen that kind of view before last year, and my main concern was whether I take the risk of swimming around them or walking around them.

Still a good distance, possibly 800 metres north of Greenore, rocks and dense seaweed started passing beneath me quite close. I thought it was fortuitous that the water level was high enough that I could pass over them albeit very close in places. Then as I breathed to my left I saw a head. Three more strokes and I was breathing to the right and in that time I thought, is my sight failing with age to the extent that I’m seeing huge dull spots? Three more strokes and breathe to the left again. It was a head!

I stopped and looked at a huge grey seal treading water and looking at me from 5 metres. He didn’t have a care in the world, just perplexed and staring at me. I had a lot of cares in the world at this point and he was another one. I had that thought you have when confronted by an aggressive dog, which is don’t, whatever you do, let on that you are scared. I continued swimming and stopped ten strokes later to check and there he was beside me again. At this point, I went into full ostrich mode and swam, and as I swam the rocks were getting more frequent and closer to the surface.

I could see the rocks clearly in the sunlight and more and more I found myself breast stroking over them, with the current ensuring I continued to pass through. I made a conscious decision not to look back anymore for the seal. We had nothing to talk about anyway. Greenore was getting closer but the room to swim was dwindling. What had appeared as a rocky out post from way off was now evidently a bay of rocks, and it was a bay of rocks with a prevailing strong current.

At about 75 metres from Greenore, I knew it was decision time. The wrong decision or the wrong move could be problematic, yet at the same time getting out and walking around would be perceived as a foul in the challenge. I elected to try and navigate through the rocks and get up and climb where necessary. Now the rocks were clearly out of the water in most places for at least 50 metres offshore and judging by the current, it was the right decision not to have attempted to swim around them. Swimming and climbing through them was not easy either.

I was knackered at this point but was still in fight or flight mode, anxious to get to the beach on the south side of Greenore. Clambering over a rock, I lost my footing and twisted my ankle. It hurt but I knew it wasn’t a severe injury. I breast stroked through a pond-like gap in the rocks and looking back, it really was a fantastic piece of nature.

Now that my ankle was smarting, I was being forced to slow down. Not in the pace as the current was largely dictating that, but to slow down in my urgency of thought. I continued on through the rocks and they started to get increasingly below the waterline so my next objective was to land and take a break. Maybe it was fortuitous that the rocks were there as they prevented me from being scuppered at Tuscar, as it took a lot of strength to swim perpendicular to the flow and land. Strength, I might add, I didn’t have much of left.

After an hour and a half swimming, I climbed up on the beach and flopped into a sitting position. I looked out to sea, and what was there, only the Cherbourg ferry coming into port. Thus far it had been a rollercoaster but I just sat on the beach and ate and drank my rations wondering what lay ahead in the next 3 kilometres to the finish. The sun was shining and warm but without a swimming partner, there’s not much to hang around for. The seal was nowhere to be seen but I wasn’t studying the view looking for him.

After ten minutes, I thought I’d better plough on. I knew I had overcome the most difficult part, but I also knew that I couldn’t have any expectations. Re-entering the water, I was at that point when you know you have to start tapping into all your mental and physical reserves in order to finish. It’s not really the same as programming an ‘if’ statement on the computer at work.

There were still rocks but I was starting in a new bay and the sandy beach it was alongside suggested I was getting out of the woods. I knew that there were no more sharp turns in the coast so if I was safe from being swept out to sea at this point then I could cross that concern off my list. I was running on fumes and when I breathed to the right, I felt like the current was now flowing north. The thing that saved me was the fact that when I looked down I could see from the ground, I was still moving south, even though it was painfully slow progress at this point.

I started philosophising about the situation. I told myself that swimmers crossing channels reach these levels of fatigue and worse, yet they overcome them. I had the option of getting out and walking home yet if I was to regard myself in the same context as a channel swimmer or any swimmer of note, then I just have to put my head down and drive on, no matter how long it takes. It was still another three and a half hours before Jen would start wondering about a phone call so I wasn’t under pressure to make a decision, unlike that failed first attempt at Ballinesker.

Every time I breathed to the side the shore was on, the water looked to be flowing against me fast, yet every time I looked at the ground beneath me, I could see I wasn’t going backwards. That’s when the optics of the sea dawned on me. The wind was southerly, so the surface of the water looked to be flowing north against the backdrop of land when you looked at it from the swimming vantage point. I was able to convince myself that the slow progress was due to my energy levels and sapped strength, and just keep going because it would eventually end. There was also a certain amount of truth about the current as well, as at this point it was turning and I was beginning to have to swim against it.

And then another one appeared. Another ba**arding rocky shoal. This one, when it arrived to me, wasn’t so severe in terrain, but there was no push. This meant as I was doggy paddling breaststrokes through it, it was slow and laborious. Again the rocks were getting closer to the water line, and on one of the rocks, I tried to ‘push up’ over it like so many times before. This time I was ignominiously lodged on top of the rock like a stranded walrus.

Try as I might, I couldn’t see the humorous side of this until now. I was marooned and back to fight or flight. I didn’t panic but I was in a rush to get out of this latest rock field and back into safe waters. I forced myself to roll off the rock and continue battling against the sea. Thankfully as I was clearing this headland, I could see the wind farm of Carnsore. I could see the beach open up all the way to Carne and I guessed and hoped the finish would be somewhere between here and there.

My mind was really going to desperate places now. I couldn’t see the roof over the trees I planned to see, and I questioned if I had passed it without noticing. I suppose my subconscious held the fort and kept me going onwards. I could see a handful of people on the beach about a kilometre away, but for some reason, my mind refused to suggest that might be the finish. I think that comes from a place of constantly being forced to think the worst. I was now well and truly crawling, not in an Olympic front crawl sort of way, but in a desperate, clinging on for dear life kind of way.

I could see the sun shining off the beach all the way to the windmills, but no confirmation of the exit. I continued to entertain the thought of getting out and walking to the finish, but then where would I be walking to? The only option was to keep going. The group of people on the beach were getting closer and I thought I saw the lifebuoy ring on the post that I had seen that morning. I couldn’t be sure. My goggles were old and my eyes are old so nobody was making any promises. And then, two hundred meters from the group, I saw the rooftop.

I had just decided in my head that the challenge of swimming around the country is going to kill me if I am constantly presented with the levels of stress that today brought and that I could gracefully bow out at the end of this summer. But as I agree with myself on this, the grail of the finish appears. The feelings of success arrive as too do the endorphins of four hours of hard physical labour. But the one thing I was sure of was to not leave unknowns to chance on any future swims. I was lucky today and thankfully I was somewhat equipped and prepared, but I’ve learned my lesson.

I drove back to Dublin listening to Lyric FM feeling like the cat who got the cream.

Not seeing the wood from the trees . . ..

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