This was definitely one of the most interesting swims over the last while. The start was Ballyhealy which was demarcated by a large boulder at the low tide mark and the finish was at the start of Ballyteige Burrow which stretches west from Kilmore Quay. Between those two points is Ireland’s marine answer to the jungle.
In the week leading up to this swim I had been apprehensive about the inevitability of having to do it alone. I had swam in the Saltees swim about five years ago and remember the stewards chaperoning us out of the way of Patrick’s Bridge yet still we had a lot of tangling weeds and reeds to negotiate. I reckoned now that I was going to have to go through it as opposed to around it, that it was a case of damage limitation if I swam out a bit. The satellite imagery on Google Earth suggested that it was dense and as this diary entry unfolds, you will see I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Windguru had suggested Sunday or Monday from early on the previous week, but Sunday was a non runner due to commitments at home. Monday was good though. It was a bank holiday so I wouldn’t forfeit annual leave and having spent the weekend building a fence that Jen approved of in the garden, I had full blessings to head off for the day.
In my anticipated entry into the waters of the south coast, I decided it was time to get in touch with a Waterford swimmer named Donal Buckley. Donal is a fabled long distance and Ice swimmer who maintains a swimming blog that has won numerous awards. He is known for his critiquing of publicized swims that bend the rules in the eyes of the true purists. Flipper swims and channel relays, that kind of thing. I anticipated him not being receptive to me on the basis of my wetsuit use, but when he responded to my introductory email, he was nothing but supportive and courteous. I wanted to talk to him because he had extensive experience swimming the waters of the south coast and his insights would be invaluable. I also invited him to join me whenever it suited him.
We ended up talking over the phone a few days after the email and we set up a channel of communication whereby I would pick his brains on the various swims as they approached. I felt it was too much to take in a complete synopsis of Waterford in one sitting. And to this end, my focus was on the Ballyhealy to Kilmore Quay stretch. He mentioned there was a rip current off Patrick’s bridge that I needed to watch out for. I couldn’t quite visualize how this manifests but when I got there I saw what he meant.
I should clarify that Patrick’s Bridge is a naturally rocky pathway that is above the water at half tide and stretches out at least 2 kilometers towards the Saltee Islands. It is roughly six hundred meters east of Kilmore Quay harbour. The purists will say, in this challenge, it should be swum around, but I think it is much more in the spirit of the challenge to get out and climb over it. The fact that it was a solo swim meant I had a degree of security by staying close to my depth. Legend has it that St Patrick inadvertently created this natural phenomena by chasing the devil and throwing rocks from the Galtee mountains at him. Donal said he would like to join me but he would have to confirm the night before, but in the end he couldn’t make it due to a banjaxed canoe that spent his shoulders, a few days before.
For some reason, there was no pressure with this swim. It might have been that I was dropping from an 8 kilometer distance the last day down to five or six kilometers on this day, or it might have been that I was wholly anticipating getting the tides right and getting a push that might bring it down to an equivalent of 4 kilometers. The fact that I didn’t have to race back to Dublin afterwards helped. There was a certain amount of the unknown in the fact I didn’t know how much vegetation to expect and according to 3 year old imagery on Google Earth, I would have a sandy journey for the first fifteen hundred meters.
I made sure I packed everything, even down to my waterproof watch. I spent 15 minutes searching the house for it to put it in my swimming bag and eventually in an act of desperation asked Seán, had he seen it. He hadn’t seen it but in an attempt to get me to stop interrupting his computer game, he suggested it might be in my swimming bag. He was right! Credit where credit is due, I thanked him.
The drive down was uneventful with a little over two hours from Phibsboro to Kilmore Quay. When I got to Kilmore Quay it was absolutely mobbed with day trippers, even though the weather was somewhat grey. I didn’t know what to expect when I would get to the Ballyteige Burrow. Would there be a navigable beach or would the environment be inhospitable. I parked up on the road in the last free parking space in the town and went to survey the potential finish point. Access to the beach involved walking over a footbridge of a small river that looked more like a large storm drain. On the beach side of the bridge was a blunt ‘No Swimming’ sign. It was the same type of sign that I had seen at Carnsore and my first reaction was, yet again I had made the journey down from Dublin only to be prevented from swimming due to my ignorance. I ventured over the dunes onto the beach to get an understanding of what the danger was and I was greeted with a few bathers with very limited swimming capacity, wading around in waist deep water. I had decided that the warning sign must have been something to do with the storm drain-type river but looking back now, I can see there being problems if you weren’t a good swimmer and you drifted south to the harbour walls.
I decided then to go and pay a visit to Kilmore Quay RNLI station. My introduction to Fintan previously was through this RNLI station and a chap called Dave Moloney. I thought if I was passing, I should drop in and say hello and thanks. The station had a shop on the ground floor where a nice lady was busy selling shell necklaces and pencils with rubber eraser lifeboats on the top of them to raise funds to save lives. I immediately thought that if there comes to be a next year in this journey, that my chosen charity would then be the RNLI. I had listened to a podcast during the week about two girls who got caught on paddle boards and swept out of Galway bay and really if we didn’t have the RNLI, there would be a lot more tragedy on the sea. I also heard that the brexit factions in the UK were attacking the RNLI in some propaganda. I didn’t bother finding out the exact details as we all know those idiots would never be near the sea because it would deny them time in Wetherspoons. Dave wasn’t there anyway, so I bought a box of Christmas cards and made a donation.
Then it was a cycle to Ballyhealy. Again it was largely uneventful though I did pack a printout of the route as I didn’t want to get lost like the last day with Niall. There were no climbs of significance and I remembered what Niall said about the roads in the area. Because it was a flat landscape, it was easy to build roads all over the place. There were lots of Norman ruins all over this countryside too, picturesquely placed in the middle of golden wheat fields. Once I left the main Wexford to Kilmore Quay road, there were no more cars, just the faint humm of tractors as you wind down the roads.
At Ballyhealy beach, there was a group of people looking for directions to a stables. The person they were asking directed them to me as I pulled up on the bike. I was able to impart the knowledge of the last day with Niall where I casually rattled off the placename ‘Rossdoonbeg Beach’ with the air of someone of local significance. I’m not even sure that’s the same name that Niall was calling it, but the wetsuit guy would be a good person to ask! Then it was final prep and into the water.
A bit of a breeze had developed and the water looked a bit on the choppy side. The breeze was south westerly and if that had any influence on the water then I was going to be against it again today. I didn’t care though as this is mostly what I’ve had since Cahore. And true to form, once I waded into the water there was going to be an uphill journey today. I took a few strokes and saw that at least I could move in the right direction and as long as I could perceive movement, I would just keep going.
I swam for four minutes as a warm up and stopped for half a minute, then settled into a rhythm. I swam for ten more minutes and could see it was still sandy below. It was occurring to me that it would be a bit over an hour before I got to the bridge and that once I had hit vegetation, I would be fifteen hundred meters into it. I monitored my progress relative to the beach and it was clear that it was slow, but because I was in familiar territory, there was no problem. The fact that my knackered goggles were shielding me from the extent of my slowness helped. There were houses dotted along the vista and they seemed to be progressing and ultimately I wasn’t out of my exertion comfort zone.
I was looking forward to a lot of things at this point. I was looking forward to finishing up with Wexford and moving into Waterford. I was looking forward to being one of the few who have swum across the Waterford estuary. I was looking forward to getting through the kelp underworld ahead and I was looking forward to finishing the fence in Dublin. There was no sun but it wasn’t a grey day. And then the reeds started.
At the first reed that I came upon, I could see it standing arrogantly with it’s tidal weather vane pointing towards me. Yes this was against me but I was full sure I had the tides right and indeed I did, as what this was, was the ripping eddie coming off Patrick’s Bridge. I was still a good two kilometers away from it but this was its effect. I was picturing the Saltee Islands creating a contraflow which then got funneled back at me by the bridge. Luckily it was a neap tide so it could have been worse. Alas there was no time to worry about this as the reeds and weeds were starting to come thick and fast.
Initially I tried to swim around the protruding greenery but then it got too dense. There were fleeting visions of getting knotted in the stuff but it continued to just sweep past. I was no longer in any way interested in the beach or eroding lands buttressing it. I was breathing bilaterally and watching the waters below me pass by like an arty movie. I did at one point imagine that scene in the star wars clone movie (the shite one) where they are speeding through an underwater labyrinth being chased by a big worm.
I started to notice that I was so calm about the circumstances that I was breathing comfortably every four strokes. I know at a faster pace this would only be sustainable for seventy five meters max, but this pace and cadence was surprisingly comfortable. I thought then for a moment that I needed to move to breathing every other stroke so I don’t build up oxygen debt but this felt unnatural and uncomfortable. The reeds were now like a grassy field and there was no break in them but at no time did any of them catch me and bring me to an abrupt halt. I also took comfort that the water was shallow enough below me that I could stop any time. And I stopped on quite a few occasions, feeling the stones beneath the seaweed under my feet. At one point with the coral-like weed passing by, I saw a crab scurry into the growth. This was a new departure. It was a new animal on the journey and signified a new horizon in my pursuit. A minute later, I saw another bigger crab ambling out of the way. From then on to Patrick’s Bridge, it was crab world. The seaweed life meant the water was not navigable by boat so this was ‘wild’ crab life going here and there. There were also a lot of crab carcasses and I assumed they were victims of the many gulls loitering in the area.
Then another micro environment phenomena started occurring. Every now and then there would be breaks in the green life and patches of sand a few meters squared would be exposed. On these small strips of clear sand were almost matrix-like congregations of curled up worms. I have no idea what or why. I thought they might be getting some reprieve until a spring low tide exposed them to the bird life, but possibly they were too deep for that. What I did realise then is worms don’t breathe the same way as we do, which is a fact we often overlook.
I could see the cranes in the Kilmore Quay harbour silhouette in the distance and I couldn’t make out the harbour entrance due to the greyness of the sky and goggle-fog but at about four hundred meters I could make out what looked like a green wall. As I got closer I realised that this was the fabled ‘Bridge’. The green mossy surface of it’s stoney ground indicated it would be slippery, but this marked the start of the final stretch so I was going to enjoy it. It had dawned on me that I was so accepting of the day’s circumstances that the usual anger never drew in, especially when I could still see the weeds pointing against me. Maybe I had crossed a rubicon in endurance. It would be great if that were true. All I would need then is to cross an abyss of fitness and I could ramp up to 20km swims.
I carefully approached the natural pier that was Patrick’s Bridge and cautiously stood up. The anticipated slippy-ness was only too real. I had to take each step slowly and even bent down into a semi crawl on all fours for a bit. The excitement was palpable as the water on the west side of the natural wall appeared a lot calmer and there was a little over a kilometer left of the swim. Long distance swimmers often deal in terms of half way points and this was well past that, so it was just the task to bring it home. I had considered stopping on the bridge but the weather wasn’t conducive, as it was still too grey and there was a slight chill to the air.
As I carefully stepped into the water on the other side, there was a feeling of warmth. It wasn’t an excessive warmth and may have just been my brain confusing familiarity with comfort. My first glimpse under water on the other side also confirmed the fact that the swim thus far was in the face of an eddie as the weeds were now pointing the other way. Happy days!
I could see a small rod fishing boat just outside the harbour mouth so I had something to aim for. The sun was coming out over the harbour so my view of it was shadowed. I was getting very tired at this point and not fully appreciating the fatigue of two hours swimming against the flow. I knew from earlier recon that once I cleared the harbour entrance, I had to swim around a rocky point and the northwards for two hundred meters to the landing beach. But once I got around the harbour mouth, the chop sprang up and was debilitating. I breastroked for a few minutes, realising I wasn’t moving much but that this was unknown and could get tricky.
I could see people walking on the coastal path onshore and grew concerned that they might be concerned. I was absolutely knackered but knew I was nearly home. I took a few more front crawl strokes, breastroked a few more and repeated until I was around the rocky spit west of Kilmore Quay pier. Then I could see the beach. I wasn’t sure if they were seagulls on it or if it was so far away that they were people. The sun was now emblazoning on the sandy dunes of Ballyteige Burrow and it had the air of a mediterranean summer’s evening. It was definitely another case of finishing on fumes but yet another first happened. I realised this was the first time in the adventure that I was swimming north as the evening sun shone from my left.
I shunted a few strokes at a time to the shore. I could see the sandy floor beneath me but it was too deep every time I tried to stand up. I’d say I was ten meters from the shore line and I still couldn’t stand up. It was another gutt I supposed. Maybe this was part of the earlier warning. Just a few strokes more and then I could stand up. It was a relief and I felt accomplished. I also knew that this was something you had to go a long way from a pool in Dublin to experience.