Throughout a swimming career, whole years of plodding up and down a swimming pool lane blend into a single memory. Even if you keep a diary, there is a truism in competitive swimming that you are only as good as your last performance.
With this coastal challenge however there are many memories and mental pictures, and as I glance back to previous parts of the blog and the book I am writing in tandem, vivid memories and pictures in my mind come sweeping back. These musings are nothing but cherished, even if they were tough circumstances at the time. For this reason, I heartily recommend if you are in a position to, to explore the coastline in a similar manner, even if it is just for a few hundred metres. The caveat is that you do it safely, but then I am of the belief you wouldn’t have gotten this far into the blog if you weren’t either a swimmer or mature enough to know your limits.
To this point, I am aware of two groups of swimmers, some of whom I know, who have undertaken the Wicklow coast this year. Now that I think of it, it should possibly be called ‘The Wicklow Way’, though I’m not sure what board failte would have to say. I had the privilege of being asked for help with one of the groups as Collette from Guinness Swimming Club reached out looking for boat support to get around Wicklow head. In the end they secured cover on the day before their swim and they covered over 10 Kilometres from north of Wicklow Head to Brittas Bay.
Back to the latest swim. Earlier on in the year, I had kindly invited my mum to Wexford with me for a trip or two to help with the logistics. She agreed in principle at the time, as mothers are inclined to do, but it wasn’t until a week or two ago when she came back to me and said she could do a swim support or two now. It was an offer just at the right time as I had now arrived at coastline where the linking roads were much longer than the swims and I was now considering long swims. This swim was a 10 kilometre jaunt from Kilmore Quay to Cullenstown Beach and I was all the more spurred on by the swim I had just heard of at Wicklow Head. This jaunt would be a continuous beach from start to finish so it was safe to do without a canoe or boat, though Donal had warned me about the potential flow coming out of the back water lake at Cullenstown.
Donal had also helped me in my estimation of the favourable tide, suggesting I get in an hour earlier. Mum didn’t mind bringing our departure from Dublin forward to 7:30 am and she drove like the clappers down the M11, so there was no way I was going to miss this tide! It was dark and overcast going through Dublin in the early morning, but as soon as we reached the M50 perimeter of Dublin, it was like the ring road was fencing in Autumn as blue skies opened up beyond. Windguru did advise that South Wexford would be cloudy too, so I wasn’t going to have false hopes.
There was however a little bit of sun left at Kilmore Quay when we got there but the grey was clearly coming in over the sea (if you will excuse the pun). What was a happy sight was the 60 cm swell Windguru had predicted hadn’t manifested itself in chop at the waters edge. I have done a few swims of this distance last year and experience told me to plan for at least two stop overs. So I packed two chocolate bars and a bottle of water in reusable plastic. Thankfully with my mum couriering me, there was no bike leg today, so no flip flops or t-shirt in the tow float. I have yet to quantify the impact of all that extra weight being dragged along, but I should imagine its not inconsiderable.
I stepped into the water at 9:40 am and there was a small gathering of gulls floating around the start point. They didn’t seem phased as I approached them. Maybe they recognised me? I swam for two minutes as a warm up. And then another two minutes to complete the warm up, only stopping for 10 seconds each time. This make sense from a cardio perspective and something I should have considered more often previously. I decided then to swim in ten minute slots for an hour and a half before my first pit stop. I reckoned I would be around half way by then with a good flow.
Again, I had been here so many times before and I knew that after the first three or four ten minute jaunts, the time slots would then blend into a body of time that moved quicker. It was a case of another truism, “all in its own good time”. Donal had mentioned that he didn’t favour long beach swims as they tended to be boring, but I enjoyed this one as the dunes and beach to my right persisted in moving quite progressively. The water was particularly cloudy for most of the swim such that I couldn’t see the sea floor even though I could stand up in the water.
After an hour, I could see a person standing around a mile away. He was merely a small blob on the horizon but I didn’t see him being anything other than a fisherman. I wondered where he came from though because according to Google Earth, the access point was over two miles behind me at Kilmore Quay. Would he really have walked that far to go fishing on a beach that was completely empty anyway? He did seem to demark the half way point in the swim so maybe he was there on purpose. As I got closer, I could confirm he was fishing and I could also see that he was on the beach where my first hour and a half was scheduled to stop, almost to the metre. In an effort not to invade his personal space, I took my break at one hour and twenty eight minutes.
On the beach there was a large heavy duty plastic box which made a perfect bench, but in the absence of sunshine, there was no basking in the rest. The first chocolate bar was half chocolate and half beard water but I could feel the calories in it not getting further than my throat before being vacuumed into my metabolism. I made sure to keep enough water for pit stop two. And I was back in the water ten minutes after I had climbed out. For the second leg, I had planned another hour of ten minute steps.
I was beginning to really appreciate the lack of a bicycle stage, as there was no anger and despite the grey skies, it was just endless optimism. I knew I was making good head way with the currents as I had very quickly left the fisherman behind me in the distance. From that resting point, I couldn’t see the start and I couldn’t see the finish, so logically I had to be close to half way. But we all know how logic can be an assumption in these swims so the safest thing to do was not to commit mentally to anything.
The second hour slot passed relatively quickly and I was beginning to think about the outflow from the backwater, especially since today was one of the few occasions, where I didn’t drive to the finish first and assess the exit. So there was a great unknown that was getting all Donald Rumsfeldy in my head. And apart from a quad bike that sped by with a driver and a passenger at one point, there was nothing on the vista to get a perspective. At 12:20 pm, I climbed back on the beach and I made straight to climb the twenty foot dune to get an opinion via the backwater that I knew lay behind. At the top of the dune, it was clear that there couldn’t have been more than a half an hour left.
I descended the dune and sat on a sea ravaged piece of thick branch for my last picnic of the day. By now, this was purely a calorie intake exercise as I was very fatigued and potentially susceptible to the cold. It wasn’t cold per se but after three hours in water of fifteen or sixteen degrees, your core temperature will be depleted to an extent. I have never experienced hyperthermia, and I don’t want to. After twelve minutes, I was back in the water.
This was it, I was going home. But then I started to consider what was awaiting at the finish. There was still Donal’s warning of the outflow from the inlet, but there was no channel visible from a distance. I could see cars parked up ahead, so in all likelihood this was the finish, but it was somewhere I didn’t know. For some reason, I had decided that there was no channel. I reckoned that at low tide as it was now, that all the draining had been done and as I got closer to the cars and houses I was getting too tired to lift my arms any more. It was getting choppier and I put this down to the weather.
I decided I was close enough to get out and I could resume from here the next day. It wasn’t until I was standing up on the stoney beach that I saw the channel. I staggered towards it as there was still a hundred metres left to the car park. The stones were painfully sore on the feet and I was in a form of delirium that prevented me from stopping even just for a minute and relaxing. Mentally I needed to see my mum’s car to know the swim was over. And to do this I had to cross the channel which was flowing out to sea like a rapid.
I took a few steps into the channel and there was a tremendous pull. It was fight or flight and the first thing to do logically was strap my tow float back on so I didn’t have to be concerned about losing it. When I was between knee deep and waist deep I decided I just had to make a break for it and swim across in the hope that the current wouldn’t sweep me out by the time I crossed it. I lunged forward and It was like riding a wave on a surfboard. I took a few strokes with my head above water until I reckoned I might be able to stand up again. I put my hands down and could feel the bottom. With a burst of energy I don’t know where I summoned from, I stood up and staggered forward. There was still a fierce pull in the water but I was just about able to overcome it and dig my feet into the stoney sand beneath, oblivious to the pain. A few more steps and I was out the other side.
I stepped further forward on the stones dreading that my mother’s car would not appear and that this was me stranded but as the stones morphed into soft sand, her ford appeared from behind a dune. She wasn’t in the car with her book as I was expecting so I guessed she was still out having her walk. By this time the sun had come out and although it wasn’t Mediterranean heat, it was most welcome. I loitered for ten minutes and then she appeared, wondering how she missed me as she was waiting for me on the beach. This was it though. This was now the pay back when the endorphins are ricocheting around my brain and another swim is notched off in the adventure.