I don’t know if I have mentioned it in this blog but I have been writing a book about all of this. The hope is that someday someone will see fit to publish it and then when I shuffle from senility off this mortal coil, people will read about this great adventurer desk jockey. Throughout this book, I record the water temperature readings of each day at the start of each chapter. They come from the twitter accounts of the nearest meteorological buoy so in the case of the second half of this book, I have been referencing Splaugh buoy which is just off Rosslare port. I thought it fit to mention this at this point because the reading for today reached a max of 18.2 degrees and it is the end of August. This is phenomenal and a clear indication that potentially there is a good bit left to the season, should Jen and other factors like work allow it.
The day itself would not have happened but for the kindness of my good friend Niall, who stepped into the breach to provide canoe cover. With this cover, I was not going to risk a solo swim across Bannow bay, no matter what the conditions were. There was also the fact that while the swim was a mere 4.5 kilometers, if I was to utilise the usual cycling logistic, it would have been a 25 kilometer cycle which would have been an exhausting two hours to kick off the venture.
Without having a concrete plan in place as to how to go about it, I continued to spend the early part of the week ringing phone numbers for boats and kayaks, yet not one picked up or returned my calls. In an act of desperation, I reached out to the Dublin Swimming Club Whatsapp channel to see if there was any hope. Half an hour later Niall messaged me, “I may have an idea for Friday, give me a shout when suits”. My mood instantly skyrocketed. He had an idea to borrow a kayak from a parent in his children’s GAA club and he would perform the safety duties. This was truly magnanimous of Niall as I knew he would love to be making this crossing in the water as well as opposed to on top of it. There were still a few unknowns though, the prescient one being that he had yet to ask for the lend of the kayak. He also thought that he might bring Cormac, his son in a double kayak and give him a taste of the open sea, but that was to be confirmed too. Then there was the logistics of the day as Niall was inclined to bring only one car if possible and he was hoping he might recruit another friend of his from Wexford for some taxi services in the Hook area.
As the day drew closer, a number of things fell into place. Niall’s friend with the kayak, Davin was more than happy to lend us his kayak, but it was a single seat vessel so Cormac wouldn’t be coming. Also his other friend, who might have been available for a lift from Baginbun to Bannow Bay beach, wasn’t going to bunk off work early on Friday so we would be bringing two cars to Wexford.
On Friday morning, I was at Niall’s house with the car at 8:15 am with a full tank of petrol. It was the last of the summer time in lieu day’s that my current company gives us and it was a bit cloudy in a summer’s morning sort of way. We drove in convoy to Dun Laoghaire and met Davin. Davin was very complimentary about the challenge and was truly interested in what we had undertaken and how far we had managed to get it to. He had lots of questions to which we had answers to, and as I recollect, I don’t think he descended into calling the expedition crazy, though he might have thought it.
He showed us how to secure his kayak to my roof rack, while sharing tails of car roofs being ripped off on motorways if not secured properly. This was a new departure where we were taking on an added logistical element ourselves but I was in the moment and just treating it as part of the job. I had never driven on a motorway with roof cargo so this was a big leap, and when on the road, I vigilantly kept the speed under 100 kph the whole way. This was even to the point that I was overtaking a lorry with an awkward load in the Arklow area and because I wasn’t overtaking significantly faster, I could see a car approaching from behind me at breakneck speed and I had a moment of fear that his brakes had failed. He was easily doing 140 kph. After that, I didn’t overtake any more vehicles, no matter how slow they were going.
When Niall and I convened in Oilgate, Niall broke the news that he had forgotten his roof rack. Until now this was an important part of the procedure so we quickly devised a plan to meet again in Wellington Bridge which was the halfway point between the start and the finish but also a good few miles inland at the northern point of a large estuary type lagoon. From there we would leave Niall’s car in Wellington Bridge while we drove the kayak to the start point. Hiding the kayak behind an old lifeguard house where no one goes and no one would see it, we would then drive back to Wellington Bridge, and take the two cars to Baginbun. At Baginbun we would get togged out and drive back to the start in Niall’s car at Bannow Bay beach. That way, my car and the roof rack would be waiting at the finish for the kayak. All this extra faffing about added almost an hour to the kick off time, but by my reckoning we were still safe tide wise. Also at this stage it was blue skies and set to remain so for the rest of the day.
We also had time to fit in a picnic at Bannow Bay beach and we saw what Niall reckoned was a hawk swooping down the cliffs to the beach. But, after the previous day when I had a rough time of it at Cullenstown, I was unsure as to how much current there would be to contend with coming out of Bannow’s backwaters so I had a disposition of caution which I didn’t share with Niall. When we got going, there were two kayakers coming around the headland and their movement suggested a flow eastward (against us). It was the familiar emotion of dejection at this point but we had to soldier on, and once in the water, there didn’t appear to be any such significant current.
For the first 3 hundred metres, we were in the familiar fields of weed and rock, but this was very much an accepted terrain for me at this stage. Niall said he could see them clearly from the kayak and as we started to move offshore it didn’t seem to abate. After the first 2 minutes of warm up, I decided to settle into ten minute intervals again. These had worked so successfully many times before, so if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. At the first pause, Niall asked where I was aiming for and my thinking was to aim for halfway between the headland with the Martello tower on it which was Baginbun headland and the headland north of that, which was Fethard. My rationale was that if there was any kind of drift outward from the backwater, we would still be most likely on target for Baginbun.
At the twenty minute break, there was a rocky outpost of an island up in front of us. It would have been no more than fifteen square meters and I knew this wasn’t charted in any of my previous inspections of Google Earth. From a distance, the island was black with cormorants basking in the afternoon sun. Ten minutes later, we were alongside it and it was empty. Niall remarked that, “a few minutes ago there were thirty cormorants here and now we are here, there are none!”. My mind went on a train of thought about islanders around the coast of Ireland and the evolution of the planet and I tried to crack a joke. “At one point in history, there would have been people living on that island and there will be again at some future point in history”. I couldn’t make out Niall’s response properly but I think he said, “Eh the cormorants say No!”
Looking back at the starting point behind us and ahead to the other side, it appeared we were not quite half way, but there was an optical illusion on the western side that suggested the Baginbun side wasn’t an insurmountable distance away. Any kind of indiscernible point on the far distant horizon will always feel insurmountable but baginbun felt tangible. Very much conscious that it signified the crossing of an important bay, the goal wasn’t milage today.
The sun never let up and I was starting to feel patches of bath like temperatures in the water and it’s now when I know that it was hitting 18 degrees that I fully appreciate the warmth that Irish waters can reach. If these were the temperatures all year round the duration of the challenge would be cut to less than half the time. I suppose it does help that it’s the last heat wave of the season too. The sun rays were piercing through the aqua green tint of the sea below and it looked like there was a sandy floor in the depths beneath. Then the negative stuff was starting to creep in.
My mind would reflect on some of the huge challenges ahead. Would the next stage to Slade harbour be too dangerous to do without company or cover. Would the turn around Hook head and the 9 km of open water it would take to get across to Waterford be insurmountable. If I got that far, the next stage after that would be a 13 kilometer expedition, the kind of which I had never achieved in my life. I stopped and surveyed the current vantage point with Niall.
I said to him, “at this point I just don’t want to get angry”. He said something to the fact that why would I be getting when it was such a nice day. He was right and it was hard to grasp with fatigue but there was nothing to be angry about at this point. I tried to laugh it off by stating the old adage, “just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you”. In many ways this was my subconscious talking.
At this stage we were close enough to Baginbun to see people on the beach. They were still small dots but it meant finality. Earlier, we had mooted the idea of making it around Baginbun headland to Carnivan beach. Both beaches were equidistant to the car and the latter would mean a shorter journey the next day out. However as we were nearing Baginbun, it was approaching the turn of the tide and I could feel it getting choppier. I knew from research that it was an extra 1500 metres to get around the headland and I was full of trepidation about making the extra mile in the face of a rising tide. Coupled with the fact that Baginbun looked like an oasis of rest, we agreed to make a line for the farthest end of the beach and appraise the situation from there. One pause a few minutes later, I told Niall that I thought we should leave it at Baginbun and he could go snorkelling around the rocks like he planned.
There was a certain sense of failure that I didn’t have the faculties to make the longer distance but when I got to a depth in the water when I could stand up for the first time, the subtle overbearing pressures of the crossing abated. Niall beached first with the kayak and I sure it must have felt good for him to stretch his legs for the first time in an hour and a half and when I walked up on the beach to him a minute later, I held out my hand to shake hands and decreed, “Doctor Livingstone I presume?”
Niall then went into the water with his snorkel and mask and I stood with the kayak in the sunshine retrieving my senses. Then I thought, “Hang on! I have just swam from the headland in the far distance on the other side of this channel. I then felt good and that it was an important milestone in the odyssey. Possibly for the first time it dawned on me that I had now swam to a point from Dublin that couldn’t be glossed over as trivial. That, and in two swims time, I ‘should’ be in Waterford which would be another piece of history to claim.