Indian Summer

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on the journey from Baginbun down the Hook peninsula to Slade. I had heard differing opinions on these waters and resolved that it would really be tempting disaster to try it without some form of cover. I knew from the repeated assessments of Google Earth that there were long stretches of cliff coastline that limited the opportunities to land should anything happen, and I had an instinctive foreboding that things might get tricky close to Slade and the head of Hook.

And so I set about ringing around the houses again, and as usual I was getting nowhere. I remembered that a previous rejection from the adventure center in Fethard was based on the fact that they were up to their eyeballs with bookings but it occurred to me that the schools were now back and that demand may have trailed off. I was encouraged when I found on their website that they were now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in September. This suggested that someone in their crew might be available for safety cover.

I rang the office and for a change I got through first time. The nice lady listened to my now well rehearsed two minute introduction and then said she would put a message out on the company whatsapp group and see if any of the lads were interested on their day off. And so that was the last hope that I would get to do the next stage. By now I had become accustomed to not letting myself get disappointed so I had no choice but to put it to the back of my mind.

Then Thursday morning the call came. Seán rang saying he got my number from the whatsapp group. He didn’t question or have any reservations even though effectively he was talking to a complete stranger. The following Tuesday suited him fine and we would confirm over the weekend when we would have a clearer idea of the weather. So far this month the weather has been changeable but the water temperatures have remained high. Fastidiously watching the seven day forecasts change every few hours, time was marching on. This put me in a great mood and in turn all the other dramas of the day to the back of my mind.

As the day drew nearer, windguru settled down and on Sunday evening we made the commitment for Tuesday. Seán had a van and he was more than obliging by agreeing to drive me from the finish to the start and thus circumventing the cycle. The plan was to meet him in Slade harbour at 9:30 but on the motorway out of Dublin I got stuck behind a crash. The traffic took about fifteen minutes to grind slowly to a halt and when some fire trucks came up the hard shoulder to stop just in front of me, I then knew the blockage wasn’t far ahead. Some quick thinking had me cut across and up a slip road to take the gamble that the return slip road back onto the other side would be freed up. It was, thankfully, but I had now lost half an hour. So at the opportunity of the petrol station at Kilmacanogue, I texted Seán to move our appointment out half an hour. The rest of the journey was like driving through a high summer morning where Autumn was a world away.

Driving through the Hook peninsula, I was taken aback at how tantalisingly close Dunmore east seemed from Slade. It made me wonder what the margin of error was in Google Earth, but at a glance the estuary just looked like a very wide river. Anyway that’s for another day. I pulled into Slade harbour at ten past ten and there was a red van parked at the feet of the castle walls. At the wheel of the van was the coolest customer in all of Wexford. Without any concern for my lateness he greeted me with his Northern Irish brogue. I got suited up and we were back on the road ten minutes later. There was banter about the adventure and what potentially lay ahead today. I could tell some of Seán’s questions were guided to get an idea about my capabilities.

The journey to Baginbun took us through a deserted morning Fethard and the beach itself had a retired couple at one end and a young courting couple at the other end, but to all intents and purposes the Summer was over but not the weather. Seán said he didn’t need help with his kayak and sure enough a few minutes later as I was getting ready on the beach, he was dragging his kayak down the path like a pet on a lead. We didn’t hang around and we had a plan.

I swam out to the north headland of Baginbun in two warm up stages of a few minutes. The expectation was that we might have a flow on the other side once the way south opened up. There was a lot of kelp to navigate at this starting stretch but it cleared up as we turned the corner. I could then see across Carnivan Bay without actually seeing the beach within. A quick assessment of the flow confirmed there wasn’t anything noticeable and the Baginbun Martello tower sat regally on the top of the cliffs.

I knew it was just over a kilometer to the southern tip of Baginbun head and it seemed to come around in a timely fashion without the expense of much energy so I then knew things should be OK today. It did occur to me that my pace was on the slow side so after the pause at the south end of the head, I upped the cadence slightly but comfortably. I took reassurance that it still felt comfortable ten minutes later and the Martello tower was moving further behind. I decided that I wouldn’t take my next pause until I was alongside the cliffs south of Carnivan.

At that next pause, we discussed which point on the horizon represented the five kilometer stop off. Seán wasn’t sure as although he spent the summer supervising Kayakers at Baginbun, he had never ventured this far south. He did have a good idea though and the point he suggested as being the stop off was surprisingly closer than my glass half empty expectations. Maybe it was the blue skies and the levels of comfort that made me feel that way.

Although it didn’t feel insurmountable, it did take what felt like half an hour to swim into the small beach we charted. At this stage I had been swimming for an hour and a half and it was midday. The beach itself was the well known ‘Sand Eel Bay’ and was quite rocky and inviting at the same time. It was the local amenity to the townland of Hookless and it was the subject of discussion the previous week at the swimming club with a Dublin swimmer called Michael Crowe. As I came closer to the shore, I imagined having a phone at my disposal to text Michael and say ‘Guess where I am?’. There are a good few swimmers in the club who have told me they are following the journey with interest and I reckoned Michael would have gotten a laugh out of a text from the spot he was at the previous week.

The sun was glorious on the beach as I ate chocolate and drank fresh water from my flask. All my fears about currents, swells, weather, tiredness and other factors in the ensuing week were now washed away and I found it hard to believe that I was approaching the last of Wexford with ease. I asked Seán if he was OK stopping for ten minutes and he was calm as a cucumber when he said, “I don’t mind at all, this is your time”. He was a true gent. Once I had my faculties together, the two of us went back in the water.

The final leg of the day opened up and I continued with a commanding cadence, though kelp fields started to open up again. It wasn’t long before I was forced into a flip flop pattern between doggy paddle and shallow front crawl, though I could tell by the moving kelp beneath me that I was still brisk. This kind of swimming only leads to one place though and that’s exhaustion. I remembered the five kilometers from Cullenstown to Bannow Bay was this terrain a lot of the way and that was a very difficult day.

Slade harbour was clear and defined ahead of us and Seán guessed it was one and a half to two kilometers away. I hung on to the lower estimate as I plodded on. I was finding myself having to stop every few minutes because of the weeds and my arms were getting very heavy. I could feel a strange pressure in my nose like an extreme saline agitation. It made breathing feel laboured but not in an exertion sense but more a feeling of my senses blocking up. I could see Seán was paddling a lot less which indicated the speed had slowed right down. Now I was getting to the stage where I just wanted it to end and I couldn’t appreciate that the end wasn’t far away.

At the next estimate, I suggested the harbour was four hundred metres away and my chaperone suggested six hundred meters. I could live with six hundred meters, that was ten minutes left. I could see from that distance that the harbour had no water in it. It was low tide and a spring tide at that, so now I know what that means in terms of boating in Slade. By this stage I was running on empty, in fact I wasn’t running, I was crawling, painfully slowly.

At about twenty meters from the harbour mouth, I could stand. The ground beneath me was rocky and weedy and I knew I couldn’t walk it because it was too slippy. I took a step anyway and fell over. There was that moment again where I was too fatigued to just stop and take my time getting out. I doggy paddled forward a few meters and tested the ground again. It was still stoney. A few more doggy paddles and the ground turned sandy. Hurrah! The end!

Seán was walking his kayak out of the harbour behind him as I stepped through the chicane walls. I knew it was only the last stretch that was difficult and I wasn’t going to let that dictate the mood for the rest of the day. And it didn’t. Once back at the car we could see Baginbun eight and a half kilometers away basking in the sunshine. I realised I couldn’t imagine walking that distance, yet the fact was I could swim it. And now I am at a point where I can’t go any further in Wexford.