Anne Marie was one of my wife’s closest friends and they had been friends since college. I won’t embarrass anyone by saying how much time that is, but it is the end of this part of the journey for Anne Marie.
There were many kind people who stepped forward with the fundraising part of the swim this year and because Anne Marie was such a private person, she was touched by the fact you helped her without looking for any sort of validation as to where the donations were going to.
The donations went to an immunotherapy clinic in Europe which gave Anne Marie a lease of life and she had a reprieve from the cruel cancer that struck her down. People turn to this kind of therapy sometimes when other options have been exhausted, but everybody knows that cancer has no emotions or sentiment. So if you find yourself in the early stages of something that doesn’t feel right, please get it seen to medically.
Anne Marie was a mountain of positive energy. She always had a wide grin on her face and she wouldn’t dwell on the negative or suffer fools. When I crossed the finish line at the Warrior of the Sea race a few years ago, she was standing there and cheering me on. She wasn’t too concerned about the place I had finished in the race (I won), but she was glowing with praise for even doing the swim. And her friend, my wife, is the same.
I hope to resume this swim adventure next year in some form while I still have my health. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t, but I know while we only have a finite window of opportunity in this life, that we need to chase our dreams.
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.
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.
If I was to sum up today in one word, that word might possibly be consigned. The day was consigned for multiple reasons that I will now go into.
It was nearly two weeks since my last swim and that was down to the fact I tried to secure canoe cover to get across Bannow Bay. This crossing was hoped for as the tail end of an eight kilometer pitch from Cullenstown beach. I thought I had it in me to cover the distance if the tide was favourable and I had the company of a safety paddler. I had been in negotiations with a kayaker from Kilkenny, but between his availability which was weekdays after work and the tides there was only one opportunity since the last day. However when the day came the conditions were awful. Time was dragging on and I felt I might be waiting for a very long time before the right opportunity presented itself, and so I consigned myself to completing the five kilometers from Cullenstown to the edge of the bay at Bannow Bay beach and go from there. Today was the first weather opportunity since that decision.
On the last day out, you may recollect that I had a challenge at the finish in the form of a rapid flow out to sea from the lagoon of Ballyteige. In the lead up to today, I kept thinking this would present itself as a challenge again and I decided I would hope for the best and try not to think about it until I saw it in the flesh again. Part of me was saying that if the worst came to the worst, I would skip the outlet and add it to ‘Missings Gap’ as a section to come back to. This kind of psychology was lending itself to the prospect that sooner rather than later, the odyssey would come to an end, and being almost two weeks between swims gave weight to this thought process.
In the end when I got there, I seemed to approach the start section with blinkers on. The tide was falling into its last hour of decline and so the flow of the lagoon was just as fierce as when I last left it. As I was making my final preparations, I charted where I should start. There was a sand bank exposed on the other side of the mouth. It gave the perception of being a shallow channel. As the flow hit the sea there was a bit of turbulence and what looked like a path of sea heading straight out for a hundred metres at least. I was togged out and blowing up my tow float when a couple came walking up to me with haste. “Sorry, you’re not from around here are you?”. They were concerned that I was ignorantly ignoring the warning signs about bathing and in a way I was, but at this moment in time I was prepared to make a go of it. They talked ominously of swimmers coming a cropper and boats not being able to rescue them at this point and I suggested that they stay and keep an eye that I pass through into the calmer other side safely. They weren’t convinced until I informed them that I had walked across the channel on the last day out and then they conceded slightly. They did say that they didn’t know what they could do if there was any difficulty, but at this stage I was consigned to keeping to the rules and making a go of it.
I waded across the stoney shallows into the channel and there was a strong flow. Before I got waist deep I knew I was about to lose my footing so I made a dash for the sandbank on the other side. I’d say in about ten strokes I had swam the ten metres across but was swept twenty metres out. I just about made the corner of the intended sandbank and forced myself to stand and walk on the painful stone bank. It wasn’t so bad. I then knew I was in control of the situation and I turned and waved back at the two lifeguards on the beach behind me. I got a wave back.
I was still very much in a state of trepidation about the swim and the unfamiliarity of these waters so my pace was very cautious. After the first ten minutes, I had swam clear of lagoon outflow and the waves settled down. I was way out yet I knew that it was a shallow beach coast line to the next headland. I had misgivings about the currents as I knew low tide was within half an hour at Cullenstown yet somehow low tide was almost an hour later at Bannow Bay. Then it occurred to me that what the internet might be considering Bannow Bay to be, might be the inner lagoon-like bay as opposed to the area between here and Baginbun on the Hook peninsula. I was too far from the shore line for my shortsightedness to get a reference. That and the first ten minutes seemed to go on forever.
There was no visibility in the water for the first half of the swim and this added to the despondency. The sky was mostly overcast by virtue of the fact there was a prevailing cloud centered over the area and it was a cruel torturer as it allowed a persistent gap to let the sun shine on the coastline about two kilometres away. The thoughts were getting negative and I had the mindset of someone being goaded. A voice asked “Do you think you will achieve anything with this swim?” My response was, “I’m just trying to bring some sunshine to the world”. The clouds blocked the sun as if to say, “Yeah that’s not going to happen”, and again I replied, “If enough people keep trying, it will”. The voice then went away, so I felt I won the argument, though the sun didn’t come out.
At the twenty minute mark, I was still close to Cullenstown beach laterally and I was consigning myself to the prospect of a long one today. Maybe resigning is the right word here? And I thought for a minute to consider doing some stroke counting. I decided against it though as it was too early into the swim and the finish was still an unknown beyond view. The keeragh Islands which are a wildlife sanctuary and natural heritage area were still ahead of me to my left. They seemed a lot closer to the shore that Google Earth suggested. I don’t have a photographic memory so when I study these courses prior to swimming them, they blend into my memory banks with a certain vagueness. I could see some houses on a headland in the distance but was fairly sure they weren’t the properties I had made a note of when parking the car earlier in the day. I was reassured by the notion that although they might not be the finish point, it would at least be over half way and today was supposed to be a ‘short’ one.
At around an hour, I rounded a headland and because I quickly came close to shore, I was taken aback by the pace I was moving at that point. Seaweed and rocks were gathering below and moving briskly. An observer in the form of a chirpy gull was standing on the rocks and he passed from view as quickly as he came into view. I then noticed that the weeds were pointing west. A favourable flow, but it must have been an eddie. The weeds were getting thick and heavy so I turned out a bit and instantly it seemed the flow was against me again. There was still no sign of home so I decided I would look for a break in the rocks to land and finish the bottle of water in my tow float. I was sure the beach I was nearing was on the other side of the headland to the finish and I was prepared to land on it except I could see what looked like a gathering of people camped close to the beach entrance and I didn’t want to get into a conversation about what I was doing.
I kept swimming and I could see that there was no beach beyond so I picked a spot I would aim for the shore. It took me a good ten minutes to swim to that point and I was knackered. I was moving into giving up territory again. There was a guy in combat fatigues hanging around so I paddled thirty metres beyond him. The landscape was almost volcanic and very rugged. By the point where I could stand up, albeit with difficulty, I carefully reached into a rock pool. To get up onto the shore wasn’t going to be easy and judging by the difficulty the lady forty meters back had in navigating the coast line, I knew walking back the rest of the way was going to be an unlikely option.
I sat down for a rest. The simple act of resting started to put my mind at ease. There was still plenty of time and I wasn’t cold. The sun wasn’t going to come out, I knew that, but a mouthful of fresh clean water was like heaven. I had packed a printout of Google maps for the bike part of the journey as I didn’t know the roads and although I hadn’t called on it for clarification on land, I thought I would get an opinion by looking at it now. I dried my hands on the T-shirt I brought and took out the A4 page. There was a wave of relief when it told me that in all likelihood, I had just to go around the headland a hundred metres away and then I would see the finish. This was the last concession of the day. This is where I got to tell myself that throughout today’s swim, there were witnesses at every point to clarify, I didn’t cheat and that apart from ‘Missings Gap’ and a few groynes at Rosslare, I was still on course for the circumnavigation.
Back in the water, I had a brief second wind but the seaweed was dense and debilitating. It was tiring me out quickly and I was starting to catastrophize that this wasn’t the last headland. Then, as many times before, just when I needed a sign, the abandoned farmhouse at the finish came into view. But just so as I didn’t get too ecstatic, the seaweed was pointing east. I told myself at this point that I could reasonably get out anywhere and have an acceptable resumption point for the next day. The problem was the shoreline was still a volcanic brownstone facade which denied an exit.
I had no choice but to consign myself to swimming right up to the end where there was a small stretch of pebbled beach to exit the sea from. This point was alongside the exit to the beach where my car was, and where a canoe could safely launch if I manage to organise the next stretch.
And then peace and endorphins.
If you would like to donate to a friend’s cancer therapy, you can do so at this link, and many thanks to those who have already been kind:
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.
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.
Yes – that is not a typo. And in the spirit of instant gratification that is the internet I will lay it out immediately and embellish it with the preamble after the first paragraph. So, since my last blog post I had intended to swim from marker A north of Carnsore point to a marker B, southwest of the same Carnsore point. For reasons I will get into shortly, this ended up being two separate swims, the first of which was a 2k due south and the second was a 6 K’er which encompassed a southerly stretch followed by a turn to the southwest. Thus the TL;DR is, today I have left the east coast, and the trajectory of the sun is going to be from behind me to in front of me for the next year or two. You can now (if you like) click on this link ( https://gofund.me/bfa6e25b ) and donate to a very brave and special friend’s cancer treatment. Now for the ramble . . ..
It’s the start of July and I’m feeling cautious, very cautious! For those of you who read the last swim, you will appreciate that I am now getting into senior hurling. I had been advised and warned about the waters ahead of me and considering what had just gone, I made the commitment to both myself and Jen that I would not do the next stage alone or any stage after that where I hadn’t researched the safety enough. I decided I would try and find a canoeist. There had to be some kind of sea kayaking community in the South East that I could tap into and initially I was confidently optimistic that I wouldn’t be looking long. I was aiming for the trek between Ballytrent (which I had previously mistaken for Old Mill Bay Beach – Thanks Google!) and a finish just around the corner of Carnsore point, 6 and a half Kilometres away. And I thought I had a weather window of Sunday 4th July, Windguru had it being down to a decision the evening before
Again, cutting a
long story short, I think every kayaker south of Wicklow town and
east of Kinsale would have heard about some guy from Dublin wanting
to do something stupid around Carnsore. I got some advice as to why a
professional canoeist would be too expensive to even consider paying
because their reputations are on the line (apologies if you are
getting tarred with this brush), and I also got some helpful
individuals who weren’t available. So in the end, the swim day was
looming and I had nothing secured and I knew I wasn’t going to
either. It was a weekend of depression and the depression lifted when
I had the brain wave to go back to David in Wexford town who
organised the estuary boat. I texted him. He made some calls. He
texted back a number. He also texted back some really useful advice
for future reference for these circumstances.
The number was for
Fintan who I was told by David was a boatman from Carne. Carne is a
harbour south of the start point and Fintan wasn’t merely a
‘boatman’, he was a lobster fisherman with a lifetime of
knowledge and experience of these waters. It was too good to be true.
Being a fisherman, Fintan couldn’t just drop everything and take a
call if he was on the water, but being the city desk jockey, I was
unaware of this until I met him. When I got talking to him, he was an
absolute gentleman and we made a plan for the next weather window,
which was Saturday, 10th July.
Being such a
gentleman, he left it up to me to decide what time to aim for and I
did detect hesitancy in him which I couldn’t place. What was
happening was, my sources of information for the currents were
entirely wrong and he was too polite to correct me. It is to his
credit that he tried a few times. On the Friday night we talked on
the phone and he was good to go. 3:30 at the Old Mill.
Windguru suggested some grey weather and it wasn’t wrong. At about 1:20 pm on the Saturday I was approaching the Wexford town ring road and it was raining. It was also grid lock. Fintan rang, and asked where was I? I told him and he said, “you’d want to hurry up”. “The tide has turned and will be flowing north at the point of Carne”. Again still putting 100% of my faith in what my phone had told me, I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of what he was saying. I made haste where I could and we slightly rearranged the logistics where, instead of cycling all the way to the start point, I would meet him halfway and he would get me to the start.
I won’t go into
the rest of the mundane logistics that I usually do!
I rocked into Carne
Harbour on my bike and could see the truck that Fintan described as
being his. He was sitting in the driver seat patiently and had been
for at least an hour and a half. I felt bad for this as it was never
my intention to abuse anyone’s generosity like this. He greeted me
with a smile and the first thing he said was, ‘This is my wife
Rosie’. The second thing he said was, you wont get around the Point
of Carne today. I thought initially he was jesting and making
assumptions about my swimming capability, but he wasn’t. This was
no joke. It was a spring tide and by now the current would be flowing
three or four knots northwards. When I understood that, he said “Sure
we will get going and see how far we get”. I was gutted that I had
planned so much for this swim and come so far to be told, it wasn’t
going to happen. There was a faint glimmer of hope that I might
succeed if I did indeed make an attempt, so Rosie then drove me to
Ballytrent where Fintan was waiting in one of his boats. Talking to
Rosie, I learned a bit about how lobsters are fished, and I was
impressed that she too fished the waters of Carne with Fintan.
Scurrying down the path to the beach at Ballytrent, I stuffed a protein bar down my throat with a few swigs of water and was in the water within 5 minutes. Fintan had outlined on numerous occasions that he would be keeping his boat out a bit, around a quarter of a mile and now I know why. It was a riviera of seaweed and kelp. It was everywhere and went either to the surface or just below it. I didn’t appreciate it but it was taking a lot of extra energy to get through it. With the foreboding expectation of disappointment and the lethargy of the sea vegetation, I was going to the angry place again. Stresses going on in my life back in Dublin compounded things tenfold and I really didn’t want to be here. I wanted an out.
I was stopping every
now and then to try and get some kind of positive out of this but
none was forthcoming. I could see the weeds I was swimming through
were pointing north which meant that yet again, I was swimming
against the current. I was thinking about what my companion was
saying about the falling and rising tide and now I fully understood
that you shouldn’t accept everything you read on the internet. I
wasn’t planning ahead to the next swim and possibly picking up from
where ever I end up today. I was back in the mode that it was all
My goggles still
haven’t been upgraded so I couldn’t make head nor tail of the
vista but I knew what Fintan was referring to when he indicated which
headland we should try to get to. I had no watch either this day, so
was only left with the perception that I was painfully slow. By the
time we reached Carne pier which was 2 kilometres south of
Ballytrent, Fintan offered that we should try to get to the next
headland, but I threw in the towel deciding it would be easier to
cycle back from here to the car rather than walk in wet flip flops
along country roads.
When we landed, we chatted for a long while and I received valuable tuition in the sea. I won’t go into it all now, but I left Carne without the air of failure I had amassed that day. I would have travelled the whole length of the country without any swim if it meant I’d learn what Fintan taught me. And we had a plan to try again from Carne in a few weeks.
Then there was a
week’s family holiday which was our first getaway since 2019 and it
was just the ticket. But that is a whole other blog. I rang my marine
mentor towards the end of the holiday and we made a plan to have
another go today. This time I listened to him and he got it spot on.
It meant a 5:30am
alarm call to be on the road for 6. After an early night and a
holiday, I felt I should have been more optimistic than I was but
with this adventure there are no guarantees. I met Fintan on the
Carne pier at 8:45, he wanted to get going at 9 but when I got there,
he didn’t waste any time. There wasn’t much left of the water
level in the harbour to get out. I climbed precariously into the boat
from a height and we shunted out of the harbour and after tying up
his rowing boat tender to a mooring so he could return at low tide, I
got into the water with the grace of three legged horse doing a jump.
The sun was sitting
low over Wales but the water temperature was not noticeable. It
turned out that it was 17.6 degrees which is approaching the peak
summer temperatures (with a sprig of global warming). There were more
of the weeds and kelp that i had swam through the last day but it
never quite reached the surface. There was also a few blooms of moon
jellyfish in the clear waters. The sun’s rays casting into the
water and reflecting of the jellyfish was like a David Attenborough
My main point of reference on the coastline was the wind farm at Carnsore. This was earmarked for a nuclear power plant a few decades ago until Christy Moore started singing. Fair play to him though. At the time we wouldn’t have seen wind as an option but now it is. In the course of my holidays the previous week, I saw numerous wind farms in the midlands that us Dubs would never know about and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Anyway, the windmills started at 2 kilometres to the south this morning and after 30 minutes, I was swimming beside them. Occasionally Fintan would tell me the speed we were going from his onboard computer and with the flow we were reaching 3 knots. I had to google it later but that’s over 5 kilometres per hour which isn’t bad with a tow float!
I stopped at the
corner of the point for a few minutes. This was the special moment
where I was moving to the South coast. I joked with Fintan that it
would be eight years before I’m back on the east coast. Even
sitting still and treading water at the point, there was a 1.5 knot
drift turning the corner. I was a bit tired but it didn’t take away
from splendor of looking at a wind farm propping up the corner of
Ireland. And then it was onwards to Lady’s Island lake where I had
parked. It was still another two and a half kilometres to the end,
but the fact that the ominous and foreboding Carnsore point was now
behind me took all the pain away. I was also still moving fast
because of the remainder of the falling tide but I had no visual
indication of it. I could see the wires of networks of lobster pots
beneath me and high up in the atmosphere some cloud was beginning to
filter out the direct sunlight.
We stopped a few
times more where I picked Fintan’s brains for any more information
he might have about the next few swims. I was moving into the Kilmore
Quay waters and from here to there, it isn’t really boat territory.
He reckoned it would be safe but if I did need cover a canoe should
do it. There was also the gut leading from the point to Ballyhealy
which many people mentioned but I didn’t comprehend. This was the
biggest reason cited by some of the kayaker’s I had previously
And then we came alongside Lady’s Island lake. This was where my new friend was getting off the bus. I thanked him and I would have been delighted if he accepted the petrol money I had brought but being a gentleman to the core, he said to put it towards the charity cause I am working for. I then swam the last 20 metres in to the shore and it was too deep to stand, though I could see the bottom clearly. I was literally 3 metres from the shore line and was out of my depth. This was the famous gut. It made sense now that inexperienced swimmers and common or garden bathers were warned with big signs not to swim. The push of the flow I didn’t perceive was now all too obvious and not insignificant. I reached forward and lunged my foot into the bed. It was like quicksand (all the more perilous). It took a big heave to stand up and get my balance but once I had stepped forward onto the beach, I turned and saw the safety boat waiting to see I had docked safely before he sped off back to Carne.
The drive back to
Dublin was one big day dream about the future of the expedition.
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.
Last weekend was a game changer. Up to date and including last year, I had never done two of these swims on consecutive days. Now I was contemplating three days swimming in a row which would take me the 15 Kilometres from Curracloe to Rosslare. I was sceptical that I would be up for it yet at the same time was excited at the prospect of arriving at Rosslare. Once there, it would only be two swims and I had turned an important corner around Carnesore. Was it going to happen?
The original plan was for Niall and I to stay in a small cottage in Curracloe for the weekend. The cottage belonged to an uncle of one of Niall’s friends who would have passed away (The uncle not the friend). However in the lead up, Niall decided that the Sullivan clan would all go to Wexford for the weekend and Niall would just do the estuary leg. This was a stretch of water that Niall has dreamt about traversing since the nineties and I have dreamt of since the noughties. So it was to be a fitting reunion.
In order to be ready for the estuary on the Saturday, I had to swim from Curracloe to the end of the peninsula leading south from it. This peninsula is mostly forestry and called the Raven, and looking at the tidal app, I would be looking to be finishing up the stage as the tide turned at sixish, the evening before. I had booked off a half day from work and had everything packed and ready the night before. When I say ‘everything’, there was a lot of cargo for the trip. A bike, a guitar, a notebook, swim gear, bed clothes, day clothes, a plate, knife and fork, a mug, toiletries. I was going to be staying in a semi abandoned cottage for two nights and preparation was key.
At around noon on the Friday, I got a call from David, the boatman. He rang to say that he wouldn’t be able to chaperone us with his boat but he had organised another gentleman called Phillip Hatton who would step into the breach. This meant I would have to set about organising the new logistics from the hands free on the way south in the car. I finished work at 1pm and was on the road at 1:30. I had lunch with Jen before she would go and collect the children from school and I would go and chase a hair brained swimming dream.
With the unplanned change in arrangements, I didn’t have a plan B ready when I rang Phillip from the N11. It seemed one of the problems was the estuary was too shallow to get out from the yacht club. I must have sounded like a crackpot when talking to Phillip as I was thinking out loud as to where to set up the rendezvous the next day. He said he would check the tides and ring back. When he rang back, he confirmed that the best time was still in the afternoon as originally planned but that he would meet us at the tip of the spit leading north from Rosslare. As neither Niall or I had swam across the estuary before, we were winging it in terms of a plan, so there was a lot of back and forth. Philip and I left it that we would talk again in the morning by phone to confirm everything.
Arriving at the cottage in Curracloe, I had a quick inspection of the property as I unloaded the car. Time was of the essence as the remainder of the falling tide was beckoning. I won’t go into the cottage, but I would describe it as a ‘doer upper’ for a couple. The beach shack at Curracloe was 400 meters away, but because I knew I would be walking 4.5 kilometres from the end of the evening’s swim back up the peninsula to the start, I wanted to limit the walk in a wet wetsuit as much as I could so I drove to the beach car park.
The water was just at the temperature that once you got moving, you wouldn’t notice it. There were a good few people still on the beach winding up their day of holidaying, some of them would be still relaxing on the beach when I was finishing. The preparation was the typical orchestration of equipment, but one of the saving graces of today was there was no cycle. Even though I was straight into it, there was still the vista of swimming to the horizon yet again looking at me.
Progress seemed to be slow and the milestones I had planned on Google Earth were a long time coming around. Seeing people on the beach helped me digest it mentally and there were a good few dog walkers along the way. At one point I had an image of a feral dog racing into the sea to attack me. Thinking about that now, I would have made for a tragic yet amusing news story. My detractors would reassure themselves that I shouldn’t have taken risks with the sea.
My swimming was getting strong again after a winter of lockdown. I was able to breathe bilaterally constantly, probably because I was now fit and I wasn’t anywhere near my lactate threshold. I was strolling as opposed to hiking. The expense of this was pace. Later my watch would confirm I was swimming 25 minute kilometers. This was fine as there was a long weekend ahead. With the bilateral breathing, I was starting to see a black blob on my left hand side occasionally. My glances wouldn’t last longer than half a second so I wondered was my eyesight failing or was it a series of lobster pots. No, it was a seal. I remembered Niall mentioning that seals live in and around the estuary.
At the hour mark, I still seemed a long way off but I had to keep going. Every time I got the impression I wasn’t making any progress due to the unwavering view of the forest of the Raven, a stroller or jogger would pass on the beach and reassure me, things were not static. I knew to keep the slow and steady pace and preserve my energies. Eventually I could see the end of the forest with the clarity that suggested it was imminent. Maybe it wasn’t that imminent as it took another half an hour to reach the end. Maybe it was imminent but the current was not favourable.
At 6:53 pm, I walked up on the beach. I could see Wexford town across the estuary as well as Rosslare. Game on! I was now set up for the big one tomorrow. Walking back to Curracloe, I marvelled at the fact that the 4.5 kilometre swim took one hour and forty minutes and the return on land took an hour. The evening sun was shadowed by light cloud so there was no thermal gain in the wetsuit walking north, but like the water, as long as you keep moving, you don’t get cold.
Back at the cottage, the cooker wouldn’t work, so dinner was two mugs of special K, followed by the same mug full of tea. I was on cloud 9.
Saturday morning started with another bowl of special K follow by a stroll to the beach in a glorious morning sun. I climbed a steep dune and was able to take panoramic photos of the spectacular views to the north and to the south. I could see a ferry leaving Rosslare in the direction of Tuscar. It looked to be an impossible distance away, but I mused that there was a good chance if everything went OK, I would be there by Sunday evening.
I went into Wexford town at 11 am to get some hot food. “Man cannot live by special K alone”. On the way I rang Phillip and got no answer. I texted him then and waited. Lunch consisted of beans on toast from the breakfast menu of a nice café with street dining. Wexford is a lovely town and brings back memories of Roscoff and Cornwall. I decided I would wait until noon before I tried to ring Phillip again and with some serendipity he rang at 11:55. He joked that I was probably beginning to think he had disappeared. We confirmed the plan, meet him on the northern tip of the Rosslare spit at 2pm with a view to starting swimming from the Raven at 2:30pm. I rang Niall and made a plan to go and pick him up.
Niall and I were still planning the unplanned logistics right up to the point where we pulled into the grassy car park of the Burrow Links golf club. I was still looking forward and feared the following day ending up being a 7 Kilometre slog the whole length of Rosslare peninsula, especially after two days of distance. The car park seemed to be a good point that was close to 1.5 kilometers south of the north point while walkable to the rendezvous. Rosslare strand has a series of groins jutting into the sea every 275 meters running down the northern half of the peninsula and it would be six of the groins to the point where we get out and could skip across the golf ranges back to the car. Niall was only committed to swimming to the tip, and walking the rest of the distance, but he was understanding of my plan to mitigate the Sunday swim. When we were walking towards the rendezvous, Nialls wife, Corinna drove up and gave us a lift the rest of the way. I think it was uplifting for Niall that his children got to see him do something that he always wanted to do.
Philip was a gentleman. He had an aluminium boat that seemed to be designed for inshore fishing, though we knew it was his tender for his ‘proper’ boat. He had a playful puppy in the boat with him, complete with puppy life jacket. Phillip didn’t seem too surprised about the adventure. As it turned out he helped a pair of swimmers down the Wexford and Waterford coast a few years previously. My heart sank. Was the feat achieved? Had someone swam around the coast already? Niall confirmed later that he heard Phillip mention they were doing it with flippers and that they gave up in West Cork. Then my thoughts turned to the eventuality when I would be forced to give up.
The boat bounced across the mouth of the estuary in about ten or fifteen minutes. Phillip confirmed the currents would be good if we stayed out a bit. I indicated where we needed to start from, and we were climbing into the water at 2:25 pm. The water was perfect. We started to swim and immediately it felt like a special day with Niall swimming beside me. I think he was cognisant of his fitness levels but he really needn’t have worried as he too had quite recovered from lockdown. The sun was blazing in the sky and we could see the sea bed a meter below us. The water was clean but a bit sandy. I looked back after a few minutes and the start point was a significant few hundred meters away.
It was a pleasure to be steadily and methodically stroking bilaterally, and we stopped occasionally to enjoy the fact we were out to sea, yet we could stand up. Phillip mentioned that at time when he looked back he could see two of us and at other times he could see four. I didn’t pick up on it immediately, wondering was he talking about being short sighted, but he was in fact, talking about a pair of seals who were spectating. The agreement was that the boat would lead the way and it was amusing to look up ahead every now and then and see the puppy (called Doug) bouncing up and down the boat.
With the company and the conditions, I didn’t feel compelled to watch the clock or count strokes. At one point, the two of us were standing and having a brief survey of the view, I said we might have been able to do this without a boat, but Niall instantly dismissed the bravado statement. He was right as well as once we got to about 800 meters north of the Rosslare spit, the backwash from Rosslare Port was against us. Philip was later to confirm that he had brought us onshore too early. I was in such good spirits though, I didn’t really grasp that progress was slow and thought that the fact the coast wasn’t getting significantly closer was due to my eyesight.
When I did become aware we were now up against it, I put the pedal down and Niall followed suit. We got along side the rock wall of the northern tip and we were swimming to stand still. I stopped to float and get an idea of the flow and there was a very forceful flow north. Luckily we could stand up to stop jeopardy. Phillip gave us our tow floats which we had stowed in the boat and then he and Doug bid ‘Good Day’. Niall said something to the effect that he was done and he wasn’t going to battle the flow so said “Here!” and held out his hand for the customary handshake. I shook his hand and said, you don’t mind if I try to get to the sixth groin? He said he didn’t.
I had no choice but to wade south in the face of the current to the first groin and once behind it, I was secluded from the flow. I made to swim around it and it took two minutes to swim ten meters inside the south side of the first groin. I thought that the flow north would be less significant if I got as close to the beach as I could. At a depth of two feet, I was able to swim again and I swam the next 5 segments to the sixth groin in two feet of water and getting out to walk around the other side of each rocky wall. In years to come, if the synics chose to find fault in the swim around Ireland, these groins might prove the point of legal concern. Unfortunately there was no alternative.
When I got to the last groin, I got out and shook Niall’s hand again. Now the job was done. This was two and three quarters hour’s swimming on day two and it wasn’t truly sinking in that we had crossed off another bucket list item. Later that evening, Niall’s parents had invited us all to the family home outside Wexford town for a lovely dinner and a chance to claw back some of the day’s calories. Niall’s Dad, Austin showed me his workshop which was awe inspiring. Austin had studied and worked as a botanist and a historian, yet here was a batcave full of vintage motorbikes restored to mint condition, not to mention other engineering marvels he had achieved. He has even converted Niall’s childhood upstairs bedroom into a loft full of more motorbikes!
Editor’s note: At the time of writing, I believe myself and Niall are the first swimmers to swim the full length of Wexford Bay inshore without the aid of any propulsion other than organic swimming (ie no flippers!). I will gladly stand corrected if anyone posts information to the contrary in the comments section.
I woke up Sunday morning early enough to have options. After two mugs of special K, I set about making a plan. When first waking, I felt knackered and doubted having the wherewithal for a third day of swimming. A bigger concern was that if the currents flowed north after rebounding of Rosslare port like they did yesterday, then it was going to be impossible. The currents app said the tide would be turning around 12:30 pm so if any time was going to be right for it, then it was then. The sun was splitting the stones again, right from dawn. While I doubted my stamina, I was still prepared to go and see how far I got, though with the pessimism, I decided to shorten the cycling phase by parking at the southern end of Rosslare Strand rather than at the small boat harbour, which would be an added 4 kilometre cycle. I packed my wanderly wagon and set off from Curracloe to the Rosslare area.
When I got to the revised car stop, I was confronted with a cliff. Luckily there was a trodden path down the face of it to the beach. I double checked that it was manageable by descending to the beach. I studied the seaweed in the water and it wasn’t going in either direction. It looked like I made the right call about the tide.
The cycle was contained and gentle. I was back on my own and the lack of a partner to bounce conversation off was noticeable. At the golf club, I had to wait 5 minutes in my wetsuit close to the first tee. A ‘5 ball’ was teeing off and I had to wait for them to finish before I walked across their path. My patience was fortuitous as one of the golfers sent a ball towards the clubhouse with gusto.
At the sixth groin, the water was clear, gentle and warm. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I felt refreshed and ready for the challenge. I knew that the true test would be to see if I could swim around the groins or would there be difficult waters lurking beneath? I swam to the next groin and stopped at the end of it. There was no push. Relief! After that I swam from groin to groin and stopping each time. Today was the final leg and I was going to enjoy every moment of it. There were a lot of holiday makers on the beaches, especially around the village of Rosslare Strand and as I passed the bathers amongst them, it was still apparent that my pace was satisfactory.
I wondered about stopping for a break on the beach and finishing the bottled water in my tow float but there didn’t seem much point when the finish of the weekend was so near. I had left myself with the option of swimming beyond the car on the cliff to close enough to the ferry port for a resumption at some point in the following weeks and when I got to the car, I knew I had enough left in the tank to get there. Contrary to all my fears when I woke up that morning, It was the perfect swim for pleasure.
The holidays have arrived! Today’s swim was marked by a number of firsts. It was the first day the whole family came with me. It was the first bank holiday weekend of the summer. It was possibly the first time anyone has landed in Curracloe in Wexford having made their way slowly from Dublin city by swimming without a boat.
After the last day where I finished short, I needed to catch up that extra distance to Curracloe to guarantee success crossing the bay next weekend. Once at Curracloe, it’s a little over 4 KM to the end of the spit where the estuary opens up. And! Spoiler alert! I did make it to Curracloe today so the plan of two if not three days swimming next weekend seems quite achievable.
I proposed to Jen the previous weekend that if the weather was fine, that we would go as a family to the beach for the day. In principle she thought the idea was ok, but that her preference was to go if it wasn’t too sunny so that the beach wouldn’t be overcrowded with Dubs invading Wexford for the weekend. Windguru intonated that the conditions would be exactly what she was looking for, pleasant but not overbearingly sunny.
In terms of planning for the swim itself, the logistics were simple. We would all drive to Ballyconnigar, I would change and get in the water and set off down the bay to Curracloe. Jen would take the children and the car and make their way casually to Curracloe, where they would set up on a rug on the beach and hang around until I arrived between an hour and a half and two and a half hours later. No bicycles, no hills. It was the distance swimmer’s paradise. The fact that my children might also feel a connection to what I was doing now they were witnesses also counted for something. Up to now the whole adventure was something they had only heard about.
We had no strict deadlines as I knew that whatever the tidal current app foretold, the truth is that at the shore it was going to be less than a knot either in or against my direction. As such there was no race to get going asap in the morning. We got up leisurely and had a family breakfast. Jen made sandwiches for lunch to augment the biscuits and crisps we packed. I packed my swimming bag and another swimming bag for the children. Jen is not a swimmer. She understands how it helps me in life but she was never exposed to the world of swimming as a child, so she is hesitant about going in the water. The dog was also coming and she definitely is not a water animal.
By the time we were setting off it was noon and Dublin was getting cloudy. I had every confidence in Windguru that the conditions at our destination would be what everyone wanted. Seán and Rose commented that it didn’t look sunny as we drove through South Dublin, but I distracted them with the mental picture that we were going to a beach that was akin to the beaches of France. Approaching Bray on the N11 we hit traffic queues, so out came the sandwiches and crisps. Everyone was in good spirits.
I was able to show off my recently acquired knowledge of the country roads of Wexford to Jen. I was co-pilot as it’s a long standing norm in our house that Jen drives on long Journeys. The excuse being, that she is a bad passenger. I have long since given up on that argument and I have no problem with other people’s driving. I should clarify that. I do have a big problem with the way a lot of Dublin drivers treat cyclists on the city’s streets, but as a passenger in a car that is being driven safely, I don’t get jittery.
We arrived at Ballyconnigar at around half two and the others stretched their legs while I got ready. The car park was overflowing and it was quite sunny, but a degree of cloud cover was expected. The children played on the rock wall that halted the coastal erosion of Ballyconnigar car park, and it wasn’t far from high tide so the water went right up to the wall. When I was ready, I said my goodbyes as I had to walk and climb north for 400 meters over rocky wall terrain to get to the last day’s finish. The dog followed me for a bit which caused a bit of amusement before I ordered her back to her mother and she acquiesced.
The climbing over the rocks wasn’t as easy as the last time because I wasn’t in neoprene socks today, nor had I brought the gloves I had thought important previously. Hopefully this was going to speed up things somewhat. I approached the start point and there was a stroller standing there as if some kind of steward in place to verify the rules were being obeyed by returning to the exact location. There is part of me that wonders just how many people are aware of what I am doing. I have advertised the blog in work, on public forums and amongst the swimming community I am involved with. Not to mention all the people who would have previously seen me on a bike in a wetsuit on country roads and all the fishermen we have appeared to from the horizon. Today I was to discover that the beaches were full and I was to swim past over a thousand sun and water bathers along the 5.5 km stretch, and surely there would be some intrigue there.
Once in the water I started swimming slowly. Instantly I knew it wasn’t going to be a fast day, while at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to drag on for an eternity into one of those swims where I would be getting angry. Jen and the two were still on the rocks as I swam up to them and the children were very excited to see me draw alongside in the water. It was very shallow, but in that kind of water it is more comfortable to hunch down and stay submerged up to the shoulders. Jen took a few photos and I waved my final goodbye and set off.
The rocks were great in the sense that they conveyed that I was moving. They conveyed it wasn’t fast but they showed I clearly wasn’t working against a current. There were no waves to speak of and breathing was easy on both sides. After less than ten minutes I was clear of the rock wall of Ballyconnigar and it was just the long bay ahead of me to the South. Curracloe was on the horizon, but it was compartmentalised by the fact there weren’t numerous headlands between here and there.
The water was very sandy but I could just about make out the sea bed less than a meter below. Repeatedly throughout the swim, I had to stand up and walk out a bit, but I had done this so much since Cahore that it no longer annoyed me. Or maybe it was the fact that the swim wasn’t prefixed with an hour cycling up and down hills. I was all the more thankful for this when we were driving to the start point and we had to climb a really steep and long climb in the car.
I watched the beach walkers, some with dogs walk alongside me. I couldn’t stay with them for long and I wasn’t considering upping the pace to try and keep up with them. I was stopping regularly to get some sort of validation on my progress and while the bathers and groups on the beach I passed dissolved out of view, Curracloe too remained on the horizon. I remembered some of the landscape from the walk on the last day, and in my memory the cliff-like vista merged into a more vegetative backing to the beach about a kilometer north of Ballinesker. Once at Ballinesker, I was going to be on the home straight.
Once you know you are on the home straight in a long swim, the happiness index jumps up and all the woe washes away. When I got to this vegetative section I was telling myself, I was past the halfway point. I didn’t feel ecstatic about that but I did feel in control. Realistically, a 3 KM per hour pace is quite acceptable and it is unreasonable to expect more, yet so often hope blends into expectation. I was watching the watch and because neither Ballinesker or Curracloe were presenting themselves, my mind started to get impatient. With impatience came the feeling of pressure so I started counting strokes. The magic number of 200 came to me and I set myself the challenge of counting 200 strokes without losing count. The counting was clearly the challenge as opposed to the effort.
Breathing bi-laterally (every three strokes), I started. 1-2-3, breathe, 4-5-6, breathe, 7-8-9. Usually I get to thirty or forty and I lose it. I was comfortable breathing bi-laterally which is indicative of not being too tired, and as long as I kept breathing every three, I decided that would help me keep the tempo. It worked and this was a new skill that just twigged after forty years of swimming. I successfully counted to 300 without dropping count or strokes. And then I stopped and looked back and the rocks at Ballyconnigar were finally on the horizon, and in the distance to the south was a mass of beach goers, which could only mean Ballinesker.
It was about an hour and a half into the swim when I could clearly see the lifeguard station of Ballinesker with a throng of people below it. In the water there were children, SUP enthusiasts, and young men playing water volleyball. I was getting tired but still able to swim through and around all the people enjoying the water ten minutes later. I noted to myself that the SUP enthusiasts might actually be lifeguards patrolling the bathing areas. I remember doing something similar as a lifeguard in college in America.
At Ballinesker I could see another throng to the south and this could only mean Curracloe. I was tired at this point but I was able to gauge that I was still moving steadily as I passed the bathers. I was now on the home straight. The tiredness made each stroke laboured and I knew with this level of fitness in these conditions, that a 10 KM swim would be nigh on impossible, unless I had the freedom to complete the swim part in four or five hours. After next weekend the hope is to spend the summer doing swims no less than 8 KM and often 11 KM, with a 13.5 KM spanner in the works for good measure. What was that I said about the morphing of hope into expectation?
Approaching Curracloe, I was beginning to wonder about my welcoming party. Had they arrived? Were they waiting on the beach? I was catastrophizing that they ended up in a car crash or possibly couldn’t find parking at Curracloe. I would be forced to ask a stranger to borrow their phone. I would be stranded at a beach in Wexford unable to see my wife in hospital and unsure who I could call to drive from Dublin to Wexford to rescue us all! I swam alongside the lifeguard hut and stopped to consider where my family might be and with delight I became aware of my son Seán and daughter Rose wading towards me, shouting ‘Daddy!’. My fears and paranoia vanished instantly and the feeling of success was back.
We had a relaxing drive back to Dublin, with a bit of sightseeing at Kilmuckridge and the holy grail of the promised McDonalds at the Gorey motorway service stop. All was right in the world.