Blackwater Project: Part 1 – Background to the Project

Growing up swimming in the River Blackwater in Fermoy during the week and in the sea at weekends, I was always fascinated by the idea of swimming from Fermoy to the sea in stages, but never really gave the idea any serious thought. The reason for this was that, although the last 30 km of the River’s course is tidal and is sufficiently deep for both a swimmer and a support boat at high water, there is 30 km of not-so-deep water between Fermoy and the tidal limit. This 30 km has three weirs and plenty of rapids. Neither I nor anyone that I knew was familiar with the idea of swimming in the presence of such obstacles, so I put the whole notion to bed, for a while at least.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Fermoy Bridge as seen from the water. We never swim downstream of the Bridge…

However, another idea that had always interested me was to swim the 10 km downstream from Ballyhooly to Fermoy, also on the Blackwater. Having already kayaked this route, it seemed less daunting. Also, the distance was manageable, especially given the assistance from the current. Eventually, in August 2010, I convinced Ned Denison to join me for this exploratory river descent.

On a warm, sunny morning, on my last day of summer holidays before going into my Leaving Certificate year in school, Ned and I met up at the usual spot, Fermoy Rowing Club, and decided to give the swim a go. We got changed at the Rowing Club and left our stuff in Ned’s jeep for the finish. Once we were ready, my grandfather collected us in his car and drove us to Ballyhooly. It took a while to find easy access to the River. Eventually, we found a way: over a gate, across a field and under Ballyhooly’s iron bridge. There’s a flat concrete area underneath the Bridge, which made it easy to walk out to the middle of the River. At about 10:00, we finally hit the water…

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Austropotamobius pallipes – a freshwater crayfish. These are endangered but we come across them occasionally in the Blackwater. This one was found by my father at the Strand near Fermoy.

The water crystal clear, very fresh and we could see lots of young trout and other fish swimming upstream. No more than 100 m into the swim, we were faced with our first set of rapids. Neither of us was quite sure how to approach it, so we both stood up and attempted to walk. Bad idea – it was almost impossible to walk over the stony riverbed barefooted, as we were, and neither of us could maintain an upright position for more than a stride or two! As we came to more rapids, our technique in traversing them gradually improved. We carried on through the countryside, passing some very bemused looking fishermen, until we came to the first recognizable feature, the infamous Poll Pádraig. This maze of island, pools and rapids marks the halfway point and is also the place where two “known priest-hunters” are said to have drowned.

Next we came to Cregg Castle, where there is a good stretch of deep water. Shortly after this there are more rapids and the River is joined by Cregg Stream, which flows from Knockanannig Reservoir, another Fermoy swimming location. Luckily, I knew this area of fast water quite well so I was able to navigate the narrow channel, avoiding the need to stand and gaining some speed from the force of the water. The final set of rapids at Castlehyde is very shallow and there is no option but to stand up and walk. From here, there is a 3.5 km stretch of very familiar deep water held back by Fermoy Weir. We finished the swim back at the usual spot, exactly 2 hours 30 minutes later.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Swimming past the very beautiful Castlehyde House in June 2009.

The time was a little slow for a 10 km downriver swim, but the River was at its lowest level for over seven years that week, which meant more standing up and walking than expected. On the plus side, it did make the underwater visibility excellent so we got to see all the wonders of the riverbed! After this swim, the idea of swimming further down the River was beginning to sound a bit more plausible…

Photograph – Liam Maher

Pioneers of the first “Lee Descent” swim from Inniscarra Dam to County Hall.

The following year, Ray McArdle from Dolphin SC came up with the excellent idea of swimming from Inniscarra Dam to County Hall in Cork, a distance of 12 km. He contacted the ESB, who agreed to discharge a large volume of water from the Dam to make the lower part of the River Lee suitable for swimming. A dozen swimmers started the swim just below the Dam. With a strong flow, it wasn’t long before we had reached our first feed stop at Ballincollig Weir. The next feed stop was at a small gravel beach near the Angler’s Rest. Just after this point, there is a bridge, at which many of us learned the hard way that, when swimming under bridges, it is very important to look out for remnants of older bridges! We all finished back at the Lee Fields amenity car park, well inside our expected times for 12 km.

This swim was repeated in June 2012 as part of Ned’s Cork Distance Week. This time, with an even greater flow in the River. Most of us finished the swim in just two thirds of the time that we expected it to take us! By this stage, I had become a veritable expert in traversing weirs and rapids. The Blackwater descent now seemed entirely doable. All that was left to do was to break it into reasonably swimmable chunks…

1 thought on “Blackwater Project: Part 1 – Background to the Project

  1. Pingback: My biggest swim yet this Friday! | Owen O'Keefe

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