Growing up in the town of Fermoy on the banks of the River Blackwater (Irish: Abha Mhór na Mumhan, Munster’s Great River) and having local swimming, hillwalking and nature enthusiast, Tom Baker (a.k.a. “Grandad”), as a grandfather, a love of  the natural world and outdoor pursuits has been instilled in me from a young age. Being a member of the amazing Fermoy Swimming Club gave me the skills, fitness and mindset to take swimming in open water seriously, once I had discovered that there was a whole community to be a part of and a menu of events and challenges to take on…


Where it all began: swimming in the River Blackwater from Barnane Walk with Grandad…

In 2006, I did my first “Vibes & Scribes” Lee Swim through the centre of Cork City and my first Sandycove Island Challenge near Kinsale. The following summer, I was up at 7:00 am every morning to swim with Grandad and spent most of the day thinking about our evening swim at 5:30 pm! I did the Lee and Sandycove again and started to push out the distance a bit too… That September, I did my first 5 km swim, from the Speckled Door to Sandycove, and decided pretty much there and then that I was going to swim the English Channel sooner or later. By November, I had my English Channel solo swim booked for September 2009!

Another challenge that I took on in 2007 was to organise an open water swimming event on the River Blackwater. This swim grew and, in 2009, became the Martin Duggan Memorial Swim, continuing until 2014. Hopefully, I or someone else will have time to restart this very popular event soon…

In 2008, at the age of 15 years, I did my first “pioneer swim” of note: 7.5 km around Lizard Point, mainland Britain’s southernmost point, in Cornwall. In August of the same year, I completed my first marathon swim: 18 km from Crosshaven to Blackrock in a time of 5 h 37 min, and it was for this swim that a local newspaper, the Evening Echo, described me as “salmon boy”, which eventually lead to the nickname “Fermoy Fish” (hence the name of this blog). This gave me confidence going into 2009, when I swam from Cork City to Myrtleville (25 km) in 5 h 47 min and crossed the English Channel as the youngest Irish person to do so and, with a time of 10 h 19 min, the fastest Irish person at that time. I dedicated my English Channel swim to my grandmother, Virginia Baker (née Riordan), who died of cancer the previous November, and raised €15,000 for the Irish Cancer Society in her memory.

Chart – Lance Oram

The route that I took during my English Channel solo swim in September 2009.

After my English Channel swim, I took things a bit handier in terms of distance for a while. In July 2010, I completed another well-known crossing, the Strait of Gibraltar, i.e. from Spain to Morocco, in a time of 3 h 52 min. This my first and [so far] only inter-continental swim. In 2011 and 2012, I started focussing more on pioneer swims – titles of speed, age etc. can always be taken away, but being the first is something that can’t ever be taken away from you… During that time, I became the first person to swim around Sherkin Island (14 km; 3 h 58 min) and around Cape Clear (13 km; 3 h 47 min), both near Baltimore in West Cork. One of the most challenging swims that I have ever done was the 14 km across the Tory Sound, from Magheraroarty to Tory Island, in Donegal. I completed this crossing in August 2012, with the help of Irish marathon swimming heroine Anne Marie Ward, and became the first person to complete the crossing in that direction (all previous swims had been from the island to the mainland) and, with a time of 4 h 21 min, the fastest to cross the sound in either direction.

Seeing as many of the “short” swims that I completed in the wake of my English Channel swim had proven comparably challenging, I decided that it was time to start cranking up the distance again. To that end, 2013 was a busy year in the water for me and included the following notable swims:

  • English Channel 2-way Relay – This was my first relay and it was great to do it as part of team Crosóige Mara with Carol Cashel, Maeve Ryan, Lynne Lynch, Caitlin Desmond and Eoin O’Riordan.  We completed the swim on 13 July in a time of 20 h 29 min, setting a new Irish record and raising €14,000 for Down Syndrome Ireland.
  • Round Jersey Solo – Less than a fortnight after our relay, I was swimming around the Channel Island of Jersey. I completed the circumnavigation in a new male world record time of 9 h 35 min, just 3 min off the overall record held by Julie Farrell (née Galloway). This was a beautiful swim and one that I would definitely do again!
  • Fermoy to Youghal – This was another pioneer swim and one with a personal meaning. The 60 km route covers the length of the River Blackwater between our usual swimming spot at Fermoy Rowing Club to where it meets the Celtic Sea at Youghal Harbour. The swim presented big physical and logistical challenges, all of which were overcome owing to the huge amount of support that I received from family, friends and strangers alike. At 12 h 8 min, this was my first swim over 12 h.
  • Irish 10 km Open Water Championships – This event took place in Camlough Lake near Newry in 2013. Surprising myself, I set a personal best time of 2 h 28 min 29 sec and took first place in the male non-wetsuit category!
Photograph – Alice Harvey

Approaching Noirmot, the last landmark before the end of my Round Jersey Solo swim!

Things went a little bit quiet on the long-distance front in 2014 and I focussed more on building general fitness and speed, something which can suffer when you spend too much time in the open water and not enough in the pool. I starting bringing down my times across all pool events and even set personal best times that were faster than I had been aiming for when I last competed seriously four years earlier. I even went to the “dark side” and took part in “The Edge Sports” Blackwater Triathlon that year! Addressing aspects of life that I had been neglecting for a long time, finishing my BSc in ecology in University College Cork, finding a job as an ecologist with Roughan & O’Donovan consulting engineers in Dublin and settling in there took priority in 2015 and 2016, so little or no swimming got done…

During those two and a bit years out of the water, the longing/need to be in it only grew. So, over the course of the last winter, I decided that 2017 was going to be a year for getting back to the sport that has always given me a sense of self, a sense of place, and lust for life. My challenge for this year will be in both familiar and new territory for me… The 35 km from Praia do Leme in Leme, Copacabana to Praia do Pontal in Recreio dos Bandeirantes, Barra da Tijuca is an iconic marathon swim along the coastline of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rio de Janiero (see the interactive map below). Leme to Pontal is a solo event presenting many similar challenges to the English Channel, e.g. distance, currents, variable water temperatures and night swimming, but in a very different environment in terms of the tropical climate, which will be a challenge for me, and the spectacular views of the city, mountains and forests of Rio, a saviour to the sanity of anyone immersed in deep water for hours on end.

Keep an eye on this blog for regular-ish updates on my progress, both in the pool and in the open water, towards this goal and other relevant open water swimming news. If you would like to see new posts as they are published, you can subscribe to receive them as an email by clicking the link on the top-right. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram (you can find me at @owenswims93 on both) for more frequent updates and notices of when there is a new post on the blog…

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