Blackwater 60 km – Report

Photograph – Donal Buckley

A surprisingly clear day dawned about an hour before the start of the swim. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

The early-morning mist was just rising off the water when I arrived at Fermoy Rowing Club at 6:30 am last Friday. As Mona, Donal and Maura got the kayaks set up and I got into my swim gear, a string of family and friends gradually gathered around the slipway. It was a nice to have a few people to wave me off for a change. Almost all of my marathon swims so far have had very lonely starts, sometimes in the black of night, so it was nice to have company. It also makes it much harder to back out of the swim if people are watching! At 7:08 am, I hit the water accompanied by my three crew, each in their own kayak. The water felt great: it was dark and fresh and felt quite warm! Donal, who was acting as observer for the swim, estimated that the water temperature was somewhere in the range of 15ºC to 16ºC. For the first 250 m, I could see those who had been at the slipway moving along Ashe Quay towards Fermoy Bridge where they could get a perfect view of myself and the three kayakers traversing the weir (photographed above). Once safely below the weir, it was back to the horizontal and off under the bridge, past Blackwater Sub-Aqua Club and into deeper water once more.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Starting the swim from the slipway at Fermoy Rowing Club. (Photograph: George O’Keefe)

Having passed under the M8 motorway bridge and Carrigabrick Viaduct, I took my first feed as we passed Isleclash (30 minutes in). I knew at this stage that I wasn’t getting a lot of help from the current so the first half of the swim would be a bit harder than originally expected. The next half-hour took us past Halloran’s Rock, where the River Funcheon joins the Blackwater. Then we passed through Ballyderown, where fellow swimmer and crew member for the second part of this swim, Paul Noonan, was able to see us passing from his house! Shortly after passing the confluence with the Araglin River, bringing cool water from the mountains on the Waterford-Tipperary border, I had my second feed (1 hour in). We were still a good distance from Clondulane Weir so I knew that we were slightly behind time. Not long after this feed, I almost jumped out of my skin when the water clarity afforded me an excellent few of a beautiful Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) cruising upriver about 1.5 m below me. I estimated that he (at least I think it was a he) was about 15 lbs in weight – easily the largest fish that I’ve seen while swimming. Eventually, we did get to Clondulane Weir. I was nervous about everyone, including myself, getting over this weir safely but, thankfully, we did (even if some of us got wet)…

Photograph – Donal Buckley

As you can see, getting over the weir wasn’t the easiest part of the swim, but it was fun! (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

Safely on the other side of the weir, I could relax knowing that there were no other major obstacles in our way! The next 2 hours or so would be spent swimming from feed to feed, as normal, with some streamlined dolphining over rapids and a few giant steps here and there where it was simply too shallow to swim. Passing through Careysville fishery, we observed varying attitudes among the fisherman to our passing through, disrupting the fishing for literally 2 or 3 seconds and scaring the fish. Dad and some of his friends from Fermoy Camera Club would appear at odd places along the bank and there was even a crowd of locals gathered as I swam near the road in Ballyneroon! After being “whooshed” around a few more bends, the iron bridge of Ballyduff came into view. I was taken aback to see a dozen or so well-wishers standing on the bridge waiting for me and cheering and clapping as I passed beneath. This reminded me that I was in home territory and that this swim was a special one, much more so than any of my other marathon swims. The video below (taken by Dad) gives an idea of the local support for the swim…

Although it had taken about 4 hours to get to Ballyduff, I was pleased to be over halfway to Cappoquin, the point at which we’d be switching from kayak support to boat support. I regarded the Cappoquin as the true start of the swim, much as English Channel 2-way swimmers regard the first leg of the swim as “the swim to the start”. On the long stretch of river from Glencairn Abbey past Fort William and into Ballyin, my arms began to feel very heavy. Freshwater swimming is generally tougher on core muscle groups, especially postural muscles on the back. This is because of the lower body position caused by the lack of buoyancy relative to the sea. The promise if seeing yet more family, friends and supporters on Cavendish Bridge just around the corner in Lismore and the promise of saltier water later on drove me on!

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Swimming under Lismore Castle about 28 km into the swim. On the far left, you can see Cavendish Bridge and some people waiting to see the swim pass. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

Passing Lismore and the Ballyrafter Flats, there were one or two very bad smells. Donal said that there was something dead on the bank so that is the most likely explanation. At Bullsod Island, we were propelled down the final set of rapids before finally reaching sea level. There was some unexpected slow and shallow water after this but only for a few hundred metres. Once in deep water, I was due another feed: this time a caffeinated gel. It wasn’t long before we were at a bend on the river which brushes right up against the main road. Again, there were plenty of people lined up to cheer on the swim. This time, they were treated to a perfect view of a feed of 300 ml High5 ZERO electrolyte drink and a handful of jelly babies! It was now only about 2 km to Cappoquin Rowing Club, where Mona and Maura would be leaving us and Donal would be transferring into the boat.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Passing under Avonmore Bridge in Cappoquin shortly before transferring to boat support. (Photograph: George O’Keefe)

About 30 minutes later, we were almost at Avonmore Bridge and I could see the town of Cappoquin and the support boat “Maeve Óg” on the other side. This bridge, by the way, was formerly known as Victoria Bridge and was blown up in one of the many shameful acts of the War of Independence. It was rebuilt under the Irish Free State during the 1920s and was later renamed Avonmore Bridge. The word “Avonmore” is an anglicisation of the Irish name for the river and is commonly used in the names of houses, etc. near the river but is rarely used when referring to the river itself. Anyway, enough about the bridge! By the time that I got to the Rowing Club pontoon, Donal had already transferred to the boat (but not before being caught falling out of the kayak before he did so) and I could see that there was a lot of activity on the bank. I acknowledged Tony, Paul, Róisín, Ellen and Donal on the boat and swam on. Maura hopped out, followed shortly be Mona. I was very pleased to have made it to this point and took comfort in the fact that the swim was straightforward from here on in: I would just have to keep putting one arm in front of the other, take my feeds from the boat and keep my mouth shut. Once I did these things, I knew that I would make it to Youghal.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

All very serious on the boat! (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

The next hour or two was pretty uneventful. I crossed off way-points in my head: the slipway where Cappoquin Rowing Club have their regattas, the confluence with the River Finisk, Dromana Rock, Dromana House, Camphire House and so on. It felt to me like progress was slow, but that probably had more to do with the calm, deep water and the dull conditions than it actually being slow.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Sailing along the Blackwater near Affane. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

This part of the river is truly stunning and suitable for a range of aquatic activities which includes swimming, canoeing, waterskiing, windsurfing and even sailing! As we passed Villierstown Quay, we picked up a lonely figure in a Canadian canoe. He stayed with us as we passed the crowd waving from the quay-side and for a good bit beyond. At the next feed, we were very close to the reed-beds at the bank and I could see the strength of the current for myself. This gave me more confidence that I was making good progress towards my goal. My only concern was that the tide might turn before I got to the mouth of the river and I would be pushed backwards – there was only a very slim possibility of tht happening, though.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Approaching Villierstown Quay accompanied by a lone canoeist. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

After passing between the newer Strancally Castle and Dromore Quay, it started to get a bit choppier. The southerly wind blowing upriver was acting against the ebbing tide causing short, steep-sided waves. I can’t say that I wasn’t expecting these conditions as they seem to prevail on this stretch of the river. A tweet from Trent Grimsey‘s coach, Harley Connolly, relayed by Donal spurred me on as we passed the ruins of Old Strancally Castle. This chop was at its worse as we travelled across the Clashmore Broads but a few things got me through it: firstly, the sun was coming out so I naturally felt positive; secondly, I could see friends and family at Cooneen on the far side of the river; thirdly, I felt great that I was handling these conditions nearly 10 hours into the swim and, finally, I knew that it would be calmer around the next bend…

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Trying to take some shelter from the chop near Old Strancally. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

Tony and the crew did a great job of keeping me out of the worst of the chop. My natural tendency was to go for the middle of the river where I presumed that the current was strongest. Tony, however, knew that I would avoid the worst of the chop while only losing a minimal amount of current be staying nearer the shore. This was counterintuitive for me but this is why you employ local knowledge when undertaking a big swim!

As we rounded the next bend, we had the magnificent Ballynatray House in our sights. I felt great at this point as the sun was out again, the surface was much calmer and I knew that I was on the home stretch. When I say “on the home stretch”, what I really mean is “less than 2 hours to go”! The crew told me that we were changing from my repetitive 1-hour feeding cycle to the terminal 2-hour cycle given to me by Carol Cashell. This meant that I’d soon be getting caffeine – at last! As the New Bridge at Rincrew came into view, I could sense a change in the composition of the water: there was less sediment and definitely more salt in the water. The higher salinity meant more buoyancy for me, something I appreciated great at this stage, when I had now been swimming for longer than I had ever swum for before…

Photograph – Lee Fox

Ballynatray House on the left and us on the right. (Photograph: Lee Fox)

After Ballynatray House, the ancient ruins of Molana Abbey and the Knights Templar’s castle at Templemichael passed by on our right-hand-side. It wasn’t long before we got a very clear view of the bridge with a crowd gathered on it and a few more people on the shoreline beneath.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Support gathered on the New Bridge, Youghal as well as a few keen photographers with big lenses underneath. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

There was a slight increase in the swell and chop as we went under the bridge but nothing major and nothing as bad as it was the last time I swam out into the bay. Going under this bridge was a big moment in the swim for me. It was one of the places that had originally made me think of this swim and it meant that I was less than 2 km from the finish.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Coming into the finish to lots of family, friends and strangers showing enormous good will in supporting the swim. (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

Crossing the bay was relatively easy. I was on a high as I knew that I was going to finish and that what was really quite a daft plan actually worked. I was able to up my pace a little with the adrenaline in my system, knowing that I would finish and that I wouldn’t let down everyone who had shown me such great support throughout the day. As we passed the first buildings in the town, the crew told me that we weren’t going to land at Front Strand, as planned, and would instead be landing at the slipway near Neal’s Quay in the middle of the town. At first, I was a bit annoyed as I had wanted to finish at the strand but when I asked why they told me that it was too dangerous to go to the strand. Well, you can’t argue with safety! Anyway, it would be a swim of 60 km from a slipway in Fermoy to a slipway in Youghal so I couldn’t complain too much. Once I could see the slipway myself, I headed in at a good pace and the boat stayed out in the deeper water.

Photograph – John Meade

Seconds before coming into the slipway. Lots of bow-wave but not too bad after over 12 hours in the water. (Photograph: John Meade)

After 12 hours 8 minutes in the water, I stood up on the slipway and turned around to signal to Donal that I was above the waterline. I was delighted when I looked up and saw so many friends and family on the quay, as well as plenty of strangers! My sister, Amy, was first down the slipway to me with my towels. She was soon followed by the rest of my family and a few local media people.

Photograph – John Meade

My swimmer’s tan lines clearly visible as I walk out of the water at the slipway! (Photograph: John Meade)

There was a lot of stuff going on at the finish so there was little opportunity to take the team photographs that we wanted but we got a few anyway. The video below by Youghal Online shows the end of the swim and the atmosphere on the quay afterwards. I was totally unaware of how vacant I look and how inebriated and rural I sound after 12 hours in the water. I had recovered a good bit by the second interview (about an hour later).

There are so many people to thank in relation to this swim. I must first of all thank Tony Gallagher of Blackwater Cruises for his time and expertise in getting this swim off the ground – it really could not have happened without him! Great thanks are also due to my good friend, Donal Buckley, who had the hard task of observing from a kayak for the first half of the swim and then transferring to the boat for the second half – he did a superb job as well as taking lots of top quality photographs! Mona Sexton and Maura Murphy also did a fantastic job of kayaking with me from Fermoy to Cappoquin. Paul Noonan and Róisín Lewis were top class crew on the boat: Paul did an amazing job of keeping in contact with the outside world and Róisín managed all of my feeds perfectly and gave me great encouragement. Ellen Lynch of the Avondhu Press was also on board “Maeve Óg” for the second half of the swim to take notes and photographs – that’s hands-on journalism for you! Thanks are also due to the manager of the Quays Bar, who gave me a complimentary meal of steak and chips after the swim, and the very kind lady who let me use her shower to get the muddy water and grease off of myself before getting dressed. I want to say a huge thank you to all of my family, friends and supporters who were out following the swim from early morning and cheered me on at Ballyduff, Lismore, Cappoquin, Villierstown, Dromore, Conneen, Ballynaclash, Templemichael and Rincrew, the crowd who gave me such a great reception in Youghal and the members of Fermoy Camera Club who took fantastic shots of the swim.

I really appreciate everyone’s contribution to this swim and am glad that you all enjoyed seeing the sport of marathon swimming up close and personal. I also hope that the swim has also opened a few eyes to the beauty and heritage of the mighty River Blackwater. I feel very privileged that the Great River is such a big part of my life.

Photograph – Lee Fox

I’ll finish my report with this great photograph by Lee Fox. It shows, from left to right: Tony Gallagher (pilot), myself, Grandad (Tom Baker) and Leo Bartley.

There will be many more great photographs uploaded to my Facebook account over the next few days for anyone who’s interested in them…

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Following my Blackwater Descent

My planned descent of the Great River of Munster this Friday will take me through some familiar countryside in North Cork, West Waterford and a little bit of East Cork. This means that, for a change, spectators normally confined to their computer and smartphone screens have plenty of opportunities to see the swim with their own eyes. I’ve created a Google Map (below) of the swim also so that I don’t have to clog up this post with information. You can explore the map at any “zoom” and click on the highlighted route and the little swimmer icons for more information…

The swim will pass under eight bridges: Fermoy Bridge, the M8 motorway bridge in Fermoy, Carrigabrick Viaduct, Ballyduff Bridge, Cavendish Bridge in Lismore, Avonmore (formerly Victoria) and Red Bridges in Cappoquin and the New Bridge in Youghal. With the exception of the M8 motorway bridge, Carrigabrick Viaduct and the Red Bridge in Cappoquin, these bridges are good vantage points from which to spot the swim.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

New Bridge, Youghal as seen from the boat during my 2012 swim from Cappoquin to Walter Raleigh Pier, Youghal. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

A few people have asked me if I could put together some ties of where I might be at what times. I can’t be very accurate, obviously, but I have put together a rough itinerary based on last year’s swim times for the staged swim:

  • 07:00 – Fermoy
  • 08:30 – Clondulane
  • 10:00 – Ballyduff
  • 12:00 – Lismore
  • 13:00 – Cappoquin
  • 14:30 – Villierstown Quay
  • 17:30 – Youghal
  • 18:00 – Front Strand

Again, these are very rough guesses so if you are planning to watch the swim at any point the best thing to do would be to keep an eye on @donalbuckley and @PaulNoonan96 on Twitter to see what kind of progress the swim is making. I will, hopefully, have the use of a SPOT Tracker for the swim (there’s one in the post). I’ll have one more blog post, which will happen to be my hundredth post, tomorrow or on Thursday confirming that everything is going ahead as planned…

My biggest swim yet this Friday!

This Friday, I’ll be attempting what will be my longest and probably my toughest swim to date: the 61 km of the River Blackwater from my hometown of Fermoy to the sea at Youghal. This is a complicated swim to organise as the first half of the route is unnavigable to a boat of any size and so requires the use of kayak cover, while the second half is much deeper and more exposed so requires the use of a proper support boat. Why do it then? Being from Fermoy and growing up swimming in the Blackwater, the idea of swimming from home to the sea is a tantalising one! Plus, I know it can be done: it might take me longer than my English Channel swim and it will probably be colder but I’m sure that I can do it. Oh, and yes, it also just happens to be one of the most beautiful stretches of river in Europe – they don’t call it the Irish Rhine for nothing…

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Me swimming at the halfway mark last year. I hope I have similar conditions to this for the big one on Friday! (Photograph: Donal Buckley)

When I start the swim at 7:00 am from Fermoy Rowing Club, my crew will consist of three trusty kayakers: Donal Buckley, Mona Sexton and Maura Murphy. Having crossed weirs at Fermoy, Clondulane and Lismore and the many rapids in between, we’ll reach tidal waters before the town of Cappoquin. There, we will meet the support boat, a 28-foot half-decker called “Maeve Óg”. The captain will be Tony Gallagher of Blackwater Cruises and his first mate will be his little terrier, Pharaoh! At this point, Maura will be bidding us farewell, Donal will be transferring to the boat and Mona will continue kayaking by my side right to the finish. Already on the boat will be Róisín Lewis and Paul Noonan, both experienced swimmers and good friends of mine.

I will have more details about following the swim in a post tomorrow but, for now, I will say that the best way for most people to follow will be on Twitter. My account @owenswims93 is unlikely to be active on the day so anyone wishing to follow the swim should keep an eye on @donalbuckley and @PaulNoonan96 for updates. I may have the use of a SPOT Tracker on the day but I’m not 100% sure yet. If I do have one the details will be mentioned on Twitter anyway. If you live in North Cork, East Cork or West Waterford there are plenty of good places to watch the swim first-hand. I’ll have details of where these places are and when I’ll be passing them in a post tomorrow…

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Another Big Swim for 2013

In July and August of last year, I did three long swims down the River Blackwater: 18.6 km from Fermoy to Ballyduff, 15.0 km from Ballyduff to Cappoquin and 26.4 km from Cappoquin to Youghal. In late August or early September of this year, I hope to swim each of these in one go, i.e. to swim from Fermoy Rowing Club to Front Strand, Youghal. Given similar river and tidal conditions to last year’s swims, I should complete this 60 km swim in about 12 hours. There is a question, however…

The second half of this swim is quite straightforward – one can swim unimpeded from the tidal limit (just below Lismore) to the sea at Youghal. However, the first half of the swim is not so straightforward – at both Fermoy and Clondulane, there are weirs which must be crossed, and at various other points there are rapids where a swimmer might have to stand up and walk for a while. This raises two issues if the swim is to be ratified:

  1. Can a swimmer walk across weirs and rapids without the swim being declared invalid as a “marathon” swim? This is a complicated question because all of the established marathon swims have their own rules. Before I attempt this swim, I will have to come up with a set of solid rules that outline how a swimmer can cross these obstacles without the swim becoming invalid.
  2. How should the swim be supported (in terms of safety and feeding) and how should it be observed? Only kayaks/canoes would be suitable for the first part, while only a decent sized boat would be suitable for the second half. How can the observe carry out their duties properly from a kayak/canoe and how can they transfer to the boat at the half-way point? Would two observers be better?
Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Getting ready to slide down the western end of Clondulane Weir!

I’ve already had some good feedback from Donal Buckley, Conor Power, Niek Kloots, and Steven Munatones on these issues. If you have any ideas or opinions on the above questions please do get in contact with me – it would be very much appreciated!

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Blackwater Project: Part 5 – Reflection

Well, I hope that you enjoyed reading about my Blackwater Project in its entirety! All four of my swims down the River Blackwater are in amongst my favourite swims of all time. I suppose that the whole experience was that bit more special for me as it was in the Blackwater that I first caught the bug for open water swimming. Both Donal Buckley and Maeve Mulcahy took lots of fantastic photographs on all three stages, so many, in fact, that I couldn’t fit them all into the posts! I’ve put them up on Dropbox for anyone that’s interested, I’d particularly recommend the Cappoquin to Youghal album as it was such a beautiful day and the photographs were taken with a proper camera as opposed to my mobile phone. Here are the three albums:

By the way, the total distance from the start in Fermoy to the finish in Youghal is 60.0 km exactly. The total swim time for the three swims comes in at just under 10 hours! I can only swim at 4.0 km per hour, so that gives you an idea of the average assistance that I got from the River across the three swims.

Image – Google Earth

Google Earth image of the completed Blackwater Project 2012. The green line is my swimming route and the white line is the Cork-Waterford county boundary.

Where to from here? Will there be more long swims on the Blackwater? I have no plans set in stone yet. I may have a go at another long swim further upriver – there is the possibility of swimming the 30 km from Mallow to Fermoy – or move onto one of the tributaries – the River Bride would be most practical. As well as this, I may organise a race from Cappoquin to Youghal – now that would be interesting – or continue this project along the East Cork coast to Ballycotton where I used to swim with my grandfather on Sunday afternoons during the summer holidays – it would be really cool to have covered all of the water between our swimming spots in Fermoy and in Ballycotton!

I’m going to carry on updating the blog with my swims from this summer for the next while at least. Next up is a three-part report (in Irish first, then English) from my 4th July swim around Cape Clear in West Cork, another “first” swim…

Blackwater Project: Part 2 – Fermoy to Ballyduff

With a little help from Google Earth, I managed to break the full 60 km stretch into three more manageable stages. It also happens that the two points at which I broke the 60 km are the only two points with reasonably good access to the River for both a swimmer and a kayaker. The three stages were:

  • Fermoy to Ballyduff18.6 km
  • Ballyduff to Cappoquin – 15.0 km
  • Cappoquin to Youghal26.4 km

On Thursday, 19th July, conditions finally came right to try the first swim. Maeve Mulcahy of Dolphin SC kindly agreed to kayak for me. Taking the swim as 18.6 km, as it appears on the map, I prepared feeds to last for five hours. However, as soon as we arrived at the Rowing Club, we could see that we would be done well within that time! There had been a lot of rain recently so there was a good flow in the River. Another cause for relief was that the water temperature had increased from 10ºC to about 14ºC in the last week.

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Starting the swim from Fermoy Rowing Club on Ashe Quay, a group from Blackwater Outdoor Activities arriving from Ballyhooly…

Our first obstacle came no more than 200 m into the swim in the form of Fermoy Weir. There is no way around this impressive structure, so the only solution is to slide down it. Maeve went over first in the kayak and I followed. Once safely at the bottom of the Weir, we navigated under Fermoy Bridge and through a large set of gravel islands, using the current to our advantage. After this turbulent beginning, there is 5 km of deep, slow-moving water. Landmarks on this stretch include the huge M8 motorway bridge, Fermoy’s Sewage Treatment Plant, Carrigabrick Viaduct, Isleclash House, Halloran’s Rock (one of the many distinctive limestone cliffs on the Blackwater) and the confluences with the Funcheon and Araglin Rivers.

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Getting ready to slide down The western end of Clondulane Weir!

The next major obstacle is Clondulane Weir, similar in design to Fermoy Weir. Two of my great-granduncles drowned at this Weir, something I wasn’t aware of while sliding down it at considerable speed! There are very strong currents just below the Weir, which make swimming a bit tricky.  The area just downstream of the Weir is known as Careysville and is very famous amongst game fishermen for its Atlantic salmon.

We continued on this stretch of shallow, fast water, passing fishermen’s huts along the banks. Swimming along the boundary between Counties Cork and Waterford, a fisherman asked me if I was doing the swim as part of a triathlon! It had been very overcast at the start of the swim, but it did start to brighten up at this stage.

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Going under the red iron bridge in Ballyduff just before the end of the swim.

As we progressed further, the weather continued to improve and we got some beautiful views of the widening Blackwater Valley. The River also became deeper and there were some strong currents on the bends. Recognising one particular bend, where the River demarcates the townlands of Mocollop and Ballyneroon, I knew that we were only 4 km from the finish and would be done within the hour. There is some very fast water at Cloonbeg, about 2 km from the finish. Here, we met Dad, who had just kayaked up from Ballyduff to meet us. The last 1 km was in pretty fast water so took I took my goggles off and floated down to the finish, taking in the scenery…

The finish point was on the right, just below Ballyduff Bridge. At this point, Maeve called out the swim time: 2 hours 41 minutes 5 seconds. I was completely amazed – this was an hour less than it had taken us to kayak the same route just a few weeks beforehand! We were greeted at the finish by three geese and some lambs. Needless to say, the geese were far more vocal in their “welcome” than the lambs!

So with the first stage of my Blackwater Project completed, I was feeling great and looking forward to the next two stages. We provisionally agreed to try the second stage (Ballyduff to Cappoquin) on the coming Tuesday, depending on how both Maeve and I were feeling after the Beginish Island Swim in Valentia that weekend…