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: Pictorial Addendum to Part 1

In my post about the background to my Blackwater Project 2012, I wrote about the first swim from Ballyhooly to Fermoy. I always regretted not taking any photographs during the swim, especially given that the conditions were so good on the day. Luckily, a local photographer, Bill Power from Mitchelstown, was on the same stretch of river on a day with similar conditions. He very kindly gave me permission to use the photographs that he took that day on the blog, so here they are:

Photograph – Bill Power

Approaching Ballyhooly Bridge from upstream.

Ballyhooly Bridge is where Ned and I started our exploratory swim to Fermoy. Here the River is mostly shallow and runs fast. Much of the the riverbed is stony but there is also a lot of bare bedrock which has deep scars due to abrasion during times of flood. Swimming in this area we spotted lots of small trout and salmon!

Photograph – Bill Power

Approaching the island, pools and riffles at Poll Pádraig near Cregg.

If you read, which you should, you’ll know that practically every geographical feature has its own name. Many rivers tend to have more than one name and all rivers have individual names for deep and shallow places! Shallow places or rapids are often called áthanna (fords) and deep points or pools are called poill (holes). This particular set of pools, rapids and islands is known as Poll Pádraig (Patrick’s Hole) and is reputed to be the place where two “known priest-hunters” were drowned for their transgressions! Nobody knows if this is true, but what is more certain is that the clean riverbed and gravel islands make excellent spawning grounds for many fishes and, by the same token, provide excellent hunting grounds for animals that prey on them…

Photograph – Bill Power

Alcedo atthis – a common kingfisher.

One of those that would frequent Poll Pádraig for an easy meal is the kingfisher. We were lucky enough to spot one of these during the swim. They are surely one of Ireland’s most beautiful birds. They are very fast flyers so can be difficult to spot, despite their brilliantly iridescent plumage. That is unless you happen to be approaching from the water, in which case they have no idea what you are and take relatively little notice of you until you come very close to them! On a sunny day, the glare from the water makes their colours even more dramatic and all you will see are bright flashes of electric blue and orange as they fly from one fishing post to the next.

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…