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…

Another quick update…

Last Saturday, I took part in my favourite open water event, the Lee Swim in Cork City centre. This year, great organisation and some amazing weather combined to make it the best Lee Swim yet! I started in the second group with Crosóige Mara teammate Carol Cashell and Fermoy-via-Florida swimmer Canice Condon. I caught most of the people in the first group and finished the 2 km in a time of 24 minutes 47 seconds. I placed joint sixth/seventh, ahead of some top-class swimmers like Tom Healy, Maeve Ryan, Rachel Lee and Penny Palfrey! It was a great day made even better by meeting some old and new friends starting the Cork Distance Week. I will have a proper write up on the event when I get a chance to do some writing next week…

Photograph – Carol Cashell

The Crosóige Mara team and Lisa Cummins swimming off Shakespeare Beach, Dover. (Photograph: Carol Cashell)

For now, I’m in a mobile home in St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe near Dover waiting for the wind to die down before I and the rest of the Crosóige Mara team can attempt our English Channel 2-way relay. As it was just before my solo in September 2009, there is scorching weather at home but the weather isn’t so good in the Channel. However, Saturday isn’t looking too bad at the moment so it’s a possible swim day. I’ll do one more update on this whenever we get the go-ahead to swim…

Blackwater Project: Part 4 – Cappoquin to Youghal

At 26.4 km, this last leg of my Blackwater Project counts as a proper marathon swim. Simply feeding at random intervals from a kayak and hoping for half-way decent conditions would not be enough – this time, I’d need a proper boat with a few crew and a feeding plan. Going by the tide times for Youghal, I decided that the best day to do the swim would be Wednesday, 22nd August. It made most sense to start at high water, or just after it, to get maximum assistance. Tom McCarthy, who had crewed on my Cape Clear swim, kindly agreed to find a boat to cover the swim. His friend, Billy Kelliher, generously provided the use of his RIB. Copper Coast swimmer Donal Buckley also agreed to crew. Naturally, support kayaker supreme Maeve Mulcahy was also going to crew but unfortunately wasn’t available on the day. So now it was set, I would attempt the first swim from Cappoquin, Co. Waterford to Youghal, Co. Cork on Wednesday, 22ndAugust 2012 with Tom McCarthy, Billy Kelliher and Donal Buckley on the support boat…

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Heading to the start of the swim. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

On the planned day, we all met up by the only usable slipway in Youghal. Donal expressed some concern about the final part of the swim due to an ongoing E. coli outbreak on many of Cork’s beaches, including Front Strand in Youghal. After some discussion, we agreed that Donal would make the final decision on whether or not to call an end to the swim once we’d reached Youghal Bridge. Luckily, it never came to that as news came through that tests carried out on water samples taken the previous day showed the water to be of suitable quality for swimming. We then launched the RIB and loaded it up with everything that we would need during the swim. With that done, we motored upriver towards Cappoquin to start the swim. I can tell you that the boat trip up the Blackwater from Youghal to Cappoquin is infinitely more enjoyable than motoring from Dover Marina to Shakespeare Beach or Samphire Hoe for the start of an English Channel swim!

Photograph – Donal Buckley

A view of the Knockmealdown Mountains from the Blackwater. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

After our scenic tour up the River, we arrived at Cappoquin Rowing Club where we pulled up at the pontoon to refuel. While Billy and Tom were refueling the boat, I was getting changed and greased up and Donal was checking the water temperature – he measured 15.6ºC, not bad at all! With all that stuff out of the way, we all got back on board and drifted down to the slipway at Port na h-Abhann, this was where I finished my swim from Ballyduff… Once we were near the slipway, I jumped over the side and swam cautiously onto the slip, for I was conscious of the sunken punt that was just under the surface! Feet on dry land, I fixed me goggles, turned around and gave the crew the signal that I was ready. Donal called the start, 09:49, and I walked back into the water and started swimming, still careful to avoid the “wreck” below me!

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Just after starting from Cappoquin. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

From the start, it was only 100 m to the old railway bridge, known in Cappoquin as the Red Bridge. After 5 minutes, the boat came back into my field of view but stayed off to my left. This first hour felt great: the water was calm and not too cold, my stroke felt smooth and I was very comfortable in the water. The sun was shining also which is always a great help! Before long we came to Affane, where the Blackwater is joined by the River Finisk. Just before its confluence with the Blackwater, the Finisk is crossed by a bridge leading to an unusual Hindu-Gothic style gate, the entrance to the Dromana Estate. After about 1 hour 30 minutes, we had reached Villierstown Quay, formerly an important ferry crossing on the River. Here, I had my second feed and Billy gave me great encouragement by telling me that I had “over half a mile done”, really I had four and a half! I didn’t mind how much I had done, though, I was really enjoying this trip down a beautiful stretch of river…

Photograph – Bill Power

Dromana Bridge & Gate on the River Finisk. (Photograph – Bill Power)

The next major landmark was the confluence of the Rivers Blackwater and Bride. The Bride is arguably the Blackwater’s most important tributary. When the Blackwater was navigable for merchant ships, many docked at Camphire Quay on the Bride to offload and collect goods. Not far below this point we come to one of the finest houses on this stretch of river: Strancally Castle. This 19thCentury castle come modern family home, with its extensive grounds and jetty leading to a luxury pleasure boat, might seem out of place in rural Ireland, but the setting is idyllic if the weather is cooperating! While the water was glassily calm by the contemporary Strancally Castle, by the time we had reach the ruin of the original, there was an incessant 0.5 m chop blowing at us which made the going tough for a while. Strangely, conditions calmed where the River got really wide near Clashmore. Then, as we turned west towards Ballynatray, it got quite rough again.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Swimming towards the imposing Strancally Castle. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

It was a battle to reach Ballynatray House, yet another one of the many mansions on the lower reaches of the Blackwater, as the chop was quite severe due to the wind-against-tide effect, exaggerated further in this case by the River’s current. At the bend in the River at Ballynatray, there are many eddies which you need to watch out for – at one point I thought the water was going to turn me around completely or onto my back! From here, it was only a few minutes to Templemichael, and from there we could see Youghal Bridge in the distance…

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Swimming in eddy currents outside Ballynatray House. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

It was a great feeling to swim under Youghal Bridge, after all the years of driving over the Bridge and straining to see what was around the next bend in the River, I had finally seen every bit of the River’s course between home and Youghal. All along, I had mentally prepared myself for a long 2 km slog across Youghal Bay once under the Bridge – 2 km can seem long at the end of a big swim, plus none of us knew what effect the currents might have. In any case, I was feeling good and was ready for the final effort. As it turned out, we still had great assistance from the current and from the tide. However, a strong southerly wind was blowing directly against us and the strong flow of water, causing increasingly severe chop as we neared the mouth of the Bay.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

About to go under New Bridge, Youghal. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

Before long, we were passing the town of Youghal and the slipway where we had launched from earlier. Once we had passed Ferry Point on our left, we could say that we were in the sea. The lighthouse was just ahead on the right so it was time to turn in to the right and swim into shore. I cautiously made my in to the muddy-sandy beach just south of the Walter Raleigh Pier. I eventually got my feet on some not-so-silty ground and waded, knee-deep in rotting seaweed, onto the beach. Again, Donal called the finish, 14:17, giving a total swim time of 4 hours 27 minutes 34 seconds. Given that this swim is technically the same distance as the Zürichsee-Schwimmen, I think that it’s fair to say that the River did a fair bit of the work! After enjoying my moment on the beach, I swam back to the boat and exited the water in the usual, undignified fashion. Back at the slipway, we got the boat back on the trailer and got soup and sandwiches in the Quays Bar. All were in agreement that the day was a great success and that everyone thoroughly themselves! It’s always welcome news at the end of a big swim that your crew enjoyed themselves too.

Photograph – Donal Buckley

Just before the end of the swim, the sea at last! Left to right: Owen, Capel Island, Youghal Lighthouse. (Photograph – Donal Buckley)

More beautiful photographs of the swim taken by Donal Buckley to come. On Friday, I’ll reflect on the whole Blackwater Project from start to finish and see whether or not I’ve learned anything from it…

Blackwater Project: Part 3 – Ballyduff to Cappoquin

After my Fermoy to Ballyduff swim, it was off to Valentia Island, Co. Kerry for the annual Beginish Island Swim. What was a great weekend came to a pretty sobering end with the shocking news our friend, Páraic Casey, died tragically during his English Channel solo attempt. Páraic was a great friend to us all in the open water community and his death came as a great shock, not least to his wife Riana and to the other swimmers who had trained with Páraic for the last year. Maeve and I decided, after a while, that it was probably a good idea to go ahead with the Ballyduff to Cappoquin swim as planned – a decent immersion is, I think, a great help in absorbing such news.

We arranged to be in the water for about 07:30 on the coming Tuesday (24th August) to meet the high tide just below Lismore. This particular swim would to be even more interesting than the previous swim as it was going to be the “maiden voyage” of the recently purchased Sandycove Island SC SPOT Tracker! These trackers are great pieces of kit as they allow people all over the world to track the swim’s progress in real-time. Any member of Sandycove Island SC who is doing a big swim can ask to use the SPOT Tracker so that the rest of the world can follow their progress. The SPOT Shared Page, by the way, is Keep an eye on the Sandycove Island SC website (link above) to find out who is using the tracker next…

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Maeve took this photo just as we were starting the swim. There was a bit of a wade out to deep water…

Anyway, Maeve and I met up in Fermoy at about 05:30 and set off for Cappoquin in separate cars. Once we parked up by the slipway in Cappoquin, I got changed into my swimming gear and Maeve got into her kayaking gear, leaving anything that we would need at the finish in my car. Then we both headed back to Ballyduff in Maeve’s car. When we arrived in Ballyduff, all that was left to be done was to get the kayak on the water and to secure the SPOT Tracker to it. With that done, I handed Maeve my mobile phone, from which she would be sending updates to my Twitter account using the #Blackwater2012 hashtag. The swim finally got underway at 07:29, at the same spot where I finished my Fermoy to Ballyduff swim the Thursday previous.

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

This tree was a very strange sight. Can anyone shed any light on what might be going on here?

Although the water was a pleasant 15ºC, it was a cool and misty morning. The atmosphere was almost eerie as we progressed. The only sounds were the River and the birds. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about this swim as I knew little about the first 10 km after Ballyduff. It turns out that there are a good few rapids on this stretch, especially on the Glenmore beat just below Glencairn Abbey. There needs to have been some recent rain before you can take these on! After the rapids at the Fortwilliam Estate, there is a stretch of slightly deeper water, which makes for easier swimming.

At the end of this stretch of deeper water are the beautiful Ballyin Gardens and a small salmon weir, Lismore Weir. This isn’t a large weir like those in Fermoy and Clondulane, it’s less than 1 m high and has gap in one section, called the King’s Gap, through which most of the River’s flow is directed. When we came to this point, Maeve shot over in the kayak to test that it was safe. She gave me the all clear to swim through, rather than to walk around it. I swam straight through the gap, which was an exhilarating experience even if I did feel a bit like a dead goldfish being flushed down the toilet!

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Just after shooting Lismore Weir, coming around the bend to get our first view of the Castle.

After this weir, the current whisked us quickly around a bend in the River and we got our first view of the magnificent Lismore Castle. This castle, which is over 800 years old, has been home to Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, and his more famous son Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry. It is currently the second home of Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire. The town of Lismore is one of Ireland’s most picturesque towns, but I was delighted to have reached it for another reason, i.e. it meant that I was past the half-way point in the swim!

Just after the bridge in Lismore, the Blackwater is joined by the River Owenashad, bringing cold, peat-stained water from the nearby Knockmealdown Mountains. The River becomes wide and shallow at this point, known as the Ballyrafter Flats. Exactly 10.0 km from the start of the swim in Ballyduff, we come to another set of islands with some very turbulent water. At the bottom of these rapids, the River becomes much deeper and the current almost stops – still over 30 km from the mouth of the River, we had reached sea level!

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Here’s the trusty paddler, Maeve, with Lismore Castle in the background.

Having arrived at this point (the River’s tidal limit) slightly earlier than initially expected, we had no more assistance from the current as the last of the incoming tide was counteracting the flow of the River. The last 5.0 km of the swim would be in dead water…

This last stretch did seem to drag on a bit in comparison to running the rapids in the earlier part of the swim, but at least we got some nice views and met my grandfather who was watching from a lay-by where the River passes next to the road. After a few words with him, we were on the final straight into Cappoquin – we could see Avonmore Bridge about 1 km away and the slipway was just on the other side of it.

Photograph – Maeve Mulcahy

Mist on the Knockmealdowns nearing the end of the swim, about 3 km from Cappoquin.

I reached the slipway at Port na h-Abhann, Cappoquin at 10:16, a modest time of 2 hours 46 minutes 24 seconds after first hitting the water in Ballyduff. Lo and behold, who should be there to meet us only my grandfather again. He told us that we had better hurry up getting the kayak up on the rook of the car and getting dressed because he had our breakfast ordered in Barron’s Bakery & Coffee House up in the town! After a very nice gluten-free breakfast there, we headed back to Ballyduff and transferred the kayak from my car to Maeve’s before heading home, content with having covered yet another stretch of virgin water for swimmers.

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

Looking back at Avonmore Bridge from the slipway in Cappoquin.

I was off to Dover soon with to crew on two English Channel swims so it would be a while before I would get to attempt the final stage of the Project…

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…

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.