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…

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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…