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.
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)…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There will be many more great photographs uploaded to my Facebook account over the next few days for anyone who’s interested in them…
- My biggest swim yet this Friday! (FermoyFish.com)
- Following my Blackwater Descent (FermoyFish.com)
- Marathon Swimmer Owen O’Keefe gets a hero’s welcome… (YoughalOnline.com)
- Exhausted but ecstatic, Owen conquers the mighty Blackwater (AvondhuPress.ie)
- Owen’s 60 km swim to success (AvondhuPress.ie)