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 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…