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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My first sea swim of the year…

On Sunday, I went for first open water “swim” of 2013. I hadn’t swum in the open water for nearly a month so was a bit apprehensive about the temperature – it turned out that I had good cause for apprehension!

The plan was that a few of us would meet at 12:00 at Sandycove for one lap of the Island. I didn’t bring my wetsuit as I managed the 1,700 m lap without it the last time, but the last time was good while ago! It was surprisingly quiet at Sandycove, probably because a few people opted to swim at 10:00 while more decided to try swimming in Inniscarra at 11:30 to get in some extra cold water training for the Cold Water Swimming Championships in Tooting Bec Lido in South London this weekend. It’s been very cold in England as of late so the swimmers can expect water temperatures of 0ºC for their races!

Anyway, it was just Dave, Declan, Aidan and myself for the 12:00 swim at Sandycove. It wasn’t an ideal day for swimming: there was a stiff easterly wind (the worst wind direction for Sandycove swimming) and it was a generally miserable day. I got changed and got straight in without any delay – the only way to get in, in my view. It can’t have been more than 20 m before I realised that I wasn’t even going to make it as far as the Island; my hands and feet were on fire and I was fairly winded, so I decided to head back to the slipway satisfied that I at least got in and swam ~50 m.

As I was getting out, the three wetsuiters were just getting in and they headed off around the Island. I got dressed as quickly as possible and sat into the car to warm up. When the others got back, the thermometer on Dave’s wristwatch read 8.1ºC but I have no way of knowing how accurate that is (wristwatch thermometers are notoriously unreliable). The customary tea and biscuits followed, despite the disappointing turnout.

Having previously completed laps of Sandycove in as low as 7ºC and done a 400 m swim in the Blackwater at 3.5ºC, this experience reminded of one crucial fact when it comes to cold water swimming, i.e. that there is no substitute for regular immersions when trying to acclimatise to cold water.

Update from Cape Town: Ned hopeful of False Bay attempt tomorrow morning…

The latest update from Cape Town is that Ned is “99% sure” that he will get to make his attempt to cross False Bay tomorrow morning. After a week of rather windy weather, a small window has appeared starting tomorrow morning. Conditions will be less than ideal but Ned is prepared and is conscious that he can’t wait in Cape Town indefinitely.

The planned start time is 06:00, I am not sure whether this is local time or Irish time. In any case, there’s only 2 hours in the difference so, if the swim goes ahead as planned, Ned will start at either 04:00 or 06:00 UTC tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the SPOT tracker doesn’t seem to be working so we won’t be able to track Ned’s progress online. I’m hopeful of getting updates from Hugh Tucker, who will be on the support boat. If I do get these, they will appear on my Twitter feed (to the right of this post)…

Ned has been swimming regularly in False Bay over the last few days, both to prepare himself for the conditions and to become accustomed to the notion of having great whites in the water. Reports of a large shark in “knee-deep” water in Fish Hoek can’t be good for his nerves, but Ned doesn’t seem overly phased by this. He often reminds us that, in the HBF Rottnest Channel Swim in Perth, Western Australia, you are more likely to have your arm severed by the prop of one of the escort vessels than be attacked by a shark. That’s very reassuring, or maybe not!

Swim to Tory

At the end of the summer, ideas for swims come flowing into my head as though I could do anything after a long winter in the pool! Last year, an idea hit me to swim from Tory Island to mainland Donegal, a distance of eight and a half miles. I knew that it could be done as it had already been done by Anne Marie Ward from Donegal, Kieran Fitzgerald from Sligo and others. It had been in the back of my mind to do it since I was in third year of secondary school, when I heard, in an Irish listening comprehension test, about Anne Marie’s swim of over eight hours. Recently, I have come to know Anne Marie and, last winter, she offered to help me in whatever way she could if I wanted to do this particular swim. Without further delay, I decided to give it a go!

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

Tory and Inishbofin from Magheraroarty. (Photograph taken on the day of the swim.)

Straight after coming home from Dover, I saw on the weather forecast that there was to be a good day on the Friday of that week. I called Anne Marie and we arranged to meet in Letterkenny on the Thursday. It was a long arduous journey from Fermoy to Letterkenny! After meeting Anne Marie at the bus station, we headed north for her house, we had a bite (actually a big meal) to eat and put together all of the things that we would be needing during the swim. Finally, Anne Marie called Brendan Proctor, the man from the sub-aqua club and he said the weather would be good enough in the morning to swim from the mainland out to Tory, rather than the other direction.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Going ashore at Magheraroarty beach for the official start!

In the morning, we got up early and drove to Magheraroarty, the starting place. On our way there, we passed through places that I had only ever heard about on the radio, Gortahork and so on. When we arrived at our destination, the sun was shining and there was little wind. Magheraroarty is a beautiful place, with a large pier, white sandy beach and clean clear water. After a while, Brendan and John Joe from the Sheephaven Sub-Aqua Club arrived with the boat. I put on my togs, hat and goggles. Then, we all got on board, we turned on the GPS tracker and I swam into the beach for the official start.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Coming around Magheraroarty pier…

The same rules that apply to English Channel swimming apply for swims between Tory and the mainland. Because of this, I had to go ashore to start the swim properly. As soon as I was on dry sand, I turned around, ran back into the water and started swimming in the direction of Tory!

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

The Tory Ferry on its way to the mainland…

I was very happy at the start of the swim; the sun was shining on my back and the water was much warmer than I had expected – a pleasant 14.5ºC today. As well as this, there wasn’t a jellyfish in sight, something that put me at ease! After a few minutes, the ferry came against us and we got a big wave from all on board. As I was swimming on the west side of Inishbofin, it became cloudy and the wind started coming from the West. This wasn’t the ideal wind direction as we wouldn’t get the same assistance from a westerly wind as we would from a southerly wind, and it was a southerly wind that was forecast. In any case, I kept swimming from feed to feed.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Tory still a fair distance away…

After about an hour and a half, we cleared the shelter of Inishbofin and entered the Tory Sound. The tide was running from East to West, directly into the wind, and because of this the waves rose slightly. This didn’t bother me too much as the lee of the boat was giving me some relief from the wind and waves. We continued on like this for about another until the sun came out again. About three hours into the swim, the waves became much higher for between thirty minutes and an hour and there were white horses on them. That was a tough half hour to an hour. At the last feed, however, it calmed down a lot and that gave me a chance to go ashore at my ease.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

The finish is in sight at last!

I was very relieved when I was able to see the bottom underneath me as I was starting to get some pain in my shoulders by that time. Once we got to the pier, Anne Marie pointed out the beach to me and I swam into it. When I arrived at the beach, 4 hours 21 minutes after I started, I stood up on the sand. There was a crowd of children on the beach, the Islanders’ children, and after a few words with them, I turned around and there was a good crowd on the pier as well. I was very surprised as there’s usually no such welcome at the end of a swim like that.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Coming into the beach in the harour on Tory Island.

After a minute, I spotted an older man coming across the beach. One of the children warned me that it was the King of Tory. The King, Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí, gave me a big welcome and said that it was a great honour for the Islanders that someone had swum out from the mainland. With that, he introduced me to his family and the Islanders and asked one man to take us back to his house and make sure that we got a shower and a cup of tea.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

With the King of Tory, Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí just after the swim.

After having a shower and a cup of tea with biscuits, we went back to the harbour. Then, we decided to go to Caife an Chreagáin for some food. On our way there, we met the Queen of Tory who was looking after a young falcon who had landed in Tory after going astray from County Clare! He was a magnificent bird. We met Patsaí Dan again in the café and we all had a great chat. After eating our fill, we went back to the boat and hot the waves. But before we could leave, a young boy asked me if I was going to swim back to Magheraroarty because the “rule” is that if you come on the boat, then you can go home on the boat, but if you swim out, you have to swim back!

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

A bottlenose dolphin as seen from Magheraroarty pier just after the swim…

Half an hour after leaving Tory, we were almost back at Magheraroarty pier, but our adventure was not over yet. Suddenly, four or five bottlenose dolphins came right up to the boat. They stayed with us, playing, for about ten minutes. That really made our day! That was pretty much the end of the day, a long day, but an enjoyable one at the same time. The excitement continued for a few days after the swim; it was in the local papers in Donegal that a young man, from Cork even, had swum from the coast out to Tory and Anne Marie and I had to do an interview with Áine Ní Churráin on the programme “Barrscéalta” on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

The Hills of Donegal and Magheraroarty beach.

I’d like to thank Anne Marie Ward for all her help and advice in organizing this swim and during the swim itself. I’d also like to thank Brendan Proctor and John Joe Roland from the Sheephaven Sub-Aqua Club for their great support! Finally, thanks to the people and King of Tory for the great reception that they gave us at the end of the swim.

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

Another one of the dolphins that came to greet us on our way back to the mainland…

I dedicated this swim to the memory of my friend, William, who died in the days just before the swim. RIP, Will.

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…