Write-up by Sally Goble
A few weeks ago I had an email exchange with a man I’d never met before – I just met him on the Internet. He invited me over to Ireland to meet him and several of his friends and so, without thinking, I booked my flights, packed my bag and headed off to sunny Cork.
That man was Ned Denison, a solo English Channel swimmer and very active member of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association and various other swimming bodies. He was organising a swim in Cork from Blackrock to Cobh, a 7.5 mile swim down the River Lee and out into Cork Harbour. On a whim, I suspect, invited me along. On a whim I accepted. It sounded an adventure and a great end to the season. This is one of the things I love about swimming, apart from the swimming itself. It’s a passport to going anywhere and meeting people who feel the same (more or less) as you do about the water… it transcends all sorts of barriers.
The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, I get the impression, are a hardy bunch. They race in the sea all summer in large numbers, they dodge the great swathes of jellyfish, they produce numbers of English Channel swimmers. They organise an impressive summer sea swimming programme. Nonetheless, Ned had asked me over partly because the swim from Blackrock to Cobh was being attempted by two prospective Channel solo swimmers, and I think he wanted me to go along and ‘sing for my supper’. Or swim for my supper I guess. Whatever his reason, I was honoured to be invited. It was lovely to be a guest.
Ned, and Niall O’Crualaoich, who has booked a Channel solo for 2008, had organised for the swim from Blackrock to Cobh. They’d organised safety boats and kayakers for thirteen swimmers, including me and Vince, a 73 year old Cork masters swimmer. The swim had originally been 6 miles but then they added another 1.5 miles on so that we could land at a pub! The swim was tidal so was expected to take between 2 hours and 3 hours depending on swim speed, and was going to be handicapped so that the safety boats weren’t spread too far out.
Ned instructed us to meet at 9.30am at Blackrock slipway on Sunday morning, and said that the first to set off would be at 10am. As a slower swimmer, I’d be first to start off.
I dream that I am swimming around underwater amongst hundreds of black paper-thin manta rays. In my dream I’m swimming around stressing about trying to avoid them as they float in a papery way around me like cartoon two dimensional objects. Wake up at 4am, 6am, 7am, 8am. Finally get up at 8am.
Wake up feeling incredibly nervous. Why? Force porridge down. I think, as usual, “the last meal of a condemned woman”. God damn it, why are these mornings so awful?
I mix my maxim in the B&B teapot. Fill two 2 litre bottles with maxim and ribena, and make them as hot as I can… I’ve made too much but better to have too much than too little.
Get a taxi down to the Blackrock slipway. It’s quite bright and there is no wind at all which is brilliant, and it’s not too cold. I’ve not got a jumper on, just a long sleeved tee. A few swimmers assembled already. Some chit chat but I feel too nervous to interact properly. Ned does a safety briefing and all the swimmers have to introduce themselves and say a bit about themselves which is nice, to say what their goals are. As I’m going to be the first to swim there is then not much time for chatting as I want to get myself together, to get my stuff to my kayaker and focus.
I strip off, chat a bit to Vince, who is going to get in the water at the same time as me, and give my kit for the swim to Pat, my kayaker (2 bottles of feed, a banana, spare hat and goggles). We’re a bit late starting. As I’m standing in my costume, I realise that there are quite a number of swimmers doing the swim in wetsuits. Crikey. I begin to wonder if it’s going to be really cold. Ned says, with a wry smile that he’s going to guarantee the water will be ‘between 13C and 18C’. I’m starting to worry that I’ve underestimated how cold it’s going to be. Hmmm. I haven’t been in water colder than 15.6 since the start of the year. Too late to think about it now as I wade into the water to be started and waved off by the assembled crowd of local press and supporters.
10.15am we hit the water from the slipway and enter the River Lee.
I don’t feel like it’s that cold when I hit the water – it’s not my first impression, so that’s good. When I swam in Norfolk last week in 15.6C, for the first half an hour my lungs were wheezing alarmingly with the cold. Today there is no wheezing. Good. My first thought, however, is that in my haste I forgot to tell Pat, my kayaker, that I’d like my first feed after an hour. Bollocks. I wonder if I should stop straight away and tell him. No, plough on. If I stop immediately it might look like I’m panicking or freaking out or something. I can tell him shortly. I wonder if he’s wearing a watch though? Oh bugger. I swim along trying to see if I can see a watch as he is paddling. Can’t see. Keep swimming.
The river is lovely. Flat. Tranquil. Definitely ‘brackish’. I have never swum in brackish water before today. It’s really pleasant. Very very slightly salty. Like an over salted soup or something. Not intense like the sea, but just a whiff of salt, enough to just notice. Salty enough to make you more buoyant but not so much so that you can really taste it. I can still swim with my mouth open – in salt water I always swim with my mouth clamped shut, but I don’t need to do this now. I know though that the closer we get to Cork harbour near Cobh, the saltier it will get.
The water is very flat and reflective. It’s contemplative like this. I swim by Blackrock Castle and I try to strain to see the far bank past Pat, a watery kind of sightseeing. It’s very peaceful. Especially as Pat is not really doing anything at all except floating down on the current of the river, stroking every now and again to keep with me. Swim on and on – the far river bank is couple of hundred metres away only. It’s great to see things passing by. The water is a bit cold, there are definitely cold patches which make you hurry along, and slightly warmer bits that make you want to dawdle. I am still thinking I should tell Pat about the feed on an hour. Then the moment is gone and I give it up. I decide I’ll just guess when the hour is up and tell him then. I know it’s a gamble, but think I’ll just try.
I have a very vague idea in my head of the route. I know that the river is narrow here and then widens out into a bowl and then narrows again before spitting out into the harbour. We are past the castle and I can still see the far bank. After a while the water starts getting a little choppier – imperceptably, but enough for me to pay a bit more attention to where I am. I try to focus my eyes when I breathe and then I realise that the far bank is no longer a couple of hundred metres away but much much further. I sight to the front and see that now we are in a much wider section of the river. It’s no longer meandering and peaceful but now more impressive and wider and more dramatic. I can no longer see any definition on the far bank. I can just see colours and shapes – a haze of purple and greys in the distance. I feel smaller in the larger landscape.
I keep plodding on. It seems that we have been in the water for quite a while now. My hands get stiff and I have to shake them out a bit on recovery. This doesn’t really happen until after an hour or more. Now, I wonder how long I can wait before asking Pat if an hour has gone by. I don’t want to ask him for a feed and find out it has only been 20 minutes. That would be hideous. I know that after the bowl, the rive narrows again. I wonder if I can wait till the narrowing until asking for a feed. On the other hand I don’t want to leave it too late. In the end I just estimate an hour or more. I stop and ask Pat if we’ve been swimming for an hour. He looks at his watch: “50 minutes”. “Can I have a feed at an hour please?” He agrees and I carry on swimming, relieved to have sorted it out. Ten mintues later he waggles my sports bottle at me. I swim over to him, and he tries to delicately pass me the bottle. “Just chuck it in the water” I say. He looks at me as if I’m crazy and then tosses it in. I dive under and get it, take a glug and pass it back. I ask him if I can have another feed in half an hour. I ask him how we are doing and he says “Great. We are about half way along the lough”. I didn’t realise we were on a lough, but am glad he sounds pleased.
I’m really enjoying this swim. It’s beautiful here. I watch the scenery in a haze, I watch Pat fiddle with his sunglasses – he takes them off, puts them on, takes them off, puts them on. We seem to be alone, he and I, in this place. I swim past a couple of buoys. We are closer to the south bank of the lough/river now which I can just about remember is where we need to be before the water narrows back down to the channel again. Another half an hour and we are much further along when it’s time for our next feed. The sun has come out and I feel very perky. The water is not nearly as cold here as it was in the river at the start. No cold patches. I feel quite comfortable. I smile at Pat when he waggles my feed bottle at me. “The sun’s come out, it’s lovely” I grin at Pat. He doesn’t seem to think so, either that or he thinks I’m totally mad. He tells me, when I ask him how we are doing, that we are doing really well that we will soon hit the Channel and then the tide will flow much faster and we’ll get good assistance from the tide then. That it’s coming up quite soon and we are about two thirds of the way. Two thirds? I’m very surprised as we have been swimming for an hour and a half and I’m assuming it is going to be around a three hour swim. Oh! Cheered by this I say OK – but if we aren’t there can I have another feed in another half an hour please?
Soon enough the lough narrows back in to a channel – or the river? – and soon the shore is populated by houses lining the waterfront – new posh houses and apartment blocks and a marina. The water is definitely salty now and smells quite fishy. I fantasise that it smells like whitebait and can just imagine tucking into a plate of them. Hmmm. For five or ten minutes the water becomes a bit surprisingly bumpy after all that calm and flat, and we lumber through the choppy water. The tide is pushing us along – I mark my progress by picking brightly coloured houses from the shoreline and watching to see how fast we pass them by. They are flying by. Or we are… It’s then that you get a sense of the pace that you are swimming at. Suddenly the water flattens out again as quickly as it roughed up.
Another feed, two hours. At this feed, JulieAnn, a young fast Texan swimmer who is set to swim the Channel in 2009, powers past me. She set off half an hour after me. It’s taken her an hour and a half to catch me up… Pat tells me that we’re doing great still. He says we only have to swim past the shipyards to our left, and then it’s about a mile and a half. That sounds pretty close, closer than I thought! Swimmers – never pay any attention to your crew – they lie! They do!
Swimming past the shipyards, where the scenery has now turned industrial, takes longer than I think. I can see the large cranes used for loading and unloading containers out of the corner of my eyes. They don’t seem to be going past as quickly as the posh marina flats were. Eventually, though, they are gone and I can see the greenery of Cobh island ahead. I’m quite excited now as Pat told me it was only a mile and a half.
I keep swimming and swimming and still see the same wretched corner ahead of me. It’s taking for ever. Another swimmer passes me. At this point Pat is looking a bit cold and miserable. It makes me feel miserable too. Did he work it out wrong? Is he pissed off? Is he pissed off with me? The safety rib is lurking around behind me too. We are in very shallow water now and it seems like much harder work than it should be. Another feed. I ask Pat, a bit anxiously, “Are we still making progress?” He tells me we are. But I have déja vu about that bloody corner by Bembridge on the Isle of Wight swim – battling the tide and not getting anywhere. Later, one of the other kayakers tells me they think I was caught in an eddy (where the tide turns back in a swirl from the general flow of the current) and lost some minutes here. Whatever it was, it felt like much harder work and slower progress. I don’t understand how a mile and a half with the current can take this long.
After what seems like forever we are round the corner of the island and on the home straight. Pat points out the town on Cobh that we are heading for – it seems like a mile away still. I’m excited that we can see it. But every swim it seems has a sting in it’s tail. As we’ve rounded the corner to the exposed side of the island we’ve started swimming into a headwind which is going against the tide, making the water pretty lumpy. Just what weary arms need. The current is strong here though and although I’m being tossed around a fair bit by the waves I can see that we are making pretty good progress. I’m measuring my pace against Spike Island and the prison buildings on it, to my right. They seem to be moving past quite quickly. Good, I’m relieved. Pat is finding a bit harder now to negotiate the waves and looks thoroughly drenched and cold. Not only is it quite lumpy here but there are a number of obstacles in the water to be negotiated. I swim past a bunch of anchored sailboats – and just as we are passing them, picking our way through, a rib zooms past at top speed and creates a massive wake which nearly throws me into the hull of an anchored yacht and nearly throws Pat into me. Pat shouts after them, very angry. I look up, startled, at the looming hull of the boat that I narrowly missed hitting. I look at Pat quizzically. Neither of us saw that coming. Then there are three huge yellow barrel buoys standing metres out of the water that I swim too close to. I don’t want to have to look up to the front to sight (thereby seeing how far I still have to swim) but the water is laughably just littered with obstacles. I pause every now and then to see if there is any random object coming up ahead of me that I may need to avoid. Which in turn makes me think of the end rather than just swimming. The last bit of any swim is just torture and endless.
Eventually though, we get there, swimming past a collection of tugboats and then picking between two of them and to the bottom of some steps. There are spectators at the top of the steps clapping as I’m helped to the steps from the shallow water by Niall who organised the swim. I finished the swim in 3 hours 25 mins, and although I thought it would take me three hours, I guess I’m fine with that. After changing we decamped to a local pub, where the Ned and Niall had arranged hot soup for all the swimmers and kayakers and helpers.
What a fantastic swim, what a fantastic end to the season. A swim of different water, different scenery, lovely friendly people. How often can you have a river swim, a lake swim and a sea swim all in one day? With changing scenery to keep you company and a great welcome for a foreign swimming guest. It must have been one of the best swims I’ve done all season.