Write-up by Tom McCarthy
The river (or stream) flowing through Minane Bridge reaches the sea between the sand flats of Fountainstown and the woods of Ringabella. The distance from the Bridge to Ringabella is approximately 5km and from Ringabella to Roberts Cove another 5km. The Minane River valley is low lying and this river used to flood all the way up to Ballyfeard, wreaking havoc on the local farming. In the 1950’s a dam was built across the valley to prevent this deluge. This flooding would occur when Spring tides were accompanied with South East gales. The exact same conditions that creates the serious flooding in Cork City centre.
Part 1: Minane Bridge to the Dam (Non-Tidal)
A few days before I went down to check out the river by walking the adjoining fields but this proved almost impossible to have a proper reconnaissance. The reason for this is that, in addition to the Dam, the levees, or embankments, were built up to a height of about 10 feet. These are completely overgrown and it is almost impossible to get a glimpse of the river. The next evening I decided to do my reconnaissance by canoe. When collecting the Kayak from my friend, Peter O’Mahony, he said he was free to join me, a decision I’m sure he was soon to regret. But, with a safety boat, why not do the reconnaissance and swim at the same time?
Tues 19th August, 7pm
We get the Kayak into the water and I change into togs, swim cap, goggles and swim shoes…VITAL! I also take my dog, ‘Sailor’ with me. Sailor is an expert ratter and whose scent might keep our furry friends (water rats and otters) at bay. Initially the water is about waist high and difficult to swim because of the weed. The dog is making very heavy weather of it, so, instead of him helping me I’m helping him…….not part of the deal. I decide to go back with him after only a short distance. In the car park a woman is walking her Rottweiler, off the lead, and the next thing she sees is “Biggles” and a dog climbing up the river bank. Of course, both big powerful dogs immediately challenge each other. Fortunately, it develops only into a Mexican-standoff. Completely forgetting my unusual attire, I ask her if her dog is “alright?” However, judging by the expression on her face maybe she wants to ask me if I am ‘alright’. She seems to have lost her voice so I get Sailor back in the van and scramble back into the river. In my last glimpse of her she is scurrying away towards the church in Minane, no doubt to light a candle for her sanity or, more appropriately, MINE!
Back in the river I join up with Peter and the kayak but the going is difficult. The river weed is thick in places and fallen trees block our journey. The overgrowth is so dense in places the kayaker doesn’t have the room to paddle so I hold on to the back and kick through, just like a propeller at the stern of a boat. Peter’s face and arms are getting scratched and bloody from the dense overgrowth. The river is getting deeper and bending like a snake but as, soon as I think it’s getting swimmable, it shallows. and when I try standing it’s like being in muddy quicksand. The kayak has to tow me, again by holding onto the stern. This happens a number of times. The flies are also becoming a problem, on coming up for air I find that instead of getting oxygen I get a mouthful on gnats. Half man, half walrus…..no….half man, half trout! All we are short are some Crocodiles and Piranha and we could be on tributary of the Amazon.
No sooner did this thought occur when I heard some fellows hunting with dogs. Part of this valley is wooded, but I cannot see them due to the high embankments. Maybe it’s an Irish “Deliverance”….and “we don’t want no Townies coming down our river…eek like a pig”!!! That line…”eek like a pig” keeps going through my head.
Eventually, after about an hour, the river the river widens and deepens, the embankments are gone and the swim is enjoyable. Accompanying me for the for the final lap are two swans and a solitary cygnet; predators have taken the rest of the brood. These birds will attack a human if their nest or young are threatened. They say they can break a man’s arm with a lash of their wings. They turn around occasionally and hiss but keep their distance. Peter, my kayaker, and I haven’t spoken much but finally when things are going swimmingly he says “Macker you’re some loony” all I can say is “Mahony, birds of a feather…” To be fair to him he had no idea what he was letting himself in for and maybe if I had told him he may not have come. Come to think of it I won’t be surprised if he declines to answer my calls in the foreseeable future!
The water quality in this river is good. I should know as I swallowed enough of it. There was definitely no pollution or sewage. I did get some mild stomach cramps but a shot of neat Brandy killed them off. That and gargling with antiseptic mouthwash, before and after, and I was fine the following day. After 1 hour and 20 mins we arrived at the Dam. We then had to walk about 1 kilometre through brambles in shorts to the nearest tarred road, carrying the canoe. Hid that in the bushes and another hour’s walk to the van. Return for the boat and it was well after dark when we finished.
Boy did a pint of Stout taste good that night!!
In hindsight I should have checked out the adventure better but then doing it cold can often be a better buzz. What we used to say at sea….the 6 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
Health and Safety Warning: Don’t try this at home.
Part 2. The Dam to Roberts Cove (Tidal)
From Fountainstown up to the Dam is about 2k of tidal mudflats. As I intend to start the swim tomorrow at high water the mudflats will be covered and the channel will not be visible. As the flats may only have a foot or two of water over them they will be swimmable, but it’s vital to stay in the channel. On these mud banks if you go aground on a falling tide you can neither swim nor walk and you can end up in serious trouble. On the Carrigaline mudflats last year a guy in a small boat lost the channel on an ebb tide went aground and the only way off was a SAR helicopter. So therefore, so as not to end up like a complete Wally, the channel would have to be marked. You can’t do it on high tide as you can’t see it and you can’t do it on low tide as there is not enough water to float your boat. So you must do it on 1/2 tide when the channel is still visible and there is enough depth to get your boat up.
Earlier in the day I went to a nearby wood and cut about a dozen Hazel branches of about 10/12 feet length. The Hazel limbs grow quite straight. At one end I hewed a point for sticking in the mud and at the top end I attached some red cloth, so they would look like a flag pole with a red bunting.
Wednesday 20th August, 7pm
With my friend Billy Kelleher we launch a 3 man Indian canoe, enough room for 2 of us and my flagpoles. We paddle upstream sticking our poles in the mud at any point where the channel turned or where it would still be visible from the last one. In about an hour we were up and back, got the markings done and confident that I wasn’t going home by helicopter tomorrow.
Thursday 21st August, 2:30pm
Arriving at Crosshaven pier with my crewman, Tom, who has done a couple of circumnavigations of the North Atlantic with me in our days in square rig, we find Billy Kelleher waiting with his RIB. Besides being an expert boat-handler, Billy is experienced in tending to open-water swimmers having acted as safety- boat for several previous events. I am especially aware that I will need 2 capable crew who will be able to haul me into the boat if required.
We motor around to Fountainstown and the slowly go up the channel to the Dam. Some of our markers are missing and the strong wind the night before must have knocked them over. However, the remaining ones should be sufficient. We sit at the steps of the Dam waiting for the ebb tide to start flowing out. We judge it by watching the water level on a step, drinking hot-chocolate and remaining well clothed. After about half an hour we all agree it has dropped an inch or so. I quickly change into togs and we are off. Incidentally the ebb has started about 45 mins before High Water Cobh. Tides in river areas always need local knowledge. The 6 hours in 6 hours out cycles do not apply. Swimming with the boat in front and the markers visible I still touch bottom with my hands occasionally. I swim as fast as I can (which isn’t fast at all) just to get clear of the mud. After about half an hour I start getting the tide and get a good push as we go along by the Ringabella woods. Now it’s enjoyable.
Finally out to sea and I am still getting a push from the tide, stronger than I expected, maybe half a knot. The wind forecast is westerly force 6 but so far I am in the lee of the land. About halfway from Ringabella point to the Cove I come around a point and the westerly 6 is straight up my nose. To make matters worse it’s wind against tide and a steep short sea slaps me straight in the face. I’m breast stroking and swallowing a lot of water. Bang, Bang, Spew! The lads in the boat are giving me drinks every 20 mins and I eventually take two Nurofen plus as my neck is killing me. I later find out that I have a disc out. After 2hrs 35mins we arrive in Roberts Cove.
Tired but happy we head for home…..with a deserved detour via Cronins Bar and Lounge. Not so much to celebrate as to take fuel and liquid sunshine from a glass!