Ned’s favourite stories (some 100% true and others not):
You just have to love volunteer crew: hours, days and sometimes couple of weeks in Dover supporting marathon swimmers. It isn’t skill one is born with so we try and train them – but sometimes first instinct take over.
Robert Bohane was seeking to be the first swimmer to complete the Skellig Swim. The night before the swim Robert and I met with the six other crew members from the two safety boats. With all the normal safety, feeding, motivation topics covered I gave my last instructions: “If you see anything in the water around or in front of Robert – stay calm. Let me know but do not yell and point, it can frighten the swimmer more than anything. That little shark you might see will be Jaws if Robert sees us all going crazy.”
Halfway through the swim all was going to plan – even better. Then within seconds his success was threatened as my six crew companions started pointing and yelling “sunfish”. These odd fish have a fin that most sharks would die for! We got everybody calmed down and after a while Robert even stopped doing head up crawl!
THE NIPPY SEAL
I heard the rumour about a seal bit in Sandycove. One of our more mature swimmers confirmed the bite and showed me his leg. The size of a good dog bite – it brought out all my fears of the ocean. All the concern went away when it was suggested that the swimmer had deserved it by using Lynx spray (the stuff teenage boy used to draw on the girls). After that comment – no more issues with seals.
YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO OLD TO BE EMBARRASSED BY YOUR MOTHER
The young swimmer had completed a gruelling English Channel solo swim. Violently ill at 5, 10 and 15 hours – he stuck it out walked ashore. The next night took the swimmer, crew and very proud mother to The White Horse Pub in Dover to add his name to the wall. A lady slipped in quietly, offered her congratulations and nearly escaped – until the proud mother caught her arm.
Mother: “My son swam the channel!”
Lady: “I know, I just congratulated him you must be very proud.”
Mother: “I am. Do you do any swimming yourself?”
Lady: “A bit”
Mother: “Do you think about swimming the channel yourself?”
Mother sizing her up: “I don’t know Dear sometimes best to just dream.”
Son just catching the last of the conversation: “Mommmmmmmm”
Lady (finger to lips to indicate silence): “Congratulations again – your Mom is so proud of you.”
With that Alison Streeter, MBE, Queen of the English Channel with 43 crossings including one triple crossing quietly slipped away.
HEY, SHIT HAPPENS
The day before the big Lee Swim – the weather looked bad. While rain is always on the Cork weather forecast – you knew it was coming. Some heavy rain fell in the morning but it cleared for the registration (finish line) briefing. The long trail of swimmers started to slow towards the end of the one mile walk to the start. The rain swept the streets clean on Patrick’s Hill and it overwhelmed the main drainage line near the starting platform – and it failed (as designed) to release into the river. Your imagination took over and it only took one person to ask: “was that a nappy” for the serious doubts to rise.
We had 300 nervous swimmers in a big garage for the briefing as I consulted with the race committee. I stood up and delivered my pitch: “Welcome, you will all have noticed that the rain overwhelmed the drain. This is surface run off, not waste. Water quality is based on parts per million and there is another ten foot of tide just coming in – so plenty of dilution. You all need to make your own decisions, but myself and the rest of the committee as swimming and we hope you join us.” There followed a silence of seconds – which seemed to me to be hours when Niamh Fitzgibbons yelled: “Hey Shit Happens”. The place broke up in laughter and all but three started the swim.
CORNER TWO – LOCAL ADVANTAGE
I kept to the inside of the swimmer from Dublin in the race around the Island. Gained a few meters when I “shot” the gap on corner one – but he nearly caught me by corner two. With the tide rapidly ebbing and the sloping rock shelf bared between the each unpredictable wave surge. I glanced over my right shoulder, hoped I saw a surge and cut ninety degrees left. Belly sucked in, butt clenched and arms putting to the side – I cleared it with little to spare. The Dublin swimmer went far wide and I forgot about it until the party. It seems he asked the safety crew: “How the hell did that old man get across that rock at corner two?” With a straight face (at 2 am mind you) the reply came back: “He took a mouthful of water before turning and as the water dropped he spat it out and swam through it.”
GOTTA LOVE AN AMERICAN ACCENT
I organised a (first ever) swim from Oysterhaven to Sandycove. At the last minute the safety boat cancelled so I ended up piloting not swimming (and not happy!). The conditions proved terrible: messy seas, a bit of fog, cold and rainy. Others were up front with a kayak and Owen trailing swimming next to the boat. Out of the mist came the sailboat regatta – all rubber necking a 14 year old miserably swimming. Finally somebody yelled over: “Where is he swimming from?” In my best American accent I yelled over “Yogal”. It took the expected five seconds while they translated that into Youghal which is actually pronounced “Yawl”. The draws dropped and I think they missed the turn. I can still imagine them in the yacht club bar talking about the kid who swam 60k down the coast.
RAY’S SWIM GUESTS
When Ray was training for his 2007 channel solo, he did several swims from the Speckled Door to Sandycove. At the best of times this is a scary 5k swim with cliffs and nasty reefs keeping you well off the coast. It seems Ray was swimming along when three dolphins surfaced next to him to take a breath (and maybe say hello). I caught up with Ray a few days later and he was still moved by the experience. Now maybe as the years have passed Ray has come to see it as a special occurrence – getting close to nature. But at the time, these big bodies all of a sudden “joining him” scared him to his core – and then a bit further!
We all know about the epic Fastnet sail boat race and its deadly history. Two local swimmers, John Kearney and Stephen Redmond, claim the only solo swims while the rest of us just dream. An “Around Fastnet” swim seemed near impossible – between currents, distance and nasty seas normally.
Stephen wanted this swim very badly and we knew that a window of favourable weather and current were approaching. One complication emerged – the racing fleet was hurtling westward as well.
Just as it was getting dark one night, the news reported that the race leader, George David’s Rambler 100 flipped. Well Stephen did complete his “Around Fastnet” swim from Baltimore to Schull in the window. One of his mates told me (after we knew all the sailors were safe): “The yacht tried to take the inside line on Stephen as he neared Fastnet so he leaned into them and threw a bit of an elbow. I am sure he only meant to slow them down.”
NIALL IN THE CHANNEL (BY JO – NOW HIS WIFE): THE BEST LINE EVER !!
By 14 hours we were less than a mile from shore but the tide had turned and was pulling us up the coast toward Calais. He was jaded, calling us names and although he never asked to get out I know he was close to wanting to give up. His stroke had deteriorated and he was swallowing a lot of water. Essentially he was slowly drowning. We kept telling him how close he was to shore but because of the currents it was so hard to get in to land. I don’t think he believed us anymore.
I was in bits watching this. At the time I likened it to a first time father at the birth. You see the person you love exhausted and in extreme pain and there is nothing you can do to make it easier. I had to be strong for him but when he swam off from the boat I just wanted to cry. We could see the French coast but getting into shore was a long battle. By 15 hours he was completely spent. I’m sure simply breathing out was giving him more forward propulsion than anything he was doing with his arms. We likened it to a doggy paddle but in reality it was more poodle paddle than great dane. Only guts and determination would get him to France now.
By now we were in only 2 meters of water but progress was painfully slow. The support swimmer got back into with him for the final push to shore. It was horrendous. It took 3 hours 42 minutes to cover less than a mile but eventually after 15 hours 42 minutes in the water, Niall climbed up a French beach.
When you are that cold and tired, your brain function slows completely. All he could focus on was “clear the water line”. If you don’t clear the water, you are disqualified. He kept crawling up the dunes and had to be called back repeatedly. I was bawling on the boat and the independent observer had to come and give me a hug to stop me crying. The final indignity having to swim back out to the boat! Having said that, Dave and his crew did maneuver the boat into water only 1 meter deep – no mean feat in waters that contained WW2 wrecks!
Once on board, we had to get Niall dry and warm. Hypothermia is scary the first time you see it. His extremities were blue, he couldn’t talk or stand and couldn’t understand what we were saying to him. Eventually he started to shiver violently and went gray, which is actually a good sign (he was also violently sick but at that stage he didn’t need any more energy so we were happy enough to let him puke). By the time we got back to Dover he was looking much better but still very cold.
I’ve never had much interest in swimming the channel. Hypothermia doesn’t appeal to me. It’s a lonely day out there. Crewing it has completely put me off the idea. It’s a terrible mental ride from England to France. Give me hard physical pain over that kind of mental anguish any day. Niall has received many messages of congratulations on this huge achievement, but was quickly brought back down to earth by his 12 year old son who reminded him that swimming the English Channel is equivalent of only 2000 laps of the local pool – simple!
After the swim, as Niall warmed up and was able to talk, one of the first things he said was “Do you know, only 3 people have both swum the channel and climbed Everest”. I’m not laying money against that being his next challenge!
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? THROW A COKE BOTTLE INTO THE SEA IN DOVER AND EVEN IT WILL GET TO FRANCE EVENTUALLY
THAT SHUT THEM UP – FOR A WHILE ANYWAYS
We have a great relationship with the Triathletes. We honour an Ironman in the same category as a channel solo and both groups politely listen to the other’s stories. Well, ok there are the odd good natured comments about the €5,000 bike and the extra pounds on the swimmers.
A few of the Ironmen cycled down during our distance week. I think they had cycled 50 miles (or so they said – but you always wonder if their cars are around the corner!!). They said hello to a few friends and then I introduced them to Dan “Atlantic” Martin. Dan needed the extra sea time as he was preparing to swim from New York to France. The Ironmen were just partially impressed. Then he dropped the bomb: “…then I’ll cycle to Siberia and run back to New York – I call it a global Triathlon.”
The Ironmen were quiet for the rest of their stay and it was only mentioned once since. One looked up “Atlantic” Dan on the internet and said that his cycle from Korea to South Africa the previous year was pretty impressive.
YEAH A RAT CAN GO THROUGH A HOLE SMALLER THAN YOUR FINGERNAIL – BUT SO CAN OUR SWIMMERS
Our swimmers proudly wear the scratches from the rocks around Sandycove like war medals. And if there is a little blood, even better! As veterans of “the gap” at corner one, we probably entered our first Garnish Island swim with too much courage.
One-third around the island there was the smallest of gaps (maybe 2 feet across) – with a big boulders one either side: a big U. Going though the gap would save maybe 5 meters and frankly may have been faster. But a gap is a gap – even when the surge reveals bare rock every 5 seconds or so. Not a bother I found water, but unfortunately Carol was on my feet and took the same line. Another 1,000 meter forward and the gap loomed again. My brain couldn’t fathom it – we hadn’t gone far enough to circle the island. As we nearer, it was a twin, same construction but different. This time I played the otter and slithered over the bare rock as the surge vanished – still Carol on my feet. The race took us around twice so four gaps in all followed by a sprint finish to make the 5k. I had lots of scratches and a bit of blood – but Carol took the worst of it – the same rock that took a 50 cents divot out of her suit – took the skin to match. We escaped pretty well as I spied the rest of the gang bleeding as they got to their cars. Top award went to Dave Mulcahy who clearly got the worst of it.
We enjoyed a magnificent swim in the coldest February seas. The winter sun, low on the horizon, provided an emotional boost. As we enjoyed the tea and biscuits after the swim Pete Mulcahy offered: “The sun reminds me of Granny’s three bar fire. As kids we stood even in front of the light, without a single bar going, getting warm. There was as much heat coming off that winter sun as the light in Granny’s fire.”
HOW MANY POINTS FOR THE KAYAK?
Our race safety practices are good and improve yearly. Every now and then a swimmer takes a silly chance – but so far no incidents of lasting damage. Sandycove hosts beginner kayakers but I only ever saw a Canadian style canoe once. In mid-summer on a lumpy day the other opted for an inside triangle and I headed around. As a former water polo player my head position is usually high and I take far too many looks ahead. I have seen a few strange sites but I couldn’t figure out the four objects and log out in front. The sea was rough and the waves pounding on the inhospitable mini cliff on the back of the island. As I neared, it became clear – four swimmers (?) in the water and an upturned canoe.
I stopped to have a chat. Two had flotation devices and two did not and they were less than 20m from the rocks, heading in, without a plan. The old egg-beater allowed me to flip the canoe and the two without flotation devices crawled in and the other 2 hung off a trailing rope. I looped the bow line around me and did egg beater to tow them around corner one to the small beach. It was back then to complete my lap. I ran into one in a pub once who bought me a pint – but happily I never saw the canoe again.
LOOK BELOW YOU. NO REALLY LOOK BELOW YOU – FOCUS.
We started out in the dark from Ballycotton headed the 4k to Garryvoe. Owen and I were minding Carol and Ray who recently moved out of wetsuits. We enjoyed some tidal currents and a medium chop. I picked it out first and smiled – this was going to be fun. Sprinting to catch Carol’s leg I said “Look below you”. She looked and saw nothing. I told her a second time: “No really look below you – focus”. Her reaction said it all. Our swim path took us through a smack of 10,000 jellyfish. They were 10 thick below us and rising rapidly! I left her to her scream and chased down Ray. Owen figured out what was happening and was sputtering with delight. The first few times out of a wetsuit the swimmer often forgets why they wore it in the first place! Both told me afterwards that they would have preferred not to know – as if that would have changed anything!
EDDIE IS COMING AT 10
Finbarr corralled at least fifty training partners each week into keeping him company. His channel preparations came by text: six days a week average five plus hour in the sea a day. We signed up for one hour slots as in May it was freezing! I work a lot in London so I grabbed the 7 – 8 am Sunday slot. I knew it would not be a popular slot. Finn was loading up his plastic box with carbo drinks and snacks for the day and getting ready to swim it over to the island. He asked “Do you want to throw a bottle or two in?” I replied: “No”. With a straight face he said: “Eddie is coming at 10”. My duty was clear but unappealing – if I got out Finn couldn’t train. So I added a bottle and off we went. Now Eddie is never very early – but I was very happy to see his car come over the rise that morning.