I’m back down to earth with a bang after the lofty heights of climbing Europe’s highest mountain and it’s a case of back to work and back to losing weight. I always like a challenge though to give weight loss some meaning; and last year I found myself wondering if I’d ever manage to take part in the Liffey Swim, Dublin’s annual and celebrated river race that was first held in 1920. You don’t just trot up and ‘swim the Liffey’ – you need to qualify and swim in 4 open sea races to get even close to the start line, not to mind the finish. So touching down at Dublin Airport, I gave a quick call to super-swimmer and hero of mine, Fergal Somerville, to see what I’d need to do. Two days later I’m taking part in my first ever open sea race, at Low Rock in Malahide. “It’ll be easy” he said, “a nice opener”. An hour later, as I dragged myself ashore I made a mental note to box him the next time I saw him. But I don’t hold a grudge for long, so when I heard about Fergal’s brilliant swim around Inish Meáin, I rang him again, to invite him to join us, as this month’s Guest Blogger. Fergal’s blog is brilliant and it gives a real insight into long-distance swimming and the head games that nature and endurance-sport present to even the most seasoned athlete. Read on…..
Fergal Somerville Swims Inis Meáin
Fergal: At 12:45 on Saturday 2nd August we met on the new pier to discuss the plan for the big swim; the first attempt to swim aound Inis Meáin. The crew was made up of pilot Michael Concannon, Martín Duggan, Michil Faherty, Michael Gartland and Conor Somerville. Also along for the duration was cameraman Des Carolan. This swim had been in the back of my mind for a long time; several years, many of the sixteen years I have been visiting beautiful Inis Meáin on the first two weeks of August.
When you don’t know what you’re talking about you should at least know enough to keep your big fool trap shut
The group gathered together for the briefing. Details on the swim had been circulated during the week with tides and weather forecast for the days up to and including the swim. I produced an A4 sized map of the island and explained that we would set off to the East and swim clockwise around the island for between five and six hours. I expected to take advantage of the outgoing tide in the initial phase, use the slack water to get across the back of the island that is exposed to the Atlantic and reap the harvest of the incoming tide on the way back to the pier. When you don’t know what you’re talking about you should at least know enough to keep your big fool trap shut. Michil told us how this was neither likely nor even possible. The northwestly breeze was picking up and likely to strengthen over the course of the day. The only way to do the swim ‘on the day that was in it’ was to go on the reverse course of west initially and anti-clockwise around the island;
going into the wind on the first quarter of the swim but still gaining an advantage of the outgoing tide. In the second quarter the northwesterly wind would push us down along the island; and as we crossed the south of the island to come up alongside Inis Oirr, we would have shelter from the wind and the push of the incoming tide. We would, however, be faced with a strengthened northwestly wind that would prove to be the biggest challenge to the swimmer but one that would possibly be met from the southeast direction rather than the southwest, as I had originally planned.
There I am after my briefing, with my strategy for a successful swim completely upended in an instant. The only thing to do was to be grateful for the local expertise and the insight that would ultimately lead to a more successful outcome. We discussed roles for everybody and the RNLI and Coastguard were contacted with confirmation that the planned swim was about to commence. We had two boats; one cabined for the comfort of the pilot and cameraman and Conor for feeding the swimmer; another, a currach, piloted by Michil and carrying Duggan and Michael.
Wishes, Kisses and Lumpy Swells
A small crowd of well-wishers gathered at the pier to watch the start of the swim. Most important of all was Mags was there with the big gooser and God speed. The wind was blowing; the sea was grumbling. This was not the best weather for a swim. Nonetheless, the sun was shining; a tough swim of around six hours lay ahead.
At 1:09 I got the requisite gooser and after signalling the crew on the two support boats I jumped from the pier into the beautiful clear water of Inis Meáin. I surfaced and headed out beyond the breakwater wall. I turned west to start the swim and immediately felt the swell caused by the wind. Tarlach deBlacam and help were alongside in a RIB. I could see our own boats and I glanced toward the Island and set off down the Sound. From the outset, the waves rolled me from side to side interrupting my pace; stroke, breathing and scrambling my sense of direction. The wind was pushing me backwards. The sea was so lumpy I regularly lost sight of the boats. Occasionally the currach approached me and Michael pointed the direction I should have been going in. I knew I was meandering down the channel. I lost sight of the boats so often. I was watching the waves because I was missing breaths every couple of strokes. I was unable to get a fix on the cliffs on either side of the gap between both islands. All I could do was look at the sky when Michael appeared on one occasion to see the cloud structure and take my bearing from that. This was not good and was not going to get better for quite some time. People often ask how a swimmer can go for so long; it takes, on average, 14 hours to swim the English Channel. If you get a good day you swim forever. It’s like riding a bike on a Summer’s day on an undulating course in warm sunshine. Keep the cyclist tanked up on energy and he will go from sunrise to sunset. Marathon swimming is very much mind over matter. If you get really good conditions you can swim and swim and swim. If you get rough conditions you can get exhausted in a very short time. The conditions on the initial part of the swim were exactly as Michil had predicted; windy and lumpy (as sea swimmers describe the swell).
We trudged on; the boat calling me in every half hour for a feed and the currach staying close by at all times. After 1½ hours we passed a famous Inis Meáin landmark, Synge’s Chair. John Millington Synge, one of Ireland’s most famous writers, had a spot on top of the island where he formulated his stories, mostly of island life and ways. I wondered what would he have made of a swimmer attempting to swim around the island. On a marathon swim you get to wonder a lot.
An ‘Extreme’ Swim for Setanta TV
The rough sea caused my Eastern Bay Swim Team hat to rise up on my head and every twenty or so minutes I struggled to pull it back into place. After a number of adjustments; each of which could take up to half a minute, I started to get cramp in my leg. I had to stop the adjustments and I gave it back to Michael to mind. At 2½ hours we were at the southernmost part of the island. The wind had abated in the preceding hour and now the cliffs were offering shelter. I put on the GoPro head camera to get a few minutes of shots for the film crew. The swim was being filmed for a documentary by Athena Media and the BAI. ‘Extreme’, which will be broadcast on Setanta TV early next year, is about Irish athletes who push themselves beyond what are perceived to be ‘normal’ physical and psychological barriers, to see what they can achieve.
I was in relatively calm water and flying now. I rounded the corner and could see Inis Oirr on my right. I was swimming strongly and the tide was returning to Galway Bay from the Atlantic; pushing me forward. I stopped for a feed and Conor told me that Mags (the Ambassador’s wife) was on the old pier that faces Inis Oirr. He said I was to wave as I passed. I said I wasn’t waving first this time as I had waved first the last time. We laughed and as I turned to resume the swim I glanced at Des and Michael and wondered if they were, yet, in tune with the Somerville wit.
I passed the old pier and cruised past Trá Leitreach. I was making great progress as I rounded the corner to come up along the Ceann Gainneamh Beach; a beautiful half-moon paradise that faces east and is one of God’s best kept secrets. I have always marvelled at arriving on this beach and there being so few there to enjoy its glorious environment. I could no longer see Inis Oirr.
As I swam on I noticed that I could no longer see Black Head on the Clare coast. A quarter of the distance left, however now I was heading northwest. The wind that Michil had promised awaited and I was out of the shelter that the island had provided for the previous hour or more. The wind was stronger, as promised. Progress slowed and became frustratingly harder. This was going to be the real challenge on the swim. On Michil’s advice I moved in as close to the shore as I could . Also, this let me see the sandy seafloor and confirm that progress was painstakingly slow, but it was progress nonetheless. Each stroke now was hard work and the work was about to get harder. I knew that the wind would return and would be even more difficult than earlier in the day.
The real problem was that Galway Bay was being filled from the Atlantic tide that funnels into the bay between the land masses of the three Aran Island (Inis Oirr, Meáin and Mór). The pace of the fill depends on the size of the tide. We were on a neap tide of approximately three metres. The tide that pushed me up between Inis Meáin and Inis Oirr was being met by the tide that enters between Inis Meáin and Inismór. This tide was coming round to add to the northwesterly wind to add to my struggle. At one stage I was too close to the beach and the waves were breaking on top of me. I had to move further out. I was frustrated every time I looked up to assess progress. I did what I have always done to counteract such frustration; I stopped looking at where I aiming for and just looked at the nose of the currach. For a few minutes I was puzzled by an orange triangle I noticed to the north. After a few minutes I recognised it as the Inismór Lifeboat; a serious piece of kit that gets called on 24/7/365 and contains a crew that is willing on every occasion to risk life and limb to save other lives. This is an inspiration; a purely unselfish act that most lifeboat crews don’t even think about; but something for which everybody is truly indebted. This lifeboat is regularly put to service in emergencies. I was swimming to raise funds for this service. I am very proud that my first solo swim in 2010 raised substantial funds for this lifeboat. I had no decision to make when deciding which charity to do this year’s swim for.
the feckers got me on the ears, face, lips and neck so many times
I fed on my regular half hour feed; an energy drink and put the head down to charge forward. I was determined I was going to make it. I had had a number of negative moments throughout this swim; these happen in every long distance swim. I was still only crawling up along the Ceann Gainneamh and though there was only a short distance to go, I was seriously struggling. The wind and tide were against me. The sea was kicking up a swell and I was tiring. There were absolutely thousands of baby jellyfish in this stretch of water. Tiny and tingly. Most stings didn’t bother me, but the feckers got me on the ears, face, lips and neck so many times; and every now and again I got a painful sting that made me wince. Just another part of the challenge. I had avoided the jellyfish in the previous year’s North Channel Swim. I was due jellyfish. I was called for my last feed by Conor but I waved it away. If I stopped I would be pushed back over the sand and that would have had an adverse effect on me. On my preceding feeding I had asked for a gel to be added to the drink. This was going to have to do me.
I noticed Tarlach had returned in his RIB to see the final part of the swim. He had piloted the successful 2010 swim. I remember the celebrations on the night of 11 August 2010. He told the crew of a visiting yacht that I had swam across to Rosaveel from Inis Meáin in 6½ hours beause I just wouldn’t give up. A bit of ‘Vuja Dé’ as I call it. Almost unexpectedly the sand turned to seaweed.
Seaweed clings to rocks. I knew I was on the outer wall of the pier. I looked to the left and could see a crowd gathered along the wall of the pier. I was less than 200 metres from the finish. I was determined to round the entrance of the pier and touch the wall; at the same spot from where I had started. I didn’t notice that Michael’s boat had gone ahead into the harbour. I was busy. I was sprinting to the finish. I knew I was going to make it. I got in under the cover of the breakwater and glanced to the right to see the extent of the swell that I was leaving behind. I pushed on. I was too close to the wall. I moved out a little and looked up to see the corner of the pier a mere 20 metres away. I put the head down for one final push and threw one arm after the other in the mantra of the two sons’ names that I had used successfully before to race into the harbour and three, four, five, six seven more strokes and I touched the wall and pushed the button on my stopwatch; four hours and fifty-five minutes; even though the conditions had been very trying I hadn’t envisaged breaking five hours for this swim. I thought back to the moment on the pier when my thoroughly researched plan had been discarded in a moment by Michil’s insight and was very thankful that, when I didn’t know what I was talking about, I knew enough to keep my big fool trap shut. (Michil was part of the 2010 team and has been meaning to change his phone number ever since).
I could hear the cheering from above on the pier. I was done; exhausted and, at the same time, elated. I looked out the harbour and the lifeboat was bobbing up and down; still watchful and protecting. I waved to the crew on the lifeboat and looked around for Michaeal’s boat and the currach. I couldn’t see them. I grabbed hold of the ladder and climbed up. At the top of the pier I jumped clear of the ladder and grabbed Mags. A welcome back gooser and all is well. A glance into the harbour and there is the rest of today’s team waving and smiling. Conor and Des are on the pier. No pain, no aches, no tiredness; well none that I could care about. This is Inis Meáin and Inis Meáin appreciates the lifeboats. This swim acknowledges their effort and dedication in a small way. Marathon swimming is a test of strength, physical, mental and emotional. It is, in many ways, an ego trip; I set a challenge and see if I can reach the goal. If I can’t make it I have a support crew next to me to complete an unfinished swim and get me safely back to land. The lifeboats risk life and limb every time
they set out.
Open water and long distance swimmer, Fergal Somerville successfully swam the English Channel on September 23rd 2011 and the North Channel on June 16th 2013. He is also a certified ice swimmer, completing a sanctioned ‘Ice Mile’ under the auspices of the International Ice Swimming Association; and was later appointed its Irish Ambassador. Fergal is a member of the Eastern Bay Swim Team in Dublin and swims all year round at High Rock in Malahide. http://fergalsomerville.blogspot.ie/