“I had never swum a marathon of 10 km or more and was looking at possible training swims for my planned English Channel crossing that summer.
Back then, there were no easy-to-book marathon swims and swim camps. Today, English Channel aspirants can swim increasing longer distances in the 2-5 year run up their time, access huge amounts of online information, attend training camps, and learn from real local mentors.”
Denison had two Dublin-based mentors: English Channel swimmer Colm O’Neill and English Channel relay member Martin Cullen. He was also supported by two English Channel training partners Diarmuid O’Brien and Ronan Joyce, his car pooling partner Ciaran O’Connor, and 11 other local swimmers training for English Channel relays plus Coach Eilís Burns.
He recalled, “Instead I swam 8 km from Cape Clear Comillane to Baltimore that was seemingly never done before = but others have swum it since – and my 6-hour qualifier in the calm waters of Oysterhaven. It was poor preparation for a 36 km English Channel swim in rough seas. I failed the first attempt in July and went back 60 days later with a better crew, plan and mental awareness and completed the swim – my first epic marathon.”
He shared some history of Cork Harbour. “Main sewerage treatment came late to Cork City. The famous Lee Swim was moved in the late 1950s and early 1960s due to river pollution around the city towards Passage West and discontinued in 1987 with Mike Harris and Catherine Mahon as the last winners.
Long swims were almost unheard before 2005 with only two recorded:
After the Main Sewerage Drainage and downstream treatment came to the City in 2000-2003, the Lee Swim was trialed in 2004 and restarted in 2005.
“I knew that the tides were fierce. You could see that from shore. My general knowledge of tides was and remains pretty poor,” explained Denison about the Cobh swim research and planning. “I consulted with Eddie English, the sailing guru, and anyone else who seemed to have some ideas. There doesn’t exist a nautical chart or land map of Cobh, The Great Island and formerly Queenstown.
Nautical charts did not cover the non-commercial north side water and it was an intersection of four different Ordinance Survey maps; getting a custom map was hundreds of Irish pounds. Google’s first release of Google Earth was in 2005 – and I certainly didn’t know about it. Then I found Paddy Kavanagh, a local kayaker who had been around the island 100 or so times.”
So his planning commenced.
“I copied an A5-sized roadmap and sized the swim as 23,000 meters. Today, Google Earth tells me it is 26,000 meters. The partial nautical chart showed depths and water speeds; I assumed at mid-tide. The trick was to cheat – legal in our sport – by trying catching in the incoming tide across the Cobh and through Passage West. And if you are going to ‘cheat’, you might as well get the biggest, baddest spring tide from the tide chart – which is the largest difference between low and high water that produces the largest water speeds. But pick a weekend to better the chances of getting crew and help. So Sunday, August 13th 2006 was the date.”
At Cobh: High Water 8:59 with 4 meters of water and Low Water 15:26 with 0.2 meters of water.
“I then tried to calculate where I would be every 30 minutes – at feed intervals – along the shore. So – my average speed plus or minus the knots of tidal water speed – and yes I needed to learn what a knot of speed was.
I marked a swim path on my paper map and triple checked that I would be ok coming through East Ferry nearer the end of the swim. I needed several iterations. It took me a while – and it still has me wondering – about the tide break on the north side, that magical place where the water comes together at High Water and parts at low water.
Eventually, the plan was to time the swim to arrive at the tide break at exactly high water. This was a serious compromise which meant starting to swim with only the weakest last 2 hours of tide to assist going up and getting only the weakest 2.5 hours of tidal assist on the way back.”
The plan was set.
“I found Gary Mills of Great Island Motors with a big rib and some crew: his mate, Ciaran O’Connor who knew my swimming and crewed my English Channel, John Conroy, a general steady hand and seriously funny, and Eoin Gaffney, an English Channel solo swimmer appointed by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association to accredit the swim. The smart thing then was to convince Paddy to go around the island about a month in advance on a similar tide, at my expected swimming speed and stop every now and then and measure the water speed with a GPS gizmo in his pocket. It gave us confidence in the plan and gave a few tiny adjustments. The expected time was 4.5 hours – so you can see that the expected tide assistance was very significant.
As a caution, I told everyone to expect the plan to go to shit on the day – but at least it would let us understand how far ahead/behind we were to the original plan.
In hindsight, I suppose I should have taken a ride around the island at least once in a boat or kayak – not one of my core skills. Even from the roads there are lots of stretches on the water that remained a mystery.”
It seemed that Murphy’s Law holds true around Cobh.
“The weather and water conditions on the day started out good enough. I walked into the water from Cuskinny at 7:02 am and headed clockwise toward the city. I expected to catch the last of the incoming tide up to Belvelly Bridge and ride the outgoing tide home. The first 30 minutes went exactly to plan and I was spot on the location for my first feed. Magical sights to my right: trees to a few houses to commercial to the cathedral.
One minute later, wind against tide roughened up the water surface and even before the first hour feed I knew that I was falling behind the plan. Spirits remained high as I slogged through the textured water. The suburbs faded; I rounded the southwest corner of the island, past the Rushbrook hotel, through the dry dock. It was seriously cool – with complete faith in Paddy in his kayak ahead and past the ferry slipway. At the 2-hour feed, John leaned over with a pretty serious look and said, ‘The tide has turned and you will need to pick it up as you have probably an hour and a half into the tide to make the bridge.’
It was a bad place – about half way up Passage West – where the outgoing tide would steadily increase to 2.5 knots or 4,600 meters/hours against me. I can swim 3,900 meters/hour in a calm 25 meter pool with flip turns – so this was not a comforting message.
It was head down past the failed industrial building shells, under the railway bridge and up to Belvelly Bridge. The water was shallow and surging through the three arches. The plan has called for us to hit it at exactly high water – deepest and calm – 90 minutes earlier. My attempt thru the middle arch failed and I relaxed and shot backwards. I was thinking after 3½ hours that I had invested too much to fail now.
I wasn’t sure that there was enough water for the rib to pass through – but I couldn’t control that.
I swam closer to the Cobh side bank and took a left turn at the wall on the Cobh side – now protected from the flow. I sprinted and took a sharp right at the right arch (oh bless the early years of water polo where you need to swim and turn) – with my right arm strokes just touching the rough wall. A short while later I was past the bridge and another few hundred meters later I pasted the tide break – from fighting to riding the tide.
The northern water was still and shallow and Paddy knew the tiny channel. The landscape was like a 16th century Dutch painting – shore, trees, fields and few old buildings. It was 2 hours before we reached the north east corner of the Island – then the fun began. The 3 knot (5.5 km/hour) tide FLUNG me through East Ferry. As I shot past the boats at the marina I remember thinking that moving my arms was doing very little compared to the tidal push. Unfortunately after 30 minutes, I lost the favorable current at the south east corner of Cobh. Paddy made the decision to stay close to the shore to avoid being swept out toward the mouth of the harbor – and being unable to get back to Cobh. We hit a few back eddies and battled 90 minutes back to Cuskinny.”
Denison summarized the 7 hour 18 minute swim. “I had predicted that my 4.5-hour plan would turn to shit – just not that much. Well the first ever to do the swim – and that can never be taken away. Thanked all the crew and John, Ciaran and I headed down to a party in Clonakilty. The only luck I had was getting the maximum push for 30 minutes at East Ferry. If I were to do it again, I’d start 4 hours – not 2 hours before high water to get more of an initial tidal push, which wouldn’t turn on me after 2 hours.”
Contemporary Era in and around Cobh:
A large group of swimmers completed the first organized swim from from Spike Island to Cobh in September 2006 – and many others have completed the swim since then. The highlight was pausing to let the Grimaldi Lines ship pass. This helped prepare some of the 93 Irish swimmers who took on Alcatraz on October 2nd 2006.
These two swims plus a previous Robben Island escape established local swimmers Steven Black, Joe Donnelly and Mike Harris as the first to complete the Triple Break bucket list. Many others have joined them since.
In 2007 the 13 km Blackrock Village to Cobh – previously run in 1973 was held again with Rob Bohane, Donal Buckley, Ciaran Byrne, John Conroy (wetsuit), Ned Denison, Sally Goble, Niall MacCarthy (wetsuit), Nick Mulcahy (wetsuit), Niall O’Crualaoich (wetsuit), Ossi Schmidt (wetsuit) and Noel Whitty participating.
Other pioneering swims in the general area included the following:
2008 Around Spike Island from Cobh 5.3 km: Danny Walsh (twice wetsuit), Ossi Schmidt (wetsuit), Finbarr Hedderman and Niall O’Crualaoich (wetsuit)
2009 Cork City to Monkstown 12.8 km: Ned Denison
2009 Cork City to Myrtleville 25 km: Owen O’Keefe
2009 Cork to Cobh: John Downes, Tadhg Harrington, Ciaran Byrne, Fergal Somerville, Linda Clarke and Ned Denison. In wetsuits, Nicole Clancy, Vince Harrington, Karen McEvoy, Fergus Galvin, Bernard Lynch, Alan McGuinness, David Merriman, Páraic Casey, Eilis Wilcox, Liam Maher, Billy Horgan and Eddie Irwin. More than 50 more completed this swim and it motivated many to later take on the English Channel and other major marathons.
2007 Crosshaven to Blackrock Village 18 km: Ray Terry, then in 2008 Owen O’Keefe
2013 Myrtleville to Monkstown 10 km – Keeping Spike to the right: Orlando Hill (wetsuit), then in 2015 Carmel Collins and Orlando Hill
2017 Fountainstown to Spike Island 11 km: Owen O’Keefe
2017 Camden Fort – Around Spike Island and back 8 km: Gary Frost and in wetsuits: Ian Heffernan, Maeve O’Connor and Ger Venner
2017 Ballincurra to the pilot station in Cobh 12 km: Gary Frost and in wetsuits Maeve O’Connor and Ger Venner
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