Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Round Ireland Swim- 830 miles, One team, 56 days, 35 swim days-one amazing adventure.

"They say that the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest and the most urgent" 
(DH Lawrence) 
(Derek Flanagan-Marine Co ordinator) 




The Round Ireland Swim-swimming around the Island -the 20th largest island in the world and mostly an unprecedented swim of the most adventurous details-still sounds surreal. 


How simple is it to swim 4-6 hrs a day?-it was a swim of four coasts-Each coast a different challenge both in tides and exposure. 



Ten years later, closing my eyes I can still see these days-so clear.  This will always be a journey that is so difficult to batten down to words for today’s world of swimming- Our team was one of immense adventure takers-driven by passion and risk as opposed to stroke rate and structure. 
Feeding was sacrificed for tides and sleep was sacrificed for progress.  Our Team was there to find a way forward not to decide when we were done. The team became automated and institutionalised into an expedition that the reality of each day both physical and mental was lost in translation to progress and coastline. 

Pain was irrelevant and the individual emotions were boxed away to meeting the targets laid down. As swimmers we became the animals chasing their prey-that’s all I can say-the only thing coming between us and danger to ourselves was our team. After a few weeks we had completely lost the ability to identify our own physical and emotional failings. I can genuinely say I slept through swims with no memory of the time in the water. 
We were in so deep that logic was gone-The rescue team were the eyes that stopped the child before they ran across the motorway.. For that last few weeks we were all walking the white line between the cars racing by and I can say that now-looking back to the pain and the focus.. A step to the right or left would have changed everything. The team is the difference and they kept us on that white line. 



As the crow flies which is how a swim is measured is near 800 nautical miles, 1,330km-swimming up to 20 miles off shore, each day the Marine co-ordiantor placed 20-24 miles a day in front of us and between us that was our plan-as a team we were exposed to the power of nature.

What the Round Ireland Swim taught me what 100% is-I know what sacrifice is and mostly I know what team is? 



Background : We had been together as a team the full unit training as rescue units and swimmers for 18 months. We had intensive training weekends working 24 hrs a day with rescue units allowing us all to be in pressure situations-recovery drill of unconscious swimmers, relays, speed starts, remote locations and transfers. Swimming at 4am and training at night. The one major asset we brought to the unit was that we knew each other's strengths so well.  Trust could come quickly. 




Day 1 

plan: Swim to Downings  -about 3 hrs was the projected time
Wind : North Easterly and Tides were Neap. 
The whole rescue unit of full RIBS were available for the first few days-with Team Alpha starting the first rotation to Carlingford Lough. 
Swimmers: Anne marie Ward, Ryan Ward, Tom Watters, Ian Claxton, Nuala Moore, Leader: Henry O Donnell  Land Ops: Jim  Rescue Teams; Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta-Marine Co ordinator : Derek Flanagan- Command Boat Skipper: Brendan Proctor
Communications; Kathleen King. 
Vessels: Dive Áine, Sea Breeze, Rachel Marie and the Ábhainn Ri


Anne Marie Ward starting the Round Ireland Swim at Carrigfinn, Co Donegal

Walking into the water and saying good bye was quite surreal..The risks and the fears -the next time we swim into this beach we will be swimming in from the South-today we are swimming up to the North. I kept picturing the country. 

The first day was due to be short with only a few hrs swim to Downings Pier but the sea had another thought. The wind was NE and the tide was flowing easterly. Over the VHF I heard that Anne Marie was having a tough time coming out of the headland- Tom and Ian had 40 minute miles, Ryan, Anne Marie and I on 50 mins miles instead of 20 and 30 mins, that was 20 minutes slower per miles each! there was much confusion-what was wrong.
 Once we passed Bloody Foreland-the gigantic cliff face, my eyes drifted up and saw Kerry Flags being waved frantic- Frances Lynch jumping up and down with Ciara and Sandra and I breathed in. Tory Island in the distance-I reached into my pocket and held on tight to the keyring of Garten Clay from Annemarie’s mother. Today was real, friends and family waiting on Maharorty pier and we were already behind by 2 hrs. The air was cold-the water was huge and black and the dark clouds racing in from the Atlantic. We stayed inside Gola Island and tried to pick up some tides. Romance was stripped from us as the hours on the RIBs were sitting exposed in wet clothes. The sudden realisation that we had no cover from the wind and cold. 

For the first stretch I was on the RIB with Ryan, crewed with Kieran and Aidan. The mood on the boat was workman like and all chat was GPS co ordinates, winds, our feet sitting in water at the back of the zodiac- we were freezing wet and the thought there was no toilet was my greatest issue. We had drank all the hot liquids, all I wanted after 4 hrs at sea was a cup of tea and to talk about my day but methodically we sped off to meet up with the flotilla under Bloody Foreland, All we could do was stare in silence at each other-we convoyed into the pier. The Flags flying was so dramatic-the barage of green and gold.. the cheering the clapping, all shivering it was so hard to smile but we did.  

The jeep was parked at the top of the ladder in a space you would struggle to park a mini, lifting my body up the 30 rungs of the ladder nearly killed me-we were peeled out of our Immersion suits like peeling an onion, just to feel the sun on our wet clothes and see the steam rising from our wet bodies, Neil turned the suits inside out and threw them all on the jeep so the hot metal and sun could dry them- Between hunger and toilet we bolted to the restaurant. When we realised- Sure none of us had any money, we never factored in buying lunch-all we could salvage was an Apple Pie.. the tears and the stress as we sliced it into 5 pieces! but needs must and a pot of tea and a toilet. 

Henry walked over:
“Are you good to finish the 12 miles to Downings?" -With 812 miles to go “No” was hardly an acceptable answer so we took a few deep breathes, nodded and walked back onto the RIBs-I reached down to Ian’s hand and squeezed it. We were in a state of shock. 

The convoy travelled out 1000m past the entrance then all boats split to the way points it was emotional watching all the RIB’s disappearing onto the waves. The darkness of the sky at 5.30pm was foreboding and we were alone again.


After the second hour in the water with Noel and Aidan-it was 7.30pm. I was transferred to Ivan and Hugo boat-and Ian headed off. The insides of my bones were wet-we were wet for hours. Ivan didn't smile-They were serious putting in their GPS points. If I could have banged my head against the rocks without hurting myself I would have-and this was day one of a 2 month expedition. 
“Are you ready? “ Ivan asked 

I closed my eyes and slid over the side into the darkness. 
"Ready for what is all I could keep repeating" over and over again-
I had only covered 800 metres in 30 minutes. My eyes welled up, my breathing raspy and catching- “You’re in a battle of tides, all swimmers are fighting” was all I heard “it’s not you” and I stuck my head in the water-there is no end-the end is not today.. The ladder dropped but my arms were not able to lift myself. I was shattered-I leaned backwards into the water. 

“Give me a minute” I asked 

Two pairs of male hands reached in a grabbed me and pulled me up-there was no minute. 

No feet touched the steps of the ladder and I was planted on the floor at the back of the RIB with my towels. I decided to stay there in a heap. I didn’t want to sit up-I wanted to be in a heap. 

I didn’t take off the goggles-I didn’t dry myself, I needed to be miserable-in the last 5 hours I had a piece of apple pie and water. The United Nations couldn’t have intervened at this point. The boys stared forward and the wall of silence dropped on the RIB. There was such beauty is being allowed to have privacy for my rant on a 5m RIB. There were no answers so why ask questions? My rants were lost in the sound of the engines. 

11 hrs to swim 5 miles each, 800 miles to go. 
The swim was one thing-the day on the RIB was another. Frozen and hungry it was going to be a long 830 miles. 

Ivan turned back and said "Ryan, Tom and Ian were just finished and Anne Marie was still in the water battling outside of Downings, she will be another 30 minutes at least-she has lost all tide and is now against full flow”. It was 10pm. 


When you see the balance of struggles- it was easier to breathe. The crowds on the piers were huge, the banners-when Anne Marie and Ryan-the teams all arrived it was so emotional, their home crowd.  Food just slid down our throats- we drank the meat and veg. Walking out the door at 11.45pm we wondered how to figure out picking up food for 7am- after a quick chat Tom turned around and smiled.. “Remember no swimmer will starve in four weeks.. !!!" We raced for the garage which closed in 10 mins. 


Toilet, cold, constantly wet and food-how was this going to work ? Back into the jeep Ryan in the front with Neil, Anne Marie, Ian and I in the middle and Tom in the boot we raced to catch the garage. 

Leaving behind us the RIB’s and the crews-all the boats had to cleaned and fuelled for 9am and crews back.  Derek and Brendan peering over maps, trying to figure out what happened today-not planning tomorrow-trying to figure out today with John Joe. The last sight -we had leaving the pub, the last look back was maps covering tables and crews smiling because what else would you do. 

 The reaction of the body to the wild atlantic and nature was more than we had planned for-

In the jeep Ryan’s head was going over and back... I caught Neil’s eyes in the mirror and indicated.. Neil stopped abruptly. We all jumped up, alert.. Ryan jumped out.. there was a moment of alarm that something was wrong. Ryan jumped back in. There was a Bar of Chocolate on the windscreen going over and back with the driving. A Bar of Chocolate was the burst of sugar we needed. 

Once inside the kitchen, Tom and Anne Marie opened a bottle of wine, Ryan and I opened a block of Ice Cream and Ian started analysing his Heart Rate monitor, blood pressure and trying to figure out why his miles were 20 minutes longer than they should.. 

Words meant nothing-as we emptied our bags and gear out to dry them. Happy that we were again in Anne Marie’s kitchen tomorrow night..  Drying and washing our equipment and 5 hours later we were back in the jeep to start another day.  


Day 2 on Downings Pier we started with a briefing from Derek and Henry, The learnings of yesterday processed and put down to first day teething - Today was methodical, it was workman like, it was structured and it was nothing like yesterday. Malin Head stood strong and tall, the water was thick and green and heavy. We dug deep passing the entrance to Lough Swilly solely with the objective to get home early and have a good sleep. It was raw ocean passing the Lime Burner miles off shore. The water is much more honest the bigger and the stronger it is, it is more giving. 
Tantrums were minimal and food was good. 
The day finished at 6pm so home for 8pm. 
The challenges would be patience and trust. 

The swimming would be the easiest part-keeping ourselves together would be the challenge. 



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