Ned Denison completed the first ever swim around the island of Cork City (Ireland) on Monday 3rd June 2019, during the Cork Harbour Festival. This swim in the River Lee of 7k (previously reported as 8k) was completed in 2 hours and 25 minutes.
Here is his story….
Recent History of Swimming in the heart of Cork City in the River Lee:
Swimming restarted in a serious way in 2005 with the re-launching of the historic Lee Swim – sponsored by ‘Vibes and Scribes’, a local business. This annual 2k swim grew from 100 to approximately 400 swimmers. The course is shown on the map (end) going 1,700 meters downstream in the North Channel and 300 meters upstream in the South Channel. Other swims include Cork to Cobh (16k down the river) and more recently “The Rebel Plunge” from the eastern tip of the city 4k down to Blackrock.
I started talking about and planning an Around Cork City swim more than 10 years ago after hearing that Meitheal Mara (Cork’s Community Boatyard) had proven a kayak route around the city. I thought if they can kayak it – then maybe I can swim it!?! The major flood in 2009 kind of took it off the radar for a few years.
The 2009 Planning:
The thought came back to me (for some unknown reason) and the planning restarted. You should all be so lucky to have a friend like Kieran O’Sullivan (English Channel relayer and rower). He is the guy you call and ask: “Do you have any plans at 3am – fancy crewing?” This time I gave him 24 hours notice (on the request) and he met my partner Catherine Fravalo and me at the western tip of the City – where the River Lee splits into the North and South Channels. We walked the river at mid-tide and took note of the “dangerous drops over 5 weirs” on the South Channel and the ugly looking gravel bed forming the last weir on the North Channel.
I contacted Meitheal Mara to see if they still sold the kayaking plans and they introduced me to Jack O’Keeffe – who has done the CORKumnavigation (as Meitheal Mara calls it) many times. Not only did Jack know the river but threw himself into “adjusting” my bad plan and was clearly going to be receptive to a future invitation to kayak!
We agreed on the 3rd June tide on bank holiday Monday. This happened to be during the annual Harbour Festival and Joya Kuin from the festival helped with permissions from the Port of Cork. She added the adventure as an independent event to their publicity and then there was no turning back!
The plan was to swim with the flow down the South Channel – near high water to clear the 5 weirs on that channel. The highest one needs 3.9 meters of tidal water to “cover”. At low water the weirs would simply be too dangerous. High water causes a problem with bridge clearance – some with so little clearance the kayakers can’t get under and a swimmer would struggle as well. Then coming up the North Channel – I would battle the first hour of the outgoing tide – but usually only 10% of the river flow comes into this channel. I then needed 3.3 meters of tidal water to “cover” the last 2 weirs I was going to have to conquer against the flow.
I would therefore call this a “technical” swim !
Jack arranged the kayak cover – at high water kayakers can’t get under several of the bridges. So, it was going to be a kayak relay with Jack leading off…then dragging his kayak across the city streets to finish the last section. Catherine and Kieran were in and joined by the best of the local open water swimmers. At various times (English Channel solo swimmers Rob Bohane, Liam Maher, Lisa Cummins, Eddie Irwin and Bernard Lynch plus Audrey, Brenda, Holly, Adrian and others) – as land based volunteers.
I was thinking 8k – with a great push to start and going up a pretty calm North Channel in less than 2 hours. What could possibly go wrong?!?
Like a Shot:
Well swimming downstream with a BIG current up your backside is always fun. I needed to lift my head every 10 strokes of so to keep in the middle of the channel. There was one tree blocking the centre span of a bridge, and another tree in the middle of the river and a length of lumber (with a nail I clobbered). It was cold but warmer than the sea – call it 12C/54F and water quality was fine. The Lee is “peaty” so there isn’t a lot of visibility in the water. I could see friends on the banks and they smiled as they raced on bikes to keep up with me! I didn’t feel the weirs as I passed over them.
Video 1: The flow to start https://www.facebook.com/carol.cashell/videos/10218286708215594/
It gets Tight:
About 3k down the South Channel I looked up to see my friends standing on the water in front of me. Well technically they were standing on the Trinity Foot Bridge… but they wasn’t a lot of distance between their feet and the water and there was no air between the bridge and the water. I thought of the 70 meters of clearance for the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson and part of the swim so “poor” around Manhattan that they could afford only 20 bridges (!)
I lost Jack at this point and I could imagine him dragging his kayak across the city streets. Fabian Murphy appeared in a kayak. The next bridge was tight but there was a gap.
Clontarf Bridge was next, and my head was grazing the steel beams. For the low bridges my left arm stroke was ok, but I needed to flatten my right arm strokes. Then tight under the Eamon de Valera Bridge and a surge to the end of Cork City. It was 3.5k in about 30 minutes. I didn’t know the time, but I counted the number of right arm strokes and it took just a bit longer than a lap of the 1.8k Sandycove Island. There were other kayakers about, but I didn’t know their names and was focusing on the swimming.
Around the Bend:
I had been around the end of Cork City 15 times as part of the Lee Swim trial and races – but never in this direction. It was seriously cool, and I headed up the middle of the North Channel to the small gap under the Michael Collins Bridge. Then to the even smaller gap under the Brian Boru Bridge. I think Rob was holding his yellow jacket above the gap – so I could spot it. He yelled at me to go the right wall where there was less current. Until that point I thought I was still flying (clearly not)! Right on the wall I would see every crack and bit of moss slowly get passed. Rob tossed me a bottle for a fast drink. Back to the middle of the channel to get under the low Christy Ring Bridge. Then I was sent to the left wall by Jack who had re-joined.
That section of wall took forever. Funnily I knew that I was passing the sponsor of the Lee Swim ‘Vibes and Scribes’ and made a note to give out to Joan (the owner) later! I had serious thoughts at this point if I was going to make it. 5k into the swim and creeping along the wall in one of the deepest and widest (44 meters) sections of the river.
Video 2 – You can see the adverse current and scant progress along the wall
I knew the outgoing tide (against me) was increasing and I was approaching the narrower/shallower stretch (with a stronger current against me). Rob and Eddie confessed that they were discussing my lessening chances. I was happy to pass the start location for the Lee Swim – but it was back in unfamiliar waters. Jack sent me to the right back and it was swimming in the shallows under the overhanging branches.
The banks of this part of the river are wild with almost no buildings. Jack sent me to the left bank. I never questioned his judgement as he knew the river and the currents.
I got over the Distillery Weir with just a bit of trouble. Rob offered me the feed bottle again, I declined, and he then ordered me. It is that kind of relationship – he was right!
Everything changed at the Sunday’s Well Weir. I could feel the strong flow underneath me and I feared the worst. Thoughts of failing were back – in a big way. I had seen the weir months earlier and at lower water and it was kind of small boulders you would expect salmon to struggle getting over. Jack sent me to the right bank – I am sure I was going down stream as I swam across. It took a hard 200 strokes headed upriver to clear the weir and I was feeling good again. Eoin Lowry said he spotted an otter at that point – but I was too busy to be looking.
Fragrant, Frantic and Fraught:
The next stretch was very unusual. I swam tight to the right bank past (through?) 500 meters of flowers hanging over the bank. My sense of smell is pretty poor, but the scent was unbelievably strong. It made the meters pass with my mind occupied.
I couldn’t have named any the other bridges, but I sure knew I was coming up the LAST (Thomas Davis Bridge). I was pretty much scraping the right wall and it took a big 90 second sprint to clear it. Now I could see the waterfall ahead – and I knew it was the end. I also knew that there was not a waterfall when I had first arrived. This meant that instead of 10% of the flow going down the North Channel I had enjoyed(!) probably 30% and I had one last stretch. Jack took me to the left bank (my sixth and last cross-over), I could see the gang above the river at the start point. The water was gushing (my first proper big swallow at this point) and I was sprinting through and over the rocks and sticks. I slapped a rock at the end and relaxed.
As I shot back I asked Jack where I was getting out. It was back downstream to a muddy crack in the vegetation. It took two guys to pull me out.
There was a big group there at the end. I was shivering but was able to douse with soapy water and then fresh water. I think I got my speedos off (unassisted) and boxers on. I needed support to get on jeans and needed help to sit and get socks and shoes on. It again took 2 guys to pull me up….then thanks all around and off to the pub.
It takes a team to pull these things off. Special thanks to Jack and the kayakers, the land based crew and Joya and the Port for allowing me to swim.
I doubt that it will be a mass participation swim in the future! Hints for the next swimmer – and the overall organiser who should not be the swimmer!
Study the river flows and dam releases – make sure you advance checks are related to similar flows. Negotiate with the dam to moderate. As you can see below my timing was “eventful”. The extra meter of water contributed greatly to the overflow of the River Split Weir (which is noted “Weir covers only during a flood”) – that made the North Channel especially difficult. In fact it would have been difficult to find more challenging conditions!
I started a few minutes before high water (4.33 meters) in Cork City. Perhaps start 30 to 60 minutes before this level of high water (check the South Channel weirs over the previous months to make sure they are well under on a similar tide)
Don’t go in June – it will be much warmer in July/August/September. 12C is cold when your confidence takes a hit!
Trial the parts of the river away from the commercial port area. This will remove some uncertainty. Practice the Gillabbey Weir, Trinity Foot Bridge, Sunday’s Well Weir and Thomas Davis Bridge.
Bring a sharp nail and carve your name next to mine in the concrete on the underside of Parnell Bridge.