The greatest of all channel swimming camps got underway today. I had hoped to be there but sadly work commitments meant that I could not make it this year. However, I was at Cork last year and I recently wrote an article for Outdoor Swimmer about the experience.
Sandycove – a small, grassy, and windswept island just off the south coast of Ireland – is easy to miss. It’s only two hundred metres from shore, and is nestled in the western entrance to Kinsale harbour in County Cork. Until not so long ago the island was known mainly for its resident flock of feral white goats, but one day in 1995 a man visiting from Dublin decided to try to swim around. From that adventure, Sandycove has developed into one of the main global hubs for Channel swimmers.
So far 136 people have circumnavigated Sandycove and completed an English Channel solo, a record for training grounds that is probably only surpassed by Dover harbour. Sandycove is also the base for Cork Distance Week, the very toughest of Channel swimming camps, which over the course of nine days challenges even the most established marathoners with cold-water swims in jellyfish-infested seas, through inland lakes, up brackish rivers, and through rapids. And that is before mention of the infamous torture swim.
Local storytellers, and this being Ireland there are no shortage of those, say that sea swimming has been a part of life in Kinsale for centuries. The Kinsale Distance Swimmers, in their official history, claim that in 1692 a secret all-male society was formed that involved night-time swims at high tide to slip into the port unnoticed. Tradition has it that members of the British military who were garrisoned near the port town swam from their bases, through the dark waters of high tide, to enjoy the pleasures of drink and the company of “agreeable” women at the town’s taverns.
More than four centuries years later on a July day, a group of swimmers huddles together close to Sandycove Island. Our motivations are less carnal, but we are perhaps even more passionate than the original Kinsale swimmers. It is the start of Cork Distance Week 2016, which is introduced by the camp’s founder and organiser, Ned Denison.
Denison is a giant of a man, and a giant of channel swimming. Journalists like to note that the American has the same reach as an albatross’s wing span. At college, he was an all-American water polo player who discovered marathon swimming later in life but that has not held Denison back. The 59-year-old has completed 39 marathon swims ranging from the Triple Crown, to nine prison island swims, to a successful crossing of False Bay, which has one of the highest concentrations of Great White sharks anywhere in the world.
At Cork Distance Week it is Denison who is something of a predator. His chats ahead of each swim contain vital safety information but they are also part of the mental training that begins the moment that you sign up for this camp. “The first few swims I said to myself, ‘oh it will be fine because he’s exaggerating,’” said Charlotte Brynn a New Zealander based in Vermont whose swims include the Catalina Channel and around Manhattan.
“Then I would get out into the swim and I would realise Ned doesn’t exaggerate. I am going to swim through, or past a whirlpool. Or I am going to swim into a stump. There may be something floating in the water that is no longer alive. Ned is such a little monkey.”
In the huddle ahead of the first swim my nerves are running high. They are not calmed when Denison asks everyone to give a short introduction outlining their experience, their favourite swim and, if they want to share it, the goal that they are training for.
The group includes some world class swimmers such as the Molokai Channel record holder, Attila Mányoki, who is due to attempt the North Channel, a handful of Triple Crowners who are pursuing other Oceans Seven channels, and several other Channel swimmers. Most of the participants are targeting an English or North Channel solo, or a marathon swim of a similar stature. There a few – including me – focused on an English Channel relay.
After the opening introduction, we edge towards the slipway that leads into the water. The old timers, and those who have spent the winter training outside are the first in, seemingly immune to the piercing cold waters. For several of the Americans from balmier climes, and for me, based in Abu Dhabi, that first contact with the water is agony. The temperature is 11°C, and it doesn’t feel much warmer out of the water. At least on this first swim it’s not raining (that comes later in the week).
“Last year we had horizontal rain one day,” said Denison, who believes that the unpredictable weather conditions are part of the formula that makes Distance Week so successful. “But for the folks training for the North Channel, this is colder than the North Channel right now. And psychologically when you’re swimming the English Channel cold is one of your biggest fears. When you jump in and think this is warm. That’s 90% of it. […] You go, ‘well at least it’s not Cork!’ Or it starts to rain and you go, ‘well it’s not snowing.’”
Soon all but a couple of people are in the water and embarking on the 1,800-metre loop around Sandycove Island. The genius of this relatively short swim is its variety. On the landward side of the island, which is protected by a headland, the water tends to be calmer and milder (it’s all relative), but that changes once you turn a corner to the seaward side.
“You could be five miles out to sea for all one knows,” said Steve Black who pioneered swimming around Sandycove in 1995. “There is nothing beyond that other than the open sea going on for many hundreds of miles. There is the exhilaration of thinking ‘wow I am really out here up against the elements.’ All you can do is keep going or turn back the way you came. And either way you cannot get onto the island itself.”
The waves roll past the swimmers and crash onto the cliffs but before you have time to think ‘what on earth possessed me to do this,’ there’s a welcome distraction. “You’ve got goats on the island,” said Denison. “You’ve got seabirds of different kinds that come in all over the place. You’ve got the seal popping up every now and then. The jellyfish come and go. Sometimes they sting and sometimes they don’t. There are 50 different varieties.”
Then, as if from nowhere, the water becomes calmer, and if you’re unlucky the temperature plummets, sometimes by as much as 4°C. And that’s just lap one.
Sandycove Island is the base but during the camp there is a wide variety of swimming from the long, featureless, freshwater Lough Allua, to an upstream jaunt in the River Blackwater to take a look at the mansion of Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame. There are also numerous sea swims.
All of this for as little as 50 Euros. Cork Distance Week is not commercial and is by invitation only. It has the feel of a community enterprise, when a swimming club opens its doors to visiting members. Denison organises it without charge, he even pays his own way, and he is assisted throughout by some wonderful volunteers who check swimmers in and out of the water, and bake some of the best cakes you’re ever likely to taste.
Over post-swim slices of lemon drizzle cake or pints of Guinness, there is also the opportunity to build strong friendships with fellow swimmers, and to learn from the incredible expertise on hand. One day we got to have a post-lunch chat with Steve Redmond, the local man who was the first to complete the Oceans Seven. Many swimmers crew for others they met at Cork, and the bonds formed during the set-pieces like the torture swim, endure for years.
The torture swim has gained close to legendary status and stories abound of jellyfish swarms, or fish being thrown at swimmers to encourage sea birds to dive bomb them. You name it, there’s every chance you could face it on the torture swim. But behind the ordeal is the opportunity to experience the unexpected, in a controlled environment.
Tracy Clark, a New Zealander based in the UK, is no wilting violet, indeed the nickname given to her by her former coach Marcel van Der Togt is ‘one tough cookie.’ So perhaps it was inevitable that she should be given particular attention during her first torture swim, especially after she reminded Denison that she had swum the English Channel a minute faster than him.
“He picked on me so bad,” said Clark. “He was sending me around the back of the island in massive swells. Every time he did it I would say, ‘OK, Ned’ ‘Thank you, Ned.’ I just wanted to yell and scream at him, ‘are you crazy?’ But what that taught me is that when you are out on those big swims things are going to go wrong, but if you approach it with a smile and a positive attitude then the negatives cannot get into your head.”
Later, at a low moment in her Catalina solo, Jim Clifford, a Cork Distance Week stalwart, sent a message to Clark’s crew saying simply ‘OK, Ned. Thank you, Ned’. The boost Clark got helped to push her through a brutal period of vomiting.
Cork Distance Week started almost by accident in 2008 when a 16-year old swimmer, Nick Caine, and his grandmother booked a flight from California to a training ‘camp’, after a vague promise by Denison. Since then more than 400 participants have travelled to Cork, from 22 countries. Many of them have gone on to conquer the greatest channels. All of them have emerged stronger and more confident swimmers, thanks to a magical little island off the south coast of Ireland.
This article was originally published in Outdoor Swimmer magazine