A new challenge
For years number of years the normal Lough swimming trend has tended to be either up or down The Lough (NW or SW) or in one instance in 2020, a new swim was set with a swim from The Victoria Lock gates in Newry to the Helly Hunter Buoy which lies in The Irish sea some 3km beyond Haulbowline Lighthouse an incredible swim of over 24km.
To swim across the Lough (EW or WE) has only been done by an accomplished few and depending on both departure and landing point distances can vary from 1.5km to 3.5km.
In the authors case, I attempted a swim in 1987, only to be caught in a current with 300m or so to go and had to be pulled out, so in my case I have been carrying this monkey on my back for over 33 years.
In John Savages case, his late Dad, John Snr, an accomplished swimmer and deep sea diver had done the swim both one way and return and John Jnr in memory of his Dad and coming up to the first anniversary of his death, wanted to complete this swim in his memory.
So before or after daily swims the topic was discussed, and The Savage Swim was named by Chrissie O’ Brien and the concept was born.
To swim across Carlingford Lough is a completely different swim than either up or down Lough swims, there is no cover, no protection from the wind, no headlands to break a current, there is a deep and busy shipping channel to cross and at times currents of up to 12kts to battle. The distance is the least of the challenges that are encountered, therefore we both must stress that any thoughts or aspirations of doing so must be tempered with careful and meticulous planning.
This is not a casual swim, and certainly as I found to my detriment all those years ago, one not to be taken without careful thought, planning and every module thrashed out and must be taken with an escort boat who has VHF radio contact.
Carlingford Lough is not your traditional Fjord which is deeper at the back, the Lough has a narrow entrance with a lot of underwater banks which twists and shape the tidal flow, there cannot be a comparison made between an open shore swim where current can be 2 directional as in the case of the Irish Sea where there is a directional flow North South to north of Dublin and then a South North directional flow to southern half of the island, and of course the tide goes in and out, however in the Lough, the tidal and current flow can literally be at opposites from one side of the Lough to the other
John’s swim story;
Having spent childhood summers swimming in Carlingford I had always dreamt of crossing the lough. This year it came to fruition. Several factors came to pass that gave me the push to give it a go.
Last year 2019 I got back into open water swimming and joined the Carlingford Swimmers group. My father John Snr was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer at the time and was receiving palliative care. There was a sense that this round of chemotherapy was his last shot having spent the previous four years battling the disease. Swimming allowed me brief respites and gave me the energy to mentally cope with what was to be his final months with us. John Snr was very fond of the sea. An experienced scuba diver, he had swum across Carlingford Lough (and back) during the seventies to raise a few quid for the local Red Cross. He passed in September 2019.
In the months leading up to this, I began swimming a little further each time and even managed my first “marina swim”, a 2.4k challenge devised by the wild man Harry Jordan to encourage the group. I stuck with the swimming and managed to do my first winter season, much to my surprise as I am not a fan of the cold.
In January 2020 we set our sights on the illustrious “Battle of Carlingford Lough”. This is a fantastic annual event organised by the great Infinity Channel Swimming. Their message is to push your limits. The highlight of the event is a 7.5k swim from Omeath to Carlingford. My farthest distance so far had been the 2.4k marina swims. I thought if I register, go along on the day, and get in the water that would be half the battle. So, the training began. Harry had done the swim before, so I decided to train alongside him and freewheel on his advice. We soon began clocking between 12-15k per week with the aim of 50k per month leading up to the swim.
Then Covid restrictions kicked in which led to events nationwide being cancelled. The Battle of Carlingford Lough was cancelled much to our dismay. After a quick chat we decided that having put the training in we should go ahead and do the swim from Omeath to Carlingford and maybe even raise a few quid for charity. We got fantastic support from the local community who donated 3000 euro to the suicide prevention society SOSAD. We completed the swim in a time of 3hrs and 10mins. Harry won’t mind me saying, we are both on the slow side at the auld swimming, barely had the dust settled on our achievement and Infinity proposed a new date for “Hit the Wall” swim, 5 weeks later, so we decided to go again and I jokingly remarked that “we could not let anyone pee in our gravy” and swim no 2 commenced, I knocked an hour of my first swim with Harry in close pursuit
As the summer season began to close out, we discussed what other swims we could do before the winter cold would hamper our distance swims. As the water temperature drops it’s advisable to spend less time in the water. My mind immediately turned to swimming across the Lough. It was approaching the first anniversary of my Da’s passing so it felt like a fitting tribute as well as a challenge. In his honour, it was named The Savage Swim.
As the crow flies the distance across Carlingford Lough is just over 2.5k each way, however with the channel tide flow you can expect a little extra distance for good measure. The original swim my Da undertook saw him choosing Ballyedmond Castle on the Northern coast as his destination. I had no idea why he chose this spot until I remembered how he used to use land bearings to locate shipwrecks for dive sites. He was not a believer in technology and gimmickry as he called it. Instead, he would use two land bearings from either shore before dropping anchor directly onto the wrecks just off Greenore lighthouse. So, I realised he must have used the castle as a sighting point along his swim route, good thinking our fella.
Thus, began the task of organising a suitable date. Tide times and weather charts were studied, local authorities and coastguard notified, and boat cover was arranged. Many thanks to local sailor and swimmer Mark Slater. Harry still was not convinced; he had a monkey on his back he told me. A slight fear of crossing the tidal channel which is also a shipping lane. I reassured him that we could give it a lash and if we got into any bother we could just jump in the boat and call it a day. We had the distance done before however this time there was a slight fear factor. There can be only one winner when a swimmer meets a ship. No pressure.
We set off an hour and a half before high tide and began to make steady progress across the calm Lough. As we neared the channel the tide became rougher and waves almost knocked my goggles off a few times. This was going to be interesting. I stopped several times as sighting was difficult due to the waves to check on Harry and the cover boat. I made it to the channel section, so far so good. I set my sighting line on a valley just south of the castle. I figured the incoming tide would carry me towards the castle the closer I got. Wrong! I ended up adjusting the line and swimming back towards the boat adding another couple of hundred metres to the crossing. It was still jellyfish season and the regular sightings of lions mane reminded me to stay alert and a few hasty swerves were put in to avoid getting stung. When we reached the shore, the sun had come out and the place looked tropical. The well-maintained gardens around the castle looked stunning and it felt like a little slice of paradise. Harry looked relieved as he had gotten his “monkey off his back” and conquered his fear of the channel. “How are ya feeling?” I shouted “Get me to “F” out and into the boat” was his cheery reply.
I turned my sights on the return leg using the Carlingford Marina as my sighting point. I felt reasonably strong as I set off and got back into my stride. I crossed the channel and knew I could relax. Wrong again. The southerly swell mixed with the outgoing tide felt like I was being pulled in several directions. I had to push hard for the final stretch. I could feel arms splashing heavily into the water but knew that slow and steady would get me home. Three hours since first entering the water I walked ashore. I did not have a gizmo to measure the distance, however Harry had clocked 3.3k on his one way so I reckon 6.6k was the eventual distance. Back in the 70’s we followed Da up to McKevitt’s Village Hotel for tae and sangwiches and a bit of a shindig after his swim. This time however due to Covid restrictions we had to make do with a flask of hot chocolate, a fig roll and smiles from ear to ear.
As we near the winter season again it is time to rein in our distance, respect the sea and dream up new challenges for the year ahead.
Harry’s swim story.
In another article which I penned in June called “My Covid Swim” I said that I was hoping that 2020 my 65th year was one where I intended to swim in as many OW events as possible, however the year flopped before it had even had started so I resigned my self to train for “Hit the Wall” and not come last as I had done in 2019, the swim was cancelled, however as I had done the training with my Siamese swim Buddy John, we decided to go ahead and raise some money for a suicide charity.
As John has mentioned in his article, we were successful in raising a nice and tidy sum.
After our swim on June 19th, I decided to follow up on a medical condition that I had, a hernia, and immediately sought a medical consultation to arrange surgery, it became a standing joke for over a year where my pre swim warmup was “hearing aids out ( I had already lost one pair in 2017, into the lough with them in) glasses in case, and push hernia in, which squelched.
My appointment was arranged fairly promptly and off I went to see consultant, after examination he told me that a procedure was necessary, he would put me on a waiting list which would be about 12 months, and whilst getting dressed he asked when did I first discover the hernia, I told him that whilst masters training in Camlough with Infinity swim Academy I was trying to beat one of the other elder lemons in a session and out it popped.
He asked, “so you do a bit of swimming then?” I looked at him and his watch caught my eye a Garmin 735 XT, the very same as my own, I replied “I see you do a bit yourself” and the dye was cast, he immediately rearranged for my “op” on July 27th, the day before my 41st wedding anniversary. I got home delighted that this niggling was going to be resolved at last, however at home when I opened my mails “Infinity” announced that “Hit the Wall” was going ahead on July 25th.
The mileage was in the shoulders, so John and I said “yeah let’s go for it” 2 medals for the same event in 5 weeks. The day after the swim I decided to hit the Marina for one last swim before the “knife”
Two weeks later very apprehensively I entered the Lough, still a bit tender, I managed a sore 1200m. Couple of days after that, during a “discussion” with John, the subject of The Savage swim came up, and again the dye was cast. I mentioned in the introduction about my attempt on this crossing 33 years earlier, and how it still gave me the “shivers” I struggled for 20 minutes or so within 300m of shore being carried up Lough for in my opinion another 5 to 600m before I was pulled out by my accompanying boat who struggled to get close to me.
Anyway the day was chosen and we headed out as described already, Mark Slater a group member and also a member of our local sailing club, who knows as much about the wind and tidal conditions on The Lough as anybody had volunteered his services as escort and had the use of a rescue boat courtesy of the Carlingford Sail Training Centre.
The first 500m was calm until we got past “hospital point” and then an easterly hit us, I am a unilateral breather to the right and the swell was hitting me directly between my right cheek and right shoulder, in retrospect it was like an audition for a “Benny Hill” clip, Slap, Slap, Slap, John was to my right and escort boat between us, I picked a forestry firebreak on a mountain opposite as my sighting line and kept fairly straight until I hit the channel, “oh shit” here we go again I thought to myself, I found my self being pulled up lough and the best I could do was to diagonally swim and hope to ride it out, you can see on the tracker where I exited the current and came back at a 90’ dogleg.
Job done, it was not my most difficult swim and certainly not my longest, we had been doing a 4km and a 5km plus a couple of 2.4km’s each week since April, but it was a very satisfying swim for me to get “this monkey off my Back”
John had made his intentions clear before the “off” that he was going 2 way, I was content to get the “taxi” home. Sitting in a boat and watching someone swim is an unusual one for me, I watched John stoke after stroke coming home, the current/swell changed, and he had to dig deep, very deep. At one stage, the boat was rising and falling the wind was blowing and neither us in the boat or John in the water were going anywhere. His last 700m were what seemed to me a struggle, his forearms were hitting the water first, he was breathing on almost every stroke, he was tired, Mark and I were shouting encouragement a couple of swimmers on the slip as we came in must have wondered what was going on. We were home, 2 monkeys banished in the process.
Would I do it again?? Well that is for another day