Cork Distance Week a long way from Tipperary

Swim Camp for nine days and sure why not

Have you heard the one about the German, the Spaniard and the Irishman who walk into a swim camp? Neither have I. How else should I describe a return to Ireland, the country where I grew up and which on this occasion revolved around nine days of endurance swimming and not visits to family and trotting into pubs?

This being the land of seanchaí (storytellers), I looked to the past for inspiration and borrowed a quote from the word famous Irish-Canadian poet Seamus Mac Nortáin to describe the trip. All Irish students studied Mac Nortáin for our Leaving Certificate; an exam similar to pre-university English A-levels or the stick shift driving test in the USA. And his clincher was that “you can take a Cork out of a bottle, but no-one can bottle out of Cork Distance Week”.   

The numbers appeared as I flew in over the rain-soaked fields of a country I left 30 years ago, I was again reminded why Americans coined it the land of 40 shades of green; obviously long before the days of 50 shades of grey or any other motley colours of this liberated friendly rainbow nation. I travelled with Serpentine swimmers Dani Lobo and Volker Koch to take part in “Cork Distance Week” a swimming training camp organised by Ned Denison and the Sandycove swimming club in Co. Cork. Do you remember the three-day working week, or the Beatles “eight days a week”, well Denison torqued in an extra one just for us to make it a nine day ‘week’ of swimming. We spent so much time in the water that it was more an off-shore visit.

Be reassured that this was no velvet swim camp, it was a well-organised 80km endurance week of double sessions in various open water locations in Cork and Waterford. Wave heights were up to four metres or 15 feet and water temperatures were anything from 12 to 15C. And generally, it was wet.  As home host, Ned proudly described Sandycove as the best swimming spot in Cork to the group of keen and enthusiastic overseas swimmers from America, New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, the UK and of course us three Serpentine swimmers who all joined in with the friendly local swimmers who form part of the thriving Irish open water swim scene. There were swimmers who had completed various Channel crossings, a Junior Olympic Games gold medallist from 1980, hurling stars, rugby players, ironmen, iron women and the common bond was that we were all prepared to swim long distances twice daily.

Our opener was a few one mile laps of Sandycove Island to see how we all got on. The first 100 metres were easy but quickly we headed into the horns of a gale, where Ned led by example by swimming every bit of water that we swam. Former Serpentine swimmers pitched up too; Mike Harris, a retired anaesthetist who used to have a daily dip in the Serps before going to work in the Middlesex Hospital, (now UCH) is a Sandycove regular.

That afternoon, we went to Loch Allua for a point-to-point freshwater swim. We parked in one car park and thanks to Ned’s logistics, we had limousine transport to take us in swim suits to the start 7kms away. On exiting the limo we swam through soft boggy water to the finish. Afterwards, everything was washed down with a meal and a pint.  

With the two hour morning swim complete on Day Two, we had time to go home eat, sleep and return for the dreaded “Total Brain and Body Confusion” swim for Channel aspirants. The challenge here was to keep swimming even when things go wrong. The crafty support crews in inflatable zodiacs threw everything they could at you. I’m not going to give away what happened, but I mindfully survived the experience meted out by my captors with a form of swimmer’s Stockholm syndrome by falling for a gnarly former USA waterpolo netminder named Denison of the Dungeon. Volker and Dani survived with their own personal visions…

By day three domestic conditions had deteriorated as us three Serpies had taken to having double breakfasts of porridge and whatever else we could eat to prepare us for exertion in waters of 12 to 13C. The earliest pasta bolognaise offering was consumed one morning at 10:30 am. Following our staple swim of two hours in Sandycove we went to Fermoy for a river swim, which was a virtual Riverdance. This was organised in conjunction with the friendly Fermoy Rowing Club who let us use their facilities for showering and eating afterwards. This was an 8km swim, jigging upstream past the stately home of a world famous Irish dancer and performer, and then pirouetting to reel our way back to Fermoy.

By day four, this was definitely not the chirpy twelve days of Christmas, more like just how many times can we wash stinky swimming kit? Ned had arranged an easier day at Lough Ine, the warmest salt water lake north of Portugal. Geography is not my strong point but I also think it’s the only saltwater lake north of Portugal, so it’s possibly the coldest salt water lake north of Tarragonna. We still had double swims, and we all broke speed records as we jumped in the rapids to be churned downstream like flotsam or is it jetsam?

Ahh yes, I forgot to mention conditions and jellies of which we had two types; the edible Haribos on sale everywhere and the stingers which we accumulated over the week. We were speckled with stings but that is not how the Speckled Door swim got its name. The Speckled Door swim was an open sea swim of 5kms from a point to Sandycove island. Again, Ned had brilliantly organised paddlers, zodiacs and post swim grub for us.

The key to completing all of the swims, was that swimmers arrived physically and mentally prepared to swim long distances.

We drove to County Waterford and the home turf-and-surf of Donal Buckley who writes the award-winning Lone Swimmer blog. Donal proudly described the Copper Coast swim spot as better than the best swimming spot in Cork. We swam in Force Two winds under the scenic cliffs through caves and lots of chop. Thanks to Donal and his partner Deirdre for putting on a spread of post swim food that fed a pod of hungry swimmers. 

As the days passed, we edged closer to insanity, especially when we arrived at Myrtleville, where “Edging Insanity” is the motto of the local open water swimming club. To find out how “Edging Insanity” came to be, you will have to go to Myrtleville to hear the story from one of the locals. 

On the penultimate day, we joined over 500 swimmers to take part in The ‘Vibes and Scribes’ 2km swim on the River Lee. Crowds lined the river banks as we followed the iconic river trail through the city. Sandycove swimmers won the best club award, and in a Serpentine swim context, Volker edged home ahead of Dani in 29 minutes and six seconds and I finished in 30 minutes and 19 seconds. The three of us finished seventh in our respective age groups.

The final day was the one we had been building up to which was the six hour non-stop sea swim. Ned gave us a figure for the water temperatures and maybe it was 13C? But then he’s a bit of a storyteller himself, so maybe it was cooler? We got in and stuck at it, and by the end 15 of 30 starters had completed the six hour swim. They say more swimmers have climbed Mount Everest than have swam the English Channel; well this was as tough as it is to climb South America’s Mount Chimichanga. That evening, we all went to the pub for more than one pint and more than one story with new found friends.

This was a tough nine days of swimming where we learnt a lot about open water swimming and in an environment where there was always someone who could teach you something. We each swam close to 80kms. Of all the swim camps I have been on, and it’s a competitive tourist environment out there, this was by far the most successful, well-organised and also the cheapest swim camp I have ever attended. Huge thanks and appreciation to Ned and his partner Katherine, and also to all the Irish swimmers who extended the hand of friendship and made us feel very welcome. By all means book the camp for next year, but you need to be prepared to swim up to ten kms a day in very cold waters. Thanks for everything Ned, Katherine and Owen and all the contributors.

Yours swimmingly

John Tierney