On the first weekend of September 2017 there was a bit of magic going on in the West of Ireland at a very special open water swim.
Making Memories in Mountshannon
It was the night of her father’s funeral when Fiona Bugler and her cousin made a plan for an open water swim. Nine months later, 17 flew over from England to Shannon, Ireland to take a plunge into the unknown!
Overcast, windy, and there was talk of a storm brewing. A nervous group of men and women, aged between 15 and 55 gathered at Mountshannon Quay in County Clare: all shapes and sizes; some with hair, some without; some wrinkled, others baby-faced. It was the day before the All Ireland Hurling final but this gang were taking on a challenge of their own. Dressed in black neoprene wetsuits, some of the group were hiding hangovers under the brightly coloured swimming hats and dark goggles. All were harbouring fears of heart attacks, hypothermia or worse, not finishing — or even starting.
Ever so often, one of the pale faces could be seen, staring through black goggles and gulping as they took in the ominous looking lake — which was dark, choppy, deep and cold. This familiar looking group of relations were assembled to swim, from Holy Island, two miles out, to the shore.
Best laid plans (after a few drinks)
It had all started in January. The same clan had gathered on a cold and clear day for my dad, Tom’s funeral (their uncle). We’re a big Irish family. My contingent born and bred in England along with some cousins on my mum’s side — and the core Clare group had stayed in the home town, near to Scariff. Through the tears and pain of saying our farewell to dad, we’d once again been reunited with a great bunch of cousins, aunts and uncles. Late in the night as we drank and remembered, my cousin Caimin and I started to talk about triathlon.
Caimin, who’s now 50, had decided to take on the multi-sport discipline of swim, bike, run — from scratch. Three stone lighter, two sprint triathlons completed, and a lot fitter — it seems like it was a very good plan. He’d stopped smoking, and told me he hadn’t really done any exercise for 30 years. But triathlon was the choice he made and the goal he set. As we talked more, he told me the one thing he wanted to do in 2017 was do the Holy Island swim. I immediately rose to the idea of a challenge, ‘I’ll come and do it too’. The conversation gathered pace — ‘We’ll all do it’ (drinks and emotions were over-flowing).
A few weeks later I messaged Caimin and suggested a What’s App group — he swiftly set it up and around eight months of banter and craic began!
The Demons of the Open Water
I’d taken part in my first triathlon five years ago. An accomplished marathon runner and a competitive swimmer as a young child, I’d expected to make the kind of transition a duck makes to water. As it goes, it wasn’t quite as easy as that, as I spent the first few years battling with the demons of an over-active mind and vivid imagination (from floating dead bodies, to killer sharks and ferocious rip currents — I’d painted every scenario in my head). But unlike most of the gang, I had actually swum in the open water!
One of the big fears for all of us on the day was the cold. Some were double-hatted, some in gloves and neoprene booties, too. Wetsuits were a mixture, borrowed, hired, and bought in haste — ill-fitting, not fit for purpose (my poor son Frankie), or over the top thermal (me!). Another fear was the simply ‘doing it’ fear. Up until three weeks before we weren’t even sure if anyone would follow through, book the flight and go.
The Build Up Banter — the Craic
The What’s app banter which had included pictures of rubber rings, and swan-shaped inflatables, Laurel and Hardy on a sinking boat, and lots of gifs, jokes and holiday pics of us lounging on lilos showing how hard we were training had kept all our minds off the matter of actual training. And in the last week the craic-chat got more serious with talk of water temperature and distance/times, and bets on who might win.
My cousin Barry in Dubai posted, ‘So this is really happening?’ I think we were all as surprised as him, as the Ryan Air flight times started to appear and booking arrangements were made.
In the last week, the Irish cousins posted pictures of themselves in the lake, my brothers and sister headed off for early morning swims at the local lake, and myself and my daughter did a 1500M sea swim.
A week? Maybe two weeks of training? But on Friday night 17 people boarded the Ryan Air flights out of Gatwick, Stanstead and Luton arriving in Clare at around 10pm in a celebratory mood, with the quaffing glasses of wine starting on the flight over — and carrying on late into the night.
The next day, it was still unclear who was actually going to do it! My brother Andy, hadn’t decided, having only swam 800M of breastroke in open water the week before. As he walked through the supermarket in the morning of the ‘race’ with his son, Joe, he’d told me he’d decided definitely no, it wasn’t sensible. An hour later he was stood with the rest of us in his hired wetsuit with the rip in the shoulder wondering what the hell he was doing!
Strategic Planning (a bit of it)
As we piled into the rocky boats, the first strategic part of the plan kicked in. (well not strictly true, like any good strategist, my cousin Caimin had seamlessly organised boats, life boats, jet skis and lifeguards). My cousin’s friend who was taking us out in one of the boats looked worried, an experienced fisherman, he said he wouldn’t go out to Holy Island on a day like this. After a little bit of discussion, Martin took the lead, the plan had to change, and it was agreed we’d swim from the nearer by, Bushy Island.
There was an almost audible sigh of relief — we chatted amongst ourselves about how disappointed we were not to be taking on the full distance, smiling as we said it!
There was no turning back now. We all sat perfectly still in our little boat (so as not to capsize) and splashed through the waves to Bushy island. A few photos and laughs and we were off.
Erm…where’s the shore again?
As we set off, my 16 year-old daughter, shouted out to me, ‘This is hilarious’. And that was the last face I saw! Off we went — all in different directions. We’d done strategy, now we just had to get across the lake. Sighting was an individual thing! Some were heading off to Holy Island behind them— others to the shore on the right. I seemed to be fairly on course, with my nephew, Caimin, niece, Gemma and daughter Ciara.
A Winning Streak
Young Caimin (note you don’t normally have more than one Caimin in a room — we had four) smashed it. Never having been in open water before he completed the 1200m in 20 minutes. Next in was Martin, an experienced triathlete, followed by myself, Ciara and Gemma. Kieran my brother, who’d done no training in open water was next in. Soon after the rest of the gang followed, each and everyone smiling as they came in.
My cousin Ann, and the support crew of Eamonn, Mary, Cathy, Dee, Den, Katy and Dan, Paedar, Paddy Joe, and of course the boat crew were all waiting for us. Ann had brought a huge flask of hot whisky. One or two didn’t do the whole thing but had given it a go, but 15 finished.
Just Do It — For the Craic!
With the swim done, and adrenaline flowing, we had a fantastic night dancing like lunatics to an extremely energetic brilliant trad/modern Irish band in the local pub. We were all agreed it had been brilliant. We’d shown the kids we could do it, we’d got out of our comfort zone and we’d connected as a family without the need for a wedding, or a funeral.
There was no big strategy or planning, no training or nutrition schedule — the thing that got us all in to take the plunge, was each other and shared sense of fun (although I’m not sure how much fun Ann was having when she had to pick up 10 forgotten teenagers from the pub and pile them into her Peugeot at 3 in the morning). I’m all for great performance, meticulous plans and strategy — but I also think they’re really is a lot to be said for making the craic the reason for doing something — and that applies across the board.
On the day we were just carried along with it, but there’s a legacy. My sister Clare followed up the race with the Serpentine Swim, ‘My own sense of madness made me think the minuscule bit of training I did for Holy Island would be enough to tackle a two-mile swim in London last week. I didn’t do that but I did complete the one mile swim,’ she said. And my brother Kieran may have discovered a new talent, two weeks after the event it was his 54th birthday, and his present, a wetsuit of course!
We’re all set for next year. Maybe that spontaneous madness and fun was a one off and we’ll be a bit more serious next year — maybe we won’t. But we’ll gather together for sure, and keep our connection going.