LAST Thursday, Greystones man Ger Devin packed a bag of ham and crisp sandwiches, boiled eggs and coffee, sailed to the Kish Lighthouse and swam 21km back through jellyfish soup to Greystones Harbour. This was a training swim for something bigger, and he's got another one coming up that he wants you to join him for.
A crossing of the Catalina Channel from Catalina Island to the coast of California in the US is the goal in October, a 32km+ swim famous for always starting in the dark and being guaranteed to get you brushes with seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales or sharks.
Part of his preparation will be to complete an eight-hour swim at Greystones Beach on Saturday, August 27. He's going to set up a 500m course and swim around it from 9a.m. to 5p.m. if the weather allows.
On the beach will be wife Jan with a bucket. Anyone who drops a donation to the Gavin Glynn Foundation in that bucket can hop in and join 'Swim with Ger' for as many laps as they like. Ger's brother-in-law Ken will be in a boat on the water to give Ger regular feeds, and will be happy to feed extra souls, if they bring what they want dished out.
Ger's hoping the day won't be quite as epic as last Thursday, when many fears were overcome and he reached a new level of (misguided) appreciation for one of Dublin Bay's most common sea life encounters. Here's how it began.
"The reason I didn't say to everyone I was doing it four days in advance is I could have gone out there and turned the boat around," he explained. "This is my second time out there and I went out with a bit more knowledge. It was exciting and fearful knowing that the weather can change in a heart beat. We've to work with currents and sea life that can appear and be gone as well."
As Pilot Tony Harbiston chugged up to the 57-year-old lighthouse, conditions were calm and clear. Ger jumped into the water and climbed the tall ladder to stand on the lighthouse platform. Last time he had been here, in the middle of Dublin Bay, miles from any land, was for a relay with friends that was aborted when weather turned. But as he stood on the platform, that was not the worry in his mind.
"I'm actually scared of heights," he laughed. "The lads on the boat were cracking their sides laughing, because I couldn't jump. I kept trying and couldn't do it. One time I was about to jump, next minute a Lionsmane jellyfish comes past underneath me. They were filming me the whole time and had no sympathy."
Eventually, Ger took that leap of faith, and 200m later regretted it.
"I hit jellyfish soup," he said. "I had all the lads pre-warned on the boat that there were going to be a lot and they were to spot them for me, but they could only see the ones on the top. I could see hundreds more below that. It took me about 15 to 20 minutes of swimming to get over that fear. By the time I'd swum an hour and a half, I told them 'don't worry about it'. I'd been stung so many times it didn't matter any more and I actually at that point started to really look at the jellyfish."
Instead of flinching in horror and diving in the opposite direction, Ger made peace with his tentacled friends and became at one with them, greeting them as he passed.
"These things are amazing," he said. "You get mesmerised by them, particularly the Compasses with their beautiful bell heads and gold, sparkly tails. The Lionsmanes were the rough ones now. I think I was lucky I only got stung once by one of them, but it was enough for me to have shakes in the bed the night afterwards."
The official symptoms of a Lionsmane jellyfish sting are nausea, sweating, cramps and headaches, but the best way to describe the experience is this: it's like having small electric shocks for up to 24hrs after contact. The area of contact can also be clammy and itchy, helping set up a very uncomfortable night's sleep. But while you are still swimming, the symptoms beyond the initial whack of sting remain dormant.
One of the reasons Ger was able to overcome both those fears was his swimming hat. For many years he has been fundraising for local charity the Gavin Glynn Foundation, which helps families of children with cancer travel overseas for treatment not available in Ireland. He regularly meets these children and when he does, he asks them to sign his swimming hat.
"I do it so I am swimming with their names on my head," he said. "That way when I start thinking that it hurts, or I'm tired, or I don't want to go on, I remember to think of them and that they don't have the opportunity to do this like I do."
Most long-distance athletes, particularly swimmers, stick to simple food for such an endurance test. Carbohydrate drinks, energy gels, jelly sweets, the odd banana or cup of soup. Ger does things differently.
"I try to eat what I normally eat on land," he reveals. "Once I can get it in in 90 seconds - any longer and your arms start to stiffen and you lose your rhythm."
His menu consisted of ham and crisp sandwiches, bits of banana, hard boiled eggs, cups of soup, homemade biscuits, and even the odd cup of coffee.
Pal John Ryan was in charge of feeds and watching Ger's stroke rate. It's often the first sign something is wrong if it starts to drop dramatically. The opposite happened on this swim.
"My stroke rate was doing about 66 to 68 strokes per minute," said Ger. "But then I had one of the lads get in to swim with me for support and my stroke rate went up. I was glad for the support, but it made it too easy and I thought that wasn't realistic training for me. It distracted me having a support swimmer, so I asked them to leave me alone. They could get in and swim, but do it on the opposite side of the boat."
With Greystones Harbour in sight at about 4p.m. all the support swimmers, Douglas Ribero, Paudie Murphy and Alan, jumped in behind Ger to join his victory kilometre in. It's that last bit of a long swim that always puts the lump this English Channel swimmer’s throat.
"Being out in the middle of the sea is an amazing feeling of freedom," he said. "You're with wildlife, you can't see land, and I'm depending on pilot Tony to bring me in. Coming back? That was an amazing sensation knowing that you're coming to the end and that there's loads of people cheering on top of the walls as you swim in. My wife Jan was there, and loads of the early morning swimmers in Greystones, and people from the RNLI turned up too. They had been such a great help to me planning the swim and supporting me."
He added: "I had to crawl out on my hands and knees because the slip is so slippery. Jan had to help me to my feet. Then the rest of the team finished about five minutes after and we hugged and took a team photo. It was lovely to have the finish there, and it was lovely to finish. Another itch scratched. I had been looking out at the lighthouse for the last two years, since we moved down to the see. I can see it flashing from our house."