Friday 23 August 2019

Making a splash in Wicklow harbour

Reporter David Medcalf joined members of Wicklow Swimming Club at the town's harbour as they demonstrated their stamina and technique in the open air - just as they do twice a week all summer Long

The top three finishers in the Shannen May Memorial Cup: Stephen Bell (second), Lucy Hornet (first) and Jacob Fry (third)
The top three finishers in the Shannen May Memorial Cup: Stephen Bell (second), Lucy Hornet (first) and Jacob Fry (third)
Eager spectators watch as the swimmers approach the finish line. Photos: Paul Messitt

'Lovely morning,' said the passer-by and, yes, it was indeed a lovely Sunday morning in Wicklow town, with ample summer sunshine.

Anglers trying their luck at the end of the Lighthouse Pier were dramatically silhouetted against a backdrop of sparkling glare. The views on up the coast towards the two Sugarloaf mountains and Bray Head were bright and impressive.

But it was a breezy morning nonetheless, with a brisk wind whipping up a choppy sea and sousing the unwary with spray at the junction of coast and New Quay. A couple of buoys bobbed up and down vigorously on the open water, prompting the early arrivals for the day's sport to shake their heads. It was clear that the plan to run some of the day's races outside the harbour was not a runner.

Instead, the programme presented by Wicklow Swimming Club (WSC) would be staged in the slightly calmer conditions of the harbour. Even there, the clank of ropes banging against the masts of moored yachts underlined the strength of the spoilsport north-easterly. And there was no hint of any slack in the RNLI flag which fluttered stiffly from the pole at the lifeboat station.

With more than 70 years on the clock of making such calls, the club is steeped in experience and common sense. Open sea swimmers are a hardy breed but every now and then they bow to the force of nature by retreating behind the sheltering walls. Only very seldom does bad weather force them to abandon completely the twice a week summer schedule of races, presented each Sunday and Wednesday. Cancellation has not happened so far this summer and did not occur at all during 2018.

One of the first to arrive on this occasion was WSC's Karen O'Brien who noted the direction of the wind and commented: 'That was not forecast.' Karen was preparing to help in the running of the junior races which have become a popular part of the club's activities. She reckoned that some of the reason why open air swimming is so strong in these parts goes beyond the delightful facilities offered by the harbour. Also relevant is the fact that the town was slow to provide a modern indoor pool, which has been available for no more than two decades. Those who enjoy their water sports are used to pursuing them out of doors and the tradition endures.

The club, founded in the 1940s, is a phenomenon, claimed to be the biggest in the country with more waiting to join. Secretary Ruth O'Neill confirmed that there are 220 adults on the membership roll, with a waiting list for those who cannot be immediately accommodated. One hundred competitors, all aged 16-plus, were due to take part in Sunday's senior race, with scores of youngsters participating in the curtain raisers.

Karen O'Brien pointed out that they cater for the under sixes and then go all the way through the age spectrum to 70 or so: 'I am swimming down here since 1982,' she revealed. 'I grew up here and I don't bother swimming in the pool.'

As it happened, Sunday's gathering was the second swim of this particular weekend. On Saturday, a three-kilometre event out in the open ocean provided plenty of talking points for the locals. Not only did it raise €4,500 for the lifeboat service but club member and DCU student Amy O'Brien was the first woman to complete the course from out The Murrough to the Black Castle.

Club co-captain Angela Leonard prepared to call the 'sprinters' under starters order shortly after 10 a.m. These are the beginners, at least 60 of them, the very smallest of them allowed to have a parent in the water with them as they battle to splash their way along by the shore beneath the rowing club's pavilion.

'It's all about a community,' Angela suggested. 'Some of the sprinters are third generation swimmers.'

She explained that no one of any age is allowed to develop a big head as each race is governed by a handicap system. The slowest entrants are sent off first, everyone else following in due course at carefully graded intervals. The weights carried by horses in the Grand National are scarcely calculated with any greater care.

Angela also commented wisely: 'Nobody owns the sea.' Not only does WSC share the harbour with holiday makers and yacht owners, but also with the rowing club and some very swift coxed fours. Then, right on cue, a commercial freighter painted smartly red exercised its right of way gliding past all the leisure-time activity on its way to the timber yard docks.

Observing the growing intensity of activity on the pier and on the stony shore was Joe Healy. He was in attendance not only as a regular member of the club but he was also primed to present the Phil Healy Cup, the trophy put up many years ago in 1968 by his parents Phil and Ellen. Though due to take part this time, he (rightly as it turned out) predicted that there would be no repeat of the day 22 years ago when he won the sponsored silverware.

The family pub in the centre of the town - now sold on, though retaining the Healy name - has long been a regular watering hole for swimmers. Joe revealed that, like many of those present, he is a year-round sea swimmer as a member of the fearless Seaburys group who enjoy their regular winter dips.

And they are not alone in their masochism. Also waiting for the senior race was Brendan Conway along with his 21-year-old son Ronan. Brendan let it be known that he is one of the Focas (the name is derived from the Spanish word for seal) who also immerse themselves during the months that have a brrr in them.

While many family groups set up camp out in full sunlight on the strand for the morning, Noel Brennan - universally known as Major - kept a lower profile as he waited for the action to get under way. He sat out of the unseasonable breeze in the lee of the pier, chatting amiably to anyone who greeted him. Now in his eighties, Major still counts himself a swimmer though he stepped down from competition recently.

In retirement, he keeps an eye on his sons as they vie for prizes and he also keeps tabs on half a dozen competing grandchildren. He recalled that he learned his own swimming technique as a child, without the benefit of formal coaching. Mothers and children used to come to the harbour on fine days and he graduated naturally from paddling to doggy paddle and on to overarm. The conditions were less benign back then, with sewage routinely pumped into the harbour and the blood from three slaughter houses colouring the water red.

It was in 1952 that he first joined Wicklow Swimming Club, encouraged by the late Christie O'Toole who went on to find fame in Canada with his Tartan Showband. At that time, the emphasis was on sprinting rather than the current diet of long distance fare. Major proved to be strong contender though he seldom headed either Vincent Byrne or the late Mick Reilly. He successfully adapted later to the more extended fare, winning the most prized Vartry Cup on several occasions over a span of more than 40 years.

Handicapper and starter Tom O'Neill explained that his system of handicaps follows the same concept as in club golf. He feels obliged to ensure that nobody is first to the big yellow buoy which marks the race finish line too often: 'If you win a race, then you get an anchor put on you!' he joked. 'No one wins two weeks in a row.'

His calculations are worked out on a computer programme of his own devising. Then he operates in close cahoots with time-keeper Olwyn Bond and recorder Carol Wadden on race days to ensure that data are accurate and up to date.

Co-captain Colm Corrigan reckoned that the club contributes to local life: 'It is an important part of Wicklow town, no more than GAA or rugby.'

It certainly offers a fine spectacle as competitors thrash around the marker buoys under the watchful scrutiny of safety officer Paul Fitzgerald with his team of volunteers in their boats and kayaks.

The finishing straight runs along by the pier from where spectators yell their encouragement as the drama unfolds. First to the yellow buoy in the intermediate event over 500 metres was Lucy Horner, with Hazel Bentley best in the one-kilometre youths race for teenagers. Then the Healy Cup was presented by Joe to 18 year old Eve Cowdrey, who came home fully 20 seconds clear of the field in the adult race.

Eve - who works as a lifeguard in the harbour - was naturally delighted but could not have been happier than her grandmother Kathleen who claimed the same trophy back in 1996.

Wicklow open sea swimming truly is a family business.

Wicklow People