Making a splash in Wick­low har­bour


Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

‘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 year­round 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-yearold 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.

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.

Year-round swim­mers Brian Kelly, Kieran Ryan, Joe Healy, Ste­vie Blount, Glen Bren­nan and Tommy ‘The Tor­pedo’ Mo­ran.

Kate Seck­ing­ton (se­cond), Oisin Kear­ney (first) and Sad­hbh Jart­ley, the top three in the Ju­nior Challenge.

An­gela Leonard and Colm Cor­ri­gan.

Ma­jor Bren­nan.

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