Galway Bay swim: this girl can

Filling in the blanks: July 2014

Swim where?

The Francis Thornton Memorial is a swim across Ireland’s Galway Bay in aid of the Cancer Care West charity. It is 13Km of open water from Aughinish beach, Co. Clare to Salthill, Co. Galway. The organisers say this about the challenge on their website:

The water temperature is approximately 15 degrees Celsius in July and the mental strength needed to overcome this is paramount. The weather conditions are unpredictable and totally out of the swimmers hands. They will simply do their best not to disturb passing seals while trying to avoid the jellyfish and passing vessels!

Swimmers can use wetsuits*, or the hardcore can opt for the greased-up ‘skins’ category. A volunteer support boat accompanies each swimmer across the bay to provide navigation, food, encouragement, and a lookout for ships. Swimmers cannot touch the boat at any time.

* D. recommends a lanolin & vaseline paste mix to avoid neck burn!

Not you, surely?

You got that right! My heavy legs, short torso, and lack of consistent pool time mean I am not a natural swimmer. With a lot of practice I can at best hope to become competent at the front crawl (freestyle). Deirdre on the other hand has been an avid swimmer since her school days and glides through the water rather effortlessly and enviably. As mad as she thinks my running is, the thought of 13Km of swimming blows my mind.

Having done 2, 5, 8, and 10Km swims already she was confident to step up to the challenge. Besides, Galway is lovely in the summertime. I managed to get the weekend off work to be support crew and witness first hand these strange fish-people in action.

Sinking boat

Craig trying to swim freestyle

How did it go?

Swimmingly. The weather was great; a clearing day with a light breeze. We said goodbye early as the swimmers had to transit around the bay to the starting point. They would complete the first 2Km to a sighting buoy unaccompanied. Meanwhile, I joined Deirdre’s father and the crew of the army rib that would be our support boat. We zipped directly across the bay to rendezvous with our girl and guide her main crossing.

Little heads wearing swim caps and googles are quite hard to identify at any distance, so we were hoping Deirdre would spot the Cork flag her father had brought onboard. In the end there was no problem. As the splashing figures approached I recognised her distinct stroke and we teamed up for the main crossing.

Deirdre's father holds red and white checkered flag in the wind.

Cork flag is easy to spot.

Keeping track of time, we called regular stops for water and gels. With an expected finish of 4hrs the challenge is comparable to a marathon. Early and often with nutrition is the best way to avoid hitting the wall. There was a bottle of plain water and a bottle of sports drink tied onto string. This enabled us to throw them towards Deirdre and pull them back in while she continued swimming. Gels took a little more care. They were pre-opened, handed out over the side, and the empty wrapper handed back.

Our crew were skilled with the boat, tracking a good line to the half-way gate. It was interesting to see the different tactics playing out. Some opted to drift wide with faster currents but then were caught by the turning tide and had a hard slog to track back through the checkpoints. Some went the other way. For a first-timer at the event I think our middle-way was the most appropriate strategy. It certainly proved suitable when Deirdre blazed the first half under target, feeling strong.

Deirdre swimming smoothly in open water.

Cutting through the waves.


The second half went well but with a few more breaks as the fatigue set in. As swimmers converged in the final kilometres the competitive spirit kicked in and there was a final surge towards dry land. Kayaks and paddle-boarders took over from us in the last few hundred metres. Our crew dropped us as close as they could get to the shore so we could join the rest of the family waiting to greet Deirdre out of the water.

After 3hrs 45mins she had to find her feet again to emerge from the briny bay as a successful finisher. I was most impressed. We definitely had call for a few celebratory drinks at the presentation that evening.

If I can become half as smooth as Deirdre in the water I may be tempted to enter a 2K open water swim, but I’ll leave the big efforts to the one who finds it fun!

Deirdre waves in the water as she finishes her 13K swim.

#thisgirlcan – Photo by Ben Keg

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