All at sea
INTERVIEW:‘When you’re out there, sometimes you can only see about two to three feet ahead of you. You’re open to all the elements. The sea is trying to kill you.’ BRIAN O’CONNELLtakes the plunge with endurance swimmer Steve Redmond
THE WATER IS COLD. Bloody freezing in fact. Even with a wetsuit on, any exposed flesh is quickly numbed and then the pain starts. It’s like having hundreds of sharp cold needles pierce your skin, compressing your chest until you forget you’re supposed to inhale. Panic sets in as your body reacts and then tries to adjust to the sudden change in temperature.
Ahead of me in the water in Lough Hyne outside Skibbereen in west Cork, Steve Redmond is calmly giving me instructions. “Take small steady strokes. Get through the first few minutes and it will get easier,” he says. The water temperature is possibly six to eight degrees. Redmond is in a pair of speedos and a swim cap. Wetsuits are for wusses. I am a wuss. Redmond points to an island in the mid-distance and says he swims around it when he is out here training properly.
Some days he can be out here hours, getting his body used to low temperatures and pushing it to the limit of endurance. At the moment, he is in what he calls “recovery mode”. A few weeks ago, he finished his sixth channel swim, and is now on course to be the first person in history to complete the Ocean’s Seven challenge.
The Ocean’s Seven challenge involves swimming the English Channel (between England and France), Cook Strait (between the north and south islands of New Zealand), Moloka’i Channel (between O’ahu and Moloka’i islands in Hawaii), North Channel (between Ireland and Scotland), Catalina Channel (in southern California), Tsugaru Channel (between islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan) and the Strait of Gibraltar (between Europe and Africa). Redmond only has the Tsugaru Channel left to do and in early June, he will travel to Japan to attempt the final leg of this gruelling challenge and enter the record books.
He has swum alongside sharks (“they’re like dogs, they just come for a look and go away again”) and through seas thick with jellyfish (“more dangerous than sharks and incredibly painful”). There were times his crew had to refuse him permission to leave the water, nights when he swam with commercial ferries sailing alongside and when huge swells meant a few hundred metres took him hours.
Redmond swam from a young age and, in a past life, worked for a time as a commercial diver. He also played rugby and, after he retired, he wanted a new challenge. Triathlons came and went. Now, with the help of a few dedicated friends and open-water enthusiasts, he is in a race with maybe a dozen other swimmers from around the world. Among them Redmond has possibly the best chance of completing the Ocean’s Sevens first.
“In my life I haven’t done a whole lot of any bloody good except to get married and have a few kids,” he says frankly. “The local support I have here in west Cork is incredible. That’s what drives me.”
In Hawaii a few weeks back, he almost didn’t make it. The swim took 22 hours and 29 minutes and brought him to the limit of his physical endurance. “At one point, because of the tides, I had about nine miles to go when I expected much less. I said I want to give up here. The crew wouldn’t let me stop. So I used a mantra, which was the name of my kids. I’d breathe in three strokes – one, two, three – and then say, ‘Sive’, and turn to the side and breathe out. Pain becomes your companion. Every three strokes for hours on end I am saying my kids’ names along with praying to any God who would listen. The mantra got me through. I regularly broke down and cried. But no one can see you crying in the water.”
The money for each swim has been raised locally – poker nights, getting his body waxed, favours from friends. Last summer, he became the first person to swim around the Fastnet Rock, having waited four years for the right tides. When he finishes each swim, an independent observer takes a picture to verify the feat after which, he says, his body regularly goes into shock. It’s always emotional and sometimes bizarre when he reaches land. When he completed the English Channel, the head of a swimming association walked into his room while he was showering.
“I’m in the shower and the president of the local swimming association reaches in and shakes my hand. I’m completely naked. We’ve never met each other before and we’re standing there having a chat about the swim. My brother was in the next room, and afterwards he says to me, ‘All you people involved in this stuff are crazy’.”
Back in Lough Hyne, I last about 10 minutes in the water. Redmond tells me to take off the wetsuit and experience the water in the flesh. I do and it takes me about three hours, two pots of tea and a bowl of chowder to feel my toes again. He’ll do this several times a week for hours on end. Redmond is no wuss.
“Doing this challenge is like trying to climb Mount Everest bollock naked, with a blindfold on,” he says. “When you’re out there, sometimes you can only see about two to three feet ahead of you. You are open to all the elements. The sea is trying to kill you. You fool yourself.
“In Hawaii, I pretended I was in the local swimming pool with a huge whale underneath me. It’s like putting your brain into a bucket of ice. If you start thinking, your emotions wear you down. But if you use the correct emotions, then they get you there.”
For more information, see oceans7.org