‘I don’t go in there to face the beast or to look for trouble,” Nuala Moore says in explaining why she swims through the most dangerous and forbidding waters on the planet. By “in there” she is talking about the parts of the ocean that most of us prefer to never think about: nightmares and blackness stuff. She is talking about her odyssey across the Bering Strait seven years ago, lowering herself into pitch black waters at four in the morning with a vicious polar wind and banishing the thought of the sea monsters beneath. Or the day in Murmansk when she became just the third ever woman to swim for one kilometre at zero degrees. The air temperature was minus 33 degrees. “I went into that swim cocky,” she can admit now.
“And then I swam the first 150 metres and I thought I was going to die - the tightness of your chest, the sense of not being able to breathe. The impact on my mental state was total.”
By “in there” she means the round-Ireland swim in which she participated in 2006: six swimmers covering 1,330 kilometres without wetsuits over 56 days. Her shoulder muscles were so torn up after the final leg that a full year passed before she could fully raise her arms above her shoulders. She has swum across the Rio de La Plate from Uruguay to Argentina as part of a relay team. She won the first Russian ice championships in Krasnoyarsk four years ago. She’s one of the very few people on earth to have swam the Drake Passage, the marine equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle in that it has been, since it was discovered in the late 1500s by the Drake (who was much too crafty to ever sail it himself), one of the most notorious patches of ocean on the planet. For centuries, the name spooked sailors: 650 miles wide at its widest and the ocean bed three kilometres down. The particular stretch of water that fascinated Nuala Moore lies at 55 degrees south. “If you rotate the world on its axis, there is no land east or west as the world turns. Just water. And you have three oceans - the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Antarctic meeting.”
You can still hear the fascination in her voice, as if the mere fact of this is sufficient explanation as to why she sat in her shop in Dingle, plotting and planning as to how she might raise the king’s ransom needed to make it happen. She’s one of the most decorated and accomplished sea swimmers alive but doesn’t have sponsorship and doesn’t hawk herself on social media. She has records and accolades but isn’t particularly driven by either. It’s more of a spark or a vision of herself swimming in the remote waters of the earth. Just reaching the Drake Passage required a 14-hour journey in a simple fishing vessel with her small support team. And it was only when they arrived that the complications started.
There’s a lighthouse keeper down there who has to grant permission for anything - or anyone - passing through. And although he was convinced by Moore’s reputation that she could complete the swim, he wasn’t going to allow the Zodiac - the hard-shell dinghy - to travel alongside her. He wasn’t willing to risk the lives of the medics in a stretch of water defined by unpredictable rogue waves. If she was to swim it, then the fishing vessel would have to follow her, monitoring her progress from a couple of hundred metres away.
“And so I had to go down stairs and I had my Child of Prague and all my medals and had a committee meeting with everyone there and I just had to decide. What if they lose sight of me? And if they lose sight of me then I will die. I’d have a two hour survival time and I wouldn’t find land in that time. So I did cry. For about 15 minutes. And you realise this is why you are here. And there is a trust.
“But yeah, fear is a real aspect. It becomes a fuel. I mean there are a lot of people, myself included, who get through nights and say please let the light come. And then you just get up in the morning and get on with it. Because there is a fear attached to life as well at times. And once my tears dried I thought: no, this is what I am built for. You think: This is me. I am metal. I am powerful. And you just let go. It was only a mile swim but for those 32 minutes I had to hold on as tight as ever I could. I actually sang Christy Moore’s St Brendan’s Voyage as I swam.”
There’s some unsteady, Blair-Witchy footage of her taken from the safety boat as she swims and it’s striking precisely because it’s impossible to see her: just a pin moving through choppy grey bleak water. Even the untutored eye can quickly sense just how precarious the mission was.
It’s funny. Sometimes she’ll look out her window in Dingle and scan the weather charts and decide that it’s a day for the fire: that only a lunatic would go for a swim on a day like that. It’s the old Irish sensibility. But then, something within impels her to these quests that place her in rare waters where the margin for error is slim. Once or twice, she has scared herself. She actually sat down with a priest she knew years ago to try and figure it all out. What was compelling her to swim in these places? Why was she drawn to them?
“And I was laughing but I told him: do an exorcism. Get this girl out of me.”
She has no rational explanation but suspects it’s a simple matter of hereditary inclinations and has settled the issue in her mind with a simple question.
“What possesses any of us to do anything?”
She was born in Donegal into fishing families - the Moores and the McGowans. In 1939, her grandfather Ned Moore took his boat, Mulroy Bay, from Dingle up the coast to Killybegs. There was just one other boat in the Donegal port then, belonging to Francie McCallig. Ned Moore lived in Killybegs for 17 years as the port and town underwent a transformation before returning to Dingle. Nuala’s father Benny also fished for all of his life. When she was a child she’d sit at the window at home looking out onto the bay waiting for her father’s boat to come in. The sea fascination is in the blood and runs deeper than mere articulacy.
Her father did not swim: he was of the generation that felt, if the worst happened, fated to go down with a vessel. She remembers seeing pictures of the boats coming back into the harbour in Killybegs in 1965 after Hurricane Debbie. They used this phrase: “it was a bit of a whisper”. The drama and danger was always downplayed but the respect for the sea was immense. “You never take your eye off it,” her father would say to her again and again. Tragedy hasn’t struck her family but there’s hardly a fishing family in Ireland who hasn’t been affected by loss. In more recent years, after he began to fail, she cared for him and he’d listen as she’d recount sea swimming expeditions that became longer and more extreme by the year.
“He had no great respect for the ice but once you spoke about sea swimming, he was fascinated by it. He always used to say, ‘remember, a storm cannot hit you on four sides.’ In other words, keep pushing. You will find some calm. And then they would tuck in and come home when the storm passed. Drive into the storm because a wave can take you from any side but it can’t take you from the front.”
It’s been seven years since the Bering Strait swim. That was a different challenge in that she was part of a big, international relay team. They travelled on a Russian military hospital ship with military staff. Multitudes of languages between the team and crew of 66 people but they always found a way to communicate. She flew halfway around the world with Ann-Marie Ward, the Donegal woman who became the first Irish woman to swim the North Channel (a 19-hour endeavour, completed on her second attempt. She had to abandon her first swim when the jellyfish stings became health threatening). The pair are fast friends and they put this down as a once in a lifetime swim.
At its narrowest the Bering Strait is just 85 kilometres. The team swam from Cape Dezhnev, on the Russian side, to Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska. The expedition was a weird combination of unforgettably comradely and incredibly lonely. Progress was painstaking: at one stage, the relay team managed 600 metres in five hours. And they had some of the fastest open water swimmers in the world on that ship. They swam for 15 minute stretches, heading out on the dinghy at all hours and then sliding over the side of the boat. They wore swimsuits, not wetsuits. The actual water temperature didn’t feel much different to getting into the Irish winter sea. But it’s everything that goes with it. The cutting winds, the uncaring remoteness of the place and the knowledge they all had of what swam in those waters - the great whales, the toothed walrus.
“You can build that monster in your mind but then you have to face it,” she says. Her way was to laugh at it, sizing up the rest of the team. “And knowing the walruses were hungry and knowing they love blubber and thinking…sugar, I am going to be the target here.”
But the threat of an attack or a bite is remote. The real dangers were immediate and all about her: rogue waves, visibility and the negative pull of the water on tired limbs. Some of the stronger swimmers couldn’t handle the slowness of their progress as the currents in the strait buffeted them and dragged them back. And in the constant choppiness, getting back onto the dinghy after swims, when their limbs were not fully functioning, was hazardous. There were no engine guards so swimming up to the handlers at the rear of the boat was tricky. Sometimes they were just dragged out of the water by the backs of swimsuits, hauled from the water as if they themselves were sea creatures and lying there until the feeling began to return to their hand, their feet. It was never the cold she worried about. The body can endure more time in cold water than most of us understand.
“You could probably last a couple of hours. It is the concept of getting the wallops from the waves. The cold won’t kill you. What will kill you is the failure to be able to swim. The cold shock passes after three minutes. If you can control your breathing, the rest is only pain. But what happens is your muscles get incredibly cold. And you can lose power. And that is why a lot of accidents and incidents can happen 50 metres offshore.”
She doesn’t think that those epic swims like the Bering Strait will happen on that scale again because the risk-assessment protocols have risen steeply even in the period since they emerged from the waters in Alaska, red skinned and euphoric and bearing their national flags. But she has further swims planned. Before the pandemic struck, she had arranged to travel to base camp on Everest, climb to 5,000 metres and then swim a mile in a lake there. It’s still on her long list but, for now, her swims are confined to the intensely local.
The nationwide embrace of open water swimming has delighted Moore. Last summer, the Kerry beaches were full in a way she hadn’t seen since she was a child. She has watched small groups meeting regularly and swimming out knows it’s the same all over Ireland. A sort of unforced sea evangelism has taken place. A new generation has found the cold water and will swear by its healing properties of sea and body.
“I do think the benefits are enormous. But you need to be ready to get in the water. If you are cold going in because you haven’t slept or eaten or are just exhausted, then that affects your swim. But yes, if you just go in for a dip for one to three minutes and control your breathing and enjoy that cold shock, well, you know, they say that sea swimmers have that alertness. If you can imagine that rush of blood - I mean I have two big red rosy cheeks. I always have them. I used to take silly videos and tweet them to Kim Kardashian and Vogue Williams because they were going on about vampire facials. I told them if they come for a swim in Dingle they won’t need vampire facials. But it jumpstarts your heart and gets your lungs moving. It triggers proteins in your brain that have been linked to the reduction in the inflammation that contributes to dementia. But to go into the sea and swim you have to be the best version of yourself. You cannot hide. That is why I love the sea. When you get in there, you have to present.”
So if you are swimming down around Dingle over the year, you’ll probably see Nuala Moore. She’s got the Kerry loquaciousness and will happily chat about her adventures when people call into her shop and ask her. But she’s completely unassuming. In a way, what Nuala Moore is always talking about is the sea. For whether you swim across its unfathomable extremes as she has done or just take yourself slightly beyond the safety line of the crowd on the beach on a sunny day, the sea is a tremendous leveller.
“You are so small,” she says as if this is the secret of the appeal.
“You believe you have significance. But out there, you are nothing.”
And yet, it’s where she always goes to find herself.