Swim for Sorcha
August 12 th & 13 th 2020
Inis Mór to Salthill, Co. Galway.
There are swims, then there are epic swims.
This was an epic swim!
Whilst the 40km distance from Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands on the
edge of Galway Bay, to Salthill on the County Galway coast has been swum
before by Feilim O’Maolain in 2002, it has never been attempted by an All
2020 will be recorded in history as the year of Covid19. The year when we
were locked down to protect ourselves and our loved ones; the year we
couldn’t travel 2k from our homes; the year when the world came to a full stop
and we had to create a new normal.
There is something about swimming to an island, around an island or from an
island. Many open water swimmers will admit that when they see a stretch of water
the first thought that crosses their minds is “I wonder if I could swim
that?”. Many marathon swimmers when asked the question “Why did you
swim that?” the reply is often “Well, why not?”.
Mermaids can’t survive out of the water for too long and for those of us lucky
enough to be close to the sea during Lockdown 2020, it was our saviour. With
scheduled swim events cancelled, it was time to think outside the box and
make the most of the wild Atlantic waters on our doorsteps. A plan was
brewing and the question “Who’s up for an adventure?” brought together a
powerful team of female swimmers from Atlantic Masters Swimming Club who
were certainly up for an adventure.
The original team was made up of Cliona Pierse, Michelle Power, Helen Colfer,
Annette Cullen and Majella Scanlan. Unfortunately, the day before the swim
was due to take place Majella had to pull out much to hers and the rest of her
teams’ disappointment. We had hoped she might be able to get out to join us
at some point but it wasn’t to be.
This was no ordinary swim. This was a first, a landmark swim to challenge
those taking part, to inspire others of what is possible and to remember a
beautiful friend lost too soon.
The training plan! There were many laps around the island at Crushoa near
Kinvara. There were “2 hrs in, 1hr out” sessions. There were “early morning
bucketing down with rain” swims. There were “What the hell am I doing here
when I could be in bed?” swims. However, there were plenty of “that was a
cracking swim” swims, and always at the back of our minds was “This one’s for
Sorcha and she would just love to be in the water right now”.
We watched the Windy App like hawks. The search for a pilot and a boat who
was available and willing to take on the challenge was possibly the worst part
and a massive “Thank you” to Kenneth Ketterick for taking it on. With 24hr
notice it was “game on” for a Tuesday night departure in mid-August from
We met at Galway Docks at 1:00 am to load the boat with all the kit, helped by
Sean Og Leydon who possibly will owe our pilot Kenneth a kidney for the rest
of his life for getting him mixed up in all this madness. Boat fuelled, swimmers
on board, we headed out into the bay for a 2hr journey to the Aran Islands.
With a clear sky above us and a meteor shower on display, it was a wonderful
night to be out on Galway Bay. We did however take the opportunity to try
and get some rest time as it was going to be a long day ahead.
(L-R Annette Cullen, Michelle Power, Cliona Pierse, Helen Colfer)
The Lighthouse on Straw Island just off the coast of Inis Mór, was chosen as
our start point. Here the water was shallow enough for the boat and allow
Annette the lead swimmer, to be able to stand up out of the water safely in
the dark. She entered the water from the boat and swam to Straw Island,
stood up then started the swim. The clock showed 03:47 and the first hour of
the swim was underway.
For safety reasons, Annette was lit up like a Christmas tree with a torch in her
tow float and nightlight on her hat. The sea around the Aran Islands was
exceptionally clear and even in the dark hours before dawn, it was possible to
see a few feet in front and below. The water was balmy and soon the first hour
was up and it was Helen’s turn to get in and enjoy swimming into an early
morning sunrise over Galway Bay.
Cliona was the next swimmer into the water, getting into her stride facing the
rising sun, sharing the Bay with passing dolphins. After pumping out a solid 3k,
she was back onto the boat with a big smile on her face despite the jelly fish
Finally, it was Michelle’s turn for her first one hour of gliding through the water
in her typical effortless way completing her 3k swim, oblivious to the dolphins
playing a few hundred feet from her. She told us not to tell her they were
there so we didn’t… until she got out of course. At this point, we began Round
2 of our rotations with the tide turning at 11am while Michelle was in.
(Helen Colfer &; Cliona Pierse)
As the tide turned against us, things started to get tougher. At times, we
seemed to be in a holding position with a fast tide ebbing out of the bay. For
the next four hours, each swimmer went all out, digging deep, taking what
distance we could in each hour.
Blackhead to our right, jutting into Galway Bay from the Clare coast, seemed to
be getting no closer. At one stage, a mist came across to block it from our view
which was a bit of a reprieve from watching it but getting no nearer to it.
Kenneth our pilot, at this point considered manoeuvring us out a bit further
into the bay but then decided to hold position. Bodies were starting to tire and
hurt a wee bit and this was probably where we felt the impact of a team of 5
going to 4. Missing that extra hour of rest, all thoughts of updating social
media, status updates etc were unimportant.
(4 women swimming means a lot of togs required)
The tide always turns and when it did we made the absolute most of it. We
could see Silver Strand up ahead, we knew we had it in the bag, now we just
had to finish it out. Michelle was in at 14:47, was that going to be her last
hour? We weren’t sure yet. Annette back in at 15:47 giving it socks with a tide
and wind behind her sighting and heading for Salthill followed by Helen
bashing out a whopper swim. It was then we knew that Cliona getting in at
17:47 would bring it home.
The rest of the team got in with about 1km to go following Cliona into Salthill
with the clock stopping at 18:17. We had figured in our heads that it would be
a 16hr, possibly 18hr swim but to say we were over the moon at 14hrs and 15
mins was an understatement.
(Cliona Pierse finishing at Blackrock)
(Cliona Pierse, Michelle Power)
There was a lovely welcoming committee at the beach and emotions were
slightly overwhelmed is probably the best way to put it. However, it was a
quick turn around and back to the boat we went.
(Cliona Pierse, Helen Colfer, Michelle Power, Annette Cullen celebrating their
39.2km from Inis Mór to Salthill in Galway in 14 hrs 15 mins)
On arriving back at Galway Docks, we were cheered in by family and friends,
there were even handmade banners. We were also welcomed home by
Sorcha’s family and friends.
Whilst this may be a summary of the swim but if anyone’s interests are piqued
and a thought emerges of “Oh maybe I/we would love to do that too”, we
would all say go for it!
Swim for Sorcha
Our friend Sorcha passed away in April 2020 after suffering from a stroke. She
was truly one of those beautiful people inside and out, also she had an
absolute love for the sea. When we decided we were going to do the swim, we
knew we wanted to use the opportunity to dedicate the swim to her but also
raise funds for the Irish Heart Foundation and the Stroke Unit in UHG where
she had been looked after. We shouldn’t have been so amazed at the
response. Sorcha had left her mark on the swimming community and everyone
she met, the warmth of her smile, her fantastic sense of humour, her genuine
care for others and it would be remiss not to mention her amazing baked
goods. We were delighted to raise over €5500 for the Irish Heart Foundation
and €1000 for the Stroke Unit in her memory.
We know that she was with us for every stroke, we know she was enjoying the
spectacle of the boat ride under a meteor shower, the sunrise, the dolphins
dancing around us, we even know she would have loved the jellyfish.
This was truly an epic swim.
“What this swim meant to me … the knowledge that this risk averse woman
can do more than she thinks. With the support and inspiration from fellow
swimmers, my friends, I can push through the nerves and fear and way out of
my comfort zone to complete a physical and mental challenge. For those that
know me well; I also now know it takes about 90 minutes in 16+ degrees air
temp for the blood to start flowing in my hands again! This swim has changed
me, diluted the impact of Covid and helped me to reflect on how each day
matters and how many a life was lost too early this year”
“I am known to be very bad for responding to Whats App messages but when
Annette suggested the swim at the end of June it only took me one minute to
respond. I was in. It was a short lead in time and I had never managed an hour
in togs in Ireland so I knew that was going to be the challenge for me.
We upped the time in the water over the next six weeks and before I had time
to talk myself out of it we had a window of good weather and Annette and
Sean Og were pulling out all the stops to get us a boat- thank you Kenneth and
Shane! Once we got on the boat the nerves evaporated and I was just looking
forward to getting in the water. In my first swim I got to enjoy a lovely sunrise
and when the ladies on the boat all whipped out their phones at the same time
I knew I had the company of dolphins nearby! Each swim was enjoyable and
challenging in different ways. When I needed to dig deep my thoughts turned
to Sorcha and as in life she was a great source of encouragement. I am so
grateful to have been able to be part of such an amazing adventure with such
“Helen”………says Annette, in a sing song kind of way that I have come to know
means she has a plan…an epic plan…. that involves a lot of swimming, possible
hardship, lots of training and definitely cake. But there is only ever one answer.
“Yes Annette, I’m in”. Having struggled with injury on and off over the last 2
years, I had some niggling doubts. But this was one swim I knew I would regret
not doing. I will never forget the excitement when we got confirmation we had
a boat! We were ready to rock! Heading out to Inis Mór the nerves started to
settle a bit and business got underway with Annette starting us off in the inky
black darkness! As the darkness gave way to the sunrise with Cliona in the
water, I have never enjoyed a sunrise so much. Sitting on the boat, wrapped up
warm, chatting with Michelle and Annette and knowing Sorcha was with us. To
say it was an amazing experience is an understatement. It was a journey
shared with friends in memory of a beautiful friend.”
“In the year that was 20×20 an initiative was created to inspire younger
generations of girls to believe they are equal in sport and in life. 2020 was also
the year that we were stopped in our tracks with a global pandemic. Life was
flipped upside down and our resilience was tested. This swim was a testimony
to strength and resilience. This swim will hopefully inspire not just young
women to believe but anyone to believe what is possible when you put her
head and heart into it. This swim was four friends making it happen. This swim
is one I will treasure for the rest of my life because of who I did it with, who I
did it for and for those who helped make it happen. Thank you Kenneth, Shane
and Sean Og.”