By Fergal Somerville
Where would you find 15 adults, ranging in age from the statutory minimum of 28 to the not so early 50s, delighted to hear that the temperature of the water they were about to swim in was a mere 4 degrees Celsius?
At the beautiful Lough Dan, of course. On Saturday 4 February, 15 accomplished winter swimmers turned up at the invitation of Dublin’s famous Eastern Bay Swim Team to complete an international Ice Mile, a one mile swim in standard swimming togs and goggles in water of 5 degrees Celsius or less.
The event, now in its fifth year, had so far produced 24 international Ice Miles. The rules for the event are set by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), which was established in South Africa in 2009 by Ram Barkai, whose vision is to bring swimming to the Winter Olympics.
Our Eastern Bay event is strictly invitational. At the end of the Irish summer open water swimming season, which is October, we announce the event and inform potential participants of our requirements, which they must meet in addition to the rigorous medical tests of the IISA. Principally, this means swimming one mile in open water every week through the winter leading up to the event (a swim log must be kept and submitted prior to the event). Thereby, swimmers confidently swim the distance and acclimatise to the falling temperature. Not to do so is reckless as winter swimming is not for the faint hearted (and just to prove this, ECGs are mandatory). It is an extreme sport that is developing very quickly.
From October to February we maintain regular contact with potential swimmers. November saw the issue of the initial tranche of invites and thereafter a reserve list was established. This year’s event, similar to previous years, attracted swimmers from all over Ireland (10), Wales (2), Scotland (one) and England (two). Word is out, however; this event is a weekend-long festival and is particularly popular with the international contingent. On Friday, we start with a ‘warm-up’ swim in Dublin Bay, which was a delightful 7 degrees Celisius. This swim introduces our foreign guests to beautiful views of Howth, Ireland’s Eye, Lambay Island and along the East Coast to Skerries. We then enjoy a night out in the city centre. On Saturday we transport swimmers 35km through the Dublin Hills and Wicklow Mountains to Lough Dan. Reaching the venue on any day in the year is breath-taking; it’s a glacial lake, deep and dark, surrounded by steep majestic mountains and accessible from the corner of an enchanting meadow of greenery. The sun rises from the Irish Sea to watch the event, but not to warm it.
2016’s event was a NICE Mile, a term coined after the first Eastern Bay event in Dollymount in January 2013. A NICE Mile is where the water temperature just exceeds the 5 degrees Celsius for an Ice Mile. In the first three Eastern Bay Ice Mile events the water temperature was 3.8, 3.3 and 3.6 degrees. This year, it was a little warmer at 4 degrees, but still cold enough for an IISA qualifying swim. It’s difficult to comprehend swimmers calling 4 degrees warm and preparing to immerse in it for up to 45 minutes, but that is what we do. To put this in perspective, the coldest water you are likely to get from your tap in Ireland is 7 degrees, and most of us will not hold our hands under the flow for more than one minute.
Swimmers arriving in Lough Dan were greeted by Corinna Nolan and Patrick Corkery for registration: both accomplished open water swimmers recuperating from injuries and itching to get back to the training grind. Like so many others, they gave their support to the event to facilitate the others. Each swimmer brought or met two dressers for assistance before and after completing the swim and were assigned to the individual kayakers who would shadow their every effort on each lap. The air temperature was a crisp 6 degrees and with no wind conditions could not have been better.
Our preparations are substantial. The sleepy meadow was awoken early by the arrival of two ambulances, three RIBs, 12 kayaks, two marquees, eight paramedics and two doctors. Club members and doctors Nichola Gilliland and Brian Marsh provided the very exceptional medical cover for the event and have done so every year. John Egan of Irish Water Safety takes charge of the event on the water and Declan Proctor and John Daly officiate on land. This year’s event was also attended by IISA Ireland’s committee members Jacqueline McClelland and Milo McCourt from Armagh.
By 10:00 all swimmers were present and we called the group together. The briefing was brief. I welcome everybody and thank the supporters and non-swimmers, without whom the swim would not take place. Swimmers were then briefed by Nichola and advised that the Ice Mile is an aspiration and if swimmers do not feel right at any stage they should leave the swim. John Egan of Irish Water Safety counsels swimmers on how to arrange extraction from the swim and reassures them that all will be closely observed throughout. With that, swimmers were dispatched to return in togs, hat, goggles and buoyancy aid. The RIBs are poised inside the 400m course and the kayakers await their swimmers to commence their four laps. At 10:55 Jacqueline McClelland officially started the first of two swims.
From the start, England’s Adam Walker led the way. He was closely followed by Limerick’s John Ryan. I was next, feeling anything but the heat of the competition and rapidly losing touch with the two leaders. The rest of the field was made up by Nathan Timmins, Kevin Cooper, Pearse Ryan, Noel Browne and Ronan Markey. The kayaks slid silently alongside the swimmers and the group stretched out over the course. There was a distinct urgency amongst the swimmers. This is a cold, cold swim and the sooner it is over the sooner normal temperatures can be restored. Unfortunately, the cold proved too much for several swimmers who, despite each completing a kilometre, slowed to a point where efforts to continue were futile and decided to retire.
The second wave was the more cosmopolitan of the two. The two Welsh ladies, Catherine Pendleton and Viki Brice were joined by Ireland’s Kathryn Pratschke (on loan to Scotland), Galway’s Fergal Madden, Lusk’s Saulius Brusaz (on loan from Lithuania), England's Andrea Startin, and Glenalbyn’s Susan Howard, who is completing her first winter swimming season. Sadly, the cold got to Susan and she knew to retire at the start of the final lap.
Such is the nature of the event that participants and supporters only get to relax after all swimmers have safely exited the water, dressed and started to warm-up. The Ice Mile is a challenge to all swimmers, but Eastern Bay likes to acknowledge the fastest man and fastest woman to complete the course. In 2013 Sabrina Wiedmer from Switzerland turned in a world record breaking time of 25 minutes and 51 seconds. Although there were no records this year, Adam Walker turned in a sharp time of 25 minutes and 26 seconds. Andrea Startin was fastest woman in 32 minutes and 21 seconds. Kathryn Pratschke held up the start of the celebrations with her swim of 41 minutes and 58 seconds. But although 16 minutes separated the first from final finisher, comradeship unites all who take on the challenge of Eastern Bay Invitational International Ice Mile.
Provisional results list
Swimmer Country Finish
1. Adam Walker Eng 25:26
2. John Ryan Ire 27:26
3. Fergal Somerville Ire 29:27
4. Andrea Startin Eng 32:21
5. Fergal Madden Ire 33:28
6. Catherine Pendleton Wales 35:06
7. Saulius Brusaz Ire 35:34
8. Viki Brice Wales 37:12
9. Nathan Timmins Ire 37:42
10. Kevin Cooper Ire 37:46
11. Kathryn Pratschke Ire 41:58
Four swimmers, Susan Howard, Noel Browne, Pearse Ryan and Ronan Markey each completed more than 1 km but didn’t finish the full mile. There are now 35 Eastern Bay Ice Miles, making about 10% of the worldwide total.