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No one owns the sea

On 20 July Stephen Redmond became the first person to complete the 45km swim from Baltimore in Ireland to the Fastnet Rock and back

“The Fastnet swim has taken me four years of trying and training. To finally complete it this year is a great relief. Obsession is in us all.”

The 45km swim from Baltimore, County Cork, Ireland to the Fastnet Rock and back had eluded Stephen Redmond for four years. The storied marathon swimmer, whose accolades include being the first person to complete the Oceans Seven – the seven toughest channel crossings in the world – first attempted the swim in August 2018. He was forced to abandon that attempt on the return leg after 10 hours 22 minutes when conditions deteriorated. The swim was now unfinished business and training resumed in earnest.

Early this summer Stephen returned for a training swim out to Fastnet and two hours back. “With not enough training done, my shoulders seized up – and the bloody paramedic would not give me any painkillers! We learned a lot from that swim and came back and beast-trained in Lough Hyne and Long Island for a solid month.” That training involved 5am swims with six-hour swims at the weekend.

Shaking hands with

the monster

On 20 July Stephen started his challenge, setting off from Baltimore at 4am. “In darkness ‘shaking hands with the monster’ was very difficult and I was quite terrified at the start. Letting go is often the hardest thing.”

An experienced support crew is often critical to the success of a marathon swim. “Without a crew I am nothing,” says Stephen. His skipper was Kieran Collins of Baltimore Fishing and Wildlife Tours, whose local knowledge meant he was spot on with tides and timing on the day. Stephen’s friend Noel Browne was back-up swimmer and observer, and he also had the support of his wife Ann, daughter Siadbh and Noel’s partner Jacinta. The swim was English Channel rules.

Great progress was made until dawn and at first light Stephen swam surrounded by a pod of minke whales. His nutrition was warm Hammer Perpetuem with the odd Milky Way or mouthwash. As he got over the gap between shrinking island and cape with its strong currents that can stop you dead in your tracks, Stephen was joined by dolphins, thousands of jellyfish and a blue shark. “The Fastnet Swim is one of the best swims and best water in the world,” he says.

Last chance

“I always think the water gives me the swim. No one owns the sea.” With water temperatures between 10 and 11 degrees Celsius, Stephen believes the sun kept him alive that day. He had put on weight leading up to the swim to be better able to cope with the cold.

With such a technical swim, knowledge of tides is paramount. “We reached the rock in seven hours. My crew never tell me how long I am in the water. I don’t want to know.” What was more important is that he was on the tide. “That was critical. The swim is done on the tide going out and coming back.” At the rock they went south for two miles to get out of the current. “Things had to go right this time. It was my last chance.”

Stephen never looked back at the rock for the rest of the swim. “Getting hammered by jellyfish with the tide running I just prayed and cursed myself the whole way back.” His wife Ann was feeding him. “I think she would have let me die rather than fail. You need that sort of madness.”

Elated but disbelieving

Swimming into Baltimore, Stephen was joined by his daughter Siadbh to help him avoid the ribs and yachts in the harbour. “That was very special. I was broken, crying most of the last half hour of swim. Soft bastard, I am afraid.” They shorelined their way in, exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated.

“I was elated but disbelieving that we were going to finish.” But he emerged triumphant from the water where he started in Baltimore harbour after 15 hours and 35 minutes.

Stephen now hopes other marathon swimmers will take up the challenge of the Fastnet. “We have the swim open to all the world to come swim.” But what next for Stephen? “Should I do another swim in the next few weeks? Or rest…?

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.