independent

Sunday 22 September 2019

After a typhoon and an earthquake, it's third time lucky for Wexford swimmers

Receiving their certs having completed the swim were Denise Underwood, Sandra Goldsmith, SaskiaDodebier, Peter Bolger, Enda Sinnott and James O’Connor
Receiving their certs having completed the swim were Denise Underwood, Sandra Goldsmith, SaskiaDodebier, Peter Bolger, Enda Sinnott and James O’Connor

Pádraig Byrne

Having been hampered by currents, a typhoon and a massive earthquake, a team from Wexford has become the first mixed relay team in the world and the first ever Irish relay team to swim the Tsugaru Strait in Japan.

The team, consisting of James O Connor from Forth Mountain, Enda Sinnott from Baldwinstown, Peter Bolger from New Ross, Saskia Dodebier from Edenvale and Denise Underwood and Sandra Goldsmith from Killinick, swam a total distance of 45km to complete the challenge - their fourth in the legendary Oceans Seven Series, leaving just three to complete - the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Moloka'i Channel in Hawaii.

Their successful attempt was some time in the making. Slots for the swim are booked two years in advance and having booked in 2016 to swim in 2018, there was a threat of a 'mega storm' upon their arrival in Japan. The team rushed to the port in the hopes that they could swim before the winds picked up too much.

'We got the word to come to the port, so all preparations were made,' said Peter Bolger. 'Unfortunately, the storm's approach had sped up and the swim was cancelled just when we arrived at the starting point. There was a second opportunity later the following week, after Typhoon Jebi passed and once again we were called to the boat. This time a major earthquake struck on the eve of the second attempt, killing over 43 people. That was our last chance for 2018.'

The gang made a return to Japan at the start of August, determined to conquer the gargantuan task. The patient wait began and each day passed without change - the winds were too high and the captain refused to take the risk. Two solo swimmers attempted the treacherous crossing that week and after 14 hours of swimming, they were pulled away by strong currents.

'We had to make some difficult decisions at this point,' said Peter. 'To be honest, we were fed up to the back teeth. Our second journey to Japan and still no luck. However, we were offered a slot the following week. There was no guarantee the weather would be right, although the indications were for a dramatic change.'

Among those pushing to stay was Denise, determined to get it done this time. As it was a new slot, this was the third time the team had to pay for the opportunity to undertake the swim and they hadn't even got wet yet! After working out the logistics, re-arranging flights and booking accommodation, the gang decided to take the chance and stay on.

The gamble certainly paid off, as when the team arrived at Tappi port, all systems were go. The forecast was looking good and there had been two successful crossings that day.

Two boats are required to undertake this challenging swim. One for the swimmers, captain and observer, whose job it is to ensure the team swim by the rules laid down by the governing body and can enter the record books. The second boat is to watch for approaching ships and, slightly more terrifyingly, sharks lurking in the area. This vessel also carries a shark deterrent system which consists of electrodes submerged in the sea.

As the gang sets off, it's pitch black. It's 1 a.m. and there's not a breath of air with temperatures hitting 25 degrees. James O'Connor is first in the water, with a leg that lasts an hour. When asked by the rest of the team how it was trying to swim along behind a white streamer, his reply was succinct - 'Horrible'.

James is followed by Enda for the next hour who powers through and is followed up by Peter and then Saskia. While Saskia is in the water, the captain suggests a different approach, advising the team to switch to 15 minute slots and swim harder. They agree and next in the water is Denise, who unwittingly enters with a spectacular back-flip, much to the captain's annoyance!

Progress is hampered in the dark by a number of fishing boats getting too close. After six tough hours in the water, the captain is pessimistic and the team is beginning to feel the effects of no sleep.

'We had just covered 12km, less than a third of the swim, at that point,' Peter recalls. 'We would have expected to be closer to the half way mark. The observer relayed messages to the captain telling us we need to swim harder. I can honestly say we were sprinting, giving it 110%; but he insisted we must go faster. How I didn't chuck him over board I'll never know!'

By 10 a.m. the team are close to half way. A sticky humid heat descends. Water temperature is at 28 degrees and there's no shelter from the glaring sun on deck. Self-doubt begins to creep in.

'I was talking to myself,' said Peter. 'Every time you looked behind, the port we left early in the morning was still plainly visible. Even after 20km the target was nowhere in sight. All I could think was; what if we fail, how do we as a team, after waiting so long for this opportunity, accept failure, pick ourselves up and come back to try again. Failure is not an option. Look around you, there are no quitters on board here.'

Huge container ships passing along the strait accounted for numerous stops which added an hour to the total swim time. Waiting at the shore, Peter's wife Kate was told to expect them back between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. That time had long since passed and she was worried sick.

After 30km, conditions got slightly choppier, requiring even more effort from the already exhausted team. Swim slots had decreased further from 15 to 10 minutes to help keep up the pace. However, the sight of their destination in the distance gave them hope, although the captain still did not rate their chances. On more than one occasion he asked if they wanted to throw in the towel.

'It was only after 40km that he told the group we would succeed,' said Peter. 'At that stage all I could do was put one arm in front of the other. When Saskia got out from her last swim, she had this unusual grin on her face and was babbling incoherently. I knew she wasn't well. Enda was in bits; he could hardly stand up with the pain, on top of that he was badly sunburnt as was Sandra and Denise. The fact we ran out of water didn't help either.'

However, against all odds and having overcome some pretty major hurdles to make the swim happen in the first place, the Wexford team made it. As a result of sheer dogged determination they hit the shore after 16 hours and 37 minutes in the water. Having overcome typhoons, hurricanes and bad luck, they can now add the Tsugaru Strait to their ever shortening list.

Plans are already afoot for the team to tackle the Cook Strait in New Zealand early next year, followed by Gibraltar next summer and finishing in 2021 with a swim of the Moloka'i Channel in Hawaii to complete the Ocean Seven Series.

Wexford People

Most Read

News