IT has been 75 years since Torpedo Tom Blower’s swim across the North Channel from Ireland to Britain. Rough seas scuppered his first attempt but he tried again telling wife Clarice, “I’m not getting out of the water for anybody.” He ploughed through stinging jellyfish, floating seaweed, shoals of herring, a thunder storm and hailstones as big as marbles for 15 hours and 26 minutes to cover the 19 miles from Donaghadee in county Down to Portpatrick in Galloway. A miner’s son from Nottingham, ‘Torpedo Tom’ died in 1955 at the age of 41. He was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1964 and had a street named after him in Wollaton.
His extraordinary feat of endurance was not repeated until 1970. Alison Streeter from Dover became the first woman to complete the swim in 1988 and the record for the fastest time is held by Michelle Macy of the USA who zipped across in nine hours and 34 minutes in 2013. The swim is now completed by enthusiasts every summer. In July an American became the first person to swim both ways. It took Sarah Patterson 22 hours.
The North Channel is one of the Oceans Seven open water challenges. These include the Straits of Gibraltar, Cook Strait in New Zealand and Tsugaru Channel in Japan. It was an Irishman, Stephen Redmond from Cork, who first completed all seven in 2012. In 2020 the 54-year-old became the first person to swim from Baltimore on the mainland to Ireland’s iconic Fastnet Rock and back again. He said, “It’s like sensory deprivation. You have plugs in your ears so you can’t hear anything, and you can’t see anything in front of you or to the side, apart from waves and the ocean. It’s the ultimate in isolation. But then you go from two hours in the dark to come into the dawn, and you are surrounded by Minke whales, like something out of Star Trek, and the people on the boat tell you they have been following you for over an hour. It’s amazing.”
Though almost half of Irish people say they are not confident in the water or cannot swim, Irish swimmers have been competing in the Olympics since 1928 including my late friend and neighbour Rob Howard who represented Ireland in the backstroke and butterfly in Montreal in 1976. Michelle Smith de Bruin holds three gold medals from Atlanta in 1996, despite a shadow hanging over her achievement because of doping allegations. Nine Irish swimmers took part in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the largest squad to have represented the country.
Wild swimming is fast becoming a popular pastime and thousands of people of all ages took to the water in 2019 after indoor pools closed because of Covid regulations. Ireland has 95 Blue Flag beaches and a further 62 have Green Coast status which means they are kept clean by volunteers. It has a fascinating history. The romantic poet Lord Byron swam from Europe to Asia across the Dardanelles in 1810 and Matthew Webb became the first man to swim the English channel in 1875. In the US there are monthly swims from Alcatraz across San Francisco Bay.
Swim Ireland, the national governing body for 32 counties, has 18,000 members and endorses events such as the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Race; the Great Fjord Swim at Killary in Connemara and Baltimore’s Wet Weekend in Cork. The first Liffey swim in Dublin was won by Jack Fagan in 1920 and the Lee swim through Cork can attract up to 500 entries. Though it is a lot cleaner these days, there is no equivalent on the Lagan in Belfast.
I have no aspiration to become a long distance swimmer but this summer I was determined to learn how to surf. I’ve dreamed of catching the waves since I first heard the Beach Boys sing Surfin’ USA in 1963 but somehow I’ve never been able to find the time. There is a long list of health benefits associated with the sport in addition to the sheer exhilaration of flashing across the ocean like world champion Gabriel Medina of Brazil.
Water sports are popular all along the county Down coast where I live. I marvel at the kite-surfers of Ballyholme and kayakers of Killyleagh but we simply don’t have the big strands and rolling breakers for good surfing. I spent my holidays on the Wild Atlantic Way where I’m lucky to have a holiday home just half an hour from Ireland’s surfing capital at Rossnowlagh. Donegal was the venue for the International Surfing Championships in 1985 and a surf school opened in 2014 where lessons and board hire are reasonably priced.
I have successfully tackled the first challenge. Finding a wetsuit that fits snugly, and managing to get in and out of it, left me feeling like I’d been for a cross-channel swim. I can get on the surfboard and catch a wave but have yet to get up off my knees before the Atlantic knocks me down and steals my dignity. I may be 63 and look like a Minke whale in neoprene but I take inspiration from New Zealander Nancy Mehrne who is still enjoying the sport at the age of 93 and Australian’s Barry ‘Magoo’ McGuigan who was competing at the age of 85 and has a tournament named after him in California.
I do not anticipate reaching the heights of Garrett McNamara, who is believed to have caught a 78-foot wave in Portugal in 2011. I will be content to get to my feet for a few moments and glide ashore on a little nursery surf in the company of the grandchildren. It is reassuring to know the sharp eyes of young lifeguards are watching to ensure I don’t come home in a wooden onesie.
If I reach a modest standard I might start my own surf school in Millisle – I’ll call it Tom Blower’s Surfin’ OAPs.