Ten RNLI volunteers assembled at Newcastle Harbour, County Down. They came prepared, wearing their yellow waterproofs, red lifejackets, and white helmets. Coastguard officials joined in equal numbers, getting dressed into their overalls and safety gear.
‘Morning, Alan. You’re becoming the talk of the town, a bit of a local celeb.’
‘How’s it going, Lisa?’ I said to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) officer, nodding to the heavens and feeling my cheeks reddening. ‘Yeah, more like a local pain in the arse. Real sorry about all this hassle.’
‘That’s what we’re here for; not to worry. Follow me. Brace yourself,’ Lisa said, leading me towards the pier wall.
‘Morning, Alan!’ Seamus said. I looked down from the pier. The local fisherman smiled and waved, standing in his T-shirt and trousers while up to his neck in the frigid water. A swarm of moon jellyfish bobbed around him like discarded plastic bags, but Seamus was unfazed, focused on helping me out. ‘I found her like this ten minutes ago. I’m just getting her out of harm’s way, is all.’
Seamus waded towards the slipway, gripping my damaged support boat with his left hand and scooping his right arm forwards like a digger.
‘I think I might need a bigger milk carton to bail the water out this time. What do you think?’ I said, grinning and bearing the sorry situation.
The orange and black tubing along one side of my rigid inflatable boat (RIB) held its breath, full lungs ensuring this side remained just above the water. The tubing on the opposite side of the RIB was flat as a floppy pancake and drowning.
I walked over to the concrete boat slip to assess the problem head-on. I tilted my head forty-five degrees, hoping if I matched the boat’s angle, things mightn’t look so dire. It was no use.
‘The milk carton won’t fix this one,’ I said.
A volunteer patted my back. ‘Ah, I’m really sorry, Alan.’
My support boat was the size of a convertible car, and I had no trailer to wheel it from the sea. The locals and I would have to lug the boat from the water for the second time this week. Five of us gripped the rubber handles on the left side, while five others took the right side. Two were on plank duty. Taking a leaf from the pyramid builders, we placed a handful of wooden posts on the incline, grunted, and heaved the boat upwards. Orange paint flaked off as the boat’s fibreglass hull shrilled against the timber like nails on a chalkboard. I winced, thinking of the damage, and a chill shivered up my spine. We inched forwards in group bursts on the count of three. I stared skywards as fifty-euro notes with fluffy wings flew away.
The sight at the top of the slipway was harsher than the piercing scrapes – the battered boat laid out on the asphalt against the car park’s cinder block wall.
Once we set the RIB aside, I began discussing my project’s fate with the RNLI volunteers and Coastguard. With my support boat out of action, I hadn’t much choice. After 210 kilometres of punishing sea swimming, Murphy’s Law sank my boat and ended my charity challenge.
I saw the relief on the faces of the safety volunteers, no longer on standby for another assistance callout.
‘Ah, look, it’s desperate, I know,’ a volunteer said. ‘You put in so much effort, but it’s the right call. To be fair, I would have quit long ago. It’s a wonder you swam this far, so fair play to ya.’
The morning’s commotion calmed, and everyone disappeared.
‘Ugh, fuckin’ hell,’ I muttered to myself.
I could feel the warmth of the breakwater boulders through my shorts as I sat in solitude on the shoreline. Seagulls cawed overhead. The cold swell flowed towards me and pulled away, wet splashes landing on the tips of my trainers and seeping through to my toes – taunting me.
With the mighty Mourne Mountains behind me, I inhaled the aroma of the salty seaweed and stared across Dundrum Bay, and sighed. The scenery appeared as though viewed through the bottom of a pint glass – streams flowing down my adventure-beaten face, and into my dishevelled beard.
I had hoped to become the first to swim the length of the island of Ireland – 500 kilometres of sea swimming – from the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast to my home of County Waterford on the south coast.
It was June 2017. After nearly thirty days of battle, this was where I had to accept defeat.
In that moment of loneliness, I was not a twenty-six-year-old man. I was a wounded boy, mourning much more than a personal pursuit. The premature end to my adventure forced me to stop and sit still in the reality that my dad, Milo, was dead. I’d failed in my tribute to him. I’d let him down. I wanted to feel his comforting arm around my shoulder and hear his reassuring voice telling me it would be alright, that I’d honoured him in the act of giving it a proper bash, despite the wreckage. That wasn’t going to happen. Wanting my dad’s presence, I was alone and inconsolable. Time froze as I stewed in misery.
Those sinking feelings were a country mile from the life-affirming joy I’d experienced at the end of my previous charity adventure.
Five years earlier, by 30 June 2012, my dad had worked tirelessly for fifteen months to recover from a debilitating stroke. He stood proud, alive, and free on that glorious summer’s day, embracing me with a wide grin beneath the Waterford Viking Marathon finish banner.
‘You did it! Some man for one man, Al,’ Dad said.
I gave him a tight hug, landing a sweaty kiss on his smiling cheek. ‘Sure, didn’t I tell you we would!’
Fundraising €15,000 for the Irish Heart Foundation, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Football Village of Hope, I’d run thirty-five marathons (1,500 kilometres) in thirty-five consecutive days around Ireland’s coast. Dad had returned from the brink. My family triumphed over adversity.
Five years on, though – on the rocks of Newcastle, County Down – hardship wasn’t willing to let go of its suffocating stranglehold. Where do I go from here? I wondered.