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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 14 August, 2020
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2 adventurers are a quarter of the way through the first-ever round-Ireland swim

David Burns chats to The42 about this unique and highly ambitious challenge

David Burns and Maghnus Collins are currently undertaking a round-Ireland swim.
David Burns and Maghnus Collins are currently undertaking a round-Ireland swim.
Image: Provision

Updated at 14.55

DAVID BURNS HAD surely never felt happier or more relieved to see Cork.

Along with his fellow adventurer, Maghnus Collins, and with assistance from Phillip Hatton (Expedition Lead) and Leish McPartland (In-Water Support), Burns is attempting to swim the whole way around Ireland — a challenge that has never been successfully undertaken by anyone ever.

The 1600km-long challenge has only been successfully undertaken in a relay format previously, and Burns — a seasoned adventurer who has already ran 250km across the Sahara Desert, achieved the longest-ever distance kayaked on the Yangtse River, and completed 25 consecutive high-altitude marathons in 26 days across the Tibetan Plateau among other achievements — aims to finish it in less than four months.

It hasn’t been easy by any means, but after one month, Burns, Collins and co remain on course to achieve this unprecedented feat.

“Cork is our first big landmark — it’s 300km or 160 nautical miles, so it’s the first time we’ve really sat back and had a look at what we’ve done rather than just keeping going and pushing every day.

“It’s been good, there’s a huge amount we’ve learned over time and had to correct as we’ve gone and we’re pretty much still at that [level]. I suppose it gives you a bit of comfort just to know that it’s possible because we’ve made it this far.”

Moreover, this summer, Ireland enjoyed its driest June in 40 years, and while many might assume such conditions would be beneficial for Burns’ challenge, it is not necessarily the case.

“It’s so different the weather we’re looking for,” he explains. “People tell us that the weather’s been brilliant — for people at sea, it’s a lovely weekend, but we don’t look for dry conditions. They’re fairly irrelevant, sunshine doesn’t really make a difference, it’s really just the wind that you’re looking at and the wind direction.

“The biggest thing for it is the wind against the tide. If we’re looking to go with the tide and the wind’s coming against us, it only has to be gusting at about 20 knots, which isn’t particularly high, for it to be a really tricky day. That’s actually happened quite a lot, so it’s been quite a windy June, and it doesn’t need to be massive winds for it to create three-metre waves — which you can imagine, are like a bus, coming at you.

“It can really throw your stroke off although if they’re not breaking on you, it’s not particularly dangerous, but it really slows you up. But we’ve probably been quite lucky [overall].”

And as someone who is well accustomed to taxing challenges, how does swimming around the country compare to cycling from Cape Town to Ireland (17,500 km) unsupported or running across the Sahara Desert?

team

 (The team from left to right: Philip Hatton, David Burns, Maghnus Collins and Leisha McPartland)

“It’s completely different to anything I’ve done before,” he says. “What was was really hard the first week is where you’re starting to just dread a day. I just wasn’t used to the mental side of it, having not done something in a long time.

“The fact that your head’s down the whole time, you’re looking at the water, you don’t have any stimulus [to rely upon], you can’t really talk, you can see that people are with you, but for all intents and purposes, you’re by yourself.”

“I think that just takes a bit of time to get used to, whereas running or cycling or kayacking, you pass by a few people, you can say hello, even if you’re struggling, you can see all this stuff that will stimulate you a bit. You don’t have any of that when you’re swimming.

“So mentally, I found it very hard at the start and physically, it was very tough as well. But the fitness is starting to come and the mental side of it is starting to come as well.”

With just one of the four months completed, Burns is aware that a further series of tough challenges await his team, and he cites Galway Bay and Donegal Bay, in particular, as potential pitfalls.

The weather, meanwhile, is another constant source of concern.

“Whatever it throws at you, you’re going to have to deal with, and it changes the day completely. You’re going to have to have a really nice day in one place and even if you’re feeling very strong, if you have a bad day, it’s hard to get much progress done if you’re getting hits to the sides from waves and having a really bad day out there.

“We may be a quarter of the way through, but because we’re so much at the mercy of the weather, it’s hard to put an accurate estimate on [when we'll finish].”

In addition, the sheer exhaustion that this seismic task induces, coupled with the level of concentration that’s consistently required, serves to highlight the scale of the team’s ambition in even attempting the challenge in the first place.

“Having four people in the right frame of mind [is important] — a lot of our starts would be three in the morning, and everyone will be exhausted by the end of it. We’d swim for up to four or five hours. Then you might have a double day, so you’d sleep during the day and be up again [at night].

“So I think at the start, for everyone, the tiredness was a bit of a shock to the system. You get your morning session done and then sleep. Even on the boat, they’d have an awful lot of jobs — looking out for other boats, navigating to our direction, you’re [always] doing stuff.

swim

“I don’t think we fully anticipated how much work there’d be in the supporting role as well as our role, getting the boat in and out in bad conditions. Everything’s kind of full-on for the five hours that you’d be there, so if you swim five hours, you’re probably getting out in your position for an hour, you’re probably getting changed for two hours of that and doing a bit of navigating, so it can be a 10-hour chunk to get five hours of swimming done — it’s very tiring.

“It’s probably one of the biggest things — how much preparation there is outside actual swimming.

“There’s a big checklist of everything you have to do, and it’s not really an environment where you can afford to make mistakes. You have to tick every single box. Knowing that you have to be mentally on the ball every single day — and the tiredness factor catching up with you [is tough].”

Another challenge of a different sort is living in close proximity to a small group of people for such a lengthy period of time. Is this as intense and difficult as it sounds?

“Every one of us has had a bad day so far where you’re not feeling your best, so a big part is staying together and not letting yourself get cranky and just being mindful [of others].

“We talk about that a lot — how we have to support each other. Although it’s only natural to feel inwardly a little bit annoyed — all these things blow over.”

When last speaking to The42 prior to setting off on the journey, Burns highlighted weight loss as another potential issue. And it is Collins, he says, who has suffered most in this regard.

“Maghnus has lost a lot of weight and would be lighter than me. We write down our weight every morning and evening, and he started at 77.4 and I started at 92.6 and he’s 2cm taller than me, so there’s two stone difference — he’s an awful lot lighter. He struggles to put on weight and that’s been apparent from day one. He was getting much colder than I would get.

“I had a lot of fat on there at the start and I didn’t realise how important that is. We’ve both lost about three-quarters of a stone already, but it’s a much bigger deal for him than me. I haven’t had this weight in years — since I used to play a lot of rugby. But I’d have 10kg of fat, so I’ve lost half of that, but I still have a bit of protection, whereas Maghnus would be down to the bare minimum already, so it’s a lot tougher for him.

“He has to really concentrate on getting food in every day and it’s a real struggle for him to be able to eat enough. Even though the temperature is coming up with the sea now, it still can be very cold for him.

“We’d [sometimes] stop and just get food. We’d get thrown in a light belt and you’d get a drink thrown out to you and a bit of chocolate or something thrown out to you as well, and you just take that in very quickly. Maghnus can only stop for less than a minute really, and he’ll start to get very cold and have to keep going, so the fact that he’s losing weight is a problem for him, but for me it’s not [as big a problem].”

brave

Having been away from dry land for over a month now, Burns says it’s the simple pleasures that he misses the most.

“You don’t really have weekends off or time off. It’s always in the back of your mind. You’re always in expedition mode when you’re away. When you see some people doing normal stuff for a weekend, having a couple of drinks in the evening — you can’t really do that when you’re doing this.”

However, the Derry native is keen to emphasise that the journey has had its fair share of positive moments, as well as difficult ones.

“There have been some great days,” he says. “Outside of our boats, there were five or six pods of dolphins coming at us and maybe 40 dolphins in total — just off the coast of Rosslare.

“We had the sun splitting in the sky that day. Suddenly the depth of water changes when you hit the Atlantic and you can see, the water seemed like 10 or 15 feet with quite a lot of wildlife. So those kind of days help to take away the monotony that you can have sometimes. So I suppose it’s nice that it’s not all grim.”

The  Swim 360 Team have begun their daunting expedition, swimming clockwise and south along the East coast of Ireland. Hyper weight loss and the constant threat of hypothermia are just two of the obstacles facing the team who aim to raise funds and awareness for their charity partners, the RNLI Lifeboats and Gorta Self Help Africa. The expedition is sponsored by Costcutter and you can find more info on it here.

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Paul Fennessy

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