Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Come with me to the sea of love ...

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last ... and still Kenny Boyd kept on going. Here, he explains the extraordinary inspiration behind his swim from Rathlin Island to Ballycastle

Why swim bareskin from Rathlin Island to Ballycastle in October? Well that's just what I did a week ago today. Mad, crazy, foolish were all words that friends and family used to describe my ambition to be the first person in 30 odd years to swim solo the seven miles from Rathlin Island to Ballycastle.

Just why would someone endure four hours of freezing sea water (at 11 degrees), stinging jellyfish, biting sea lice and frighteningly dangerous currents?

It's been a childhood dream to swim the Rathlin Sound since I was knee high and holidayed in Ballycastle.

A more pressing reason, however, for the swim, which isn't just quite so romantic and one that we are all responsible for and must face together, is climate change.

I've worked in the environmental sector all my life and thought, as I rapidly approach my fifth decade, that now is the time to fly the flag for the poor and marginalised in the world. It is they who are going to be worst affected by climate change.

We once thought that we could make poverty history - well, frankly, climate change is going to make poverty permanent.

My chosen charity was Concern International (my uncle also supported them by walking round Ireland in the early '90s); they are doing fabulous work in Bangladesh helping people cope with an unpredictable future where the incidence of extreme weather events will increase with the loss of many more lives.

Bangladeshi people have suffered terribly from floods recently and these are likely to grow in strength in years to come.

The World Bank estimates that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow there could be a sea level rise of one to three metres this century.

In Bangladesh a sea level rise of just 95cm will result in up to 35million environmental refugees. It's a deeply sobering thought that a population six times that of Ireland could be left homeless - it was enough for me to strip off and plunge into the chilly and dangerous waters of the Atlantic.

I am a sea swimmer virgin, though competent in a swimming pool - I have never done anything other than a paddle in the sea round the coast or on foreign hols.

I sought advice from one of the great Irish sea swimmers of our time - Ned Denison, who lives in Cork. His enthusiasm and energy are as electric as his white smile. So I started my training at the end of 2006 which entailed hours in the pool building up stamina and strength.

In spring this year I ventured into the waters of Kinsale Harbour with Ned and plodded round Sandycove Island (at the complete opposite end of Ireland to Rathlin) in what was an utter baptism of fire - the mile long swim left me breathless and hyperventilating! I had completed the start of a long, lonely, cold journey - the end destination of Rathlin seemed an extremely long way away.

The next six months saw cold baths (for no other reason than to acclimatise) and 2.5mile swims in Belfast Lough and along the North Antrim Coast.

My fear of jellyfish grew as I got stung all over the body and the sight of their lucid colourings and frightening tentacles brought immediate paralysis. I had to overcome this fear if I was serious about conquering Rathlin.

Throughout the summer I would get greased up (that's the fun bit - getting it off is impossible!) and throw myself into the Atlantic or Irish Seas fantasising that I was in the Caribbean. Spending up to three hours in the water I would think of a prize of a pint of beer on completion (or when it got really cold, sex, as advised by my coach Ned).

I put on the pounds and drank litres of high energy drinks leading to flatulence which failed to propel me in the murky depths.

I set the date for the end of September with Neil McFaul (a Rathlin boatman with unparalleled knowledge of the Sound) when the tides were in my favour and which would hopefully take me in the direction of Ballycastle rather than to Scotland or America.

Then came a devastating blow - my partner Nicola Russell, the Belfast artist, was diagnosed with breast cancer in early September. Within 10 days she underwent a mastectomy and a reconstruction. My attention on the swim naturally waned and the motivation disappeared. I did no training as I visited the hospital and looked after Nic.

The professional sea swimmers advised me not to worry about the swim yet Nicola knew it meant a lot and wanted me to carry on.

Despite a break in the training I decided to give it a shot - the end of September came and with it the gales on the North Antrim coast. There was no way the swim could proceed on safety grounds. I thought that I wasn't meant to be doing this swim, maybe it would wait for another year.

Neil the boatman phoned to say that there was a window around October 3/4. Suddenly it was all back on, getting good weather seemed slim but Nicola was recovering from surgery and was giving me support along with expert swimmer Geoff Wilson from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association (ILDSA).

The date came quickly and Ned warned me that the actual swim is 20% physical and 80% mental.

As I looked across Rathlin Sound on the afternoon of the October 3 I began to think that you had to be 100% mental to do such a daft thing.

My team for the day consisted of Neil and his daughter Emma, Robin Ruddock, the famous kayaker, and Richard Timms from the ILDSA who was officially observing.

And, of course, Nicola, who had by now got the applying of grease onto my body into a fine art.

I stepped into the waters of Church Bay, Rathlin shortly before 3pm. Three hours 50 minutes later I stumbled out of the water and onto the slipway at Ballycastle Harbour (speechless and shaking uncontrollably). In the intervening time I had been stung, nearly given up halfway across and wanted to vomit due to the swell. I got across with blind faith and a determination to battle the cold and fatigue.

Robin was an excellent guide in his kayak. The reception on the slipway led to tears as friends and family applauded the gibbering wreck of a man before them.

I had a whale of a time and the success of the swim was down to all those who had supported and trained with me over the last six months.

There was plenty of time in the water to contemplate the fact that how we lead our lives in Northern Ireland will affect people around the world, including Bangladesh. Our consumption is leading to greater emissions of greenhouse gases which is distorting global weather patterns leading to hunger, water shortages, and severe flooding.

We don't all need to strip down and jump into the sea but perhaps we could all think about the small changes in our lives that will make a difference. Northern Ireland has recently turned a corner politically and the future is an extremely positive one, hopefully together we can all make it a low carbon sustainable one.

If you would like to support Concern's work with helping the poor of Bangladesh adapt to climate change then please log onto www.justgiving.com/ kennyboyd or www.concern.net

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