Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die … Sometimes I don’t know which one it is.
STEVE REDMOND used to swim for fun in Athy pool, a few miles up the road from his childhood home in Castledermot. Splashing around, carefree and young, in south Kildare — that was fun. That was a long time ago.
When Redmond swims now he’s in a half world somewhere between exhaustion and exhilaration, pain and a numb void, life and death.
Delirious, he makes his way, spilling tears into a raging sea. More than anything, he wants the agony to end. He wants out of the salty drink. But he keeps going.
One stroke … two strokes … three. “Don’t give up now.”
One stroke … two strokes … three. “God help me.”
One stroke … two strokes … three. “Stevie.”
One stroke … two strokes … three. “Sadhbh.”
When you’re 15 miles from land, in a frozen swollen ocean,
surrounded by jellyfish and sharks, you cling to whatever hope you have. Hope takes the form of a mantra.
“Don’t give up now” is what his wife Ann said one day. Stevie, seven, and Sadhbh, 11, are Redmond’s kids. God … well you know who he
is. Saying their names gets him another yard or two towards dry land, and another yard or two away from failure. Redmond has come too far now to fail.
The 46-year-old from west Cork is one monster swim away from becoming the first man to conquer the Ocean’s Seven challenge.
The word challenge seems absurdly understated for what the Ocean’s Seven is all about …
Ocean’s torture marathon or prolonged self-flagellation or lunatic mission would capture it better.
The Ocean’s Seven involves swimming the English Channel, Cook Strait (between the north and south islands of New Zealand), Moloka’i Channel (between O’ahu and Moloka’i islands in Hawaii), North Channel (Ireland to Scotland), Catalina Channel (in southern California), Tsugaru Channel (between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan) and the Strait of Gibraltar (between Europe and Africa).
“I know, you think I’m completely mad,” says Redmond.Well, yes and no.
Look at the scale of the job and you’d think only a madman would attempt it. But look at what Redmond has already achieved and you’d have to be made of jagged coastal rock not find his actions inspiring, and deeply humbling. I was congratulating myself for cycling to work five mornings out of five last week … until chatting to Redmond.
The initial question is a simple, why? Why would anybody want to put themselves through this?
“Ah, you kind of fall into these things,” he says. I can’t ever imagine falling into the sea in Folkestone and climbing out to say bonjour to the good people of Cap Gris Nez. But for Redmond it was something of a progression.
An amateur rugby career — which included togging out for London Irish reserve teams of the mid-90s — gave way to a few triathlons. Then he got the crazy idea to swim the English Channel in 2009. He made it across somehow and the next year he decided to take on an even stiffer assignment: to paddle the North Channel, from Portpatrick, Scotland to Blackhead, north of Belfast.
“I was a bit green going into it,” he says. “I put on three stone for warmth and lost a stone-and-a-half on the swim. I got stung in the face by jellyfish, but I was so cold it didn’t even make a difference.”
The swim was meant to take 20 hours but a favourable spring tide meant it was done in 17. Redmond was just the second Irish person to complete the North Channel on his first attempt.Word of his feat circulated and an email dropped from an American called Steven Munatones. The gist of the note was: ‘You’ve done two now, but are you going to try the other five?’
Redmond didn’t even know the other five existed. Nobody had ever completed the set before and there are about 10 elite pros around the world who had been trying. Unlike his competition, Redmond has to fit his six hours training a day around a full-time job, in Skibbereen Tool Hire. Even if this was his sole focus, it was just too immense a quest. This was one battle that Mother Nature wasn’t going to lose.
“But,” says Redmond, “if you tell an Irish person that you can’t do something, suddenly this becomes an attractive sport.”
So this Irishman, originally a London Irishman, born in the Bush Tavern in Shepherd’s Bush where his dad was a publican, took to his task.
Gibraltar during May last year was next on the list. He attempted Moloka’i in June 2011 but was pulled out by his crew after 18 hours in the water; a drastic current had taken him miles off course and the crew feared he’d be lost. He tamed Moloka’i on the second attempt in February of this year after he’d done Catalina last October 2011.
Cook Strait was completed in February and now Redmond is on the cusp of immortality. First, though, he must freeze and punish his mortal muscles in Japan this June. There have been only four confirmed crossings so far between Honshu, the main island of Japan where Tokyo is located, and Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the country.
Extraordinarily strong currents and large blooms of squid are the particular hazards on this journey.
Then there are the same foes Redmond faced on his previous six tests: plummeting body temperatures (no wetsuits are allowed in the Ocean’s Seven),hunger (you have to refuel in the water, Milky Ways are Redmond’s preferred treat), hallucination, stomach cramp, stiff winds that can add miles to your journey and the constant call of the rational part of your mind saying that you cannot go one inch further.
That’s where the mantra comes in, and also the help from his crew in the boat behind. After six hours in the water, Redmond has hit many walls and is screaming to be let out. Love doesn’t come any tougher than the response from the crew, which usually includes his brother Anthony. “I’ll drive the boat over your head.”
On the Cook Islands swim, the film-crew from Red Bull — who make a living capturing various death-defying stunts — were on board. Even they were stunned by the crew’s reaction to the swimmer.
But Redmond appreciates their extreme brand of discipline. He wants them to give him added hell because they are the physical manifestation of all the effort and all the financial support that has come from a cash-strapped nation — as well as the Irish abroad who have taken Redmond’s mission to their hearts. He reckons the country has had such a bad press these past five years that people are almost conditioned to be negative.
But a story like this comes along and it resonates because “people know they just have to get on with it”.
Irish emigrants in particular have added their weight to the quest. Redmond spent a week in Wellington for his Cook Islands challenge and “was never so proud”.
With his body aching he approached the North Island and saw 100 people on the pier waiting for him. “I very seldom get a welcome,” he says, “and when you touch that rock, there’s nothing like it.”
Now there’s just one more rock to touch; one last strait for this middle-aged man from the south-western corner of a written-off island in the north Atlantic to conquer.
Logic says he shouldn’t make it, but logic was carried away on the swell a long time ago.
All Redmond knows is that he has his friends, his stubborn pride, his family and death-defying will to make it to the other side.
“I expect bad but know it’s going to get worse.”
Come hell in high water, though, he’ll never give up now.
*Follow Steve Redmond’s adventure on oceans7.org