Mission accomplished

Sheer grit, hard work and the unwavering support of the people of West Cork helped Steve Redmond achieve his Oceans Seven dream, says Eoin English

THERE’S an imposing bronze statue standing in the centre of their village of the man who, until last weekend, was their greatest world champion.

But the proud people of Ballydehob in West Cork have added new features to the sculpture of 1930s world champion wrestler Danno O’Mahony to celebrate the historic achievement of their latest hero, endurance swimmer Steve Redmond.

After the emotional homecoming celebrations which went on until the early hours last Tuesday, locals woke up to find Danno’s statue wearing a swimmer’s cap on its head, and goggles fitted snuggly over its eyes.

“Sure ’twas the least we could do for Steve at such short notice. It’s only a matter of time before he gets his own statue,” a local wit said.

After three years of intense training and remarkable self-sacrifice, dedication and determination, the 46-year-old father of two made history last Saturday when he swam, on his fourth attempt, the Tsugaru Channel in Japan to become the first person to complete the epic Oceans Seven challenge — swimming’s equivalent of mountaineering’s Seven Summits where climbers scale the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

About 350 of the world’s elite climbers have completed that challenge.

Steve, originally from Castledermot in Co Kildare, and who works for Skibbereen Tool Hire, is the first and only person to complete the Oceans Seven.

The gruelling test of human endurance was first proposed by American ultra-swimming legend, Steven Munatones, in 2008, one of the first people to swim the Tsugaru Channel.

It requires a swimmer to swim unaided across seven of the world’s most daunting stretches of open water — the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, the Cook Strait in New Zealand, the English Channel, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Catalina Channel in the US, the Molokai Channel in Hawaii and the Tsugaru Channel.

Steve, a former rugby player and triathlete with the West Cork Triatholon Club, swam the English Channel in 2009, and the North Channel the following year.

During his marathon swims, Steve uses mantras of his children’s names — Saidbh, 11, and Stevie, 8 — to keep him focused.

“I use anything that gives me a mental edge. Marathon swimming is about as close as you can get to death while you are alive here on earth,” he said.

“You lose all sense of perception while you are swimming in such difficult conditions.”

Munatones watched Steve’s swims with interest and contacted him with a proposal.

“He told Steve he’d done the two hardest swims so why not consider the Oceans Seven challenge,” Steve’s close friend and support team member, Noel Browne, said.

“Steve thought about it for a while and consulted with friends, and then decided to go for it.”

He was in race against time against some of the world’s top open water swimmers, with Penny Palfrey and Darren Miller hot on his heels.

They train in Olympic swimming pools and have corporate sponsors.

Steve relied on cake sales, barn dances and local fundraisers in Ballydehob, Skibbereen and Castledermot, and did his training around a 3km circuit of scenic Lough Ine.

During the winter, he did most of his training in 14m and 16m hotel pools in Bantry and Baltimore.

The Baltimore pool is now being kept open by the local community.

But during the winter, he still did at least one session a week in Lough Ine, just to keep his body accustomed to cold water.

He completed the Strait of Gibraltar and the Catalina Channel in 2011, and the Molokai Channel and the Cook Strait earlier this year.

Then came the final swim — the treacherous Tsugaru Channel.

Late last month, Steve was four hours into his first attempt when weather conditions forced him to abandon it.

He was seven hours into the second attempt when he encountered its brutal current. He fought against it for five hours but just couldn’t make progress, abandoning the swim after 13 hours in the water and close to exhaustion.

“It was like a washing machine. I was just being churned around and couldn’t break through,” Steve said.

Dejected, he returned to Ireland and with the help of local sponsors like Sean Murray Fashions, he scraped enough money together to fund a return trip to Japan.

He was six hours into the third attempt when the skipper of the support boat, a local tuna fisherman, got worried about an approaching weather system and ordered Steve out of the water.

Within hours, a ferocious storm had swept in and hung over the region for two days.

Steve and his team had packed their bags and were 10 minutes from catching a bus to Tokyo for the flight home when they got a break in the weather.

They phoned the skipper, who checked with the coast guard, who said currents and conditions might be right for another attempt.

That chance was all Steve needed. He entered the water at 11.16am on Saturday and set off with Noel Browne and Dave Williams on the support boat.

“We got the chance, and I believed from the first second we’d make it,” Noel said.

“All he needed was that bit of luck. He got it and he grabbed it with both hands. We couldn’t go home without finishing it.”

Steve has to stay in the water for the entire swim, and can’t touch the boat. A bottle containing a special liquid formula is flung from the boat every 45 minutes to feed him.

With Noel and Dave shouting encouragement, Steve, who normally has a stroke rate of between 48 and 52, upped his rate to 60-strokes a minute to beat through the current, breathing every two strokes on his right side.

“We didn’t tell him how far he’d gone, or how far he had to go. That would wreck your head,” Noel said.

“But I said to him that as we got to the end, I’d get into togs and join him in the water.”

The water was warm, but Steve faced a large swell, which affected his breathing technique. Every time he turned his head to suck in oxygen, his left ear would be slapped down on a rising wave. Earplugs stopped water from rushing in, but it didn’t ease the pain.

Then Steve got caught in the channel’s fearsome west to east current, which can be up to 10 miles wide.

“If it starts going, it just takes you away and you can’t swim against it. You just have to go with it to get to the other side, and that’s where the skipper comes in to play,” he said.

“It’s a horrifying place, I never want to see it again.”

Noel said Steve maintained his 60-strokes a minute rate the entire time and with sheer strength and determination, beat his way through the current.

“Over the last 300m or 400m he knew it was all over. He saw the lights on the shore,” Noel said.

It was 1.30am on Saturday night, Japan time — exactly 14 hours and 24 minutes since he set off — when Steve emerged on the other side to become the first person to complete the Oceans Seven challenge.

“We’d been looking for that beach for three years and we finally found it on Saturday,” Steve said.

“The water had a mind of its own. At times, swimming against the current was like walking on an airport moving walkway.

“But we got that chance and took it. It was the perfect swim.”

Elated, Noel and Dave sent texts to friends at the Lough Ine Swim in West Cork, the Lee Swim in Cork City, and a charity cycle in Skibbereen, and word began to spread of his achievement.

But the full extent of the feat didn’t hit them until they arrived in Cork Airport on Monday night where his family, friends and hundreds of well-wishers, were waiting.

With his wife, Ann, and their children, Saidbh and Stevie by his side, Steve broke down in tears as he was swamped by the media.

“It’s just so good to be home. My God, I never thought I’d see this day. All these people here are why I got this thing done and it’s their swim — not mine. It’s Ireland’s swim really,” he said.

“We were up against some of the best long-distance swimmers in the world. It’s great to put Ireland back up there.

“My family, my friends, nobody ever told me I was beat and that’s why I did it.”

His proud parents, Stephen and Margaret, and his siblings, Anthony and Margaret, looked on.

Margaret said there were signs, even at an early age, that Steve would be an endurance swimmer.

“My parents ran a pub in London a few years ago and there was a sports gala in Steve’s school,” she explained.

“So my dad sent the sponsorship card around to his customers, looking for 50p or whatever, thinking Steve would do four or five laps.

“The teachers had to stop him at 50 lengths because they thought he was going to exhaust himself.

“Then as he got older he got into ironman competitions and then he did the English Channel and it kind of spiralled.”

Steve’s wife, Ann, said she was ecstatic that the family’s three-year journey had been successful.

“This title can never be taken away from him,” she said.

Ann was on the support boat for three of his swims and said she never worried for her husband.

But she doesn’t ever want him to attempt the Japanese channel again.

“If it’s swimming around Ireland I don’t mind. But not Japan. That was a most difficult experience.”

Noel said it was only when they arrived at the airport, and then travelled on the open top bus from Skibbereen to Ballydehob, where hundreds of people lined the roads and bonfires blazed, that they realised what it meant to so many people.

Completing the seven swims cost in the region of €100,000 at least.

“But every time we asked for help, the people of West Cork were glad to help out,” Noel said.

“They then took ownership of Steve’s success. It’s been great.”

It’s just a matter of time before Steve’s statue is unveiled.

The swimmers

The others in the race to complete the Oceans Seven.

* Penny Palfrey (Australia)

Six completed — English Channel (twice), Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel, Cook Strait, Molokai Channel, Tsugaru Channel.

She is due to attempt the North Channel next month.

* Michelle Macy (USA)

Five completed — English Channel, Catalina Channel, Molokai Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Cook Strait, Strait of Gibralta.

She is due to attempt the Tsugaru Channel and North Channel over the coming weeks.

* Darren Miller (USA)

Five completed — English Channel, Catalina Channel, Molokai Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Tsugaru Channel.

He is due to attempt the Cook Strait in Mar 2013, and the North Channel the following August.

* Kevin Murphy (England)

Four completed — English Channel (34 times), Catalina Channel, North Channel (twice) and Strait of Gibraltar.

Remaining schedule yet to be announced.

* James Pittar (Australia)

Four completed — English Channel, Catalina Channel, Cook Strait and Strait of Gibraltar.

Remaining schedule yet to be announced.

Dive in

The channels, the hazards

* The North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. The 33.7km stretch is considered the most difficult channel swim in the world because of the water temperature of 12°C, unpredictable weather and water conditions, and strong currents.

Swimmers also face large pods of jellyfish in calm conditions.

It has been attempted at least 73 times since 1924, but only eight successful solo swims and five relays have been achieved.

* The Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

As well as immense tidal flows in icy water conditions along the 26km, swimmers also face risks from jellyfish and rocky cliffs.

And sharks. But don’t worry. Only one in six swimmers encounters a shark on the crossing. And they only appear because they’re nosey. No-one has been attacked by a shark on a swim.

Only 71 successful crossings have been made, by 61 people.

* Molokai Channel between Molokai and Oahu, Hawaii.

This 41.8km swim takes you across a deep-water channel with extraordinarily strong currents in the middle of the Pacific, teeming with aggressive marine life.

Swimmers face large rolling swells, strong winds and tropical heat, and very warm salty water.

It was first crossed in 1961 by Keo Nakama in 15 hours and 30 minutes and has only been crossed by eight people since.

* The English Channel between England and France.

The world’s most famous open water swim is 34km at its narrowest point. Despite being a busy international waterway, with cold water temperatures, strong currents and ever-shifting conditions, it has been crossed by more than 1,000 swimmers to date.

* Catalina Channel between Santa Catalina Island and Los Angeles, California.

The shortest point-to-point course is 33.7km from Emerald Bay on Santa Catalina Island to the San Pedro Peninsula.

Apart from being an extremely long swim, it has cold water, especially near the coast, and strong currents. Swimmers have also encountered migrating whales and large pods of dolphins.

Canadian George Young became the first person to swim it, in 1927 in 15 hours and 44 minutes.

* Tsugaru Channel between Honshu and Hokkaido, Japan.

This 19.5km swim features an extremely strong current between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, which can sweep swimmers long distances.

Swimmers must battle large swells face risks from sharks and deadly sea snakes, and large blooms of squid.

* Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.

From Punta Oliveros in Spain and Punta Cires in Morocco, this 14.4km crossing features an eastern flow of water from the Atlantic running at about three knots.

This tide, unpredictable waters, and strong winds which chop up the surface, make this one of the most challenging crossings.

Swimmers must also dodge the shipping traffic.

Only 185 successful one-way crossings and seven double crossings have been made.

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