WHEN long distance sea swimmer Stephen Redmond from Ballydehob climbed onto the escort boat in Hawaii, exhausted but exhilarated after swimming for 22 hours and 24 four minutes in the Molokai channel, the skipper Ivan Shigaki remarked with fervour — “The Gods gave you that swim Steve”.
Steve felt a profound sense of agreement with Ivan after successfully completing his second attempt to negotiate the challenging swim across the 45km of water also known as ‘The Channel of Bones.’ This was part of his ambitious quest to swim the seven oceans of the world, one channel at a time.
The West Cork man went on to successfully achieve his ambition, making him the first person in the world to complete all seven swims.
During that Molokai channel swim, a pair of humpback whales emerged from the dark abyss of the ocean, and swam along with Steve, and according to Ivan this was the sure sign that it would be another triumph for the Irish champion.
“They followed the sound of my heartbeat, coming over really close and powering along with me like two gigantic juggernauts in the water.” recalls Steve.
“It was so surreal, everything was pitch black except for the lights of the boat, and every so often the whales would submerge down into the depths of the ocean, and then come up again alongside me.“
“Were you scared at all ?” I asked, imagining those creatures of the deep, the length of a bus, literally hearing the rhythmic throb of his heart through the water, and coming over to investigate the stranger in their territory.
“Oh I was absolutely terrified,” replied Steve, “especially as my kids had put the theme music from ‘Jaws’ on my ear pods, but even though they are enormous, they are peaceful creatures, not like the sharks who follow the trail of your urine in the water.
“I had a previous but unsuccessful attempt to do that swim, and during my first failed Molokai I broke my nose on a reef at the beginning, and also cut my legs and sides, so for three hours constant during the swim I had sharks circling all around me.
“It’s not pleasant roaring at them, but they are like crows, they only want an easy feed — that’s what I told myself at the time anyway.”
After he had successfully completed the epic swim, managing not to get eaten by sharks, Ivan the skipper took Steve to a sacred place for a celebratory dip with the altogether more benign creatures, the dolphins.
“I went with Ivan to a secluded beach, where according to local tradition older people head to swim with the dolphins when they get a sense that their death might be approaching. It’s a place to celebrate life.” he explained.
While he was enjoying his swim with the majestic creatures, Steve mused on the interconnectivity of nature, feeling a deep spiritual connection to the planet, a sense which has grown more and more within him during his sea swimming career.
“No two swims are the same.’ he said — the water teaches you so much.”
For Steve, it really is a case of whatever gets you through, as the effects of being in the water for hours on end, taking on the gruelling challenges of open water swimming, have a profound effect on both body and mind.
Not only is physical endurance required, but courage and willingness to overcome the disappointment of failed attempts, the freezing cold, the sheer exhaustion, the effects of swallowing salt water on your kidneys, the drops in blood pressure, the feeling of pressure to succeed, the out of body experiences, the hallucinations, the feeling close to death at times, the predators and the barbed stings of the dreaded jellyfish.
Steve, who recently took up beekeeping, described the impact of their stings. “If you’ve ever put your hand into a beehive then you’d have some idea of what the stings feel like,” he explained. I take him at his word.
Steve grew up in London, and moved home to Kildare when he was 10 years old. President de Valera had just passed away, the country was in mourning. There was no television on in the afternoon, and he missed watching episodes of the children’s programme ‘Blue Peter’ which sometimes featured stories of swimmers attempting to cross the English channel, and which filled the young Steve with awe.
“Swimming was always my favourite pastime as a child. I would go every day to an old Victorian era swimming pool in Shepard’s Bush, which has since closed down.”
Although he really missed swimming for a time when he moved back, he made up for it all later after he married Ann and settled in Ballydehob in West Cork, where the couple have two children, Siadbh and Stevie. The lure of the nearby sea proved strong and he began doing triathlons, which in turn whetted his appetite to attempt the incredible sea swimming challenges.
In July 2020 Steve achieved another one of his incredible dreams when he became the first person to swim from Baltimore to the Fastnet rock and back again. The landmark lies 6.5 miles southwest off Cape Clear and it was no easy feat to negotiate the stretch of water.
“My wife Ann and my daughter Siadbh were with me on the escort boat. I don’t think I would have made it if it hadn’t been for them. Ann would not let me give up, although there were times I felt like I wanted to.
Once you touch the boat, the swim is over, but her encouragement kept me going all the way through.” he said.
Ann and Siadbh ensured that he had regular line feeds of carbohydrates and fluids every 50 minutes to keep him from becoming dehydrated. He was just shy of his 55th birthday then, and now a year and half later he has no intention of hanging out his swimming trunks to dry. He has his sights set on swimming from Castletownbere to Crookhaven early next year, and Baltimore to Fastnet and on to Mizen next, and is determined to bring the Fastnet swim to the status of a world class event.
Clearly, Steve is a man never unwilling to take the plunge, and his forthcoming memoir ‘Fastnet – The Lonely Passion of a Long Distance Swimmer’ is due in Spring 2022, available through a new West Cork-based publishing company, Sweeney and O’Donovan.