A PUBLIC health nurse who only took up sea swimming five years ago is in training to cross all seven of the world’s most challenging open water channels.
Audrey Burkley, from Blackrock, was part of a five-woman relay team who last August swam the notoriously unforgiving North Channel, despite suffering painful jellyfish stings.
Calling themselves the Coco Channel team, they now plan to take on the Ocean’s Seven challenge, the maritime equivalent of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents).
Audrey, who works as a vaccination public health nurse in the North Lee Community Services, is the only Cork person on the team who next up in July will tackle the Catalina channel swim in California.
Swimming is the 47-year-old’s passion, but incredibly she only took it up seriously in 2013 to avoid surgery, having being diagnosed with a hip condition.
“I used to hill walk but I developed a problem with my hip and I was diagnosed with congenital dysplasia of hips, which was not picked up as a child. I was advised to change my lifestyle, and not to do any weight-bearing sport or else I’d have to go for surgery. That’s why I got into swimming,” she said.
Last year was an incredible one for Audrey, who trains with the renowned Eilis Burns.
“I swam in a six person relay around Jersey in July, a distance of 45 miles. From there I flew to Istanbul via London to participate in the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim, which means swimming from Asia to Istanbul across two continents, 6.5km, with very strong currents. The swim was very tough and my hours of training in Myrtlevillle, and Sandycove, Kinsale made a huge difference to me.
“In July, 2017, I was part of a five person relay to cross the English Channel. Then, in August, I took part in a relay swim of one of the toughest challenges in open water swimming, the North Channel swim between Ireland and Scotland. What makes this so challenging is not the distance but the cold water (the day we did it the water temperature was only 13 degrees centigrade) and jelly fish, Lion’s Mane, which have nasty stings.
“The rules state that in order to have the swim recognised, you can only wear a swim suit hat and goggles. No wet suits allowed!”
Not that that bothered Audrey, who trains in togs all year round and says she loves the feel of the water as she stretches out her arms and glides along.
“For swimming, all you need is togs, hat and goggles and as you relax in the water all your worries disappear,” she said.
When in the water, her thoughts also turn to her mum, who she was very close to, and who died from ovarian cancer aged 60.
“There are many times I think of her when I am swimming. When I was a teenager she took my sister and myself to Mayfield Swimming Pool for swimming lessons but my outdoor swimming only started when swimming coach Carmel Collins encouraged me to enter the Lee Swim on July 6, 2013, and I joined Cork Masters Swimming Club in September of that year.”
It’s now a massive part of her busy life, with a schedule that sees her train in both the sea and the pool five to six times a week.
“I have to put serious commitment into my training. I wish there was a 50 metre pool in Cork as the nearest is in Limerick”, she said.
Outside of swimming, Audrey, who has worked in many areas of nursing including general nursing, paediatrics, care of the elderly, rehabilitation nursing and public health nursing, volunteers with the Order of Malta and helps care for her elderly father.
She has a positive outlook on life and says: “As a nurse you meet everyone from all walks of life, those who are suffering health, financial wise, housing issues, to those who have everything who are still not happy.
“I get up every day and I am thankful for my health and having a roof over my head. I try and keep positive, enjoy my job and my aim is to achieve my goals through working and training hard, and then success is possible.”
Over the last few years there has been a huge uptake in sea swimming and Audrey enjoys being part of a community in Myrtleville and Sandycove where everyone looks out for each other.
But she’s under no illusion about the dangers of the sea and says safety always has to come first.
“With outdoor swimming you have to know your limitations and know when to leave the water, never swim alone, know the tides, the currents and ask the swimmers where it’s safe to swim.
“I would definitely agree to join a group and never swim alone.”
She said it’s also important to know when not to swim: “In December, 2015, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament in the sea — I was only knee height in water and the force of the waves caused my knee to buckle underneath me. I will never enter the water in rough conditions again.”
Ballydehob’s Steve Redmond was the first person to complete the Oceans Seven back in 2012. It is a marathon swimming challenge consisting of seven open water channel swims.
As well as the North and English Channels, it includes the Cook Strait, the Molokai Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. Audrey’s team members who are up for the challenge are based in Derry, Dubai and London.
She describes herself as someone who is determined and who gives 100% to her work and her swimming — someone better warn the jellyfish she’s on her way!