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Swim Around Ireland - Donegal Man Henry O'Donnell's Attempting Clockwise Circumnavigation

22nd October 2020
From left to right Henry O'Donnell, swimmer Jill Steele from Helen's Bay watch, Kevin Baird Harbour Master and William Duggan, Skipper of the Tor Dearb From left to right Henry O'Donnell, swimmer Jill Steele from Helen's Bay watch, Kevin Baird Harbour Master and William Duggan, Skipper of the Tor Dearb

There are many variations to the sport of swimming. But, long-distance swimming is on another level, and what Donegal man Henry O'Donnell is attempting at the moment he calls an Expedition. He will try to swim around the Island of Ireland to become the first person in history to circumnavigate a country by Finswimming and in doing so will help to raise funds for two National Charities, Water Safety Ireland and the Irish Cancer Society.

Finswim2020-21 is one of the most inspiring, unique, and challenging marine projects ever attempted in Irish coastal waters. Expedition Leader O'Donnell began his challenge, which he thought may take a year, from Carrickfin in the Donegal Gaeltacht, and is the creator of this pioneering project. He had thought of the idea of the circumnavigation in 1990 when he was recovering from a life-threatening sports accident (which left him paralysed for some time), and in 1992 he went on to complete several challenging land-based expeditions and sea swims to raise funds for charities and other worthy causes.

Tor Dearg is the Finswim 2020-21 support boat Round IrelandTor Dearg is the Finswim 2020-21 support boat Round Ireland

He loves sport in general, healthy living and has a close affinity with the sea and nature. He completed demanding expeditions around the world in recent years including lowest to highest points on four continents; Africa, Europe, America and Australia – he is confident that finswim2020-21 will be equal or more challenging than many expeditions and adventures previously were undertaken.

The event was scheduled to start in June 2021. Still, due to the COVID crisis, work situation and other factors, it was necessary to reorganise, and Henry decided to bring the Expedition forward to 2020. So, on 17th September the 56-year-old walked into the sea at Carrickfin beach in the hope of becoming the first person to accomplish such a challenge. Fin-swimming, as the name suggests, involves the use of fins on the water surface, with a snorkel and mask. O'Donnell also wears a custom-made triathlon suit to combat icy temperatures.

Henry has many strings to his bow – a qualified beach guard, specialist diver, swimming teacher and ex Irish Army Special Forces – and then there's his day job – an aviation security advisor. And many achievements too – the first Irishman to swim the 14km around Tory Island and a 38k Donegal Coastal challenge.

It fits therefore that the supporting Expedition vessel is the Tor Dearg, the Tory Island fast ferry skippered by William Duggan with photographer and cameraman Rory O'Donnell on board to document the venture.

On the clockwise swim, Henry's passage took him to Tory Island, Downings, Glengad near Malin Head, Portrush, through the fast-flowing Rathlin Sound after a stop on Rathlin Island; Glenarm in County Antrim, then into Belfast Lough at Carrickfergus before carrying on south along the North Down coast between Copeland Island and Old Lighthouse Island off Donaghadee. It was then down the Ards Peninsula to Portavogie where he halted to take a break back in Bangor where the Tor Dearg berthed in the Marina on Monday (19th October). Harbour Master Kevin Baird welcomed them. " We are delighted to welcome and support Henry O'Donnell on his epic adventure to swim around the Island of Ireland. Henry arrived into Bangor shortly after the tragic death of local sea swimmer Mary Feeney, and it was extremely thoughtful of him to dedicate a section of his swim in her memory. We also applauded his efforts to raise money for both the Irish Cancer Society and Water Safety Ireland. We wish him every success as he continues his courageous mission". According to his Facebook page, Henry has swum between 16 and 21 miles a day.

While in County Down Henry has joined some of the local open water swim clubs – the Helen's Bay Watch, the Brompton Beaus and Belles near the Marina, and the Chunky Dunkers at Donaghadee. Henry appreciated their support. " I wish to thank all of the sea swimmers in the Bangor coastal area for the invaluable support, friendship and kindness during my swim in the beautiful but challenging north Channel. I thank Harbourmaster, Mr Kevin Baird and his team for their professional assistance and for sponsoring the expedition vessel berth during our time in Bangor. The Carrickfergus Harbour team went out of their way too in support of the charity event".

The Expedition will leave Portavogie shortly, destination Ardglass on the South Down coast, subject of course to the wind and sea state, before continuing onward south. They have an exemption from the 5km travel restriction rule in the Republic and are following strict Covid-19 guidance and regulations both ashore and onboard the Tor Dearg.

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Published in Sea Swim
Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong is Afloat and Yachting Life's Northern Ireland Correspondent. Betty grew up racing dinghies but now sails a more sedate Dehler 36 around County Down

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