When open water swimmer Henry O’Donnell doesn’t feel like braving the elements, he thinks of a child who may have cancer or a family who has lost a loved one at sea.
People ask me if I would swim a mile for their little boy or girl who has three months to live, or someone who died in tragic circumstances,” O’Donnell said.
“So when we don’t want to leave on a particular morning, we remember that person and say ‘let’s do it for them today’.”
The 57-year-old former ranger, father-of-six and grandfather is in the final stretch of his bid to complete the first solo swim around Ireland. Finswimming, as its name suggests, consists of using fins on the surface of the water, with a snorkel and a mask.
Basking sharks, dolphins, blue sharks, sunfish and jellyfish have all kept him company, as well as a few (jellyfish-like) Portuguese men-of-war who can give deadly stings.
“There were several Portuguese men-of-war off Toe Head, West Cork, in October, and I guess I got stung by jellyfish a few times – but salt water is the best place where to be then,” he said.
He hopes the sum of more than €45,000 he has raised so far will benefit his two named charities, Water Safety Ireland and the Irish Cancer Society.
A lifeguard, diver and swimming instructor, O’Donnell broke his neck during the bike section of a triathlon 30 years ago but hasn’t looked back since his recovery.
Better known as Anrí Ó Dómhnaill in his native Donegal, he could easily give Séamus Bond a hard time.
He has trekked and climbed to some of the highest and lowest points on four of the globe’s continents, including climbing the 18,510ft Mount Elbrus on a trans-Russian expedition, and he led the first successful relay around Ireland in 2006.
O’Donnell set out in September 2020 from Carrickfin Beach in the Donegal Gaeltacht, where he learned to swim for the first time, aiming to complete the solo swim within a year. Backed by a ‘wonderful team and family’, he rode a clockwise course and managed to weather strong tides, particularly through the North Channel and off the Atlantic. Rathlin Island.
He swam the full length of the east coast, rounded Tuskar Rock and reached Co Waterford when he was forced to suspend the expedition in early 2021.
“The Covid situation at the time meant we didn’t really have a choice, but I kept training in the hope that we could get it going again – which we did, starting again from Waterford in September 2021,” he said.
Mr O’Donnell wears a specially designed wetsuit, between two and three millimeters thick, as well as goggles and his flippers, and swims an average of two knots an hour with a safety boat helping him to follow his road.
“Off Donegal’s Malin Head or Wexford’s Carnsore Point, where you have a three knot flow, you could have five knots and make a big profit out of it,” he says.
O’Donnell and his team are aiming from Slyne Head off the north Galway coast when conditions allow next week, heading towards Inishbofin, Inishturk, Achill and Erris Head. He hopes to have crossed Donegal Bay and reached Carrickfin again in late spring or early summer, but is reluctant to give a precise date.
“Safety is our number one priority,” he stresses.
“It’s so unpredictable – we could have two or three storms – and so I don’t think about the finish. I just think about each particular day and am very grateful to my team, my family and the coastal communities that support me.
O’Donnell’s progress can be followed at www.finswim2020.com