Swim Magazine

How did Alan Corcoran swim the length of Ireland?

Swim magazine interviews Alan Corcoran about his new book, Unsinkable (Cancer, Five Boats and My 710-Kilometre Sea Swim), which chronicles his bid to swim the length of Ireland, from the top of Northern Ireland to his home in Waterford – and the challenges he faced.

WORDS: Patrick McLennan
CREDIT: Niall Meehan

Why did Alan Corcoran decide to swim the length of Ireland?

The swim was conceived as a way of paying tribute to Alan’s much-loved father, Milo, who died of cancer in 2016, and raising money for the Irish Heart Foundation and other charities who had done so much for him.

In 2012, inspired by Eddie Izzard’s 43 marathons in 51 days for 2009’s Red Nose Day, the former Irish representative sprint hurdler and current town planner had run a ‘lap of Ireland’ – 35 marathons in 35 days – while his father was alive.

‘I just naively signed off to make it a marathon a day without much marathon running experience, and I was just stubborn enough to start it and stupid enough to finish it,’ he says.

He raised €15,000 for charity and wrote a book based on the ordeal, but it wasn’t enough.

‘After Dad died I just sort of wanted to do something to raise money for a charity to give me a positive focus and get me out the door and moving,’ he says. ‘Originally the concept was a lap of Ireland… and then I had a few pints with my friends and we scaled it back to the length of Ireland.’

Alan, 32, had planned to visit Giant’s Causeway in the north of Northern Ireland with his father, but the trip never happened, so that seemed a perfect starting point for the swim. The logical finish line would be his hometown, Waterford, except that made the distance slightly more than the length of Ireland…

‘It was the length of Ireland plus a bit. And I learned that “plus a bit” ended up being an extra 130km! I was a bit too romantic when I looked at it on the map.’

How Alan bounced back from failure

Alan will admit his first attempt at swimming the length of Ireland in 2017 was set up to fail. He had no real idea of the magnitude of the challenge, or how to prepare for it, or how see it through.

He was not habituated to cold water, having trained in heated pools in London. He discovered he had a psychological fear of being in open water. Logistics were a constant battle, as volunteer crew let him down and the accompanying rigid inflatable boat (RIB) was hardly fit for purpose and sank in Dundrum Bay, County Down, 210km and 30 days into the swim.

Attempt No 2 started in 2019, two years after the doomed first swim, when he had time to look back with some sense of perspective and pride on having swum 210km and raised

€13,000. A sense of a job unfinished played on his mind and he soon began to plan his next attempt. This time, however, he would be much better prepared.

He took out a loan of £13,000 to buy a sailboat from a lady who had swum from John O’Groats to Land’s End and ensured that there were two sailors on board at all times. His ultra-patient girlfriend, Karolina, trained to handle a kayak and accompanied him on every stroke of the journey.

Crucially, he spent time habituating to the temperatures of the Irish Sea. He visited University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory and learned about the cold shock response. His wetsuit this time was a millimetre thicker, which made all the difference to spending four to six hours swimming each day. He also swam a month later than the first attempt, in June, adding a vital couple of degrees to the water.

‘It was much more organised the second time around. I was just able to take [in the swim] much more and I think the grief of my dad wasn’t as raw,’ he says.

Alan’s lucky escapes on the swim across Ireland

The gargantuan 500km swim was not without its challenges or scary moments.

One of the most frightening of these was when Karolina capsized in an area known as the ‘cemetery of a thousand ships’ and it took 15 minutes to get her out of the water and back onto the boat.

Another hair-raising experience was when the coastguard intercepted them near Dublin to prevent a close encounter with a ferry. ‘It went from being a very small boat to very big in the space of about two minutes!’

How Alan hopes to inspire others with his achievement

After 52 days and 153 hours of swimming, many errors and moments of anxiety, Alan did make it to Waterford. His new book Unsinkable (Cancer, Five Boats and My 710-Kilometre Sea Swim), which follows his documentary, also titled Unsinkable, both chronicle the massive highs and overwhelming lows of his undertaking. The documentary has screened at 16 festivals globally and on the RTÉ channel in Ireland.

The book and the documentary are Alan’s way of giving back. He was inspired to do the swim by Eddie Izzard and Sean Conway’s tale of endurance, Hell and High Water. ‘They set me thinking about what I could possibly achieve. Hopefully I can pass that onto people who pick up the book or give the movie a watch.’