First Person to swim the whole way around Lough Neagh!
Ireland & Britains largest lake
Words by Maureen McCoy Photography by Paul McCambridge
Several years in the planning, Francie’s hope to be the first swimmer to circumnavigate Lough Neagh was fraught with challenges. Work commitments meant that finding the hours to train was difficult but Francie is not one to let minor things like how many hours there are in a day stop him.
With huge support from his club, Lurgan Masters and Open Water swimming Club, Francie hatched his plan. A challenge such as this, swimming 100K around the largest lake in Britain and Ireland, needs more than one person and all through his planning, preparation, training and execution, this #humblelegend has been so appreciative of all the help and encouragement he’s received.
Having won the Global Swim Series in 2017/18 (wetsuit category) he returned in 2018/2019 sans suit to win again. Several years of swimming in Lough Neagh got him thinking “Swimming the whole way around this would be unreal…” So, wheels were set in motion.
Francie wanted to do something significant in memory of his grandson, Oran Creaney who was born with a single ventricle heart which meant he had very little energy. Sadly, Oran passed away aged 6 years old but he always said he was “proud of my special heart’”
Francie wanted to give back by raising funds for the Make a Wish Foundation to help other families who face similar challenges have the chance to save wonderful memories for children with life limiting conditions.
Swimming 100k around Lough Neagh, the largest inland lake in Britain and Ireland over 5 consecutive days was going to be a mammoth task
“I don’t want to find myself in an old peoples home at 80, looking out at the lough and wondering, could I have done that? I want to be sitting there able to say; I swam the whole way around that lough.”
Lap4 Oran was planned for 2020 and despite lockdown and pools closing for months on end Francie kept up a heavy training load, swimming daily, sometimes even twice a day in the Lough. This tough regime was taking its toll.
When I asked how he was feeling he told me,
“I’m starting to dread my swims, I’m not enjoying it. But the wee man went through worse so I can take the pain, it’s nothing to what he went through.”
Coach Catherine Hanratty and I decided to launch a two-pronged attack on his self-imposed training program: we prescribed longer swims followed by rest and recovery days. Between us we nagged and badgered him until he did what he was told!
“I was sick of swimming and feeling so tired, then Mo told me to do longer swims then take days off. Suddenly it was easy and I thought; I can do this!”
Last year (2020) Francie had hoped to complete the Lap4Oran but unfortunately, we simply didn’t get a weather window for a 4 or 5 day swim. Having waited it out Francie had to console himself with being the first person to swim from Kinnego Marina to Antrim, a pretty respectable 33km.
This year a promising weather window arrived and we couldn’t have asked for better! The plan was to swim clockwise, going from Kinnego towards Maghery, turning north at Coney Island and head for Ardboe on day one, some 27km.
Despite Francie convincing himself that we were “going the wrong road…” at Coney Island as he tried to work out how many hours he’d been swimming. He felt wasn’t as far as he thought he should be but we managed to alleviate his mis-trust by saying;
“Trust us, we have the chart and Paul knows where we’re going, By the way, you’re flying along at 3.2km per hour! Now get on with it and stop arguing!”
After that it was a breeze, for us crew! We kept up the stream of hot chocolate, soup and mini mars bars. It was a boost when the Lough Neagh Rescue came by to wish Francie well on their return from manoeuvres, seriously impressed that one man could swim so far. He cruised into the little beach at Ardboe Battery in the early evening – 27km done on day one!
Day two Francie picked up where he finished the previous day to swim 23km up to Ballyronan. The messages coming through from all his supporters lifted his spirits and the #captainfrantastic was born (authors Steven Craig and Conor Magee!) ending the day at 23km he was welcomed in by the Ballyronan Bluetits.
Day three was a well-deserved “easy day” as he covered 18km across the top shore of the lough past Shane’s Castle and on to Antrim Yacht Club, with more welcome faces of the Antrim Chilli Dippers to greet him in.
Day four would be a long haul but we’d “broken the back of this swim” and Francie was on his way home. Each day to this point had been wall to wall sunshine, Thursday was a little overcast but the air was still warm and the wind state the same, a very gentle breeze. Fatigue was beginning to set in and his shoulders were sore. There were more frequent stops to fix his cap and clear goggles. His wrist was hurting, keeping a straight line was more difficult, with the grey sky the grey water and no remarkable landmark to aim for meant Francie struggled to maintain his course. Even with all that he was still motoring at a steady 3km per hour! When we began to approach the headland that hid Rams Island from view Francie visibly perked up, he knew the more he could do today the less he would have tomorrow. A hard push to the headland and then we saw Rams. At the start of the day the aim was to make it to the bottom end of Rams. Now, as the sun finally broke through the cloud the target shifted;
“We’ll get to Gawleys Gate, then I’ll get out”
“That means I’ll only have about 10km to swim tomorrow – happy days!”
Storming past Rams Island he set towards Gawleys, pitching for his last food stop of the day and the soup was running low…
“I want crisps and some water. Can you see the pub yet? If we get out there I’m going to have a pint of orange juice!”
Humour restored with the end in sight.
Now Francie was left with 10 km to go on this circumnavigation. A lie in and a lunchtime start on Friday the final day.
All week Francie had pushed himself, he sang songs in his head, he counted, he let his mind wander at times and through it all he kept the strong metronome of his stroke. With little Oran “…on my back – the whole way”
Rounding the corner at the Lough Neagh Discovery centre and the final few hundred metres to Kinnego Marina, cheers rose up from the crowds of Lurgan Masters and Lurgan ASC lined up to form a guard of honour for him. With his support swimmers tucked in 10metres behind him and the rest of the swimmers behind them again, with permissions from the Marina officials the flotilla made it’s way, Francie at the lead, to the slipway and the finish of Lap the Lough.
“My body feels like I’ve been hit with a train, you know I’ve give everything I have.”
Training for a marathon swim is tough, it takes the swimmer to go into their own head for long hours, multiply that by 4 or 5 days, add then pressure of raising money for charity and the wheels could come off at any stage! This is where team support comes in. Everyone who swam a training swim, paddle-boarded or kayaked alongside, provided sustenance, cheered him on or sent an encouraging text helped Francie achieve his end goal. Knowing everyone was willing him success gave him strength.
Francie completed 105km over the 5 days which equates to;
4,200 lengths of the pool
Particular mentions go out to Francie’s training partners and support swimmers from Lurgan ASC and Lurgan Masters and Open Water Swim Club;
Aimee Dawson, Fiontan McComb, Una McConville, Dean Owen, Andrew “the Doc” along with several more…
The linchpin in the whole venture was the pilot, Paul Magee of PGM Training. Paul was instrumental in planning the route, teaching the crew about weather watching and delivering a rolling history of the lough as we toured the coastline at Francie’s not to shabby 3km per hour swim pace! A swim pilot has a heavy responsibility on his shoulders, it is his job not only to navigate for the swimmer but to ensure everyone is safe, on the boat or in the water. Where the support crew this year (2021) were able to share their load by alternating days on the boat, carrying out observer duties, monitoring the swimmer and making sure he was fed along the way. Paul was there every day, navigating, keeping in radio contact with the Lough Neagh Rescue, watching weather, conditions and other craft, for all five days. Thank you, Paul!
And Francie – Legend!
Special thanks to training buddy Dean and support swimmers Aimee, Fiontan and Una
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