O’Connell relives his famous island swim
Seán O’Connell will go down in history as the first person to swim the entire way around Bermuda. He did that between August 21 and 23, 1976, in 43 hours and 27 minutes.
He’s also responsible for another feat — raising almost $65,000 for the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association.
Over the years he has swam, surf biked and pushed wheelchairs to raise money for the charity.
In one memorable relay swim race in 2008, he, Nick Strong and several other swimmers raised $30,000.
“I can’t say which I’m more proud of,” said Dr O’Connell, now 71. “It feels wonderful to have been able to inspire the community to contribute so much to such a worthy cause, but I’m also proud of my swim.”
Now he’s at it again with a book Shark Bait: How I Battled Tides, Fins and Fatigue to Complete the First Non-stop Swim Around Bermuda.
All proceeds will go to the BPHA.
“I’ve raised $2,000 so far,” he said. “I hope to raise much more than that. I’ve just released it and the Christmas buying season has only just started.”
O’Connell was the treasurer of the BPHA from 1980 until 2001.
He said: “I spent a lot of time with them. I believe the money raised helped to build the handicapped pool at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute, and went on some improvements to the handicapped bus. This time, money raised from the sale of the book will go towards general expenses for the disabled — groceries, transportation needs and that sort of thing.”
His dedication to the charity stems from his fear that he could have been handicapped by his famous swim.
He made the swim after a $1,000 bet with dentist Vincent Dawber.
“He wanted to prick my bubble and show me I couldn’t do everything I thought I could,” said Dr O’Connell.
It seemed an impossible task because Dr O’Connell was 34 at the time and had no special swimming training or athletic prowess.
He started training to prove Dr Dawber wrong.
“I really thought I could do it,” said O’Connell.
Then a photograph of a fishermen with sharks appeared on the front page of The Royal Gazette.
O’Connell, originally from New York, was frightened.
Local fishermen told him he’d be killed by sharks if he tried the swim.
“But Teddy Tucker told me I had more to fear from rocketing powerboats or Portuguese man-o-war,” he said. “So I decided to go ahead with it.”
He was a science and mathematics professor at the Bermuda College at the time.
O’Connell said: “One of my students said ‘hey you could raise maybe $10,000’.
“I said ‘for charity?’.
“He said, ‘no, for yourself!’”
But O’Connell preferred charity.
“I chose the Association because I thought there was a good chance I might need them,” said O’Connell. “I thought I might lose an arm or leg to sharks.”
And his fears were well founded.
“I never knew until much later,” he said. “But apparently five reef sharks were 15ft behind me while I swam.
“Onlookers said the sharks followed me for some time before leaving me alone.
“I did notice being surrounded by barracuda though. They are nasty looking creatures. That was scary.”
It took two tries before he was able to make it around Bermuda.
“In early July of that year I started off at Church Bay, Southampton. When I got off the East End it was night and it was rough going,” he said. “It was pitch black.”
Near Ireland Island, Sandys, he had to give up.
“My first attempt was ruined due to that strong and relentless current running against me hour after hour a few miles directly east of Commissioner’s Point,” he said.
He tried again six weeks later, on August 21, during a new moon.
“Someone explained to me that when I tried the first time there was a full moon and the gravitational pull of it would have made my swim more difficult,” he said.
“The second time, the water was dead calm that weekend. It was miraculous.”
He was exhausted when he came out of the water. He hadn’t been attacked by sharks but his lips and tongue were badly swollen by the salt water.
“The 1978 UK edition of the Guinness Book of World Records credited me with swimming 45 miles,” he said. “The more accurate figure is 37.5 miles.
“Any swimmer actually swims a lot further than that due to ocean swells and movements that push him closer and further from shore.”
O’Connell laughed at the suggestion that he might make the swim again.
“I’m too old now,” he said. “I would never consider it.”
Now he contents himself with swimming laps in the pool and playing tennis.
“Tennis would be where my passion lies today,” he said. “This book is what I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been working on it for the last two years.”
He started writing Shark Bait shortly after he made the swim.
Then he got discouraged.
It wasn’t until 2015 when he saw Jonathan Smith’s book Island Flames that he was inspired to write again.
“It was published by a local company Brimstone Media,” said O’Connell. “That made me think maybe I could publish my book too.”
Shark Bait is for sale at the Bookmart and Bermuda Bookstore in Hamilton, Robertson’s Drug Store in St George and Caesar’s Pharmacy in Sandys.
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