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‘Shark bait’ swimmer recalls island quest

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Seán O’Connell, whose record-setting 1976 swim made the Guinness Book of Records (Photograph supplied)

For Seán O’Connell getting his epic two-day swim around Bermuda into print had always been a dream, but much like the 43-hour feat itself, it turned into something of a marathon.

After setting the record for the first known circumnavigation of the island, he interviewed everyone who had been involved in the attempt and even got 40 pages into a full version of events before “it fizzled out”.

But now, 41 years after he battled Bermuda’s gruelling currents and completed the 38-mile swim while also raising $11,000 for charity, the dream has become a reality with the publishing of Shark Bait.

“Back in 1976 I just got involved with other things and I had no idea how to get a book published,” Mr O’Connell said. “I just ran out of steam with the idea.

“Then recently I saw how Jonathan Smith’s book Island Flames was published by Brimstone Media and spoke with him about what a great job they had done.

“I started to go back to my old notes and tried to come up with something that incorporated the whole narrative.

“It refreshed my memory and I spent months and months putting the story together. I worked on the text with Rosemary Jones and then graphics with Paul Shapiro.”

The 116-page autobiographical account details Mr O’Connell’s months of preparation, a failed attempt, and his ultimately successful swim, which raised $11,000 for the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association charity and landed him in Sports Illustrated and the Guinness Book of Records.

Produced by Brimstone Media, Shark Bait: How I Battled Tides, Fins and Fatigue to Complete the First Non-stop Swim Around Bermuda also reveals how Mr O’Connell’s feat at the age of 33 was triggered by a $1,000 bet wagered by a friend at the Robin Hood Pub one Friday evening.

“It’s fantastic to see the finished product; it’s been a long time coming in so many ways,” Mr O’Connell said.

“It’s been almost as much of a marathon as the swim. It’s my baby and it sends a very positive and inspiring message about overcoming challenges.

“That swim changed my life for ever; it gave me more self-confidence and is one of the achievements in my life that I am most proud of.”

The former Bermuda College mathematics professor, now 75, moved to the island in 1974 and spent 29 years teaching at the college.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a family of Irish heritage, Mr O’Connell, now Bermudian, trained to become a Jesuit priest after high school until he chose teaching as a career instead.

But he thinks his upbringing as the son of a high-ranking New York City police officer, plus the years of discipline he practised in the religious order, prepared him well for his long-distance effort years later.

Mr O’Connell’s seven months of training in the ocean around Bermuda in 1976 saw him battle weight loss, vomiting and psychological challenges, as well as endure combative tides and close encounters with barracuda, sharks, jellyfish, and even a freighter.

A team of volunteers and vessels was organised to support him through two attempts, including the final successful clockwise swim around the island between August 21 and 23, in a time of 43 hours, 27 minutes.

The book, which includes contemporary photographs and newspaper clippings, looks at other round-the-island attempts after his achievement, including one by American open-water swimmer Lori King who succeeded in breaking his record in 2016, the 40th anniversary of his swim, just as he finished writing his narrative.

Shark Bait is on sale at Bookmart for $19.95. All proceeds go to the BPHA, the charity that benefited from his swim.

The cover of Shark Bait