6 December 2014

The long-distance lough-skier

Some adventures take a while to bloom. Inspiration strikes, then the idea sits, simmers, matures and finally fizzes into life – and before you know it you’re waterskiing the length of Northern Ireland’s second largest lake system. Twice.

At least that's the story for Enniskillen Lifeboat Crew Member Garvan Duffy, who on 12 October 2014 found himself replicating a 1971 non-stop lap of Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh.

Born 5 years after the original feat, Garvan grew up by the lough and started waterskiing at the age of 11, inspired by local legend Joe Crawford. ‘I met him maybe 20 years ago waterskiing around the Killyhevlin Hotel area,’ Garvan explains. ‘He became a good friend and I loved hearing all his stories. When I heard he was the first man to waterski round the lough I thought: “Some day I’m going to do that.”’

Imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, Landsat, Google, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Map data ©2014 Google
Imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, Landsat, Google, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Map data ©2014 Google

The challenge would have a different feel though, as Lough Erne has changed a fair bit in the intervening 43 years. Starting from the Killyhevlin just outside Enniskillen (B), Garvan would ski down Lower Lough Erne to Belleek (A), back to the middle for a refuel (B), and then along the Upper Lough to Belturbet (C) and back (B). With the middle section now a built-up marina with miles of moored boats, jetties, a lock system and a 5-knot speed limit, he was never going for a record attempt.

‘I would love to have completed it one go, really gone against the clock of 4 hours 51 minutes. It took me 6 hours in the end,’ admits Garvan. Still, 120-odd miles are not to be sniffed at, and a record wasn’t his true motivation.

120 miles in context
120 miles in context

Two loves

‘I wanted to do the waterski in the name of my grandfather Thomas, who helped set up a cancer charity in 1979 when my granny Elizabeth died. It was a perfect way to combine my two loves – family and my passion for the water,’ says Garvan. That passion has taken him not just around Lough Erne, but all over the world as Captain of the Irish Wakeboard Team.

So with a challenge and route map in mind, how do you go about preparing and recovering? Will your arms forever be locked out in front of you like a cartoon sleepwalker? Apparently not: ‘It was a pleasure to do. I had a good base level of fitness from skiing a few times a week, which builds up your core strength. As the challenge got nearer I went out on some long slalom skiing sessions. It’s totally different to going on two skis – it really takes it out of you – so I knew if I could do that, I could do the challenge no problem. Once you’re out there and up on your skis, you just relax into it.’

Garvan even went down to the Fermanagh County Museum at Enniskillen Castle to watch archive footage of Joe’s landmark lap. ‘Everything was so old-school compared to how we do it today,’ he laughs. ‘I think he was in a rubber diver’s wetsuit, you know the ones with a gap in the middle and a strap between the legs, which wouldn’t have kept him that warm. My 5mm wetsuit was a hell of a lot warmer. In general the kit’s got more advanced, with a more powerful boat and carbon fibre skis rather than wooden ones.’

Garvan showing his support for Friends of the Cancer Centre. Don’t be dazzled by the yellow, there’s a solid lough-going buoyancy aid under there.Photo: Adrian Kelly
Garvan showing his support for Friends of the Cancer Centre. Don’t be dazzled by the yellow, there’s a solid lough-going buoyancy aid under there.

Setting the date

After decades of riding these waters and 10 years’ experience as an RNLI crew member at Enniskillen, Garvan knew that calm days often came through in October. ‘I think the biggest part of our sport is having common sense,’ he explains. ‘One minute that lough can be as flat as anything, and the next day it’s 5 or 6-foot waves and you could be in a lot of trouble. It also pays to know your surroundings: the danger points and what shallow areas to avoid. And the buoyancy aid? I don’t get into the water without one.’

The first of two carefully chosen weekends came and went with strong winds, but a window arrived the following Sunday. Thanks to a warm Summer the water was still a comfortable 18⁰C and an early threatening fog soon burned through to reveal the calmest day of the season. It was time.

Ready for the off

With all that prep behind him and a hearty bowl of porridge inside him, Garvan was away. Up in the towing boat his wife Julie, with friends Eugene McTaggart and RNLI Helm Adrian Kelly, looked back on their charge, who was ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat, loving it the whole way’. While waterskiers always watch the water ahead of them, Garvan was also able to appreciate his stunning surroundings. ‘It was a cool way to see the whole lake in one day,’ he remembers. ‘Usually you’d just stay and ski in one area.’

‘It pays to know your surroundings: the danger points and the areas to avoid.’
Garvan Duffy
Volunteer Crew Member, Enniskillen

The low point came, as he’d predicted, through the 5-knot speed limit in the middle: ‘It absolutely pulled the arms clean out of me, it was definitely the toughest part of the day. You’re just being dragged through the water, rather than planing on top of it, and the resistance is killing you.

‘The highlight for me was at the widest part of the lake, heading down to Belleek (see main image). It’s usually as rough as the sea, but we got to the corner, the fog had lifted, and there it was: flat calm and blue skies, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean. Amazing. I was just looking up at that blue sky and thanking my grandfather for making such a class day.’ Two days later, a fellow crew member was in the same area on a shout and reported 5-foot waves. Definitely not fit for skiing.

As a child, Garvan had been driven down the shore road every Summer for caravan holidays at Bundoran and past the Lower Lough, always moving, often rough. Now here he was, skimming across its millpond stillness.

As Garvan reached the home turf of the Upper Lough, friends and supporters came out to ski or boat with him and cheer him along the final stretch. By the end of his incredible circuit, he’d kickstarted a fundraising pot that stands at over £4,000, topped up by donations from customers at his barbershop.

Garvan celebrates at the end of the line with the man who started it all, Joe CrawfordPhoto: Adrian Kelly
Garvan celebrates at the end of the line with the man who started it all, Joe Crawford

Garvan was also brought on home by one very special supporter. Joe Crawford, who’d joined the team in the boat initially and then followed the skier’s progress by car, was there on the pontoon to welcome him.

‘Ah, he knew his record wasn’t in any danger of being beat!’ laughs Garvan. ‘But no, he was well impressed and congratulated me as the second person ever to complete it. He’s in his 70s and still waterskiing, but I couldn’t convince him to join me on this one. He was just over the moon to see it all, saying it brought back all the memories and made it feel like his day was just last week.’

Small shoes to fill: The next challenge

It’s only natural that as skis get progressively finer and lighter, thrill-seekers like Garvan would soon dispense with them entirely. ‘For my next challenge I’d definitely like to ski barefoot across the broad lough, that’s about 7 or 8 miles and would be pretty hard to do,’ he says. ‘On a longline behind the boat, flat out, 40-plus miles an hour on your bare feet, there’s nothing like it.’

Big feet are not essential either – they do help for balance but, given that the world champion is a size 6, the dainty of foot are not ruled out from the pursuit.

A home for the crew

L–R: Enniskillen crew members Chris Cathcart, Adrian Kelly, Garvan Duffy and Stephen Ingram outside the new lifeboat station building at CarrybridgePhoto: Stephen Scott
L–R: Enniskillen crew members Chris Cathcart, Adrian Kelly, Garvan Duffy and Stephen Ingram outside the new lifeboat station building at Carrybridge
‘We’ve been living out of containers for the last 12 years, so having a purpose-built station is going to be class!’
Garvan Duffy
Volunteer Crew Member, Enniskillen

Enniskillen, where Garvan has been a volunteer for 10 years, is one of four inland RNLI lifeboat stations, with lifeboats stationed on both Upper and Lower Lough Erne. The crews here are regularly among the busiest in Ireland – in 2013 they were second busiest with 56 launches and 82 people rescued. With wind and wave conditions on the wider stretches of the lough often matching the open sea, search and rescue here is never an easy ride.

In 2013, the volunteers launched an appeal to replace their temporary station with a permanent building at Carrybridge on the Upper Lough. Not one to rest on his skis, Round Table Chairman Garvan has been fundraising for the appeal, organising local events including a black tie ball in November. As someone who’s intimately acquainted with October waters, his eagerness for proper changing, training and kit-drying facilities is understandable: ‘We’ve been living out of containers for the last 12 years, so having a purpose-built station is going to be class!’

We know that people take to the water to fundraise for all sorts of brilliant causes. If you’d like to support Friends of the Cancer Centre, you can visit Garvan’s JustGiving page.

If you’ve been inspired by Garvan’s work for the Enniskillen station appeal, you can keep up with the build on Enniskillen RNLI’s Facebook page or donate to the RNLI here.

Or, grateful in the knowledge that you haven’t just spent 6 hours with your arms held at half-mast, you could be a hero and support both.