Big-hearted Derry man, Paul Keyes, has returned from his adopted home of San Francisco to complete an epic swim from Muff to his native city tomorrow, all in aid of two brilliant causes, the Foyle Search & Rescue and Me4Mental charities.
The 42-years-old, who is originally from the Culmore Road but has been living in Northern California for the past 17 years, will have to make do with the Bay Road rather than the ‘Bay City’ for scenery when he swims the seven miles from just beyond the Donegal border to the Peace Bridge early tomorrow morning.
Paul, back home on leave enjoying a well-earned break from his day job with ‘Teach for America,’ a not-for-profit organisation that encourages teachers to take up posts in deprived areas in the San Francisco Bay area, said he’s really looking forward to the challenge.
“The goal is to start around Muff. There’s no actual spot to put in there so I’ll taken out by boat.
“They’ll drop me in there and then it’s about a six-and-a-half to seven mile swim from there to the Peace Bridge.
“The idea is to do it at arond high tide, which is at 10.45 a.m. on Saturday. So I need to be in the water around three, or three-and-a-half hours befor that, so I’ll start maybe at around seven in the morning.”
The returned émigré said he was inspired to do something for the two charities because - like most people in Derry - he’s had family and friends who have suffered from mental health issues and wanted to show support for two organisations that are doing critically important work to help people.
Amazingly, Paul has already raised £6,456 of a £7,000 target via his https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/paulkeys1 page, which is testament to the regard in which the Foyle Search & Rescue and Me4Mental charities are held in the city.
Sadly, as Paul prepares for tomorrow’s swim another family in the city is struggling for answers and a search operation continues, following a further tragedy on the River Foyle.
Of course, this is the very reason Paul decided to do the swim in the first place.
Referring to last Sunday’s heartbreaking developments, as well as to all of the other personal tragedies that have preceded it, he said: “It was really, really sad to hear.
“This is the reason I’m doing it. Everyone in Derry has had a friend or a family member who has been impacted by someone who has taken their own life.
“It’s just heartbreaking for the families who have been left behind.”
Commenting on the work carried out by long standing local charity, Paul went on: “They are doing great work at Foyle Search and Rescue and long may that continue.
“It’s not only a very popular charity, but one which is crucial to the city as everyone knows.”
As for the swim itself it will be a remarkable feat for someone who only decided to get seriously into open water swimming a few years ago.
Paul explained that he first decided to take to the chilly waters of the San Francisco Bay estuary as a less attritional way of keeping fit after a few too many poundings of the roads and running tracks and a few too many twists and turns on the football pitches Stateside. To give the knees a rest in other words! We’ve all been there . . .
“I was looking for something after a few injuries playing football and running.
“The bay in San Francisco has a lot of swimmers, a lot of triathletes. That’s how I got into it really,” he confirmed.
Indeed, he’s now a card-carrying member of a San Francisco institution, the South End Rowing Club, which was established in 1873, and is the oldest rowing club in the American west.
The historic club hosts a famous annual invitational swim to the infamous former Alcatraz Penitentiary
“I’m a member of the South End Rowing Club that’s been around for about 140 years or so. I swim with a bunch of Irish fellahs out there who have been swimming in the bay for 20 or 30 years and they swim all through the winter.
“A couple of years ago I swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, which is about six miles or so.
“This is similar, though I don’t know the current and the water so I’m expecting it to be a wee bit of a tougher swim but fairly similar.”
Though used to braving shark-infested waters - the majority are harmless yet San Francisco Bay is occassionally visited by the odd Great White! - Paul realises he is taking on one of the fastest flowing rivers for its water volume in Europe and that timing tomorrow will be everything.
“I’m not sure how long it will take me. I’m used to swimming in the bay in San Francisco where I know the currents better and I know how strong they are.
“I’ll definitely have an assist with the incoming tide and I imagine it’s going to take me maybe, two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half hours.
“If I don’t time it correctly people will be picking me up in Greencastle.”
Paul thanked everyone who has contributed to his fundraising appeal sofar and invited anyone who wants to help him break the £7,000 target to visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/paulkeys1
He also thanked local man Paddy Toland for kindly offering to provide safety support for tomorrow’s effort.
Incidentally, Foyle Search and Rescue had been due to shadow Paul on his swim tomorrow morning but, totally understandably, given the sad events of Sunday last, all volunteers have since been mobilised for the continuding search of the River Foyle.
The Lifeline helpline is open 24 hours a day, every day. Free call on 0808 808 8000.