There’s a discussion thread on the marathonswimmers.org forum called Tips and Tricks and I’ve been writing my How To articles for a few years. But here’s a list of brief random items I’ve learned that I threw together, which individually are too short for articles (right now anyway, who knows what’ll be possible mid-winter when I’m out of ideas). I’m pretty certain every other swimmer would have their own additions. More to come in the next article.
Never eat a curry the night before a marathon swim. No details are necessary.
It’s always all about the weather.
And the waiting. Never forget the waiting.
You can always pick a marathon swimmer out of a crowd based purely on their facial tan.
Never eat a banana on a boat in rough weather.
Seagulls are evil bastards. Their mimic all the things of most importance to marathon swimmers, such as other swimmers, boats, kayakers, dolphins and lighthouses, just to piss you off. If this is insufficient, some of them will try to vomit or crap directly on you.
Nothing is predictable in open water and marathon swimming.
You never feel as physically dirty as you do after a marathon swim. You never enjoy any shower as much as the subsequent cleansing.
When in doubt, add more food.
A bad or tough swim is more personally rewarding than a good or fast swim.
While in the long-term sleep is essential, in the short-term it’s less vital that you’d imagine.
There are people I’ve spent many hours with, whom I wouldn’t recognise without a swim cap and goggles. And visa versa.
Don’t believe that all the ones who do the most marathon swims are necessarily better. They sometimes just have more money. Like everything else in life.
Never go out on a boat without foul weather gear, regardless of forecast.
Just because you are paying someone two and a half grand for a day’s work, doesn’t mean they will treat you with respect.
No pilot is God, nor are pilots all of equal ability.
There’s more than one way of feeding, and more than one type of food.
After repeated poor wet cold summers, 2013 was pretty decent by Irish standards. Or at least mid-May to mid-July were good. After that it reverted to recent type but did allow me to run a Copper Coast Distance Week swim which had been blown out in 2012 by a ridiculous summer storm which stopped swimming everywhere that day.
Cork Distance Week swimmers were to return to the Copper Coast in 2014 and for an unprecedented (seemingly for decades) second year in a row the early Irish summer was good and holding.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Cork Distance Week is a combination of mass delusion and fringe cult for marathon swimmers. It’s often called “the toughest week of open water swimming in the world“.
For nine days in July (it’s previously happened earlier) forty, fifty or sixty open water swimmers from around the world gather in Ireland. Because only here can you be guaranteed the combination of rubbish weather, cold water, jellyfish and challenging locations* required to make you a better, stronger more confident swimmer, ready for the English or North Channels or anything else the sea will throw at you.
More than just a boot camp, it’s Base Camp for those who aspire to the big horizontal wet challenges. It’s run by Ned Denison with occasionally-allowed assistance and participation of other Sandycove swimmers.
The week revolves around swimming twice a day for two hours per session, often moving locations for the evening swims. It culminates on the penultimate day with the infamous TBBC, aka TheTorture Swim on the Saturday, of which rumours abound. As a regular repeat Torturer I can neither confirm nor deny anything you may have heard that we inflict on the swimmers. Suffice to say I believe a public inquiry, media exposure and a prison sentence are real possibilities in the future for those of us who have acted as Torturers. And I’m not even joking.
On the final day swimmers complete a six-hour Channel qualification swim around Sandycove. (Except the Sandycove locals. We usually swim more, just for local pride and Irish pig-headedness. Oh, and an insane coach).
Total weekly distances, if a swimmer completes every swim, vary from a low 85 kilometre one year to 105 kilometres in 2014, and the astonishingly high 150 kilometres in 2010, the year of The Magnificent Seven, (of which Rob Bohane and I completed 140 k). Yes folks, things really were tougher in our day. :-)
After years, and using a new-fangled device called Google Earth, in 2012 I was finally able to prove to the People’s Republic of Cork swimming citizens that in fact Ireland does have locations east of Cork which aren’t called Dublin, the only eastern location Cork people have always (grudgingly) admitted as existing.
With no idea of the attending numbers, I wanted to stage a different swim to last year by moving outside Tramore Bay, which required more obliging winds than prevailing onshore.
The early week forecast was good with light winds forecast so on Monday I was able to plan for a swim at Kilfarassey for the group.
Dee & I arrived early afternoon in order to grab parking spaces as they became available, using police bollards I’d borrowed from Tramore Garda station. There was some muttering from a few people that we’d taken spaces in the small car park but the Garda (Irish name for police) bollards, a large sign and table we set up and ready explanations for anyone asking questions helped alleviate any hostility.
Like a lot of distance swimmers, I find beaches somewhat dull. Due to the presence of the small Burke’s Island slightly offshore, Kilfarassey looks only slightly less dull than most beaches. Its treasures are hidden and only available to those who swim more than a couple of short kilometres.
Arriving later than the originally planned start time of 6 p.m. almost half of the Distance Camp swimmers had made the two-hour drive across.
I’d chosen a complicated looping seven kilometre route. So it required guiding by kayakers and splitting the swimmers into three different speed groups. I was joined by local marathon swimming friends Owen O’Keefe and Conor Power and Alex, partner of one of the visiting swimmers, all kayaking for the event. There was also a shorter three kilometre route for swimmers wishing to have an easy swim.
I’m not going to do a breakdown or map of the routes here, because while I’ve shown all the parts of the swim here, I’d prefer to keep it to myself, unless I get to guide someone around it. So if you want to see and experience its delights the only way is to come here and have me take you around.
The long route featured such delights as Jellyfish Alley, The Cave of Screaming Terror, LoneSwimmer’s Playground, The Keyhole, Barrel Cave, Rat Island, The Toughest Kilometre on the Copper Coast and The Jellyfish Nursery. Despite or because of the ominous sounding names, some original but most my own, it’s been my favourite two hour swim on the Copper Coast for a couple of years now. I usually only swim it during July and August.
The route featured multiple caves, arches which included one that prompted an explosive “you have got to be fucking kidding me“, (which is a lot of shouting for a swimmer and was a delight to me), rocks, circumnavigations of two islands, adverse currents with wind against tide, feeling utterly lost, tunnels, reefs, huge jellyfish and swimming blind into a setting Sun.
I think you can tell if you are a marathon or aspiring marathon swimmer if all this sounds like fun.
Of those who visited, some were already LoneSwimmer regular visitors and it was great to put faces to names.
Adam Walker has since completed the Ocean’s Seven. Kate Robarts, Hazel Killingbeck (an incredible 16 years old, same as Owen when he became the youngest Irish person to solo the Channel), Jason Betley and Dani Lobo have all completed the English Channel. Coleen Mallon has completed the North Channel and Phil Hodges won the brutal Loch Lomond swim which had an attrition rate of 75%. A huge congratulations to all! Two others are awaiting their swims this year and more will be swimming next year. The group also included a number of existing Channel swimmers including Ned, Zoe “Matron” Sadler, Zara Bullock and Distance Camp repeat offenders Helen Gibbs and Sarah Tunnicliffe, who really should know better by now. Proof I’d like to think that Irish waters are the best swimming waters! Almost as impressive is that excluding Ned, three Cork swimmers, Fergus Galvin, Carmel Collins and Gordon Adair actually left the warm embrace of the People’s Republic to travel east, surprising since, as every Cork person knows, Cork is the world.
The Copper Coast Distance Camp swim is one of my swimming highlights of the year, even though I’m not actually swimming. My love for the glorious and little known Copper Coast has grown year over year and I have a very proprietorial sense of ownership of its beauty and wonders that I like to share. I’ve swum every metre of all these routes, exploring new wrinkles and features but mostly doing so by myself. So it’s a thrill to share with swimmers whose capabilities I don’t have to worry about and whom I know will appreciate its challenges and beauty.
There’s also something really special for me about having a big group of Channel and marathon swimmers arrive just to swim my coast. No media, no reporters, just marathon swimmers, on a Thursday evening, doing what they do. No hype, no trumpets, none of the fake nonsense associated with so many sports or other pursuits. A simple bunch of simple-minded swimmers sharing simple water. Doing something that often takes years of perseverance and training and experience to develop, all done just for the love of adumb thing. If there isn’t a lesson in that, well I guess our worlds are different.
I am left with one dilemma, (and you know I already have a lot of those). Some of the attendees commented that it was “the best swim ever“. There is no better compliment a swim organiser can receive. So my dilemma is: what can I do next year?
But I’ve been thinking and I’ve had one idea…
Will you be here? You really should be.
My thanks go to Owen, Alex and Conor for kayaking, especially on my circuitous route. To Ned for keeping the Copper Coast on the Distance Camp schedule, and for not inflicting the American camera crew on us. To Keith Garry for loan of the camera and use of the images. To Alex for stepping in as extra kayaker at the last-minute and acting as a communications conduit between the groups. To Lisa and Ned’s partner Catherine for helping out on land and of course my partner Dee, who as usual was the organiser behind the food and organisation and who kept my head from popping off.
The 2015 Distance Camp is already about one-third full and filling fast. Due to the success of the Copper Coast swim, it’s already on the 2015 schedule, for the first time this early. Attendance at Distance Camp is by invitation only, which means you need to ask Ned Denison for an invite. If you can’t find it elsewhere, you can use the contact form on the About tab to ask me for his email privately, or contact Ned through the Marathon Swimmers Forum.
* Challenging means middle of nowhere, bad signposts, little parking, no changing or shower or toilet facilities and miles from food, often in rain and wind.
Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.
So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.
Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary. At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.
The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.
In the English Channel it’s ZC2, in Manhattan it’s the Hudson, in Catalina it’s where the seafloor suddenly rises. The swimming hours before are just part of the price of entry.
We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.
One of the features of the North Channel according to Quinton, is that the final couple of miles outside Portpatrick are almost always bad, a local feature of the confluence of wind, tide and currents, a micro-climate different to the rest of the Channel. A good day very rapidly degenerates and the swimmer is fighting a maelstrom of white water and waves from seemingly all directions.
Fin was fighting onward, but on the boat we finally knew he would make it. He knew he would make it, because there comes a point where it makes less sense to give up than to continue, because you have already invested time and pain.
Portpatrick was clear ahead and slightly to starboard, buildings clear in the late afternoon sunlight. All along the coast were the empty hills and the wind turbines that had been vaguely visible for hours. Killantringan was north-east of us, but we were south enough to get swept in. He would not, could not be stopped now. Two laps of Sandycove, the Metalman to Tramore beach, one full lap of Dover Harbour. He would, he could.
At 5:05 we gave Fin his feed and I got to say the magic words, the words every swimmer wants to hear, the words every crew wants to say: “This is yourlast feed“.
Craig and I discussed which of us would swim Fin in. I told Craig he should go as I’d swum both Sylvain and Gábor and others in and I wanted to photograph the finish.
At 5:45 p.m. as Craig gets ready, I make my final note of the swim in my notebook to that effect. I’m stood on the bow, my Dad’s old football whistle, now a feature of all swims I crew on a lanyard around my neck, whistling and shouting. We’ve been pushed just to the north of the small bay between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Craig, proudly wearing his yellow CSA Channel Swimmer’s cap, (as I wear my own orange C&PF Channel cap) jumps over the side at two minutes to six. His instructions from the ILDSA observer Gary and Quinton are clear. Don’t swim in front of Fin or touch him, from Gary, and given the usually dangerous cliff finish of a North Channel solo, get Fin to touch a rock and raise his arm, that’ll be enough, (standing wouldn’t be necessary, or possible) from Quinton.
Craig is on the far side of Fin within seconds, and we’re only a hundred metres from the rocks. They disappear behind waves, appear a couple of metre closer to the shore. I try to get them both in frame, the waves, the angle the boat rocking, the zoom, all make it difficult. Closer still, I see Craig and no Finbarr, then Fin and no Craig.
Craig is at the cliffs. Where’s Fin? And then there he is. Three or four metres away from Craig, Fin touches the cliff and pushes off on his feet trying to raise both arms, he looks like he’s pushing off a pivot turn and heading for the second lap. It’s 6:01 p.m. July 7th and Finbarr Hedderman has swum the North Channel.
Not sure if the waves have blocked our view of Fin, Craig tells him to raise his arm again. I get a shot of him like that, but I prefer the above photo,the real touch. Because it doesn’t matter if wasn’t elegant, it was real, it was what he worked for. Elegance, clarity, zoom and photographic composition are less important than the reality. The swimmer thinks of that touch, visualises, works for it, swims for it, dreams of it. The entire sport, all the words and the images, all the endurance and time are in that moment. The suffering is over, the pain vanishes, the coast is reached.
Touching an unnamed bit of rock on the Scottish Coast, never before touched by a human, probably never to be touched again, Finbarr is Neil Armstrong, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Edmund Hillary reborn, even if there are only two friends, a pilot and a crew there to see and appreciate it.
At 6:02 p.m. and back safely on the boat with Craig, Fin announces his retirement from Channel swimming.
He lasts a full six weeks in retirement before he shares his next idea with me. But I’m not telling.
Finbarr had neither cold water nor jellyfish in the North Channel. He took a calculated risk based on training and his known capability to go early and he didn’t even have to fall back on his cold expertise. Yet his North Channel was unexpectedly tough, because sometimes the biggest challenge is ourselves. Two weeks later, though the weather stayed warm, a highly experienced Channel swimmer was pulled semi-conscious from the water. The water temperature had dropped five degrees.
Two weeks after Fin’s swim, he said”it means something to me, I just don’t know what yet“. I know he was surprised, even shocked, how much it had hurt mentally, and how hard it was. For years he’d joked how he’d forgotten his English Channel solo, but said after his North Channel that he’d remembered during the swim when memories of difficulty returned. It’s the nature of pain that we must as animals forget it when it’s not present, otherwise any species would never survive.
The mystery of the North Channel has been evaporating for the past couple of seasons. Aspirants no longer need to be successful English Channel soloists, and some North channel swimmers have recently completed it at their first marathon swim. The people approaching the North Channel already now include some less than experienced individuals, such as the one who though they could get on the boat to feed and wanted an artist on board to paint them while another crew member played the flute. I am not making that up. Like the swimmer pulled semi-conscious from the water, this also happened in the early 2014 season after Fin’s swim.
Quinton’s piloting makes swim time and the route more quantifiable. It makes the North Channel definitely quicker than the English Channel, and of course it’s shorter, with a more defined time envelope. Success rates have risen dramatically in just two years, though the overall numbers remain small for now, limited by the changeable weather as always and the mere two boats in the fleet, with the other main constraint associated with Channels swimming, appropriate tides. If the current demand for North Channel swims continues, which seems likely, then the fleet will grow and a few more years will tell us a lot more. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third pilot-boat operate in 2015 or 2016.
Of all the things I know or suspect or feel or hope about marathon and Channel swimming, one of the most important things I know is that, trite as it sounds, every swim is different. Profoundly, fundamentally different. Maybe it takes a crucible swim, one of those swims that puts you to the question, to make you realise this, as I realised this. Sitting on a boat, as crew we laugh and fret and chat and even worry. We don’t, we can’t, sit there and let ourselves inside the swimmer’s head.
Finbarr and I share, as do many marathon swimmers, an interest in adventure books, specifically climbing and polar adventure. Maybe it’s partly because the literature about Channel and marathon swimming in limited. Journalists can write about mountain climbing or exploration, but who can write effectively about Channel Swimming, except Channel Swimmers? And that’s a pretty small number in global terms, something we tend to forget when we are immersed in the community.
Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, the tale of the opening of the Eiger’s notorious North Face, and one of the great true life climbing books is replete with wisdom for anyone either wishing to understand these crazy ridiculous adventures, or wishing to explain them. He quotes climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young: “The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. [...]. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….”
Substitute Channel Swimming for mountain adventures and the analogy is clear. When covering Channel swimming some of this applies. I can cover Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because I was there and it may stand for a generation, and no other swim will ever hold the same prestige. I covered Sylvain Estadieu, because even us Channel swimmers boggle at the idea of twenty-one miles of open water butterfly. In Part One of this series I wrote that I do these swim reports in part because I’ve had the privilege to be part of them and because these swims also allow me to bring aspects of marathon and Channel swimming to a wider audience, to share the fortune I’ve had to be part of them. But I myself by doing so have to be careful not to feed the idea that just because a swim isn’t a first or a record that it’s less important to cover.
Also, to retain your interest I split the narrative at appropriate points such as “That’s It, I’m done“. Such implies a dramatic point whereas in the swim it was part of a continuous linear event.
Like Lisa Cummins and Sylvain Estadieu, Finbarr set out to swim a two-way. Neither Sylvain nor Finbarr did, and not once I consider either a failure because they didn’t complete that goal. Each though did complete a crossing, as every Channel swimmer does, a feat of endurance and courage. As did the other friends I know and have crewed for and didn’t cover here. There’s a quotation from Homer that I haven’t used on the blog for a few years that seems apposite: “For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea“.To dream so large and then to attempt the feat has always seemed to me a triumph in itself and success of its own and each dream alone makes me proud to be a friend of each.
Channel and marathon swimming differs from tales of mountain climbing in some obvious aspects. The time frame is usually shorter, the possibility of safe extraction is greater. It’s not an us-versus-them comparison though, and few would understand the Channel swimmer’s motivation as would a mountain climber.
But for someone writing about Channel there’s a difficulty. Every mountain has immovable features and famous landmarks, whether it’s K2’s Serac or the Eiger’s White Spider. The pitons and ropes and ladders are still fixed and still used on the Hinterstoisser Traverse and Everest’s Second Step.
Channel swimmers only have pilots, boats, water, wind, currents and locations. No swimmer leaves their mark on a Channel.
The swimmer passes and the water’s surface is immediately wiped clear of their passage. The water holds no trace. Only the stories and legends live on and to his friends, Finbarr is a legend.
Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.
First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.
From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.
Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.
We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers. But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.
I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.
Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything. A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.
While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.
Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.
In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.
There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.
From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.
By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.
“That it,” he said, “I’m done“.
Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.
For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.
It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through. But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.
On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.
I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.
Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.
Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.
A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.
Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?
Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel. Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel, what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!
So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.
It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.
The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.
The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.
The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:
Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.
Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.
Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.
Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.
The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.
During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.
Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.
A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.
The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence. Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.
By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.
At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)
By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.
On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones in the world, was barely visible in the haze.
There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.
We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.
We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.
Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.
Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.
As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.
At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?
At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.
Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.
We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.
The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.
The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.
The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.
At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen. Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.
For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.
Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.
Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?
Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium. He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.
By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.
Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.
I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.
Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.
I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards. Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.
Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey for the wider swimming community.
The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere. While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.
Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard
For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.
His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.
When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.
Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.
Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now). Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013. One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.
At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.
On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.
Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us. A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.
We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.
He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:
“I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.
He still says it to me.
Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.
Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.
I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.
In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.
Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.
July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring. Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.
July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.
Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.
I can say I saw another sea, but you will not understand. I do not understand. That Sea was not the sea I know. The sea is sacred to me, but this Sea was more than sacred, it was hallowed.
Beyond was not Sea open to the horizon, but only kilometres, miles, a mere league or two, to a further shore.
I cannot say much about that shore. I am moderately farsighted, growing gradually worse with age, age that I now notice.
I stood there, skin tanned from sea swimming bared to the golden light and the sky. And I saw, I saw… I don’t know. I saw different colours of gold and green. A blackgreen that is either the colour of the abyss or distant forests. Layers of blue purple and grey that must have been mountains beyond. And further beyond, yes, I know I saw a peak. Mighty, astonishing, partially enrobed in clouds, a peak from the Young Earth. But this description isn’t what I saw, any more than a map is the location.
Battlements and bastions of rock. Shoulders piled up, higher and higher, minor spires throwing spindrift that being so far away must have been hurricane-sized. Close and far at the same time. Higher up, the summit itself was lost to sight, a subtle interplay of colours and cloud, blending with the golden light-filled sky.
I saw a golden Sea. A tall Mountain. A Sea and a Mountain such as none have described. So little to say.
At some point I bowed my head, conscious suddenly of my breathing. I inhaled deeply, looked at that Sea again. This time I saw motes. Motes leaving the further shore, motes on the Sea. Boats or ships. The town’s inhabitants? Returning from the further shore. I could not look at that Mountain again. To sail on that Sea was incomprehensible. To swim in it inconceivable.
I must have turned down the greensward toward the town. I was dazed. I did not hurry and I was not afraid. As I left the greensward I looked right, surely to the South now. I saw the town and harbour were situated in a shallow bay which swept south, the coast dotted with pearly turquoise sand inlets.
I looked out and saw, just outside the bay, innumerable tiny islands, scattered like pearls on silk. It vaguely reminded me of Clew Bay as seen from high on Croagh Patrick but Clew Bay’s three hundred and sixty-five islands were a pale imitation of this vista. Eastwards the sky was a vivid deep blue, almost purple. The colour of late northern evening, though the light, the time of day felt earlier.
And then I saw the Ship of the Moon risen from the east. Not the Moon. Not our tarnished recalcitrant orb. I saw the Ship of the Moon. Not a frigate or barque or clipper but a bád mór. With a bluff prow, high gunnals, a raked transom and a single main mast and foresail. Sailing into the sky, lambent, coruscating and argent. The purest silver, a colour beyond white or platinum or mithril.
I do not recall returning through the town. I saw the Ship of the Moon, then I was once more standing on the pier by the water’s edge. I looked out and saw the nearest islands. A rounded small hill, grass topped rock. A series of reefs and ridges leading right, leading south. Overhead the Ship of the Moon threw a beam, a silver road between me and the reefs. Where the beam touched the reefs I saw a vertical opening: The Keyhole Arch. A silver road, the Moon Road, that led directly from my feet over the water to my arch.
I pulled on my swim cap, my goggles. I turned back, briefly and looked at the town and the hill. The town was sinking into shadow. The green summit of the hill still caught the golden light from beyond but it threw a shadow across the harbour. Then I heard the summons of a herring gull, that plaintive wail that snares all those who go down to the sea.
I set my cap and goggles, breathed deep and dove. Out, out I flew, into the air and then I sliced the water. No cold shock, I glided to the surface and swam. I swam that silver beam toward the reefs. No longer made of light I was still made of water. Just behind my feet was the line of shadow thrown by the hill, seeping out into the bay with me. I swam, a direct line and very quickly I was approaching the reefs. Under the water the white sandy bottom showed hulls and keels, shattered and worn.
The line of reef which held The Keyhole was metres from me. I knew its hourglass shape, the narrow pointed top. I looked behind. The town was no longer distinguishable in the shadow beneath the hill. The greensward was a hint of pure emerald against the light behind the hilltop. I glimpsed left, to the north. Boats were rounding the island’s curve. White boats, with bright sails, dancing on the water. Silhouettes moving on the decks.
When I passed through The Keyhole, all I noticed was that the shadows of the entrance enveloped me, the water beneath was not as clear as earlier and it was cool. Light silt swirled around and the bottom wasn’t visible. I exited as usual into the reef channel. Brown’s Island was to my left, blocking further view. The Sun was overhead to my right, bright mid-day, no shadows. South.
I swum left through the Channel, passed close to Burke’s Island, and saw the Copper Coast cliffs and the Kilfarassey beach ahead, six or seven hundred metres away.
On the sand, my sandals were still there under the rocks. I looked back, south, to Brown’s Island, left and east, right and west. I looked at my watch and it was twelve twenty five. As I walked to the car park, I felt the familiar post-swim chill reach out for me.
I looked east again. There was no Moon in the eastern sky.
I have swum back to the Keyhole Arch since. I have even taken others there but it merely leads through the reef as it always did previously. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, I swam through some fracture, some interstice. Some combination of tide and time and light and mind. I swam a straight line where there were only turns, or a straight line where there was only an invisible maze. I swam beyond the sea and entered a different Sea. The other side of the Sun, the far side of the sky, beyond the wind. I do not know.
I keep trying to find my way back. My directions are no longer cardinal and I am cast adrift, knowing my arms and shoulders are not measure of this world. I could not stay but I should never have left and I am bereft.
I still dream of the sea and the swell, but now I also dream of golden light and silver water, of dancing white boats with bright sails, and a tall Mountain on a further shore, past a hallowed Sea.
Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.
After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.
He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.
Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.
His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.
Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.
A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.
Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.
But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.
It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.
Swimming is a lot of things to different people at different times, even to me. But what it isn’t, is a method of travel. We may travel long distances while swimming, we may even be swimming to a destination, but we are not traveling per se. But somehow, I’d traveled.
The buildings stopped before I reached the top of the hill. There was no apparent difference in size or appointment between the lower down houses and those higher up.
I had not seen a single person nor heard any sounds of people. It was like everyone has just stepped out back, at the same moment.
Quite abruptly I passed the last house. How long had I walked through the town? This prompted another thought. What time was it? Checking the elapsed time of a swim is such an ingrained habit for me, yet I hadn’t looked at my watch since I’d passed behind Brown’s Island. I checked my watch. The watches start triangle was where I’d set it, at twenty-five minutes to twelve. The minute hand was a few minutes past twelve. Twenty eight minutes? Or an hour, two hours, three hours, and twenty-eight minutes? I looked around for the umpteenth time. Nothing changed. I looked at the watch again and now noticed the second hand. It wasn’t moving. Had my watch stopped?
Beyond the building was the hilltop. The crown was simply covered in a lush green lawn. The road stopped but a path was worn to the top. From up here I could see that the lower road which had led off right out of sight and disappeared had done so because the Sea reached inwards beyond that point.
I never considered stopping, the entire town seemed draped below this green crown like a mantle, with the summit the culmination of its layout. The gradient was now steep but consequently the distance upwards to the zenith was short. The steepness forced my eyes down in front and so the sudden lessening of the slope as I reached the summit was surprising.
The fifty steps up the cliff from the Guillamenes to the car park has regularly left me breathless, adapted as I am for swimming. I felt nothing similar here. The greensward opened out in a circle. There were no signs or seats or anything except grass. To my right in the distance though I could see the Sea. The lower road had curved away because there was no more land only a couple of kilometres beyond the town. I looked left and saw the grass summit descend in a gentle ridge. With the Sun ahead of me, that meant right was north and left down the ridge was south. The harbour and town were situated close to the north end of either a large island or a long peninsula leading from the south.
Ahead of me the hill fell away very gently. The slopes were covered in a patchwork of meadows, variegated vegetation delineating the boundaries, no hard fenced fields, the various colours indicating a variety of vegetation, from the vivid green of summer barley, to dusty ripening wheat and tall corn stalks, all different stages of growth apparent at the same time.
But ahead of me, beyond the meadows, to the West? The Sun was well down the sky. The photographer in me assessed the golden light and the shadow I threw behind me. It was a good way from setting, and a longer way from morning.
The quilted fields on the western slope ended at the Sea, which stretched left and right, sparkling into the hazy distance. I looked out over that Sea, argent and aureate. A Sea like none I’ve seen or swum. Molten metal and liquid air and lifeblood. Sacred like lifeblood. The light blazed at me again. The light blasted me. I closed my eyes, and the light did not diminish. Then, opening my eyes, I saw through the haze.
Subconsciously, I’d pulled the goggles from my face, feeling the familiar discomfort around my eyes as the suction released. They dangled weightless from my fingers.
Above the seafront buildings rose a hill and a town. A road led through the near buildings to disappear into tiered houses that fronted a low hill. I was stunned. Tiny Annestown rested well back from the sea on a road up a hill, a village so small that it had neither a shop nor a pub nor a church and only a dozen houses. Bunmahon lay beyond a stream behind a beach. Stradbally was a kilometre from the shore, and anyway I knew all those villages. I just kept thinking; “I know this coast, I know this coast“. Those villages had tarmac roads, cars, electricity. Modern buildings. All I could think was to seek explanation, comparison, but I had none. My mind whirlpooled around the same vortex. “I know this coast”.
I stood there, a middle-aged slightly overweight man, on a sunny warm afternoon, wearing nothing but Speedoes which were already almost dried in the warm breeze.
It was quiet. Not silent. Peaceful. The breeze was barely audible on various surfaces. The Sea muted its gentle song behind me. My bare feet scraped the sand. I heard the guillemots croak. But I saw no-one. It felt empty. But not deserted. Everything was well maintained. It felt how the Guillamenes feels on mornings I am there by myself. Not abandoned, just that I arrive and swim and leave, without ever seeing anyone, or being seen.
You can feel a temporary emptiness, feel the lack of people, even when you can’t see all the possible locations where they may be. You’ve stepped into your own time and space in a location. Your house isn’t really empty, it’s just that everyone else is out. As I was here. Everyone was out, and I was here alone.
I didn’t look back at the Sea, but I moved forward. I ignored the building on the seafront and entered the lane leading up to the town.
By now I’d dried, but I wasn’t cold. No Afterdrop, no chill. But this was Spring wasn’t it? I should have chills, should need to be dressed. But actually I was warm. The Sun gently warmed my face and chest, feeling like a good Irish late July afternoon. The Sun not strong enough to burn. The swim cap started to feel tight and I took it off also, catching and snagging a few tiny hairs on the back of my neck in the now dry folds of the silicon.
My head scanned left to right, right to left. I was on the main road. Occasional lanes snakes off between houses. At a fork, the right hand road seemed to leave the small town and lead along the coast until it quickly curved back left out of sight. I stayed on the main road up through the town.
I looked at the houses. Individual, well maintained, but overall similar, even differences in size or shape weren’t so broad. The houses were stone of various grey hues. Roofs of slate. Brightly-coloured doors, some full, some half doors. Some half-door tops stood ajar, but I did not consider entering. Square and rectangular wooden-shuttered windows on ground level. Two or even three-storeyed, the lower floors had narrow mullioned windows while the upper floors had circular windows, and many upper floors had hints of turrets. There were flowers in window pots and stone troughs along the roadside.
There were two predominant sounds. The breeze soughed across the slate, a slight susurration. Everywhere was the murmur of water. There were small fountains between houses, and dotted in the centre of the road, with surrounding pools and low walls. Embrasures led from the fountains and narrow runnels ran down stone coursings in the lanes, joining but never widening, only deepening. What happened when there was a rainstorm? There were shallow open rain gutters in the stone on the road sides but the house were without downpipes. The streams gurgled, fed into and out of the fountains, casting a melody of gently-playing water over the town.
On some stone beside doors, over windows, in the street on slender obelisks, were graven character or letters or runes. There were no hard angles, instead they seemed organic, flowing. I couldn’t comprehend the origin. They weren’t the ancient pre-Celtic Ogham runes. Were they addresses or names or titles? There were no apparent commercial buildings. No signs hung outside. No windows to display wares or attract custom.
I continued on. The lane wound around and switch-backed upwards.
Instead of a beach, shadows loomed over me and the water went from gold to black in sudden deep shade.
A wall of dressed stone met my fingertips and loomed two metres over me. It was a pier, stone mooring bollards along the edge. There was another pier twenty or thirty metres away to my left, like the coast had projected horizontal crenellations into the sea.
There are no stone piers on the Copper Coast. Even concrete slipways are rare on our exposed shore which lacks any suitable bays as harbours. The Copper Coast rocks are primarily Old Red Sandstone and soft limestone. Why was I thinking about stone? I sought rationality, logic. The type of stone didn’t help. No, wait, the lee side of Tramore Pier behind the concrete is dressed stone. That’s a stone pier. But Tramore pier is how many kilometres away? Eight, nine? Away from where? I’ve swum the Copper Coast, every metre. I did not know this place and Tramore is just a single angled pier. Logic didn’t help.
There were steps near me built into the pier. In the shadows in the water the light became a type of dusk. Tarzan-style, head up, two strokes and I reached the stairs. I gingerly got a foot under me, then the second, and I stood and I climbed up. The pier edges were a charcoal grey, with the main mass a slightly lighter grey. Dark grey stone mooring bollards. The surface seemed almost swept clean except a dusting of bleached sand with faint mother-of-pearl sparkles. The rock was warm and the sand very fine under my bare feet. An ever-so-slight breeze had returned, a whisper that quickly dried my bare skin as I looked around me.from this vantage I could see other piers projecting out into sea.
A harbour. But no stacks of pots. No boats, no coils of gaudy nylon rope, no hauled out punts or moored tenders. No detritus of a working harbour.
The piers were fronted with low stone buildings, one or two stories, also stone, with slate roofs. All orderly, well maintained and pretty in the austere way of coastal communities, especially in the soft light. No electricity poles. No diesel tanks, no mechanics.
This could not be. But it was. I was just a swimmer. You can’t accidentally swim to France or to somewhere you’ve never seen, never been. Arms are too weak against the Sea, despite our desire to prove otherwise.
We swim in part because it human-scales the world. Swimming makes the world both bigger and smaller. It becomes immense against the strength of our shoulders. But it becomes small and intimate and local, limited also by our shoulders. Driving a road a thousand times is not like walking it once. Sitting on the beach a thousand times is not like swimming out to the horizon once. We remember the scale of the world we’ve forgotten in the rest of our lives, we remember the absolute importance of the horizon.
I’d swum a double handful of strokes on one breath, and seen so little and yet so much. Only water, rocks, kelp, light? You don’t understand.
Time to breath and navigate, I lifted my head. Golden sunlight dazzled me, washed over me. I know it had been months, the previous autumn since I’d last swum Kilfarassey, but surely the arch only dog-legged slightly? The mid-day Sun should have been to my left, instead it was ahead. I filled my lungs and swam on, out past the surrounding reefs for a few metres, until I could swing right, to the north, back toward the beach.
Out past the rocks I swam, so that I could see past Burke’s Island to the coast almost a kilometre away. The beach. Where was the beach and the cliffs? I kicked and sat up, threading water, my hands sculling as I peered right. Was the glare on the fogged and smeared goggles, which seemed so clear underwater now deceiving me? I couldn’t see the beach. Where’s the beach? I didn’t think anything. Involuntarily my head whipped around and as it did, mere fractions of a second, I saw the dark line of the coast ahead of me.
Wait. Wait. The Sun was ahead of me and the coast was ahead of me. What? That can’t. That can’t. This wasn’t just forgetting details from last summer. This Copper Coast is in my blood, no-one, no-one knows it like I do.
Don’t panic. Everything I know about the Sea kicked in. Everything learned, every time I risked a rock or a tunnel or a cave or a sketchy entrance or dangerous exit, every time in rough water, big water, unknown water, when I was by myself, testing myself, everything clamped down inside into “stay calm, you know this, stay calm“.
I felt it in my gut. My stomach twisted but I stayed calm. The reefs looked the same. The gaps were where I expected, the reefs all lined up in relation with each other. I looked behind. The Keyhole Arch was there, of course. The raucous guillemots still wheeled and the herring gulls still cried. But when I looked again, the coast was still in front, the green of the fields and cliffs blackened and flattened by the back-light of the Sun overhead. This was not possible.
Nothing else happened. I looked around. I felt the clamp inside my gut, controlling me, my own internal governor. The light breeze had slackened and I noticed that the surface has glassed off to an oily silken sheen, inviting me forward. A swimmer’s version of bubble-wrap waiting to be popped, the water pleading to be pierced by my arms.
Swim, it’s what I do. Just swim in, figure it out later. I’d only been in the water twenty-five minutes or so, I’d passed two-thirds of the distance already. In the ten degree water, I wasn’t more than lightly chilled as I hadn’t stopped until now. I couldn’t be severely hypothermic, I had none of the signs. Twelve to fifteen minutes swim, and a packet of jelly dinosaurs waiting in the glove compartment. The clamp relaxed just a fraction. Stay calm and swim.
I stroked ahead. Okay, swim in. Don’t think about it. Things happen in your head when you’re alone in the water. Things you don’t tell anyone. Things you will never tell anyone. Things they would never understand.
The water was glorious. I felt the edge, the finest sharpest molecular blade-edge of cold. That perfect feeling that cold water swimmers know, and can’t understand that others don’t appreciate. Like a fire on your skin, like when you have exhaled all your air, you can purse your lips and get that fraction more out. Like a drug or a mystery. Use everything and the cold gives you that tiny bit extra. Take a surgical scalpel, and draw the back of the blade down the inside of your forearm for a hint of that edge of cold.
Under the water the water was green suffused with argent, rich like ripe avocado. I was bathing in glory and brine, swimming in light as well as water. The light poured over me and basted my skin. I could taste the light in the water, in my mouth, like salty caramel. I could hear it. I could hear the golden light. Not with my ears, but with my proprioception. When I lifted my eyes to navigate, the light blasted my goggles and made gemstones of the world, sapphire, onyx, emerald and turquoise. The light cascaded and boiled into my lungs and filled me up. Every sense, new senses, filled with the golden light.
We swimmers know how low twenty metre tall cliffs look from just a kilometre away. How a coast become flat, every part the same distance away, three-dimensionality lost. We know both how close and how far a kilometre is. A kilometre is a short swim but twice the distance required for a swimmer to become invisible to others on the shore.
The coast closed quickly as I swam. The light gave me a grace I’d never known. I didn’t just cut through the water or slip through the light. I became the water and the golden light. I was water and light swimming in water and light.
But when I reached the coast, when I could finally see under the glare, there were no cliffs. There was no beach.
Winter reduces my range. I swim at the Guillamenes, along the cliffs and shore of Tramore Bay. Maybe, just maybe, I might get down to Sandycove for a lap. Days pass when I see no-one, arriving, swimming and leaving without a soul.
Spring comes with almost imperceptibly warming water and air and increase in the number of people. The winds slacken, swim time gradually extends. The rest of the Copper Coast calls out to me, to return and see what the winter has wrought, to find new experiences and new memories.
Kilfarassey and Burke’s Island are always my first Copper Coast spring swim away from Tramore Bay. My playground of the island and reefs sits just a short swim away at high tide, a full circumnavigation of all takes only forty-five minutes, with optional paths around the reefs to lengthen any swim.
There was no-one else around, the tide was dropping and the sky was blue with a few actual white puffy clouds, not the usual grey-bottomed bringers of Atlantic rain usually visible. The water wasn’t quite calm, a light easterly Force Two breeze ruffling the surface and adding a nip to the air as I walked the hundred metres from the car down the slipway, crossed the stream and beach and left my sandals burdened under rocks on the sand. I lined up the zero triangle and minute-hand on my watch to indicate departure time and waded in, then dove into an incoming mushy wave.
The water was about ten degrees Celsius, according to my built-in skin thermometer. The cold shock associated with such a temperature dissipated within a minute or so as I swam out toward the windward east side of the island, stretching out my arms and shoulders. Within a dozen minutes I’d reached the nearest shark-fin-shaped reef, and instead of a longer circumnavigation around the outside reefs, I turned west across the back of the main island. The water was a clear cool mint and jade in the cross-shore breeze, submarine reefs reaching up, old friends from previous years welcoming me back.
Another few minutes and I passed the main island and reached the inside end of the channel that divides the easterly and westerly reefs. I was at the east side of the largest reef, a north-south ridge some seventy five metres long and reaching in places up to ten metres above the surface. Populated by birds and guillemots, mostly by Black Shags, who have always vocally disapproved of my unaccustomed irregular appearances, they threw themselves from the reef into the air, wheeling and dive-bombing and screaming their indignation at my arrival in their offshore haven.
I was swimming to The Keyhole, my nickname for the first rock arch I’d ever swum through. It’s an east-west narrow-waisted arch in the ridge, only ten metres long at the water’s surface, with a bare dogleg between the ends. There’s not much of a roof, cut away as it is to the sides. When conditions are right, the arch, which is too narrow for most kayakers, compresses the flow and a swimmer can shoot through like a fairground water ride.
The easterly breeze wasn’t enough to shoot through at speed but the clear water gave me hope of seeing an anemone clinging to the rocks under the low tide mark, so I decided to swim through without breathing, to extend my underwater investigation.
With head underwater, I cruised west through the arch, feeling the water flow keep me clear of the harsh sides. The quality of the sub-surface light changed, surely a cloud filtering the light entering the water, transforming it to a rich golden hue.
Under the surface was so crisp, so clear. The sand of the bottom, the encrustations of thousands of generations of barnacles on the rocks, this reef their universe, our air their outer space. The kelps and weeds waved in the backward and forward tidal stream. Ochre, umber, sienna. Jade, olive, phtalo green. Marl and charcoal. A merman’s palette of literal water colours. No fish were visible in the clear water this day, but here was every child’s daydream of swimming in an aquarium’s watery castle. No plastic scuba or treasure diver was required to perfect this idealized underwater scene.
All for me, just here, just now. All this time to see so little and yet so much. Only a double-handful of strokes on one held breath from arch end to end.
You can’t eat scenery, they say in Ireland. I was a child when I first heard that and I still knew they were wrong. Not with your mouth. But you can eat it with your eyes and your mind and your imagination. You can use it to create your soul, to fill your self.
Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).
One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.
In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.
The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.
The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.
If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.
79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.
In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.
One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.
Ireland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.
The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf. Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).
Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.
If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.
Rivers are three times more likely as a location for drowning than the sea, with lakes, which are often assumed to be safer, almost equal to the sea.
Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while  rural drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.
The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.
You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.
In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.
All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.
The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.
So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.
As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest that children under 14 should also always be supervised around water.
In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.
I live on the bank of one of Ireland’s longest rivers: The river Suir. At 115 miles length, you’ll appreciate therefore that Ireland is a small country. The river flows through three counties: Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford.
The river forms the Tipperary-Waterford border for many miles and features in the most famous Kilkenny ballad. But it is most commonly associated with Tipperary, probably due the rising on the slope of the Devil’s Bit mountain, and the meandering path it takes through the country and flowing through so many Tipperary towns, (Thurles, Cahir, Golden, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir).
I’ve lived on its bank on the tidal estuary for over ten years but I’ve never felt any interest in swimming in it. Indeed the first time I ever got into the river was a few months when I went in to rescue my aging dog from drowning.
The Clonmel to Carrick road follows the river and as the river’s cleanliness has improved over the years, and after having crewed and observed on Owen O’Keeffe’s Blackwater river swim the past two years, I finally decided last year that I might as well swim from Clonmel down to Carrick, 21 current-assisted kilometres.
After a couple of weekends of walking the various sections, due to other conflicts, we didn’t even know if the swim would go ahead until two days before. The swim itself occurred on the Summer Solstice, which proved to be the best day for crew availability, water temperature, and a compliant high tide, which tops out a couple of miles above the town. Though it’s not a true tide but a river backfill from the actual tide lower in the estuary, so it’s not as easy to predict.
I would liked to have been able to do something to raise awareness for the Swim4Good campaign. Swim4Good is a swimming-based project which seeks to use swimming as a social improvement tool. It was started by Mauricio Prieto, Emily Kunze and Susan Moody. In 2013, they raised an astonishing $100,000+ for a glodal literacy campaign. But with the short notice, and our lack of bodies to collect any for charity on the route, and a lack of response from the local radio station, wearing the Swim4Good cap and this paragraph, I’m afraid, is the best I can do for now.
I’m not doing a stroke-by-stroke blog post. The pertinent information is that I had Owen to observe and document and local Carrick distance open water swimming neophyte Conor Power to guide, each kayaking. Conor, like Owen, loves river swimming and knows the river Suir well. However, the temperature was cooler than expected at just over 13º Celsius for almost the entire swim, and I did feel it drop substantially for a mile past the confluence with the river Anner.
We started at 11.17am and I touched down beside some local alcoholics on the slipway at 2:59pm, first person to swim this stretch, in three hours 42 minutes. I’d estimated four to four and half hours of swimming so this was quicker than expected.
It felt like I hit every submerged rock between Clonmel and Carrick. There had (surprisingly for Ireland) been no rain for the previous week, and for most of the duration the depth was rarely more than waist deep.
Even with the changing banks, even with faster-than-expected current, even with Dee and the doglet popping up regularly on the bank, even with trying to dodge rocks and even with not succeeding, river swimming is boring. My legs and feet were bruised and cut. I even had a (small) laceration on my upper chest.
Every time I’d hit a really shallow patch, I’d have to stop kicking. But then my legs would sink and I’d hit the rocks anyway. I had to stand once to walk about three metres across just outside the village of Kilseelan and I had to bum-shuffle a couple of metres on the other side of Kilsheelan.
I saw five fish, one car registration plate and no shopping trollies. The river and water was clean. I’d entertained thoughts that if it went well, I might run it as a time trial next year, but it’s too shallow to run such an event.
I feel only ambivalence or even vague embarrassment about the swim. The geographical distance of 21 kilometres with current assistance was probably closer to only 14 kilometres in swimming terms, so quite similar to training swims many will be doing around this time. But my shoulders were very heavy for the last forty minutes and I was happy to get out.
I mostly feel like just shrugging off the swim, and don’t feel I accomplished anything, (which is no reflection of the time and assistance of Conor and Owen). I’ve never swum more than six hours in fresh water, and I still don’t feel that I’d want to extend that time.
Elaine Howley was swimming a 24 hour lake training swim in the US at the same time (plus much more) and reported having a great time. Thus proving indubitably (to me anyway) that fresh water is more likely to promote dementia than salt water. The sea does not engender similar feelings of ambivalence in me.
A similar duration ocean swim with less to see and less accomplished would be more enjoyable.
I’ve seen a few articles on coping with open water swimming fears recently, and I though I’d take a contrary and more visual tack.
If you suffer from the open water heebeejeebies, try taking control and instead of trying to swim away from imaginary monsters, try summoning them, so you control them and become the master or mistress.
Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Nietzsche
Both the feet, and more importantly the eye, are my own … Or is it? Click to embiggen. It’s make a nice desktop wallpaper.!
And here’s a video I hope you enjoy. I finally shot something good with David Dammerman’s camera, so thanks David!
I particularly recommend you enjoy what happens about 2:25 and the last few seconds.
I didn’t significantly increase my list of new swimming locations in 2013 and have decided to rectify that in 2014, hence the recent trip to Kilmore Quay and the following weekend when we visited the valley of Glendalough in the Wicklow mountains.
Situated in the Wicklow National Park, Glendalough is one of the scenic jewels of Ireland and one of the most popular international tourist destinations in the country. It’s the site of one of the most important and beautiful Irish monastic settlements, which was founded in the sixth century. The name means the glen or valley of the two lakes. The lower lake is only a few hundred metres long and surrounded by reeds, and holds little or no attraction for a swimmer. The Upper Lake is a fraction under one and half kilometres long and enclosed by the steep high tree-covered valley sides, reaching in toward the foot of the river flowing down off the waterfalls at the head of the glacial valley.
Unlike the lower lake, indeed, like most lakes as far as I am concerned, which I find to be dull, unexciting and uninspiring, Glendalough draws one in and begs to be swum.
I’ve been in Glendalough a few times this year and last and planned to return to swim the lake, so finally one recent dull summer Sunday morning, just two days after swimming in Owen’s Martin Duggan Memorial in the Blackwater in Fermoy, off we set.
As we descended the last few miles as we crossed over the Wicklow Gap mountain pass above the valley the intermittent thunder showers became increasingly heavy and when at mid-day we pulled into the furthest-in car park nearest the Upper Lake, we couldn’t even leave the car for 15 minutes, so heavy was the deluge. At least the thunderstorms would reduce the numbers of tourists willing to walk the mile or so from the main site up to the lake.
And down at the lake edge, there was almost no-one around, despite the thousands of tourist in the locale. (Apparently, much of a recent TV drama series called The Viking is filmed around this end of the lake. This is mildly ironic as the central feature of the Glendalough area is a Round Tower used to protect the monks from Viking attack).
The lake runs eat to west through the valley, the water black like most Irish mountain lakes and the steep sides protect it from wind. It’s no more than a couple of hundred metres at the widest part, and gradually tapers westward. It drains via a narrow river in the north-east corner, and there’s a pebble beach that runs along the eastern end for hundred and fifty metres or so with the long of so metres.
I did quick temperature check (mmm, 13 degrees Celsius, lovely) then changed in the rain, stuffing my clothes into the box and David Dammerman’s camera into my Speedoes. As I put my ear plugs in, the rain stopped and suddenly we could see sunlight pouring over the high southern rim of the valley wall, down over the trees climbing the sides, and out onto the lake.
Having earlier checked the lake length on Google Earth, I gave Dee my estimated time and strode into thigh deep water before diving in. (Apparently the doglet, who dislikes the sea and waves, hurled himself into the freshwater behind me, but quickly ran out of steam. I really need to put a swim training plan together for him). Two strokes and the bottom suddenly disappeared as I passed over the steep drop off and out into the black water, which those who’ve never swum in lake with peat run-off can find quite intimidating.
Peat run-off in glacial lakes is often black or, as is the case in Glendalough, a rich amber like good Irish whiskey. The amber colour allows a swimmer to see their hands and feet or another nearby swimmer, like a sepia photograph. At four or five metres distance though it swallows light. Beneath is a pitch blackness like you never experience in the sea which will always have tones of green or grey and the sea at night will have some bioluminescence.
A peat lake is a complete unvarying blackness, reaching into the depths under you. Or is the reaching out of the depths toward you?
The Sun had briefly appeared as I dove in, but then slipped in and out of clouds as I progressed down the lake.
I stopped briefly about half way to take a few photos, though few were of value. For someone used to the complete control of a DSLR camera, the restrictions of a point and click, combined with shooting in the water which restricts angle and often coats the lens with water, means that more often than not I can’t capture things as I would on land. Unfortunately the water and Sun combined forces against me.
I headed for the far (west) end. As I neared, the trees on the right-hand north bank thinned, and I realised that a path had winded down the length of the lake. The water temperature dropped suddenly by a degree or more but within a dozen strokes I impacted a sand bank that rose from the deep, and I was forced to stand. Later when we walked in the path by the lake, I saw that I’d hit the silt bank that formed around the entrance of the river down from the waterfall into the lake.
It had taken 30 minutes to swim the lake, which was far longer than a 1500 metre swim should have taken, even with a stop, so I guessed I must have read the map incorrectly. A few photos at the turn and I started back.
As I traveled up the lake, to add to the entertainment, I decided to deliberately try to give myself the heebeejeebies and summoned some of my favourite water monsters from the pitch blackness beneath for some brief company. The one which I enjoyed the most was just a giant iris and pupil, which filled the lake underneath, visible to none but me, and I just a mote, swimming over the eye.
Soon, the eye have blinked itself back into blackness, I closed in on the eastern departure beach. I had returned in ten minutes less, so despite the calm surface, the very shallow river draining the lake has added a not-insignificant current flowing eastward.
Glendalough is a spectacular location for a short swim that avoids the boring nature of most lakes.
It’s been a while since I posted any nightmare fuel for open water swimmers, so I thought I might collect a few of my favourites together.
We’ll start gently. Close encounter with a humpback.
One from years ago on the blog, the frilled shark, aka dragon shark.
Remember Brutus the giant Australian salt-water crocodile?
A subtle one, what is the super predator?
This one is fairly well known, and you know, a bit of a traditional swimmer’s scare.
Remember the conger eels?
A favourite on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, and Game of Thrones, the lamprey, aka the sea vampire.
As anyone who has ever swum into one knows, plastic bags can be surprisingly scary. What if they were alive?
And then of course, there’s this thing, and honestly, I don’t even care what it is.
If only I could stop there. There’s worse though.
None of these are as scary as approaching the second corner at Sandycove during the annual challenge race, and seeing Finbarr Hedderman reach out to grab you. Sharks, jellyfish, Finbarr, crocodiles and eels, all pale in comparison beside the last nightmare, the one thing that unites open water swimmers in fear.
Kilmore Quay, in County Wexford, right down in Ireland’s south-east corner, is one of the best known and oldest fishing harbours in the country. The village itself is small, picturesque with many thatched houses, and like the rest of the local coast, very exposed with few trees able to survive the constant onshore winds. West of the village the beach and dunes known as the Wexford Slobs runs for mile to the entrance of Bannow Bay, east the beach runs for a few miles until it reaches the very south-east tip of Ireland at Carnsore Point.
Ireland, as I’ve often written previously, has big tides. And nowhere on the entire coast are those tides as big and strong as they are around Kilmore and Carnsore.
Four kilometres off Kilmore Quay is the little Saltee Island, with the Great Saltee, Ireland’s biggest bird sanctuary’s another four kilometres beyond that, but seeming much closer. The coast therefore is home to a particularly large range of both birds and fish.
In the late 90’s a canoeist named David Walsh wrote a detailed guide book (Oileán, the Irish for island) following his canoe circumnavigation of Ireland, aimed at fellow canoists. I don’t think he had open water swimmers in mind, but when I briefly had a loan of the out-of-print book some years ago, I quickly devoured it. I recall clearly the chapter on the coast around Kilmore and the Saltees when the author-canoist described coastal currents so strong that at the wrong time of the tide, they were impossible to canoe or kayak against.
I had looked the coastal maps and charts for the south-east many times since, and although it’s less than 90 minutes drive, I hadn’t been in Kilmore before.
St. Patrick’s Bridge, a natural rock causeway, reaches out to Little Saltee, and consequently has been the ruin of many a fishing vessel almost at home. Indeed Kilmore Quay has been home port for the many of the most recent fishing tragedies due to the ferocious storms to which the South-east is exposed.
We walked out the eastern most working pier, looking east toward Carnsore. The breeze was easterly, pushing chop into towards the pier and the tiny beach nestled in the corner. About a kilometre off I could see a line of white water looking like it was breaking for no reason, with calmer waters between. I quickly realised this must the fabled but submerged St Patrick’s Bridge, the tide being somewhere around High Water. Just beyond, seemingly about 1.2 kilometers from the beach, was a blunt black rock, a few metres high and wide. It called to me.
We walked the village, where I asked the proprietors of the flower shop, gift shop and butcher of any knowledge they may have of the inshore waters east of the Quays, especially of any currents. All I gleaned of use was that the rock was called, of course, St. Patrick’s Rock.
I’ve also said previously, a long time ago, that every field and rock in Ireland has a name. Unfortunately some times those name can be a bit, well, predictable. Many black coastal rocks are called…Black Rock. Of course if you see a black rock, and call it Black Rock, you need to be sure that it’s already called Black Rock and not Bird Rock, or something! I suppose, unimaginative as it is, St. Patrick’s Rock is an improvement.
Finally I called around to the RNLI station, situated here biggest because the marine fishing traffic and the local conditions, where one gentleman was doing a bit of afternoon work. He said there were no currents inside the St. Patrick’s Bridge. We chatted a little about local water conditions as I picked his brain for further knowledge of any peculiarities.
The Sun was nudging in and out behind clouds, with the gentlest and briefest of occasional showers as I changed into swimming gear on the road fifty metres from the beach. With the easterly breeze running toward me and guessing the distance I gave Dee an estimate of 35 to 40 minutes, 45 minutes at the outside.
The water was crisp, about 10 degrees and shallow. I aimed straight for the rock. For the swim out, the depth rarely dropped below chest high, with plenty of kelp, and the sea floor liberally dotted with scallop shells from the fishing boats. The Sun dodged and hid.
As I closed on the rock, the bottom rose again, and when I got to about seventy-five metres from the rock, I noticed that suddenly I was shooting forward, the sea floor shooting under me, as it rose to waist deep. I was at the submerged causeway and stood to grab a quick video. When I tried to do so however, I realised that even in thigh deep water, I couldn’t stand in place against the current and was buffeted and then dragged off my feet.
(Yes, I know I say Skelligs instead of Saltees in the video).
Behind me small choppy waves were breaking against the submerged causeway. They were more like standing waves (overfalls) than waves breaking on a shallow-sloped beach. They were breaking forward, but pulling hard back underneath. Next thing I was pulled over the causeway, and almost before I knew it I was on the far side of the causeway. I tried to get back onto the causeway by swimming into and with the biggest peaks, but I was still pulled back. The water was still shallow so I tried grabbing the underwater rocks to see if I could pull myself forward against the current but was unable to progress.
It was a classic rip or undertow as powerful as the lethal rip at Couminole in Kerry, or trying to swim against the flow of the East River in New York.
Rips are dangerous and every year drown people around the world, because usually because those who encounter them don’t know what to do. The land or safety seemingly very close, they continue to swim against the flow, exhausting themselves against the pull.
When you encounter a rip, there is one simple solution.
I simply turned in a 90º direction and headed inward along the submerged causeway. As I had swum out diagonally from the beach, I was still only a few hundred metres from shore. A mere hundred metres or so along the causeway and the rip current eased. With a bit of sprinting, I was able to once again swim back across the causeway, and back to my starting point, coming in just over 40 minutes after I’d started.
At lower tides, as St Patrick’s Bridge is more exposed, it’s possible there will still be a rip running south-east along it.
It was a fun little swim made so mainly by the unexpected challenge which helped to confirm Kilmore’s reputation of extremely strong currents. It’s certainly not a location for the inexperienced or easily panicked. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy the frisson of apprehension and the challenge.
As a responsible extreme cold water swimming promoting organisation, it’s frustrating that the IISA doesn’t seem to appreciate its responsibility in promoting safety and reducing risk. The three-article critique on the IISA rules comprehensively illustrate many of the inherent problems, omissions and contradictions. The concerns of my correspondents and myself with Ice Mile swimming are not a reflection of the fact that many of the existing Ice Mile swimmers are extremely capable, experienced and cold-hardened individuals. Instead, we are concerned that the IISA is not doing enough to uphold its own existing rules, and even less to protect the safety of less experienced individuals who may try an Ice Mile in the future.
The IISA can’t wash its hands by saying that people who aren’t experienced enough shouldn’t attempt an Ice Mile. They must have explicit rules about this. The point about safety planning is not to just say “I’ve swum x Ice Miles, you can too” as members of the IISA board are wont to do, but to actually plan.
One should be taking all that cumulative knowledge and experience of such a dangerous pursuit and putting it at the service of the people they are trying to motivate. The IISA currently assumes that everyone who will attempt an Ice Mile will be an experienced cold water swimmer, but it does nothing to ensure this will be the case.
A couple of months ago, just mere days after I started writing the fourth part of this series, I received an email from a journalist with Outside Online, the online outlet of Outside magazine, one of the biggest of all adventure or outdoor sports magazines. He wanted to ask some questions for an article he was researching about Ice Mile swimming. I tried to give a pretty comprehensive response to the various questions as I had no idea which part, if any, of my response would be used in the final article, nor did I know with whom else they were talking. One question leaped out at me and I spent a few days deciding how to respond.
What are some insider tips for completing an Ice Mile that the average reader wouldn’t think of?1
That question startled me. It indicates to me that one Ice Mile friend (who I mentioned in the rules aspects of this discussion) who asserted that there’s no rush to swim an Ice Mile may not be correct. It also conveys to me that even a journal like Outside doesn’t comprehend the danger or risk of an Ice Mile. If the IISA doesn’t communicate this, then Outside or many others can’t be blamed. Once a pursuit is featured in Outside, one can guess that the numbers desiring to take on any particular challenge will increase. The Outside Online article is here. (The description of my Ice Mile that opens the article is derived by the article author frommy blog article). In my interview I concentrated on the safety and danger aspects. It is now doubly ironic that the other person featured is one of the IISA founders, Ram Barkai.
This is exactly the scenario of which I and so many others are afraid and why the IISA must think ahead and more broadly. The Outside Online article and consequent exposure is likely to be a good thing for the IISA’s desire to increase the Ice Mile profile in their goal to have an Ice Mile included in future winter Olympics (which I think is ridiculous given their current inadequate state). Worryingly this question seems to imply that there might be some trick to completing an Ice Mile, in case “the average reader” might consider it. This question is the thin end of a wedge and has been on my mind almost the entire duration of these articles.
Promoting extreme events should require extreme attention to detail and safety. The CS&PF, SBCSA, CCSA, CSA, ILDSA, ACNEG and more all do so. Even local swim organisations such as Sandycove Island Swimming Club seem to have a greater appreciation for and attention to swimmer safety than the IISA.
The IISA does use a recurring excuse: That they are a very new organisation. But that’s only true to a little extent, and it’s disingenuous camouflage. No resources are required to initiate discussion, as I’ve done. They’ve existed for over five years, and count as members many very experienced cold water swimmers around the world whose cumulative knowledge and experience is quite considerable. It also uses International in its name and must live up to such an appellation, not forget those core objectives that it has espoused and then ignored, as demonstrated previously. The IISA has had more time and resources than I have, and yet with my contacts and a bit of time I can demonstrate the extensive omissions and contradictions in how the IISA operates and also what it endorses. If a section of the IISA membership can illustrate so many problems and if they spoke with me then two pertinent questions must be asked:
What is wrong with the IISA and its communications with members that some members expressed these concerns to me and why is the IISA resistant to engage in discussion with its members?
If some members can point out the problems, contradictions and omissions, why has the IISA failed to so do?
The IISA has it in its own hands to direct its future. It must think far more seriously than it apparently has previously about its stated objectives. Until it places swimmer safety and adherence to rules at its core, its ethos is debatable and its future is and should be at risk.
I honestly believe that the IISA still doesn’t understand this discussion. It’s not just about rules. Sure, where they are wrong or inadequate they must be improved. But the IISA must foster a public face in support of open and shared knowledge and experience that will improve safety for all, ESPECIALLY aspirants and those with less experience.
The IISA says: “The fact that IISA hasn’t got a detailed guideline for every eventuality and possible risk, doesn’t take the responsibility away from the swimmer. It is the individual responsibility to study and understand the risks before one embarks on an attempt in water of 5C to swim a mile. We will help and publish knowledge and experience but we will never be able to avoid stupidity or recklessness through pi[l]e of manuals”.
This is both entirely true and yet diversionary. Swimmers should and must be responsible for themselves, as I have always promoted by trying to share whatever I’ve learned. We learn this responsibility through experience and the teaching of others. But since the IISA places itself as the ratifying organisation it must establish consistent guidelines, to assist in this process of teaching and learning. Once again I repeat, the IISA cannot both promote and ratify Ice Miles, yet ignore the associated responsibility.
I am clear that my concern is less for the tiny few who have already repeated an Ice Mile, but more for those with less experience, and I believe the IISA has been negligent in encouraging Ice Mile swimming without adequate safety or medical guidelines or even a clarification of the actual dangers.
The IISA has relied to date on the aspirants being experienced cold water swimmers, but without taking any steps to ensure such. I am asking; what if the aspirants aren’t experienced?
If we look back over this series one can see that there are a range of possible recommendations, some of which are urgent.
Ice Mile swimming should immediately be suspended until the IISA updates its safety rules to place swimmer safety at the centre of its ethos.
Swimmer safety to be the core IISA value.
People with a history of cardiac problems should be immediately precluded from attempting an Ice Mile.
The IISA must publicly update any changes it makes in the future. (Bizarrely, it has told me it doesn’t plan to so do!)
Raise the minimum age limit to 18 immediately, pending published expert medical guidelines.
All Ice Mile aspirants should be required to first join the IISA. This will ensure better safety, organised swims and better data from attempts, incidents, and data retention for all Ice Mile swims in line with the IISA’s own objectives.
All Ice Mile attempts should be pre-approved by the IISA.
Aspirants should be required to provide proven experience and references.
Publish medical guidelines for aspirants and organisers from hypothermia experts and academics outside the IISA.
Aspirants must be required to provide a medical certificate as part of their ratification application.
All Ice Mile swim organisers should have relevant cold water experience.
Create an IISA committee of experienced Ice Mile swim organisers to codify their Best Practices into an Ice Mile event guideline.
Separate the new safety rules in the constitution from the mostly irrelevant articles of incorporation and other matters not related to actual swims.
Make the safety rules easily downloadable, with revision dates and change log.
Allow any person to submit a swim appeal over a fraudulent swim.
Guarantee the confidentiality of any person submitting such an appeal.
Initiate and maintaining ongoing discussion by canvassing existing IISA members to discuss and improve rules and guidelines.
Everything Is Okay, Until It Isn’t
I’ve written these articles to:
Attempt a serious dissection of the current state of the IISA and Ice Mileing
Educate about the difficulty and dangers of Ice Mile swimming
Help extreme cold water swimmers
Improve the current utterly inadequate IISA rules and communications
And as a consequence of all this to improve the IISA
And more importantly to try to improve safety for any future Ice Mile Aspirants.
As I have said directly to the IISA:
“I think that the lack of appropriate comprehensive guidelines and missing and contradictory rules by the IISA organisation isirresponsible, given it has had five years to learn, analyse and implement improvements”.
To not implement known best practices when lives are at risk and when medical professionals agree is, to use the words of one IISA founding member denying such, “deliberately reckless and careless”.
I’d contrast this with Senior CS&PF Pilot Mike Oram, who repeatedly stresses that Channel swimming is an extreme and known lethal sport.
I believe everyone is entitled to make their own choice about their sporting pursuits regardless of danger. But I also believe that they should also have as much information as possible about the dangers and the necessary safety guidelines. A couple of correspondents have raised the comparison of Ice Mile with Himalayan mountain-climbing or Polar expeditions and correctly said that all extreme sports include extreme or even the ultimate risk. While this is true, neither Polar nor Himalayan expeditions came about because of a few people who call themselves the founding, organising and ratifying organisation. When you take on the responsibility to motivate, you should also take on the responsibility to educate and to protect and to do otherwise is wrong.
Since I started this series, members of the IISA have been unhappy with the articles. However , quite tellingly, neither they nor anyone else has said anything to refute the main (or any) points of these articles.
Nothing that I nor any of my correspondents have said here will increase the danger to Ice Mile aspirants, but failing to adapt the current IISA rules to reality will certainly so do.
Thought there are still subjects I couldn’t encompass, (such as the risks involved in training for an Ice Mile), let me finish (finally) with that powerful quotation from a respected Channel and Ice Mile swimmer that I used to open Part 5: “Something terrible is going to happen”.
“There are none. There are no tricks, no shortcuts, no way that doesn’t involve pain. It takes training, understanding and preparation and a rigorous adherence to safety and even then is still difficult and painful and dangerous.
In fact this question shows one of the biggest problems: This is a highly dangerous pursuit and most of the approximately 100 current Ice Milers in the entire world are very experienced. I thought long and hard about answering this. I was faced with a dilemma: answer and possibly encourage what is very dangerous pursuit which may kill you despite preparation or experience, or ignore it and be afraid the macho ideal would win out.
In the near future, less experienced people will try this without the requisite training, experience or confidence in themselves to abandon a swim if necessary. I believe, along with the majority of Ice Milers to whom I’ve spoken, which is about 20% of all Ice Milers, that a tragedy is increasingly a worrying probability. I believe the IISA needs to improve its criteria, safety recommendations and procedures. Attempts need to be more severely curtailed and only done by people who have prior permission from the IISA based on producing a verified training log, recognised experience, who are known to the organisers and have significant medical safety cover”.
I don’t think the IISA website, which is how most people are going to interact with and learn about the IISA or Ice Mile swimming, is anywhere near as comprehensive as it needs to be on its message about the extreme nature of Ice Mile swimming and there are few locations where this message is noticeable. Mostly Ice Mile and extreme cold water swimming is merely described as some variety of difficult, rather than life threatening.
The IISA needs to categorically state that Ice Mile swimming is inherently dangerous and should also do its best to provide a suitable and comprehensive safety framework for Ice Mile aspirants, which as I write this does not currently exist as I have proven in the IISA rules discussion.
All this talk of danger but it hasn’t been quantified.
This is a significant list. Some items are extreme versions of similar risks associated with open water swimming, but exaggerated because of the extreme cold. This list has been reviewed by two experts in cold water and hypothermia (one M.D. and one Ph.D.).
Drowning due to involuntary water aspiration. In the first couple of minutes of very cold water, Cold (immersion) Shock can promote hyperventilation and gasping and actually lead people to aspirate water in the lungs, and drown quickly. This is the absolute and essential reason why it is best to get into cold water slowly, to allow your body to control the gasp reflex. Images of swimmers diving into near-zero degree water absolutely send out the wrong message to aspirants. I’ve been writing now for years that people shouldn’t do it. This gasp-aspiration danger exists in all cold water (which in research terms is water under 15 Celsius), but at such cold temperatures as under five degrees the risk is greater. It’s just one of the reasons why experience is so important and why the IISA should immediatelyintroduce prior experience requirements for Ice Mile aspirants.
Initial cardiac arrest. The body’s cold protective system, peripheral vaso-constriction, because it reduces overall blood flow, consequently quickly increases blood pressure. A sudden jump in blood pressure could lead to cardiac arrest in a small number of cases. In younger people this may be caused by sudden-onset ventricular fibrillation. Older people would be more likely to have a myocardial infraction (heart attack) as a result of decreased blood flow to the coronary arteries.
Acute hypothermia. This should be obvious. Acute refers to the time taken for the drop to occur. If lethal temperature is reached in an hour, which is a good rule of thumb for almost freezing waters even for most trained individuals, then being immersed for more than half the time leads to acute hypothermia. Hypothermia takes some time to kill you, it can’t kill you from heat loss in 15 minutes even in these temperatures but kill you it eventually will if you don’t rewarm. Simply standing from the prone swimming position will cause thevery cold peripheral blood, which can drop to a mere ten degrees as it laysunder your skin, to flow into your core. Another reason the acuteaspect is important is because in chronic hypothermia, which develops over a longer time, the body becomes dehydrated, reducing the volume and constitution of blood. In acute hypothermia, since one isn’t dehydrated, the blood pressure increase and therefore associated risk is greater. The onset of acute hypothermia is time based and why time limits are extremelyuseful in Ice Mile swimming but they are not currently in the IISA rules.
Loss of fine and later coarse motor control/muscle failure. Peripheral vaso-constriction is something I’ve been writing about on LoneSwimmer.com since the site’sinception. It’s how your body protects core temperature by shutting off circulation to the extremities. That means fine motor control is quickly affected. Moderately hypothermic people have real difficulties with or are unable to get dressed. With the extreme cold of Ice Mile swimming, muscle control forsuch simple tasks as walking can become difficult or impossible. Muscle failure is the term Tipton and Golden, best known for hypothermia studies, use todescribe the loss of muscle motive force. One cannot speak, or know what to do. I don’t know numbers (neither does the IISA,) but my experience has shown that most Ice Mile swimmers are unable to dress themselves afterwards. My partner Dee has taken to occasionally calling me The Joker, because of what she describes as the manic rictus manifested on my face as muscle control was lost after my Ice Mile.
Acute Pain. The pain experienced once a swimmer is well into an Ice Mile, particularly in the hands and feet, is significant and sustained, possibly seven on a pain scale. It’s a precursor to number six.
Temporary or permanent nerve damage. Within the community of extreme cold water swimmers there are cases of nerve damage or loss of sensation, particularly in the fingers. This problem can manifest as lasting from a couple of weeks to two years in different people. One medical doctor with whom I’ve spoken, who has direct knowledge in the area of hypothermia primary treatment, says that this is the range from frostnip to frostbite.
Cognition impairment and memory loss.As blood cools, it becomes more viscous. Combined with the aforementioned peripheral vaso-constriction, necessary oxygen flow to the brain is reduced. The person loses speed of thought, ability to verbally respond and theirmemory is impaired. I can remember the end of my Ice Mile, but as soon as I stood up, everything became hazy and a series of disjointed episodes. One Ice Miler who did their Ice Mile in a group of four, said three out of the four did not remember finishing. This isn’t Hollywood; severely hypothermic people don’t retain the ability to think clearly. It’s why assistants and safety personnel aren’t just important, they are essential. The most common test we use for moderate hypothermia in swimmers is simply someone’s ability to give their own name. Most people with no experience of hypothermia can’t imagine this being a difficulty.
Muscle pains, swelling or bruising, chronic fatigue and lack of concentration. These are symptoms which are displayed after extreme cold water swimming and rewarming. Theyonly show after rewarming is mostly complete or even from the following day and may persist for several days. While some are minor, they are indicative of the extreme effort. The chronic fatigue and lapse in mental acuity are not related to the swim distance but the cold and could have significant immediate impact for swimmerswho is driving themselfaway from an Ice Mile swim.
Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema, aka SIPE. Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid (usually blood) collects in the lungs and breathing is impaired to various degrees of severity. SIPE can be related to heart problems or infection, in the case of extreme cold water, while the mechanism isn’t fully understood, it’s likely that the increased blood pressure mentioned above is implicated.
Cardiac arrhythmias. There are two types. Atrial fibrillationis irregular electrical activity which mainly affects the smaller upper chambers of the heart (atria) causing less blood to be pumped. It may even go unnoticed, or if noticed can result in heart palpitations and shortness of breath. One Irish swimmer who is already an Ice Mile swimmer wisely pulled out early in their second Ice Mile swim because of a sensation of heart palpitations. Ventricular fibrillationis also an irregular electrical activity, which affects the larger lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart. An incorrectly rewarmed person (such as through sudden application of heat or excess movement) will receive the full brunt of the almost ice-cold external blood into their core and around their heart too quickly. This can cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation. It is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death (SCD) and is the primary cause of death due to hypothermia. Stories of death through hypothermic ventricular fibrillation abound.
Post-rescue Collapse/Afterdrop. With post-rescue collapse, the person can initially seem to be fine while exiting or after being removed from the water, but may later collapse or even expire. Tipton and Golden1 identify a number of post-rescue collapse deaths. In a study of 269 shipwreck victims, 160 were rescued. 17% rescued from water under 10 C. died within 24 hours of rescue whereas when the water was over 10 C. none died. One of many reported cases is the sinking of the SS Empire Howard. Twelve conscious survivors were rescued. The Captain reported that nine later died when taken into the warmth of the rescue trawler. In Ireland, three of the 15 fatalities during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster in 1979, occurred during rescue in water of 15 to 16 Celsius. The physiology has not fully been explained to date. Two of the all time great marathon swimmers, Ted Erikson and David Yudovin both suffered post-swim cardiac arrest from chronic hypothermia in water that wasn’t as cold, but in which immersion time was longer.
Ice Mile swimming is dangerous and so is post Ice Mile swimming as shown by numbers eight, nine and ten.
Items number nine and ten also portend something else.
Since SIPE, atrial and ventricular fibrillation can also be symptoms of heart disease or other coronary problems, the only acceptable standard that the IISA can set is to require a declaration of medical history and to preclude anyone with any history of coronary problems.
In Part VI, I mentioned that the IISA, which has a stated objective of promoting medical research, doesn’t even include any medical guidelines or medical barriers foran Ice Mile attempt it doesn’t even a require amedical application despite an apparent existing rule. In the light of these specific dangers, this is indefensible and must be addressed immediately.
This is the third and last part of discussion of the IISA rules.
I can’t let this rule (3.3.15) go without question. The minimum age limit for an Ice Mile attempt with parental consent is 16. The only thing I can say about this is that it is irresponsible madness. The only parents I can think competent to judge the difficulty of an Ice Mile attempt for a 16- or 17-year-old child are Ice Mile swimmers. They are the very ones who would almost certainly not consent to such. I have not heard from one single swimmer, doctor or Ice Miler who thinks this is a responsible rule. IISA, please remove this irresponsible rule immediately.
What we can see from the local organisation of Ice Mile swims in the UK, Ireland and the US is that local swimmers and organisers are implementing what each believe is Best Practice for Ice Mile swimming. As one Ice Mile and swimming organiser says: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.” Or another who says;“the lack of oversight for these events is wholly irresponsible on the part of the IISA and is inviting disaster.”
The IISA is the organisation which has promoted Ice Mile swimming worldwide. Currently, responsibility for safety falls more heavily on individual swim organisers rather than swimmers and allows the IISA to abdicate responsibility in ensuring responsible criteria, since as mentioned above that only those who succeed can actually become IISA members. A Channel Aspirant only becomes a Channel Swimmer if they succeed, but they must join the relevant association beforehand. The IISA procedure is hardly normal practice let alone Best Practice. In fact it seems more than just unusual. The current situation means the IISA doesn’t have to retain any data on attempts, success rate, safety data, incidents, accidents or even any possible tragedy.
I am counted as an Ice Mile swimmer though I took two attempts at the required temperature. But the IISA doesn’t measure success rates. This abdication is more than just an oversight. It’s a conscious decision and one that isn’t optimal for safety.
One of the most immediate ways to improve safety and to addresssome of the issues discussed here, would be to require IISA membership for all aspirants.
Given that the IISA promotes the Ice Mile, ignoring the wider aspects of experience, organisation, safety rules and lethal potential and only accepting membership from those who are successful is a significant failure.
Best Practice has been demonstrated by Fergal Somerville, Colin Hill, Greg O’Connor and some others. They demonstrate that the IISA rules should be such that swimmers must provide a minimum standard of proven experience and competence in very cold open water and should be an IISA member before any Ice Mile attempt is made.
The rules about the organisation of events must be tighter, and the rules that are in place must be rigorous and consistent. As more people attempt an Ice Mile, more will want to try, and the overall experience level will decrease, and as seen above, there are indications this may already be happening.
Two of my correspondents disagree with me on this possible increase: One says “I actually have not seen a great rush to do this challenge from other swimmers, I think they realise the scale of the challenge, the obvious risks and the organisational effort to get it right”. The other says “There are not many swimmers busting down the doors to do an ice swim.”
I believe this is likely true right now. But that does not mean it will remain so, and the IISA itself wishes it to change. In the next article I’ll show something important that seems to confirm my fear. The increase may happen if the IISA promote their new 1K Ice Swim vigorously or if the push for Winter Olympics inclusion become more widespread. Horses and stables doors come to mind.
One correspondent goes on to say:“Applying more stringent rules is not the answer, giving people best practice safety statements and swim plans so that they can learn from others would be a good idea. People have no excuses if they have been given examples of how it can be done safely. If they choose to ignore this then they will probably ignore more stringent rules too.”
This shows that some of the suggestions I am proposing here may not be agreed. That’s fine. I want the best rules which enhance and aid safety, not my own rules. But I would also strongly advocate both better rules and Best Practice, which would be preferable to poor rules and lack of Best Practice utilisation.
Right now this debate is needed, and a public debate at that, not the behind-closed-doors previous practices of the IISA. The IISA could utilise the existing constitutional provision for a Member’s Meeting to draft better rules. I am arguing for open debate and to include the existing Ice Mile swimmers in the debate for better rules, better adherence to rules, and also Best Practices for qualification and swims. I am hoping others will join the discussion. But the previous quote, despite its disagreement with me on direction, also indicates an implicit similar concern about safety to every response I’ve received.
The extensive problems outlined in the rules, or the lack thereof, and the general agreement of almost all my respondents highlight that this review is necessary.
Ice Mile swimming is an extreme sport. As pointed out at the beginning of the article, extreme sports carry significant risk. I am not arguing against such pursuits. I am talking about vital issues intended to minimise the risk and improve safety for individual swimmers in a very marginal and dangerous pursuit.
One response that I’m putting here before I finish this series, is to categorically reject the only response I’ve seen from the IISA since I’ve initiated this discussion. The IISA have implied that I’ve personalised the discussion. Well, duh.
(Granted my name isn’t used, but since I restarted this series suddenly there’s a debate. Other Ice Milers have told me that is exactly what the IISA have said about this series. I’ve not had any direct response from the IISA, who are always welcome to so do). Apparently without any irony, this is followed shortly thereafter by:
This series proves precisely that the IISA rules and guidelines are lacking, inadequate or even contradictory. As I write here, I am aware of the many people, cold water and Ice Mile swimmers from whom I’ve heard, indicating support and agreement. Yet I haven’t received a single contradictory message. When the IISA (obliquely) dismisses me for getting personal, they are dismissing the concerns of many more people than just me.
I don’t know any of the IISA founders. The Irish Ice Mile ambassador whom I’ve mentioned (without naming) as indicative of many IISA flaws, has never featured previously on LoneSwimmer.com, and there is no record whatsoever of LoneSwimmer.com pursuing any personal agenda. To accuse me of a personal agenda is to avoid these other serious issues. (And as I’ve pointed out, the IISA has had more than a year to address that specific issue and failed to so do).
The IISA are using this accusation to divert this broader series on the IISA and Ice Mile swimming. To this diversionary accusation which avoids the very real dangers and risks being highlighted, I have only this to say:
Shame on you, IISA.
No sport can have a discussion of problems without exploring just how those problems can manifest in specific situations. UCI similarly used to dismiss discussions of Lance Armstrong and Hein Verbruggen. Any safety discussion now taking place is precisely because I and so many other Ice Mile and cold water swimmers are genuinely concerned, and if the IISA decide to ignore such a discussion that will be their burden and failure, not ours.
This consideration of the flaws of the existing IISA rules isn’t the entirety of this discussion. In the next and penultimate chapter I will discuss the very real dangers of Ice Mile swimming, which the IISA and others should be but aren’t talking about, and which illustrate just why better safety and rules are so critical.
As you will recall from the previous article the IISA says one of its primary objectives is:
Promoting Safety in Extreme Swimming Events.
Let’s consider that.
One overseas organiser of a reputable Ice Mile swim said: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect”.
For both Lough Dan Invitationals in 2013 and 2014, Eastern Bay Swim Club added some local rules for extra safety:
All swimmers had to maintain a training log of cold swims, that may be requested. (In my case at least I did not have to present it, as Fergal and I chatted regularly, which covered my recent swims. I have also maintained a swim log for many years anyway, which includes sea temperatures and immersion time).
All swimmers were either known to Fergal or an existing Ice Swimmer who would vouch for them.
A clearly marked out course of minimum official length (in this case four 400 metre laps with swimmers required to swim around a buoy at one end and touch a pontoon with a turn judge and timekeeper at the other).
A course observer and a touch and timekeeping official.
Front crawl only. No treading water, no breaststroke.
Present were a Medical Doctor with defibrillator, a nurse and three paramedics.
Two time limits:
Swimmers had to be on the last lap by thirty minutes.
A cutoff time of 40 minutes, or swimmers to be making definite forward progress to the finish.
It’s not just Eastern Bay and Fergal that take extra precautions:
One American Ice Mile swim “follow[s] all of the IISA rules, but we also make sure the swimmers have open water experience and that they have trained (exposing themselves to cold water for increasing amounts of time). We have at least one paid, official EMT present before, during, and after the swims. The EMT has portable defibrillators and emergency transport. We educate swimmers and volunteers on the dangers of hypothermia and what should and should not be done with someone suffering from hypothermia. We have at least one kayak/swimmer as well as rescue swimmers (trained rescue swimmers in wetsuits) shadowing them along the shore. We have a warm room where the swimmers prepare and recover slowly (suffer through the “after drop”). The swimmers also have access to showers, a steam room and a sauna. We have at least 2 IISA members present to officiate and witness the Ice Miles”.
So the Lough Dan rules weren’t just a notional idea by Eastern Bay Swim Club. They came about from experience and lessons learned in previous swims, in personal and other organised cold water swimming events. They are very much in line with the thinking of other Ice Mile organisers, some of whom go even further.
In these cases the local organisers have more comprehensive rules than the IISA.
Taken as a whole these additional rules improved safety and swim integrity; monitoring swimmers, observing both safety and adherence to required distance. The front-crawl-only option works to keep swimmers generating heat and as an indicator of trouble should swimmers switch stroke or stop swimming. Having a time limit with a limited degree of flexibility removed any reason for indecision from safety personnel. The time limit can be adjusted based on organiser’s familiarity with the aspirants.
The original plan for Lough Dan 2014 was nine swimmers and had we not had one no-show, and two swimmers pull out on the day, then we could have had a greater number of severely hypothermic people all finishing within minutes of each other. IISA require one trained medical person per four swimmers. In hindsight, I’m no longer convinced we were right even with our reduced ratio of 8:5. Given my arguments here I will be arguing that if there is a Lough Dan Ice Mile Invitational next year, excepting any change in IISA rules, that the ratio of swimmers to medical personnel be reduced.
These are not the only possible improvements. One correspondent has argued cogently that by Ice Mile standards the large groups in Lough Dan (six and eight swimmers respectively each year) or elsewhere, are by definition dangerous and makes a very persuasive counter-proposal; “when I hear that people think these swims should only be done in big groups, I’m quite baffled! I don’t know that most hospitals have the resources to handle multiple hypothermic patients simultaneously. I also don’t know that eyes are really on the swimmers still in the water when one swimmer begins to need assistance. Having swimmers share safety personnel seems like it is relying on at least some of the swimmers having no problem at all. I’d prefer to have one EMT for each swimmer than to find that there weren’t enough trained professionals to help if multiple swimmers have emergencies”.
In my email to my correspondents, I had argued against small group swims precisely because of the questionable swim we witnessed last year.
The argument of individual medical and observing staff is entirely reasonable, and I am now largely convinced, though in part for a different reason to which I will return in a later article.
Is ten swimmers too many? I now believe so. But is one swimmer too little? That’s dependent on the swimmer’s intentions and safety crew’s ability and experience. If the crew are experienced, there is adequate safety cover including the requisite medical support (and the swimmer isn’t planning deceit), then a one swimmer/one medical person swim is likely the optimal situation, though the companionship of others is often significant in sporting achievement.
Taking all this into consideration, despite my own experiences in a larger group, I am far more convinced that a small group is the best way to improve and promote safety both during and post swim. As I’ve said above there are reasons for this to which I will later later in this series.
Here’s another quotation:
“I was so worried about [x] as [they] recovered— the leanest of the three swimmers, [x] was in for [n] minutes, and the water was just 3.5 C, with colder air. It was scary— I knew [x] wasn’t in [their] head at all for a solid 20 minutes as [they] shivered uncontrollable and flashed some of the scariest faces I’ve ever seen on a human. Now if I didn’t know [x] as well as I do (we train together all the time, right there in that water, so I had some idea of what to expect with [the] recovery process and was reasonably sure [x] was going to be OK, just having a tough go of it) I would have been frantic.”
That’s quite a similar description to how I was after my 2014 Ice Mile. It’s not the only such comment I’ve heard; another told me that my description of black rain was uncannily like their swim. This also highlights another concerns of mine, that the actual difficulty of the Ice Mile is not being communicated.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the reputation system (as used in mountain climbing) is vital and fundamental in open water swimming even at short distances. It is up to everyone to build their own experience incrementally. The more you swim, the more you build reputation and a network of contacts, and reputation is literally priceless in open water swimming. There are circumstances where no money in the world should allow an inexperienced swimmer to tackle something beyond their capability.
I would never support an unknown swimmer who just showed up to do an Ice Mile. My email correspondence shows that this actual situation has already arisen at least twice, at two different organised Ice Mile swims, and that’s just with the people to whom I’ve spoken. In both cases unknown swimmers showed up wanting to swim, one even insisting they be allowed to participate. Both were refused but those people who refused were very experienced. In one case the Ice Mile swim was in question because the participants had decided to cancel if the unknown arrival had decided to continue. What would happen if an organiser hadn’t similar experience and judgement?
Any completely untrained and inexperienced swimmer can organise an Ice Mile so long as they adhere to the basic criteria. This may have been deemed valid (though I would disagree there also) when trying to build a coterie of Ice Mile swimmers but given the number of experienced cold water swimmers worldwide, and especially in the countries where Ice Miles are more likely, it should be possible to organise a network of knowledgeable and reputable individuals. However this may be just my small country provincialism speaking. As one correspondent says: “For [ ], which is a huge area, we have just 1 ambassador. If [they have] to be present at every swim and answer every request for information about swims, that’s a big burden.” Many Ice Mile swimmers are not doing so to have such a burden imposed on them: “its something I would not do myself.”This may be a difficult problem to address, but the solution isn’t to ignore the problem.
I believe all these problems and shortfalls demonstrate the IISA’s failure to promote safety in extreme swimming events, one of their own primary objectives.
No Experience Required
One of, if not the single most agreed concern amongst all my correspondents is that the IISA has no guidelines or rules for training, or requirements for prior experience, or entry criteria and little about organisation of swims.
Organisers’ use of an Invitational system based on training buddies and logs and local reputation is one, but not the only solution.
Another solution and which was suggested by a few of my correspondents, is pre-clearance of Ice Mile attempts by either the IISA itself or a country or regional IISA Ambassador or a committee of Ice Mile swimmers. A person wishing to attempt an Ice Mile would have to submit an application, a medical certificate with ECG, including any previous or family history of cardiac problems, experience and possibly even training logs. I have in the past been critical of triathlons for substituting wetsuits for experience. The mortality rate in US triathlons is quite significant, twice as dangerous as marathons, with 30 out of 43 occurring during the swim leg. After a study one of the significant factors identified was a lack of previous experience. Here in Ireland open water swims of only 1500 metres often require prior experience. An Ice Mile that’s significantly more dangerous than a 750 metre triathlon swim leg or a 1500 metre open water swim currently requires no approval or proven experience beyond what local organisers may impose. Right now only those who complete an Ice Miles can become IISA members, which is contrary to how most organisations operate and allows the ISSA a deniability about its own place in promoting responsible attempts. It also means that any problems that arise in an attempt don’t fall at the feet of the IISA.
A person can currently attempt an Ice Mile without ever having swum in water colder than a hot bath or further than their local pool length. That’s the reductio ad absurdum conclusion used to demonstrate the insufficiency of the IISA rules. The primary protection for people right now is the organisation and experience of most aspirants, and insistence on safety by experienced swim organisers.
One organiser says it clearly; “I feel ice/winter swimming is a specialist pursuit; only to be attempted by those who diligently prepare through regular submersion in open water and acclimatisation over a number of months.”
There are further possible solutions including an IISA-approved qualifying swim. The IISA has this year introduced a one kilometre swim. Currently this uses the same safety rules, but doesn’t result in IISA membership. A one kilometre organised swim would allow the possibility of a vetted and observed qualification swim. Yet another possibility is that Ice Miles are only attempted using a network of experienced local organisers.
In the next article, which will be final part of this rules discussion as I move to other aspects, I’ll look at some more serious flaws in current IISA rules, briefly consider the ridiculous age limit, and ask why the IISA doesn’t require Best Practice in Ice Mile swim organisation.