Both North Channel routes

Guest article – Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route swim report – Part 1

I’m delighted to have another historic swim report for you to read.

Toward the end of August (2012) just passed, Wayne Soutter, originally from South Africa, contacted the Channel Chat group, looking for any last-minute thoughts or advice on his attempt to swim the never-before successfully swam Mull of Kintyre to Ballycastle route, instead of the only other route that’s previously been swam, the Mull of Galloway route.

Both North Channel routes

There were key responses from two-time English Channel Soloist and Northern Irishman Jim Boucher, Mike Oram, (English Channel pilot), and The King, Kevin Murphy, who has swam the North Channel three times, and considers it the toughest swim in the world.

Kevin said: “The reason the Mull of Kintyre swim was never done is because it’s much narrower than Donaghadee-Portpatrick. That means there’s a lot of water passing through a relatively narrow gap and conventional thinking has been that the tides’ are too strong – that and the fact that mile for mile the North Channel is already about as tough as anybody wants it. But Mull of Kintyre route is there to be done. Love to see it conquered.

The Mull of Kintyre tidal current map above. Tides are strong thoughout the whole strait, as indicated by the larger black arrows, with particularly strong currents at both sides.

Mike’s post was interesting:

I have looked at your question reference wind for this area but it’s a hard one to answer.

The wind is a minor part of the problem you are taking on and quoting a wind speed will be of absolutely no benefit to you, unless I say – flat calm. [...] I would say go in light winds and with the direction being nothing prominent – but that’s very unlikely so listen to your pilot.
 
The crossing is surrounded by land a lot of which is very uneven and mostly of solid rock. This has a big influence on the local conditions and will mean you will have very localised wind conditions and direction because of the land masses and also an added consideration for the  possible temperature differential between the land and the water. These can create both land and sea-breezes to add or subtract from the ambient wind force. The wind will be changing in speed and direction with your position as it will be dependant on the closest headland and open water areas, even if it is the same direction as the tide. There is also your swim speed to consider as that will determine the tidal pattern you are fitting into. The direction and speed of the tidal flow will be giving quite serious problems depending on if it is with or against the wind. The Tide is basically North North West to South South East direction in general changing every 6 hours or so. However around the Mull of Kintyre and all the other headland and bays (I use that word lightly) it is multi-directional and basically a mess. There is a venture effect as the wind is forced through the small gap that is the entrance/ exit from the Irish sea plus the wind direction when it is flowing in the sea areas between the headlands.
The Irish side of the Channel has strong tides (3 knots plus on the bottom of Neaps & 4.5 knots plus on the Spring tide for the middle hours of tidal flow).
The Mull of Kintyre is well know[n] for it’s overfalls and seriously congested seas for most of the tidal flows regardless of the direction – the overfalls just move North or South when the tide changes. The area has a small craft warning reference these overfalls that are present in various degrees of ferocity for 10 to 11 of the tidal pattern. It is an area know[n] for its negative tides travelling around the headland and meeting the general flow This is a negative tide as far as a crossing to Ireland is concerned as the tidal flow is back towards Scotland both north and south of the point. It might look the shortest route but I doubt if it is when to tidal direction is taken into account – (unless you are swimming from Ireland to the Mull), It will be a hard 10 miles to concur in a not very hospitipal [sic] place with a narrow, busy shipping lane thrown in and a big island (Rathlin Island) just to make sure your arrival in Ireland is not too easy.
Intimidating, to say the least. Over-falls, you ask? These are more generally known as standing waves, most often seen in rivers flowing over rock, a sign of very fast-moving water and difficult conditions.
Standing wave in the North Channel, seen from a boat bow.

A very brief history first. The first successful North Channel swim was the Portpatrick – Donaghahee route by Englishman Tom Blower in 1947, on his second attempt. The Mull of Kintyre route was previously attempted four times by Englishwoman Mercedes Gleitze. Both Blower and Gleitze were English Channel soloists, at a time when there were less than 20 English Channel soloers. Gleitze was also the first person to swim the Gibraltar Straits.

The North Channel, aka the Mouth of Hell is noted for cold air and colder water, tough tidal currents, and not least often huge blooms of stinging Lion’s Mane jellyfish. Only 12 13 swimmers from over 90 attempts have successfully swum it in the 80 years since the first attempt.

A further complication to Wayne’s swim, was that because the route is six hours steaming north of the usual route, he would not have either of the two existing North Channel pilots.

I’ll be spitting the swim report into two parts. The swim is told from the viewpoint of both Wayne and his crew chief.

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