Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route – Part 2

Part 1.

This swim is told from two viewpoints, of both Wayne and his crew chief Paul. Wayne’s is the grey text on the left, Paul Greenhalgh’s text is in green and justified to the right.

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We finally made a GO decision on Thursday evening to swim on Sunday, I booked flight tickets for Saturday, we got the last few tickets and hence didn’t have much choice in terms of flight times – we were departing Heathrow at 19:30.

We were supposed to arrive in Ballycastle around 9:30pm, but the flight was delayed and so by the time we got in, it was gone midnight. When I say we, it was Paul Greehalgh (Swim manager) Jon Fryer, Carlos Roas (Navigator) and Mark Syrett (Food preparer) and myself.

Our charity we were raising money for, Community Rescue Services, were still out in the town going from pub to pub, collecting donations in buckets, so we felt obliged to head straight into town to support them and to enable them to “show the crazy swimmer off” to help them raise awareness.

We had a few beers, but I needed to take it slow, as we had an early start and most likely a long day ahead. So a single Guinness was all I was allowed and to bed by 02:30.

Up at 7:00 am. Bit of breakfast (eggs on toast) and I prepared my Oats Porridge & four flasks of hot water, which I would be consuming on the swim.

Down to the Harbour at 8:00. Captain Sean McCarry and his team were all there including two boats, Bravo Three (main swim boat) and Boisterous (backup / media boat). I also met Gary Knox for the first time face to face, he was my appointed observer for the swim. While everyone was putting the kit on the boats, I slipped away and dipped my hand into the water next to the jetty… trying to give myself some kind of confidence that this was possible. It didn’t help. Just felt bloody cold.

The pressure of having a large team supporting me, some of whom had travelled a very long way and were investing their own time (taken holiday) and costs… was immense. I
pictured how I would feel if I just couldn’t stand the cold after say 1 hour… what would they think of me? I brushed it aside and realised I had to stay in until I made it or was pulled out unconscious

We headed out the harbour, boat accelerated and we tore across the channel. Took about 45 minutes to cross. That too was scary…with my English Channel swim, you start the
swim after a brief boat ride out of the harbour on the other side of the harbour wall – you don’t get to experience how far you need to go. Yet here I was on a boat doing about 30 knots for 45 minutes… and I would need to swim all the way back. The visualisation of the scale of the task was quite overwhelming.

I didn’t want my team to know I was full of nerves… I didn’t want them to have doubts or disbelief… I didn’t want to let them down.

All the swim experts we had spoken to prior to the swim told us that this route could not be achieved. Even the historical figure and swim guru Commander Forsberg had declared
before his death in 2000 that it was impossible.* We had understood from early on, therefore, that this was a real challenge and that the success of this swim would be very dependent upon accurately modelling the anticipated tidal flows in the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Torr Head. So, on the day of the swim, we arrived off the lighthouse (see chart below) on the Mull about an hour before the planned start time, to try to gauge exactly what the currents were actually doing versus what the computer models said they should be doing.

At around 11h00 we deemed that the currents had died to almost slack water, and so we motored close to the coast, about one km north of the lighthouse. * It was very amusing at the time, but in fact very telling retrospectively, that the only person who didn’t tell Wayne this wasn’t possible was skipper Sean McCarry, who, when he first heard the plan, laughed and said “well it sounds crazy but what the hell, let’s give it a try”.

I stripped down, and Jon started to apply Vaseline to me. I had been testing with many different greases over the past few months, but Vaseline was the best hope I had for it to stick to me… everything else just washed off fairly quickly including lanolin. It wasn’t in fact the cold I was trying to protect against, but the Jelly fish. I was truly petrified of them. I had never been stung before…and didn’t know what it was going to be like. Legend swimmer, Kevin Murphy gave me an insight into them on Dover beach a few weeks before… and on all three of his North Channel swim, he had to be sedated due to the number of Jelly fish  stings.

Just brilliant.

Wayne entered the water, swam ashore and climbed onto a flat rock. He looked pretty calm – I think that despite all the inevitable nerves, there was still an excitement – after all the planning and training, any swimmer just wants to get cracking and fortuitously a window had opened in the weather. This was it! On the observer’s signal, he dived in and the attempt began.

Wayne struck out strongly, swimming alongside Bravo Three.

The weather for the first two hours was remarkably kind. The sea was very flat, there was very little wind, the sun occasionally appeared from behind the clouds and there were no jelly fish. Looking at the weather-battered cliffs of the Mull, though, all our instincts told us that this could be a harsh and perilous place. Long may this fair weather last.

As I was swimming, I was giving myself a virtual pat on the back for finding the calmest and warmest day…probably EVER to try this attempt. I couldn’t believe my luck. Also there were practically no Jelly fish…certainly 100 times fewer than I had seen on my trial swim here 6 weeks before. The sun was out which warmed the top 4 inches of water…it
was a little unsettling as with each stroke I drew very cold water onto me, but I realised that I could live with that slight discomfort if the water could just keep me warm….I could
swim all day like this….

Following our plan, Wayne swam on a due west heading, the tides taking him gently south so his overall direction of travel was south-west. Wayne was in the counter-current that hugs the Scottish coastline and runs to the south-east just before the tide change (whilst the current in the main channel still runs north – we had identified this counter current as a way of ‘stealing’ an hour’s start on the swim).

About one and half hours in, we realised that we had possibly departed too soon. Wayne’s plan involved continuing to progress south-westerly, but the south to north current, which would die away on the tide change, was still stronger than we had hoped and so Wayne’s route started to drift to the north, despite the navigators now having altered our heading to 236 degrees. This error would impact the entire swim – it meant that Wayne’s route never took him as far south as planned. Getting south was critical, because the coastline there had far less turbulence and there were sandy beaches where we could make a landing. But being too far north at this point meant that the chances of making shore to the south of Torr Point had already reduced significantly.

After about my second or third feed the sun disappeared as did my luxury warm water layer due to the wind picking up and mixing up the sea. It was no longer a fun-day-out swim.

Between hours two and six, the conditions gradually deteriorated. The wind started to pick up, and soon started to blow very strongly from almost due south. This was directly against the tide, and had the effect of creating a very nasty chop. Furthermore, it had the effect of holding up the support boat and preventing the current from taking us as far south as we had predicted. Navigationally, this further compounded our earlier issues.

Holy crap. Every time I breathed to my left… I could see the flag on the boat fluttering…harder and harder and harder… eventually it was like a board. The sea state got nasty. The boat was rising up next to me and then crashing down, and when it did so, it would ‘jet’ a wedge of sea water out sideways…. fairly frequently straight down my throat. Drinking sea water I knew was a recipe for ending a swim… especially for me, as soon as I get any sea water into me… I quickly feel grotty. But there was little I could do, if I fell back the boat fumes got me, if I moved forward I couldn’t see the boat for direction. I couldn’t just breathe to the right, as I wouldn’t be able to follow the boat. I was stuck with this. The wind was howling, the waves were just getting bigger and bigger.

Jonny and I had done a couple of stints as support swimmers earlier in the day – Wayne had been very concerned about jellyfish and so, even though he had seen very few, felt that having a ‘jelly spotter’ in the water would help. Wayne, Jonny and I knew that the spotter could in fact do very little to help, but that it was psychologically important. It allowed Wayne to forget about one worry at least, and concentrate on swimming.

When the seas really got up, though, we decided that he needed a support swimmer purely for moral support. I took the idea to Sean at the helm – I knew that having two swimmers to watch in these rough seas would make Sean’s job even harder, but he could see the importance to Wayne so didn’t hesitate to agree. I’m a strong swimmer, I was wearing a wetsuit, I was warm, well fed and fresh – and yet I really struggled. Had the conditions been even just slightly rougher I could not have swum – I was right on the edge of staying afloat. And yet Wayne who was next to me had been in this cold and rough water for 6 hours already…

Throughout the swim, Wayne was being fed according to his pre-arranged plan. In general terms, this involved half-hourly feeds – administered via the approved English Channel
method of a drinks bottle on a string – and comprising a warm mixture of energy drink, with some oats every third or fourth feed. On three occasions he also took 400 mg of Ibuprofen to combat a stiffening shoulder.

Fairhead is in the distance. Still a long way and a lot of rough water ahead.

I was drinking sea water like beer…and it was causing me to throw up…but only in little bits. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I was throwing up underwater between breaths, which meant that my team didn’t notice it and hence were not worried. Feeding was becoming very very difficult. Each time we stopped, the wind was blowing side onto the boat, pushing the boat onto me as I was leeward. With the boat being a rib, it was flat-bottomed and hence moved across the water fairly quickly. To make matters worse, the waves had built and the boat was rising way above me and then dropping past below me… so in addition to trying to feed, I was continuously back peddling hard to try to not get smashed on the head. I was finding feeds very hard work… I was coming out of them exhausted.

We were conscious that the feeds had started to become very difficult. Such was the wind speed, the boat ‘chased’ Wayne when he stopped swimming making feeds dangerous.
Consequently he rushed a couple, and I was worried that he wasn’t taking enough nutrition on board.

At approximately 6 hours, Wayne’s morale took a big dip.

He was unhappy being in the water, the increasing swells and the boat crashing down into the water on every swell, were throwing water into his face, he was feeling the cold, his
legs were cramping and his demeanour was generally very miserable.

Each time I stopped for a feed, my legs started to cramp. It was my thigh muscles that were the issue. I would stop… start to feed and feel the cramp coming on… I realised that as long as a swam it would go away, so on a few feeds, I half fed, threw the bottle back and had to swim to prevent the cramp coming on fully.

Through verbal encouragement, we were able to urge him to continue, always setting the next feed as his immediate target. Gary Knox, an experienced open water swimmer,
was incredibly helpful in describing what Wayne would be feeling both physically and emotionally. When Wayne showed signs of frustration or pain or whatever, we would urge him to continue.

However, after about 7 hours, at a feed Wayne didn’t make an effort to come to the boat but instead told us he was feeling extremely cold.

On the English Channel swim a couple of years ago, Wayne was in the water for 20 hours and didn’t once complain of cold – physiologically his body deals with it very well. But now his face was wracked in pain and he was saying he was so cold.

At this point I feared for his swim. He had swum strongly and made good progress, but there was still a very long way to go. The tide would shortly turn and propel us rapidly in a northerly direction – and because of the issues discussed above we were nowhere near where we had hoped to be, to have a chance of landing.

The sea was too big to take chances; we were just doing this for fun at the end of the day, and if he was becoming hypothermic then we’d need to take the decision for him and
pull him out.

From this point onwards, at his feeds we asked him questions which were intended to gauge his coherence, and therefore allow us to spot any signs of the onset of hypothermia. These questions were mathematical calculations, or similar tests.
Even at his darkest hour in terms of morale, he answered quickly, lucidly and accurately. So we kept him in. 

Part three coming soon.

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