photo 1946

Wayne Soutter’s historic new North Channel route – Part 3

Wayne’s narrative in grey on the left, Paul’s in green on the right.
Photo taken by passing boat?

I was cold. So cold. Colder than I had ever been. I needed this to end. I suspected that I was going hypothermic… as I started to feel warmer… and I hadn’t changed anything – so that was impossible. And feeling warmer…when very cold, is a sign of hypothermia. So I realised I needed to make a decision. I needed to know if we were close, say 1 hour, then I could push and finish even if cold. If longer than that, I needed to call it a day.

Over the course of the next four hours, the light started to fade and the sea state picked up to a point where, it was forming 6 foot swells with a Force 4 wind, gusting Force 6. We made very slow progress towards the Antrim coast, whilst minute by minute being taken north at an increasingly rapid pace by the freight train south-to-north current running up the Irish coast.

I started to demand to know how much further to go. Despite the fact that Paul and I had discussed many times and agreed, I would never be told how far to go. However, I was trying to make a final push or walk away decision. I had to know how far to go. I really threw a strop – I insisted that I wouldn’t swim another stroke unless they told me. But the wind was howling and the boat just blew away from me…so I didn’t have a choice but to keep bloody swimming after them.

Suddenly they stopped and said they were going to tell me. They said 1.6 to go. OMG… 1.6 km to go! I shouted to them that I could do that, they responded with a war cry and off I was… swimming hard as hell, I needed the pain to be over, I knew I could do 1.6 km in about 40 minutes… I swam harder than I have ever swam. I knew the faster I swam the faster the pain would be over.

The universally accepted wisdom says that you never tell the swimmer the distance to go. Today we really learned why. Wayne’s insistence on knowing how far to go was distracting him and slowing him down as he kept stopping. So we eventually decided to tell Wayne how far we had to go. I called to Carlos who was navigating and asked the question. He looked at the Satnav and replied – 1.6 Nautical Miles.

It wasn’t long before I was feeling better… I realised that I was warming up… I had just been terribly cold…and hence feeling miserable. The false hope of 1.6km allowed me to swim hard, pick up pace and warm up. That was without a doubt the turning point of the swim.

The jellyfish, which had been visible in large numbers since about hour 5, but which had been 5 or 6 feet below the surface, were now present in enormous numbers in the top two feet of water. Wayne lost quite a bit of time trying to skirt around them, but after a few  hours of this realised that avoiding them was impossible and from that point on, swam through them regardless. He did pick up a number of stings, but he was fortunate in not reacting badly to them so they generated discomfort rather than threatening his immediate health. We positioned a spotter at the bows of the boat and if we saw a cluster, shouted to Wayne but of course a swimmer rarely hears shouts. Blowing referee’s whistles I’d brought for just such a purpose similarly went unheard. Wayne would swim right upon to the jelly, stop abruptly on seeing it and look accusingly at us, whistles still in our mouths! We never got this right – all our ideas for jelly spotting failed. On one occasion we spotted a massive jelly far too late, it was directly in Wayne’s path, just two metres ahead of him. On the boat we all held our breath. Wayne’s head and shoulder came within an inch of it, and he swam straight past without noticing. On the boat we just let out a huge relieved laugh!

The Jellyfish came in their hundreds…nay thousands. They seemed to group together and suddenly I would find myself in the middle of a field of them, literally hundreds of them everywhere I looked. I tried in vain to find holes to swim through. I would sink below the surface, look for a gap and swim through it, pause, look for the next hole and swim into the next gap. This was very slow going… I was burning precious minutes each time I swam through a pod. Eventually Paul jumped into the water with me, swam up to me, looked me in the eye and said “listen we are going to swim through them together, let’s go” and so we did. I started to swim straight through the pods. I struggled to control the fear factor, but we did it. Did I mention that Paul was wearing a wetsuit… when he made that brave gesture! Actually I was so grateful, without it, I would not have made it, I was wasting two or three minutes per pod.

The stinging wasn’t nearly what I had imagined that it might be. It was more like a nettle sting than a burn. Thankfully once nightfall came, the Jelly fish disappeared, I think they dropped lower as the water cooled. All I knew is that I stopped being stung.

Thankfully, after about 9 hours into the swim, the sea state reduced and swimming conditions became a little easier. By this time we had drifted quite a considerable distance north. 

There had been a time when we did not know whether this drift would take us left (and west) around Torr Head and towards Ballycastle, or whether it would take us due north and towards the eastern coast of Rathlin Island. Looking at the tide charts, it was like approaching a fork in a motorway and we were bang in the middle, would we be swept left or right? Had the second possibility transpired, his swim would effectively have been over.

Wayne’s morale was improved at this stage – his stroke was visibly more determined and committed, and at the feeds he stopped referring to his discomfort.

In actual fact, his misery had to an extent been replaced by an irritability – he would express deep dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms, should he deem our strategy to be less than perfect! We took this as a good sign because every time he made his feelings known, he perfectly demonstrated his lucidity to us so the crew were quite happy to be abused!

With much relief, we rounded the Head and proceeded towards Ballycastle, all the time trying to cross the current so that we could make a landfall. This period represented an awful lot of effort, and some determined swimming towards the shore, but the net result for a two to three hour period was that we simply  paralleled the coast about one and half to two nautical miles off.

So, when after half an hour, and then an hour, and then ninety minutes after we’d told Wayne he was “1.6” from the coast, he was very frustrated at not having beached. Perfectly understandable. But when he asked us how much further, we resisted at all costs telling him. Because the receding coast line effectively goes away from the current, the real answers, post the “1.6” announcement, would have been 1.4, 2.4 and 3.0 before we started to once again close the gap on the coast.

We could only tell Wayne that ‘you’re doing well’ and ‘at this rate you will achieve it’. He smelt a rat, and became incredibly frustrated ‘you’re lying to me’ ‘why are you lying to me?’ ‘just tell me the f****g truth!’. He was so cross, it was affecting his swim at a time when we really needed him to get his head down and cross this awful current.

Remember what I said about never telling a swimmer how far they have to go…..

This was a very difficult and frustrating period of swimming. We put cyalumes (night-sticks)on the boat so that I could see the edge and the boat put its big lights on. The boat kept moving ahead of me and I was having to follow it rather than stay next to it. I have been told that this was due to the strong currents and change in wind direction due to our new course we were steering. The boat couldn’t stay next to me safely so that moved slightly ahead. I wasn’t happy with this, even though the second boat Boisterous was behind me, lighting me up with their spot light. I was really struggling to follow the boat, it was very difficult to see if the boat was moving directly away from me, or whether it was moving perpendicular to me and hence I was frequently unsure of my swim direction. Apparently I frequently let the boats know of my significant dissatisfaction!

Dangerous? Just a little.

Here’s the scenario. The wind was playing havoc with the boat’s ability to steer the right course. Ribs steer from the stern and Wayne’s positioning just off the starboard stern quarter meant that any attempts by Sean to steer further to port, as we needed to, would bring the stern right over the swimmer. So Sean had no alternative but to bring the boat ahead of Wayne. Tide and wind then conspired to take the boat away, ahead of him. Although the wind had largely abated there was still enough swell to make swimming difficult and to make spotting the swimmer tricky too.

So the boat would drift ahead. Jonny and I effected a routine like a man overboard drill – at any point at least one of us would have eyes-on contact and be pointing at the two cyalumes on Wayne’s hat (which were all we could see in the darkness). The boat drifted ahead quickly, and when the gap got to 30-40 metres we relayed a message to Sean who hammered around in a circle to re-position the boat just ahead of Wayne.

Sean’s professionalism at this stage was incredible. His skippering skills in these impossible conditions without question saved the swim.

Jonny and I were extremely worried at this point, and were wetsuited up all the while, ready to swim to immediate assistance if we lost sight of the cyalumes for a second. In my mind I was playing through the questioning at the drowning inquest “And didn’t you know that the swimmer was tired?” “Oh yes, at least 5 hours previously he’d quite clearly told us he was very cold, cramping and extremely tired but we just told him to get on with it…”

From approximately hour 11, Wayne really started to close the gap between ourselves and the shore – he’d made it through the worst of the current. Travelling WSW we made good progress, counting down the distance steadily. At this stage, despite being very tired, unbelievably Wayne picked up his pace, conscious that we were in the last stretch.

Up until this moment I had not once looked backwards towards the Mull or forwards to where we were travelling, on my feeds, I just looked at the boat. However when it get’s dark, if there are lights on the shore, you can’t help but see them and suddenly I started to see lights. It confused me… as I knew there were no lights along the Torr head cliff face. I assumed we must have done well on our planned route and were near Cushendall, many miles South of Torr Head. Shortly thereafter I stopped for a feed and since I had seen the lights, I started to look around… and was completely startled to see the unmistakable curve of Fairhead to my left against the skyline…. OMG we had passed Fairhead… OMG… the lights I was looking at were on the North side of Northern Ireland… these light must be Ballycastle. I was very disturbed by this… I realised out swim plan had fallen to pieces. I also knew that this was the last chance of a landing before heading north to the Faroe Islands.

I swam even harder, if that was possible. Well it felt harder, all the time I was nursing my right shoulder which was hurting a fair bit.

Our skipper and navigators scanned the coast, identifying known points by the presence of streetlights, trying to identify a good place for Wayne to make a landing. Eventually a decent looking place was identified, and both boats used powerful lamps to pinpoint the spot on the shore and to give Wayne a target.

When I saw the light shining on the shore… I knew the end was near, the pain of being cold was still patently with me. I still desperately wanted this swim to be over as soon as possible. I swam following the boat initially and then headed for shore…. As I approached I thought they had found a lovely sandy beach, only when I was 10 meters away did I realise that it was the base of the cliff washed out to a white colour and covered in algae. I touched it… In fact I clung to it. It was over. The pain was over.

The shoreline was a rock shelf, dipping into the water at 45 degrees. Wayne reached out, touched it, and turned to face the boat. Our observer gave his approval, and the skipper sounded the boat horn to indicate that Wayne should return to the boat.

Because the CRS boat is very specialised in its purpose, it had some very good equipment on board and a delighted and still-very lucid Wayne was quickly helped into a special sleeping bag, designed to accommodate water-born casualties. This helped him to regain his warmth very quickly indeed, and he was quite comfortable on arrival at Ballycastle, some 15 minutes later.

As far as we were concerned, we were entering a deserted harbour at around midnight. But as we rounded the breakwater a massive cacophony of sound reached us across the water. Hundreds of people were waiting at the dock to greet us, and car horns were blaring all over the town. The wonderful people of Ballycastle had come to see us home – what an incredibly emotional experience.

Actual route vs planned route

Wayne has put together an excellent annotated Google Map of the swim which includes his Observer’s notes.

Wayne’s and Paul’s Afterthoughts:

Wow. We’d very nearly proved Commander Forsberg to be absolutely correct.

Wayne and I believe that only through the benefit of some very detailed modern tidal information, and the repeated mapping and re-mapping of this against a timetable, was the swim achievable.

Having said that, the route we eventually took was not as planned. Would we have succeeded had we been able to follow the intended route rigidly? Or did the vagaries of the day divert Wayne onto what was perhaps the only genuinely achievable strategy? We’ll maybe never know the answer to that, but what’s certain is that this impossible crossing has now been conquered, and Wayne has opened up the possibility to long distance swimmers everywhere.

- Paul Greenhalgh (liaison between swimmer, Skipper and navigators)

Although this was almost half the distance (12 Miles vs 21 Miles) and half the time (12:15 versus 20:01) of my English Channel in 2010, this swim was still harder. I think this was a
combination of the colder and rougher water.

What could I do differently?

  • In terms of the water temperature… little we could do. It’s about as good as it gets.
  • Weather – if you had the time, you could wait for a better wind window… but this is a hard, cold part of the world… it blows a lot. So again, probably as good as I could realistically hope.
  • Jellyfish – this was lucky, I managed to go when the Lion’s Main’s were dying out and before the Atlantic Jellies had come in. In fact they came in within days of me completing.
  • Route – I would start closer to the tip of the Mull and I would start about an hour later than I did. But I still believe the planned route would be a good one.
  • Crew & Boat – couldn’t have hoped for a better Captain or crew. Sean was incredible, doing wonders with a flat bottomed boat in strong wind and the crew with their support, dragged me across.

So on reflection, due to a massive amount of planning and a fair bit of luck on the day, we caught all the breaks we could have hoped for on a swim that had never been done i.e. we had no experience to go on. – Wayne Soutter

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5 thoughts on “Wayne Soutter’s historic new North Channel route – Part 3”

  1. That is one amazing achievement and a fantastic blog. I’m utterly in awe. I love that you’ve highlighted the teamwork and different areas of expertise involved in this kind of swim. Thank you!

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