Sylvain Estadieu, aka The Flying Frenchman, came to Ireland in 2008, where he became a Sandycove Island swimmer. He Soloed the English Channel in 2009. So despite his origin and travels around the world, and currently living in Sweden, Ireland and Sandycove will always have a claim on him.
During Channel training Sylle became notorious for his Individual Medley of Sandycove Island, four laps of the island, about 1700 metres per lap, each lap using each of the four I.M. strokes, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and front crawl. I seem to recall he said breaststroke was the worst lap.
After keeping it quiet for some time, Sylvain finally went public late last year with his intention of attempting another English Channel Solo, this time though he intends to attempt it as a Butterfly world-record attempt. Sylvain and I crewed for Gábor Molnar‘s English Channel swim, where I extracted the promise that we (Gábor and I) could crew for him. So this September, I’ll be back in Dover for another World Record attempt.
In 2010 and 2012 Sylvain and his girlfriend Great Greta travelled around the antipodes, where he left his mark by starting a tradition of non-wetsuit swimming in Lake Wanaka.
I get asked quite often if my sessions are 100% butterfly. The answer is no. I just had a look at the figures and for 2013 it turns out I’ve swam 48% of butterfly, 47% of front crawl, 4% of backstroke and just under 0.5% of breaststroke.
The other question that I get asked fairly often is if it’s easy to swim butterfly in a public lane. It can prove difficult to train front crawl if there are undisciplined bathers (Disclaimer: don’t swim in the same lane as me … I’m not a easy-friendly lane-mate) … so doing butterfly in a crowded lane sounds like it should be almost impossible, right? Well, you’ll be glad to learn that it’s possible!
The first rule of BIAPL is you don’t talk about BIAPL (you saw this one coming). One does not encourage others to do it. Especially if said others frequent the same swimming pool. We wouldn’t want a lane full with butterfliers, now that would be mayhem.
The second rule of BIAPL, which is probably more important than the first one is you’ve got to look around. This one is actually applicable to other strokes, other sports and situations like crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk, moving dishes from the dishwasher to the shelves, etc. As soon as there’s one person to share the lane with, you’ve got to start looking around yourself. Doing a complete length of butterfly with your head down is forbidden, so is taking the first stroke(s) with your head down. You look ahead as often as you can and learn to anticipate. Will I be able to take one full stroke or two short ones? Maybe I’ll have to overglide a bit so the oncoming swimmer will have time to end up behind me?
In all likelihood I will need to whack my right hand against the lane line a couple times per length so as to give enough space to the others (sorry to disappoint you Donal, but my wingspan is a mere 1m82 … but I still take more space doing fly than if I were to (somehow) swim sideways with my head-to-feet axis perpendicular to the lane). Occasionally my left hand will be high up in the air trying to pick apples while my left “wing” will resemble that of a little duckling. Not pretty, but at least there’ll be no blood in the water.
It’s an easy rule to summarize, but it’s really powerful. Just know your surroundings, know what’s going on around you, and most of the time you’ll be alright.
The third rule of BIAPL is that you won’t be able to take every single stroke in the mighty butterfly style, so get over it already. There will necessarily be times when you have to switch to freestyle for a few strokes. But that’s not a biggie, especially because it gives you the chance to … count … something … else! Yipee! You’re already keeping track of the distance you swam, the remaining one, your average pace for each set and the number of times people have pushed off right in front of you, now let me introduce the fly/fc ratio.
What is the fly/fc ratio?
Quite simply, the fly/fc ration describes the amount of butterflying in your butterfly sets. 100% means that you didn’t need to use the one-arm stroke even once while 50% indicates that it must have been a bloody battlefield out there and that maybe you’d have been better off doing something else, like kicking perhaps?
Calculating the ratio is very easy: imagine your average stroke count is 20 strokes per 25m in front crawl. You start a casual 1000m butterfly and end up using a total of 90 strokes of f/c in order to pass people of avoid accidentally punching them in the head (or worse, if you have paddles on, something reminiscent of the French Revolution … the Swedes have hidden their royal family since I moved to Sweden). You will have swum approximately 112.5m of f/c and 887.5m of fly, hence a ratio of 89%. Not bad!
You can also use this ratio to calculate you actual “butterfly speed” over such a set, but I’ll let you do the math.
The fourth rule of BIAPL is embrace the moment. Have fun, you’re flying after all. You’re bringing magic to this world, you’re inspiring people, at the very least a young Arnie, for two strokes or more.
And remember the (poor) haiku:
Both arms over head Then glide deep under water Archimedes will help.
Otherwise, training is going well, getting faster, stronger and better looking by the day.
As long-time readers will know, Rob The Bull Bohane, Ciarán Byrne and Finbarr Hedderman are all Sandycove Island Swim Club members, English Channel Soloists and very good friends. Ciarán and Rob are two members of our 2010 Magnificent Seven Channel training squad. All three are very experienced open and cold water swimmers, and are three of the people I most like and trust swimming with (when Finbarr is not trying to drown me).
Recently all three took part in another ice-mile, the week prior to the Lough Dan Ice Mile and I’m delighted to have Ciarán’s account of the swim. (I was to be part of the attempt but for various reasons decided against it). I’ll stress that these three swimmers have a wealth of cold water experience, and the helpers and assistants as you can see below also have great experience. The location was in the Kerry Mountains in the south-west of Ireland. (Lough is the Irish for lake, by the way and is pronounced “lock”).
Ice Mile Lough Iochtar, Kerry, 10th Feb 2013.
Ram Barkai from South Africa set up the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009. To become a member you must swim a mile (1609.3m) in water of 5.0°C or under. At time of writing there have been 51 recorded ice swims by less than 50 swimmers.
Sandycove Island Swim club decided to join the fun. We scouted the sea and lakes in Cork and Kerry. Through Rob’s Kerry connections 3 lakes about half way up Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s highest mountain at just over 1000 metres- Ed.) were identified which were accessible by 4×4 vehicles.
Rob, Finbarr and I agreed to try one of these lakes on Sun 10th Feb.
Leaving Cork on the morning of the 10th the weather was great. Clear blue skies ahead. We went first to Lough Acoose to meet the great support team from the Sandycove Island Swim Club. Lisa (English Channel Two-way swimmer), Eddie (Triple Crown Swimmer), Carol (Lake Zurich silver medallist and Irish Masters Squad member) and Pascal (Finbarr’s dad).
We met the Kerry Mountain Rescue team of John Dowd, John Cronin and Angela O’Connor near the water treatment plant. We headed up in two 4-wheel drive cars including the fully equipped Kerry Mountain Rescue Ambulance.
When we reached the first of three lakes, Lough Iochtar, we stopped for a look. Lough Iochtar is a small lake approx 300m long and approx 75 metres at its widest point. It’s at 440m elevation. There was a small stone beach near the road. It looked ideal.
The next check was the water temp. Below 5C. We were in business. The temperatures taken
during the swim were 4.5, 4.9 and 4.8C. Average 4.7C. The air temp was 3°C. There was a cold wind and the wind chill was -3C.
The altitude didn’t adversely impact our breathing. That was something that had concerned us about the location. We unloaded the jeeps and set to measuring the swim distance. We went for old school. Rob had brought a measured 50m length of line. Rob and John used it to measure out a 100M course. We marked the ends with fluorescent jackets.
The plan was to complete eight loops of the 200M course, which was marked 10 metres from the start, the ends of the course to be marshalled by observers. The wind was picking up so we got a group photo and then got changed.
Eddie and Carol put on their wetsuits in case they needed to help any of us out of the water.
Lisa helped set up the GPS tracker on my goggles. We were going for high and low tech on this swim. We each had an observer to count strokes and watch for signs of hypothermia. Eddie for Rob, Carol for Fin and Lisa for me. We had agreed that if there was a sharp drop in stroke rate that we’d be pulled. We pre-arranged a signalling system to warn us when we had to come out. The back-up was that in the event of no response Eddie or Carol would swim in to get us out.
We got changed on the beach. One standard silicon cap, ear plugs, one pair of standard togs and goggles. A little Vaseline under the armpits for chafing. Pascal gave words of encouragement. We shook hands and set off. The large stones were sore on the feet. The water biting at the feet.
The first couple of metres were shallow. There was then a sharp drop off so we slid into the water and into our stroke. The experience in the first 100M was not unlike our experience in Tooting Bec Lido at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. The hands soon got icy cold. The arms felt tight at the stretch. The first 200M passed quickly. I had completed the Endurance swim (450M) at the CWSC so I knew I could go that far. However I was concerned that I was so cold so early. The next 200M were tough. My hands were as cold as they were in the endurance swim and I had another 1200M plus to go! Nothing for it but to keep swimming. Concentrate on the stroke.
Eddie manned the nearest mark and Carol the far one. Turning at the end of the 100M was a
challenge. Once you passed the fluorescent vest you had to turn in deep water. I had a near collision with Rob after the 600M turn. He had turned ahead of me and I was breathing to the right looking for the mark. No damage done and quickly back into the swim. After 600M I started to settle into the swim. I was closing in on the half way mark. I wasn’t getting any colder. My stroke was holding up. The sun had come out and was very welcome. After 1400M my feet got very cold and borderline cramping – I knew if I kicked too hard I would cramp. We got the whistle for the final loop. Head down and go for it.
I came into the finish. Fin had finished first, well ahead. The Lough Iochtar Monster. He came into his own in the second half of the swim and left us behind. Rob was in next and I came in not too far behind.
I tried to get in as close as possible to avoid wading in over the rocks. They were going to be painful. I was very unsteady on my feet and Pascal helped me up and gave me my crocks. Lisa was waiting with my towel. Carol came over to help Lisa get my jacket on. Then straight into a warm Jeep to get dressed. Lisa was great, organising my clothes, getting tea and making sure I was ok. Once dressed I got into the front into the heated seat – pure luxury.
We were all a bit unsteady on our feet when we go out. Fin didn’t need the car to get changed. He seemed unfazed by the swim and probably could have done a double. Rob got changed outside but soon joined me in the jeep and recovered quickly as well.
After about 20 mins we were all in good shape. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. We certainly got the best of the weather for our swim. We decided it was time to get our gear together and head back down to Killarney.
I’d like to thank the great support we got from our Sandycove friends, Lisa, Carol, Eddie and Pascal, Angela from Caherciveen and the two Johns from the Kerry Mountain Rescue. These events are not possible without volunteers who freely give their time to help others reach their goals. We believe this is the highest altitude ice mile in Europe.
It’s with great delight that I have this thought-provoking article from Dr. Karen Throsby. If you are a Channel swimmer you are most certain to know Karen or at the very least know of her.
Karen is a Sociology lecturer and researcher in Warwick College in the UK. I first met Karen in 2010 at the Sandycove distance week where she’d come to train for her (successful) English Channel attempt that year. In 2011 she completed the Catalina Channel and this year will tackle MIMS to complete the Triple Crown AND will also return to the Channel, making her part of the smaller group of swimmers who return to that battlefield. Karen once uttered what because one of my favourite swim sayings: “All I have to do today is swim” on any day with a long training session or even swim.
Apart from this, and apart from her excellent blog, one of my favourites, and apart from her research website, what also makes Karen so important and even vital for our global community, is that she is the prime (only?) sociological researcher of Channel Swimmers. She recently published her first research paper, “Becoming a Channel Swimmer“. Don’t let the title “research paper) put you off, it’s a fantastic and accessible-to-all read that I highly recommend for anyone who’s ever wondered about their own body image, and she’s working on a book on Channel Swimming that will be required reading for swimmers, organisers, writers, family, friends and even those with indirect interest in the deeper and personal and sociological aspects of our pursuits.
I’ve written a couple of posts related to weight or body image amongst open water swimmers. One linking pictures of the different types of bodies amongst various professional athletes remains quite popular, always attracting views. Another was on the difference between the presentation of images of swimsuit models versus what we ordinary swimmers actually tend to look like. And only recently I lost deliberately lost weight myself, the first time I ever set out to so do, (and am paying a swimming price for it). Karen’s blog is one of my favourites and I’d previously asked her for a guest post. As you can imagine, she is somewhat short of free time. But recently, after I’d already read her research paper, she was the author of what are my favourite-ever posts on marathonswimmers.org on the same subject, that for me would have been worth setting up the forum if nothing else had ever been written there. So I badgered asked her again, and this time she acquiesced.
I was standing on the beach in Dover, chatting with friends while preparing for another 6 hour swim. We watched a group of young male swimmers noisily slapping and wobbling the newly-rounded belly of one of them – the result of purposeful weight gain to insulate against the cold. Playing along, he grabbed his soft stomach fat and folded it into an improvised mouth. “Feed me, feed me,” demanded the stomach-mouth. As we watched the young men fat-slapping and joking, my friend – a man who sees himself as unambiguously fat – leaned quietly over to me and said: “It makes you wonder what they must think of me”. (fieldnotes, June 2010)
Channel swimmers talk about body fat a lot.
When I first stumbled into the marathon swimming world, I (mis)took this
for acceptance, even celebration, of a bodily property that is otherwise utterly
derogated in everyday life. But on closer inspection, I came to see this fat talk as
a much more complicated and contradictory mix of acceptance, celebration and
fat-phobia. We can see this, for example, in the physical comedy of the young
male swimmers. Their slapping and jiggling of body fat is intended to evoke
disgust, whilst simultaneously relying on a shared understanding that their fat
is not real fat, with all its negative connotations. It reminds me of lean actors
dressed up in fat suits, or gaining weight for a role, usually to comic effect. It’s
funny because we know they are not really fat, but it is also inevitably funny
at the expense of those who are fat. As with my friend on the beach, then, not
everyone can join in the fun.
And this is why Channel swimmers talk about body fat a lot: because the
purposeful maintaining / gaining of body fat is a socially precarious act in a
society where fat is routinely treated as disgusting, unattractive and as the
manifestation of the moral failure to exercise self-control. This precariousness is
reflected in playful banter of the young men on the beach, or the forum and blog
discussions about how much weight gain is enough, but not too much. It explains
why people describe using their upcoming Channel swim as their “get out jail
free card”, or their “alibi” for fatness. As a female swimmer who had transitioned
from the pool to the open water told me, she constantly reminded people she
was training to swim the Channel “so they didn’t think I’d just got fat”.
My point here is not that I think these defensive responses to fat are vain or
foolish. Bodies are complicated things to manage, the pressures are very real
and feeling ashamed about feeling ashamed is more paralysis than politics. But
I think that the Channel swimming community as a whole is missing a trick here
and falling in line with a dominant story of fatness that simply doesn’t make
sense. After all, what greater challenge to the equation of fat with ill-health
and laziness could there be than Channel swimming? And what if, instead of
reproducing those moral judgements about fatness, we actively refused them both
for ourselves and others? And what if we were to be collectively shocked that our
bodies – that any bodies – would need an alibi?
In the current context, it is perhaps inevitable that Channel swimmers talk about
fat a lot; but how we talk about it, and who is excluded by that talk, is not. This, I
think, is an opportunity for inclusion that collectively we are missing.
A couple of weeks after his record-breaking English Channel swim, I put some questions to Trent, from myself and some of you on Twitter, and quite a lot from fellow Aussie English Channel and Sandycove swimmer Craig Morrison. Most the questions are a swimmer’s point of view.
I’ve been asked how much long I could make Trent’s story continue on the blog and the answer is this is the last one. For this year anyway..
Also I put together a short 6 minute video of Trent’s Channel swim.
Feeding, best feeding interval for long & short stuff?
In long races I normally feed every 15 minutes but with the Channel I knew every second would count so that’s why I decided to feed every 20 minutes!
Pre-race eating pattern, a week of pigging your self or always the same?
I always try to keep it the same although if it’s a race over 5 hours I really eat a lot of food the day before just for the extra fuel.
What do you eat before and after training, say morning session?
Before training a bowl of cereal, then after training I eat my big breakfast… 3 pieces of toast, baked beans and fruit.
How many calories do you consume daily, healthy or anything goes?
I try to eat as healthy as I can from Monday to Friday then on the weekends I eat whatever I want! I don’t count calories.
Land base training. How much how important, if you had to pick 3 exercises what would they be?
Three months ago I finished my personal training degree so this is something I’m really interested in. I do weights two times a week, I ride the exercise bike three times a week, I do a little bit of core everyday.
Stretching, is it crap or important?
I think stretching is very important. I try to stretch everyday!
What’s a typical workout when training for EC, as opposed to 10k?
The training is not too different, just a couple more aerobic sessions a week and a couple less speed sessions.
Any cross training, how much?
Exercise bike, weights, core
Typical interval work ie. 100×100, 10×1000 etc. how much rest between sets?
Most of my aerobic work is done on a 1.10 to 1.15 cycle.
This reminds me of something I forgot to put in the final section of the story of Trent’s Channel records, when we were returning. After Damián and Trent returned to the boat, Harley and Trent were discussing the end of the swim. Damián was able to say that Trent has been swimming at 1:11 to 1:11:5 per 100. For swimmers, two thing sleep out from that. the first is the speed that Trent was still swimming after crossing the Channel. The second is that Damián was able to so accurately identify swim speed to within half a second, from experience.
Anything scientific out of the normal, that elite swimmers like yourself do compared to the rest of us?
While swimming the Channel this year I had some duck tape on my swimming cap because I didn’t want it to fall off!
Were you scared or nervous steaming out to the beach?
No I wasn’t nervous or scared, just excited. I knew I had done everything I could have possible done to have prepared myself for this so there was no reason to be nervous.
I was enormously impressed by your calm in the face of Mike Oram’s, um, unique way of dealing with swimmers, and became an 100% fan right there, no reservations. How much negativity do you have to deal with as a world-class swimmer?
There are a lot of athletes that like playing head games with their competitors in marathon swimming. I believe you need to be very mentally strong to deal with some of these games. You learn to just discard what you know is not true and don’t let it affect you!
I told Harley that I thought it was important that you say you’d booked the Channel three years ago, when Mike O (or most of us) wouldn’t have had a clue who you were. How and when were you infected by the Channel dream?
I must have been about 10 years old when I found out people could actually swim the English Channel. Ever since I found this out I have had a dream of being the fastest person to have ever swam it. I hate not being the fastest or best at something!
Has the enormity of what you’ve achieved started to sink in? The Channel is a huge deal. The Channel community says it changes you. Did you ever hear the Chad Hundeby English Channel story? Nearly 20 years ago, it was a different time. He’d been World Number 1 a while, but he said when people asked how his Channel was, and he said he hadn’t done it yet, the other swimmers would just nod and say nothing. He said he felt until he did the Channel he hadn’t really arrived. Like you he set the record on his first swim.
Yes, I think the enormity of what I have done has only just now started to sink in. I’m so glad to be able to tell people I have swam the English Channel, I feel I can finally say I’m a real marathon swimmer now I’ve swam the Channel.
What does your training and racing year look like generally? Do you work it out with Harley?
For the rest of the year it will just be a big training block really. I have a few smaller races here and in New Zealand that I’ll be doing but that’s about it. I tell Harley what races I want to do and we work out together what the best plan will be to get there.
If this isn’t too difficult a question, what would say were the key components of your success? (excluding pilot)
The extra weight I put on, drinking all my feeds, and the encouragement I got the whole way from my crew.
How much stroke/technique/out of water work do you do? I know from talking to Harley you changed your diet, decreased running, to put on weight, he said it decreased your recovery time and illnesses. What are your thoughts on it?
I’m not a very strong swimming, just very rhythmic. This is why I do two weight sessions a week to get me stronger and that in turns helps with my stroke.
Yes, I believe having the extra weight on helped me recover faster from training and races. It also helped with recovering from sickness!
How do you plan and deal with all the travelling and living on two sides of the world?
It does get a little hard sometimes living in Australia because we are so far away and it’s so expensive to travel anywhere but in saying that it’s so fun travelling and racing on the circuit!
You and Harley seem like a really close team. How have you both previously dealt with the adversity of people not believing in you? I don’t think it’ll be a problem in the future.
I think the best way to deal with people not believing in you is to prove them wrong!
Everything I saw you do was 100% connected to getting you to France quicker. Swimming, feeding, technique, positive thoughts and encouragement. It was an awesome display of comprehensive scope. How did you learn to focus so much on the positive mental side ? Any tips there?
I believe the only way to get better at focusing and thinking positive during a race is to practice it as much as you can.
World Championships next year. I think I can win a gold medal there!
Can I crew next time? :-)
Definitely, you and Owen. I am going to book in again for 2014, around early September or late August. I believe I can take another 5 to 10 minutes off the record!
Finally Trent’s got some new t-shirts ..
Well folks, that last line isn’t a bluff, Trent is actually in the planning process for 2014, hopefully Owen and I will be there again, and therefore so will you be, if loneswimmer.com last that long.
Wayne’s narrative in grey on the left, Paul’s in green on the right.
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 effectivelyhave 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 anawful 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 and3.0 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 sternquarter 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 boatahead 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 twocyalumes 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 whohammered 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 clearlytold 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 adecent 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 skippersounded 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Guest articles are one of the huge joys and honours for me in writing loneswimmer. I always feel lucky to feature one of them and privileged when people agree and I to get to read them in advance.
Chris Bryan is from Shannon, Co. Clare (west of Ireland, origin of the Irish Coffee!) and is Ireland’s first international 5k and 10k open water swimmer. His training base is the High Performance Centre [HPCUL], University of Limerick Arena in Limerick, one of the two High Performance swimming centres in Ireland. He’s in his fourth year of college studying Sport and Exercise Science and was born in 1990.
FINA World Championships 2011, 5km, 8th place
LEN European Championships 2011, 10km, 11th place
First Irish man to qualify and compete for European Championships (2010) and World Championships (2011) open water.
LEN European cup 5km, Turkey(2011): 1st
LEN European cup 10km Israel (2012): 3rd
A minor one, but if I’m not mistaken, I think he also holds the lap record for Sandycove Island, has been unbeatable when he has raced it.
Draft remaining 2012 Schedule: Olympic Marathon 10km swim Qualifier- Setubal Portugal June10th. That’s next Sunday folks!)
Great East Swim- Alton Lake, Britain 16th June
German Nationals- Großkrotzenburg, Germany 28th and 30th June Olympics 10km, London, 10th August
Belgian Nationals- Hazewinkel,Belgium 26/27th August European Championships- Piombino, Italy 12-16th September
I3 swim series- Kilaloe, Ireland 22/23rd September
I’m delighted to contribute towards LoneSwimmer.com [not as much as I am - Donal]; hopefully it will help me to reconnect with all the real open water swimmers at home. I’ve currently fallen out of the Irish national circuit as sadly most races I have had my eye on seem to clash with my international commitments.
I’m currently training in the High Performance Training Centre in the University of Limerick under Coach Ronald Claes. The centre is broken into development squads which hope to feed swimmers into the main ‘Elite Squad’ in which each athlete has the opportunity to compete at the highest level internationally.
The Elite squad program involves up to 10/11 swim sessions on a regular week.
Training starts in the morning on deck at 5.10a.m., where 20 – 30mins of dry land work is done.
Dry land involves:
Skipping (used as a warm-up).
Sit ups, back ups and plank variations. (To increase core stability strength and endurance in the pool to provide optimal streamline).
Shoulder endurance exercises and push ups.
Hand paddle stretch cord work. (Technique focus and strength endurance / power work).
Then to the pool! In the morning this can be from 5/6km up to 17/18km, all depending on time in the training cycle & season and the week intensity! Of course all swimmers in the squads are broken up into their groups based on their race distance. (Sprint / Middle / Distance / OW)
In the evening we begin at 2pm if we have a gym or circuit training, or 2.30pm if we just have a choice of land warm up/loosen out before the swim session. We begin in the water at 3pm. Distance in the evening is usually less ranging from 3 to 7km.
Post all swim sessions a certain amount of ‘pre-habilitation’ is always carried out such as flexibility and general stretching, muscle control and core strength. Of course this includes shoulder control and stability work. Swimming is not a natural movement! We were not designed to rotate our arms thousands of times a day above our heads! (On average we’ll say 35 strokes a length and for 14km/280 lengths a day, in other words 9,800 times! And that’s a relatively low estimate personally)!
I do a lot of Internal and external rotations with a theraband twice a day after every session,
3×10 reps each arm working concentrically for 2 seconds and eccentrically for 4 seconds.
For me personally I find that if I go a few sessions without this I get a constant ‘niggling’ in my shoulder which is just something I can’t afford to worry about.
The Elite Squad is supported by a coaching, sports science & medical team:
Full time coach
Strength & conditioning
All areas which are of importance to high performance sport and development. Some support is used more than others but they are all vital ingredients on the way to success at the highest level.
I am very privileged to have such a structured and fully supported set up, I have been to many world-class squads over the past few years and have seen the training base of some of the world’s best and I can confidently say that in UL through the support of the Sports council, Swim Ireland and the University of Limerick we have the facilities to compete with any one of those international set ups.
Still there are no short cuts to success - only hard work and attention to detail and “Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period.” (Lou Holtz)
Having confidence in your training regime and confidence in the staff is essential, it’s hard enough getting up at 4.35am without having to ask if I’m really doing the right things in training, it’s a blind faith in my coach that I need. Studying Sports Science does gives an extra insight into my training and often helps me get that little more out of myself when I know ‘this I what I need to do to succeed’ , but it also raises many questions and doubts, but I very much have to emphasise that just a little bit of information sometimes can be a bad thing. So I leave the worrying up the coach and blindly follow!
One question I often get asked is about the major differences between pool swimming and open water, they both can be broken into 2 main areas in my opinion:
Stroke: A higher and more relaxed stroke is essential for the open water. In the pool stroke length is of huge importance for swimming fast and count strokes per length cannot be under estimated, for open water the focus on training a higher rhythmic and comfortable stroke rate often out-weighs the need for stroke length based on the constant changing environment of open water.
Race perspective: In the pool there are 8 lanes all the same length, same width and with the same amount of water in each, really from a purely physical aspect it is non-contact and nothing the competitor beside you does can affect your race, this is a constant environment. In the open water every race is different, competitors, course, temperature, chop. This constantly changing dynamic environment makes things a lot more uncertain and ‘race smarts’ become very important. There is of course always going to be a little bit of luck to each race, but the thing I find about luck is that, the harder I work the more I tend to have of it! It’s also not by chance that the best guys always seem to come out on top!
The basics of both in and out of the pool though are not so different, the technical aspects of the stroke, the physical conditioning, and fast swimming! The 10km marathon event is the Olympic distance and on average the pace would be 66-68 seconds per 100 m long course [Donal's added emphasis]. With the last 1000m being the fastest and the last 400m being about 4 minutes at the top level.
I have always considered myself a hard worker and am a very driven person but one major lesson I have learned over the past two years is the importance of smart training. It is of course to train hard and to the best of you abilities but if there is no structure or no time for your body to adapt and recover from the training it doesn’t matter how hard you train!
I find the above graph very important, training isn’t just about what you do in the water or in the gym but what you do outside of training is just as important! It’s a 24/7 career, if you don’t recover appropriately then all the hard work will never be as effective. I try not to obsess about this but rather make sure to follow a few rules of thumb:
‘Golden Window’ Within 30 mins of post train need to eat a snack including carbohydrate and some protein (banana and a yogurt drink.)
Have a main meal within 2 hours post session. (Carbohydrate focus)
Morning heart rates. Can be a great indicator of over training or oncoming sickness before it’s too late and you can quickly adjust intensity.
Pre-habilitation. (As discussed above.)
If you’re not in 100% fitness you won’t be able to train 100% . Cut your losses and adjust intensity.
First we make our habits, then our habits make us.
This year is an exciting year obviously being an Olympic year, especially for me as it is probably as close to a home Olympics that I’m going to get. The qualifying procedure for open water is a hard one and slightly complicated.
Olympic Games: 25 athletes for Male and Female
Olympic Qualifier, race 1 of 2: World Championships 2011, 10 athletes qualified, the only opportunity for 2 athletes from one nation to qualify, 2 athletes from both Germany and Russia made it in the top 10. The average age of the Top Ten was 28 years.
Olympic Qualifier, race 2 of 2, Portugal June 10th: There are 15 more places up for grabs. A Top 9 finish guarantees qualification (only 1 per nation). There is then one spot allocated for Great Britain and then one place (5 in total) are allocated to each of the next highest placed competitors, one from each continent after the 9 already qualified. In the case where there is more than one per nation in the top 9, the second place will be reallocated to the 11th place finisher and so on (per continent).
There are 62 entires for the race at this point and a lot to play for. Training has gone amazing this year and I’ve left no stone unturned and have made sure to put myself in the best possible position, so now I just have to be confident in my preparations and know what I’m capable of and if anyone else thinks they deserve to qualify ahead of me they sure as hell are going to have to work for it! Qualifying won’t be easy for anyone in this race no matter if you’re World 25km or 10km Champion, 1500m Olympic Champion, English Channel record holder, they are all in there, but for me I can’t possibly imagine anyone wants it more than me, or has worked as hard or as smart! “There’s only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything!’
I hope to continue in this chase to pursue the chance to reach my utmost potential. After this year I hope first to finish my college degree and manage to juggle my training and athlete lifestyle around it. Even though my schedule is a hectic one, I am someone who loves to have structure to my life and I will always have goals and certain aspirations in which I will strive to achieve, be it academic, sporting, family or business. This sport of swimming has already afforded me so many positive experiences and has made me into who I am moulded me to become the best I can be in all aspects of my life. It’s given me contacts, friends, colleagues, the opportunity to travel the world and meet and talk to some truly inspirational and amazing people. Ever since I was young I dreamed of being able to compete with the best in the world and always knew I could. It is that deep self-belief that keeps me going through disappointing results, and grows from the good. I hope to continue to achieve and compete at the highest level and by no means intend to sell myself short. Who knows what the next few years will bring if by Rio de Janeiro 2016 I’ll be challenging to achieve at the pinnacle of my sport.
Reminder again of Chris’ Twitter and Facebook accounts. And everyone? Let’s all wish him the best for next Sunday’s Olympic Qualifier and the London Olympics.
Jennifer is one of the 2012 Sandycove Channel Aspirants. This year’s Aspirants recently took to the water of the Source pool under the direction of Cork English Channel supercoach Eilís Burns for an overnight swim as part of this year’s training and Jen provides us with a fantastic and honest swim report.
There is often some bravado associated with Channel swimming, it is in fact often necessary, but I have always felt it is vitally important that we swimmers be completely honest about the difficulties of training, lack of sleep, weight, food, the exhaustion, the relentless mileage and grind of a training schedule and frequently training and swimming on day when you are mentally or physically ill-prepared. Profuse thanks are therefore due Jen for her super and honest report. You can follow Jen on her blog. And I both wish her the best and am fully confident of her ability to triumph in the English Channel.
That was my mother’s astute diagnosis of the evening’s symptoms when I described them a few days later. Hydro Nervosis. It did seem to fit – I had finally developed the long anticipated allergic reaction to pool swimming. We were talking about my disaster at Eilís Burns’ all-night-torture-and-head-wreck-athon, as I affectionately referred to it. Not its official title, it was more like Endurance swim in aid of the Moses Foundation. However, being my selfish self, I didn’t consider its (hugely successful) charity aspect until well after the final curtain.
By the way, hello, I’m a 31-year-old from Cork and I’m hoping to get away with swimming the English Channel this summer. My training regime began with Eilís seven months ago and I’ve gone through a meltdown or two since then, one of which I’m going to talk about here. However I have to say I’ve found her training though on the surface insurmountable, with the right attitude doable and my technique and stamina have improved hugely because of it. I just wanted to put that out there before I start this tale of woe.
The horrible torture fest was scheduled for Friday the 9th March in Source Leisure Centre, and was organised by Cork’s own Iron Lady, Eilís Burns. Swimming would begin at 10 pm and continue through the night until 6 am. Distance wise I knew I’d be okay, but I was utterly clueless how to prepare for this overnight thing. Everyone kept warning me about the hour between 3-4 am, when everything is suddenly a lot tougher than it was moments before. Whatever, I didn’t really buy this. Eilís’ instructions were: train as normal, go to work as normal, don’t try and sleep beforehand, arrive tired. Oh, and her training group had to stick it out for 6 hours, then we were “free to leave”. (Hah! She knew damn well peer pressure would make us stick it out til the sweet and sour end). Again I ignored the advice - I took it easy all week, left work early that day and napped beforehand. I felt as ready as ever but nervous as hell. Besides the advice, I wasn’t really sure what it would be like. I’d heard rumours that the session would be sets of 100 metres over and over and over… how monotonous, how long, how awful!…I was just praying that wasn’t true.
It was true. Lanes were allotted times to complete the 100s…2 mins, 1.50 , 1.40 and lanes for those insane enough to jump out onto turbo-trainers after an hour, or run around the dark car park like escaped inmates howling at the moon….but I’ll leave that for another guest blog, I can’t even contemplate it.
Right so we’ll set the scene…the charities have given their talks on how great we are to be doing this. Jennifer, standing poolside in her togs, per usual before any gala, race, interview, social interaction even, is starting to get that tightness in her chest, heart inflated to twice its size, pumping self-doubt and adrenaline into her fingers and teeth clamping dread down hard onto her already lacerated tongue. How did I get into this situation? The talking is done and Eilís is telling us to get into our lane-of-choice. I have selected the 1.50 lane as it’s a speed I’m confident I can maintain for 8 hours. But by the time I’ve organised my drink bottles, etc., I notice that the same decision has been made by small crowd of others as well, with only 3 people setting off in the 1.40 lane. Eilís tells me I’d never handle the pace. I get in.
There I was, swimming with the top guns in speed, albeit at the very back, and actually kind of, I’m afraid to say it even now since I know how this pans out but, enjoying the pace. My fellow Channel Aspirant Rob Bohane is in front of me, which is reassuring…not that he’s not Speedy Gonzales himself, but I’ve swum with him before so it’s not totally unknown. Time flies and I gradually move up the ranks with people falling back for a few laps. However, my nerve-anaconda gradually tightens my chest and though I normally have no issue with peeing in the pool, find myself unable, despite the usual build up of downstairs pressure. This becomes quite uncomfortable to swim with yet all I can think about is how I’m going to have to give up soon (my problems, besides anxiety snakes and interior plumbing, were all mental. Fitness and stamina wise, I had 12 years of Eilís experience in Cork Masters and knew I was fine, what was my problem?)
Finally we reached the 10 km mark circa 1 am. Everyone stopped to take a break, refuel, chill out, but not me. I worried if I stopped that would be it, so on I swam, keeping to the times. I didn’t really think about taking a break, I just wanted to zone out and try to relieve the tension in my chest. And my bladder. But could do neither.
About an hour and a half later we were well into the second lot of 100s and I was up near the front. Carol (Cashell), resident speedster, suggested I lead out for 10. I took off at her signal and apparently upped the ante big time. A few pointed out that I was swimming too fast but it fell on deaf ear plugs. I was way too hyped up and thought swimming faster might ease my anxiety. When my ten 100s were done and the next person took off, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten anything, or peed, for nearly 5 hours. It was sometime after 2 am and I was not feeling too hot. I figured it would be a good idea to eat some blueberries that were soggifying in a nearby container. Bad idea.
Suddenly the act of swimming was making me feel ill. A couple of laps later that horrible sickly stomach feeling that I know from solid Friday- night experience (different circumstances) that there was a time limit before everything within a mile radius would be covered in puke. Exit stage left to the bathroom. I’ll save you the details but the result was like a gory scene from the Ribena Chainsaw Massacre. I decided to take a break, maybe eat something starchy like a bagel and try to goddamn pee.
Five minutes later I felt back to normal and ready to swim! Back into the 1:40 lane and belting away, when halfway down the pool I wanted to belch forth with more gusto than before. I got out and repeated the events of Act One. I felt better. I got back into the pool, energised and ready to roll. Start to swim, repeat (literally). I recycled this ritual a few times, wanting to get back to swimming but being stopped by my body reacting this way. Eventually I gave up by moving into the 1.50 lane at about 4 am. Again, as soon as I’d start crawling along (at the back) I’d start to retch. I’d stop and feel better but very queasy. Luckily there was a 15 minute break around 4.30 that saved my ass. It allowed me to calm down and get a grip. Eilís announced that the swim would end at 5.30 so we’d only one hour to go. Never had an hour seemed so long! I cannot even tell you what set we did or what stroke it was. I remember trying backcrawl and breaststroke at different stages to see if that would help but it was worse. Anytime I moved I wanted to vomit. Eventually Lisa Cummins produced some Gaviscon and although this made my stomach feel better, the urge to purge was right there waiting to return with a hearty slap on the back if I so much as floated. It just became a battle of will to force myself to swim and not get sick. I think I burned a hole in my throat. I would have gladly signed up for a unanaesthetised gastric bypass just to make that pukey feeling cease! Absolute nightmare.
Minutes plodded along on club feet. It seemed to be 20 past 5 for an eternity. But finally, joy of joys it was over! People clapping and clambering towards the Jacuzzi and the free food (which I noticed only now for the first time). Sweet thoughts of clean sheets and a warm bed at home… I had made it! It was over!…when I got the feeling of two pairs of eyes looking at me. Who was left behind only Lisa Cummins and Carmel Collins, two girls who this endurance crap for breakfast. I knew what they were going to say before they said it. If this night taught me anything at all it’s that I have a serious ego that needs serious deflating. First I jump in and try and play with the big kids. Now I’m left with an out after the most grueling torture of my swimming life to date, so just because these two nuts want to tough it out til the fat lady sings it doesn’t mean I have to!
We took it handy doing a mix of slow back crawl and breaststroke. I tried swallowing slowly and watching the dawn gently creep into the room. To be honest, this part was ok cause I swam very slowly and stopped a lot. I can’t remember finishing officially, just being in the shower and wishing I was in bed. I felt utterly beaten and dejected. Everyone was delighted they got through, I was miserable I’d messed it up so royally.
So that was it. My mom (who’s a nurse incidentally) tells me my hydro nervosis would have dissipated if I’d just eaten a banana. After I’d hung up the phone I was wondering if she was making up the term or just being a crazily optimistic mom. When I entered it into Google I got ‘Did you mean hydro nephrosis?’, which upon further clicking I find out it’s an early stage of renal failure due to a back up of urine or lack of magnesium (hence the prescribed banana).How scary! Was my body was trying to stop me swimming because I was damaging my kidneys? I don’t really think so, but I do think I need to chill out about the whole endurance/long distance thing. I swam through hours of nerves, stomach retching and an overloaded bladder for I don’t know how long and nearly ended up hurting myself, for what? My ego? My nerves? I know I was a misery guts for quite a while after the swim and thanks to everyone who gave me perspective. I mean, overnight endurance swim? Really not so bad if you just take a chill pill. And a banana.
Ned Denison is very much the rotational centre of the Sandycove group, and like a really big jellyfish, he has tentacles reaching out all over the world. To best describe Ned’s place, I’m reminded on an explanation by Mick Hurley, husband of English Channel Soloist and four-time Rottnest soloist and Magnificent 7 swimmer Jen Hurley. We were having dinner in Dover, Mick holding forth to the table (as usual), and we were talking about the Sandycove group.
Mick said that Sandycove was, de facto, a great place. For years, you’d have Irish people swimming there, everyone would be friendly and sociable, and would then go on their separate ways. But take just one American and drop him in the middle of it and almost before you know it, you have one of the most successful English Channel swimming locations in the world, you have organisation and success. Ned is the giant ball of glue from which the Sandycove island group grew.
He is an International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Inductee, also a committee Member for Santa Barbara Channel Swim Association, Manhattan, the Lee swim, and In Search of Memphre, amongst other things, not the least of which is his long list of swims, from English Channel and Santa Barbara Channel Solos, to Jersey France, Robben island, Rottnest, Round Valentia and Cobh islands (first time swims). He is the main force behind the internationally growing in reputation Cork Distance week, which if you want to tackle the English Channel from warmer climes, is the best week’s training in the world. For those who know him, he is also persistently confused by the difference between an email subject line and the body of an email text. It’s not unusual to get an entire paragraph in the subject line. :-)
This picture below is appropriate, it’s Ned doing the 2008 Irish Champion of Champion safety briefing. There are a bunch of Channel Soloists and future Soloists here, (Finbarr, Ossi, Ciarán, myself, Sylvain, Niall, Lisa) and including Kevin Murphy, listening. This is how we are used to seeing Ned.
Ned’s post here is sure to raise significant discussion in the worldwide swimming community. Make time to read and consider it. It’s important.
Open water swimming is exploding with a massive increase in events together with swimmer interest and participation.
Fantastic – however behind the scenes, the inadequate numbers of volunteers places our growth future in jeopardy.
My biggest hope for the future of open water swimming involves a shift as WE SWIMMERS NEED TO START VOLUNTEERING IN LARGE NUMBERS.
“But Ned you don’t understand – I am involved in the sport to swim and have fun with my mates. I didn’t get involved to kayak, take times, crew a safety boat or spend hours before the event finding boats/kayakers and taking registrations. Anyways – surely the €10 to €50 I pay for each swim must cover all the costs? I assume that all the worker bees were getting paid big bucks to support my passion.”
There are a few commercial events out there – but 99% of all the open water events in the world are staffed by volunteers – typically raising money for a charity or doing a civic duty or just helping their friends and relatives. They not only don’t get paid and they are generally out-of-pocket for travel expenses, food and often overnight lodging and boat fuel.
I like to make the example of a swimmer who just completed an English Channel solo swim.
First of all – well done!
Now consider how many volunteer hours YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF to reach your goal? The phrase “took advantage of” is a horrible expression but bear with me for a moment.
Here is a possible tally of the time others gave along the way:
9 days in Dover (start counting from the moment your 3 crew members left home to their return)
9 days*24 (hours/day) *3 crew = 648 person hours
“But Ned, this isn’t fair! Part of this time they were sleeping, sight-seeing, eating the fish and chips I bought and sunning on the beach while I practiced a bit.”
Do you really want to go down that line? They were away from their families, Dover isn’t a holiday destination and I haven’t calculated their lost earnings while they were off work!
The “official observer” for the Channel swim – yes they are paid a small stipend but the 15 hours you swam with another 5 hours of travel was hardly a “paid” activity.
=20 person hours.
Your 6 hour channel qualification next to a boat with 2 volunteers
2*10 (6 hours plus travel time) = 20 person hours
Your 15k race (you had a full-time kayaker plus 1/5th of a 2 person safety boat crew and 1/20th of the 10 event volunteers on the day plus the 100 hours it took before the event to get it all organised
Your 5k races (let’s assume you had 10 in the previous 3 years) where you have 1/20th of a 2 person safety boat crew and the 10 event volunteers on the day plus the 135 hours it took before the event to get it all organised.
Grand total 800 person hours – or think of it as 100 person days (8 hours a day)
Hang on then because this is just the start – or all at the small end of the total.
I didn’t count your swimming buddies who took turns to swim (at your speed) for the previous two years. Having done a few 7am Sunday support swims myself, I can assure that they count as “volunteer hours”!
I also only counted the swimming related volunteer time – so your partner who covered 18 months of extra duties at home and with the kids – you need to work that one out yourself.
YOU CHANNEL SOLOERS OWE 100 PERSON DAYS (8 HOURS A DAY)
For those swimmers who ONLY take part on 15 events a year and do not do the marathon swims…you still owe!
Your 2k races where you have 1/20th of a 2 person safety boat crew and the 5 event volunteers on the day plus the 80 hours it took before the event to get it all organised
15 events* ( (2 crew*4 hours)/20 + (5 volunteers*4 hours)/80 swimmers + 80 hours/80 swimmers) = 24 person hours (3 person days at 8 hour/day)
YOU CASUAL 2K SWIMMERS OWE 3 PERSON DAYS (8 HOURS A DAY) – EACH YEAR
The numbers don’t lie. The logic is correct.
We swimmers know, deep down, that lots of people are involved so we can have our event.
For the vast majority of the swimmers – YOU ARE NOT PAYING BACK AT ANYTHING LIKE THE LEVEL YOU NEED TO MAKE IT BALANCE.
I am just back from the Rottnest swim – and even deeper in the hole myself.
Jennifer (Hurley) helped the local organisation, and her family collect me at the airport etc. (ok they are friends – but still takes time) = 40 person hours
Clive (kayaker) paddled in 2 training swims and discussed the plan over coffee = 8 person hours
Clive then drove 2 hours to get to the location, stayed overnight, launched at 4:45am and paddled 5.5 hours (now let’s forget the time to have a pint!) then travelled back on the ferry to get home = 12 person hours
Mike piloted the boat and Barb joined me in a training swim and then crewed = 30 person hours
Then finally the Rottnest team of 100 strong put in (at a guess and probably low) 10,000 organisation hours – thankfully I can divide this by the 2,500 swimmers! = 4 person hour
So – another 94 person hours I have to pay back. This gets added to the debt from the previous 30 long swims and 200+ short swims….at 54 years of age I am not sure I have enough time left!
Owen is one of the really special young people we are occasionally lucky to meet. Another Sandycove swimmer, Owen was the youngest ever Irish person to swim the English Channel at the age of 16, and not that but was blazingly fast. For those of us infected with the Channel bug, we understand how extraordinary this is, as for most of us our age is actually an advantage to completing the Channel, giving us reserves we badly need, and few of us would think seriously about such a task at such an age. In fact he and Lisa both had Lance Oram as pilots, and Owen was getting off the boat when Lisa was getting on.
Not finished there he also completed the Gibraltar Strait last year, organises the annual Blackwater swim, (now a big swim in our local calender), has been a recipient of a National People Of The Year Award, has been the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association representative for the south of Ireland, is organising this year’s Irish Channel Party (a big deal) and continues to complete a series of first-ever swims along the Irish South Coast such as Around Sherkin Island. He is hugely popular with our whole group and I’d like to say I swim with him more but I can’t keep up with him. Oh, he’s currently in college.
It’s an honour, as always, for me to feature a guest post from him. Unsurprisingly for those who know Owen, his post is very considered of the future of open water swimming in Ireland. And I feel confident that with Owen, Chris Bryan, and another young swimmer in our group, Billy “The Phenom” Mulcahy, the future of Irish Open Water Swimming is in good hands.
[T]his post [..] reminds me of when I had my own swimming blog and never used to update it! The though of having to write full sentences just scares me. Anyway, I’ve started now so I might as well keep going…
“If you could change one thing about this sport, what would it be?”
For anyone that loves the sport of open-water swimming, it can be difficult to think of anything that you might like to change about it. However, I’m sure that most people would agree that one very positive change would be to have more people taking part in and enjoying our sport in Ireland. In other places, e.g. South Africa, Australia, USA and Great Britain, open-water swimming is well-established and popular sport. Why then, aren’t there more people enjoying the sport here in Ireland, surely one of the world’s greatest swimming locations?
I’ll leave you to think about that for a while. As usual, it’s taken me ages to start writing but now that I’ve started I can’t stop!
In my experience, there are a number of long-standing barriers that prevent many people in Ireland from getting the chance to even get a taste of the sport. It must be said that these barriers are held up from both inside and outside the sport, that’s what makes the so strong!
One of the main barriers preventing people from sampling open-water swimming for themselves is the stereotypical view of the sport. Many people outside of open-water swimming do not even see it as a sport, they have visions of an elitist, misogynistic, backward pastime where high-minded, overweight, old and middle-aged men take a weekly skinny-dip in the sea to escape from their families and remind themselves of how they’re made of steel. I’m not joking, that is the typical Irish view of open-water swimming. People obviously don’t want to be associated with such activities so avoid real open-water swimming also. Hopefully the televised Olympic 10 km is helping to change this view.
Local authorities believe that jumping off of piers and bridges in GAA* shorts in June is open-water swimming and this has prompted them to erect “No Swimming” signs at favourite swimming locations all around the country. I have on occasion been cautioned by people associated with the local council for swimming at one of my main training spots!
Certain conservative elements within our sport would rather keep it all for themselves. One of their main methods of doing this is by enforcing an outright ban on all wetsuits, and when they are forced to accept wetsuited swimmers they insist on leaving all non-wetsuited swimmers start first in races “to make them feel more important”. I heard that last quote at a meeting and was shocked that the organizer of the swim in question was praised for this! The use of a handicapping system and the enforcement of ridiculous age limits are also widely used techniques to prevent growth of the sport.
The single largest obstacle to increased participation in open-water swimming comes from outside the sport itself but from within the aquatics spectrum. Since open-water swimming is essentially swimming in any location other than a pool, pool swimming is the natural feeder sport for open-water swimming in most parts of Ireland (surf-rescue is a big feeder in counties such as Clare**). Due to the respective age profiles of the two sports, one would expect to see a natural progression of many young swimmers from pool swimming to open-water swimming. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ireland. Many swimming clubs in Ireland have very negative attitudes towards open-water swimming and are not one bit pleased about their members taking part in open-water swimming. Some have begun to spread myths to swimmers and parents about how bad it is for their technique and their muscles, etc. I know of one club which is currently going down the line of expressly forbidding their members from swimming in the open-water! How is our sport supposed to survive without a steady flow of young blood and fresh ideas?
At a national level, Swim Ireland gives the impression that open-water swimming is nothing but a nuisance to them. The largely technocratic National Open-Water Committee seems to have been completely disbanded and, to the best of my knowledge, we only have one high performance place for open-water! That swimmer, by the way, is Chris Bryan – best of luck to him for the coming season! A serious change in attitude is needed at a national level.
Well, that’s pretty much my rant about what the problem is. In [the next part] I will try to offer some solutions and highlight where efforts are being made…
So now that we have established what the root causes of the problem are we can figure how to fix it? Here are a few of my own suggestions:
We need to change people’s long-held view of the sport. How do we do it? Organize more swims and get the local community involved so that they can see for themselves what the sport is really like. We can also encourage people to watch the Olympic 10 km in London this year so that they can see competitive open-water swimming at the highest level.
Educate local authorities on what our activities involve and convince them that we are responsible, safety-conscious people who are not an insurance risk to them, i.e. they don’t need to bam us from swimming!
Convince conservative elements within the sport that increased participation is a good thing and not a threat. There will be a few who will want to keep the circle small so that they can just keep “passing around the trophy”, diplomacy will not work on them. Lift all of these unnecessary bans on wetsuits so that we can include those who simply can’t swim without them and triathletes. End the use of handicapping, especially for large races as it leads to potentially dangerous situations at the end of a race, and let’s get back to the common sense idea that whoever is fastest wins! It’s nice to win something every so often but who cares once you’re having fun?
Encourage club swimmers to try open-water swimming. Trying it isn’t going to hurt them, if they like it then they’ll stick with it, if they don’t then they just stay in the pool, what’s the big deal? In my view, every club should have a water polo squad, a diving squad, a synchro-squad and an open-water squad. I would love to see all swimming clubs progress to becoming aquatics clubs, I can see this benefiting everyone!
Swim Ireland need to some to the realization that open-water is a legitimate aquatic discipline and as such it is entitled to appropriate coordination and funding. Given the opportunity, I think open-water could be a potential area of medal winning for Ireland at the Olympics.
Maybe these might work, maybe they mightn’t, who knows unless we try? Have you got any ideas of your own? If you do, please share them with others and let’s grow this great sport. It has so much potential here in Ireland, let’s do it some justice…
Now that I’m almost finished, I’d just like to acknowledge a few people who have done a lot for open-water swimming:
Ned Denison – has done Trojan work in recruitment of both swimmers and event organizers and has encouraged so many people around the world to set big goals, and achieve them. Always leading by example, Ned is himself one of Ireland’s most accomplished open-water swimmers. Without him, the Sandycove group would not be what it is today.
Marie Murphy RIP – of Newry & Mourne SC gave the last few year’s of her life to developing the very successful Camlough Lake group in Northern Ireland. She encouraged so many young swimmers into the open-water and did so as part of the club program. She also set up the Junior Championships at Camlough with Pádraig Mallon and these have been very successful.
David Walliams – much loved comedian, swam the English Channel in [I think] 2008 for Sport Relief UK and subsequently swam the Straits of Gibraltar and the River Thames, raising millions of GB£ for charity. His high profile swims have shown the public what our sport is really about.
FINA and the IOC – have done an awful lot in recent years by running high level open-water races all around the world. Giving the top athletes an arena as they have is always raising the profile of the sport and gaining respect for the top competitors.
Finally stopped writing. Oh, I just remembered that I would like to thank Donal for letting plug my event:
Getting blood from a stone would have been easier than getting this article out of Fin. He was the first person I requested to do a guest post, a very long time ago, and many times since.
Fin is Sandycove personified (along with Mike Harris, Lisa, Ned, Stephen Black and Imelda). But don’t tell him I said that or it’ll go to his Cork head! :-)
Fin was born with the affliction of being a Cork person, so therefore he already knows he’s better than the rest of the world by default, since everything good in the world can be found in Cork. (It pains me as a Tipperary person to agree).
In his video tour of Sandycove Island below, towards the end he mentions a beach on the island that the Channel and marathon swimmers use for a feed station. What he doesn’t tell you is that it is actually known to us as “Finbarr’s Beach”. I can also tell you that you should never try to pass Fin on the inside going round a buoy if you don’t want to learn to swim with a partial concussion. (I speak from experience).
If you go to Sandycove, Fin will be there. Therefore go to Sandycove.
I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see the loneswimmer’s recent tweet that his website was now two years old; this meant that it has now been nearly two years since he started badgering me to write a guest post. Yet I couldn’t think what should mark my entrance into the blogosphere, my channel swim was so long ago I only remember bits and pieces of it and I’m not training for anything in particular at the moment; so nothing there to touch on. However I still retain a real grá* for swimming; it’s something I want to do nearly every day of the week, so maybe…
My swimming is based at various locations at the moment: I work in Clare during the week so I train with the masters section of Ennis Swimming & Lifesaving Club; I play water polo with the Cork Water Polo Club so I come down once a week to Cork to train with them and afterwards I join with the masters session of Sundays Well SC. But when the weekend rolls around there is only one place I like to swim and, despite the fact it’s January, this can only be in the sea around Sandycove Island, outside Kinsale in County Cork. This weekend I completed my 916th ever lap around the island, and I’m delighted to say it places me at number 5 on the leader-board of Sandycove laps. Later this year I hope to join Steven Black, Mike Harris and Imelda Lynch in the exclusive Sandycove “M” Club when I complete my 1,000th lap.
So for my first guest post I whipped out my new waterproof camera (thanks to my sister for the Christmas gift) and thought I’d introduce you to the Island we in Cork love so much (I must apologise before you watch it the team behind the movie especially the director, camera man, and script writer were fairly poor) and look out for the cameo’s from the loneswimmer’s hero Lisa.
And there you have it, a little intro for those of you yet to visit and a reminder for you who’ve already been.
“I can still remember the day I first believed I could swim the Catalina Channel. Growing up as a swimmer in Southern California, I idolized Lynne Cox and was captivated by her book, “Swimming to Antarctica.” My family took many trips to Catalina Island, and on the ferry our dad would egg us on, saying, “You know, people swim this channel.” I considered myself an open water swimmer, but to me that meant a weekly ocean swim in the summer, a few 1-mile races, and because I was a super long distance swimmer, the 3-mile Gatorman at La Jolla. How that perspective changed…
A good friend of mine who was training for Catalina convinced me to do a 10K in Santa Barbara. I was skeptical – I’d swum 10K in a pool plenty, but there’s a wall and a bottom. The ocean? I wasn’t so sure I could do without. When we arrived the morning of, I was so nervous I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do this. Sure enough, as soon as the race began, all my nerves and doubts were left on shore. Dave and I raced the whole way, always within 25 meters of each other. It was a soft 10K and took us just over 2 hours. We were neck-and-neck at the last turn buoy, but I had so much energy at the end, and much more kelp experience, and motored past him. After that swim, I was hooked.
I tagged along with Dave on so many of his training swims for Catalina that he finally let me join his crew. I started with him at midnight at Doctor’s Cove, pitch black aside from a few bobbing glow sticks. I was there when the hypothermia set in at the 6-hour mark. I was again in the water with him when he lost his feeds and sobbed. I watched with horror as the observers demanded he count backwards by odds from 13. He struggled. I felt the energy on the boat deflate. Four painful hours later he climbed those slippery rocks at Terranea. With Dave warm and safe on the boat, the crew cheered and celebrated as he stared off into space, in a dull fog. Looking back, I have no idea why that experience encouraged me to do this. Somehow, and thankfully, that day, as messed up as it was, convinced me I could swim Catalina. I also knew I would swim it in a very different way.
I committed myself to training that very next day. I pestered Dave’s mentor, Jim Fitzpatrick, until he graciously agreed to help me. Luckily for me, Jim is generous with his time; I had much to learn. My goals: to swim Catalina, and to be in high spirits the entire time. A tall order.
I soaked up all the advice Jim and other great marathon swimmers had to offer. I was concurrently working on my graduate degree in Sport Psychology, and I picked the brains of every professor at Cal State Fullerton who would spend time with me. I prepared for everything I could possibly imagine happening. Night swimming, sleep-deprived swimming, nauseous swimming, energy-depleted swimming, painful shoulder swimming, cold water, choppy water, crawling over kelp, you name it. My longest training swim was 85% of the distance of Catalina and 88% of the time I ultimately spent in the water on my day. Every crew person was required to spend some time with me in the water – either as a swimmer or kayaker. I worked the mental game too – using imagery most nights to visualize the start, the finish, and swimming in the middle, on top of 3,000 feet of water. I had a routine before ocean swims that helped me let go of other things, reminded me of the purpose of the swim, allowed me to be present, and ultimately got me into the mental state I needed to be in. I had ample opportunities to practice letting go of frustration, anger, pain, and distractions on long swims. I used systematic tricks, like focusing on a specific part of my body or repeating a pre-determined word or phrase. After swims, I discussed with my main kayaker (my mom) what went well and what we could do better.
The day I believed I could swim Catalina was a year and 8 days before my attempt, but when I stood in the pitch black at Doctor’s Cove, I knew I could swim Catalina. I reminded myself of the massive amounts of smart training I did, and all the discomfort I endured along the way to get there. I reminded myself of whythis swim was meaningful to me: Catalina was a symbol of family and it represented the romanticism of marathon swimming as I knew it at the time. I went through my routine, and began.
9 hours and 2 minutes later I had achieved both of my goals. I had swum Catalina. More importantly to me however, I was happy the entire time. It was the only swim over 3 hours where I had absolutely no low point. There were times when I actually smiled in the water at the simple thought, “I’m swimming Catalina!”
Before Catalina, I had intended to be a one-and-done swimmer. Do Catalina and move on with my life. As they say, the bug bit. It wasn’t even that I needed to do the English Channel, or any other particular marathon swim for that matter. I just needed the training, the ocean swims, the lofty goals, my training partners, the marathon swimming community in my life.
As 2012 begins, I have set my sights abroad. This season will be a busy one, with Molokai in March, the Strait of Gibraltar in early May, Jamie Patrick’s Swim Camp in Northern California in late May, Ned Denison’s Long Distance Camp in Cork in June, the English Channel in July, and perhaps another mysterious swim after that.”
I started swimming before I started school, in fact I can’t remember not being able to swim. I swam competitively in Leeds reaching a high level, 1977: achieving English record -1500 free, 1978: representing GB at the European Juniors – 400 free , 1979-1981: GB senior international – 400 & 800 free……….all in a pool !!!
I rarely swam outdoors and never in lakes. I really hated anything touching my feet and wasn’t that keen on cold water! After a long break from any swimming, I began swimming masters in 1997 and once again started to compete in a pool, sometimes outdoors, but still in a pool. The FINA world Masters in 2000 were in Munich and my roommate was doing the 5K open water so I decided I would give it a go ….well I managed to win my age group and thought “hey this is OK!” (the course was a rowing venue). At the next two FINA world masters (2002 and 2004), I again did pool events and also the open water event, which I won on both occasions – they were both sea swims but very calm! I treated these races like pool races and raced straight to the front of the pack and hung on there for dear life. They were only 3K, but they definitely gave me a feel for open water swimming.
In 2006, I was still racing in the pool but started to get bored, many of my goals had been reached and I needed a new challenge. A chance conversation with Lucy Roper (a seasoned open water swimmer) while waiting for a 1500 race in Swansea’s 50m pool got me interested in the Channel. I had long debates with myself about the Channel but didn’t think I would ever be able to do it as I hated swimming in the sea, hated slimey things touching me, hated the dark and got really bad sea-sickness ……. However, another part of me was fascinated with the journey it would take me on and I thought if not now…………when??
The 2006 FINA World Masters in Stanford was a mixture of amazing racing in the pool and a superb 3K open water swim in San Francisco bay – it was a great course…… silky smooth at the start, then into waves and then a wind pushing you in at the finish. It was exhilarating and that was when I said to myself “I want to swim to France”.
I was invited to swim in the Lough Erne Relay in June 2007. This was to be my first real open water experience and it involved swimming in the dark – so I had to conquer one of my fears! It was great to be amongst seasoned open water swimmers – but I was such a novice! At this early stage, I realised how different open water swimming was from pool swimming. Everyone was so encouraging – it was never about how fast you swam, it was all about COMPLETION …this was all very different for me . I had numerous years of pool swimming, when I always swam to win – no matter what.
During 2007, I was Middlesex County President and I presented an award to Kevin Murphy, who is a member of a Middlesex club. We got talking about swimming, as you do, and I mentioned my plans to swim 2-way Windermere. After he enquired about my swimming history, he said open water is very different, harder than you can imagine, pool swimmers find the transition very hard…etc etc. I got the feeling he didn’t think I could do it…..andthat was like red rag to a bull ……!
In August 2007, I took part in the BLDSA 2-way Windermere (21 miles). This was to be my biggest test so far. In the months leading up to this swim I had been training in the pool (to keep some speed) and also doing long, continuous swims in the open-air Lido at Parliament Hill. It is an amazing Lido – unheated, open all year round, 60 metres long and 27 metres wide. This training served me well – after 10 hours 34 minutes, I completed the gruelling 21 mile swim. It was hard in so many ways – the darkness, the mind games I had to deal with, the cold, and the doubts and of course the fear. My crew was great as the conditions for them were tough (it poured all night) and only five out of twelve swimmers finished. I can honestly say I was so scared during the whole swim, never before had I been scared whilst swimming and the unknown whether I would actually finish the swim was very alien to me. In the pool I had always known that I would be able complete the race whether it be a 1500m free, 400IM or even 200 fly – all these events I had swum as a youngster and also as a masters swimmer – but this was so very different.
At this point, it dawned on me that I was actually OK at this open water swimming thing and that I would swim the channel and I would reach France.
On July 26th 2008, I landed on the beach at Wissant, France. I had done what I had set out to do. The time didn’t matter. I had completed the task in hand. Some aspects of the swim hadn’t gone to plan, but that rarely happens in open water swims.
How does this compare to my pool swimming accomplishments? In my eyes, you simply can’t compare the two. Since the Channel, I have completed Lake Zurich and numerous other lake and sea swims. I continue to train in the Lido and the indoor pool. I have gone back to pool racing during the winter months, but am struggling to feel the same sense of accomplishment. In the pool I have achieved some great times and set some great Masters records…….but there are so many great open water swims for me to complete….so I think my heart is still in open water swimming ………for the moment anyway!
They say that mastering the channel is 20% swimming ability and 80% psychological. Never a truer statement has been made and I believe this also applies to the majority of open water swims.
“Success or failure is caused more by mental attitude than by mental capacity” – Walter Scott
There are swimming legends around the world. Little known outside our sport. Some past, some current. In a country with a very small population of only four million, Ireland is only occasionally successful in International Sport, and we celebrate our sporting heroes as a consequence.
But in Open Water Marathon swimming, we excel.
World Open Water Woman Swimmer of the Year for 2010 was Anne-Marie Ward. Lisa Cummins was nominated for the same for 2009 for her astonishing Double English Channel. Julie Galloway-Farrell, whom we’re happy to claim as our own, is nominated for Performance of the Year and Ned Denison, (Irish to all intents and purposes, don’t let the accent fool you), is a 2011 Inductee of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.
And in this group is Stephen Redmond, from West Cork, currently pursuing the Ocean’s Seven, with the Gibraltar, Catalina, English and North Channel’s already behind him and an unsuccessful Molokai also. (Irish Open Water swimmers respect the North Channel above all others). This year Stephen ALSO soloed Fastnet Rock, never previously done, (Ireland’s Teardrop, so-called because it was the last shred of Ireland so many emigrants saw as they left for the shores of America).
Sailors the world over know of Fastnet, notorious for its winds and rough water, the turning point in one of the world’s toughest yacht races. (This year, a group of us, all serious and experienced open water swimmers, were to attempt a Fastnet relay, and in four periods of waiting, we never got weather that would a relay could swim, which can tolerate much rougher water).
Stephen writes below about his incredible year. I feel humbled and proud to just be able to read this and share it with you.
2011 has been a serious and busy year. Looking back, I have met some incredible people who have helped me get this far. I have worked with and sought the advice of people around me who have shared, encouraged and kept me going when I really thought I could not go on. My wife Ann, my kids Steve and Siadbh, Ann’s mother Delia, my brother Anthony and my family, are the rock where it all starts. These are things we all rely on and fall back on when we have nothing left and they have gotten me through to the other side every time.
My first swim of the year came suddenly in May when a slot opened in Gibraltar. A friend of mine had a slot for early May and the Gibraltar swim association had agreed that I could also swim the same weekend. Doubts whether we had enough training put in and very little open water swimming done, all had to be put aside as we entered the water in Tarifa in Spain.
Dave Williams was Feeder/animator for this swim. With one swimmer of either side of the Rib we only had a five or six-hour window of opportunity for this swim. The wind had blown a steady Force 4/5 since we set foot in Tarifa.
You all know the drill. Being so early in the season we were the first to attempt Gibraltar this year.
Factors that made it a really tough swim were that this was Ivan Holloway’s (also from Stephen’s home town of Castledermot, Co. Kildare) first Channel swim, time was short, we both stroked at different rates, and every time we stopped for feeds the boat asks us to go faster. These all eat into you until you think you are swimming like a beginner, sighting constantly for the point boat, and a false sense of security, with the water being so calm.
We soon realize that the reason we are being forced to swim hard is the mental (Editor’s note: crazy) tide and currents that greet us when we get closer to Africa. I seriously think we are going to have to get out, as we cannot see the point boat or Ribs for long periods, and tanker traffic is constant. Miraculously we get in in five hours. Dave joins us for the swim into the shore and we all realize how lucky we are to have made it.
I KNOW NOTHING – Home & Fastnet
We regroup at home. Friends Dave Williams and Noel Brown are incredible, shouldering the organisation of the next swims. The logistics of getting to these distant swims weighs heavily, and much of my time lapping Lough Ine (above) is taken up with this.
Steve Munatones has a lot to answer for, putting this mad crazy idea into my head after we completed the North Channel. A lot of work goes into trying to make the swimming effortless and efficient as possible. Time is also given to the mental aspect of the swims as I find this a huge part of the swims. If I allow doubts into my head they tend to block out the positives and build momentum like a chemical reaction. I try to put my head in a freezer, locking down all ideas except; the finish of the swims, what will it be like?; what will be the taste and temperature of the water?; what kind of beach?; making the last stroke that propels your hand into the land; and the blinding clarity that it all makes sense for a second before you realize that it’s over.
A lot of experimenting with kicking, feeds, gels, and kit. All take time, and training is like a war as much as possible when I have time then work, and home, FAMILY. Then start again.
We decide to go for Catalina in October if I can get a slot. So the summer is very busy. I need to get a decent build-up swim and my old obsession swim come back to me of swimming around the Fastnet Lighthouse, either from Schull or Baltimore.
We eventually decide to try Baltimore around the Fastnet and into Schull. Taking advice from Denis Griffin, a local fishermen who tells me I am crazy. But we already know that his knowledge is beyond belief, advising that it can only be attempted on slack tides and that we have to reach the Rock at a certain time or we can forget about completing, the tides being so strong and weather so quick to change out there. The shortest distance for the swim being 24 miles, it is a monster. But I need to test myself so we know we can face Catalina. Questions about whether it is to close to the swim are there always.
As I train another insane idea come to mind and I wish they would stop but it seems to be the way.
Could we ever go onto Hawaii and Molokai and attempt it if we are successful in Catalina?
I know forcing swims is a recipe for disaster but having discussed with my doctor and support team and looking at the possibility of completing the Seven Channels and making it a Irish and World First and competing with some of the best elite swimmers in the world is bloody daunting but worth a try. (I will have to stop listening to the voices, I think they are trying to kill me).
We attempt the Fastnet swim on the morning of the 17th of October 2011. Calm weather and sun greets me and seeing as this is the fourth attempt since July, just to get in the water, I thank the gods. The Fastnet Yacht race is still in full swing, it being only two days since a multi-million yacht lost its keel and over-turned at the rock, so we have to be careful to keep out of the way of traffic out there, as if there was not enough problems.
My support team are friends who have all completed Ironman Triathlons but as we have the briefing for the swim and I describe what is going to occur, and what they may have to do, they all realize this is a daunting task. When I tell them that they cannot let me back onto the boat unless I am dead, they realize that it is going to be a long day.
Long eventful puking, sick stomach, begging to stop, but they never once panicked and were brilliant in the extreme. We ended up swimming 26.5 miles in thirtenn hours and thirty minutes in water temps of 12 to 14 Degrees Celsius, (53.6 to 57 Degrees Fahrenheit). Never had so many prayers and deals been made to never swim again if we got this swim. And utter disbelief as I rounded the pier in Schull to see Denis Griffin on the pier.
Through the tears in my bloody mask we had both waited a long time for this moment and still I wonder how we did it.
I KNOW NOTHING – Catalina
Training goes on as we approach Catalina with great fear. Getting to these places is the hardest thing of all.
And as we finally get into LA. we realise we are on the edge. The hotel is right on the water, near our boat so meal and bed. In Los Angeles another Irish contact Brian Carmody helps with the hotel and our recovery strategy if we intend to go onto Hawaii.
One day’s rest and prepping and it’s onto the boat for a steam over to Catalina Island, to start the swim at 1.00 am. I am in denial as this is the first time I have ever got on a boat to swim at the time booked for swim. Normally the wind follows me wherever I go and we are always hanging around waiting. I’m shocked. So little time to rest after flight, preparing kit and gathering stores for the boat.
We have an engine starter problem which is fixed and we are not delayed too long, nerves jangling jangling, thoughts of “have we taken on too much, so far away from home?”. Enough. We try to sleep going out. It seems a long way. Jesus, nerves. Given a shout up by Anthony, my brother and my traveling companion. The poor bugger is suffering with sea sickness. A long delay at the start trying to get us in close to shore. It’s really really dark. At last we are in.
I got pretty cold standing around and try to swim in over a kelp forest. In the end I swim/roll over them. After jarring my shoulders in the kelp I reach land exhausted and this is only the start! Not a good feeling.
I swim with a paddle-boarder next to me from the Catalina Swimming Association, which is new to me, and awkward and hard to see and avoid the board. Gracie is talking to me which I am not used to and I feel she is trying to tell me something or I should stop. Stroking at about 54 strokes per minute but the phosphorescence is like a welding arc under the water. Jesus, bad news. First feed down is a bit slow as it’s done off the board, I’m not enjoying this. The doubts, the doubts. This is their golden time. After hours Forrest Nelson (Editor: another Nominee for World Open Water Male Swimmer of the Year) comes in. I am amazed by the care taken by the Catalina Swimming Association. It is humbling to come half way around the world and meet strangers who will do anything to see you succeed and indeed Forrest, and Marta my observer got me through the monster.
I can only assume the journey and the quick lead into the swim affected me but my stomach locked up and six hours in, I treaded water for 15 minutes pleading to stop….
Never a ladder down, nothing. In the end Anthony pushed the one button that he knew would stir anger and a refusal to quit in me. He explained to Forrest to come out to me and quietly tell me that my kids had just called to see how we were and they had said that I should not give up. The tipping point of the swim. How did Forest know this?? Middle of the channel cursing them all, abuse flying, it was such a surreal moment that I had no other choice. A Milky Way was flung to me and I just put my head back in the water and got going again.
Utter joy and humility are what we should all feel . This swim bought them. We finished in twelve hours and thirty minutes to cheers and much laughter. At this point I did not want to see water again for a long long time. No way was I going to Hawaii!!
Great to meet the man who was a huge help to us in LA and with the rest of trip and future swims as well. We stagger back to room and collapse to black sleep for six hours.
I KNOW NOTHING – Molokai
Waken early to texts and calls from home. I feel neither here nor there. A call from home tells me to try one day of recovery before deciding to come home. After all we are so close and have our deposit paid on boat. Discussions with Anthony and Steve Munatones and support team at home. By the end of the day I feel pretty good. The warmer water has not taken as much as the cold water does out of my shoulders. Next morning we decide to go onto Hawaii and arrange flights and accommodation. I have to cancel Catalina thoughts for the time being and begin a blank page for Hawaii. It’s pretty hot here. We get into the hotel very tired from flights but realizing we have three good days to prepare for the swim.
These days go well and I feel strong and recovered. I swim in the sea every day. It’s very salty and the waves have incredible power. The Skipper is okay for Wednesday so off to Molokai on Tuesday. Nerves in overdrive again. You are even further from all we know and are the phones are not really working here, so little contact with home. I tell you the hardest jobs are the support team. Remaining positive and getting me through swims and airports is an unenviable task. We get to Molokai Island and the hotel. We are in the wilds now, that’s for sure.
We meet the skipper and steam around the island around five thirty A.M.. I start greasing up. Dark, dark, dark again. Into the water after a briefing and into the island over reefs. I get taken by waves and slammed. Spear tackled and scratched badly. A disaster, I lose my goggles and cap. Violent stuff,a bad start. On the beach, I scout around to see if there was anyone up. Nothing, so I signal boat and start to swim out to get spare goggles and cap. The first two hours go in a flash, the water great and warm as a bath, the feeds are great, this is good. My left eye got a fair doing from the water and is closing up. But time to get on. I swim just under eight miles in the first two hours. Great.
Then gradually the water and swell starts to get a lot rougher. Anthony tells me on the next feed that we are getting hit by a strong head current and large waves. Molokai was having fun with us. This swim was different again. Jesus, I shorten strokes to deal with swell and increase rate. The boat is a fair distance away looking for better water to see if we can get away from this awful current. The first shark wander into view. Nice clear water, I can see them a long way off. Bugger. What is it? Why it is that it is smiling? Bloody film’s bloody music. In the end it has no interest and wanders off. Lots of small jellies, stinging away. Amazing clarity in the water but the waves are like being caught and thrown like a stick and we are up to our necks in it this time. Feeds continue great, I feel much better than Catalina and full of energy. After around nine hours, which I judge by the sun on my left, the skipper is having problems holding the boat as I feed with waves coming over the side of the boat. Poor Anthony is soaked. He tells me we are nearly half way but making very slow progress against this current. More sharks and tuna all day. I’m long getting used to it now.
We carry on, constantly sighting the boat. You are on your own with your own thoughts but my head is very positive. We know nothing about pain really or how far we can really go any way. On to darkness now and still in huge swells. The next feed and the Skipper delivers an ultimatum that we are just over half way. Eleven hours into the swim and have another fifteen hours to complete , he is not happy that they are losing sight of me on the boat for long periods of time, which I did not realise. I decide to swim on, to see if we can get out of this cursed current.
At the next feed, we talk again and he tells me that he has never seen a current like this in the Channel. Anthony is distraught, knowing that we must come out on safety grounds. There have also been a lot of sharks scouting around for the last few hours or so.
Terrible to be honest , the Skipper tells me he cannot guarantee that I will not be lost, even with a shot of glow sticks on, and advises me to come out after eighteen miles and eleven hours and thirty minutes. The steam back is very long and very quiet. We clean up and chat and realise the water beat us and we could have gone on for many hours.
A steep learning curve indeed and we have learned so much for when we come back. Which we will.
I KNOW NOTHING – 2011
The whole year has gone so quickly and we have met great people and learned so much. I am delighted to be nominated for the WOWSA swim award I hope you will vote for me and we will complete the remaining Channels next year. I hope for your continued support and realize how lucky I have been. Great people, great water, great swims and so many great swimmers . We have all come too far to fail. Thank you for your support.
When I posted my deposit for my Jersey swim, it was so far away that I didn’t have to think about it too much. I was confident. I had just finished my Lake Zurich swim, my body felt great and life was good! Jersey wouldn’t be a bother to me. Or so I thought.
Last spring, when all my sea swimming buddies were heading to the coast to train for their summer endeavours, I stayed behind. I had taken up running, which allowed me to (finally!) lose my channel weight. Twenty pounds of warmth were gone, and I knew it, and that scared me. I tried to rationalize it with myself, being that there are plenty of swimmers out there far thinner than I, swimming away without a bother to them. But that wasn’t me. As expected, when I started hopping in the sea, I was freezing.
“Ah sure, it’s early days, the sea’s on its way up”, my local High Rock swimming crew would say.
But I was cold, and with the cold came doubt. Over time I began to seriously question myself. My mind went from comfortable confidence to constant questioning. How was I, a Channel Swimmer, going to live this up? Instead of using the struggle as a chance to grow, I retreated. Any time I knew a sea swim was on, I went running, or did something else. It would have been the perfect opportunity to reach out to my amazing Channel community, but I didn’t. I felt alone.
I didn’t completely ignore the task at hand. I was in shape from pool swimming, and knew I could physically tackle Jersey. It was a mental thing, and as time ticked closer to my tide, I knew I had a lot of work to do. I’m a fairly realistic person, and I know myself pretty well. Time and time again, I would head to the sea, full of confidence and excitement, only to retreat a half hour later, freezing and miserable. It was exhausting, and I felt like I was seriously letting myself down. My spirit was pretty low, depressingly so. I was up during the night by this stage, my sleep haunted by the thoughts of being so cold out there, so alone.
So I made a decision. I’d discussed it with the famous Jersey boat pilot ‘Charlie’ Gravett. I still want to swim, but if it doesn’t happen, could I do a relay instead? He said that’d be fine. I was doubly disappointed; I’d already done a relay around Jersey the year before. Doing it again wouldn’t really accomplish anything, in my eyes anyway. The box had already been ticked.
When I arrived to the beautiful Channel Island, I was a royal mess. Everybody seemed afraid to ask me anything. My poor fiancé (now husband!) Dave was being as careful as possible not to upset me. Mentally, every thought was ‘Will I? Or won’t I? Yes? Or no?’ We headed to St. Catherine’s Bay the day before I was set to go off. My dear friend and Channel buddy Sakura was out there on her solo, getting it done. I was inspired. I hopped into the water. Not bad. Swam a bit…still, not bad! Okay, let’s do this. When my heroic Sakura arrived back, she looked great, and said she wasn’t cold at all. So I said it’s a go, see you tomorrow, I’ve got some eating to do!
I surprisingly slept well, and awakened excited. It’s go time! I was thrilled. We arrived and headed off soon after. I could already sense it was going to be a good day out there. The sea was flat, and the sun was on its way up. As well, I had full confidence in Charlie and Mick (boat crew) and my support crew Nick Adams and Dave. These were all positives, and I was ready to feed on positives. My goal, as the legendary Freda Streeter first told me in 2008, was to swim from feed to feed. Three years later, it’s still the best advice anybody has given me.
I still had doubts. As I said, I’m a realist. I knew the swim would take around 10 hours; I was barely into one hour. I had a long way to go. But any time I started questioning what would happen in the upcoming hours, a voice inside me appeared from virtually nowhere, and told the negativity to shush. I was out here to swim and have fun. Just keep swimming.
By hour four, I knew the swim had officially begun. I felt a bit tired, a bit cranky and a bit sore. I knew my pace was okay, but the doubt crept back inside me. I wasn’t yet halfway and felt like I had already put in a lot of my effort into getting around the island. I took a feed, nice and fast, and decided the upcoming half hour would be spent thinking about my swimming career. Lucky for me, I’ve been swimming since I was five. I started from the beginning. The summer league meets, starting year-round swimming like my brother and sister, qualifying for my state meet, winning my first state title, setting my first record…the works.
Things went amazingly well in my swimming career until I hit my late teens. Those were the low times. The personal struggles and physical setbacks. The depression. The tears. Before I knew it, I was taking another feed, but remained absorbed in my own past. Once my face re-submerged, I was back in that time. See, I quit swimming on a horrifically low note. I was so below my potential, and I knew it. Unfortunately, I was too despondent to care. I could not swim, nor could I walk, and as I hobbled around my college campus on crutches, I felt like a completely defeated person. Gone was the scholarship, gone was the prestige I once owned. I let it slip from my grasp, and I had never forgiven myself for doing so. I swam along, remembering those feelings, shedding a few tears in my goggles.
Oddly, I felt a pure sense of joy during this time. I knew the proceeding events were positive. I was anxious to relive them. I took another feed, all smiles and positivity. Back I went, to the silent environment owned only by myself, full of mindless strokes carrying me toward my ultimate goal. You see, during my final year of college, I decided I was going to move to Ireland. I had visited both as a teenager and during college, and was determined to get myself there. Why? I had no idea. When I arrived in Dublin, I had zero friends, zero connections, and definitely did not have my swimming gear with me. I realised my predicament soon enough, and knew I needed to meet people in the community. So I thought I’d go swimming.
I hadn’t touched a pool in many months, but within weeks, I had joined a masters team, and had taken my first plunge into the sea, freezing like a wet dog, but happy. Within months, I’d signed up to do the Channel. The following two years were a complete renewal of my confidence in myself both as a person and an athlete. I was nowhere near the speed I once had, but that meant nothing to me now. I was doing what I loved. When my arms touched the sand at Cap Gris Nez in France, I felt a feeling I never, ever wanted to relinquish. I felt, for the first time in years, successful. This was huge for me. When I arrived back onto the boat, I knew my world would change. And it did. But, being young, I don’t think I quite understood my inner strength.
Back to the present. I’m in extreme pain. My shoulders hurt, and every stroke feels like pins are going through my hands. My wrist feels broken. My face is tense, and I feel like every stroke is becoming less and less efficient. I am tired. I am in the final stretch, but that does not mean I am there yet. It is time for me to once again enter that place I went during my Channel swim, when there is nothing is left to give, and you’ve still got sea before you. I sludge on.
The lads smile down at me. I can’t smile back. I want to, but I can’t make my face do it. Too much effort. I continue. I don’t know how long it took, my mind is unreliable, but finally, after hours of effort, I could see the finish. I shook my head in disbelief. I would be, in a matter of minutes, finished. Despite the pain, I could smile.
Jersey was an amazing, altering experience in my life. But being the fastest person to ever do so is secondary to the lesson it bestowed me. After my Channel swim, I still did not understand the inner strength I had. It was my Jersey swim that showed me that. I’ve realised that doubt can be a good thing, if use it in a positive way. I didn’t realise this until the last minute, but I now know better. For me, being nominated for the WOWSA Performance of the Year is great, and I’d love to win it. But, really, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve already won with myself, and I can’t think of anything more satisfying than that.