There’s a discussion thread on the marathonswimmers.org forum called Tips and Tricks and I’ve been writing my How To articles for a few years. But here’s a list of brief random items I’ve learned that I threw together, which individually are too short for articles (right now anyway, who knows what’ll be possible mid-winter when I’m out of ideas). I’m pretty certain every other swimmer would have their own additions. More to come in the next article.
Never eat a curry the night before a marathon swim. No details are necessary.
It’s always all about the weather.
And the waiting. Never forget the waiting.
You can always pick a marathon swimmer out of a crowd based purely on their facial tan.
Never eat a banana on a boat in rough weather.
Seagulls are evil bastards. Their mimic all the things of most importance to marathon swimmers, such as other swimmers, boats, kayakers, dolphins and lighthouses, just to piss you off. If this is insufficient, some of them will try to vomit or crap directly on you.
Nothing is predictable in open water and marathon swimming.
You never feel as physically dirty as you do after a marathon swim. You never enjoy any shower as much as the subsequent cleansing.
When in doubt, add more food.
A bad or tough swim is more personally rewarding than a good or fast swim.
While in the long-term sleep is essential, in the short-term it’s less vital that you’d imagine.
There are people I’ve spent many hours with, whom I wouldn’t recognise without a swim cap and goggles. And visa versa.
Don’t believe that all the ones who do the most marathon swims are necessarily better. They sometimes just have more money. Like everything else in life.
Never go out on a boat without foul weather gear, regardless of forecast.
Just because you are paying someone two and a half grand for a day’s work, doesn’t mean they will treat you with respect.
No pilot is God, nor are pilots all of equal ability.
There’s more than one way of feeding, and more than one type of food.
Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.
So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.
Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary. At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.
The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.
In the English Channel it’s ZC2, in Manhattan it’s the Hudson, in Catalina it’s where the seafloor suddenly rises. The swimming hours before are just part of the price of entry.
We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.
One of the features of the North Channel according to Quinton, is that the final couple of miles outside Portpatrick are almost always bad, a local feature of the confluence of wind, tide and currents, a micro-climate different to the rest of the Channel. A good day very rapidly degenerates and the swimmer is fighting a maelstrom of white water and waves from seemingly all directions.
Fin was fighting onward, but on the boat we finally knew he would make it. He knew he would make it, because there comes a point where it makes less sense to give up than to continue, because you have already invested time and pain.
Portpatrick was clear ahead and slightly to starboard, buildings clear in the late afternoon sunlight. All along the coast were the empty hills and the wind turbines that had been vaguely visible for hours. Killantringan was north-east of us, but we were south enough to get swept in. He would not, could not be stopped now. Two laps of Sandycove, the Metalman to Tramore beach, one full lap of Dover Harbour. He would, he could.
At 5:05 we gave Fin his feed and I got to say the magic words, the words every swimmer wants to hear, the words every crew wants to say: “This is yourlast feed“.
Craig and I discussed which of us would swim Fin in. I told Craig he should go as I’d swum both Sylvain and Gábor and others in and I wanted to photograph the finish.
At 5:45 p.m. as Craig gets ready, I make my final note of the swim in my notebook to that effect. I’m stood on the bow, my Dad’s old football whistle, now a feature of all swims I crew on a lanyard around my neck, whistling and shouting. We’ve been pushed just to the north of the small bay between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Craig, proudly wearing his yellow CSA Channel Swimmer’s cap, (as I wear my own orange C&PF Channel cap) jumps over the side at two minutes to six. His instructions from the ILDSA observer Gary and Quinton are clear. Don’t swim in front of Fin or touch him, from Gary, and given the usually dangerous cliff finish of a North Channel solo, get Fin to touch a rock and raise his arm, that’ll be enough, (standing wouldn’t be necessary, or possible) from Quinton.
Craig is on the far side of Fin within seconds, and we’re only a hundred metres from the rocks. They disappear behind waves, appear a couple of metre closer to the shore. I try to get them both in frame, the waves, the angle the boat rocking, the zoom, all make it difficult. Closer still, I see Craig and no Finbarr, then Fin and no Craig.
Craig is at the cliffs. Where’s Fin? And then there he is. Three or four metres away from Craig, Fin touches the cliff and pushes off on his feet trying to raise both arms, he looks like he’s pushing off a pivot turn and heading for the second lap. It’s 6:01 p.m. July 7th and Finbarr Hedderman has swum the North Channel.
Not sure if the waves have blocked our view of Fin, Craig tells him to raise his arm again. I get a shot of him like that, but I prefer the above photo,the real touch. Because it doesn’t matter if wasn’t elegant, it was real, it was what he worked for. Elegance, clarity, zoom and photographic composition are less important than the reality. The swimmer thinks of that touch, visualises, works for it, swims for it, dreams of it. The entire sport, all the words and the images, all the endurance and time are in that moment. The suffering is over, the pain vanishes, the coast is reached.
Touching an unnamed bit of rock on the Scottish Coast, never before touched by a human, probably never to be touched again, Finbarr is Neil Armstrong, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Edmund Hillary reborn, even if there are only two friends, a pilot and a crew there to see and appreciate it.
At 6:02 p.m. and back safely on the boat with Craig, Fin announces his retirement from Channel swimming.
He lasts a full six weeks in retirement before he shares his next idea with me. But I’m not telling.
Finbarr had neither cold water nor jellyfish in the North Channel. He took a calculated risk based on training and his known capability to go early and he didn’t even have to fall back on his cold expertise. Yet his North Channel was unexpectedly tough, because sometimes the biggest challenge is ourselves. Two weeks later, though the weather stayed warm, a highly experienced Channel swimmer was pulled semi-conscious from the water. The water temperature had dropped five degrees.
Two weeks after Fin’s swim, he said”it means something to me, I just don’t know what yet“. I know he was surprised, even shocked, how much it had hurt mentally, and how hard it was. For years he’d joked how he’d forgotten his English Channel solo, but said after his North Channel that he’d remembered during the swim when memories of difficulty returned. It’s the nature of pain that we must as animals forget it when it’s not present, otherwise any species would never survive.
The mystery of the North Channel has been evaporating for the past couple of seasons. Aspirants no longer need to be successful English Channel soloists, and some North channel swimmers have recently completed it at their first marathon swim. The people approaching the North Channel already now include some less than experienced individuals, such as the one who though they could get on the boat to feed and wanted an artist on board to paint them while another crew member played the flute. I am not making that up. Like the swimmer pulled semi-conscious from the water, this also happened in the early 2014 season after Fin’s swim.
Quinton’s piloting makes swim time and the route more quantifiable. It makes the North Channel definitely quicker than the English Channel, and of course it’s shorter, with a more defined time envelope. Success rates have risen dramatically in just two years, though the overall numbers remain small for now, limited by the changeable weather as always and the mere two boats in the fleet, with the other main constraint associated with Channels swimming, appropriate tides. If the current demand for North Channel swims continues, which seems likely, then the fleet will grow and a few more years will tell us a lot more. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third pilot-boat operate in 2015 or 2016.
Of all the things I know or suspect or feel or hope about marathon and Channel swimming, one of the most important things I know is that, trite as it sounds, every swim is different. Profoundly, fundamentally different. Maybe it takes a crucible swim, one of those swims that puts you to the question, to make you realise this, as I realised this. Sitting on a boat, as crew we laugh and fret and chat and even worry. We don’t, we can’t, sit there and let ourselves inside the swimmer’s head.
Finbarr and I share, as do many marathon swimmers, an interest in adventure books, specifically climbing and polar adventure. Maybe it’s partly because the literature about Channel and marathon swimming in limited. Journalists can write about mountain climbing or exploration, but who can write effectively about Channel Swimming, except Channel Swimmers? And that’s a pretty small number in global terms, something we tend to forget when we are immersed in the community.
Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, the tale of the opening of the Eiger’s notorious North Face, and one of the great true life climbing books is replete with wisdom for anyone either wishing to understand these crazy ridiculous adventures, or wishing to explain them. He quotes climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young: “The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. [...]. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….”
Substitute Channel Swimming for mountain adventures and the analogy is clear. When covering Channel swimming some of this applies. I can cover Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because I was there and it may stand for a generation, and no other swim will ever hold the same prestige. I covered Sylvain Estadieu, because even us Channel swimmers boggle at the idea of twenty-one miles of open water butterfly. In Part One of this series I wrote that I do these swim reports in part because I’ve had the privilege to be part of them and because these swims also allow me to bring aspects of marathon and Channel swimming to a wider audience, to share the fortune I’ve had to be part of them. But I myself by doing so have to be careful not to feed the idea that just because a swim isn’t a first or a record that it’s less important to cover.
Also, to retain your interest I split the narrative at appropriate points such as “That’s It, I’m done“. Such implies a dramatic point whereas in the swim it was part of a continuous linear event.
Like Lisa Cummins and Sylvain Estadieu, Finbarr set out to swim a two-way. Neither Sylvain nor Finbarr did, and not once I consider either a failure because they didn’t complete that goal. Each though did complete a crossing, as every Channel swimmer does, a feat of endurance and courage. As did the other friends I know and have crewed for and didn’t cover here. There’s a quotation from Homer that I haven’t used on the blog for a few years that seems apposite: “For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea“.To dream so large and then to attempt the feat has always seemed to me a triumph in itself and success of its own and each dream alone makes me proud to be a friend of each.
Channel and marathon swimming differs from tales of mountain climbing in some obvious aspects. The time frame is usually shorter, the possibility of safe extraction is greater. It’s not an us-versus-them comparison though, and few would understand the Channel swimmer’s motivation as would a mountain climber.
But for someone writing about Channel there’s a difficulty. Every mountain has immovable features and famous landmarks, whether it’s K2’s Serac or the Eiger’s White Spider. The pitons and ropes and ladders are still fixed and still used on the Hinterstoisser Traverse and Everest’s Second Step.
Channel swimmers only have pilots, boats, water, wind, currents and locations. No swimmer leaves their mark on a Channel.
The swimmer passes and the water’s surface is immediately wiped clear of their passage. The water holds no trace. Only the stories and legends live on and to his friends, Finbarr is a legend.
Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.
First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.
From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.
Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.
We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers. But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.
I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.
Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything. A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.
While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.
Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.
In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.
There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.
From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.
By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.
“That it,” he said, “I’m done“.
Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.
For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.
It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through. But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.
On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.
I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.
Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.
Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.
A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.
Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?
Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel. Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel, what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!
So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.
It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.
The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.
The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.
The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:
Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.
Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.
Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.
Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.
The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.
During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.
Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.
A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.
The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence. Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.
By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.
At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)
By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.
On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones in the world, was barely visible in the haze.
There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.
We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.
We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.
Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.
Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.
As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.
At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?
At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.
Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.
We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.
The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.
The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.
The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.
At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen. Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.
For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.
Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.
Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?
Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium. He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.
By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.
Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.
I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.
Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.
I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards. Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.
Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey for the wider swimming community.
The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere. While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.
Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard
For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.
His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.
When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.
Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.
Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now). Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013. One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.
At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.
On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.
Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us. A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.
We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.
He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:
“I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.
He still says it to me.
Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.
Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.
I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.
In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.
Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.
July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring. Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.
July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.
Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.
I live on the bank of one of Ireland’s longest rivers: The river Suir. At 115 miles length, you’ll appreciate therefore that Ireland is a small country. The river flows through three counties: Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford.
The river forms the Tipperary-Waterford border for many miles and features in the most famous Kilkenny ballad. But it is most commonly associated with Tipperary, probably due the rising on the slope of the Devil’s Bit mountain, and the meandering path it takes through the country and flowing through so many Tipperary towns, (Thurles, Cahir, Golden, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir).
I’ve lived on its bank on the tidal estuary for over ten years but I’ve never felt any interest in swimming in it. Indeed the first time I ever got into the river was a few months when I went in to rescue my aging dog from drowning.
The Clonmel to Carrick road follows the river and as the river’s cleanliness has improved over the years, and after having crewed and observed on Owen O’Keeffe’s Blackwater river swim the past two years, I finally decided last year that I might as well swim from Clonmel down to Carrick, 21 current-assisted kilometres.
After a couple of weekends of walking the various sections, due to other conflicts, we didn’t even know if the swim would go ahead until two days before. The swim itself occurred on the Summer Solstice, which proved to be the best day for crew availability, water temperature, and a compliant high tide, which tops out a couple of miles above the town. Though it’s not a true tide but a river backfill from the actual tide lower in the estuary, so it’s not as easy to predict.
I would liked to have been able to do something to raise awareness for the Swim4Good campaign. Swim4Good is a swimming-based project which seeks to use swimming as a social improvement tool. It was started by Mauricio Prieto, Emily Kunze and Susan Moody. In 2013, they raised an astonishing $100,000+ for a glodal literacy campaign. But with the short notice, and our lack of bodies to collect any for charity on the route, and a lack of response from the local radio station, wearing the Swim4Good cap and this paragraph, I’m afraid, is the best I can do for now.
I’m not doing a stroke-by-stroke blog post. The pertinent information is that I had Owen to observe and document and local Carrick distance open water swimming neophyte Conor Power to guide, each kayaking. Conor, like Owen, loves river swimming and knows the river Suir well. However, the temperature was cooler than expected at just over 13º Celsius for almost the entire swim, and I did feel it drop substantially for a mile past the confluence with the river Anner.
We started at 11.17am and I touched down beside some local alcoholics on the slipway at 2:59pm, first person to swim this stretch, in three hours 42 minutes. I’d estimated four to four and half hours of swimming so this was quicker than expected.
It felt like I hit every submerged rock between Clonmel and Carrick. There had (surprisingly for Ireland) been no rain for the previous week, and for most of the duration the depth was rarely more than waist deep.
Even with the changing banks, even with faster-than-expected current, even with Dee and the doglet popping up regularly on the bank, even with trying to dodge rocks and even with not succeeding, river swimming is boring. My legs and feet were bruised and cut. I even had a (small) laceration on my upper chest.
Every time I’d hit a really shallow patch, I’d have to stop kicking. But then my legs would sink and I’d hit the rocks anyway. I had to stand once to walk about three metres across just outside the village of Kilseelan and I had to bum-shuffle a couple of metres on the other side of Kilsheelan.
I saw five fish, one car registration plate and no shopping trollies. The river and water was clean. I’d entertained thoughts that if it went well, I might run it as a time trial next year, but it’s too shallow to run such an event.
I feel only ambivalence or even vague embarrassment about the swim. The geographical distance of 21 kilometres with current assistance was probably closer to only 14 kilometres in swimming terms, so quite similar to training swims many will be doing around this time. But my shoulders were very heavy for the last forty minutes and I was happy to get out.
I mostly feel like just shrugging off the swim, and don’t feel I accomplished anything, (which is no reflection of the time and assistance of Conor and Owen). I’ve never swum more than six hours in fresh water, and I still don’t feel that I’d want to extend that time.
Elaine Howley was swimming a 24 hour lake training swim in the US at the same time (plus much more) and reported having a great time. Thus proving indubitably (to me anyway) that fresh water is more likely to promote dementia than salt water. The sea does not engender similar feelings of ambivalence in me.
A similar duration ocean swim with less to see and less accomplished would be more enjoyable.
Once again my mind was wandering during a swim. I’d had a conversation earlier in the day with someone about the “giving back” aspect of open water, how most swimmers were also involved in some way or other in maintaining the community aspect of the sport, which in turn maintains the sport itself.
This led me to think about some unwritten rules of the sport, things that are implicit or taken for granted, or even often discussed but rarely explicitly written down.
One thing about a list such as this, is it contains items I myself think are important or should-be-obvious precepts or even may have a local Irish flavour. But I would like to think that while there may be more, all these are built into the underlying assumptions of open water swimming.
Rather than the assumptions of the culture though, I was thinking about, as I said above, sporting rules. Of course a rule that isn’t written down isn’t a rule. So what generally agreed guidelines do we or should we try to adhere to, that maybe need to be explored or explained?
1: If another swimmer is in difficulty, you must assist where possible. Forget the race, the title, your dreams, the sponsors. You are not required to put yourself at risk however.
2: Always think safety. The best safety decision are (yawn, here I go again) made outside the water.
3: Don’t cheat. Don’t lie or mislead supporters, sponsors, charities fans, media, friends or anyone at all, about what you are doing or planning to do. In a way this is the most common and unspoken rule of all sports, and observed by the breaking as well as by the adherence.
4: If another swimmer has a pioneering swim planned, do not steal it, by getting in before them, just to do it first. It doesn’t matter what your relationship is with the other person, this just shouldn’t be done.
5: You do not bootleg or pirate a swim where an official organisation exists to govern that swim.
6: Give back. Open water swimming is only possible through the actions of volunteers. Make sure you are doing something to help others, the variety of ways in which you can do so is very wide. You aren’t obliged to insert yourself into everything but you can organise an event, or maybe you can assist another. You don’t have to be a great swimmer, you don’t have to have a huge ego. You can be safety, marshall traffic, crew on boats, even write a blog. Hell, no-one knows better than a few of us that any average swimmer can get involved in something big. The range of ways in which you can contribute the sport is far wider than immediately obvious, and it’s up to you how you want to contribute, not to others to dictate to you. This one is less obviously a sport rule and crosses also into the culture domain.
I’m sure there are more I can’t think of right now. When I wrote the first draft of this, I thought of four items. Then I wrote another three months later. I’m pretty sure that the day this gets published, I’ll think of something else, and of course, the wisdom of crowds will think of more.
I had forgotten about the anniversary but I started LoneSwimmer.com on a whim on the afternoon of 18th of January, 2010. Little did I guess where it would lead.
Since then LoneSwimmer has grown year on year, and often month on month. It was viewed in 185 countries in 2013 though the countries that most read LoneSwimmer are the USA, UK, Ireland and Australia, in that order. English Channel aficionados will know those are the four biggest Channel swimming nurseries. It’s possible that LoneSwimmer, which amazingly won the inaugural 2012 award for the best sports and recreation blog in Ireland, may be the most popular entirely amateur open water swimming blog in the world! This is both gratifying and terrifying to me. Though as you may know I did once get some free goggles and paddles for review, nonetheless LoneSwimmer is just me, one average swimmer on the south-east coast of Ireland, still talking shite from the middle of nowhere (and making nothing from it). Let me mention up front here my invaluable behind-the-scenes editor, partner and second-shooter photographer and all round supporter Dee. The longer a post here is, or the more typos it contains, the less likely it is that Dee proofed it. Like this this one.
Writing LoneSwimmer has been challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, dispiriting, heart-breaking, seemingly never-ending, boring and exciting. Remarkably like open water swimming in fact.
I have a typically cynical Irish view of many things, including “mission statements”, but I’ve striven to keep the blog on the (extended) subject of open water swimming, and to keep anything else about me or my life away from here, and that has occasionally not been easy, because … life. My original idea for this blog was to share everything I’ve learned the hard way about open water and that has remained my guiding principle. It has also meant increasingly covering pool training aspects and ranging into entirely unexpected areas. I discovered over the four years that there many things that open water swimmers all know, but that no-one had written down. So there are other versions and opinions of everything I write, and I’d encourage you to keep those opinions, or to seek them out elsewhere or to write them down and publish them yourself. I’ve been asked by a few people about writing blogs and I’m always happy to share all the many mistakes and long learning curve I’ve endured.
I re-organised the blog in mid-2013 to index all the How To articles and they range in utility for all levels, from beginners to resources for Channel and marathon swimmers. The compliment I value most continues to be the simple “Thanks” from anyone whom I’ve helped by something I’ve written.
When I started I just knew my own swimming friends here in Ireland. Now I have swimming friends all over the world.
I read many swimming blogs, so many I had to make a separate fixed page of links for your ease-of-use. Sometime after I started LoneSwimmer, I came across another blog called Freshwaterswimmer.com by American Channel swimmer, Evan Morrison. (That link will take you to the newer version of Evan’s blog; Farther, Colder, Rougher). Evan had started Freshwaterswimmer.com within two weeks of LoneSwimmer.com.
Somehow, and I’m not even sure how or when looking back, Evan and I became transatlantic writing partners and collaborators. I suspect it was partially because Evan and I agree on many aspects of marathon swimming and the people and challenges involved, and neither of us like people hoarding information to gain some spurious power. As you know by now, that link with Evan led through various discussions with many people to the formation of the marathonswimmers.org forum by Evan, who is the site owner, and myself.
The foundation of marathonswimmers.org and the writing and release of the rules of marathon swimming may be the two most important swimming-related things I have or ever will do, though Evan and I are not finished with our ideas. We both believe in the democratization of open water swimming and the power of community input and ideas.
Whew. How did all this happen an average swimmer from and in the middle of nowhere?
My very first posts were about my local swimming area, Waterford’s then not widely-known but gorgeous Copper Coast. When people think of Ireland’s coast it is often the west and south-west coasts, but four years later the Copper Coast has now become better known and more appreciated. It’s a quiet, isolated 40 kilometre stretch of cliffs, intermittent coves and small villages, and it’s my playground. A small number of you have even come here to swim it with me and you are all always welcome to join me at play here.
My next post was about cold water habituation. Little did I realise that for four years I would continue to write article after article about cold water swimming. I collected those ongoing articles into a Cold Water Swimming Index in mid 2013 and was amazed to find there were about 50 articles on that subject alone to which I continue to add. Surprisingly only nine months later, the index page itself is now the second most popular, and the most linked into and referenced page on LoneSwimmer. Two of the articles on that subject are the site’s most popular individual articles, the perennial and humourous Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale and the eternal question “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in?”.
I’m not a naturally funny person, so when I write something humourous I get a special kick from it. I can’t draw, at all either, so I did one cartoon in a simple graphics package that I’ve seen appear elsewhere a few times since and I still think is accurate.
In 2011 I wrote an April’s Fools post that caused outrage across the Channel swimming world. I got some shall we say strong messages, which made me laugh all the more. I remember leaving the pool that Friday evening, to a phone that was almost red-hot with all the emails, calls and SMSes. DNOWS and many in Dover and elsewhere were all caught. That post is long deleted, I did a another one on a different subject in 2012 that caught many actual Channel swimmers but when I suggested to Evan that we combine our blogs for the 2013 version, we once again sucked in more people, including, again, the open water swimming media. A good April’s Fool’s joke should sting the victims, and hopefully made them laugh later. Catching people globally once was great fun, twice even more, but three times? Well I don’t know what that says about you all, or me. I am now retired form April’s Fool’s jokes.
I almost stopped writing LoneSwimmer in late 2013, as was obvious to regular readers, for what was and continues to be a combination of many reasons but for the moment, LoneSwimmer struggles fitfully on. Actually even this post has had three different revisions, one more negative, and one more positive, than this one. I never know where LoneSwimmer is going, I never had a plan beyond that original idea. Most often I have panic, when I think I have already written everything I could say. Right now, as I write this, I don’t feel like continuing, but tomorrow I may be different. I’ve learned to mostly ignore how I feel about it. Sometimes writing has been almost all I have had to hang onto.
One thing I do know, is that had I not started writing LoneSwimmer I would never have written the posts of which I am proudest:
My multi-part series on Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel records. Our sport to this day is still one that is essentially done in private and we still huddle around the electronic campfire telling stories of swims. It was a fantastic honour that both swimmers and friends allowed me to see firsthand and later tell their stories. I have other stories of other friends, which were not covered here, not willingly, but because I did not think it was my place to so do. These most obviously include Rob Bohane, Alan Clack, Gábor Molnar, Owen O’Keeffe and Páraic Casey. I love covering swims, and you know where to find me…
Part Five of the series on Diana Nyad: Probity & Integrity. Evan & I, as co-founders of the forum were dragged into the astonishing unveiling of the truth in the Diana Nyad story on that extraordinary thread which set international headlines. I had written previously about her a few times before this series, changing from being a fan and supporter into a cynic and eventually an opponent, while the swimming and regular media embarrassed themselves, again, with their unquestioning sycophantic acceptance of her duplicitous lies and bullshit. I’ve been saying recently when asked, that when you see a sportsperson whom is suspected of cheating, who has an asterisk beside their name in the records books, someone had to put that asterisk there. Someone cared, someone wanted honesty and integrity in their sport. I believe all us honest swimmers put the asterisk after Diana Nyad’s name and I am proud that that post seems to articulate something with which every single swimmer I’ve met has agreed.
The series on MIMS 2013. I think NYCSwim treated most of the 2013 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim entrants shamefully and things currently look no better for 2014. I put a lot of effort into covering what happened, once again doing a news story which none of the actual swim news sites covered ,especially since LoneSwimmer isn’t a swim news blog.
Much of what I write is intended to be functional and/or instructive. For example, when I wrote down the etiquette of lane swimming, I wasn’t saying anything new. Others had written similar before me and I was just exercising the demons that all pool swimmers are plagued by, when joined by people who don’t know what they are doing. A couple of years later, those rules have now been read thousands and thousands of times.
When writing you can’t always go to the well. You’d run dry very quickly, run out of things to say. Had I stopped writing LoneSwimmer early on, maybe I wouldn’t go the well at all. I certainly wouldn’t have written this post from just over a week ago which I think is the single best post I’ve yet written.
Had I never started writing LoneSwimmer, I’d also likely never have taken up photography. Luckily my tastes in photography tend toward the exact images that we open water swimmers enjoy, and which are often disregarded by others as mere landscapes. You can check out my Flickr page RSS in the sidebar and you can always contact me if you want prints of any photo here. For the record, this has never happened! I shall keep trying to get better.
I’m an average swimmer and resource-restricted so I don’t or can’t aspire to extraordinary undreamed of swims.
I’m Irish, where we as individuals are not encouraged to be proud of our own achievements and where as a country very many people are still in a very dark place, including myself.
Writing LoneSwimmer, friendships in the swimming community and your continued interest, all have allowed me to achieve and aspire to other things in swimming.
My name is Donal Buckley. Some people now even call me the lone swimmer. I’m a Channel Swimmer, and a swim blogger.
In November 2010, Cork and Sandycove Channel Coach Eilís Burns held one of her irregular brief seminars for prospective Channel solo swimmers for the 2011 Channel season.
It wasn’t an open-to-all seminar. Those attending were people who had contacted Eilís asking her to coach them. Eilís is careful in whom she agrees to coach, requiring a proven desire, a willingness to do the required work, and the temperament to do what she says.
As part of that seminar Eilís had asked four of the local Channel swimmers to attend and speak briefly on subjects of our own choice. The four were; Lisa Cummins, two-way English Channel solo; Imelda Lynch, first Sandycove and Cork female Channel swimmer and a local legend amongst Sandycove swimmers for her tenacity and tough training regime; Rob Bohane, aka The Bull, who as part of the Magnificent Seven, first attempted the Channel in 2010 a few weeks after me; and the fourth was myself.
I remember all the presentations with varying degrees of clarity. But my own and Rob’s are much clearer.
Rob had attempted the Channel in late August, a couple of weeks after Jen Hurley and I had swum, and within 12 hours of Ciarán Byrne soloing. Liam Maher, Jen Hurley, myself and Ciarán had all succeeded, the first four of the Magnificent Seven, with Rob, Danny and Gábor still to go.
All through training, and Eilís’ training regime for us was brutal, we became increasingly convinced we would be one hundred percent successful as a group. The Channel taught us all otherwise. Rob encountered the horrendous weather of which the Channel is still capable of throwing at Solos even with modern forecasting. Ciarán had gotten to France before getting shut out by the Channel but Rob ran into the full force of the Channel’s brutal face. After a dozen hours of swimming, Rob was pulled from the water by hos crew and later hospitalized with cold water pulmonary edema. That story continued because Rob recovered and on his second attempt in 2012 he was also denied with more horrendous weather. But he eventually prevailed and indeed Rob went on to set the Sandycove club Channel record. Less than the fast time, what is far more important is Rob’s journey to get there.
In 2011, following a visit to the Cork University Hospital Emergency by Liam Maher after a particularly … challenging, Sandycove Island Challenge race, a new Sandycove Island Swimming Club annual award was introduced for the most dangerous swim undergone or most damage suffered by a club member, known as the Hardship Award. I was the retrospective inaugural 2010 winner for my Channel solo, followed by Liam, then Rob, with Ned being the 2013 winner for the emotional damage he suffered for losing many of his records in 2013 to other club members. The not-at-all-coveted Hardship Award is a Hard Hat!
At EilÍs’ 2010/2011 seminar, still raw from the first crossing, Rob spoke eloquently of how he had a great family and life, and that if not making it across the English Channel was the worst that had happened him, then he was a very lucky man.
My own input was brief, I only wanted to say one thing really:
I told the assembled aspirants that the thing they most needed to comprehend themselves, that they most needed to discuss honestly with their partners or parents or family, is that solo Channel swimming is dangerous.
We don’t like to discuss this aspect. We like even to pretend otherwise.
In 2010 I had my own near-lethal experience in the Channel and then Rob had been hospitalised. Lisa had been hospitalised after her two-way Channel swim, Ned had been hospitalized after Santa Barbara. Four members from one club, and while I was the only one of that four not hospitalized the experience was no less dangerous. (BTW, as Evan once pointedly asked me, just where is the full account of my Channel swim, given the other swim’s I’ve covered? The answer is, it’s a long comprehensively written account and part a longer term project that may never see light and so may eventually surface here, Frankly the story is far too often told and repeated as a rumour in Ireland, such I’ve been asked, “did you hear about the guy who swam and the Channel and …”).
Let me repeat: Open water swimming is dangerous. To be responsible to the others we help, advise or even inadvertently inspire we MUST honestly acknowledge this. Channel swimming is especially dangerous.
2012 we lost Sandycove swimmer and our much-loved friend Paráic Casey in the English Channel. In 2013 the Channel swimming community and her family and friends lost Susan Taylor in the English Channel. I mean no disrespect to any others by not continuing a roll call, as part of my point is these are the dangers and losses incurred within the community of people I know myself. (I’d met Susan in Dover in 2012).
I looked at those people in Cork at the seminar and told them this was their first task as Aspirant Channel swimmer: To be honest with themselves and the people important to them. Open water, Channel and marathon swimming is dangerous.
Regardless of our experience and skill, the sea particularly is a vastness beyond us. To accept this and the inherent risk is to improve our ability to survive.
If you can accept that fact, integrate it as well as it is possible for anyone who thinks they the measure of their own dreams, you have taken a significant first step to being a real open water swimmer.
After that seminar, one of the attendees, who had been present with their partner, decided against the Channel. As someone who encourages open water and Channel swimming, I considered and still consider that a good result.
I am obviously not against people being open water swimmers or setting their sights on extreme swimming goals or following dreams. But I do strongly believe that you should do it from a prepared base. I will not help someone whom I don’t think takes the risk seriously.
I’m (mostly) a lone swimmer. As a consequence I am not reckless (despite views to the contrary) but consider carefully both my own abilities and thresholds, and each day’s conditions, and weigh each and every swim before I start.
By accepting the existence of risk and hazard (the potential outcome of risk) we actually gain another tool in our repertoire. By being brave enough to stand our ground and know when not to swim, when not to risk our limits is to know ourselves.
No-one swims, or at least no serious open water swimmer, with the thought of not returning, any more that mountain climbers or polar explorers do. But the possibility is part of what makes open water swimming what it is and a properly cognizant open water swimmer is pursuing a type of existentialism, not fatalism. By realising that understanding our constraints and boundaries and the immutable superiority of nature, which we don’t actually conquer, but temporarily deceive or elude, you are making yourselves a more capable and adaptable swimmer.
We humans cannot avoid applying patterns, recognising changes, marking time, and marking time. We impose arbitrary markers, and the years begin and pass and end with signs and notifications, anniversaries and announcements, resolutions and changes.
In 2012 Evan Morrison and I started the marathonswimmers.org forum. Evan and I believed marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers and the wider community of observers, fans, friends and others, needed someplace to connect, to make friends, ask questions and get answers, to essentially catch up with the online times. Nick Adam’s Google Channel Chat Group already existed but we wanted to supplement/improve the email-only format and build a public online space, something outside the constraints of a single organisation and outside commercial interests, and so the forum was born.
In the lead up to the formation of the forum there was a lively email discussion about the possibility of forming some kind of umbrella marathon organisation amongst a group of fairly well known swimmers, (and me, the Zelig of open water swimming!). Almost everyone came to the conclusion that this was not currently possible. This discussion was part of the origin of the forum.
With the forum now just coming up on its second anniversary Evan and I have not forgotten our desire to progress the development of global community of open water swimmers, and especially those of the marathon persuasion.
Some events of autumn 2013 showed that our sport was still woefully misunderstood by the wider public and media. Swimmers were even willing to deliberately mislead the public and media and use and abuse the loose and collegiate nature of the swimming community to further personal aims and in the process tarnish long-held traditions.
In 2013 Evan, (whom for those who don’t know him, is a creative powerhouse) had suggested we revisit our original intentions. And so we set out to write a draft umbrella set of marathon swimming rules with a core set of authors, comprised of Andrew Malinak, Elaine Howley, Evan and myself.
Over the course of a few months we edited and expanded and rewrote those rules, circulating to a wider global group for appraisal and criticism, before arriving at a final set by year’s end. Quite a few people from around the world contributed comments and feedback to the various drafts, they are named on the document and we thank them all.
So it is that with both pride and enthusiasm the four authors confidentially release the marathonswimmers.org global:
This is a set of guiding standarized rules and is the only such global rule set. If you wish to understand or use marathon swimming rules, barring accidental omissions in the writing, this set is as close to a core global set as we believe possible.
The rules have been peer-reviewed by many experienced swimmers including marathon and Channel swimmers and swim organisers all of whom are identified in the document.
This rule set can be used to govern any new swim by a single swimmer or by any organisation.
The document is open to further review and discussion.
Despite a number of people working on them and all our efforts, we expect that when we open these rules up the wider world and the wisdom of crowd-sourcing, improvements or edits will become obvious. Therefore we plan to review these rules with a core committee every year. In the meantime, suggestions can be made here, Evan’s blog or most especially on the forum and the core authors will be able to review at any time.
These rules cover the areas of observation, equipment, definitions, and swimming rules.
This document is available for anyone or any organisation to use or adapt, under a Creative Commons Attribution License with Derivative and Non-Derivative sections. This means anyone may use and partially adapt these rules to their own requirement, but they must attribute the original marathonswimmers.org forum rules. The sections which are covered by a Derivative License may be changed, but the sections which are covered by a Non-Derivative may NOT be changed.
These rules are not currently the explicit rule set of any existing marathon or Channel swimming organisation. They DO NOT supplant the existing rules of any marathon swimming organisation nor are they intended to so do. The rules DO NOT cover assisted swimming of any kind. Marathon swimming is about unassisted swimming, and as such assisted swimming is variable and beyond our scope of interest.
They are not an expression or elitism or exclusion, merely a codification of existing traditions for the benefit of the marathon and indeed non-marathon swimming world by a group of swimmers who feel the time has come for this, not for our own self-aggrandisement, but for the benefit of our sport and our friends and those we esteem.
The question of other swim types similar or related to marathon swimming will inevitably arise and many swimmers will swim other types of swims, or what we call Special Swim Types (Stage, Relay, Circumnavigation and Multi-Leg). Outside the core rules there is a supplement defining these other related swim types.
With the release of these rules, we will also be issuing a press release to major online and print media, including swim specific organisations such as H2O, Swimswam.com, FINA, Swimming World Magazine, DNOWS, USMS. Please click here for the full press release.
With the sickness, the changes in feeds, how the crew felt, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Sylvain was still swimming strongly. That despite everything, he was very much the star and focus of our private show, and our entire concern. The earlier change of goggles had finally resolved the ongoing leakages. Every internal downturn or recovery he felt was (mostly) invisible to us, only a hint of how he felt on each particular feed visible to us on his mien, and in his eyes, to try to interpret. Over the late afternoon and early evening period, he undulated his way across the Separation Zone and on toward the north-east shipping lane.
Let me tell you about Sylvain’s stroke. Maybe you have swum ‘fly, like most swimmers do. Maybe like me, you sometimes do it for fun, sometimes to make a point, sometimes because it’s on the training set, sometimes because few things say fuck you to the world quite as comprehensively as swimming butterfly. Maybe you even love ‘fly. But how much do you swim? How long before your technique abrades away? How long before you start one-arm fly drill? How long before you feel like you are trying to pull yourself out, out of the water with rubber shoulders, paper biceps, spongy triceps?
For most of us ‘fly is an equation which quickly equalises to zero. Two hundred metres in Dover harbour with Sylle for me, playing hide and seek as we swam out of phase, swimming side by side, but his head submerged when mine was up, every time, knowing he was there, and not seeing him, that was enough before I reverted to front crawl.
Sylle’s ‘fly is elegant and looks easy. He flows through the water. There isn’t the big powerhouse flipper-splash of legs and feet like a 200 meter ‘fly meet swimmer. Instead there is a glide, a slipping and sliding, as Sylle works with the water. He reminds you of nothing so much as an otter, as his feet and legs, on every beat, (28 beats per minute), like the highest rated divers, penetrate the water with barely a splash. In some way that what he did. He dived his way across the Channel. He doesn’t look like he is being pushed by those legs but neither does he look like he is being pulled by his arms. Instead, he demonstrates some other ineffable skill. For swimmers it is beautiful and amazing to watch swimmer, so much so that as effortless as it seems, that you come to think it is effortless, that it is easy. But, of course, it isn’t.
Feed changed. Lisa and I regained the feed schedule from Mike over a couple of hours, with every single feed necessitating a discussion of the content: Malto, sliced bread or a roll, cheese, ham or chicken slices, water, a taste of fruit.
By 6.00 p.m. light levels were dropping with oncoming dusk. The sea state was a bit more unsettled. No glorious sunset with the heavy cloudbase. Official Observer’s Log indicated wave height remained, as it had from the start, zero. Feet or metres it didn’t matter, but the sea state was marked “slight” which sounds good but is actually the centre of the scale on Mike Ball’s newly designed Observer’s sheets, which start at smooth, through calm then slight and moderate to rough.
At 18:35 we entered the north-east shipping lane, the ships now passing up the Channel, and around this time the tide slackened briefly. More importantly Sylvain indicated at his feed, now happening on the half and full hour rather than the quarter-to and -past, that he was feeling much better. It had been a long two hours from when he first got sick.
At 7 p.m. the light had almost failed, and before the half-hour feed we could see that the lights that Sylvain had started the swim with were not sufficient for good safety visibility. I had my own Adventure Lights with me, but they had come back from a recent Channel swim not fully functional so were unsuitable. We gave Sylle a light from Mike’s spares at the 7:30 feed for him to place on his helmet strap, but either a wave or catching it with his biceps ripped it off and 15 minutes later we gave him another and a chemical lightstick, the second working better. By that time the light was entirely gone, the usual long twilight attenuated by the clouds, and we were well into Channel night, with a long way still to go.
Conditions on the boat were fine, the evening was mild, if very dark. Conditions in the water still would have been good … if you were swimming front crawl. But butterfly changes so many parameters of a swim. The wave height on Mike Ball’s Observer’s report was zero, all day. But there was that slight ruffled surface. Such a surface, instead of being sliced by a front crawl swimmer’s arms and head, presents a series of physical barriers, into which the butterfly swimmer, Sylvain, will inevitably crash. Repeatedly, hundreds then thousands of times. Each impact is small and transitory but cumulatively exhausting. No wonder his stroke rate dropped, apart from the sickness, he couldn’t fully engage his long stroke, the wavelets and tiredness shortening his stroke somewhat.
Sylvain’s preferred position was about eight to metres out, and with Gallivant using one starboard side main spotlight, it felt like he was really in two worlds, even more so than a usual Channel swim, if there is any such thing. Darkness on three sides of him, in front, behind and on his far side. He was just like a butterfly specimen pinned to a display board, but instead he was pinned to the night and the dark and the water.
And now with night’s arrival and heavy cloud obscuring the moon, almost no light fell on the water’s surface. The swim became a war between Sylvain and the surface. Every movement came at him out of pitch back, each wavelet arriving with no notice. For hours he battled as we cycled feeds for him, malto, some electrolyte, water. At 10 p.m. Sylle refused his malto and took only water and mouthwash and told us he wasn’t swimming back. As Lisa, Zoe and I sat together on the forward deck
Because there’s another part of the story I’ve neglected to now. Sylle had three potential goals: The first was to be the first man to butterfly the channel. The second was to do so in a record time. The weather and tide change, (not the sickness) has scuppered the record attempt. The third prospective goal was a potential two-way, returning to English by front crawl. He had done the training but hadn’t even told his family. He told them the night before the swim, just in case they managed to be at the point where he landed on France, because if they were and they hugged him, that would disqualify him.
We took Sylle’s assertion, not as the joke it might be on another swim, and we set it aside, unconcerned. It was irrelevant to us. We wanted to get him across one-way and for the long period of the afternoon and night that single goal swung backward and forward, in and out of view and possibility.
Feed to feed. That’s all that counts in the Channel. That’s the swimmer’s world, every new horizon thirty minutes away. The past doesn’t exist, the future and France is away over that horizon. Only now.
At 10.30 p.m. we changed the feed to porridge, once again concerned, as we had been intermittently for hours, that Sylle was still sick or really uncomfortable, even beyond what we could sometimes see in his eyes or twist of mouth at feeds, the roller-coaster of feeling good and feeling bad continuing through the night.
I asked Sylle to come in another few metres toward the boat while swimming and reminded him of his pull-through, seeing as he’d been struggling with the constant chop for hours had shortened his stroke. Concentrating on it would give him something else to focus on, but during that 10.30 feed he said “I don’t think I’m going to make it“.
Few Channel swims are easy, few cross without daemons presenting themselves.
The eastern most ships in the lane passed between us and France, their presence marked only by occlusion of the lights on land, not even their silhouettes visible. Another hour slid past. At the 10.00 p.m. feed Sylvain was holding his lower back so at the 11.30 p.m. feed we gave him paracetamol. Sylle had never used painkillers in training until shortly before his swim, but Lisa and I had insisted he take them as a test, just in case. They worked and his back loosened and we had finally passed into French Inshore Waters by the midnight feed and were only 1 mile from ZC2, passing well inside it, the buoy that gives experienced Channel crew and swimmers a good indication of their position, but only in daylight, as ZC2 wasn’t visible to Sylle.
Raiding our supplies, we found Zoe had some Pain Au Chocolat, and we had brioche and we used these for the next feeds, each bringing a big smile to Sylle’s face, such that he uttered “ooh la la!” in reference to some stereotypical joking back in Varne.
The clouds finally lightened around 12.30 a.m. and while they didn’t fully part, the moon was finally able to illumine the water’s surface beyond the tiny world of the spotlight and the water calmed as the inshore waters of La Manche welcomed their globe-trotting son home.
By 01:30 we were directly outside the lights of Wissant, and I recalled Sylle and I in the same place on Gábor’s swim, and I wished Gábor could have been there with us. For those last two hours, the stress and strain lightened and we knew, finally, that after hours of uncertainty, Sylle would make it.
We were turning into Cap Petit Blanc, the vertical headland north-east of Wissant village, where in 1941 Herman Goring had stood and watched as the second biggest wave of airplane to attack Britain in the second world war had streamed overhead. It was the third Sunday of September, Commonwealth Battle of Britain Day and the invasion was one lone Frenchman, reclaiming La Manche for La Belle France, en papillion.
The last metres wound down. I prepared to swim in. Mike and I discussed the potential turn-around for the return. Sylvain was perfectly placed up a Cap Blanc to catch the tide back into the Channel. But he would have to decide.
My own lights adequate for the short distance, Mike Ball did the correct thing by reminding me of the rules for a support swimmer, especially for a turnaround. Stay behind the swimmer, don’t touch him in any way. If he needed to be greased he would have to do it himself, and I carried a tub of grease in my swimmers. I got the word to enter the water about 2.15 a.m.
Mike Oram had a bright spotlight shining on the cliffs for us to follow in, as Gallivant needed to stay a few hundred metres back to avoid rocks, the tide having risen again. I swam to the far side of Sylvain. I could tell he was still swimming strongly, not the sometimes very slow pace at the end of a Channel swim. Positioned on his right, I lifted my head and heard shouting from the boat, Lisa and Zoe exhorting me to finish with Sylle the only appropriate way, and so I switched into butterfly myself.
Every Channel or marathon swim that I’ve crewed has left some deep personal memory for me. They include swimming in Cap Gris Nez with Alan Clack the previous year, while I cried in my goggles thinking of Páraic, the upper reaches of the early morning Blackwater with Owen O’Keeffe, sunlight streaming over Bray Head for Rob Bohane, Sylvain and Gábor and I hugging on Wissant beach and others.
My favourite moments of Sylvain’s swim will be these:
The searchlight was strong, a white ball exploding onto us. The world was only fuligin and supernova, the water was galactic black, solar white, particles trapped in the glare like insects frozen in an explosion, grainy film strip in my eyes; Sylvain to the left and ahead of me; the usual intense and isolate night swimming sounds; breath and movement, breath and movement, breath and movement. Sylvain, a perfect silhouette moving through the water, imprinted on my retina like a perfect moving negative.
As we reached the cliff, my only concern was his safety. But he reached out, a rock presented itself perfectly in the water, and he glided into it and touched with a two-handed butterfly finish. He stood and stumbled through the boulders to the cliff two metres away, while I stayed back still submerged. He climbed above the waterline, a spiderman now as well as a butterflyman. And I hooted my head off. And I hooted and the crew hooted and Gallivant’s triumphant klaxon split the empty night for our friend who had just crossed the English Channel, La Manche, in a time of 16 hours and 42 minutes, becoming to first man to ever so do.
Aah, to finish there would be sweet, but incomplete.
We discussed the turn and the return. Sylle did not want to attempt the swim back, after the brutal one-way crossing he had endured. He had accomplished his primary task. But my task was to push him. And so he agreed that he would stretch out while we swam back to Gallivant, and he would have time to stretch his muscles into a more forgiving front crawl. I told him he was perfectly lined up for the tide. I didn’t let him off. Back to the boat through the by-now warm French coastal waters. I climbed out of the boat while Sylvain stayed in the water, and we talked with him and gave him time to decide. For fifteen interminable minutes, for the second time in as many weeks, Lisa and I berated a Channel swimmer to do something they did not want to do. But we pushed them so that if and when they made their own decision, as the swimmer must, they would be sure afterwards it was the right one. Eventually Sylvain put Lisa and I thankfully put us out of our misery of torturing our friend. He ended the horrible task of trying our best to convince him to torture himself further, when he reached out and grabbed the ladder, and we pulled our heroic friend aboard.
It was an enormous and stunning swim, and as has been repeated by Lisa, Zoe and Mike Ball, it was a privilege to witness. Even daring to dream of a butterfly crossing, let alone more, is beyond the capacity of most of us. The timing was personally redemptory for me in reminding of the courage of ordinary Channel swimmers. Sylvain and the CS&PF’s commitment to clear rules were also a lesson to all. Sylvain has not got even one Yellow Card fro a stroke infraction on the entire swim. At a time when some of us were being falsely accused of not celebrating one swimmer, which only meant we didn’t buy the Diana Nyad lies, Sylle helped rescue us and showed us all true historic achievement, like others have this year.
It was not easy. But it was great.
Next day in Varne, we took some more photographs, aware that Sylvain’s place in swimming history was cemented forever. I said to him that The Flying Frenchman was a good nickname, and he should embrace it. Because it would last him a lifetime.
I closed last part with a question: Did Lisa, Zoe or I really consider Sylvain’s thoughts as he passed into the south-west shipping zone?
Not really. There was no-one on Gallivant that day who wasn’t intimately familiar with Channel swimming, with four Channel Soloists aboard, one as Observer, the most experienced pilot, the best co-pilot, and the most experienced Observer.
No-one on the boat wasn’t aware that swimmers must swim in their heads, must call on mental as well as physical training during a Channel swim. Four of us knew intimately that every Channel swimmer must find their own way across, swimming across the water and swimming through their own internal landscape. Four hours into a Channel swim is still early.
The water surface had finally smoothed to a state that would only last a couple of hours but nature and Sylle weren’t entirely in union.
Fifth hour in the Channel and Into the South-west shipping lane, the lane on the England side. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with a thousand vessels a day of all sizes from rowing boats to VLCCs (very large cargo carriers) travelling through and it therefore requires command and control and identification of all vessels operating through the strait. Vessels, most travelling to and from the major European ports, including Hamburg, Calais, Rotterdam or Copenhagen all follow “rules of the road”, the outbound traffic on the English side, the inbound traffic on the French side.
The Bow Saga, a gas carrier, passed closely behind us and we watched the aptly named box wave travel toward us, but it wasn’t large and didn’t swamp Sylle too heavily, the foreshortening caused by the camera lens making Kent’s White Cliffs seem but a short distance behind us.
In the fifth hour the tide changed from ebb to flood with little slack between, from dropping tide to rising tide, from swimming south-east to north-east and the very slight breeze shifting southerly and Sylle requested that we dilute his next feed.
Thirty minute feed intervals passed in the afternoon, as we took turns. From the fourth hour there were feeds where Lisa and I noticed that Sylvain sometimes looked less than happy or glad to be swimming. We gave Sylle dilute mouthwash with every fourth feed, passed him fruit with his feed a couple of times and during the diluted 2:45 p.m. feed where he had the requested a change of goggles the next feed, which we gave him. But he hadn’t verbally indicated any significant problem.
The feed at 16:15 pm, late afternoon by the third week of September, was the tenth and half-way into the eight hour. Weather and water conditions hadn’t changed in any significant way. Sylle had looked however distinctly uncomfortable but said nothing and I’m not inclined to interrogating a swimmers in the Channel, adding time as it does. As happens on feeds, the swimmer can drift off behind the boat, and so happened on that feed. Five minutes later, Sylle still returning to his position the starboard side he stopped. and got sick.
Channel swimmers often get sick. Too many undigested carbohydrates, the liver can’t cope, a quick ejection, and everything is better afterwards. But this was different. Sylvain immediately got sick again. I was the only one who saw the initial vomit, and I called Lisa and told her, and we informed Mike.
With this began a very long and very difficult period, mostly for Sylvain, but also for us. Lisa and I were ready to take immediate remedial steps and yet, though Sylvain had asked us as his crew, there arose a tension between what we wanted to do, and what Mike as pilot did.
From this point, for many hours, I did not have time nor even thought to take more photographs. Visual documentation is nearly always an extra to a swim during the event, its existence only really becoming more important as time passes and the swim and the crispness of the experience slide into the past.
Lisa and I planned initially to change Sylvain’s next feed to tea, to allow his digestion time to settle. Subsequent that we would have had further available actions. None of these are a secret, they are what are done by experienced crew.
Before we had the chance to do anything, Mike Oram started his own feeds to Sylvain, first giving him a cheese and white bread sandwich within five minutes of Sylvain getting sick.
Though at this point we have only covered half of the swim in four parts, and the most momentous and difficult part of the swim lay ahead, the narration will quicken from here.
That Sunday morning of late September was overcast and dull as Sylvain undulated away from Shakespeare beach almost parallel to the kilometre-long Admiralty Pier. There was a light Force Two breeze ruffling the water surface, which was a slightly cooler than hoped for 15.1 degrees Celsius.
It is always important, vital even, to grasp the environmental parameters both predicted and in operation, to really understand any Channel swim. Like mountaineers and adventurers, marathon swimmer’s comrades-in-spirit, we are aware that we operate in an arena and world greater than we are, greater than we can be, and that we at best negotiate our way through. A weather prediction is the battle plan and the old adage about battle plans is that they rarely survive first contact with the enemy. (If this was a badly-made movie, we’d be arriving at the voice-over narration for the boring exposition):
Sylle’s wait had moved him from a neap to a spring tide, and not the edge of a spring but a big 6.8 metre tide bringing with it a bigger tidal current. His weather window meant he and the other swimmers departing that morning were doing so on a low tide. The preferable tide for leaving Dover is a neap high tide. Swimmers leaving Dover take advantage of the flood to get pushed north-east, the first leg of the more usual “backwards-S” chart. Leaving on low tide doesn’t negate the tidal current assistance or increase the distance, but changes the heading, swimming south-east instead. The pilot must still plan the approach to the Cap and consider the changes in wind direction.
The weather forecast was for light breezes for the morning, slackening a bit in the afternoon and early evening. The swim would start cloudy but skies might clear to patchy in the afternoon. Not very warm, but not chilly either, most important for Sylle as any direct sunlight is a boon for a swimmer, reducing heat loss and sunlight can lift a swimmer, and give mental energy. Bathing both literally and metaphorically in vivid mid-day sunlight, even as the wind rose, is one of my favourite Channel memories.
The night’s forecast was more opaque. Possibly mixed clouds and clear skies. Clear skies mean lower temperatures but increase visibility for a swimmer, a trade-off that cannot be chosen and can only be evaluated as it is underway. Also important is the fact that a late in September swim means shorter cooler daylight hours. A morning swim start instead of night start means that a swimmer will be swimming into night, a veil that obscures the latter toughest part of a swim, whereas a night swim holds a promise of dawn and hours of daylight for a swimmer.
The other boats were almost out before Sylle, a couple of hundred metres ahead, all to our starboard side, the same as Sylvain. (Oh, that reminds me, I spent the day, when we had time, which wasn’t much, trying to teach Lisa Cummins (PHD!) about port and starboard. I am not sure if I succeeded). Only CSA pilot Reg Brickell’s Viking Princess was astern of us, about a kilometre back.
Sylle’s information to Mike had included the fact that his stroke rate was 24 to 28. Open water swimmers and long-term readers here will know I often speak of the importance of stroke rate for open water thermogenesis, (heat-production). Front crawl Channel swimmers vary in rate from typically low sixties to high eighties, depending on size, stroke type and training most importantly. Sylvain’s stroke rate looks low in comparison, but of course it was a different stroke, the whole body movement of butterfly.
The ruffled water off Shakespeare beach presented no obstacle to his stroke as we moved away from the beach, the well-wishes staying until we ceased to notice them. After about 20 minutes we moved outside the sheltering mass of the Admiralty Pier and into open water, the fleet just ahead and starboard of us. As we passed the pier terminus, we could see the tide line just ahead, the interface of the current and the water making for a choppy transition. Within ten minutes the fleet spread out, caught sooner by the tide than us, they pulled away. However ten minutes later, at 10:15 we passed into the transition and by 10.25, the choppy transition water at the tide’s edge required Sylvain to stop a couple of times to reseal his goggles, but we were into the ebbing tide, following the fleet, catching the ocean conveyor south-east and out, out into the Channel.
Sylvain’s first feed was at 10.45, after an hour, taking a 500 ml bottle of maltodextrin (carbs) and apple juice. The feed schedule called for hourly feeds for the first three hours, then feeds ever thirty minutes, the carbs mixed for taste with either apple juice or blackcurrent cordial, alternating, for four cycles, then a feed of electrolytes, with dilute mouth wash every two hours.
The morning continued grey and overcast with the breeze shifting through Force Two and during the early swim we moved all the supplies under the poop deck canvas cover. Cloudy and dry, the air was nonetheless laden with salt and moisture, such that we all stayed fairly covered and found impossible, for the entire day, to have dry hands, the marine moisture clinging to skin.
Ninety minutes into the swim Sylle had stopped to adjusted his googles a few times more. Unplanned stops are always a cause for concern. Is there something subconscious in the swimmer’s mind causing the stops or is there a minor problem that could grow with time into a major problem? By 12.30 p.m. we had eventually realised that every time he adjusted he was catching the lip of his swim cap under his gasket-type Aquasphere goggles and not knowing this, which then led to a gradual leak and after we shouted this at him, he finally got the problem sorted before it led to too much brine in the goggles, which will lead to swollen shut eyes.
About an hour after the swim started Mike joined us on the poop deck, (yes, I will keep saying poop deck!). There was a … long conversation soliloquy from Mike about many different subjects related to Channel swimming; the problems with the organisations, the problems with the committees, the problems with swimmers, the problems with crews, the problems with coaches, the problems with other pilots, the problems with … etc. I was the primary audience, Lisa and Zoe taking the opportunity of a scheduled feed to escape to the bow. Seeing my chance in a lull for air, I asked Mike something I’ve wondered, having read and listened to him many times. I asked him if he liked Channel swimming … The answer, was less than categorical.
By the third hourly feed, the breeze has dropped again ever so slightly, to low force Two, but the sky remained impenetrable. Sylle’s stroke rate was steady averaging 28 strokes per minute. Thirty minutes later at 13:15, three hours and thirty minute elapsed swim time, we swapped to feeds every half hour. It always sounds like one only has to spend two minutes mixing a feed, and a minute feeding, and you will have the rest of the time to lounge around, but once you as crew are on a 30 minute feed cycle, it seems like you have no time for anything else. You might rotate the mixing, feeding and watching duties, or one person might like to do it for a while, as I did for a few hours, and the time is full of discussion of the previous feed, how he looked, how it went in, what the next feed was, the mundanities filling the available time to the brim and suddenly someone has to rush to get the next feed ready.
The breeze dropped to Force One, a whisper, though the surface didn’t glass-off (become still), and the Varne Lightship was visible away to the north-east, in the Shipping Lane which we would enter in the next hour. Not long after the 2 p.m. feed we were passed on the port side by a rowing team heading to Dover. Cross-Channel rowers are no longer allowed into French waters since early in 2013, after having been stopped by the French navy, despite the early teams having french approval, they now row out from Dover to the half-way point, then turn and row back. For Channel swimmers this kind of arbitrary action by the French coastal authorities is always a concern.
It was approaching 2.15 p.m. Sylvain had been swimming butterfly for over four and half hours and had just swum through a large oil slick without pause. We as crew, even though we knew what we going out to see and do, were still awestruck. The weather continued moderate. Did we stop to ask ourselves what was going on in Sylle’s head as we entered the south-west shipping lane?
This story started in different places and at different times, like all stories. For me, it started in a mobile home in Varne Ridge park in Capel-le-ferne, Folkestone, home of so many Channel adventures, in October 2010. It was a couple of days after my Hungarian “stepson” Gábor Molnar had completed his English Channel solo and Sylvain Estadieu and I had been on crew. The remainder of the crew were asleep and Gábor, Sylvain and I pursued a late not-entirely-sober night, talking Channel, swimming, Sandycove and future plans and dreams. Sylvain was raving about I.M. (individual medley, a combination of backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and front crawl). We agreed that whatever Sylvain decided, Gábor and I would be crew.
For Sylvain, I think it started even earlier.
After his previous English Channel Solo in 2009, on the same tide as Owen O’Keeffe and Lisa Cummins, he had decided in early 2010 to do four laps of Sandycove by I.M. Sandycove is about 1700 metres around (average), so that was about a mile of each stroke. He’d done it with Gábor as company and the seed was sown for the later grander adventure, though over the course of the following three years, we were party to some of his ideas. He finally settled on a butterfly crossing, as no man had crossed the Channel by butterfly, though both Julie Bradshaw and Vicki Keith had previously crossed the Channel using that stroke.
Booked for September 2013, in September of 2012, Sylvain, committed to transparent rules like most marathon swimmers, engaged in a discussion on the marathonswimmers.org/forum about what extra rules could or should apply to such a crossing, with particular reference to stroke judging, something with which those of us who swim front crawl don’t have to be concerned. In the autumn he contacted the CS&PF through President Nick Adams, asking for the CS&PF committee to agree the rule-set in advance.
Eventually Sylvain’s window arrived and we assembled as usual In Varne Ridge with Sylvain and his fiancee Greta. Gábor had just changed job and was very disappointed to not be able to be present but instead he’d drafted in a Hungarian friend of his from his EC solo and MIMS swims, Gergő “Kovi” Kovács. Lisa Cummins also joined the crew. But the weather wasn’t co-operative for Channel swimming for the week. Sylvain did electrify the Saturday morning Dover beach crew who had all heard about his butterfly attempt. He also made me do butterfly with him in training and Greta had to enter the water also. I did about 200 metres continuous and that was enough for me. Sylvain glides through the water with his ‘fly, I look more like I am trying to escape from the water.
During this week, Lisa and I stepped in as emergency crew for Haydn Welch’s Channel attempt, as there was still no visible window. Sylvain and Greta waved us off from the rare departure point of Dungeness for Haydn’s unusual English Channel attempt, something that was tough on them as conditions looked quite good from the beach, though as it (providentially) became aware to us crew, it was utterly unsuitable for a butterfly attempt. Two days later, Lisa and I both returned to Ireland and Kovi to Hungary. Haydn’s attempt provided Lisa the opportunity to leave from Dungeness, which nicely counterpointed the fact that she is the only English Channel swimmer to ever land at Dungeness. Sylle continued to train daily in Dover harbour. Torn between holding his nerve and taper, and the temptation to restart long swims, he agreed with coach Eilís that he would swim a couple of two and three hour swims.
I’ve said before, and I am sure will say again, that waiting for weather is one of the most difficult and least understood or appreciated aspects of Channel swimming. Years in the dreaming and training, everything can be lost with an unfavourable low pressure system. Many people in Sylvain’s situation would have lost their chance of a swim after the first week, and probably have to return home, and it being late in the season, may not have any chance at a late swim. The financial cost also escalates rapidly. Another week of accommodation and car rental. Cancelled or rescheduled flights for yourself and extra flights to bring crew back in, and more expensive due to short term booking.
Sylvain and Greta was prepared to wait for a chance of a spring tide opportunity, and so a week after we returned home, Sylle called us back to Dover. We arrived the afternoon of Saturday September the 21st with the prospect of starting the swim during the night on Sunday/Monday or during Monday.
Soon after we arrived, we did “the big shop”, using my checklist. Water for Sylvain. Water for crew. More water. Backup food for Sylvain. Food for crew. More food for crew. More water. WHIF food. (What-IF we can’t eat this or that? What-IF Sylvain or crew get sick?). A Channel swim’s provisions often look like a small desert expedition.
Then back to Varne to eat and prepare and mix, and await the next call after 7pm with Pilot Mike Oram.
Mike confirmed the swim was almost certainly on for Sunday with a starting time in the morning of about 9a.m. but Sylle still needed to to wait until Sunday morning on the pntoon, for final confirmation as weather forecasts still indicated a possibility of a 6 hour delay but the final, final, final morning discussion would gave us the go-ahead. Provisionally! Life of a Channel Swimmer! Hurry up and wait. But be on the slip-way in the morning, and there was still a chance of a tide delay.
Back to Varne to pre-mix, pack, eat and sleep.
Premixing the swimmer’s feed simplifies and cleans up things on the boat greatly for the crew. The swimmer can be sure the feed is mixed to their own requirement, and malto-dextrin is a sticky substance best avoided having to mix on a boat. Two or one and a half litre bottles are much easier to lift and pour than 5 litre bottles. Square bottles pack better than round. Minutiae, the type that comes from the combined experience of the group.
Then we packed all the boxes. Sylle’s pre-mixed feeds. Sylle’s supplementary and solid swim food. Sylle’s gear, crew food, more crew food. Sylle’s swim gear. Crew gear. Sylle’s clothes. Crew bags. Pack everything, then unpack it and repack it. Check the checklist. Then dinner, then re-check the checklist and boxes.
A morning start would bring its own challenges, but at least we would get a good night’s sleep before.
Well-known Californian swimmer Jamie Patrick earlier in the year mentioned in the blog comments that he liked reading articles about the history of open water swimming. Apart from what already appears in various books it’s hard to find such stories. But I shortly thereafter carried the story of Tom Blower and the first North Channel swim. (Anytime I think of doing a history post, I imagine Jamie asking me).
At the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference, some of the guests were connected through a historical chain: The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, Wayne Soutter, and Dolorando Pember.
Wayne Soutter was the first person to complete the Mull of Kintyre route from Scotland to Ireland in 2012, his account covered here. North Channel swims are ratified by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association. And Dolorando Pember is the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze, who first unsuccessfully attempted the Mull of Kintyre route (though she was successful on so many other marathon swims).
Before she attempted the North Channel, Mercedes was an English Channel swimmer, (still the qualifying requirement for a North Channel swim to this day). In light of the Diana Nyad Controversy, the story of Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim, apart from the actual swims, is very interesting for some timely reasons less obvious than others:
False swim claims have been around for a long time in our sport
Other honourable swimmers are negatively affected by false swim claims
The development of Official Observation (“ratification”) in swimming
Mercedes Gleitze’s second “Vindication” English Channel swim was widely used for advertising by watch company Rolex, and the story of the Vindication Swim came to me from an website devoted to watches, of all places. With that link to the original in place, below is the story itself, leaving out the later advertising aspect of the article which describes how Mercedes swim was used to make Rolex the well-known watch company it is today.
Note that the terms we still use of Channel Swimmer, Channel Season and Channel Aspirant were all in use in the 1920s despite that less than a dozen swimmers had completed the Channel by the end of that decade.
One investigative source of this story says that the Channel Swimming Association “refused to recognize her swim as legitimate“. The CSA was only founded the same year with their handbook stating: “Since March 1927, English Channel Swims have been organised and regulated by the [CSA] and all Swims officially observed by its designated Officials/Observers are faithfully recorded“.
The CSA database for 1927 shows three swims and Mercedes Gleitze is recognised as a Channel Swimmer.
Marilyn Morgan, the above blog’s author, comprehensively answers this question when I asked her:
“[T]he CSA asked Gleitze to sign an affidavit verifying she completed the swim unaided. Gleitze refused on principle and was quoted as saying, “the best thing to restore the prestige of British women Channel swimmers in the eyes of the world would be for me to make another Channel swim,” and thus she embarked upon what became known as the Vindication Swim.
Because that swim was undertaken past Channel swimming season and she swam so efficiently for so long in the bitterly cold water under such extreme conditions, the CSA consented that she must have successfully completed the Oct 7 swim and then included it in its records retrospectively. This can be verified through a plethora of British and American newspapers as well as at the archives“.
October 7, 1927. It was a cold October morning, and Miss Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist and part-time professional swimmer from Brighton, was about to make her eighth attempt at swimming the English Channel.
Miss Gleitze began her journey at 2:55 a.m., as she entered the murky waters at Gris Nez. The Channel was uninviting, cold and thick with fog. Visibility at times dropped to less than five yards, so a fishing boat from Folkestone led her way—frequently sounding its horn to help avoid the heavy shipping traffic. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, fed her grapes and honey from the boat to keep up her strength, and strong tea and cocoa to help fight the cold.
After overcoming hours of pain and exhaustion—and being nearly run down by a steamer—“her feet touched the chalk rocks between South Foreland and St. Margaret’s Bay”. And at 6:10 p.m., she became just the twelfth swimmer to accomplish the feat, the third woman, and the first Englishwoman. This historic swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, and was under bitterly cold conditions, with water temperatures never rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is worth mentioning that attempts at swimming the Channel were usually made earlier in the year (around August) when water temperatures are more accommodating. Why Mercedes elected to swim this late in the year is still uncertain.
Shortly after emerging from the water, Mercedes collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of her trainer, Allan, and her pilot, Harry Shart, Jr. She remained unconscious for nearly two hours, as the small fishing boat ferried her back to the Fish Market at Folkestone, where she was “cheered loudly by a big crowd”. Being in no condition to celebrate, she was quickly taken by taxi to her lodging for the night.
Unfortunately, Gleitze never really got to enjoy her success. Just a few days later, a series of events unfolded that put the legitimacy of her swim into question: On October 11, Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan (using her professional name, Mona McLennan), swam the Channel in thirteen hours and ten minutes. With this swim, Logan set a new record time for women, when she “walked a few steps up Folkestone beach”, at 8:50 a.m.
This was the second report of a woman swimming the Channel in less than a week, and suspicions quickly arose as to the legitimacy of her claim. Under heavy scrutiny, Logan soon recanted her story and confessed that her swim was a hoax. With Logan’s confession, Mercedes’ swim also came under suspicion. In a way, she was considered guilty by association and was said to be very upset by the accusations, and, unlike Logan, said, “All right, I’ll do it again”. Thus, the stage was set, and Gleitze was scheduled to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what was touted as the “Vindication Swim”.
Just a year prior (on July 29, 1926), Rolex patented the first waterproof wristwatch: the Rolex Oyster. When Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and Managing Director of Rolex) got word of the vindication swim, he saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new creation. Wilsdorf wasted no time, and on October 14, dispatched a letter to Miss Gleitze by way of the S. T. Garland advertising service. By this letter, he formally agreed to provide her with a gift wristlet watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim.
This “Vindication Swim” began at 4:21 a.m., when Mercedes again entered the waters at Cap Gris Nez. However, unlike her previous swim, the fog on this day was minimal and she had a full entourage accompanying her—numerous chase boats were filled with journalists, friends and well-wishers.
At this point, I would like to say that Mercedes Gleitze successfully completed the swim, and the rest, as they say, is history. I would like to say that, but unfortunately it is not the case, and “history” as retold by some over the years is incorrect.
According to the London Times, the conditions during this swim were brutal, with water temperatures ranging from 53 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit—a far cry from the near-60 degree temperatures she endured on her previous swim, just two weeks prior.
Shortly after entering the water, she experienced incredible pain and numbness from the icy water. To help keep her awake, the crowd sang songs, accompanied by musicians playing the banjo and guitar. Unfortunately, this was of little help, and, at 2:25 p.m., it became evident that she would not complete the swim. The bitterly cold conditions caused her to slip in and out of a coma-like state. At 2:45 p.m., she was reluctantly hoisted into the boat, some seven miles short of her goal, and her vindication swim would not be.
Mercedes was surely disappointed by her failure, but the overwhelming reaction from the crowd must have been of some consolation. The reporters, doctors and experts on hand were amazed at her endurance and ability to withstand the treacherous cold for some ten hours and twenty-four minutes. Thus, after witnessing her determination, few if any could doubt the legitimacy of her previous swim—it was, indeed, a victory in defeat.
As she sat in the boat, one such journalist made an incredible discovery and reported it in the London Times as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”
It may sound a bit more romantic to say that Mercedes wore a Rolex on her wrist as she swam across the English Channel, but this, unfortunately, was not the case. While she did “carry” a Rolex for more than ten hours during her vindication swim, it was not on her wrist, nor was it during the “successful” fifteen-hour swim she is remembered for. This is simply a story that has had some “specifics” misquoted over the years. With that being said, on October 25, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze forwarded a letter to Rolex, which summed it up very well, and read as follows: “You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenour of its movement. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it…”
After another summer with two visits to Dover and the Global Open Water Conference taking place in Cork, some additions have been made to my little autograph book. And unfortunately I missed some autographs last weekend. The book continues to grow and seems to spawned at least two by other swimmers, the sincerest form of flattery! I keep forgetting to take photos of people signing it, apart from Steve Redmond whom I’ve photographed three times signing it.
The book currently includes about 110 autographs that I can read, plus a few signatures that I can’t read (and a couple that signed without meeting the minimum requirement). If you know you are in the book and not on the list below, let me know.
Also, yes, Sandycove is a nationality.
There are some non-marathon swimmers deliberately in there, such is their relevance in Channel swimming: Freda Streeter, Coach Eilis, Barrie Wakeham, Paul Foreman and of course my “parents” David and Evelyn Frantzeskhou with others to add in this category also.
It continues to be great fun, and a great pleasure to see new Irish marathon swimmers also added to it each year. The index below mentions usually only one swim or achievement per person, but many have more swims identified either in the book or in the extended index file.
Now, how do I get Ali Streeter, Abou Heif and Ted Erikson?
No precept is more sacred to marathon swimmers than the forbidding of a deliberate touch between swimmer and anything else; boats, people or equipment other than feed supplies. That is the way we disqualify ourselves or how we signify that a swim is over. Until you have been there, until it has been you or until you have seen a swimmer agonise for long minutes in the water, knowing there is no hope of continuing, but knowing they or you have to reach out and touch the boat, you can’t understand this.
It’s a really, really, really big deal for us.
Everything about swimming reduces to those moments. It’s difficult to explain how it feels to try to push a swimmer beyond any possibility of continuing a swim, beyond what you want to push them, so they will know afterwards they did everything. It’s different from pushing yourself. You almost hate yourself for pushing them. So the swimmer will have no doubts that when they reached out to touch the boat, it was the right and final act. When you dismiss or wilfully and repeatedly ignore these essential facts, disregard this moment of truth and subsequently lie about it, you guarantee the animosity of the marathon swimming community.
Let me be repeat what I said earlier in the series:
I do not really care what the general public thinks about Diana Nyad. The world is full of crooks, cheats and charlatans who had public support, from Lance Armstrong to Silvio Berlusconi. There is nothing new in this. Diana Nyad needs public worship and adulation. I’m happy with just having friends.
Maybe Diana Nyad will somehow square this circle and be proven to be a paragon of virtue, despite all the items of concern outlined below. Though I do not think this will happen, nor do I believe it’s even possible. But if it does happen, it will be great for swimming and we will have served the purpose of keeping marathon swimming honest.
No-one should forget that without the forum and the questions of a few, the public would have fawned all over Diana Nyad with blind adulation, everything would have been accepted. Because Diana Nyad is nottruthful and all her claims to be so are empty.
If you hate me because I don’t share your hero-worship of Diana Nyad, I don’t care. If you have bought into the hype, (possibly literally), I don’t care. If you hate me because you think I am a “hater“, I don’t care (and you need to understand what irony means. Hint: listening to Alanis Morrisette won’t tell you).
I care about Rob Bohane stepping into the English Channel for a third time, knowing what he had gone through twice already, no fanfare, no merchandise, no bullshit. Just courage and what Channel Swimmer Sarah Thomas so memorably called on the forum, integrity. I care about all the others, stepping off a shore in the unknown, sharing common values in how they swim. In their heads only fear and excitement, a goal, a dream. To swim across. Not a movie, not adulation, not chat shows. Not deception.
Courage and integrity. A fitting epithet for marathon swimmers.
Sylvain Estadieu publicly seeking prior discussed rules for his English Channel butterfly crossing. Lisa Cummins making sure no-one could touch her when she stood up on a dark empty beach before wading back in to swim back to England. Trent Grimsey picking up litter on Dover beach. Wendy Trehiou. Jackie Cobell. Paraic Casey. Susan Taylor. Kevin Murphy. Alison Streeter. Steve Redmond. More. So many more. A roll call of courage and integrity.
It’s not that I am bothered about Diana Nyad’s media presence. It should be great for our sport. I certainly loved the coverage of Jackie Cobell, Sylvain Estadieu, Lisa, Cummins, Stephen Redmond. But I do care when the media coverage is so overwhelmingly based on what I believe to be Diana Nyad’s misrepresentation. I believe that coverage should be accurate and represent our shared values and portray the reality of our swimming world. When Diana Nyad’s actions sully past, present and future swims and swimmers, she essentially attacks friends and people I respect. So it becomes personal.
I care about my sport. My friends. My interpretation of right. My sense of trying to live up to the people I respect. I need to be able to look my friends in the eye knowing I have been true both to them and to myself, (even if they are not making the same judgement). Nothing anyone can say can take away what is for me a fundamental precept, that I require of myself. Therefore Diana Nyad has tested me, had forced me to this series and maybe that’s why this was such emotive stream-of-consciousness writing for me. The Diana Nyad controversy has sullied things I care about and I intend to reclaim those values for myself and my friends.
During the height of the controversy and discussion on the marathonswimmers.org forum, the forum went offline a couple of times over the weekend of the seventh and eight of September. Until now we have said publicly that was due to traffic. In fact it was due to repeated Denial of Service (“cyber”) attacks. We do not know the origin.
When they are trying to shut you up, you know you are surely doing something right.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win“. – Gandhi
What it all boils down to
The items below are based not just on the panel, but include previous events and events which have since come to light. The list below is why the onus is on Diana Nyad to prove that despite her protestations of being “ethical” that she is trustworthy and that the swim has any credibility. In this case the swim and the swimmer cannot be separated.
Despite her protestations of honesty, the case against Diana Nyad’s integrity is very strong and includes the following very extensive list. References for almost everything in this list can be found on the marathonswimmers.org discussion thread. Her comment on Facebook alone contains multiple problems.
Rules & Observation
Despite repeated calls from marathon swimmers (including myself), Diana Nyad never published any rules before any Cuba to Florida swim.
Her methods during her 2011 and 2012 Cuba to Florida swims include getting onto the support boats. What would she have claimed had she been successful, given her assertions that she’s never been assisted?
Her claim that she couldn’t remember touching the boat in 2012.
Conflicted reports by team members of what touches were carried out. (There are actual photos exist of her being held).
Her conflicting claims that she never touched anything in the recent 2013 swim, yet later admitting she had been touched.
Her repeated continuing claims in the press of some undefined world record.
Her claims of not knowing about Observing requirements (to me).
Her previous use of conflicted Observers who were simultaneously promoters, journalists and a sponsor.
He claim that her Observer’s belong to a non-existent organisation (Open Water Swimming Association).
Her use of unknown Observers with no experience and no recognised training, reputation or affiliation. Her own team members ironically say a qualified team is essential.
No publication of any standards or rules according to which any Observer would be judging.
The casual retrospective dismissal of the well-documented by her own team, 7 1/2 hours without feeds, as a misquote. (“That was a mistake”), not corrected or ever mentioned by the team until raised by the forum.
Her post-panel deliberate TV statement that the team had provided all the requested documentation, (they still haven’t). She said this was because she doesn’t know how to upload documents.
Diana Nyad team member’s posts on the forum are contradictory in establishing what rules they might have been following. Much of their talk of rules seems to have been derived from the actual post-swim forum discussion and to be conflated with a non-swimmer’s understanding of English Channel rules and other rules and how, where and why these are used.
Use of an iPhone as a stopwatch. (That says a lot about the standard of rules and Observation. Strictly forbidden in almost any sport).
The events surrounding Walter Poenishes first assisted Cuba to Florida swim, before and after, contain multiple problems for her claimed integrity, including actually libellous personal attacks, subversion of sponsors and media for her own ends and ultimately the ruining of a man’s life. Mr Poenisch had to take legal action before Diana Nyad withdrew her attacks but he was never able to repair the damage she had already done.
Her dismissal of Suzie Maroney’s Cuba to Florida swim also as assisted (which it was) but never acknowledging that she herself was assisted.
Any assertions that the community now accepts that she swam the distance. I myself don’t say this. Without reputable experienced Observers (more than two are required for 48+ hours) and original Observer Logs that can be proven to be created on the relevant dates. There is no way to know. In fact I don’t seen now how this can ever be proven. The requirement for stringency has been caused by Diana Nyad having heard all questions in public after the swim was over before she ever set out to clarify.
Her repeated calling on some unknown higher authority called “the sport of open water swimming” or “the auspices of the sport” for the media. (Please refer to the vote above).
Her claim of no contact to her from the marathon community.
Her ignoring an offer to help set up an Observing Organisation specifically for her and the Florida Strait.
Her implicit denial that such an offer was made to made.
The apparent denial of what her own jellyfish advisor Dr. Yanigahara says was essential safety treatment, to Chloe MacCardel for her Cuba to Florida attempt.
Her untrue assertion that “my own peer group, instead of coming to me and asking me questions went to the media“. (In fact the media contacted us, Diana Nyad is the one who courts the media. I answered one media request early on and ignored the few subsequent requests).
The lack of real explanation about the apparent contradiction in her own video evidence of the navigator versus the public claims.
Her disrespect for other swimmers.
Her hypocritical treatment of Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel, with public claims of well-wishing, contradicted by post-swim statements hoping they would fail.
A Team Nyad source told of her later instruction to her team “do not the feed the trolls” specifically about the forum, whom she also called peers when it suited. somewhat at odds with this statement: “They want to know how the facts came down so they can understand it. They have every right to ask all these questions, and we have every intention to honor the accurate information.“
Confusion over apparent discrepancy between publicly available Florida current satellite data and Diana Nyad’s post-swim Florida Current data, for the same days.
Her appeal to the Court of Public Approval, (in science, one of the most conclusive demonstrations of fraud).
Her utter public disrespect for volunteers, calling them “traitors”.
Diana Nyad, with a lifelong history of braggadocio and deceit about swims, including exiting the water, and with a tenuous relationship to the concept of rules, with no Independent Observers, claims to have done an unassisted swim , which includes a previously uncharted current that allowed her more than double her swim speed in open water after 30 hours.
Diana Nyad followed a lifelong pattern of deceit about swimming for self-aggrandisement and ego.
Ceteribus paribus. All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the best.
When you are sitting in the changing room of your pool or at the beach or somewhere and someone says to you “did you hear about that woman who swam from Cuba to Florida …“. Take a breath. Don’t shrug it off. Don’t worry about seeming like a crank. Instead say “well, actually, let me explain about that to you…”
I struggled with how I could wrap this up. What could I say that could make any difference?
Then again, I realised I didn’t have to make a difference. I only had to do what I have done. Write and let sunlight disinfect Diana Nyad. But something else happened as I wrote, as I got further into this series. I started this series with a sense of grim resignation, frustration and ennui. But as I wrote, I felt better. I felt better and I felt more able to be completely honest about what I think of this debacle. As I wrote, we all took back our sport.
Further, I realised I could make a personal decision, a decision just for myself.
I am a channel swimmer. The title is one of my proudest possessions. I can use it because of the trust and integrity of the worldwide marathon swimming community (any Channel applies), and I choose to use it because of the respect I have for friends and swimmers far greater than I who hold that title.
You know that one decision I can make about Diana Nyad? You’ll laugh. It’s not all this writing. It’s not the forum, the panel, the conversations, emails, messages or even this series.
The strongest personal statement that I can make, here and now, is that I would not let Diana Nyad sign my marathon swimmers autograph book. I do not believe Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida.
Diana Nyad does not appear to have the probity or integrity that I require of her.
Thanks for sticking with this and thanks for all the supportive messages.
For whatever it’s worth, I feel cleaner now. See you on the Copper Coast, in Sandycove or in Dover.
I’m really sorry that this is taking so long, I have better things to do myself! I’ve found it difficult to distil this subject down to essentials. I’ve written long series before, and there’s no way I’m giving Diana Nyad more blog parts than more important subjects like Understanding Cold Adaptation in Humans or Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record. So you are getting long posts instead.
An important moment came for me during the entire controversy. I’d asked for advice or even new questions from various swim friends for the review panel. One respondent, she knows who she is, gave some excellent media advice: Stick to the message, don’t get bogged down in technicalities that the public doesn’t understand or care about. I planned to do so. And then, on the panel, I realised that while it was excellent advice, it wasn’t the right advice for me just then.
I actually don’t really care if the American public paints an American flag on Diana Nyad’s face and makes her Queen. I only care about the swimming. (If I’d had to endure the media questioning, this may have been different but as a swim blogger, especially one outside the shadow Diana Nyad casts over the US media, I can both be dismissed and still retain freedom).
The words assisted or unassisted don’t matter to the general public, but they do matter … to me, to my friends, to the swimmers who came before Diana Nyad, to the swimmers who will come afterwards and they may even matter to Diana Nyad.
When you ask yourself who has a vested interest here, ask yourself which of us, myself or Diana Nyad, has more reasons for deception. (None of all this writing gains me one cent toward funding any of the swims I can’t afford to do). If you are a Diana Nyad supporter, maybe you can ponder that while you are waiting for your credit card to process.
I speak for myself and no-one else. I came to believe that the level of deception was deliberate and purposeful, some unwittingly so by crew chosen with little understanding of the context and apparently no guiding rules.
The extent of that contravention is unknown. Experienced marathon swimmers and crew, who know what we are looking at, who can make judgements based on knowing when something looks wrong, will keep going back to this brief video when Diana Nyad is supposed to be going at her fastest pace due to a current assist.
The public through Diana Nyad’s website and Daily News of Open Water Swimming and repeated public speaking and writing were led to believe that the swims would be attempted unsupported, especially the 2011 and first 2012 swim.
In the absence of published rules, I can only infer that Diana Nyad contravened rules generally adhered to around the world for over a century. These rules are called English Channel rules and dictate swimming not just in the English Channel but any swim where aren’t specific local rules. They are guidelines. There are exceptions to these rules (Cook, Manhattan) BUT these exceptions are codified and in place BEFOREHAND, and not used to claim records and aren’t directly compared to unassisted swims.
The media and the Diana Nyad team have since the swim repeatedly focused on these words, “English Channel Rules“, and used them in a deceptive manner. “Throw out that stuffy rule book“, said one of Diana Nyad’s team on the forum, showing a profound lack of understanding of the debate. No-one ever said that Diana Nyad had to use these rules. However in the absence of any clarifying guidelines, for which no-one but Diana Nyad herself is responsible, these rules are a universal constant of marathon swimming, like water. Diana Nyad only has herself to blame because she squandered or deliberately misplaced any opportunity to clarify before and after every attempt.
If you want to play games with experts don’t be surprised when they don’t buy your line of bullshit.
I already mentioned that I was contacted, along with other swimmers, to “respectfully” contribute to a discussion of a device under consideration for the second 2012 swim. We’ve seen Diana Nyad use the word pre-emptively respectfully repeatedly with the media and with swimmers, and the media bite this hook. I’m not the most perceptive person you’ll meet in person but damn it if even I didn’t see it for what it was; media manipulation by an expert, to an uncomprehending, uncritical audience, and damn it if it doesn’t remind me of how when Lance Armstrong was questioned he always used cancer as the response to divert.
Prior to September 2013 the most discussed marathonswimmers.org forum discussion was the 2012 discussion of Diana Nyad’s second attempt of that year. Following the announcement of her “success” on her fifth attempt in early September this year, the forum lit up with discussion of that swim, of which thread I initially stayed clear. It has became the most discussed topic in forum history. What that tells you is that the majority of marathon swimmers, best qualified to understand and support or question, were engaged.
As I wrote previously those threads are fascinating reading and essential if you want the context and the thoughts of a wide selection of actual marathon swimmers, and also of some Diana Nyad crew and supporters. There were extraordinary revelatory moments, amongst which was swimmer Andrew Malinak’s actually scouring of the data from Diana Nyad’s website, that led to the questions about Diana Nyad’s speed increase after thirty hours. It led to the subsequent engagement by Diana Nyad’s webmaster, Chris. (Had Diana Nyad ensured her Observers were of the same calibre of transparency as Chris, this issue could have been over by now). And Sarah Thomas’ hugely popular articulation of how many feel, and also Niek Kloot’s detective work on Walter Poenisch.
It’s a lot isn’t it? The forum, the blogs, the newspaper and online articles, the media interviews, this seemingly interminable series…How can you really come to a definitive conclusion?
How can I get this monkey off my back? A soupçon of Socratic Method, cut by Occam’s Razor, leavened by gut feeling. Questions and answers. (Or lack of answers in this case).
Throughout this controversy there has been one recurring issue for actual marathon swimmers, rather than the adoring public, an issue that’s been growing: The question of integrity.
I’ll put it another way: There are serious questions over Diana Nyad’s probity and trustworthiness.
“But she’s a 64-year-old woman who did an astonishing swim you couldn’t do! She’s an amazing inspiration”.
Yes, I’ve already heard that. Playing to the gallery means nothing. Had Diana Nyad taken the most simple of steps, we could have been all celebrating her. But most of the people best qualified to understand Diana Nyad and her claimed success certainly aren’t so doing. You need to grasp that fact. The fact that most marathon swimmer’s don’t seem to believe Diana Nyad is a very telling weathervane.
Diana Nyad’s actions in the 1970’s and 1990’s were a demonstration of her questionable probity when she attacked both Walter Poenisch and Suzie Maroney in the media over their respective Cuba to Florida assisted swims. She attempted to subvert Walter Poenisches attempt and unleashed a vicious attack on him afterwards, only retracted on legal threats. For over 30 years she falsely claimed to be the first woman to swim Around Manhattan.
Yet she herself is now being defensive and even duplicitous about similar issues. Her 2010 and 2012 Cuba to Florida swims incontrovertibly showed that she was still not above misleading everyone prior to, during and after swims. It is safe to say that those swims alienated many members of the marathon swimming community. She held onto and got into support boats. She herself was the cause of the alienation, not this bad man from Ireland. She took the trust people initially placed in her as a swimmer, and she destroyed it.
She’s not the first swimmer to make dubious claims, and won’t be last but this is the swim where I draw my own line.
Here is the swim and the swimmer where I choose to say: No. I don’t believe you. Clearly, so anyone who chooses can hear.
Diana Nyad demonstrated a complete lack of interest in rules.
Rules. A small word, a big concept, but one that is easy to grasp. Rules are essential as guidelines for all human activity, and specific in the sporting realm. Clear published rules allows us the ability to judge and evaluate, to demonstrate fair play and to aid in the evaluation of effort, to present a level playing surface for all competitors. To separate the merely excellent from the truly historic or exceptional.
Rules aren’t a burden. They also protect the average honest athlete giving their all to the effort, dividing them from the cheats and the self-promoters. One of the features of rules is that they need to be published. Why do I have to explain that rules need to be known to everyone BEFOREHAND? I’m frustrated that, in light of this shambles, I, an adult, am trying to explaining what rules are for and why, to you, other adults, all of whom already know this.
Nor did Diana Nyad care about what actual marathon swimmer thought, despite her later protestations, despite the faux-respect of the panel. Our concerns previously had no effect on her, and she had only engaged when it became clear that we were being listened to. We weren’t disgruntled because we were feeling left out, or that we wanted to be in control, as the Extreme Dreamers would assert.
A brief perusal of the marathon swimmers forum will demonstrate a lively, energetic, engaged community, celebrating and supporting swims and swimmers around the world.
Instead we had genuine questions, that could so easily have been assuaged with information and some planning changes. They knew we were here, so they had to have known the questions and concerns. Diana Nyad also didn’t choose to get the marathon swimmers on her side, and you have to wonder why, since media and public attention is clearly at the heart of what she desires. Could it be that actual experienced swimming Observers would be so much more difficult to bamboozle?
Diana Nyad has only reacted in 2013 because our debate got outside the swimming community, first published by Simon Griffiths and H2Open magazine on Septemeber the 2nd, then followed by a National Geographic web story and then Suzanne Sataline for the New York Times, which then very quickly became the story of the week. We were tarnishing the image, and far more importantly I suspect, the earning potential, and casting a shadow on her ego, so clearly seen in her claims of a new world record.
Her probity and integrity was amply demonstrated (and probably irreparably to the swimming community) to be at odds with the values of the marathon swimming community when she attacked volunteers. This is no small matter for people who place their dreams and lives into the safekeeping of those selfsame volunteers. The About page on Loneswimmer.com written well over three and a half years ago expressly thanks those who have helped me in my minor achievements. Every swimmer I know understands this. Without exception.
People have pointed out her attack on what she perceived as her competitors, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel, both of whom have acted in an entirely more honourable and open fashion regarding the same swim. I do think it’s possible to put that aside, even though a lack of willingness to help others in the community achieve swims is also anathema to marathon swimmers. The attack on the volunteers is very different and a repulsive attitude to the worldwide cadre of swimmers.
The post-panel email discussion went on for over a week. Other additions to the panel included Skip Storch, who had attempted the swim in the 90’s, Captain Timothy Johnson, Author of The History of Marathon Swimming, Sid Cassidy, a Team USA coach, and I’ve heard Lynne Cox was listening in (allegedly). Members of the panel were part of the post-swim discussion. A few days in, it seemed to me, (very subjective), that there may be a move to have some kind of a vote by the IMSHOF members, who would have included from the panel, I think, Steve Munatones, Skip Storch and Penny Dean.
Concerned something like a “star-chamber” might arise to decree the swim unassisted, Evan and I decided to give marathonswimmers.org forum members their chance to cast their decision. For 48 hours we ran a simple unannounced vote on the forum on this simple question:
Was Diana Nyad’s swim assisted or unassisted?
Unlike the WOWSA awards this wasn’t a public vote. We allowed no new membership applications during the time to avoid vote brigading, (the biggest problem with the WOWSA awards), no comments were allowed in the thread and there was no prior notification of its announcement, and no canvassing. Just a simple vote. Diana Nyad repeatedly spoke about the consensus of the marathon swimming community after her swim. Here was a way to see what that consensus was.
After 48 hours the vote was
82 votes forAssisted
2 votes forUnassisted
Actual marathon swimmers had spoken. Overwhelmingly and unambiguously.
The consensus Diana Nyad which looked for has happened, but that consensus of marathon swimmers said her swim is Assisted. Which makes her the Third Assisted Cuba to Florida swimmer after Walter Poenisch and Suzie Maroney.
Two weeks after this vote, Diana Nyad, who reportedly said “I don’t want the record if they’re going to call it assisted because that’s the equivalent of fins or shark cage” is still doing the media rounds.
I’m almost there, I promise, just one more to go. Stay with me and let’s all see this series through to the end.
As I said previously, I endured three hours of the panel on the telephone before bailing out about thirty minutes before the end. You are surely thinking to yourself, only three hours compared to this unending series? Yes, that’s how I feel also, actually. :-)
Swim promoter, panel organiser, Moderator and former Observer and Sponsor of Diana Nyad, Steve Munatones said there would be people from Hawaii to Germany on the call, but mine was the only voice from outside the USA, and as such I felt uncomfortable, a token voice of the stuffy English Channel community. The bad European from Hollywood movies, my Irish brogue an unusual substitute for the more common clipped tones of a German or English film baddie, (apologies to my English and German friends)! Rampant paranoia, I have to admit.
Because this wasn’t the world of swimming I know, the world of shite-talk about swimming, and craic* with friends at the Guillamene, in Sandycove or Dover, going for a Sandycove lap or three. Instead this was a world of famous swimmers, lawyers, media and manipulation.
Other facts contributed to my paranoia. In the lead-up to the call, Steve Munatones emailed that he was looking forward to my contributions on the subject of the current. This set off more alarm bells for me. I write here about tides and currents for swimmers, but mostly tides because I think it’s a woefully under-represented subject that’s really important for safety, and if I can learn something and pass it on that’s helpful.
Ocean currents are specific to their region and as such beyond my limited knowledge. I’m not even a sailor. The only ocean navigation map I have studied in any great detail is the English Channel map. I quickly disabused Steve of any notion that I claim expertise. I can understand the global and macro regional details but that’s about it and that’s only because I like reading about that stuff.
It was enough that I had to suffer the essential charade of the panel. Can we agree that I did so you didn’t have to?
I’ll stick mostly to my own input, with an occasional foray into other’s contributions as I saw them. Should any of the other panel members wish to add any comments here, please email them to me guys, and I’ll add them here (publicly identified Panel Members 1 to 10, number 11 Mike Lewis has his own paid outlet, he was a conflict-of-interest previous Nyad Observer, he can take a flying jump) .
The call started with Moderator and Diana Nyad supporter and swim promoter Steve Munatones introducing everyone very briefly, extended introductions would have been interminable (like this subject) and intimidating (for me).
Diana Nyad made a lengthy opening statement. The word respectfully was used by Diana Nyad again, apparently without any irony. It included a statement that she has never cheated in her life. As with almost everyone she said, I felt her statements were not for the panel or the subject, but with a firm eye to the media. Yes, I had preconceptions. I am not at all embarrassed by this.
Ding, Ding. Round 1
The significant first portion of the call contained John Bartlett outlining experience with his confirmation of the existence of the northerly current. Then we went through a round of Q&A with each member of the panel. John Bartlett answered some, Diana Nyad or Bonnie Stoll answered some others. Then next round would move onto the next subject.
You can jump the technical parts by going straight from the bold arrow below, to the next bold arrow further down.
I can swim in the winter in Ireland because as every Irish school child knows, the 50º+ North Latitudes of Ireland and Great Britain is kept clear of ice during the winter months by the North Atlantic Drift current. This is part of the Global Thermohaline Circulation, also known as the Global Conveyor Belt. The North Atlantic Drift current is fed by the warm Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream comprises two main components, the important-for-our-discussion Florida Current and the Antilles Current which flows north and east of Cuba to where both join off the Florida coast. The Florida Current flows out of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean between Cuba and the Florida Keys, a long stretch of interconnected islands and atolls. Deep breath.
The Florida current is fed by the warm waters and weather of the western Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico and must flow in a north-easterly direction to exit into the Atlantic, since of course there is land is the way otherwise. This gap between Florida and Cuba is known as the Florida Strait. A Strait, like the Dover or Cook Straits, is a narrow stretch of water that connects two larger bodies of water and as such is usually typified by strong currents, the so-called finger-over-a-garden-hose effect.
To swim from Havana to Florida, Diana Nyad had to swim across this current to the north, when it would be trying to push her North-east, away from land. To see the effects on the path of a swimmer swimming across a normally three knot tidal current, look at the first section of almost any English Channel swimming map of which there are many out there. (Ignore Trent’s world record map as atypical). Aand relax.
——>> End of jump.
Part of the problem of analysing the swim is that Diana Nyad apparently swam almost due north across the usual flow of current or had it flowing directly behind her pushing her toward land. And she did so at a greater than world record pace. Bored yet? You will be.
John Bartlett, Team Nyad Navigator essentially said that the team had the advice of an oceanographer who used a process the oceanographer called altimetry. This is a phrase for measurement of the ocean surface height, presumably from satellite. I have been unable to determine the origin or wide-spread use of this phrase in meteorology but I do know satellite altimetry is used to measure tidal movement. Measuring the ocean height would lead to the identification of upwellings and downwellings. These are the flows of cold water (upwellings) and warm (downwellings water of water from and to the ocean surface respectively. One will supposedly come with an anti-clockwise rotation, the other with a clockwise rotation, I can’t remember which is which. I do know that other things such as prevailing wind also affects the surface current direction of either.
I’d like to point here out that I, a self-identified disbeliever of the Diana Nyad story and not-at-all-an-oceanographer-or-navigator, can convey this more clearly than any of the vague hand-waving of Team Nyad outside the panel, and apparently better than Diana Nyad, who was seemingly content to not understand any of this, as she herself said. I don’t really even want to go into the incredulous story of what they claimed about last year’s swim but briefly the pilot and handler knew the 2012 swim wasn’t possible but they went out for 40 hours of swimming anyway. Seriously.
Correct identification of the current state of the ocean would allow Team Nyad to catch an anti-clockwise gyre (rotational current) across the prevailing north-easterly current and essentially catch a free ride to Florida, pushed by currents. It sounds good to a layman. I’m a layman, so I can’t really interrogate it. All this took quite a while and I found John Bartlett credible, like I found Diana Nyad’s webmaster Chris, (who unfortunately had nothing to do with the swim). I know, you are shocked, you thought I was going to argue with everything. If so you misunderstand me.
John Bartlett says that he confirmed the presence or absence of this current over many trips out in the Florida Straits over at least two years, taking about 100 drift measurements. He spoke about using special equipment, but I’ve seen ordinary boats with regular GPS identify currents or lack thereof, so that means nothing one way or t’other, it’s just curious.
I wanted to use my first round of questions in a particular area related to this so I started asking about the measurements. I wanted to get to a quantification of the area of measurement, and measurement deficiency, and a feel for the GIS grid of the prediction. No idea what I’m talking about? That’s ok, I doubt any of the other panel members did either and please remember I really am not even slightly expert in these areas. it might be worthwhile taking a jump over the following section, as I can tell you now it led nowhere.
Here’s an analogy: Weather forecasting in the upper-latitude eastern United States is excellent and very detailed and specific in time compared to the western Irish Atlantic seaboard where it’s less accurate. Do you know part of the reason for this? The prevailing winds are the same for both in the same latitudes. But one of the factors that improves the US forecasting is the large number of sensors to the west. You can have a large number of sensors…because it’s land. West of Ireland is the Atlantic, and measurement is difficult because … deep water. Satellites are increasingly used but local sensors are still essential. The further apart the sensors the quicker minor variations between them turn in unexpected localised weather changes. Weather is a chaotic unpredictable system (technically a dynamic non-linear system), and this is exactly what the butterfly flapping its wings analogy is intended to convey. The GIS grid is the Geographical Information System, or more simply the size of the measurement grid.
I was interested in trying to understand measurement time and distance intervals to see how granular they could get in identifying the magic current. To identify such a current, I think you would need a very small, very granular GIS measurement grid. Small in GIS terms is still intervals of miles.
This line went nowhere, when John Barlett told us there was no Oceanographer to answer these details, so I stopped and I’m finally explaining here what I was trying to understand. If I had any chance of identifying the feasibility of the theory, I needed to understand how it is identified and measured.
I know Forrest Nelson, President of the Catalina Channel Swimming Association had a conversation separately a few days before with John Barlett, but I don’t know any more than that.
Oh, you want another more apt analogy, that speaks specifically to the subject of marathon swimming?
——>> End of jump
The English Channel waters, (yawn, yes here we go again, Diana Nyad supporters) west of Cap Gris Nez are the most swam marathon waters in the world and the highest marine traffic lanes in the world. The charts are therefore pretty complete and the waters relatively well understood. Yet, as many channel swimmers and pilots will tell you should you ask, (as I have ’cause I’m a Channel Junkie), unexpected currents, weather shifts and changes of timing regularly occur. Fast swimmers are slow, slow swimmer are fast. Tide show up 30 or more minutes early, or late. Localised micro-depressions appear (one did during Sylvain Estadieu’s swim) not visible on weather forecasts or radar. And this happens in an area with all this traffic and recording on both sides, and two actual marine traffic control centres exist. Get my point? Unpredictable, in a smaller area, even with fairly close measurements. So you can extrapolate from there why I was asking: I can guess cold water temperatures all I like based on experience, but I have to calibrate that against an actual thermometer.
The Scientific Method considers physical testing (i.e. measurement) as important as the actual hypothesis. Intervals and measurement accuracy are important for understanding, and hence for prediction.
Now there have been many public discussions of the biggest questions over Diana Nyad; the sudden and sustained speed increase, the direction, the lack of feeding. I’m not going to go through them one by one here but I will address them later. Once again, I point you back to the forum discussion which has all the relevant information. There will be no surprise data announcements in these posts. Instead I’m trying to do what I said to Diana Nyad I was going to try in my second round questions to her, to synthesize what was already available or discussed.
Round 2. Seconds out. Let’s keep those punches above the belt.
Penny Dean, a global legend in open water swimming, Steve Munatones’ and former US open water coach, former English Channel world record-holder and the woman who literally wrote the book on open water swimming, (sigh) had been at best sycophantic on the first round. She apologised to Diana Nyad for the questions she was being asked, obviously by the rest of us. But Penny had no right to apologise for us. Prior to any real discussion she congratulated Diana Nyad. I don’t like writing that and she is entitled to say anything she pleases given her record especially compared to me, but I really don’t know why she was on the panel, if this was “a review panel”.
Possibly sensing the whitewash direction of the call, some of the panel shifted to a more direct path for the “second round”. Since I don’t want to speak for any of the panel I can say the questions varied and Barbara Held, someone who claims large admiration amongst marathon swimmers went directly to the point of the seven and half hours with no feeds. Dave Barra questioned which record Diana Nyad was actually claiming. Ron Collins asked about the apparent freshness of Diana Nyad immediately post-swim. Richard Clifford questioned on the discrepancy between videos and what was reported, such as apparent stroke rate, and recorded comments from the navigator. Evan Morrison asked specific questions about whether she exit the water or touched the boat and then about training. The answers were no (she didn’t exit), she couldn’t remember touching the boat, her speed is 50m per minute in training, i.e. two minutes per 100m but she can hold this “forever” and the unsolicited nonsense about peeing in the pool, again done for the media.
I’ll have to let those guys give their own public impression should they wish to so do but they all sounded great to me. I didn’t feel alone.
The call had already heard plenty of faux drawing-room courtesy, straight from Oscar Wilde with lots of effusiveness on both sides. I was somewhat sucked in, I’m now embarrassed to say. But this was an American call after all, I was the interloper, replete with Irish scepticism.
When the second round of questioning came to me, I waffled too long in asking my question. I hadn’t prepared it other than having it on a vague list, as I had no idea which way the call would develop. So I winged it, which led to a too-long introduction from me.
I was far too long-winded. But my essential question did make it through clearly: Why, in a swim with global visibility and of a commercial nature, therefore unlike any other swim, didn’t Diana Nyad set out to maximise transparency and use fully independent observers?
We as humans are attuned to communication signals. I sensed, in the ether of telephonic cyberspace, where the words in a telephone network switch meet, that Diana Nyad had just crossed me off her Christmas Card list.
The response was frosty and disingenuous, at best. As with earlier, I felt the answer really wasn’t going for me, but for the media, but further that I had made her uncomfortable. In the response, (no “I’m glad you asked that question” for me) Diana Nyad said that she had been out of marathon swimming for 30 years and was unaware of the rules, and wasn’t aware that she needed to personally know the observers.
At this point Penny Dean intervened and started congratulating Diana Nyad again.
So I had to stop her.
Me, a nobody, had to stop one of the most famous open water swimmers of the latter half of the twentieth-century from speaking. You couldn’t hear it in my voice but I think there was a quaver. It was in a way one of the most scary moments of my swimming life.
I disabused Diana Nyad of her response. I said that the rules of marathon swimming go back 138 years and they were in place before she stopped and are well-known, and that I wasn’t postulating a mass conspiracy theory, nor did I believe in one. Essentially she was putting words in my mouth, (the old straw-man argument tactic, say your opponent said something they didn’t so you can knock it down).
She responded again this time saying that no-one in the marathon swimming community reached out to her. This response was utter nonsense.
If you’ve read the forum thread you will know that I said that a person (Ned Denison) had emailed Penny Palfrey, Diana Nyad and Steve Munatones 18 months previously with three options on how to handle a future swim, including an offer to actually set up an zero-cost official Florida Straits Swimming Association and allow Penny and Diana Nyad substantial input to setting out Florida Strait rules. Thus giving Diana Nyad exactly what she and her supporters have been saying, that only she or the first person to do it, which at that time could only have been Penny.
You’ll also know from the forum that she said she never received it, despite that Penny Palfrey and Steve Munatones had, and that Steve Munatones was actually sitting beside her at that point. Steve neglected to mention this for the camera or anyone else. Diana Nyad said she couldn’t respond to an anonymous critic, which is fair, so I pointed out that the person (Ned) is an Honour Administrator in the International Marathon Swim Hall of Fame, which at least means a lot of people know him. When I said I would give the name to Steve Munatones privately, he never mentioned that he already knew whom it was.
Why would she turn this down? I can postulate that any prior disclosure of any rules at all was still too limiting to what she had planned.
On the forum Angel Yanigahara of Team Nyad later said that “perhaps only Diana, Chloe and Penny should make the rules for this body of water“. She is not the only supporter of Diana Nyad to make a similar claim. Indeed Diana Nyad herself back in the 1970’s claimed that the first swimmer got to make the rules, though of course Diana Nyad herself ruined the life of the first person to swim those waters, Walter Poenisch.
Would you like that bread buttered on both sides, Diana? And how about a slice of this special cake-that-you-can-have-and-eat also?
I also mentioned that Team Nyad had of course directly Tweeted me the previous year soliciting my opinion and input, as mentioned previously.
As was the tone of the entire call, when it suited Diana Nyad, her team were responsible whether either things went right or things went wrong, to suit herself and she, a journalist, doesn’t know how to use Twitter or Facebook.
I finished with the specific point that she had made two demonstrably incorrect claims regardless of what she had just claimed.
With that I was done. My foreboding of a whitewash and setup didn’t waver. I think that the reason Diana Nyad didn’t use the panel more widely afterwards was that she assumed we would be more easily wooed or impressed or roll over. Many important questions were never answered or even addressed, especially the other Observation questions.
Diana Nyad never did answer that question I’d asked.
I got two hours sleep and left for Dover, hoping to decompress from this nonsense and to crew for Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel butterfly. English Channel two-way legend Lisa Cummins was sitting beside me on the plane, and had to listen to it all, poor her. (If you haven’t visited Dover beach with Lisa, you really don’t understand how she is viewed).
I’ve finished writing. I’m not even sure how to describe the next part except it’s long. Long even by these standards. There will be a final part after that, just in time for the Global Conference in Cork. I didn’t originally plan it that way, I found no way to comprehensively cover the subject and we know that DNOWS won’t do it. Far too many words and too much time on this for me.
*I refuse to clarify this post with a definition of the indefinable yet quintessential Irish word craic. The easiest way to find is to come to the Global Conference in Cork. Lots will be had. For giggles, you could watch Steve Munatones and I dance warily around each other. We should teach him The Siege of Ennis … in swim togs. (Someone should teach me first).
Let me start with a note: this series is growing all the time as I write. I had no plans to turn this into the Infinite Jest of marathon swimming, but the words keep pouring out. I have no idea how much longer it will be right now, or if I will have any writing left in me when it’s done. Though I will have to write up Sylvain’s fantastic English Channel butterfly swim, at least. Consider this due warning.
On Monday 16th September I received an invitation from swim promoter Steve Munatones of Daily News of Open Water Swimming to take part in an “expert review” of Diana Nyad’s swim.
I can only surmise that this was either because this blog is fairly widely read by open water swimmers around the world, or because I’m a co-founder of the forum, (or some mix of both). I’m sorry I keep saying this, but in a way no-one is more perplexed than myself by my apparent notoriety in the tiny world of open water swimming. I (used to) love writing about the subject, love the people, and the community, but do so with a certain knowledge of my inadequate experience and swimming skill compared to many others, and I regularly bristle at any externally imposed obligation or responsibility to be more sensitive, or to be a leader, even when it comes from friends. Lone and all that.
What I like most about writing my blog is the hope that it will be useful for swimmers and aspirants. Nothing gives me a reward like someone saying “Thanks” or That was useful. Nothing motivates me like a perceived attack on friends.
I see Diana Nyad as an overt attack on swimming friends by attacking the integrity and ethos of the community as a whole, and therefore on my particular individual friends by extension. (That’s the way my mind works).
Maybe this is burnout speaking, in trying to lay this out for you, to explain what and why and part of who I am and how that shapes my opinions. Maybe it’s the self-indulgence of blogging finally emerging, when I am usually more rigourous in controlling my writing.
Okay, back to the panel. Finally, says you…
The panel invitation opened with:
Objectives: To gather a group of experienced and knowledgeable marathon and channel swimmers to:1. address concerns that Diana Nyad did not swim from Cuba to Florida as she represents2. address specific questions regarding Diana Nyad’s swim details as reported on her blog3. review the data and oceanographic information collected by the GPS unit during the swim
The panel included the people below. Where I have met or had previous contact with the person, I’ll put their names in blue.
1. Forrest Nelson, President, Catalina Channel Swimming Association
2. Evan Morrison, Board Member, Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association Co-Founder, Marathon Swimmers Forum
3. David Barra Member, Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming Creator, 8 Bridges Swim
4. Michelle Macy, Member, Oceans Seven. (I seriously doubt she remembers, we were doing a 5k swim in Deal in the English Channel organised for the Irish Channel swimmers in Dover in 2013 by local swimmer Paul Massey).
5. Barbara Held, Member, Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming
7. Ron Collins, Race Director, Tampa Bay Marathon Swim
8. Donal Buckley, Co-founder Marathon Swimmers Forum. (What the hell am I doing in this company?)
9. Richard Clifford, Kayaker and attorney.
10. Penny Dean, Former English Channel record holder & USA Swimming Team Coach. (She literally wrote the book on open water swimming).
11. Mike Lewis, Open water swimming photojournalist, SwimSwam. (It should be noted that Mike Lewis has also been part of the Open Water Source network of Steve Munatones and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming network, who wrote an unintentionally funny, due its utter lack of understanding, hagiography of Diana Nyad’s swim the very day of the panel).
It was mostly an intimidating panel of which to be a member.
The panel would also include: Diana Nyad Team Members
1. Diana Nyad, Swimmer. Allegedly.
2. John Barlett, Navigator
3. Roger McVeigh, Observer
4. Janet Hinkle, Observer
5. Angel Yanagihara, Crew Member & Jellyfish Expert
6. Bonnie Stoll, Handler
There was a list of questions that were due to be addressed cut and pasted below in italics:
Explanation: John Barlett will explain the following to provide background information for the panel:1. How was the GPS data collected?2. Where is the GPS data stored? 3. How was the decision made to start the swim?4. How did Diana traverse across the Straits of Florida and navigate across the Gulf Stream?
Roger McVeigh and Janet Hinkle will explain the following:1. Where were they positioned during the swim?2. How did they collect the information and fill out the Observer forms?3. What was their experience as observers?
Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll will explain the following:1. How was the stinger suit and protective wear put on and taken off during the swim?2. Did you touch the boat inadvertently or purposefully?3. How was Diana fed?Questions: 1. Did Diana get on the boat to rest?2. Did Diana touch a kayak or another swimmer to rest?3. Did Diana use neoprene, hand paddles or fins to propel herself?4. Was Diana pulled along the boat?5. How did Diana continue without eating or drinking for over 7 hours during the swim?6. How did Diana put on and take off her protective swimwear?7. How was the Sting Stopper applied?8. How did Diana swim so fast during some portions of the swim, specifically during the 27th through 30th hour?9. Is her swim a world record?10. Others
During the day leading up the call, Steve Munatones told us that media would be present. My feeling from the initial invitation, which never subsided, was of great wariness. The late addition of media was portrayed as unavoidable, thought it seemed the point was to serve the story and the self-publicity of Diana Nyad and of course Open Water Source the network of sites of Steve Munatones who operates Daily News of Open Water Swimming.
“Diana Nyad faces critics“, the headline wrote itself before we even began.
We were given the option of pulling out, but you can guess the worse headline in that event. It felt like a set-up.
I’m certain Steve Munatones would deny it but I doubt all of the people on the panel would disagree with me. Actually that’s a bit ambiguous; I am sure many of the panel members would agree with me.
Disclaimer: I rarely read Daily news of Open Water Swimming now. I once said to Steve Munatones that “have you seen DNOWS” was a regular conversation starter but I can’t remember the last time I heard that. It’s still far bigger than Loneswimmer.com and Steve Munatones has accomplished more in swimming than I ever will so take my comments in that context.
Loneswimmer is a blog. I don’t pretend to be a swim journalist. This is opinion, with facts that I can verify as needed. From something with News in the tile, I expect critical analysis and verification. If you want actual news of swimming though, use H2Open.com or other online sources. If you want cheerleading then DNOWS is your venue. If you want to publicise your swim, hell, send it to me, plenty of people read loneswimmer.com and I could do with a break from writing. This doesn’t apply to Diana Nyad.
I’m just a guy. Don’t automatically trust me if you like my blog. Blind belief is dangerous no matter where you aim it, I don’t want yours. But don’t automatically trust people who want to convince you of a story for an ulterior motive.
I do this for fun. At least, I used to, not recently. (You have little idea how much I am questioning the future of loneswimmer.com and coming to no conclusions).
There was always a bigger story here, and the media cannot understand our sport. The Diana Nyad story seemed exactly designed for public consumption, full as it was of endless empty fortune cookie exhortations to “dream”, to “believe” and to “overcome”.
Diana Nyad’s previous $10,000 to $15,000 fee for motivational speaking, a film already out on the day before I am writing this (faster than many Channel swimmers can release their personal videos onto YouTube) , website merchandise and you would be surely justified expecting a big book for the Christmas market, well, what was that point about asking who benefits again?
Mere hours before the call, an email emerged that had been sent from Steve Munatones to the International Marathon Swim Hall of Fame Board of Directors, which I and others read as escalating our suspicions of a set-up. Steve said in response that he was just as entitled to his opinion, which of course no-one ever denied. What we questioned was the explicit conflict of interest and lack of partiality.
Aside: I need to clear something up. I could reproduce emails but I don’t because I consider them private. But I can tell you that since early 2012 most emails I have sent that have included Steve Munatones in the circulation list are marked as Not For Publication. I did not like seeing my words used on DNOWS without my permission. Also Evan and I have repeatedly explained to Steve the etiquette of using discussions on the forum without reference.
All Diana Nyad’s team had to do on the panel was repeat one thing: It was the current. It was the current. It was the current. Someone on the forum calls it the “magic current“.
We were the suckers rounded up to provide the posse of bad guys, to add the final chapter to the Christmas book. You can see that final chapter in your mind, can’t you: “Just when, after all these years, I thought the hardest part was over…”
It was all the audience, the media and the public only needed, and only wanted to hear.
In the next part I will discuss parts of the call. At over three hours long before I left I will stick almost entirely to my own questions and opinions rather than a more forensic or comprehensive accounting. It will include one of the more scary moments of my swimming life, which happened on dry land on a phone.
* Cúchulainn, has been called the Irish Achilles. Look him up. The second most extant oral history in the entire world outside Greek myth and legend is Irish. Cúchulainn is one of our greatest stories and Hollywood hasn’t put its destructive hands on any of it yet. Eoin Neeson’s slim Irish Myths & Legends, Lady Greogory’s definitive Gods & Fighting Men, and Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, Thomas Kinsella’s famous translation of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, The Táin, are all superb.
I mentioned in my last post that this subject was outstanding.
A “review panel” was recently held to consider Diana Nyad’s claimed Cuba to Florida to swim. (On Tuesday 10th September, 2013)
This panel was unprecedented in marathon swimming. I had nothing to do with the genesis thereof nor arranging or my invitation to the panel.
I consider the holding of such a review panel, regardless of the motivation of the organisers, regardless of any future decision or announcement, an actual success for the marathon swimming community. Ordinary swimmers spoke out, and had to be listened to. Consequently I am inordinately proud of the marathonswimmers.org forum and all its members whatever their opinion.
The next morning, a few brief hours after the lengthy call, I left on a flight to the UK and Dover to crew for an English Channel swim. Then a second trip back to Dover after we got weathered-out on the first trip. So for the rest of the week , shrouded as I was in the Channel Bubble, having the craic with Channel swimmers and friends or sitting on Paraic’s Bench in Varne, I had no time to write about the events leading to the panel, the panel itself or the subsequent story.
The time and distance spent with swimmers from around the world in the home of long distance swimming, including crewing for Sylvain Estadieu’s astonishing English Channel butterfly swim, gave me a breathing space sadly lacking in the previous week. Co-founder Evan Morrison and I were having to spend long hours moderating the discussion on the marathonswimmers.org forum, (for about five days it was taking me eight hours night, finishing at 1 or 2 a.m.) and Evan had to handle all the media requests, I being safely in the despicable land of Old Europe.
Following is my entirely personal perspective. It is not intended to be a comprehensive debate or exploration of the issue but instead to outline the leadup to the panel, and my current thoughts following the panel.
My opinions are informed by my own swimming and crewing experience, a little observing and quite a bit of swim writing by now. And also by discussions with other swimmers and friends from around the world.
While I have written some posts on the forum thread on this subject, a careful reading of the discussion will see it was some time I joined the debate. I’ll explain that below.
The discussion that stirred the press finally, is extensive. It is an order of magnitude greater than most discussions on the forum and will take hours if not days to read. It is technical, passionate, occasionally adversarial or personal, and highly recommended.
Finally, I want to explain in my opening that I’ve chosen to write here for three specific reasons:
My blog allows me the latitude of length. I can explore issues as I see fit without a word constraint.
Diana Nyad doesn’t look to marathon swimmers. She looks to an uncomprehending general public. LoneSwimmer.com reaches a more general audience than the forum, but it is still a specific audience.
As forum co-founder, I actually try to separate the functions of Administrator and Moderator from my personal opinions. The behind-the-scenes moderation during the height of the controversy was considerable and I tried to be balanced. But on LoneSwimmer.com, I can explore and outline my own thoughts unconstrained by the role, even it is only to myself and Evan that this distinction is important.
Diana Nyad was a long distance swimmer in the 1970’s. Her swims included Around Manhattan and Lake Ontario. She was also unsuccessful in three attempts in the English Channel. In 1978 she attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida in a shark-cage and wasn’t successful. She retired in 1979 and spent a career as a successful journalist and author and latterly a motivational speaker. None other than Jim ‘Doc’ Counsilman, a legendary coach in swimming and the man most associated with the scientific study of the sport, famously said of Diana Nyad: “a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist”. I’m a mediocre swimmer, though I usually use the word ‘average’, so I don’t take that as an insult necessarily.
I was mostly unfamiliar with her except for her Bahamas to Florida distance-setting swim in 1979. My immersion, excuse the pun, into Channel and marathon swimming culture and history has been gradual. Like many Channel swimmers, in my early open water swimming days I knew little of the shared history, and few of the great names of our sport, though Diana Nyad was certainly not one of those, except maybe in her head or that of her supporters. There was also a rumour I’d heard that her Manhattan Island swim wasn’t entirely kosher, and we’ll return to this subject later.
Past the age of 60, Diana Nyad returned to distance swimming and an unsuccessful attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida in 2011, two attempts in 2012, and her most recent swim in 2013.
A search of my site will illustrate the change in my opinions. I went from being very interested and a mild fan, through disillusionment and disinterest, to an active contrary stance, before ultimately saying that I was done with any further comment. My opinions didn’t matter, I still don’t think they matter outside the swim community which is all I’m interested in. I am just a swim blogger and hype is always better than truth.
When I first posted about Diana Nyad out of interest, I had reached the dizzy heights of maybe 30 people a day reading the blog. By the time I’d become more antagonistic, I was reaching maybe 500 people a day average. That number hardly changes the world but I didn’t care about the world, the people read loneswimmer are the ones I care about and have written for, not the Diana Nyad fans, not for the public. But I really did mean I was increasingly disinterested and antipathetic. In the end I wanted to leave Diana Nyad to her own devices.
I want you to be clear that I am not veiling my opinions, not sucking you in with a link-bait title to take advantage of a story for site hits, nor do I care about increasing traffic outside my target area of open water swimmers. I’ve been vociferous in my opinions on the subject now for some time.
I don’t buy the hype. I don’t buy the empty exhortations. I don’t buy the story and I literally don’t buy any of the merchandise. My life is full of swimmers I’ve met whom I admire, who feats astonish and inspire me. I’m supportive of these people, so for me to develop such a strong adversarial opinion is in itself unusual.
And you know what? This my blog. You come here. You don’t like my opinion, that’s fine. But my opinion is free. I don’t charge you for it. So in that way, it’s worth exactly what you pay for it.
But if you come here with some stupid empty threat that I couldn’t do what Diana Nyad did, nor swim what she swam? That’s true but sod off because Diana Nyad couldn’t do what I did. I and my friends don’t take money from anyone to swim, we don’t twist the truth about swims, and as a consequence we can walk into any group of marathon swimmers in the world with our heads held high. If you are new here, looking to argue with me, you better be prepared to step into my world. My opinion shouldn’t matter to you but if you come here for it, it is a valid experienced opinion. Vacuous insults and treats (treats would be nice!) threats mean less than nothing to me and the mere fact of them only colours my opinion even more, because such behaviour is utterly at odds with almost everything I’ve experienced about the sport, which is usually open, welcoming, friendly, supportive and collaborative.
Right up front I want you to know my opinions and you might as well have them raw.
I had four main objections that had developed to Diana Nyad’s swims:
Deliberate misleading of the public and supporters by not publishing any rules or guidelines before any of the swims.
In the absence of published rules, seeming disregard of established and rules. Diana Nyad’s team’s use of the phrase English Channel Rules is deceptive to the general public because they never explain that English Channel rules are used worldwide.
Obfuscation of actual events during swims. Briefly mentioned here, much more detail can be found on the forum.
Online attacks of experienced marathon swimmers. This refers to the invitation by Diana Nyad of myself and others to respectfully take part in an online discussion of a proposed heat device. Those swimmers who took the bait were respectful, yet were treated with utter disrespect. I’ve noted Diana Nyad’s repeated masterful use of the word “respectfully” to imply that we are the one who lack it.
All four opinions were to later inform my reaction to the 2013 swim and the review panel so I will very briefly explain the context.
In the attempts of 2012, on both occasions Diana Nyad exited the water onto a boat. Prior to either swim I myself had never seen any mention that getting on the boat would be allowed.
The rules were never clarified, but it was mentioned by swim promoter Steve Munatones, AFTER the exit, that the swim would change to stage swim rules. Governing Rules for the swim were never actually explained before or after any of her swims, even as I write this over two weeks after the panel. Any claimed achievement without guiding rules is meaningless. It is akin to setting the world’s record for standing on one leg, but without rules which specify actually only using one leg … and instead using two legs.
The two other recent Cuba to Florida swimmers, Penny Palfrey and Chloe MacCardel, had both very clearly and transparently discussed their plans and the rules they would use before their respective swims. Penny even initiated a discussion about the use of stinger suits before her swim.
During the 2012 second attempt, the fourth overall it became clear from her own video by her own team that Diana Nyad held onto the boat. Along with this was the exiting of the water onto the boat.
In Part 2 I’ll explore the context of the panel some more and the events and questions before the panel.
In Part Three, I’ll discuss the panel, mostly my own input and interaction and in the final Part 4 where the post-swim and panel events have led me.
For transparency for visitors, below are links to three previous articles I’d written in 2012 on the subject of Diana Nyad.
Two Golden Rules. I’ve said that you can follow whatever swim rules you like, and that there are only two golden rules you need to follow. Publish the rules beforehand, and have a trusted reputable independent observer. Curiously, once again in the 2013 swim, Diana Nyad followed neither.
Comments are disabled for this post. If you really can’t wait until this series closes to insult me, the comments on About page is my preferred location. However unless you can add intelligence or relevant experience to the discussion, don’t expect your comment to see the light of day.
Once I finally decided to go ahead with this series of posts, I decided to wait until the “Quiet MIMS” swim of Saturday the 24th of August was finished, as I did not want it to in any way interfere with any of the swimmers. A marathon swim is always a challenging prospect for swimmers and I had no wish to even slightly disturb anyone’s mental equilibrium beforehand. The title “Quiet MIMS” is NYCSwim’s term for the swim that was open to, as far as I know, a maximum of ten swimmers from July’s MIMS. (They were offered this swim, not free, or for a fuel surcharge, but at a cost of $1,225). Nine swimmers took part. All completed the course. Congratulations to all!
Throughout this series I’ve asked you to keep to the forefront a question most swimmers would understand, a question many swimmers are now asking, based on NYCSwim’s own post-swim communication: Why exactly does MIMS cost an entry fee of $2150, if the fee doesn’t include a boat? That most of the swimmers who have ever swum MIMS have had a boat is irrelevant, when ten swimmers were left without a boat, NYCSwim did not offer any refund. I’ve previously included an NYCSwim post-swim email to one of the swimmers, and it’s worth repeating.
“I know it sounds incredulous that we did not anticipate the boater shortage and the problems that spun from that, however it is the case every year that we do not have enough boaters signed up as the event approaches . . . and then they come out of the woodwork as a result of our final push in the days immediately beforehand.”
The same day as MIMS 2012, while I was swimming around Manhattan, there was a four kilometre local swim race here in Ireland with 100 entrants on the same day. Things didn’t go very well. Tide timing was off and many swimmers were pulled from the water. As I was resting in New York the day after MIMS, I saw the emails, discussions and recriminations. Within a short period of the event, participants, both critical and otherwise, and organisers had their say, and public acknowledgements were made on both sides of mistakes and future improvements.
If such maturity can be shown for local swim, which is entirely voluntary, why is it that it can’t be shown by a commercial organisation that is taking an amount per swimmer that is a multiple by a factor of one hundred, and is known globally?
The Triple Crown of Swimming, is for (self-) promotion of MIMS, “to compare to the famous American horse-racing series” as I was told by the chief organiser and executive of NYCSwim last year and two of the swims are in the US. This would seem designed to appeal to that market, when either the Gibraltar or Cook Channels would make more sense as a third leg. NYCSwim has a FAQ about the English Channel to foster this notion of equivalence to the English Channel. Yet in correspondence to a MIMS 2013 swimmer complaint it wrote:
“Our event is not a solo swim like a channel crossing, and because of this we have to handle all the arrangements centrally. This has benefits—such as making our swim more affordable—and drawbacks”.
Many of the 2013 boat-assisted swimmers, who paid a substantial amount, include successful English and Catalina Channel swimmers (and other locations of course) with a considerable body of knowledge between them of various swims at all levels, including previous MIMS swims.
It’s hard to credit NYCSwim’s claim that MIMS is more affordable. There is no refund because of organisational failings on NYCSwim’s side. Those who wish to swim again face all the same financial costs. NYCSwim seems to want to be compared to or granted equivalence with the Catalina and English Channels, yet to be granted exemption in how it conducts MIMS, and to so do without the transparency available to Catalina and English Channel swimmers. These swimmers have a contract with a professional pilot, a governing organisations with rules, and voting rights for members. Comparing with the English Channel, which NYCSwim fosters: A swimmer who has booked an English Channel solo, who doesn’t get to swim due to weather or a boat problem or other, usually loses no more than the deposit with the pilot, the deposit size varying with the pilot. The worst case scenario is a loss of fifty percent of the total as some pilots require a payment of that amount in the year ending before the booked swim.
Should you consider swimming MIMS?
This post has seen quite a bit of prevarication on my side. What aided my decision was when I was asked by a friend about MIMS 2014 as their next swim. I’d already written a first draft of this and put it aside but I felt the need to answer that person and this question honestly so I sent them the considerably longer first draft of this series, (which has seen over twenty drafts since then). I finally responded and told them that while the idea of swimming around Manhattan is highly attractive, as it was for me, the financial risk that a person would take now seems too high in light of events of MIMS 2013. My own feeling is that any swimmer considering MIMS 2014 (or later), should not apply unless there is a clear indication that the organisation has made significant procedural improvements for the future.
All other considerations aside, disagreements with me on any of this aside, NYCSwim’s own words speak for themselves.
“I know it sounds incredulous that we did not anticipate the boater shortage and the problems that spun from that, however it is the case every year that we do not have enough boaters signed up as the event approaches . . . and then they come out of the woodwork as a result of our final push in the days immediately beforehand.”
Do you want to take that risk?
Following is a list of recommendations for NYCSwim.
These are based on this one average swimmer’s experience of swimming and general requirements for safety. I have had some valued input from many friends and correspondents around the world to this list, but it mostly contains my own ideas, though I believe others will have valuable additions. I believe these actions are required for future swimmers so MIMS can regain (because it has very definitely lost) its place and credibility as a premier global marathon swim event. Some of these recommendations come from other aspects of MIMS 2013 that I haven’t even touched on in this series, which are nonetheless also an indictment of NYCSwim’s handling of the event.
A contract between NYCSwim and each swimmer. This should include a guarantee of a boat per swimmer or an almost full refund (excluding an NYCSwim membership cost) should NYCSwim fail to provide a boat for the swimmer, or ensure the swim starts within a reasonable period of a designated and advertised start time.
Refunds for those swimmers caught up in the MIMS 2013 debacle who did not get to finish and who were listed as boat-assisted, regardless of whether or not they participated in the later “Quiet Swim”, excepting swimmers who might choose to forego the refund in favour of a public guarantee and free entry for 2014.
A procedure to verify and ensure in advance that the boats to be used are fit for use.
Pairing of skippers, swimmers and kayakers with contact details to the swimmers at least a week in advance. UPDATE: Please see the very interesting comment below from Harald Johnson, MIMS 1983 winner, about how things were done before the current NYC took over,when swimmers and boats were paired months in advance.
Confirmation that every boat skipper has a VFH radio and is familiar with its use with guidelines to every skipper of communication and evacuation procedures and foreseeable but abnormal events.
Skippers and kayakers to be present at the previous day’s briefing and participation in online briefings.
While retaining a maximum number of two crew as reasonable, all swimmers should be able to add or substitute crew up to two weeks before MIMS.
Remapping of the NYCSWim.org domain name to NYCSwim.com to make clear its commercial nature.
Risk Assessment and Safety Plans available on NYCSwim’s website.
Clarification of NYCSwim’s rule on water evacuation, specifically that the penalty for a swimmer refusing to evacuate per instructions is disqualification without appeal, in common with other swims.
NYCSwim previously had a policy or guideline of informing swimmers should water contamination be below acceptable levels. NYCSwim should re-iterate publicly its commitment to swimmer stakeholder safety and health.
NYCSwim should collate and publish annual figures of swimmer illness from each MIMS swim before opening up applications for the following year’s swim as part of its avowed Mission Statement.
NYCSwim should publish each year’s water cleanliness test results subsequent to its major swims (in the way that it already publishes previous year’s water temperatures) as part of its Mission Statement. It should improve the reporting of water quality tests on its website and keep these current.
NYCSwim aspires to be and designates itself as a premier global marathon swimming event. I have swum it myself and loved the swim and the location. Swimmers around the world should be confident of its organisation and I make these recommendations in the hope of that the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim will address its failings, improve and prosper.
To re-establish credibility NYCSwim must make changes. These changes must put swimmers first.
I’d like to close with some thanks once again to the many people, around the world who reviewed or contributed to this series, some of whom were consulted for their expertise in different areas: solo swimmers from MIMS 2013 and previously or eligible for future MIMS, relay swimmers, crew, volunteers, publishers, swim directors and lawyers. Without their assistance, these posts would never have been published. I am indebted to them all. I have been given permission for every quotation that I have used. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________All facts I have researched to the best of my ability, any mistakes are unintentional and will be addressed if someone sends new, credible and verifiable information. _______________________________________________________________________________________________________
In Parts Two and Three, I raised a question, a question that overshadows much of the discussion of the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and so needs to remain to the forefront.
What is the significant entry fee ($2150) per swimmer actually for, if not for a boat per swimmer?
The swimmers who were pulled in MIMS 2013 were (almost) all in the same region, that of the confluence of the East and Harlem rivers known as Hell Gate, the first critical timing point for MIMS.
One swimmer told me that as swimmers neared the north end of Hell Gate on the east side, (let’s call them Swimmer A, a four-kilometre-per-hour swimmer), Swimmer A was pulled because they were told they wouldn’t get through the tide. Another swimmer (B), marginally slower, was about ten metres away behind, i.e. further into the tide. There are conflicting reports of what happened: Swimmer A says Swimmer B failed to evacuate the water after instruction, breaking NYCSwim rules. Another report is that Swimmer B never got the message1. Yet another report is that crew of Swimmer B told an NYCSwim land-based official who was stationed on the river bank to monitor in that section that Swimmer B would not evacuate.
The point here isn’t which swimmer says what or even who actually did what. It seems to me that we can actually set aside the assertions of either swimmer, both of whom I can understand and empathise with, and look at a different aspect. Whether a swimmer stayed in thereby breaking NYCSwim rules, or wasn’t accurately communicated to there results in a disturbing implication; that NYCSwim weren’t in complete control of who was in or out of the water.
During MIMS 2013, I asked NYCSwim’s twitter account, using the marathon_swimrs Twitter account that Evan Morrison and I jointly operate, if we could get the number of swimmers continuing. I didn’t ask for names or places. NYCSwim responded;“Just to note, in fairness to swimmers, we won’t be posting results on Twitter or Facebook until the official results are in”. I wasn’t owed an answer but NYCSwim’s response wasn’t directed to the question I asked.
It’s also the case that another swimmer was removed from the water later in the swim to accommodate a ferry. Having to accommodate and give way to ferry traffic is another accepted hazard of MIMS, like thunder and lightning storms. However here it seems NYCSwim did not know until well after the event was finished and was so told by another MIMS swimmer after the award ceremony.
Open water swimming is a serious concern, which we all understand. Safety is all important. Two2 of the people whom I know on the MIMS committee I also have seen to be personally and consistently highly committed to swimmer safety, above all else. If NYCSwim couldn’t account for one or two swimmers out of thirty-nine at any time, that had potentially serious implications.
Swimmers were told repeatedly in briefings that the course would be marked by buoys, including at the previous day’s briefing. They were told that failure to stay in the line marked would result in disqualification and this was emphasised (repeatedly according to some swimmers). Those buoys were not present on the day however. Should the inability to lay those repeatedly emphasised buoys be necessarily laid at the door of insufficient boats, it is nonetheless true that the swimmers were not told before the swim that the buoys would not be present. As any swimmer who has even been given incorrect details about a swim course, check station, buoy or similar during a short three to five kilometre swim or race can confirm, this is enough to discomfort a swimmer. Accurate information is therefore even more important in a 45 kilometre swim.
Another simple question that should be asked is; why the Awards Ceremony was scheduled BEFORE the race was over? What message does this send to the majority of MIMS swimmers?
One thing I haven’t previously mentioned, that affected a lot of swimmers and that NYCSwim put up front in their newsletter, was the unseasonably cold water. I haven’t mentioned it because that’s a swimmer preparation issue. NYCSwim weren’t responsible, it’s not relevant to the other problems. It was undoubtedly tough for swimmers not fortunate enough to have the cold waters if Ireland and Great Britain for preparation.
We all revel in the elegance of a great open water swimmer and know that the elite swimmers don’t get there by accident but through years of hard work. But anyone, anyone who thinks that finishing the course, even last, is less important to the person doing so than it is the person that finishes first, profoundly misunderstands the nature of our sport and most of its participants.
When a swimmer enters MIMS, amongst the many items they must provide are details of crew. It is not possible to change crew at a later date, and up to two crew may be named. This requires asking two people to commit to an event six months in the future, without having the incentive the swimmer possesses. Late substitutions or additions of crew aren’t possible. One swimmer added a crew member at a late date this year.
As we have seen, unlike the English and Catalina the MIMS entry fee is quite obviously NOT for a guarantee of a pilot and boat. There’s nothing wrong with NYCSwim making money or being a commercial organisation. Channel swimmers, (Gibraltar, North, English, Santa Barbara, Catalina) pay pilots for their time and expertise and do so with signed contracts and a clear understanding of contractual obligations on both sides and therefore protection for both sides.
Most swimmers have no objection to anyone earning a living from swimming, many of us would be happy to do it ourselves, some do. But MIMS and NYCSwim seem to want to take a professional fee from swimmers yet provide the service or (lack of) comeback of some volunteer organisations. Not all. Most volunteer organisations are responsive to their swimmers and problems, I refer you again to the swim I mentioned in the previous post in Ireland where tidal problems arose and the organisers publicly engaged in discussion.
Despite the heavy restrictions that swimmers must comply with to enter, NYCSwim, as is now apparent, don’t reciprocate and has refused refunds to swimmers who have directly requested such, being aggrieved over NYCSwim’s failures to run MIMS in a way consonant with the substantial fee.
In the conclusion I’ll ask the question many marathon and prospective MIMS swimmers will now be asking themselves:
Is MIMS 2014 worth the financial risk?
I’ll also consider some recommendations that NYCSwim must consider to save MIMS for future swimmers and return it to we all want it to be, a premier global marathon swimming event.
1 I’m not sure how that would be possible given calls went out over VFH radio. I’ve also had a report from swimmer who successfully finished that their crew thought there was a terrorist attack in progress, such was the chaotic nature of the VHF calls.
2 This is not to say the others aren’t, I’m sure they are, it’s just that I know these two people personally and have seen this demonstrated repeatedly.