Category Archives: Open Water swimming

Understanding Open Water

July 24th, 1883

Niagara maelstrom
Photo used with permission by reddit user zxo

This is a maelstrom.

Indeed the very definition of such, as it’s the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It’s where Captain Matthew Webb tragically died on this day, July 24th, 1883. It was taken by a photographer zxo  and it grabbed my attention immediately I saw it and they gave me permission to use it here.

After his historic, (in a real sense), first ever successful solo of the English Channel on August 24th, 1875, Captain Webb was unable to parlay his global fame into anything more substantial, despite investments of his prize and an overseas lecture tour.

He’d become known as a swimmer, so he swam more.

Exhibition races in Boston and Manhattan, a “world championship race” against his arch-rival to be first across the Channel, Irish-American US Champion Paul Boynton. Boynton had worn and championed the use of an inflatable rubber suit, and had he been first across, marathon swimming would likely be quite different today. (Boynton did an exhibition swim in Dublin down the Liffey river wearing the suit which was watched by 30,000 people). Webb won the championship race also, but a stunt at the Boston Horticultural Show where he floated for 128 hour in a tank didn’t suffice to provide for his young wife and two young children.

His family knew nothing about the Niagara swim. In desperation Webb took up the challenge on a promise of $12,000, a considerable sum in those days. Thousands of spectators were brought by train to watch.

Wearing the same swimming costume as that in which he had swum the Channel, he stepped into the huge current. He started strongly but very quickly the current took him. He threw his arms in the air and was pulled under, where he hit his head on the rocks and died, his body being recovered four days later. Prior to the swim he had expressed his hope that “If I die they will do something for my wife“.

A friend of his, Robert Watson, the journalist who had accompanied him in the boat on his Channel swim, also traveled with him to Niagara. Watson reported: “As we stood face to face I compared the fine handsome sailor I had first met with the broken-spirited and terribly altered appearance of the man who now courted death in the whirlpool rapids. His object was not suicide but money and imperishable fame“.

Any English Channel swimmer cannot but think of Captain Webb, both his feats and his tragedy. We celebrate most commonly the date of his Channel crossing.

But he was a man, more than just a swimmer. It is often said by Channel swimmers that the English Channel changes us. It is rarely mentioned that those changes are not always positive. We cannot but think that out of such achievement came such sadness. And yet also motivation for so many. But we can at least say he achieved his second goal of imperishable fame.

It is not known whether anyone did anything for his wife or if his fame or achievement sustained them in any way. Captain Webb has no living descendants.

A Further Shore – IV – The Town

Subconsciously, I’d pulled the goggles from my face, feeling the familiar discomfort around my eyes as the suction released. They dangled weightless from my fingers.

Above the seafront buildings rose a hill and a town. A road led through the near buildings to disappear into tiered houses that fronted a low hill. I was stunned. Tiny Annestown rested well back from the sea on a road up a hill, a village so small that it had neither a shop nor a pub nor a church and only a dozen houses. Bunmahon lay beyond a stream behind a beach. Stradbally was a kilometre from the shore, and anyway I knew all those villages. I just kept thinking; “I know this coast, I know this coast“. Those villages had tarmac roads, cars, electricity. Modern buildings. All I could think was to seek explanation, comparison, but I had none. My mind whirlpooled around the same vortex. “I know this coast”.

I stood there, a middle-aged slightly overweight man, on a sunny warm afternoon, wearing nothing but Speedoes which were already almost dried in the warm breeze.

It was quiet. Not silent. Peaceful. The breeze was barely audible on various surfaces. The Sea muted its gentle song behind me. My bare feet scraped the sand. I heard the guillemots croak. But I saw no-one. It felt empty. But not deserted. Everything was well maintained. It felt how the Guillamenes feels on mornings I am there by myself. Not abandoned, just that I arrive and swim and leave, without ever seeing anyone, or being seen.

You can feel a temporary emptiness, feel the lack of people, even when you can’t see all the possible locations where they may be. You’ve stepped into your own time and space in a location. Your house isn’t really empty, it’s just that everyone else is out. As I was here. Everyone was out, and I was here alone.

I didn’t look back at the Sea, but I moved forward. I ignored the building on the seafront and entered the lane leading up to the town.

By now I’d dried, but I wasn’t cold. No Afterdrop, no chill. But this was Spring wasn’t it? I should have chills, should need to be dressed. But actually I was warm. The Sun gently warmed my face and chest, feeling like a good Irish late July afternoon. The Sun not strong enough to burn. The swim cap started to feel tight and I took it off also, catching and snagging a few tiny hairs on the back of my neck in the now dry folds of the silicon.

My head scanned left to right, right to left. I was on the main road. Occasional lanes snakes off between houses. At a fork, the right hand road seemed to leave the small town and lead along the coast until it quickly curved back left out of sight. I stayed on the main road up through the town.

I looked at the houses. Individual, well maintained, but overall similar, even differences in size or shape weren’t so broad. The houses were stone of various grey hues. Roofs of slate. Brightly-coloured doors, some full, some half doors. Some half-door tops stood ajar, but I did not consider entering. Square and rectangular wooden-shuttered windows on ground level. Two or even three-storeyed, the lower floors had narrow mullioned windows while the upper floors had circular windows, and many upper floors had hints of turrets. There were flowers in window pots and stone troughs along the roadside.

There were two predominant sounds. The breeze soughed across the slate, a slight susurration. Everywhere was the murmur of water. There were small fountains between houses, and dotted in the centre of the road, with surrounding pools and low walls. Embrasures led from the fountains and narrow runnels ran down stone coursings in the lanes, joining but never widening, only deepening. What happened when there was a rainstorm?  There were shallow open rain gutters in the stone on the road sides but the house were without downpipes. The streams gurgled, fed into and out of the fountains, casting a melody of gently-playing water over the town.

On some stone beside doors, over windows, in the street on slender obelisks, were graven character or letters or runes. There were no hard angles, instead they seemed organic, flowing. I couldn’t comprehend the origin. They weren’t the ancient pre-Celtic Ogham runes. Were they addresses or names or titles? There were no apparent commercial buildings. No signs hung outside. No windows to display wares or attract custom.

I continued on. The lane wound around and switch-backed upwards.

 

Previous Articles

A Further Shore – I – The Arch

A Further Shore – II – The Golden Light

A Further Shore – III – The Harbour

 

An Analysis Of Open Water Drownings

Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).

One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.

In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.

The Irish Water Safety Association (which promotes open water safety and collates Irish drowning figures and for decades has taught people to swim in open water locations) released a report about drowning rates in open water locations, based on 25 years of data collection up to 2012 (not including 2013 which had higher rates due to an unusually good summer).

The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.

The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.

If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.

79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.

In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.

One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.

Irish drowing locationsIreland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.

The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf.  Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).

Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.

If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.

Irish drowning locations breakdownRivers are three times more likely as a location for drowning than the sea, with lakes, which are often assumed to be safer, almost equal to the sea.

Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while [] rural
drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.

The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.

Irish drowning circumstancesSwimming and walking suffered the same level of drowning. If one adds shore angling, more people drown from the shore than from getting into the water. You may recall I wrote a relevant article last year called “There’s no such thing as freak wave, coastal safety is your own responsibility.

You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.

In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.

All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.

The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.

So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.

  • As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
  • Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
  • If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest  that children under 14 should also always be supervised around  water.
  • In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
  • If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
  • Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.

Related articles

Irish Water Safety 25 year report.

WHO media report on worldwide drowning.

CDC US water injuries, 2005 – 2009.

CDC report on natural water setting drownings.

Swambivalence

wm_Custom House Keystones (6)
Edward Smythe’s God of the River Suir on Dublin’s 18th Century Custom’s House.

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.

Swim4Good
Swim4Good, just before starting

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.

The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)
The start in Denis Burke Park in Clonmel (Conor on left, Owen on right)

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.

Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.
Under the first bridge in Clonmel, one of five.

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.

Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas's Bridge, rougher than it seems
Shooting the rapids just past Sir Thomas’s Bridge, rougher than it seems

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.

 

Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan
Ankle deep outside Kilsheelan

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.

The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir
The Doglet watches us approaching yet more rocks before Carrick on Suir

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.

 

Approaching Carrick's old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish
Approaching Carrick’s old bridge, a few hundred metres from the finish

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.

The Abyss

I made the image below for my American Channel swimming friend and one of the MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming co-authors  Elaine Howley.

I’ve seen a few articles on coping with open water swimming fears recently, and I though I’d take a contrary and more visual tack.

If you suffer from the open water heebeejeebies, try taking control and instead of trying to swim away from imaginary monsters, try summoning them, so you control them and become the master or mistress.

Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Nietzsche

Both the feet, and more importantly the eye, are my own … Or is it? Open Water swimming fear 2.resizedClick to embiggen. It’s make a nice desktop wallpaper.!

And here’s a video I hope you enjoy. I finally shot something good with David Dammerman’s camera, so thanks David!

I particularly recommend you enjoy what happens about 2:25 and the last few seconds.

Related articles

Open Water fears listed.

Swimming Glendalough Upper Lake

I didn’t significantly increase my list of new swimming locations in 2013  and have decided to rectify that in 2014, hence the recent trip to Kilmore Quay and the following weekend when we visited the valley of Glendalough in the Wicklow mountains.

Glendalough upper lake northIMG_2309.resized

Situated in the Wicklow National Park, Glendalough  is one of the scenic jewels of Ireland and one of the most popular international tourist destinations in the country. It’s the site of one of the most important and beautiful Irish monastic settlements, which was founded in the sixth century.  The name means the glen or valley of the two lakes. The lower lake is only a few hundred metres long and surrounded by reeds, and holds little or no attraction for a swimmer. The Upper Lake is a fraction under one and half kilometres long and enclosed by the steep high tree-covered valley sides, reaching in toward the foot of the river flowing down off the waterfalls at the head of the glacial valley.

East end of the lake through the trees
East end of the lake through the trees

Unlike the lower lake, indeed, like most lakes as far as I am concerned, which I find to be dull, unexciting and uninspiring, Glendalough draws one in and begs to be swum.

I’ve been in Glendalough a few times this year and last and planned to return to swim the lake, so finally one recent dull summer Sunday morning, just two days after swimming in Owen’s Martin Duggan Memorial in the Blackwater in Fermoy, off we set.

As we descended the last few miles as we crossed over the Wicklow Gap mountain pass above the valley the intermittent thunder showers became increasingly heavy and when at mid-day we pulled into the furthest-in car park nearest the Upper Lake, we couldn’t even leave the car for 15 minutes, so heavy was the deluge. At least the thunderstorms would reduce the numbers of tourists willing to walk the mile or so from the main site up to the lake.

And down at the lake edge, there was almost no-one around, despite the thousands of tourist in the locale. (Apparently, much of a recent TV drama series called The Viking is filmed around this end of the lake. This is mildly ironic as the central feature of the Glendalough area is a Round Tower used to protect the monks from Viking attack).

The lake runs eat to west through the  valley, the water black like most Irish mountain lakes and the  steep sides protect it from wind. It’s no more than a couple of hundred metres at the widest part, and gradually tapers westward. It drains via a narrow river in the north-east corner, and there’s a pebble beach that runs along the eastern end for hundred and fifty metres or so with the long  of so metres.

I did quick temperature check (mmm, 13 degrees Celsius, lovely) then changed in the rain, stuffing my clothes into the box and David Dammerman’s camera into my Speedoes. As I put my ear plugs in, the rain stopped and suddenly we could see sunlight pouring over the high southern rim of the valley wall,  down over the trees climbing the sides, and out onto the lake.

Swimming Glendalough
Swimming Glendalough -heading for the west end

Having earlier checked the lake length on Google Earth, I gave Dee my estimated time and strode into thigh deep water before diving in. (Apparently the doglet, who dislikes the sea and waves, hurled himself into the freshwater behind me, but quickly ran out of steam. I really need to put a swim training plan together for him). Two strokes and the bottom suddenly disappeared as I passed over the steep drop off and out into the black water, which those who’ve never swum in lake with peat run-off can find quite intimidating.

Peat run-off in glacial lakes is often black or, as is the case in Glendalough, a rich amber like good Irish whiskey. The amber colour allows a swimmer to see their hands and feet or another nearby swimmer, like a sepia photograph. At four or five metres distance though it swallows light. Beneath is a pitch blackness like you never experience in the sea which will always have tones of green or grey and the sea at night will have some bioluminescence.

A peat lake is a complete unvarying blackness, reaching into the depths under you. Or is the reaching out of the depths toward you?

The Sun had briefly appeared as I dove in, but then slipped in and out of clouds as I progressed down the lake.

I stopped briefly about half way to take a few photos, though few were of value. For someone used to the complete control of a DSLR camera, the restrictions of a point and click, combined with shooting in the water which restricts angle and often coats the lens with water,  means that more often than not I can’t capture things as I would on land. Unfortunately the water and Sun combined forces against me.

West (far) end of lake with river inflow
West (far) end of lake with river inflow

I headed for the far (west) end. As I neared, the trees on the right-hand north bank thinned, and I realised that a path had winded down the length of the lake. The water temperature dropped suddenly by a degree or more but within a dozen strokes I impacted a sand bank that rose from the deep, and I was forced to stand. Later when we walked in the path by the lake, I saw that I’d hit the silt bank that formed around the entrance of the river down from the waterfall into the lake.

It had taken 30 minutes to swim the lake, which was far longer than a 1500 metre swim should have taken, even with a stop, so I guessed I must have read the map incorrectly. A few photos at the turn and I started back.

Scout The Doglet awaits my return
Scout The Doglet awaits my return

As I traveled up the lake, to add to the entertainment, I decided to deliberately try to give myself the heebeejeebies and summoned some of my favourite water monsters  from the pitch blackness beneath for some brief company. The one which I enjoyed the most was just a giant iris and pupil, which filled the lake underneath, visible to none but me, and I just a mote, swimming over the eye.

Soon, the eye have blinked itself back into blackness, I closed in on the eastern departure beach. I had returned in ten minutes less, so despite the calm surface, the very shallow river draining the lake has added a not-insignificant current flowing eastward.

Glendalough is a spectacular location for a short swim that avoids the boring nature of most lakes.

The est end of the lake at the river exit
The est end of the lake at the river exit

Water nightmares

It’s been a while since I posted any nightmare fuel for open water swimmers, so I thought I might collect a few of my favourites together.

We’ll start gently. Close encounter with a humpback.

One from years ago on the blog, the frilled shark, aka dragon shark.

Remember Brutus the giant Australian salt-water crocodile?

916742-brutus-the-monster-croc

A subtle one, what is the super predator?

This one is fairly well known, and you know, a bit of a traditional swimmer’s scare.

 

Remember the conger eels?

A favourite on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, and Game of Thrones, the lamprey, aka the sea vampire.

As anyone who has ever swum into one knows, plastic bags can be surprisingly scary. What if they were alive?

And then of course, there’s this thing, and honestly, I don’t even care what it is.

and then there's this thing lampray eel

If only I could stop there. There’s worse though.

None of these are as scary as approaching the second corner at Sandycove during the annual challenge race, and seeing Finbarr Hedderman reach out to grab you. Sharks, jellyfish, Finbarr, crocodiles and eels, all pale in comparison beside the last nightmare, the one thing that unites open water swimmers in fear.

I’m

putting

it

further

down

this

page

to

protect

those

who

aren’t

ready

or

are

of

a

more

tender

disposition…

These guys:

 

Riptide swimming at Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay, in County Wexford, right down in Ireland’s south-east corner, is one of the best known and oldest fishing harbours in the country. The village itself is small, picturesque with many thatched houses, and like the rest of the local coast, very exposed with few trees able to survive the constant onshore winds. West of the village the beach and dunes known as the Wexford Slobs runs for mile to the entrance of Bannow Bay, east the beach runs for a few miles until it reaches the very south-east tip of Ireland at Carnsore Point.

Ireland, as I’ve often written previously, has big tides. And nowhere on the entire coast are those tides as big and strong as they are around Kilmore and Carnsore.

Four kilometres off Kilmore Quay is the little Saltee Island, with the Great Saltee, Ireland’s biggest bird sanctuary’s another four kilometres beyond that, but seeming much closer. The coast therefore is home to a particularly large range of both birds and fish.

In the late 90′s a canoeist named David Walsh wrote a detailed guide book (Oileán, the Irish for island) following his canoe circumnavigation of Ireland, aimed at fellow canoists. I don’t think he had open water swimmers in mind, but when I briefly had a loan of the out-of-print book some years ago, I quickly devoured it. I recall clearly the chapter on the coast around Kilmore and the Saltees when the author-canoist described coastal currents so strong that at the wrong time of the tide, they were impossible to canoe or kayak against.

I had looked the coastal maps and charts for the south-east many times since, and although it’s less than 90 minutes drive, I hadn’t been in Kilmore before.

St. Patrick’s Bridge, a natural rock causeway, reaches out to Little Saltee, and consequently has been the ruin of many a fishing vessel almost at home. Indeed Kilmore Quay has been home port for the many of the most recent fishing tragedies due to the ferocious storms to which the South-east is exposed.

We walked out the eastern most working pier, looking east toward Carnsore. The breeze was easterly, pushing chop into towards the pier and the tiny beach nestled in the corner.  About a kilometre off I could see  a line  of white water looking like it was breaking for no reason, with calmer waters between. I quickly realised this must the fabled but submerged St Patrick’s Bridge, the tide being somewhere around High Water. Just beyond, seemingly about 1.2 kilometers from the beach, was a blunt black rock, a few metres high and wide. It called to me.

Kilmore Beach Craft shop IMG_1633.resized
The craft, which doesn’t have any thatch, probably because it sits right above the beach.

We walked the village, where I asked the proprietors of the flower shop, gift shop and butcher of any knowledge they may have of the inshore waters east of the Quays, especially of any currents. All I gleaned of use was that the rock was called, of course, St. Patrick’s Rock.

I’ve also said  previously, a long time ago, that every field and rock in Ireland has a name. Unfortunately some times those name can be a bit, well, predictable.  Many black coastal rocks are called…Black Rock. Of course if you see a black rock, and call it Black Rock, you need to be sure that it’s already called Black Rock and not Bird Rock, or something! I suppose, unimaginative as it is, St. Patrick’s Rock is an improvement.

Finally I called around to the RNLI station, situated here biggest because the marine fishing traffic and the local conditions, where one gentleman was doing a bit of afternoon work. He said there were no currents inside the St. Patrick’s Bridge. We chatted a little about local water conditions as I picked his brain for further knowledge of any peculiarities.

The Sun was nudging in and out behind clouds, with the gentlest and briefest of occasional showers as I changed into swimming gear on the road fifty metres from the beach. With the easterly breeze running toward me and guessing the distance I gave Dee an estimate  of 35 to 40 minutes,  45 minutes at the outside.

The water was crisp, about 10 degrees and shallow. I aimed straight for the rock. For the swim out, the depth rarely dropped below chest high, with plenty of kelp, and the sea floor liberally dotted with scallop shells from the fishing boats. The Sun dodged and hid.

As I closed on the rock, the bottom rose again, and when I got to about seventy-five metres from the rock, I noticed that suddenly I was shooting forward, the sea floor shooting under me, as it rose to waist deep. I was at the submerged causeway and stood to grab a quick video. When I tried to do so however, I realised that even in thigh deep water, I couldn’t stand in place against the current and was buffeted and then dragged off my feet.

(Yes, I know I say Skelligs instead of Saltees in the video).

Behind me small choppy waves were breaking against the submerged causeway. They were more like standing waves (overfalls)  than waves breaking on a shallow-sloped beach. They were breaking forward, but pulling hard back underneath. Next thing I was pulled over the causeway, and almost before I knew it I was on the far side of the causeway. I tried to get back onto the causeway by swimming into and with the biggest peaks, but I was still pulled back. The water was still shallow so I tried grabbing the underwater rocks to see if I could pull myself forward against the current but was unable to progress.

It was a classic rip or undertow as powerful as the lethal rip at Couminole in Kerry, or trying to swim against the flow of the East River in New York.

Rips are dangerous and every year drown people around the world, because  usually because those who encounter them don’t know what to do. The land or safety seemingly very close, they continue to swim against the flow, exhausting themselves against the pull.

When you encounter a rip, there is one simple solution.

I simply turned in a 90º direction and headed inward along the submerged causeway. As I had swum out diagonally from the beach, I was still only a few hundred metres from shore. A mere hundred metres or so along the causeway and the rip current eased. With a bit of sprinting, I was able to once again swim back across the causeway, and back to my starting point, coming in just over 40 minutes after I’d started.

At lower tides, as St Patrick’s Bridge is more exposed,  it’s possible there will still be a rip running south-east along it.

It was a fun little swim made so mainly by the unexpected challenge which helped to confirm Kilmore’s reputation of extremely strong currents. It’s certainly not a location for the inexperienced or easily panicked. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy the frisson of apprehension and the challenge.

The white line of the rip can be seen on the horizon, along with St. Patrick's Rock.
The white line of the rip can be seen on the horizon, along with St. Patrick’s Rock.

 

 

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IX – Safety Is Everything

The Average Person?

As a responsible extreme cold water swimming promoting organisation, it’s frustrating that the IISA doesn’t seem to appreciate its responsibility in promoting safety and reducing risk. The three-article critique on the IISA rules comprehensively illustrate many of the inherent problems, omissions and contradictions. The concerns of my correspondents and myself with Ice Mile swimming are not a reflection of the fact that many of the existing Ice Mile swimmers are extremely capable, experienced and cold-hardened individuals. Instead, we are concerned that the IISA is not doing enough to uphold its own existing rules, and even less to protect the safety of less experienced individuals who may try an Ice Mile in the future.

The IISA can’t wash its hands by saying that people who aren’t experienced enough shouldn’t attempt an Ice Mile. They must have explicit rules about this. The point about safety planning is not to just say “I’ve swum x Ice Miles, you can tooas members of the IISA board are wont to do, but to actually plan.

One should be taking all that cumulative knowledge and experience of such a dangerous pursuit and putting it at the service of the people they are trying to motivate. The IISA currently assumes that everyone who will attempt an Ice Mile will be an experienced cold water swimmer, but it does nothing to ensure this will be the case.

*

A couple of months ago, just mere days after I started writing the fourth part of this series, I received an email from a journalist with Outside Online, the online outlet of Outside magazine, one of the biggest of all adventure or outdoor sports magazines. He wanted to ask some questions for an article he was researching about Ice Mile swimming. I tried to give a pretty comprehensive response to the various questions as I had no idea which part, if any, of my response would be used in the final article, nor did I know with whom else they were talking. One question leaped out at me and I spent a few days deciding how to respond.

What are some insider tips for completing an Ice Mile that the average reader wouldn’t think of?1

That question startled me. It indicates to me that one Ice Mile friend (who I mentioned in the rules aspects of this discussion) who asserted that there’s no rush to swim an Ice Mile may not be correct. It also conveys to me that even a journal like Outside doesn’t comprehend the danger or risk of an Ice Mile. If the IISA doesn’t communicate this, then Outside or many others can’t be blamed. Once a pursuit is featured in Outside, one can guess that the numbers desiring to take on any particular challenge will increase. The Outside Online article is here. (The description of my Ice Mile that opens the article is derived by the article author from my blog article). In my interview I concentrated on the safety and danger aspects. It is now doubly ironic that the other person featured is one of the IISA founders, Ram Barkai.

This is exactly the scenario of which I and so many others are afraid and why the IISA must think ahead and more broadly. The Outside Online article and consequent exposure is likely to be a good thing for the IISA’s desire to increase the Ice Mile profile in their goal to have an Ice Mile included in future winter Olympics (which I think is ridiculous given their current inadequate state). Worryingly this question seems to imply that there might be some trick to completing an Ice Mile, in case “the average reader” might consider it. This question is the thin end of a wedge and has been on my mind almost the entire duration of these articles.

Promoting extreme events should require extreme attention to detail and safety. The CS&PF, SBCSA, CCSA, CSA, ILDSA, ACNEG and more all do so. Even local swim organisations such as Sandycove Island Swimming Club seem to have a greater appreciation for and attention to swimmer safety than the IISA.

The IISA does use a recurring excuse: That they are a very new organisation. But that’s only true to a little extent, and it’s disingenuous camouflage. No resources are required to initiate discussion, as I’ve done. They’ve existed for over five years, and count as members many very experienced cold water swimmers around the world whose cumulative knowledge and experience is quite considerable. It also uses International in its name and must live up to such an appellation, not forget those core objectives that it has espoused and then ignored, as demonstrated previously. The IISA has had more time and resources than I have, and yet with my contacts and a bit of time I can demonstrate the extensive omissions and contradictions in how the IISA operates and also what it endorses. If a section of the IISA membership can illustrate so many problems and if they spoke with me then two pertinent questions must be asked:

  1. What is wrong with the IISA and its communications with members that some members expressed these concerns to me and why is the IISA resistant to engage in discussion with its members?
  2. If some members can point out the problems, contradictions and omissions, why has the IISA failed to so do?

The IISA has it in its own hands to direct its future. It must think far more seriously than it apparently has previously about its stated objectives. Until it places swimmer safety and adherence to rules at its core, its ethos is debatable and its future is and should be at risk.

I honestly believe that the IISA still doesn’t understand this discussion. It’s not just about rules. Sure, where they are wrong or inadequate they must be improved. But the IISA must foster a public face in support of open and shared knowledge and experience that will improve safety for all, ESPECIALLY aspirants and those with less experience.

The IISA says: “The fact that IISA hasn’t got a detailed guideline for every eventuality and possible risk, doesn’t take the responsibility away from the swimmer. It is the individual responsibility to study and understand the risks before one embarks on an attempt in water of 5C to swim a mile. We will help and publish knowledge and experience but we will never be able to avoid stupidity or recklessness through pi[l]e of manuals”.

This is both entirely true and yet diversionary. Swimmers should and must be responsible for themselves, as I have always promoted by trying to share whatever I’ve learned. We learn this responsibility through experience and the teaching of others. But since the IISA places itself as the ratifying organisation it must establish consistent guidelines, to assist in this process of teaching and learning. Once again I repeat, the IISA cannot both promote and ratify Ice Miles, yet ignore the associated responsibility.

I am clear that my concern is less for the tiny few who have already repeated an Ice Mile, but more for those with less experience, and I believe the IISA has been negligent in encouraging Ice Mile swimming without adequate safety or medical guidelines or even a clarification of the actual dangers.

The IISA has relied to date on the aspirants being experienced cold water swimmers, but without taking any steps to ensure such. I am asking; what if the aspirants aren’t experienced?

Recommendations

If we look back over this series one can see that there are a range of possible recommendations, some of which are urgent.

  • Ice Mile swimming should immediately be suspended until the IISA updates its safety rules to place swimmer safety at the centre of its ethos.
  • Swimmer safety to be the core IISA value.
  • People with a history of cardiac problems should be immediately precluded from attempting an Ice Mile.
  • The IISA must publicly update any changes it makes in the future. (Bizarrely, it has told me it doesn’t plan to so do!)
  • Raise the minimum age limit to 18 immediately, pending published expert medical guidelines.
  • All Ice Mile aspirants should be required to first join the IISA. This will ensure better safety, organised swims and better data from attempts, incidents, and data retention for all Ice Mile swims in line with the IISA’s own objectives.
  • All Ice Mile attempts should be pre-approved by the IISA.
  • Aspirants should be required to provide proven experience and references.
  • Publish medical guidelines for aspirants and organisers from hypothermia experts and academics outside the IISA.
  • Aspirants must be required to provide a medical certificate as part of their ratification application.
  • All Ice Mile swim organisers should have relevant cold water experience.
  • Create an IISA committee of experienced Ice Mile swim organisers to codify their Best Practices into an Ice Mile event guideline.
  • Separate the new safety rules in the constitution from the mostly irrelevant articles of incorporation and other matters not related to actual swims.
  • Make the safety rules easily downloadable, with revision dates and change log.
  • Allow any person to submit a swim appeal over a fraudulent swim.
  • Guarantee the confidentiality of any person submitting such an appeal.
  • Initiate and maintaining ongoing discussion by canvassing existing IISA members to discuss and improve rules and guidelines.

Everything Is Okay, Until It Isn’t

I’ve written these articles to:

  • Attempt a serious dissection of the current state of the IISA and Ice Mileing
  • Educate about the difficulty and dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • Help extreme cold water swimmers
  • Improve the current utterly inadequate IISA rules and communications
  • And as a consequence of all this to improve the IISA
  • And more importantly to try to improve safety for any future Ice Mile Aspirants.

As I have said directly to the IISA:

I think that the lack of appropriate comprehensive guidelines and missing and contradictory rules by the IISA organisation is irresponsible, given it has had five years to learn, analyse and implement improvements”.

To not implement known best practices when lives are at risk and when medical professionals agree is, to use the words of one IISA founding member denying such, “deliberately reckless and careless.

I’d contrast this with Senior CS&PF Pilot Mike Oram, who repeatedly stresses that Channel swimming is an extreme and known lethal sport.

I believe everyone is entitled to make their own choice about their sporting pursuits regardless of danger. But I also believe that they should also have as much information as possible about the dangers and the necessary safety guidelines. A couple of correspondents have raised the comparison of Ice Mile with Himalayan mountain-climbing or Polar expeditions and correctly said that all extreme sports include extreme or even the ultimate risk. While this is true, neither Polar nor Himalayan expeditions came about because of a few people who call themselves the founding, organising and ratifying organisation. When you take on the responsibility to motivate, you should also take on the responsibility to educate and to protect and to do otherwise is wrong.

Since I started this series, members of the IISA have been unhappy with the articles. However , quite tellingly, neither they nor anyone else has said anything to refute the main (or any) points of these articles.

Nothing that I nor any of my correspondents have said here will increase the danger to Ice Mile aspirants, but failing to adapt the current IISA rules to reality will certainly so do.

Thought there are still subjects I couldn’t encompass, (such as the risks involved in training for an Ice Mile), let me finish (finally) with that powerful quotation from a respected Channel and Ice Mile swimmer that I used to open Part 5: “Something terrible is going to happen”.

Is, not might. Time is short, IISA. Act now.

*

Related articles

The list of cold water swimming articles I’ve written over the years.

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas VIII – The Dangers

1My full answer to the question was:

There are none. There are no tricks, no shortcuts, no way that doesn’t involve pain. It takes training, understanding and preparation and a rigorous adherence to safety and even then is still difficult and painful and dangerous.

In fact this question shows one of the biggest problems: This is a highly dangerous pursuit and most of the approximately 100 current Ice Milers in the entire world are very experienced. I thought long and hard about answering this. I was faced with a dilemma: answer and possibly encourage what is very dangerous pursuit which may kill you despite preparation or experience, or ignore it and be afraid the macho ideal would win out.

In the near future, less experienced people will try this without the requisite training, experience or confidence in themselves to abandon a swim if necessary. I believe, along with the majority of Ice Milers to whom I’ve spoken, which is about 20% of all Ice Milers, that a tragedy is increasingly a worrying probability. I believe the IISA needs to improve its criteria, safety recommendations and procedures. Attempts need to be more severely curtailed and only done by people who have prior permission from the IISA based on producing a verified training log, recognised experience, who are known to the organisers and have significant medical safety cover”.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VIII – The Dangers

I’ve said previously that open water swimming is dangerous. Ice Mile swimming is even more dangerous.

I don’t think the IISA website, which is how most people are going to interact with and learn about the IISA or Ice Mile swimming, is anywhere near as comprehensive as it needs to be on its message about the extreme nature of Ice Mile swimming and there are few locations where this message is noticeable. Mostly Ice Mile and extreme cold water swimming is merely described as some variety of difficult, rather than life threatening.

The IISA needs to categorically state that Ice Mile swimming is inherently dangerous and should also do its best to provide a suitable and comprehensive safety framework for Ice Mile aspirants, which as I write this does not currently exist as I have proven in the IISA rules discussion.

Danger, Danger

All this talk of danger but it hasn’t been quantified.

This is a significant list. Some items are extreme versions of similar risks associated with open water swimming, but exaggerated because of the extreme cold. This list has been reviewed by two experts in cold water and hypothermia (one M.D. and one Ph.D.).

  1. Drowning due to involuntary water aspiration. In the first couple of minutes of very cold water, Cold (immersion) Shock can promote hyperventilation and gasping and actually lead people to aspirate water in the lungs, and drown quickly. This is the absolute and essential reason why it is best to get into cold water slowly, to allow your body to control the gasp reflex. Images of swimmers diving into near-zero degree water absolutely send out the wrong message to aspirants. I’ve been writing now for years that people shouldn’t do it. This gasp-aspiration danger exists in all cold water (which in research terms is water under 15 Celsius), but at such cold temperatures as under five degrees the risk is greater. It’s just one of the reasons why experience is so important and why the IISA should immediately introduce prior experience requirements for Ice Mile aspirants.

  2. Initial cardiac arrest. The body’s cold protective system, peripheral vaso-constriction, because it reduces overall blood flow, consequently quickly increases blood pressure. A sudden jump in blood pressure could lead to cardiac arrest in a small number of cases. In younger people this may be caused by sudden-onset ventricular fibrillation. Older people would be more likely to have a myocardial infraction (heart attack) as a result of decreased blood flow to the coronary arteries.

  3. Acute hypothermia. This should be obvious. Acute refers to the time taken for the drop to occur. If lethal temperature is reached in an hour, which is a good rule of thumb for almost freezing waters even for most trained individuals, then being immersed for more than half the time leads to acute hypothermia. Hypothermia takes some time to kill you, it can’t kill you from heat loss in 15 minutes even in these temperatures but kill you it eventually will if you don’t rewarm. Simply standing from the prone swimming position will cause the very cold peripheral blood, which can drop to a mere ten degrees as it lays under your skin, to flow into your core. Another reason the acute aspect is important is because in chronic hypothermia, which develops over a longer time, the body becomes dehydrated, reducing the volume and constitution of blood. In acute hypothermia, since one isn’t dehydrated, the blood pressure increase and therefore associated risk is greater. The onset of acute hypothermia is time based and why time limits are extremely useful in Ice Mile swimming but they are not currently in the IISA rules.

  4. Loss of fine and later coarse motor control/muscle failure. Peripheral vaso-constriction is something I’ve been writing about on LoneSwimmer.com since the site’s inception. It’s how your body protects core temperature by shutting off circulation to the extremities. That means fine motor control is quickly affected. Moderately hypothermic people have real difficulties with or are unable to get dressed. With the extreme cold of Ice Mile swimming, muscle control for such simple tasks as walking can become difficult or impossible. Muscle failure is the term Tipton and Golden, best known for hypothermia studies, use to describe the loss of muscle motive force. One cannot speak, or know what to do. I don’t know numbers (neither does the IISA,) but my experience has shown that most Ice Mile swimmers are unable to dress themselves afterwards. My partner Dee has taken to occasionally calling me The Joker, because of what she describes as the manic rictus manifested on my face as muscle control was lost after my Ice Mile.

  5. Acute Pain. The pain experienced once a swimmer is well into an Ice Mile, particularly in the hands and feet, is significant and sustained, possibly seven on a pain scale. It’s a precursor to number six.

  6. Temporary or permanent nerve damage. Within the community of extreme cold water swimmers there are cases of nerve damage or loss of sensation, particularly in the fingers. This problem can manifest as lasting from a couple of weeks to two years in different people. One medical doctor with whom I’ve spoken, who has direct knowledge in the area of hypothermia primary treatment, says that this is the range from frostnip to frostbite.

  7. Cognition impairment and memory loss. As blood cools, it becomes more viscous. Combined with the aforementioned peripheral vaso-constriction, necessary oxygen flow to the brain is reduced. The person loses speed of thought, ability to verbally respond and their memory is impaired. I can remember the end of my Ice Mile, but as soon as I stood up, everything became hazy and a series of disjointed episodes. One Ice Miler who did their Ice Mile in a group of four, said three out of the four did not remember finishing. This isn’t Hollywood; severely hypothermic people don’t retain the ability to think clearly. It’s why assistants and safety personnel aren’t just important, they are essential. The most common test we use for moderate hypothermia in swimmers is simply someone’s ability to give their own name. Most people with no experience of hypothermia can’t imagine this being a difficulty.

  8. Muscle pains, swelling or bruising, chronic fatigue and lack of concentration. These are symptoms which are displayed after extreme cold water swimming and rewarming. They only show after rewarming is mostly complete or even from the following day and may persist for several days. While some are minor, they are indicative of the extreme effort. The chronic fatigue and lapse in mental acuity are not related to the swim distance but the cold and could have significant immediate impact for swimmers who is driving themselfaway from an Ice Mile swim.

  9. Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema, aka SIPE. Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid (usually blood) collects in the lungs and breathing is impaired to various degrees of severity. SIPE can be related to heart problems or infection, in the case of extreme cold water, while the mechanism isn’t fully understood, it’s likely that the increased blood pressure mentioned above is implicated.

  10. Cardiac arrhythmias. There are two types. Atrial fibrillation is irregular electrical activity which mainly affects the smaller upper chambers of the heart (atria) causing less blood to be pumped. It may even go unnoticed, or if noticed can result in heart palpitations and shortness of breath. One Irish swimmer who is already an Ice Mile swimmer wisely pulled out early in their second Ice Mile swim because of a sensation of heart palpitations. Ventricular fibrillation is also an irregular electrical activity, which affects the larger lower chambers (ventricles) of the heart. An incorrectly rewarmed person (such as through sudden application of heat or excess movement) will receive the full brunt of the almost ice-cold external blood into their core and around their heart too quickly. This can cause the heart to go into ventricular fibrillation. It is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death (SCD) and is the primary cause of death due to hypothermia. Stories of death through hypothermic ventricular fibrillation abound.

  11. Post-rescue Collapse/Afterdrop. With post-rescue collapse, the person can initially seem to be fine while exiting or after being removed from the water, but may later collapse or even expire. Tipton and Golden1 identify a number of post-rescue collapse deaths. In a study of 269 shipwreck victims, 160 were rescued. 17% rescued from water under 10 C. died within 24 hours of rescue whereas when the water was over 10 C. none died. One of many reported cases is the sinking of the SS Empire Howard. Twelve conscious survivors were rescued. The Captain reported that nine later died when taken into the warmth of the rescue trawler. In Ireland, three of the 15 fatalities during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster in 1979, occurred during rescue in water of 15 to 16 Celsius. The physiology has not fully been explained to date. Two of the all time great marathon swimmers, Ted Erikson and David Yudovin both suffered post-swim cardiac arrest from chronic hypothermia in water that wasn’t as cold, but in which immersion time was longer.

Ice Mile swimming is dangerous and so is post Ice Mile swimming as shown by numbers eight, nine and ten.

Items number nine and ten also portend something else.

Since SIPE, atrial and ventricular fibrillation can also be symptoms of heart disease or other coronary problems, the only acceptable standard that the IISA can set is to require a declaration of medical history and to preclude anyone with any history of coronary problems.

In Part VI, I mentioned that the IISA, which has a stated objective of promoting medical research, doesn’t even include any medical guidelines or medical barriers for an Ice Mile attempt it doesn’t even a require a medical application despite an apparent existing rule. In the light of these specific dangers, this is indefensible and must be addressed immediately.

Related articles:

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

References:

1 Review of rescue and immediate post immersion problems, prepared for the UK Health and Safety Executive, by the University of Surrey (Tipton & Golden, 1997)

 

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VII – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IV – Local context.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – V -  IISA Rules Discussion Part 1. – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI - IISA Rules Discussion Part 2. – Safety and Experience.

This is the third and last part of discussion of the IISA rules.

Age Limit

I can’t let this rule (3.3.15) go without question. The minimum age limit for an Ice Mile attempt with parental consent is 16. The only thing I can say about this is that it is irresponsible madness. The only parents I can think competent to judge the difficulty of an Ice Mile attempt for a 16- or 17-year-old child are Ice Mile swimmers. They are the very ones who would almost certainly not consent to such. I have not heard from one single swimmer, doctor or Ice Miler who thinks this is a responsible rule. IISA, please remove this irresponsible rule immediately.

Best Practice

What we can see from the local organisation of Ice Mile swims in the UK, Ireland and the US is that local swimmers and organisers are implementing what each believe is Best Practice for Ice Mile swimming. As one Ice Mile and swimming organiser says: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.Or another who says;the lack of oversight for these events is wholly irresponsible on the part of the IISA and is inviting disaster.

The IISA is the organisation which has promoted Ice Mile swimming worldwide. Currently, responsibility for safety falls more heavily on individual swim organisers rather than swimmers and allows the IISA to abdicate responsibility in ensuring responsible criteria, since as mentioned above that only those who succeed can actually become IISA members. A Channel Aspirant only becomes a Channel Swimmer if they succeed, but they must join the relevant association beforehand. The IISA procedure is hardly normal practice let alone Best Practice. In fact it seems more than just unusual. The current situation means the IISA doesn’t have to retain any data on attempts, success rate, safety data, incidents, accidents or even any possible tragedy.

I am counted as an Ice Mile swimmer though I took two attempts at the required temperature. But the IISA doesn’t measure success rates. This abdication is more than just an oversight. It’s a conscious decision and one that isn’t optimal for safety.

One of the most immediate ways to improve safety and to addresssome of the issues discussed here, would be to require IISA membership for all aspirants.

Given that the IISA promotes the Ice Mile, ignoring the wider aspects of experience, organisation, safety rules and lethal potential and only accepting membership from those who are successful is a significant failure.

Best Practice has been demonstrated by Fergal Somerville, Colin Hill, Greg  O’Connor and some others. They demonstrate that the IISA rules should be such that swimmers must provide a minimum standard of proven experience and competence in very cold open water and should be an IISA member before any Ice Mile attempt is made.

The rules about the organisation of events must be tighter, and the rules that are in place must be rigorous and consistent. As more people attempt an Ice Mile, more will want to try, and the overall experience level will decrease, and as seen above, there are indications this may already be happening.

*

Two of my correspondents disagree with me on this possible increase: One says “I actually have not seen a great rush to do this challenge from other swimmers, I think they realise the scale of the challenge, the obvious risks and the organisational effort to get it right. The other says “There are not many swimmers busting down the doors to do an ice swim.

I believe this is likely true right now. But that does not mean it will remain so, and the IISA itself wishes it to change. In the next article I’ll show something important that seems to confirm my fear. The increase may happen if the IISA promote their new 1K Ice Swim vigorously or if the push for Winter Olympics inclusion become more widespread. Horses and stables doors come to mind.

One correspondent goes on to say:Applying more stringent rules is not the answer, giving people best practice safety statements and swim plans so that they can learn from others would be a good idea. People have no excuses if they have been given examples of how it can be done safely. If they choose to ignore this then they will probably ignore more stringent rules too.

This shows that some of the suggestions I am proposing here may not be agreed. That’s fine. I want the best rules which enhance and aid safety, not my own rules. But I would also strongly advocate both better rules and Best Practice, which would be preferable to poor rules and lack of Best Practice utilisation.

Right now this debate is needed, and a public debate at that, not the behind-closed-doors previous practices of the IISA. The IISA could utilise the existing constitutional provision for a Member’s Meeting to draft better rules. I am arguing for open debate and to include the existing Ice Mile swimmers in the debate for better rules, better adherence to rules, and also Best Practices for qualification and swims. I am hoping others will join the discussion. But the previous quote, despite its disagreement with me on direction, also indicates an implicit similar concern about safety to every response I’ve received.

The extensive problems outlined in the rules, or the lack thereof, and the general agreement of almost all my respondents highlight that this review is necessary.

*

Ice Mile swimming is an extreme sport. As pointed out at the beginning of the article, extreme sports carry significant risk. I am not arguing against such pursuits. I am talking about vital issues intended to minimise the risk and improve safety for individual swimmers in a very marginal and dangerous pursuit.

One response that I’m putting here before I finish this series, is to categorically reject the only response I’ve seen from the IISA since I’ve initiated this discussion. The IISA have implied that I’ve personalised the discussion. Well, duh.

(Granted my name isn’t used, but since I restarted this series suddenly there’s a debate. Other Ice Milers have told me that is exactly what the IISA have said about this series. I’ve not had any direct response from the  IISA, who are always welcome to so do). Apparently without any irony, this is followed shortly thereafter by:

This series proves precisely that the IISA rules and guidelines are lacking, inadequate or even contradictory. As I write here,  I am aware of the many people, cold water and Ice Mile swimmers from whom I’ve heard, indicating support and agreement. Yet I haven’t received a single contradictory message. When the IISA (obliquely) dismisses me for getting personal, they are dismissing the concerns of many more people than just me.

I don’t know any of the IISA founders. The Irish Ice Mile ambassador whom I’ve mentioned (without naming) as indicative of many IISA flaws, has never featured previously on LoneSwimmer.com, and there is no record whatsoever of LoneSwimmer.com pursuing any personal agenda. To accuse me of a personal agenda is to avoid these other serious issues. (And as I’ve pointed out, the IISA has had more than a year to address that specific issue and failed to so do).

The IISA are using this accusation to divert this broader series on the IISA and Ice Mile swimming. To this diversionary accusation which avoids the very real dangers and risks being highlighted, I have only this to say:

Shame on you, IISA.

No sport can have a discussion of problems without exploring just how those problems can manifest in specific situations. UCI similarly used to dismiss discussions of Lance Armstrong and Hein Verbruggen. Any safety discussion now taking place is precisely because I and so many other Ice Mile and cold water swimmers are genuinely concerned, and if the IISA decide to ignore such a discussion that will be their burden and failure, not ours.

This consideration of the flaws of the existing IISA rules isn’t the entirety of this discussion. In the next and penultimate chapter I will discuss the very real dangers of Ice Mile swimming, which the IISA and others should be but aren’t talking about, and which illustrate just why better safety and rules are so critical.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – VI – Safety and Experience

As you will recall from the previous article the IISA says one of its primary objectives is:

Promoting Safety in Extreme Swimming Events.

Let’s consider that.

One overseas organiser of a reputable Ice Mile swim said: “We should be going above and beyond the IISA rule to make sure someone does not die from inexperience or neglect.

For both Lough Dan Invitationals in 2013 and 2014, Eastern Bay Swim Club added some local rules for extra safety:

  • All swimmers had to maintain a training log of cold swims, that may be requested. (In my case at least I did not have to present it, as Fergal and I chatted regularly, which covered my recent swims. I have also maintained a swim log for many years anyway, which includes sea temperatures and immersion time).

  • All swimmers were either known to Fergal or an existing Ice Swimmer who would vouch for them.

  • A clearly marked out course of minimum official length (in this case four 400 metre laps with swimmers required to swim around a buoy at one end and touch a pontoon with a turn judge and timekeeper at the other).

  • A course observer and a touch and timekeeping official.

  • Front crawl only. No treading water, no breaststroke.

  • Present were a Medical Doctor with defibrillator, a nurse and three paramedics.
  • Two time limits:

    • Swimmers had to be on the last lap by thirty minutes.

    • A cutoff time of 40 minutes, or swimmers to be making definite forward progress to the finish.

It’s not just Eastern Bay and Fergal that take extra precautions:

One American Ice Mile swim “follow[s] all of the IISA rules, but we also make sure the swimmers have open water experience and that they have trained (exposing themselves to cold water for increasing amounts of time). We have at least one paid, official EMT present before, during, and after the swims. The EMT has portable defibrillators and emergency transport. We educate swimmers and volunteers on the dangers of hypothermia and what should and should not be done with someone suffering from hypothermia. We have at least one kayak/swimmer as well as rescue swimmers (trained rescue swimmers in wetsuits) shadowing them along the shore. We have a warm room where the swimmers prepare and recover slowly (suffer through the “after drop”). The swimmers also have access to showers, a steam room and a sauna. We have at least 2 IISA members present to officiate and witness the Ice Miles”.

So the Lough Dan rules weren’t just a notional idea by Eastern Bay Swim Club. They came about from experience and lessons learned in previous swims, in personal and other organised cold water swimming events. They are very much in line with the thinking of other Ice Mile organisers, some of whom go even further.

In these cases the local organisers have more comprehensive rules than the IISA.

Taken as a whole these additional rules improved safety and swim integrity; monitoring swimmers, observing both safety and adherence to required distance. The front-crawl-only option works to keep swimmers generating heat and as an indicator of trouble should swimmers switch stroke or stop swimming. Having a time limit with a limited degree of flexibility removed any reason for indecision from safety personnel. The time limit can be adjusted based on organiser’s familiarity with the aspirants.

The original plan for Lough Dan 2014 was nine swimmers and had we not had one no-show, and two swimmers pull out on the day, then we could have had a greater number of severely hypothermic people all finishing within minutes of each other. IISA require one trained medical person per four swimmers. In hindsight, I’m no longer convinced we were right even with our reduced ratio of 8:5. Given my arguments here I will be arguing that if there is a Lough Dan Ice Mile Invitational next year, excepting any change in IISA rules, that the ratio of swimmers to medical personnel be reduced.

These are not the only possible improvements. One correspondent has argued cogently that by Ice Mile standards the large groups in Lough Dan (six and eight swimmers respectively each year) or elsewhere, are by definition dangerous and makes a very persuasive counter-proposal; “when I hear that people think these swims should only be done in big groups, I’m quite baffled! I don’t know that most hospitals have the resources to handle multiple hypothermic patients simultaneously. I also don’t know that eyes are really on the swimmers still in the water when one swimmer begins to need assistance. Having swimmers share safety personnel seems like it is relying on at least some of the swimmers having no problem at all. I’d prefer to have one EMT for each swimmer than to find that there weren’t enough trained professionals to help if multiple swimmers have emergencies.

In my email to my correspondents, I had argued against small group swims precisely because of the questionable swim we witnessed last year.

The argument of individual medical and observing staff is entirely reasonable, and I am now largely convinced, though in part for a different reason to which I will return in a later article.

Is ten swimmers too many? I now believe so. But is one swimmer too little? That’s dependent on the swimmer’s intentions and safety crew’s ability and experience. If the crew are experienced, there is adequate safety cover including the requisite medical support (and the swimmer isn’t planning deceit), then a one swimmer/one medical person swim is likely the optimal situation, though the companionship of others is often significant in sporting achievement.

Taking all this into consideration, despite my own experiences in a larger group, I am far more convinced that a small group is the best way to improve and promote safety both during and post swim. As I’ve said above there are reasons for this to which I will later later in this series.

Here’s another quotation:

I was so worried about [x] as [they] recovered— the leanest of the three swimmers, [x] was in for [n] minutes, and the water was just 3.5 C, with colder air. It was scary— I knew [x] wasn’t in [their] head at all for a solid 20 minutes as [they] shivered uncontrollable and flashed some of the scariest faces I’ve ever seen on a human. Now if I didn’t know [x] as well as I do (we train together all the time, right there in that water, so I had some idea of what to expect with [the] recovery process and was reasonably sure [x] was going to be OK, just having a tough go of it) I would have been frantic.

That’s quite a similar description to how I was after my 2014 Ice Mile. It’s not the only such comment I’ve heard; another told me that my description of black rain was uncannily like their swim. This also highlights another concerns of mine, that the actual difficulty of the Ice Mile is not being communicated.

Over the years, I’ve become convinced that the reputation system (as used in mountain climbing) is vital and fundamental in open water swimming even at short distances. It is up to everyone to build their own experience incrementally. The more you swim, the more you build reputation and a network of contacts, and reputation is literally priceless in open water swimming. There are circumstances where no money in the world should allow an inexperienced swimmer to tackle something beyond their capability.

I would never support an unknown swimmer who just showed up to do an Ice Mile. My email correspondence shows that this actual situation has already arisen at least twice, at two different organised Ice Mile swims, and that’s just with the people to whom I’ve spoken. In both cases unknown swimmers showed up wanting to swim, one even insisting they be allowed to participate. Both were refused but those people who refused were very experienced. In one case the Ice Mile swim was in question because the participants had decided to cancel if the unknown arrival had decided to continue. What would happen if an organiser hadn’t similar experience and judgement?

Any completely untrained and inexperienced swimmer can organise an Ice Mile so long as they adhere to the basic criteria. This may have been deemed valid (though I would disagree there also) when trying to build a coterie of Ice Mile swimmers but given the number of experienced cold water swimmers worldwide, and especially in the countries where Ice Miles are more likely, it should be possible to organise a network of knowledgeable and reputable individuals. However this may be just my small country provincialism speaking. As one correspondent says: “For [ ], which is a huge area, we have just 1 ambassador. If [they have] to be present at every swim and answer every request for information about swims, that’s a big burden.” Many Ice Mile swimmers are not doing so to have such a burden imposed on them: “its something I would not do myself.This may be a difficult problem to address, but the solution isn’t to ignore the problem.

I believe all these problems and shortfalls demonstrate the IISA’s failure to promote safety in extreme swimming events, one of their own primary objectives.

No Experience Required

One of, if not the single most agreed concern amongst all my correspondents is that the IISA has no guidelines or rules for training, or requirements for prior experience, or entry criteria and little about organisation of swims.

Organisers’ use of an Invitational system based on training buddies and logs and local reputation is one, but not the only solution.

Another solution and which was suggested by a few of my correspondents, is pre-clearance of Ice Mile attempts by either the IISA itself or a country or regional IISA Ambassador or a committee of Ice Mile swimmers. A person wishing to attempt an Ice Mile would have to submit an application, a medical certificate with ECG, including any previous or family history of cardiac problems, experience and possibly even training logs. I have in the past been critical of triathlons for substituting wetsuits for experience. The mortality rate in US triathlons is quite significant, twice as dangerous as marathons, with 30 out of 43 occurring during the swim leg. After a study one of the significant factors identified was a lack of previous experience. Here in Ireland open water swims of only 1500 metres often require prior experience. An Ice Mile that’s significantly more dangerous than a 750 metre triathlon swim leg or a 1500 metre open water swim currently requires no approval or proven experience beyond what local organisers may impose. Right now only those who complete an Ice Miles can become IISA members, which is contrary to how most organisations operate and allows the ISSA a deniability about its own place in promoting responsible attempts. It also means that any problems that arise in an attempt don’t fall at the feet of the IISA.

A person can currently attempt an Ice Mile without ever having swum in water colder than a hot bath or further than their local pool length. That’s the reductio ad absurdum conclusion used to demonstrate the insufficiency of the IISA rules. The primary protection for people right now is the organisation and experience of most aspirants, and insistence on safety by experienced swim organisers.

One organiser says it clearly; “I feel ice/winter swimming is a specialist pursuit; only to be attempted by those who diligently prepare through regular submersion in open water and acclimatisation over a number of months.

There are further possible solutions including an IISA-approved qualifying swim. The IISA has this year introduced a one kilometre swim. Currently this uses the same safety rules, but doesn’t result in IISA membership. A one kilometre organised swim would allow the possibility of a vetted and observed qualification swim. Yet another possibility is that Ice Miles are only attempted using a network of experienced local organisers.

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In the next article, which will be final part of this rules discussion as I move to other aspects, I’ll look at  some more serious flaws in current IISA rules,  briefly consider the ridiculous age limit, and ask why the IISA doesn’t require Best Practice in Ice Mile swim organisation.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – V – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

I’m with you in fearing that something terrible is going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon.

This is a direct quote from a well-known and respected Ice Mile and Channel swimmer in response to my own similar assertion in my introductory email. I’m putting it up front so you understand exactly the concerns of some of us. And it’s not the only such, I’ve got others. Another example from a different overseas Ice Mile organiser:

You are correct in thinking that at some point someone will [succumb] during or just after an ice swim. Just as important this person qualifies this statement; “as [x] mentioned it happens eventually in any extreme event”.

I’m writing this series for reasons I’ve outlined previously. When I said I wanted to write about Ice Mile swimming, it was because I am concerned that a tragedy will occur, sooner rather than later, and that if I said nothing, I would feel guilty. We all need to be doing our best to reduce potential problems in what is a very extreme event, which individuals have the choice and right to attempt.

I also said such in my initial email to the range of correspondents quoted here. It’s why I continued to complete an Ice Mile when I had lost any particular personal desire to so do. I am not great at anything, but for well over four years I have committed to writing abut cold water swimming. Anyone who doubts my motivations can see the extensive range of cold water swimming articles on this site. I have tried to explain the challenges, inspire people with the joys and rewards, add a bit of humour but also educate about the various dangers.

This rules section has became a hydra, growing beyond what I intended.

Because it’s the best article on the necessity for rules and the thinking of open water swimmers, though it applies to marathon swimming, I’m going to point you to Sarah Thomas’s article on MSF, so important we’ve given it a permanent page of its own. Rules are not just important, but essential. They are the flag to which disparate athletes of differing talents and motivations can all salute. They define, protect and unify.

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A read of the IISA website is essential for any discussion of Ice Mile swimming rules.

The IISA Constitution

The IISA website has a short menu page for rules which further references the IISA Constitution page for the full details.

The Constitution is contained in an embedded Scribd.com document  (Scridb is a document hosting website). This is unusual for something intended to be public. It means that an aspirant or organiser can’t download the contents for reference. It also means that it’s clumsy to read and navigate. Further, for these articles, I couldn’t copy and paste, as Scribd document contents are flash objects, not text, and so can’t be copied, requiring screen captures. This moves the Constitution away from being an open, easy-to-use document into a restricted  document.

The Constitution is without any changelog, revision or edit dates. So there’s no way to know when or if it’s changed, nor what amendments may have been made. One can contrast this with the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules and how we have released a version history  and change data in the process.

Section 3.3 sets out the criteria and rules for an Ice Mile. Matters such as distance, temperature measurement procedures, equipment allowed, etc. It’s all pretty straightforward.

Much of the constitution is given over to incorporation details and definitions that aren’t relevant to this discussion.

IISA Main Objectives

The Constitution also lays out a number of interesting objectives. It is best to investigate the rules through the IISA’s own stated objectives. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned Scribd problem, I can’t copy those over here. It’s section 3.1 and I will include relevant captures throughout.

Briefly the first three, which I address below, are;

  • To promote Ice Mile swimming

  • Provide recognition of Ice Mile swims

  • To promote safety in extreme swimming events (emphasis mine).

Along with these are two others which particularly interest me, (emphasis mine again);

  • Promote medical research on cold water swimming

  • Promote knowledge and understanding of swimming in ice and cold waters

IISA Constitution Objectives

Promotion and Recognition by the IISA

With respect to Ice Mile swimming promotion, I’ll refer to the retention of a current Irish Ice Mile Ambassador whose primary promotion efforts have been self-promotion rather than supportive of Irish Ice Mile swimming. (This assertion has also been made to me about the IISA itself in my correspondence, by more than one person).

Recognition of an accredited Ice Mile swim should be straightforward. On completion of a swim, having paid the fee and provided the necessary documentation and data, certification should be released. Since Eastern Bay Swim Club handled this last year and I didn’t complete the swim, and I haven’t yet received mine from this year, I don’t know how it relates to the Irish swimmers. However I can attest that in my email communications with overseas Ice Milers, two different Ice Mile swimmers in the US felt very aggrieved about their communications with the IISA: “When I got my certificate, not only did it look like it had been filled in by a 7 year old, it was mangled, because whomever slammed it in the post hadn’t bothered to put any cardboard around it.

There were other comments such as “hours of my life I can never get back” and more disturbing; “several of us in the USA get the feeling that the IISA is mostly concerned about the IISA membership fee“. Using the word several could be interpreted as exaggeration, except the number of Ice Miles is so low that most are completed in just a few locations. In this case the person making that assertion is highly reputable and involved with running one of the US Ice Mile swims, and does in fact know many of the others Ice Mile swimmers.

This Ice Mile swimming rules discussion requires three parts. In the next part I’ll look at the IISA’s key stated objective of promoting safety in extreme open water and how it significantly currently fails to meet that objective.

Related articles

Ice Mile Dilemmas Part I – The Trap

Part II – Surprisingly Cold

Part III – Black Rain

Part IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IV – Local Context

An Ice Mile is a one mile (1610 metres) swim at or under 5.0º Celsius with standard swim costume, cap and goggles. Records to early March 2014 indicate 116 recognised Ice Mile swims, with only about 80 Ice Mile swimmers worldwide.

In the context of these small numbers this continuation of the earlier series can be interpreted, depending on your viewpoint, as either:

A) A lot of noise about nothing.

or

B) An attempt to address some serious matters … before it is too late.

_____________________________________________________________

In the first part of my 2014 Ice Mile series, I had two primary motivations for returning to complete the swim, one of which was that only having completed it would I feel free to speak about Ice Mile swimming and its dangers and some associated problems.

Since the swim I’ve had a brief email discussion with the IISA (International Ice Swimming Association). I’ve also contacted about twenty Ice Mile swimmers around the world to canvas their opinions. I’ve also been in contact with three four different medical doctors, three of whom are open water swimmers. All the very thoughtful and cogent responses I received have helped shape this series and I am very appreciative of the time and effort that went into everyone’s replies.  You all know who you are and have my gratitude.

I’ve held back on completing this series until I’d received sufficient feedback, had time to ruminate and until I was sure my swim was recognised (Ice Swim Number 109, which makes me, I think, Ice Mile swimmer 75, or something).

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

Let’s start with a recap. In 2013, at Fergal Somervilles’s first NIce Mile, we did not get the requisite 5º C. temperature. but along with five others, I finished the mile and suffered moderate hypothermia (a reminder that moderate hypothermia isn’t moderate but very pronounced). A sixth swimmer didn’t finish and was pulled from the water with  severe hypothermia.

A couple of weeks later, I swam half a mile at Fergal’s second Invitational Ice swim at Lough Dan. On the day I realised I did not have the full mile in me and only swam half the distance. I’ve never felt bad about not completing, it was the right thing to do.

In February 2014 I completed an Ice Mile with six others from a starting group of eight. Two pulled out themselves on safety grounds. I suffered worse hypothermia than I ever have previously. From my previous (significant) cold water experience I expected this outcome and forewarned one trusted safety paramedic.

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For the past couple of years I’ve had quite a few discussions with experienced swimming friends about the Ice Mile. Many excellent open and cold water distance swimmers have no desire to attempt the swim as many consider it either unnecessary or too dangerous. It’s the case from those discussions and the aforementioned emails that many, including multiple Ice  Mile swimmers, are of a similar opinion about the danger.

I’m going to address a number of different subjects in the latter parts of this series:

  • The Irish context
  • A discussion of the IISA’s rules
  • The IISA’s (lack of) messaging about the dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • The inherent extreme danger of Ice Mile swimming
  • I will also, (as I did with my MIMS 2013 coverage), not just rant but I will try to make some useful recommendations.

The entire subject is a bit disjointed so I will first give some local contextual explanation for some of this:

The Irish Context

Ireland has a significant number of those who have completed an official Ice Mile. (I am only talking about official Ice Miles. People stupid enough to try to do this without sufficient experience, safety and planning are beyond any reason and what I write will have no effect on them).

I mentioned above that on the first attempt one person wasn’t successful, any more than I was. On the first Lough Dan Invitational that same person wasn’t part of the group. I was invited but I was not capable on the day. Some doubt exists as to why the other swimmer wasn’t part of the first Lough Dan Invitational.

However, on the morning of the first Ice Mile Invitational, I and many others were witness to the most dangerous swim attempt I’ve yet seen.

That same person attempted an Ice Mile without any medical cover of which I’m aware, and insufficient and inexperienced safety cover. At one point the swimmer, having been in the water well over 40 minutes and a significant time from finishing, progressed no more than five metres in five minutes. It was easy to judge because it was two sides of a stationary pontoon only about ten metres away from where I was standing. Four Channel swimmers at least, (myself, Fergal, Tom Healy and Colm Breathnach) were all standing shouting on the beach to the two-man kayak crew to pull the swimmer). No course was marked, no paramedics were available, there was no way to determine if the distance had been swum. Indeed the swim stopped short of the distance where the people on the beach had shouting was the aim. There were major discrepancies with reported start and completion times in various formats with team members claiming a different (later) start time than what one of our group had witnessed.

I don’t believe that the swim was completed or successful.

The International Ice Swimming Association had (until recently) two Ambassadors for Ireland. One is Anne-Marie Ward, English and North Channel solo,  for whom there is widespread respect and genuine warmth in the Irish open water swimming community.

Yet public online congratulations were given that day from the second IISA Irish Ambassador for what I consider to be an at best questionable swim. Those who were actually successful with a marked course and full safety procedures and observation (Colm Breathnach, Fergal Somerville, Patrick Corkery, John Daly, Carmel Collins) were completely ignored by that same IISA “Ambassador“, a pattern that has since been repeated for other swimmers.

Only a  few weeks earlier, that same IISA Ambassador was evacuated by helicopter from a mountain lake in Kerry after very poor planning of their own ice Mile swim, pulling essential coastal rescue services away to cater for reckless safety planning.

Both swimmers now claim they are Ireland’s best Ice Mile swimmers. Without any irony.

Fraudulent swim claims, rampant egos and poor safety planning are the bane of open water swimming. It seems Ice Mileing in its youth suffers the same problems.

These two swims contrasted with the superlative planning by Fergal and Eastern Bay Swim Club, which included three paramedics, a nurse and a Doctor, multiple kayakers and a boat, and almost five non-swimmers to every swimmer,  had a significant if unpublished effect on the many of the Irish cold water swimmers and all present at the Lough Dan Invitational that day.

The IISA seemed uncaring about both negative events. I say seemed because I can’t be 100% certain. What I do know is the IISA are aware of both swims but did not react. Having being unsuccessful, I was not a member and had no communication with them in 2013, but I do know they were notified of this event in 2013 and invited to ask any of the affidavit signatories for their report. The IISA declined.

When I wrote in Part One of my own reason for completing the Ice Mile in 2014, it was in part because of these two swims.

One minor item I didn’t mention until now about my own 2014 swim occurred as I was swimming into the beach after finishing the 1600m. I was still compos mentis at that point, before I stood up and crashed into severe hypothermia, I recall thinking “I’ll call my blog post on this: Ireland’s worst Ice Miler” about myself. I also recall immediately dismissing that idea, because while I may not have done it easily, still I did do it, with plenty of witnesses. I knew I wasn’t the worst, if such a term can be used to describe fully completing such  a difficult challenge: I’d swam the full distance after having previously deciding to abandon a swim, and I hadn’t been MedEvaced.

The more years of writing on open water swimming I’ve been doing the greater the problem of frauds and ego now seems to me. Years of swimming  lone, seeing and participating in many various swims have  given me an acute sense of the requirement for a commitment to safety in both words and deeds.

In my emails with the IISA following my successful 2014 swim, I decided to nominate Fergal Somerville as an Ice Mile Ambassador for Ireland. I clearly implied that the number of Irish Ambassadors should stay at two people with Anne-Marie Ward continuing in the role alongside Fergal. Fergal has organised both Lough Dan Invitational Ice Miles and therefore has done more for Ice Mile swimming in Ireland than everyone else in Ireland combined. He has, along  with Eastern Bay Swimming Club and all the people involved, run a very safety conscious and well-managed event. He is good for the IISA and the serious nature of the pursuit of Ice Mile swimming.

An Ambassador means a representative. The role implies attributes of respect, diplomacy, honesty and trustworthiness. Fergal, the record-setter for the coldest ever North Channel solo, has certainly demonstrated his qualifications for this role. An Ambassador shouldn’t be a divisive figure or someone who treats others with disrespect and consequently brings the organisation they are representing into disrepute. But this is exactly what has happened

However, since I wrote the above paragraph, I’m certainly pleased to hear that Fergal has just been added as an Ice Mile Ambassador for Ireland and I congratulate the IISA on their willingness to listen. However Ireland now has three Ice Mile Ambassadors. That the IISA continues to retain someone of questionable commitment to safety planning or to the IISA itself, or who demonstrates a noted lack of support for Irish Mile Ice swimmers, is lamentable at best.

In the next part I’ll once start a comprehensive critique of the IISA’s rules and stated commitment to swimmer safety through existing rules.

Edit: In my emails to the IISA I also mentioned I’d be writing about Ice Mile swimming and about some negative aspects. I’d said that it wasn’t my intention wasn’t anything negative about the the IISA. Since then however I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and to discuss with others, and to look at the wider aspects of Ice Mile swimming. This series now does include negative aspects of the IISA and Ice Mile swimming. I believe very strongly that  the IISA’s current rules are insufficient and could possibly lead to tragedy.

Perfect is the enemy of good

When I started back swimming for the first time since I was a kid, it came a huge but only slowly realised shock that I was the not the excellent swimmer I’d been as a young teenager, when I swam front crawl and butterfly in club for a year or two. I really don’t recall how long it was but it wasn’t club as we’d now know it with six a.m. training, five says a week.

I’d been away from swimming for decades and surfing didn’t really count. As soon as I started back I was breathing bilaterally naturally. After only a few weeks in the pool, not really knowing what I was doing, I swam two miles at Baile Na Gaul on my first open water swim, from the gritty and bleak tiny beach to Helvick Harbour and back. As a surfer, the sea didn’t frighten me and some time later, not knowing anyone there, I double-lapped Sandycove Island by myself, without realising that was a big target for many people. All I recall is that I had no idea of the shape of the island and at one point worrying I’d missed the turn back inside. (You need to swim Sandycove and realise that from outside the coast everything looks flat and similar and inlets disappear) to appreciate this.

So it was fairly reasonable that I thought I wasn’t a bad swimmer. It was another two years before I met Coach Eils, who rapidly disabused me of the notion. Her damning criticisms included “mechanical” and “substituting fitness for flow“.

I have over the years since changed my swimming style quite substantially. Most of it has by necessity been done by myself. But the more you know, often the less you are satisfied. I torture myself endlessly about my stroke and my speed, trying to improve, to get a smidgen more speed that I’ll never find. Is the angle of my arm correct? Are my hands parallel to the surface? What’s my streamline profile? And on and on.

Swimming technique requires constant work just for maintenance, let alone improvement. One effect of this endless treadmill is to sometimes, or in my case more often than not, lose sight of a simple fact.

I don’t have to be a perfect swimmer, to be a good swimmer. The twenty percent time and effort and work that got me eighty per cent of the way, that made me a good swimmer, is far eclipsed by the eighty percent I’ve spent in a seemingly fruitless quest to improve that final twenty percent of technique.

Sometimes you just need to remember how far you have come, rather than fretting over the remaining possible improvements you might never achieve. Not getting faster isn’t necessarily a failure. Maybe you are more relaxed instead, less likely to get injured, or maintaining fitness or speed as you get older.

So much of swimming literature and gurus and advice is aimed at perfection. But chasing perfection is Xeno’s Dichotomy. It’s often more fruitful to look how far you come.

Good enough (donal)

Can you swim comfortably? Are you relaxed in the water? Can you maintain a consistent stroke and stroke rate? Can you adapt to changing open water conditions?  Are you in control? Are you enjoying swimming?

You don’t have to be the best open water swimmer, you just have to be good enough.

 

Diana Nyad to confess all on Oprah!

How many times have I started a posted a post with similar words to; “Strange things happen in marathon swimming?

Ah, how the worm turns.

One reader of LoneSwimmer.com is a pool swimmer with their sights set on open water and their first 10k swim, always a big milestone. Their research led to LoneSwimmer.com and accidentally to my very popular LoneSwimmer.com article on Nyad’s controversial claimed Cuba to Florida swim.

oprah icon_256Said reader is also a “nondescript” (their term) employee of Harpo Productions. This  is the parent company of Oprah Prime and Oprah.com, which since the demise of the networked Oprah TV show, is the main outlet of host Oprah Winfrey. It’s the media avenue where the Lance Armstrong “confession” was made, in his failed attempt to convince the world it was everyone else’s fault.

On Friday night I received a camera phone photograph of notes taken in a post-recording production roundup meeting.

Oprah April's Fools Diana Nyad.resized.rotated

These brief coffee-stained and handwritten notes claim Diana Nyad has recorded a show with Oprah Winfrey. A brief “Executive Summary” calls the recording “Confessional and redemption-seeking” wherein she will likely admit to fraud during the events of the last Cuba to Florida attempt. Details will only be evident on the web release in May as our source didn’t see the actual recording or tape.

Given Diana Nyad’s lifelong history of self-promotion, is there any announcement in swimming less anticipated than this?

In marathon swimming, routes once apparently closed open up, connections previously unknown become apparent.

Since the events of last autumn, Diana Nyad has continued to peddle outright lies about the events, amongst which are claiming to have supplied proof of the swim to the satisfaction of the review panel, and continues to claim some mythical world records. But the supposed swim remains shrouded behind verbiage and a lack of any actual evidence and her post-swim fabrications were far more obvious to anyone interested, as could be seen on her reddit AMA in the New Year. (An online question and answer discussion session). (Some user called LoneSwimmer responds).

However, Hollywood hasn’t beaten a path to her door. She didn’t win the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer Award, her hoped-for musical based on her life is apparently no closer, and the public exposure of her treatment of Walter Poenisch all those years ago has become a publicity liability. So the avenues available for her further self-promotion were becoming  limited. As I can see from the search terms into LoneSwimmer, people now searching for Diana Nyad know there’s a controversy or even deception and most likely even use those words . This slipping from the public eye led to a failed turn on America’s Dancing With The Stars, some reality TV program, which like other similar reality TV dross, rounds up has-beens, never-weres and wanna-bes, in an orgy of desperate public attention-seeking.

But when those who know aren’t to be convinced, and the questions won’t go away, what better way to for a relentless self-promoter to grab the public attention than to throw themselves on the mercy of the public, and seek “redemption”. The public generally loves stories of redemption with a little bit of embarrassment.

I  have long held to the similarity between Diana Nyad and Lance Armstrong in terms of narcissism, media control, self-promotion and sporting deception. That analogy continues to be relevant.

Time will tell.

 

 

The Unwritten Rules of Open Water Swimming

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.

It’s difficult to investigate assumptions while swimming or driving a keyboard, as we are usually blind to them. (Maybe we need a proper sociological investigation of rules by Channel swimmer and sociologist Dr Karen Throsby).

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.

7: Where applicable, follow the Two Golden Rules. (Disclose all the rules being used, such as the Marathon Swimming Federation Rules, and use an Independent experienced Observer).

*

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’m looking forward to hearing your wisdom.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

Ten minutes after briefing and the swimmers were lined up on Lough Dan’s so-called beach for the group photo seen in the previous part.

Sometimes writing about the minutiae of swimming is really boring. Sometimes such reportage can mask some other truth. Sometimes I think that the more I try to explain the less I succeed.

Unlike a marathon swim that can take multiple hours, the Ice Mile swim was short enough to recall detail of each of the four 400 metre laps, especially for someone who is used to trying to capture sensations for writing. But an ultra-detailed analysis can often be to see the paint on the building rather than the architecture.

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws
Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

The entry and swim out to the start pontoon was fine. I can get into extremely cold water comfortably after years of winter swimming and the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4° F.) at the edge was better than wading through ice as we had the previous year. Entry is easier when there is no wind or rain and you are swimming with others.

I relaxed through the first two laps. Almost certainly too much in retrospect. I was much slower than normal for the first 800 metres.

At the start of the third lap, I allocated part of my awareness as a monitor. Its only job was to check myself, my perceptions and reactions for as long as was possible. Cold slows and thickens the blood, cognition becomes impaired but the hypothermic person doesn’t realise this. Those movies where a hypothermic person clearly realises they must get moving or they will freeze are mostly nonsense.

By the third lap I had developed extreme pain in my hands and feet. Please remember I am used to really cold water, and I don’t describe that pain lightly as extreme. I began to get nervous about one of the lesser-known possible side effects of extreme cold water swimming, that of nerve damage to fingers (not frostbite). So I started clenching my fists and fingers hard during stroke recovery. I also put the pain away, walled it off. It was severe, but I’m a distance swimmer so it wasn’t relevant and I ignored it.

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

Finbarr passed me. Everyone else had already moved in front of me though I’d been first to swim away from the beach. (I had swum to the pontoon to start, which wasn’t necessary, but I had wanted to so do). On the third lap I had reached the 75% distance that mirrored my 75% pre-swim confidence. I touched the buoy on the pontoon for the seventh time and started the last lap. I never took any notice of Eoin Gaffney on the pontoon or the kayakers or the RIB crew for the entire swim, except for the occasional taste of diesel in the water.

I was cold, then colder. Into hypothermia. As you know, cold is a word that holds no meaning in this situation, but I don’t have a better one. Unless you are cold water swimmer you have no idea what I mean, you just think your experience of an ordinary cold winter day is analagous.

There was pain, present but also distant because I disregarding it. Still swimming. Still focused. Hands quite extraordinarily not in The Claw. Still slow. I tried increasing my stroke rate. I couldn’t hold it for long.

Going down the seventh leg in the last 400 metres, the Black Rain developed.

The Black Rain. I have not heard any other cold water swimmer describe this. I have suffered it once previously. Spots before the eyes is a poor descriptor. It is more like a shifting rain, starting very light, almost imperceptible. Varying sizes, speed and seeming distances in front of me.  Just like rain, except its colour.

I touched the far buoy for the last time. 200 metres to go. Then the swim in. Okay, just the 200 metres to worry about. I knew I would make it.

The RIB was near. There was a kayaker beside me. I could not tell what or if they might have been saying. I didn’t really focus on them, and didn’t think to try. I didn’t think of anything beyond monitoring myself. Swim in. That was all. That was everything. The Black Rain was heavier and I was developing tunnel vision. Not a metaphor, but actual vignetting of my sight. The boats were near but felt far away, not really having anything to do with me, on the far side of a veil. Head for the beach.

Cold blood. Cold enuf blood becomes viscus blood. Viscous. Swim. Thick blood. Thick blood flowz slowly. swim. coLd blub blood Passes oxigen 2 ur brain slowli. always swim. keep swim. Your thinking. ur Thinking gets slowly. never stop swimin. never stop, never stop. never stop cccold. izh beach. shallow. stand. colm’s son. Mr Awesome. OUt. Dee. gEt Drest.

I didn’t need to touch the pontoon at the end of the 1600 metres. Since the beach was further away I had de facto completed the distance. Warren Roche and Tom Healy helped me once got into shallow water and stumbled semi-upright.

*

Despite the ever-encroaching cold, I had never stopped swimming, never stopped making forward progress, never lost sight of what I was doing. Years of cold water swimming makes a difference. Deeply ingrained habits and patterns and thinking mean everything.

The last two legs of the swim had taken both zero time and infinity. Time travel jokes become inessential when time itself ceases to have meaning. Cold is the universe’s ultimate time machine encased in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Time, like my trap, is a mental construct of swimmers. Time is a beast, or a wall, something huge, not the little parasites of seconds and minutes. If we are close enough we can’t see it all and it either slips away or fills our sight and becomes meaningless.

Immediately afterwards the freight train of Afterdrop took me harder than it ever has previously. Many people helped me as I was virtually unable to dress myself, but especially Tom Healy. I was almost unresponsive. My memory of the fifteen or twenty minutes post swim is hazy at best.

I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I can recall, like most cold water swimmers. We don’t call it hypothermia of course, we just say chills and shivers. It sounds safer, doesn’t scare others. I have been in serious hypothermia (by my scale of experience) twice before. I’ve had memory loss. Loss of motor control. Inability to speak, to walk, to drive. So I can with confidence say that this was the worst hypothermia experience I’ve yet endured.

I am thankful specifically for the help of Mr Awesome Tom and his partner Rachel, Nicola Gilliland, Alan Smith, Colm Breathnach’s friend Warren Roche whom I thought was Colm’s son. (Should I apologise to Colm or Warren or both?)

And of course my regular accomplice Dee, who didn’t panic either and is still making fun of what she describes as the manic rictus of my face post-swim. I think she’s mixing it up with my regular face.

For reference, you have seen me write many times that I am an average range speed swimmer. The Sandycove Island Challenge each autumn is a similar distance when including the extra Ice Mile start and finish portions, about 1750 metres when the water is flat.

My time for the 2013 Sandycove Island Challenge, which had similar flat conditions and was maybe 14°C. , and my best ever race lap, was 25:30. Course record is held by Irish International swimmer Chris Bryan at 19:40 or thereabouts. My time for the same distance Ice Mile was astonishingly over 37 minutes. That’s what cold can do to a really experienced cold water swimmer. For reference I am 171 centimeters tall and weighed 76 kilos for the swim and my resting heart rate the previous morning was 53.

I had stopped shivering and was recovered and was out and about for photographs in under an hour, thanks to heat, hot water bottles applied correctly, glucose, rubbing and all the techniques used on a hypothermic person. Core temperature took a while longer to recover, until about the time we were half way home, two and half to three hours after the swim.

Seven of the nine Ice Milers finished. Colm Breathnach and Donal Jacob pulled out at 1200 metres due to not feeling right during the swim. You should recall that Colm is already an Ice Miler and a faster and better cold water swimmer than I. Fergal says, and I agree, having done the same myself last year, that for a swimmer such as Colm to pull out during a swim displays self-knowledge, confidence and experience that others should take note of and emulate, and hopefully indicates to others just how seriously this swim should be approached. I have great respect for both swimmers for the decision they made on the day.

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option
Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

Did you think it might be different? More macho or inspirational?Something with less…pain?

I can’t do macho. Don’t know how. King of the Channel in the late 70′s, Des Renford used a phrase “Doing It Tough”. I did my Ice Mile tough. Frankly and honestly in my opinion this stuff is too dangerous to load  macho bullshit onto it.

Winning ugly” according to DeeNot pretty”, she also said, (though that may have been a general observation about me).

Getting it done. No need, no plan, to do it again, I swam out of the trap. I wish I could swim out of other traps.

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before leaving the surface. Be afraid!
Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before departing the surface. Be afraid!

Afterward:

Later after warming up my heart rate was elevated for a few hours. Two days later I developed muscles pain for 24 hours almost identical to what I experience after the first five or six-hour pool swim of winter similar to what Colm reported after his Ice Mile swim last year. It felt like lactic buildup aches in my triceps, lats, pecs, along with lower back and thighs. The aches over the kidneys lasted another two days. I had an unidentified bruise and swelling on one finger, when I rarely bruise even after impacts. Minor issues and otherwise I am perfectly fine.

Here at the end of Part III, I’m taking a temporary break from the subject before returning with reflections and thoughts on the wider context of Ice Mile swimming, with the challenges, dangers, frauds, difficulties and some recommendations.

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – II – Surprisingly Cold

Driving to Wicklow that morning, it never once occurred to us that the water temperature would be cold enough. I was absolutely fine with that.

Here’s anther stupid thing we are doing on yet another early morning“, may have been something Dee said.

We passed over the Wicklow Gap pass, and there was no snow or ice on the mountain tops. The outside air temperature was about two degrees Celsius on the high pass.

We reached Lough Dan just after ten a.m. It’s the main outdoor location for Ireland’s Scout troops but there weren’t any present this weekend. Down at the lake edge everyone had arrived before us, and there were many people milling about, from kayakers and family, to support and safety personnel and half- and mile swimmers. North Channel “earliest, coldest and boldest” Fergal Somerville, the man behind the swim, and others were busy erecting a welcome new addition, a large tent for changing.

After 10 or 15 minutes of chat, I asked about the temperature and was surprised to hear it was somewhere around three degrees. I literally did not believe that but Fergal pointed out the four thermometers out on the rocks around the cove for me to check. They did indicate a range of temperatures from 3.0 ° to 3.5 °Celcius. So it looked like the Ice Mile swim attempt was on!

Four thermometers for certainty.
Four thermometers for certainty.

I did have an initial reaction that the water was again too cold for me. If an Ice Mile can be done at exactly 5.0 ° C., then honestly that’s the temperature at which I’d prefer to do it the swim. I am not in an ego match with anyone who can swim in even colder water. But such precision or luck is not in the nature of Irish weather and water.

Unlike last year though, once that initial reaction passed, I was always going to do the swim. If last year there was only a 25% chance I might do it, this year there was only a 25% chance I wouldn’t do it. To allocate a greater degree of certainty would be to ignore the ever-changing nature of cold and open water swimming and many lessons learned over years of open water swimming. 75% was what I needed.

Mentally I was engaged. After years of hurling myself into cold water, I’ve long ago shed fear and even nervousness and I’ve discarded negative pre-swim thoughts. I might have put myself into this trap, but that didn’t mean I was going to be negative about it. Such a mindset is not conducive to extreme cold water swimming. A swimmer needs to be positive and in control of their thought processes, because that is all they have power over. I was going to swim my way out of this trap.

There were originally ten swimmers planning to take on the full mile challenge, with nine present on the day of whom four were already Ice Milers from last year: Fergal Somerville, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery and Finbarr Hedderman.

To those were added the Aspirants; Moldavan Irish-based Ion Lazarenco, Swiss and also Irish-based speedster Sabrina Weidmer, Eastern Bay Channel Aspirant Paraic Brady, Waterford triathlete Donal Jacob, and myself. There was another group of swimmers who would attempt an 800 metre (half mile) swim.

Two-time English Channel swimmer Eoin Gaffney was on time and lap keeping duty out on a pontoon for the 400 metres laps. Five kayakers and a RIB. A medical Doctor (and swimmer) Nicole Gilliland. Three Fire Brigade staff, all extremely experienced and knowledgeable open water swimmers and paramedics, Tom Mr Awesome Healy, Irish Republic English Channel record holder, his partner Rachel Lee, holder of multiple Irish swimming records, and Alan Smith from Waterford, who had a big effect on the Sandycove Swimmers in his methodical planning. And more:  John Daly,  English Channel Solo and Ice Miler, Mark Lynch, Eastern Bay SC and organiser, Declan Proctor, Swim Director, Barry O’Shaughnessy, Lough Dan Scout Leader. Families and individual helpers and even multiple dogs.

Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing
Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing

There may have been 50 people present to help us out, to watch over us, to keep us safe. All necessary. All potentially essential.

In the last post I wrote:

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel.

Eastern Bay Swim Club’s Declan, Mark and  Fergal put on the safest, best planned and supported Ice Mile conceivable.

This was an Invitation Only event. The swimmers all had a record of recent cold water training, medicals, and all were known to the organisers and most of us knew each other and Fergal knew each of us. At the start of the winter he had requested we each keep training logs (which I do anyway). We all had recent medicals. I’d been swimming more than last winter, though the extraordinary series storms of mid-December to mid-February had severely impaired almost everyone over the preceding four weeks, when I’d only managed two ocean swims. At 76 kg. I weigh all of 1.4 kg more than last year. Not much, and not what I wanted to be (77-78kg) but more importantly, I haven’t had a recent weight loss like last year.

A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG!
A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG

The safety briefing was comprehensive and included all the important caveats which which open water swimmers should be familiar:

  • It’s only a swim. You can always swim another day.
  • You MUST obey anyone in a boat if told to get out.
  • You can always pull out and you are never more than 200 metres from land.
  • You can always swim another day. Always worth repeating.

A very important rule was added for this specific event:

  • Swimmers must be on the last 400 metre lap by 40 minutes or at least making steady progress to the finish. (Otherwise they would be too slow and too cold). Swimmers also could not stop, tread water or switch to breaststroke, all excellent local rules to ensure safety.

At about 11.10 a.m, as people drifted from the safety briefing to get ready, I spoke quietly in an aside with Tom Mr Awesome Healy.

Tom. I’ll get badly cold. I wanted to warn you, so it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think I may told him not to panic, which Tom with swim and Fire Brigade and paramedic experience was absolutely NOT going to do anyway. I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

It’s good you know yourself Donal. Thanks for letting me know.”

All the swimmers before the start.
All the swimmers before the start.

*

I hadn’t planned to split the account of the Ice Mile into two parts. However, I did not wish to de-emphasise the excellent support of and importance of Eastern Bay Swim Club’s pre-eminent support and the safety aspects of such a swim. Therefore the next part will cover the entire swim itself.

Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed
Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed

Ice Mile Dilemmas – I – The Trap

Sometime back in winter of 2010, Sandycove Island Channel swimmer and local legend Finbarr Hedderman and I discussed attempting an Ice Mile.  At the time the International Ice Swimming Association was very new and less than a dozen people had joined its ranks, and half of those were the founders. For those unaware of the Ice Mile challenge:

1) You are better off.

2) It’s a mile (1600 metres) swum in open water of temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower, wearing only standard swim costume and cap. It’s pretty much as least as horrible as it sounds, and in probably worse. It’s governed by the International Ice Swimming Association founded in 2009 in South Africa by five swimmers. The goal for the IISA is to have the Ice Mile introduced to the Winter Olympics.

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

In retrospect the best time for me to have done an ice-mile would have been the previous winter of 2009/10 when I was training for the English Channel and doing a lot of cold water and the Association had just been founded but unfortunately my time machine is temporally out-of-order. (Gee, I wrote a time machine joke.). 

I’m going to put an important disclaimer and reminder here early on, and a subject to which I will return. I cannot stress these enough.

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel. An Ice Mile should not ever be attempted casually, and for most people should never be attempted.

The temperatures here in Ireland are marginal in two ways: For most of the year the temperatures are such that only experienced open water swimmers are comfortable in our cool water. The other margin is that the cold winter sea temperatures usually hover about six degrees Celsius, just above the prerequisite five degrees to allow an Ice Mile attempt.

Therefore any Ice Mile attempt in Ireland usually requires co-operative (cold) weather and there are only a few usable locations, the most suitable of which are cold mountain lakes.

As those who read this blog last winter will recall, English and earliest-and-coldest-ever North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville hosted on an Ice Mile attempt at Dublin’s North Wall in February of 2013. We didn’t get the necessary temperature, and I suffered significant post-swim hypothermia due mainly to a then-recent  weight loss of almost six kilos. I’m not a big person anyway so that was not insignificant weight loss. I turned down another opportunity just a week later to join others of my good friends and personal heroes Finbarr Hedderman, Ciarán Byrne and Rob Bohane in an Ice Mile swim in the Kerry Mountains.  A few weeks later Fergal again hosted another Ice Mile attempt, moving location to Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains.

That day in 2013, surrounded by snow and ice, my mind mostly elsewhere, I decided against swimming the full mile, ans swam half the distance, partly because of the very low temperatures; one point four degrees through surface ice at the lake edge. And partly because I was just wasn’t at all mentally engaged for personal reasons that weekend. I remember saying to Dee that I didn’t have it in me that day to mentally go where I would need to go in order to complete the mile.

Indeed I wrote here afterwards: “most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but [knew they] would come with a physical price. And I also know that sometimes pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do”. 

I’ve got a little thing I like to say when appropriate. It’s not poetry or memorable but I really believe it very strongly and it’s my own open water mantra:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

That day Fergal, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery, John Daly and Carmel Collins all completed the swim and became Ice Milers, all excellent cold water swimmers.

Glendalough log MG_1374_01 (Unsharp 3.0).resized
Taken at Glendalough Upper Lake, hours after the 2012 Lough Dan Ice Mile.

It was unexpected that afterwards people both commiserated with me and congratulated me on my decision, even at the CS&PF Channel Dinner in the UK. I wasn’t at all bothered by not doing the swim and was happier with making a personal educated decision to not swim the full mile, (despite irresponsible pressure from one swimmer). I made that decision based on knowing myself; my experience, my physiological state and my thought processes.

One year later, in this 2013/2014 winter, which isn’t as cold as last year’s bitter season, Fergal and The Eastern Bay Swim Club once again decided to host an invitation-only Ice Mile attempt in Lough Dan high up (relatively speaking, our mountains are low) in the Wicklow Mountains. The actual date stayed flexible to allow for weather and temperature changes. but the third and fourth weeks are usually the coldest water temperature here. The date was finally fixed one week beforehand and I indicated I’d accept the invitation and made my final decision to go only 24 hours beforehand. But honestly, with the milder temperature, I certainly did not think we would have the necessary low temperature, nor did most of the other attendees. And I wasn’t at all bothered. A swim at six degrees would suit me fine and I’d be hypothermic afterwards anyway.

Now let me say, and this is also important and key to this whole thing, that I’ve changed my mind about the Ice Mile challenge over the last couple of years since Finn and I first discussed it, starting before last year’s attempts and solidifying early last year. I was no longer particularly interested in the challenge for myself.  I’ll get into those thoughts about the Ice Mile challenge later in this series.

So this was the context of my first dilemma.

I write about cold water swimming. It’s my favourite subject, my favourite palette, and my articles on the subject (index on top right of the page!) are part of what define Loneswimmer.com.

I love cold water, love that bite. But it’s Hobson’s Choice: We don’t have warm water here so it’s cold water or no water, love it or leave it. I also believe in trying to help educate about open water and cold water swimming’s dangers and benefits.

And specifically, I also know that I like cold water, down to about six degrees Celsius (42.8° F).

Sure, I can and have, swum in water of five degrees and colder. But I don’t (always) enjoy it. The balance of reward versus difficulty doesn’t really work for me unless I also reduce the time commensurately. At five degrees, 15 to 20 minutes is fine. (For me). At four degrees, I don’t like swimming longer than 12 to 15 minutes. I also don’t want to increase my weight significantly, nor do I want to push the swimming time limit weekend after weekend, as I would need to do and have previously done, to increase my cold tolerance. For most of the coldest winter months here, I generally swim anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes depending on the day and conditions and month. I want to enjoy it, to explore my own mind while doing so, to feel what inspiration may come.

But there’s an increase in attention to the International Ice Mile Association and the numbers doing Ice Mile swims are growing, particularly in such areas of regular cold water swimming as Ireland, the UK, South Africa and the northern latitude American continent. I started to feel pressured.

How can we take Donal’s writing on cold seriously? He’s not even an Ice Miler“.

It was a mental construct and a trap entirely of my own making. Sure, I knew it for the fancy that it was. But I couldn’t shrug it off and I still felt I needed to do an Ice Mile, if only for the sake of my existing cold water writing, rather than any particular desire to achieve the target.

We do this, us stupid swimming apes, build imaginary mental obstacles and make them real, and sometimes impossible. I’m a master at it.

*

Allied with this was another dilemma, what I think of as The Paul Kimmage Effect.

Paul Kimmage was a Irish professional cyclist in the late eighties and early nineties. He was not successful and retired quickly and wrote a very good expose of his experience and the drug culture of cycling, including his own use of prohibited substances. He later became one of the long-term key anti-Lance Armstrong journalists and subject to one of Lance Armstrong’s more famous and vicious attacks.

Because Kimmage (of whom I am a fan) had not been successful in his cycling career and because he had exposed something that many cyclists didn’t want discussed, he was heavily criticised and even disregarded.

There are aspects of this challenge that I wanted to write about that I felt could be disregarded if I myself had not completed the challenge. Ironically, I had built that trap myself by completing the half mile swim last year. Had I said up front that I wasn’t at all going to even attempt that swim and proceeded from there, subsequent discussion may have been easier as I’d have just been an educated observer and commentator. Otherwise I’d have been one of the people who didn’t or couldn’t do it. So this really felt like a Catch 22.

I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I felt I would probably have to do it sometime.

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

A Cynical Devil’s Dictionary of (Open Water) Swimming

In the early twentieth century, American satirist Ambrose Bierce collected his weekly newspaper columns into a book which he intended to call a Cynic’s Dictionary. His repeated characterisation as a devil by various US politicians of the day led to its publication under the title of Devil’s Dictionary.

I have neither the wit not skill of Bierce, but I thought it would be fun to devise a brief Cynical Devil’s Swimming Dictionary. It so transpired, such that I may continue to add to it.

***

Anti-fog: The biggest lie told by the swimming industry.

Butterfly: Vicki Keith & Sylvain Estadieu are nut-cases. More importantly, a type of post-swim cupcake. Mmm, cake.

Bioprene: The next big thing in celebrity diets. Just you wait. Sunday supplements and Horizon specials, here we come.

Cake: See Butterfly.

Carbs: Cake in another form. Sometimes chocolate. Or just cake. Mmm, cake.

Catch: The nonsensical idea that swimmers grab onto and hold and pull the water, under water, with their hands, in order to move forward. Clearly they move by micturating prodigiously behind themselves. Or open water swimmers anyway.

Costume: Swimsuits, Cossies, Bathers, Budgies, Banana Hammocks, Speedos, Togs, Swimmers and “middle-aged men shouldn’t be allowed to wear those in public” are all various terms for wisps of artificial fabric swimming apparel that are changed and cleaned less often than a hobo’s underwear but cost more per gram than real fur.

Channel: A body of water stretching between Stupid and Broke.

Channel swimmers: A cult or a club. Or both.

Cold: No. No, it’s not, you baby. Get in.

Copper Coast: My paradise. My playground. Bloody cold. Full of bloody jellyfish. Few swimmers. Applications to swim must come through this office.

Depth: It’s not under me, it’s not under me. It’s not under me.

Diana Nyad: See Marathon Swimmer.

Dover: Why so many people swim away from England.

England: More people try to swim away from it than anywhere else in the world. See Dover.

France: Bloody hell. I suppose it could be worse. It could be Belgium. Or England again. I gave up my two-way attempt because I didn’t want to swim to Dover. Two-way attempt? Hey, if you ever have to swim from France for an hour to get back to your pilot, you too can reasonably claim it was a two-way attempt.

Feeds: The technical description of the vast quantities of infant food open water swimmers stuff into their gaping never-satiated mouths, like huge baby birds.

Fish: The Men in the Grey Suits. The Landlord. Does not include any other fish.

Fraud: See Diana Nyad.

Goggles: When asked the first time what is best in life Conan The Barbarian said: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. And new goggles. I love new googles.” That’s a Hollywood Fact.

Grease: The best stuff is made from baby dolphin juice. I can hook you up. Call me.

Imagination and Intelligence: Lack of. Why marathon swimmers keep swimming. How marathon swimmers keep swimming. Really, we’re pretty dumb. Ted Erikson said so and he’d know.

Ireland: Home of swimming Gods and Goddesses, Ocean Giants and Sea Conquerors, a coastal cold water heaven. And a lone swimmer.

Jellyfish: Boom. Right in the kisser! Who says the little bastards have no brains?

Kick: This is how you stop triathletes trying to pass you. In the head, for best effect. I do not condone this. On a completely and utterly unrelated note, triathletes can’t tell one skin swimmer from another, we all look alike to them. So if you accidentally kicked one in the head, that would have nothing to do with me and you probably wouldn’t get caught.

Lakes: Old-timey version of pools. No chlorine but you do get the urine and dilute cowshit for free.

Lengths: Not as commonly thought, a  pool measurement, but in multiple figures is the real distance in body lengths between a swimmer who tells their wife/husband they came third in a race, and actual third place. Cannot be a fraction.

Marathon swimmer: Not Diana Nyad.

Marathon swimming: It’s a dumb thing.

NST: Non-Shivering Thermogenesis. This is the technical description of the time just before  male cold water swimmer’s testicles become safely ensconced within their bodies.

Nude: Ned Denison’s scary predilection for swimming without togs on club swims. Never mentioned in his IMSHOF induction.

Ocean: Home. See Water. Also sea water. Free.

Observers: Hauled-out crusty old sea dogs. Bring your own food. Lock up your daughters.

Open Water Swimmers: the very zenith nadir of the swimming world. Above Below Tadpole Age Groupers.

Pilot: Someone you pay a lot of money to insult you, while you swim, just at the point when you already feel most stupid.

Pool: A box of urine and chlorine. Pay to use.

Propellor: Anyone who worries a lot about Fish hasn’t been too close for comfort to a moving propeller. Aka The Spinning Blades of Sharp Cutting Pain and Dismemberment.

Qualification: The complex and lengthy process of incorrectly and fraudulently  filling out multiple forms and questionnaires, forging signatures and lying about swim times in order to swim somewhere stupid so that next time, you won’t have to write the entire work of fiction from scratch.

Recovery: That morning you stayed in bed and still regretted it. The day you went swimming … and still regretted it.

Reefs: If you are racing, don’t get between us and them. See also Kick.

Swimming: A bad metaphor for life. A good substitute for life.

Sharks: The Landlord. The Men In Grey Suits. Bitey. Grey. Also gray. See Fish.

Swedes: Either butterfly nut-case Sylvain Estadieu’s fiancée, Great Greta, or a type of elitist swim goggle. Depending on your geographical location and preference. We all know Sylvain’s preference, right? Right?

Technique: It’s a little-known fact that before Atlas was condemned to roll a stone uphill for eternity, he was first put to perfecting his front crawl swim technique, but it deemed too cruel a punishment. Any swimmer left to their own devices will rapidly devolve to the worst technique possible, except open water swimmers, who have none to begin with.

Tides: Often treated a fairy tale  by swimmers who swim on lakes. The variability in time, height  and location prove God is a woman. Or a man. I dunno, I’m no theologian or misogynist.

Under the boat: Don’t go there. I’ve been. It’s not nice.

Viking Princess: Reg Brickell’s Channel boat. You ain’t crewed till you crewed on Viking Princess. Unless, you know, you have crewed.

Water: Are you frequently damp? That’d be the water. You’ll find it’s wet.

Wildlife:  Technical swimmer’s collective noun for all things that are Not Jellyfish and Not Sharks.

X-Men: A supposed superhero team which has no swimmers. You know the rest of the world makes fun of Aquaman? That because they all can’t swim. Aquaman would kick Wolverine’s ass in the water. And I doubt that wheelchair of Professor X is much good as a pull-buoy. Also, begins with X. You try it if you are so smart.

Youghal: A coastal town in Ireland that begins with a Y.  Goddamn it it’s late!

Zip-line: Every open water swimmers’ favourite  race technique, that they pretend to utterly deplore and sworn they’ve never used. I’ve myself have certainly never used it. Ever. In unrelated advice, grease your ankles.

***

Related (humour) links:

Open Water Swimmer’s Fashion & Beauty Tips. (loneswimmer.com).

Two Distance Swimmers meet. (loneswimmer.com)

Swimming Taxonomy (loneswimmer.com)

GRANT PROPOSAL AND APPLICATION – TOWARD A POST-MODERN CONTEXTUALIZATION OF SWIMMING SUB-CULTURES (loneswimmer.com)

Introducing a precise open water  temperature scale (loneswimmer.com)

Loneswimmer.com is four years old

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.

LoneSwimmer monthly charts 4 years no data
47 months of LoneSwimmer.com

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 forum is now the most vibrant community of Channel, marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers globally. This in turn led to the Global Marathon Swimming Awards, the only peer-voted marathon awards in the world. And from there it led to the recent release of the Rules of Marathon Swimming by a core group of authors and reviewers, which rules have already been welcomed and endorsed by an astonishing number of well-known marathon swimmers from around the world. (If you haven’t endorsed the rules yet, regardless of your accomplishments or level, it’s never too late, you can do it over there or email me, or email rules@marathonswimmers.org).

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.

Kilfarrassey rocks_MG_8854.resized
Kilfarrassey on The Copper Coast

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?”.

This_is_your_brain_on_open-water_swimmingI’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:

Two golden rules of open water and marathon swimming. This ideas in this post have become embedded in the rules of marathon swimming linked above. It’s worth it all for that alone.

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.

Another Winter Dawn, my most popular image on Flickr.
Another Winter Dawn, on Flickr.

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.

Thank you for visiting my site.

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.