My head whirls, sentences and clauses. Words and incantations. I need to hold the intent, remember the state. I need to write. I have swum, and now more than anything, I need to write. More than I need people or food, more even than I need heat, I need to vomit out the words.
This time we run This time we hide This time we draw On all the fire we have inside.
My foot is heavy on the accelerator as I drive homeward, the car’s heater blasting warm air around me, an illusion of warmth, my core temperature still depressed, and dressed as I am in four layers of clothes with a heavy coat, gloves and a wooly hat over all.
So look away, look away Hide your eyes from the land Where I lie cold.
I’m in a fugue, and I know I will soon forget. I am one-millionth of a second displaced from the world and I am untouchable and redeemed. That one-millionth gap is a void. Lone swimming ninja ghost. Invisible, alone. I have tunnel vision and I feel like I’ve taken all the world’s narcotics. But I will warm up and then I shall be returned from the Fey Lands, rewarm and forget the connection. Forget the disconnection. Forget the Fey Lands, forget the fugue, start to distrust myself again. I will become normal and insufficient and lose the brief Redemption.
The Fey Lands. Jotunheim. Tír na nÓg. Tuatha Dé Danann and Lachlanach. Celts and Vikings, on the edge of the World. They knew. Earth, fire, wind and water. Cold also is elemental, a succubus. I can only get there in winter, in cold, through cold, with Cold. There is no map, no Google Earth, no App for the Fey Lands. When we leave the Fey Lands we forget their existence. To remember is madness. Others have found different entrances, different landscapes, different climates. Hell is ice not fire. I neither believe in hell nor heaven. Ascetics, hermits, ecstasists. All pilgrims to the Fey Lands. I’m a pilgrim of Cold. Holymad. I approach by swimming, in cold water, enrobed by cold, into Cold. Soon the Fey Lands will slip away, my memory of their existence will attenuate and dissipate, I will distrust my own words, you will think me cracked, the ecstasy of extremism lost to my mundane failed existence. I will forget the reverie of the Cold. Pools cannot ever do this. Other people are masking agents that stop me losing myself to the Fey Lands. Chlorine and warmth are bulwarks, palisades that stop me throwing down heaven, bar me from finding the Fey Lands.
Look away, look away From the love that I hide Way down deep in my soul.
Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful of. You are not allowed. You will fail. You have failed. I am not capable. I couldn’t. I was not able. I failed. I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t write it. Bollocks. Out there I am invincible, untouchable, inviolate.
Look away, look away From the lies in the stories That were told.
I swim to the edge of the Fey Lands. If things are sufficiently marginal, I will glimpse them from the water. I didn’t know, I never knew, I never know that I am swimming to the Fey Lands.
Cold water. Cold isn’t cold. It’s fire. It burns your skin. Fingertips sting. The soles of feet excruciate. You feel the entire surface of your body at once, you feel the entire skin of the waters and the world. The Cold possesses you, becomes you. No. You become the Cold. The holy Cold. No synonyms are required, nor sufficient.
The currents were strong. Stronger than in years. Not as strong as me. Not this time. All my years there I never had to swim to avoid that reef. Swept past the steps and the concrete, the water still wants me but I turn back, fight back, swim back. I know, know it’s enough and the time doesn’t matter.
Then I broke loose You weren’t around So I raised banks And trains until I tracked you down.
Out of the water, the first glimpse of the Fey Lands is gone. I only know later there was the glimpse. Or was there? Illusion. Delusion. I get dressed and feel great, powerful, more alive, more life than one body can hold. I have a window of time. An absolute learnt span when I must get dressed before the Freight Train arrives. Grab my box, shamble up the steps.
Fifty steps. Sea to world. Why fifty? Why does fifty seem important? I know. But I feel great. I’ll go for a walk.
Open the lock box on the car. Fire my stuff inside the boot. It’s here. The Freight Train is here. The Freight Train always arrives, inevitably. No walk. I’ll just sit into the car, turn on the heater. Warm air, warm clothes. I’m on the Freight Train. I am in the fugue. Shivering and shaking, the Freight Train takes me. What will the ride be like this time?
We made some friends But now it’s done I always knew that we would Never find the sun.
Short but intense. The Freight Train isn’t a commuter train. No light shivers here, it’s a ride of clattering shakes and chattering jaw. I don’t feel cold. I never feel cold. I never feel cold. You misunderstand cold. You walked in the rain and got wet on a cold day? I am a connoisseur of Cold. The Fey Lands are different. Your commuter colours are pastel shades but my Freight Train is primary hues. I am alive on the Freight Train. No nodding off on the Freight Train. No mere commuters on the Freight Train. The Fey Lands are around me on the Freight Train. I see them. You cannot. Are you a pilgrim too? How long will I be on the Freight Train, this time?
Afterdrop. Hypothermia. Cold. Rewarming. Mealy words, accurate but inaccurate.
I just realised I am, what do I say, cool? Chilled is the word. Not cold. Cold, that cold, the Cold, the fugue, is a different state. Cold is sacred. The fugue is gone, I’m off the Freight Train. I catch a branch line back. I’ve left the Fey Lands.
The words. The words weren’t right. I didn’t hold the intent. The fugue. The Fey Lands. The Reverie of Cold. So easy to lose, to forget. People, hot chocolate, fingers on a keyboard. I’m just a cuckoo again. What are these words about? They consumed me and I don’t know. Did I imagine it all?
I shall just have to swim again. In cold water.
Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t.
So look away, look away Hide your eyes from the land Where I lie cold.
Look away, look away From the lies in the stories That were told.
Look away, look away From the love that I hide Way down deep in my soul.
“Magic that takes you out, far out, of this time and this world” – George Bernard Shaw on the Skelligs
It was still cloudy at Portmagee, and a few swimmers and yakkers assembled on the pier to load the boats. We were outward bound on a small fishing boat with two support yakkers and skipper Gearóid’s family out for a day trip, and left the pier at 11.15am, heading out through the calm channel.
The first ever transatlantic cable came ashore at Valentia and for many years down at the extreme edge of Europe, Valentia Cable Station was centre of the communications world.
We passed Bray Head, moving out into the open ocean. With the kayaks the small fishing boat was cramped, and I, the only swimmer on board, had nowhere to sit as the yakkers claimed the seats, but I’m happy on a boat and the swim was due to be short.
The sky was still cloudy, with no sign yet of the Sun breaking through. As we moved out west from the shelter of Puffin Island to the south, Bray Head to the north and away from the distant protective shelter of the Blaskett Islands, the swell increased. Along with the Force Two breeze, the water became choppy. Many a breakfast has been lost overboard on the way to the Skelligs to those lacking sea-legs.
I can never steam out to the isolated crags of the Skelligs without thinking of those early monks. The Roman Empire had fallen, Europe had sunk into the Dark Ages, organised society and civilisation fragmented and hundreds of years of chaos lay ahead. Only on Ireland was the learning retained, the early Irish Christian church retaining the knowledge embedded in religion and the skills of writing, illustration and teaching. They founded the Irish monasteries, centres of learning, and then as their number grew they travelled to Scotland, down through Britain and on into Europe, carrying knowledge and artistry and the ideal of scholarship with them, many of their later European sites becoming the great European colleges. The author Thomas Cahill described this as the time when the Irish saved civilisation and it was a time of importance for the country, prior to being a nation, and the time that gave Ireland the appellation of Island of Saints and Scholars.
Some of those men though, looked west, saw a lofty peak out where there was nothing and somehow decided it would be a good place to pursue the ultimate ascetic life, the thought that the peak was already partway to heaven surely in their minds. Regardless of belief, something about the insanity and heroism of that has always struck a chord. Woollen robes, simple tools and a willingness to face the Utter Sea. Surely this resonance must strike any open water swimmer?
Steaming out to the island took about 90 minutes. Heading for Skellig Mór, one passes the white guano-covered Skellig Beag, “small Skellig“. Skellig Beag is the second-largest gannet colony in the world after St. Kilda in Scotland, with about 30,000 breeding pairs, around 20% of the world population. Gannets, white with a yellow head and black wing-tips, are a large raucous seabird which feed by diving on fish from a height and can dive down to thirty metres. The repeated blows to the skull are the primary cause of their demise as they go eventually blind. They wheel and spin and cry in the air around the Skelligs and range far out over the sea in these very rich fishing waters.
The rib carrying swimmers from Portmagee zipped past us before we reached the island on our slower boat, and the Ballinscelligs Inshore Rescue rib with the remaining swimmers, the charity for whom the swim was being carried out were seen arriving from Ballinscelligs Bay.
Kayaks were quickly put in the water near the East Landing at Blind Man’s Cove, boats milled around for fifteen minutes while skipper Gearóid indicated the starting point would be to the west underneath the helicopter pad and in front of the covered walkway leading around Cross Cove.
The swimmers were split into two groups, a larger group of slower swimmers and few faster swimmers to start a couple of minutes later. Looking forward to getting in, I was first ready. As it turned out I was in togs for a good five minutes, but the slight breeze on this protected side of the island was warm and the Sun was finally breaking through as the clouds parted overhead so I wasn’t getting cold.
As I waited I heard a call of my name, but assumed there was another Donal out there, it being a name rarely heard outside Ireland but quite normal here, (by the way Donal is NOT Donald, as a name Donal goes back at least 2,000 years). But we soon noticed that a small inshore boat carried my friends Liz Buckley (no relation but we call her my fake half-sister) Chairwoman of the Sandycove Island Swim Club and her boyfriend Padraig Leahy, both strong and experienced open water swimmers.
The first group was soon off, heading north-east to swim anti-clockwise around the island. And shortly thereafter I was off the boat into the water, turning to wave at Dee and then off. The calm protected water of the south-east of the island slipped past. Tim was nearby in his kayak, the other boats moving to the outside.
Underneath the water was deepening shades of grey-green. As we approached the northern-most point of the island, the waves of the open ocean swell were readily apparent even to a cursory sighting, crashing onto the reef.
I’d already caught a few of the slow group, and continuing my long tendency to skirt rocks closely, I moved in closer while the others moved out. Under the water as I approached the was filled with white foam. I don’t really understand why I like swimming near rocks, something subconscious from my surfing, something which I also rely on to tell me when it’s safe and when it’s not. I avoid the rocks on Sandycove first corner in a big a swell because there’s no safe close approach whereas I can skirt the second corner closely.
I passed through the foam, an arm length from the reef, the water rising ahead of me as I swam up the hill of the swell. Then a left turn and along the north side. The boats moved a long way out, as did the large majority of the pack. Dee later told me it became very uncomfortable on the boat at that point as they were only bobbing along at swimming speed, the swell and chop buffeting the boat.
Along with the Sun directly south, and the distance out from me as I continued on ahead,any photography became very difficult. I sought a line along the north shore, against the tide also, where I would be in closer but not so close that I was caught in every wave reflected of the island, trying to find a balance that would mean I was in rough water that was combined from both sides, but not swimming too wide or close. I like rough water, as many experienced open water swimmers do, for a short swim like this. It adds a certain frisson and liveliness to a swim.
This water was rough, certainly not for inexperienced swimmers. I stopped to take a few photos from a borrowed waterproof camera. (Did I tell you I lost another camera to the Sea only a week ago, thanks to bloody shore anglers fishing into the swimming zone at the Guillamenes?).
The water on the north side was also colder, my internal thermometer again telling me that it was about twelve to twelve and half degrees. But the Sun was directly overhead in front of me and the shots were poor. I swam on, gradually south-west, passing the deep cut of North Cove, the older steps that were the original peak access line, visible far above in glimpses, now no-longer used. Occasional jellyfish of different types passed underneath.
The colour of the water was… rich. To just describe it as sea-green or grey-green is insufficient. In coastal waters, our water is mostly sea-green, dropping away to black from the ocean floor, which even when it’s not visible stop light. Out at the Skelligs the bottom is far below, the water dropped through shades of a grey-green. Artichoke, aquamarine and zomp, skobeloff, feldgrau and jade, malachite and viridian and midnight-green all blending and fading into each other, that conveyed the depth below us.
I remembered my first Skellig swim years ago, when the depth made me take a minute to pause and readjust mentally. That adjustment was no longer necessary, though I don’t often get to swim in very deep water, like many other things of the Sea that people dislike, I find myself entranced by the idea of the abysm beneath, dragging myself over the watery surface by the power of my arms, the idea of the void sucking deep in my gut. Deep and rough water, what a joy.
I reached the north-west corner and along west side of the island, Washerwoman Rocks on the west outside, the cliffs here rising sheer from the water. I know the geography of the island and stopped, because far above was a glimpse of the old disused Lighthouse. Two swimmers approached and stopped and I pointed out the Light and told them how back the 1950′s the windows had been broken out by a wave.
The old Lighthouse is over 110 metres high. Three hundred and sixty feet up. That was some wave, surely one of those rogues that we now know exist in deep water. As I crossed Seal Cove, beneath the new Lighthouse, the water calmed and as I rounded the south-west corner, it flattened out and ahead was Cross Cove.
I swung under the helipad and walkway for another picture and passed over a huge Compass jellyfish, less than a body length down. Then back to the Inshore Rib to indicate I’d finished. With stops I’d still taken only about 50 minutes, an easy fun swim. At this point it became apparent that the boat with Dee, and my clothes was far back, so rather than float and get cool, I swam back toward them, and at that point they caught up quickly.
It was a fun swim, a chance to finally swim fully around the island that I’d long wanted to complete. With the last finisher coming in after almost one hour and forty minutes swimming, it was probable that the location and conditions may have been too much for a few of the group. I doubt such a large group, 20 swimmers, will do this swim again, given the rough conditions, it was difficult for all the boats to watch everyone. Any future swims will likely and should be much reduced in number given the complexity and safety cover needed but this one had went well and probably is a relief for Tim to have out of the way, as some swimmer’s unaware of the difficulty of running a swim in a location like this, were somewhat unreasonable in their expectations, and credit goes to him for finally getting it finished. And I’d like to thank Tim myself for allowing me to get this swim off my list.
A couple of years ago I carried a swim report of the third annual Beginish race, which due to inclement weather that year , was held in the Sound between Valentia Island and the mainland of the Kerry coast, at the extreme south-west of Ireland. I called that report racing on the edge of the world. And if you’ve swum on the edge of the world, where else is next to swim, but over the edge.
This is a two-part post, not because it’s a long or complex swim, but because the islands and nearby coast are so spectacular and such a favourite of mine that the post deserves due photographic attention.
Dee and I are regular visitors to Kerry and in particular to that part known as The Ring of Kerry, a loop of spectacular scenery that runs around the Iveragh Peninsula. Ireland has many problems but a lack of spectacular scenery is not amongst them and the Ring of Kerry is amongst the best, and the southern-most coastal area of The Ring is my favourite place in the world and the greatest jewel in the crown of Kerry is the World Heritage site of the Skellig Michael aka Skellig Mór, the “Big Skellig” of the pair of islands.
It was first settled by hermetic Christian monks sometime around the 6th or 7th Century and lies 12 miles of the south west coast, at the nearest edge of the Continental shelf. The peak rises steeply from 100 metres depth to 218 metres ( over 700 feet) of sheer rock, not a square centimetre of which was then flat. It was reached by monks in woollen habits rowing the traditional tar and hide covered rowing boats called Acuras, still around today as traditional craft, right off what was then the edge of the world. Over decades they hewed steps into the rock face, built stone Beehive huts as habitation just underneath the peak, and hauled seaweed from the rocks to make a couple of fields that are only the size of a medium car.
All that lay around and beyond was the terrible Atlantic and the fabled Land of Eternal Youth, Tir-na-nOg. Visiting the Skelligs is an extraordinary experience. Skellig Micheal is open to a limited number of public visitors for about four hours a day, who get there through via a restricted and licensed number of boats that are often booked a week in advance. Its offshore exposed and deep location has it sitting right in the path of regular open Atlantic swell and even in good weather the island can be impossible to land on.
Back in 2006 we were visiting the island, in the early days of my open water swimming, and I decided to swim off the rock (never travel anywhere without briefs, hat and goggles). It was fun, scary and made me want to swim around the island. I’d looked into organising it, but it would be complex and very expensive for a swim that was at most three kilometres long. The tide would have to be slack out at the island, with reasonable water and I’d need to pay a boat for the 24 mile round trip and waiting time, at whatever rate they might normally get for a charter. I put it on the long finger. Beginish Island Swim co-organiser Tim Poullain-Patterson did organise a swim in 2011 for a local charity, but even for someone living locally, it was unable to go ahead for two years due to the aforementioned constraints.
Last week, while Observing a record-breaking swim in Kerry, on which Tim was support kayaker, I discovered he had finally found the weather window he needed to complete the swim and I blagged my way onto it and we arrived in Knightstown the evening before the swim at the tail-end of a spectacular week of Irish weather, the best in a decade, my second visit of the week to paradise.
We walked out the trail to the Second World War coastal watch-tower on Bray Head, strolled around the village, ate scallops at the scallop festival in the village and later watched the Sun sink into the Atlantic beyond the Blaskett Islands off the end of the Dingle Peninsula from the summit of Geokaun Mountain. Another day in paradise.
Sunday dawned cloudy. Fog and cloud in coastal Kerry is ubiquitous, and we hoped it would burn off by swim start. The breeze was up from the previous day and we drove to Cromwell Point lighthouse on the north side of Valentia Island to look at the water, which was displaying the occasional whitecaps of a light Force Three wind.
There would be more water movement out at the Skelligs. Departure time was 11 am at Portmagee, the village on the mainland that is linked by bridge to Valentia island and Dee and I, due to my late addition to the swim, would travel out on the support fishing boat carrying three kayaks, the rest of the twenty swimmers to travel out on large ribs from Portmagee and Ballinscelligs on the south side of the Iveragh peninsula.
Late last week the opportunity to make another Official Ice Mile attempt was offered by Dublin and English Channel swimmers Fergal Somerville and John Daly, this time the attempt to be made in Lough Dan, up in the Wicklow Mountains. Since the previous attempt I had already turned down another opportunity the previous week in the Kerry Mountains, (a report of which I’ll have for you soon).
I told Fergal I wouldn’t be able to make it, and that was still pretty much the case only 24 hours beforehand. However, after a night with four and half hours sleep, lying awake at five a.m., I decided I’d at least attend, and maybe consider it. And so it was that Dee and I left at seven a.m. for the estimated two-hour journey up. Passing Hollywood, (not quite like the better known, younger and more brash American version) we rose gradually up to the Wicklow Gap, and minus four degrees air temperatures with two inches of snow, staring down the long miles of the Wicklow Way to the dawn sun briefly breaking the clouds and shining on the distant Irish Sea. It was stunningly beautiful of course, and nerve-wracking to drive. We were driving almost an hour from when we encountered the first snow and ice before we arrived at Lough Dan just before nine-thirty a.m.
Lough Dan is a Scout and hiking centre and site for overnight camping in the snow, so there were many people about and most of the swimmers and crew were already present. One swimmer from the previous attempt would not be with us, having decided to attempt it by himself, and instead Carmel Collins, a Sandycove swimmer, joined us. We moved the cars down as close to the lake edge as we could, about a hundred metres, and proceeded to check the temperatures.
The tiny bay from where we had lake access was about only ten metres across, and half-covered in ice. So it was immediately obvious the temperature wasn’t too high this time around. And there was no wind, which is important. My first measurement in the shallow water indicated the horrifically low reading of 1.4 degrees Celsius. I moved out along the rocks delineating the east side of the cove to get to deeper water and took a long measurement which read 3.7 º C.
An Official ice Mile, as you probably know, requires water temperatures of 5 º Celsius or less, measured at three different locations, by temperature probes reading 30 centimetres below the surface.
The swim course would be a 400 metre loop, beginning at a pontoon about 50 metres off the shore, and leading down into the lake and back, with four full loops required for the pre-requisite 1650 metres, with a little extra distance padding built-in for anyone swimming the full course.
We had a RIB (rescue boat) and a kayaker, a doctor and plenty of other helpers. Irish English Channel record holder and paramedic, Mr Awesome, Tom Healy, and his partner Rachel were also on-hand for extra safety along with others including Vanessa Daws, artist, open water swimmer and video documentarian of the Irish open water swimming scene.
(Note: I only met Tom for the first time in Dover when both he and Alan Clack were preparing to swim their respective solos on the same day). I met him and Rachel again the day afterwards, and I rubbed the tattoos on his arms. “No. they don’t come off” he said. “Actually“, I said, “I was checking if the awesome would rub off on me“).
We had to wait a while longer than expected before we could start, (and why that is, is a story I hope to return to soon in a separate joint-authored post with Finbarr Hedderman). I thought about the swim, thought about how little sleep I’d had in the previous 48 hours, about how my weight is only one kilogram higher than it was for the previous attempt, thought about how the water was colder than I expected or hoped, (4.9 to 5.0 would have been my preferred but difficult to achieve temperature). I thought about the 40,000 metre training week I’d just completed, without expecting this as the end and even the fact that I hadn’t been in the sea for almost two weeks, my longest absence in a year. I thought about my distracted mental state. And I thought most importantly about whether I wanted to actually to attempt the full swim, and decided I didn’t. I realised I was not capable of it that day. So I decided I’d (almost) certainly only do a half-mile. After all, it would still be a decent swim, in water colder than I’d ever had an opportunity in which to swim.
We had the safety briefing, and just after eleven a.m. Fergal, John, Patrick Corkery, Colm Breathnach, Carmel Collins and myself finally entered the peat-black water with Vanessa in her wetsuit and her trusty Go-Pro. I dislike slow entries, while I also don’t like to dive into cold water I don’t know. So wading out behind Fergal, I got my hands and face in for a good splash, let my breathing settle for a few seconds and then started swimming, while it was still shallow and everyone else started swimming virtually immediately.
As you’d expect, water somewhere between three and four degrees really hurts. I hope you didn’t expect me to say something more profound. As with all cold water it hurts most in the hands, feet and sinuses. It just hurts more acutely and more quickly. I seem to have control over the sinus pain this year, (I’ve only noticed in retrospect) and each year I’ve noticed some improved aspect of my cold tolerance. This water didn’t cause any stabbing sinus or face pain. But my hands and feet were immediately painful and the pain didn’t abate. And I was almost unable to kick from the start, as kicking when your feet are painful with cold seems to increase the pain. By not kicking, the blood also flows more slowly in your body. It’s not really a conscious decision, just one of those possibly individual quirks of cold water for me, though it’s then more difficult in the reduced buoyancy of fresh water lake to maintain a horizontal streamlined position.
Once past the left side of the tiny cove, I immediately went too far to the left, while most of the rest went too far right and we met at about 100 metres out half way to the buoy. Patrick, Fergal and I were together to the first turn, with the kayaker providing a watchful eye, with me inside on the turn. I came out of the inside turn somewhat at a disadvantage to Patrick, shall we say. I’m normally up for the full contact aspect of open water swimming, but this swim wasn’t one where I was so motivated. Patrick and I stayed together with Fergal in front pulling a few metres ahead. We touched the pontoon at 400 metres and turned back. Approaching the end of the third leg Patrick and I were still together and I was going to get caught between him and the buoy again, so I dropped back and swam over his legs to his right side to go wide around the turn, which allowed him to open up five metres. It wasn’t relevant, I was heading into my final 200 metres.
Approaching the pontoon again, I somehow got a mouthful of water, in flat water! Which made me splutter, and further confirmed my decision that today wasn’t my day. I swung right, and into the cove. It was very difficult to walk over the stones of the hidden lake floor with my painful soles and Tom Mr Awesome Healy waded out to assist my landing, such as it was. Dee and Carmel’s partner Gordon helped me get dressed, and we moved back the car. I’d swum somewhat over 800 metres, I was in the water for 16 minutes. I wasn’t obviously as hypothermic as I’d been after the previous attempt, in fact I was able to kind-of-jog back to the car.
Twelve minutes or so later Colm finished first, as always, followed by Fergal, Patrick, Carmel and John. Since we were back at the car however, we don’t have photos of the rest finishing.
It was a fantastic achievement for them all, and all deserve Congratulations: Fergal Colm, John, Patrick and Carmel. There were different levels of post-swim hypothermia but that is to be expected of course. The safety cover and assistance and help were excellent, top class in fact, with no worries about anyone. I recovered in about 40 minutes, unlike the much longer recovery of the previous attempt.
I have never been so happy with a decision to NOT complete a swim. I’ll repeat my favourite safety aphorism for you again:
Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.
I’d left myself the small possibility of attempting the full swim but I knew before I started that it wasn’t likely. My weight hasn’t changed much, I’m still lighter than in three years at least, but 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 it would come at a physical price. And I also know that sometimes that pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do. The full mile would have been too far for me. It was a fantastic achievement for the five swimmers, as it is for all ice mile swimmers. By exiting to plan, I didn’t encounter, or cause, any of the safety issues that we’ve seen or heard about on a couple of recent ice-mile attempts in various location. I also had a fantastic experience by reaffirming to myself that I am capable of entirely making my own safety decisions for myself, regardless of what anyone else is doing and as such the day was an enormous success for me also.
You sometimes hear marathon swimmers say they swim to find their limits, and this was one of those times for me. I am very happy with the exploration.
Wayne’s narrative in grey on the left, Paul’s in green on the right.
I was cold. So cold. Colder than I had ever been. I needed this to end. I suspected that I was going hypothermic… as I started to feel warmer… and I hadn’t changed anything – so that was impossible. And feeling warmer…when very cold, is a sign of hypothermia. So I realised I needed to make a decision. I needed to know if we were close, say 1 hour, then I could push and finish even if cold. If longer than that, I needed to call it a day.
Over the course of the next four hours, the light started to fade and the sea state picked up to a point where, it was forming 6 foot swells with a Force 4 wind, gusting Force 6. We made very slow progress towards the Antrim coast, whilst minute by minute being taken north at an increasingly rapid pace by the freight train south-to-north current running up the Irish coast.
I started to demand to know how much further to go. Despite the fact that Paul and I had discussed many times and agreed, I would never be told how far to go. However, I was trying to make a final push or walk away decision. I had to know how far to go. I really threw a strop – I insisted that I wouldn’t swim another stroke unless they told me. But the wind was howling and the boat just blew away from me…so I didn’t have a choice but to keep bloody swimming after them.
Suddenly they stopped and said they were going to tell me. They said 1.6 to go. OMG… 1.6 km to go! I shouted to them that I could do that, they responded with a war cry and off I was… swimming hard as hell, I needed the pain to be over, I knew I could do 1.6 km in about 40 minutes… I swam harder than I have ever swam. I knew the faster I swam the faster the pain would be over.
The universally accepted wisdom says that you never tell the swimmer the distance to go. Today we really learned why. Wayne’s insistence on knowing how far to go was distracting him and slowing him down as he kept stopping. So we eventually decided to tell Wayne how far we had to go. I called to Carlos who was navigating and asked the question. He looked at the Satnav and replied – 1.6 Nautical Miles.
It wasn’t long before I was feeling better… I realised that I was warming up… I had just been terribly cold…and hence feeling miserable. The false hope of 1.6km allowed me to swim hard, pick up pace and warm up. That was without a doubt the turning point of the swim.
The jellyfish, which had been visible in large numbers since about hour 5, but which had been 5 or 6 feet below the surface, were now present in enormous numbers in the top two feet of water. Wayne lost quite a bit of time trying to skirt around them, but after a few hours of this realised that avoiding them was impossible and from that point on, swam through them regardless. He did pick up a number of stings, but he was fortunate in not reacting badly to them so they generated discomfort rather than threatening his immediate health. We positioned a spotter at the bows of the boat and if we saw a cluster, shouted to Wayne but of course a swimmer rarely hears shouts. Blowing referee’s whistles I’d brought for just such a purpose similarly went unheard. Wayne would swim right upon to the jelly, stop abruptly on seeing it and look accusingly at us, whistles still in our mouths! We never got this right – all our ideas for jelly spotting failed. On one occasion we spotted a massive jelly far too late, it was directly in Wayne’s path, just two metres ahead of him. On the boat we all held our breath. Wayne’s head and shoulder came within an inch of it, and he swam straight past without noticing. On the boat we just let out a huge relieved laugh!
The Jellyfish came in their hundreds…nay thousands. They seemed to group together and suddenly I would find myself in the middle of a field of them, literally hundreds of them everywhere I looked. I tried in vain to find holes to swim through. I would sink below the surface, look for a gap and swim through it, pause, look for the next hole and swim into the next gap. This was very slow going… I was burning precious minutes each time I swam through a pod. Eventually Paul jumped into the water with me, swam up to me, looked me in the eye and said “listen we are going to swim through them together, let’s go” and so we did. I started to swim straight through the pods. I struggled to control the fear factor, but we did it. Did I mention that Paul was wearing a wetsuit… when he made that brave gesture! Actually I was so grateful, without it, I would not have made it, I was wasting two or three minutes per pod.
The stinging wasn’t nearly what I had imagined that it might be. It was more like a nettle sting than a burn. Thankfully once nightfall came, the Jelly fish disappeared, I think they dropped lower as the water cooled. All I knew is that I stopped being stung.
Thankfully, after about 9 hours into the swim, the sea state reduced and swimming conditions became a little easier. By this time we had drifted quite a considerable distance north.
There had been a time when we did not know whether this drift would take us left (and west) around Torr Head and towards Ballycastle, or whether it would take us due north and towards the eastern coast of Rathlin Island. Looking at the tide charts, it was like approaching a fork in a motorway and we were bang in the middle, would we be swept left or right? Had the second possibility transpired, his swim would effectivelyhave been over.
Wayne’s morale was improved at this stage – his stroke was visibly more determined and committed, and at the feeds he stopped referring to his discomfort.
In actual fact, his misery had to an extent been replaced by an irritability – he would express deep dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms, should he deem our strategy to be less than perfect! We took this as a good sign because every time he made his feelings known, he perfectly demonstrated his lucidity to us so the crew were quite happy to be abused!
With much relief, we rounded the Head and proceeded towards Ballycastle, all the time trying to cross the current so that we could make a landfall. This period represented anawful lot of effort, and some determined swimming towards the shore, but the net result for a two to three hour period was that we simply paralleled the coast about one and half to two nautical miles off.
So, when after half an hour, and then an hour, and then ninety minutes after we’d told Wayne he was “1.6″ from the coast, he was very frustrated at not having beached. Perfectly understandable. But when he asked us how much further, we resisted at all costs telling him. Because the receding coast line effectively goes away from the current, the real answers, post the “1.6″ announcement, would have been 1.4, 2.4 and3.0 before we started to once again close the gap on the coast.
We could only tell Wayne that ‘you’re doing well’ and ‘at this rate you will achieve it’. He smelt a rat, and became incredibly frustrated ‘you’re lying to me’ ‘why are you lying to me?’ ‘just tell me the f****g truth!’. He was so cross, it was affecting his swim at a time when we really needed him to get his head down and cross this awful current.
Remember what I said about never telling a swimmer how far they have to go…..
This was a very difficult and frustrating period of swimming. We put cyalumes (night-sticks)on the boat so that I could see the edge and the boat put its big lights on. The boat kept moving ahead of me and I was having to follow it rather than stay next to it. I have been told that this was due to the strong currents and change in wind direction due to our new course we were steering. The boat couldn’t stay next to me safely so that moved slightly ahead. I wasn’t happy with this, even though the second boat Boisterous was behind me, lighting me up with their spot light. I was really struggling to follow the boat, it was very difficult to see if the boat was moving directly away from me, or whether it was moving perpendicular to me and hence I was frequently unsure of my swim direction. Apparently I frequently let the boats know of my significant dissatisfaction!
Dangerous? Just a little.
Here’s the scenario. The wind was playing havoc with the boat’s ability to steer the right course. Ribs steer from the stern and Wayne’s positioning just off the starboard sternquarter meant that any attempts by Sean to steer further to port, as we needed to, would bring the stern right over the swimmer. So Sean had no alternative but to bring the boatahead of Wayne. Tide and wind then conspired to take the boat away, ahead of him. Although the wind had largely abated there was still enough swell to make swimming difficult and to make spotting the swimmer tricky too.
So the boat would drift ahead. Jonny and I effected a routine like a man overboard drill – at any point at least one of us would have eyes-on contact and be pointing at the twocyalumes on Wayne’s hat (which were all we could see in the darkness). The boat drifted ahead quickly, and when the gap got to 30-40 metres we relayed a message to Sean whohammered around in a circle to re-position the boat just ahead of Wayne.
Sean’s professionalism at this stage was incredible. His skippering skills in these impossible conditions without question saved the swim.
Jonny and I were extremely worried at this point, and were wetsuited up all the while, ready to swim to immediate assistance if we lost sight of the cyalumes for a second.In my mind I was playing through the questioning at the drowning inquest “And didn’t you know that the swimmer was tired?” “Oh yes, at least 5 hours previously he’d quite clearlytold us he was very cold, cramping and extremely tired but we just told him to get on with it…”
From approximately hour 11, Wayne really started to close the gap between ourselves and the shore – he’d made it through the worst of the current. Travelling WSW we made good progress, counting down the distance steadily. At this stage, despite being very tired, unbelievably Wayne picked up his pace, conscious that we were in the last stretch.
Up until this moment I had not once looked backwards towards the Mull or forwards to where we were travelling, on my feeds, I just looked at the boat. However when it get’s dark, if there are lights on the shore, you can’t help but see them and suddenly I started to see lights. It confused me… as I knew there were no lights along the Torr head cliff face. I assumed we must have done well on our planned route and were near Cushendall, many miles South of Torr Head. Shortly thereafter I stopped for a feed and since I had seen the lights, I started to look around… and was completely startled to see the unmistakable curve of Fairhead to my left against the skyline…. OMG we had passed Fairhead… OMG… the lights I was looking at were on the North side of Northern Ireland… these light must be Ballycastle. I was very disturbed by this… I realised out swim plan had fallen to pieces. I also knew that this was the last chance of a landing before heading north to the Faroe Islands.
I swam even harder, if that was possible. Well it felt harder, all the time I was nursing my right shoulder which was hurting a fair bit.
Our skipper and navigators scanned the coast, identifying known points by the presence of streetlights, trying to identify a good place for Wayne to make a landing. Eventually adecent looking place was identified, and both boats used powerful lamps to pinpoint the spot on the shore and to give Wayne a target.
When I saw the light shining on the shore… I knew the end was near, the pain of being cold was still patently with me. I still desperately wanted this swim to be over as soon as possible. I swam following the boat initially and then headed for shore…. As I approached I thought they had found a lovely sandy beach, only when I was 10 meters away did I realise that it was the base of the cliff washed out to a white colour and covered in algae. I touched it… In fact I clung to it. It was over. The pain was over.
The shoreline was a rock shelf, dipping into the water at 45 degrees. Wayne reached out, touched it, and turned to face the boat. Our observer gave his approval, and the skippersounded the boat horn to indicate that Wayne should return to the boat.
Because the CRS boat is very specialised in its purpose, it had some very good equipment on board and a delighted and still-very lucid Wayne was quickly helped into a special sleeping bag, designed to accommodate water-born casualties. This helped him to regain his warmth very quickly indeed, and he was quite comfortable on arrival at Ballycastle, some 15 minutes later.
As far as we were concerned, we were entering a deserted harbour at around midnight. But as we rounded the breakwater a massive cacophony of sound reached us across the water. Hundreds of people were waiting at the dock to greet us, and car horns were blaring all over the town. The wonderful people of Ballycastle had come to see us home – what an incredibly emotional experience.
Wow. We’d very nearly proved Commander Forsberg to be absolutely correct.
Wayne and I believe that only through the benefit of some very detailed modern tidal information, and the repeated mapping and re-mapping of this against a timetable, was the swim achievable.
Having said that, the route we eventually took was not as planned. Would we have succeeded had we been able to follow the intended route rigidly? Or did the vagaries of the day divert Wayne onto what was perhaps the only genuinely achievable strategy? We’ll maybe never know the answer to that, but what’s certain is that this impossible crossing has now been conquered, and Wayne has opened up the possibility to long distance swimmers everywhere.
- Paul Greenhalgh (liaison between swimmer, Skipper and navigators)
Although this was almost half the distance (12 Miles vs 21 Miles) and half the time (12:15 versus 20:01) of my English Channel in 2010, this swim was still harder. I think this was a
combination of the colder and rougher water.
What could I do differently?
In terms of the water temperature… little we could do. It’s about as good as it gets.
Weather – if you had the time, you could wait for a better wind window… but this is a hard, cold part of the world… it blows a lot. So again, probably as good as I could realistically hope.
Jellyfish – this was lucky, I managed to go when the Lion’s Main’s were dying out and before the Atlantic Jellies had come in. In fact they came in within days of me completing.
Route – I would start closer to the tip of the Mull and I would start about an hour later than I did. But I still believe the planned route would be a good one.
Crew & Boat – couldn’t have hoped for a better Captain or crew. Sean was incredible, doing wonders with a flat bottomed boat in strong wind and the crew with their support, dragged me across.
So on reflection, due to a massive amount of planning and a fair bit of luck on the day, we caught all the breaks we could have hoped for on a swim that had never been done i.e. we had no experience to go on. - Wayne Soutter
We finally made a GO decision on Thursday evening to swim on Sunday, I booked flight tickets for Saturday, we got the last few tickets and hence didn’t have much choice in terms of flight times – we were departing Heathrow at 19:30.
We were supposed to arrive in Ballycastle around 9:30pm, but the flight was delayed and so by the time we got in, it was gone midnight. When I say we, it was Paul Greehalgh (Swim manager) Jon Fryer, Carlos Roas (Navigator) and Mark Syrett (Food preparer) and myself.
Our charity we were raising money for, Community Rescue Services, were still out in the town going from pub to pub, collecting donations in buckets, so we felt obliged to head straight into town to support them and to enable them to “show the crazy swimmer off” to help them raise awareness.
We had a few beers, but I needed to take it slow, as we had an early start and most likely a long day ahead. So a single Guinness was all I was allowed and to bed by 02:30.
Up at 7:00 am. Bit of breakfast (eggs on toast) and I prepared my Oats Porridge & four flasks of hot water, which I would be consuming on the swim.
Down to the Harbour at 8:00. Captain Sean McCarry and his team were all there including two boats, Bravo Three (main swim boat) and Boisterous (backup / media boat). I also met Gary Knox for the first time face to face, he was my appointed observer for the swim. While everyone was putting the kit on the boats, I slipped away and dipped my hand into the water next to the jetty… trying to give myself some kind of confidence that this was possible. It didn’t help. Just felt bloody cold.
The pressure of having a large team supporting me, some of whom had travelled a very long way and were investing their own time (taken holiday) and costs… was immense. I pictured how I would feel if I just couldn’t stand the cold after say 1 hour… what would they think of me? I brushed it aside and realised I had to stay in until I made it or was pulled out unconscious
We headed out the harbour, boat accelerated and we tore across the channel. Took about 45 minutes to cross. That too was scary…with my English Channel swim, you start the swim after a brief boat ride out of the harbour on the other side of the harbour wall – you don’t get to experience how far you need to go. Yet here I was on a boat doing about 30 knots for 45 minutes… and I would need to swim all the way back. The visualisation of the scale of the task was quite overwhelming.
I didn’t want my team to know I was full of nerves… I didn’t want them to have doubts or disbelief… I didn’t want to let them down.
All the swim experts we had spoken to prior to the swim told us that this route could not be achieved. Even the historical figure and swim guru Commander Forsberg had declared before his death in 2000 that it was impossible.* We had understood from early on, therefore, that this was a real challenge and that the success of this swim would be very dependent upon accurately modelling the anticipated tidal flows in the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Torr Head. So, on the day of the swim, we arrived off the lighthouse (see chart below) on the Mull about an hour before the planned start time, to try to gauge exactly what the currents were actually doing versus what the computer models said they should be doing.
At around 11h00 we deemed that the currents had died to almost slack water, and so we motored close to the coast, about one km north of the lighthouse. * It was very amusing at the time, but in fact very telling retrospectively, that the only person who didn’t tell Wayne this wasn’t possible was skipper Sean McCarry, who, when he first heard the plan, laughed and said “well it sounds crazy but what the hell, let’s give it a try”.
I stripped down, and Jon started to apply Vaseline to me. I had been testing with many different greases over the past few months, but Vaseline was the best hope I had for it to stick to me… everything else just washed off fairly quickly including lanolin. It wasn’t in fact the cold I was trying to protect against, but the Jelly fish. I was truly petrified of them. I had never been stung before…and didn’t know what it was going to be like. Legend swimmer, Kevin Murphy gave me an insight into them on Dover beach a few weeks before… and on all three of his North Channel swim, he had to be sedated due to the number of Jelly fish stings.
Wayne entered the water, swam ashore and climbed onto a flat rock. He looked pretty calm – I think that despite all the inevitable nerves, there was still an excitement – after all the planning and training, any swimmer just wants to get cracking and fortuitously a window had opened in the weather. This was it! On the observer’s signal, he dived in and the attempt began.
Wayne struck out strongly, swimming alongside Bravo Three.
The weather for the first two hours was remarkably kind. The sea was very flat, there was very little wind, the sun occasionally appeared from behind the clouds and there were no jelly fish. Looking at the weather-battered cliffs of the Mull, though, all our instincts told us that this could be a harsh and perilous place. Long may this fair weather last.
As I was swimming, I was giving myself a virtual pat on the back for finding the calmest and warmest day…probably EVER to try this attempt. I couldn’t believe my luck. Also there were practically no Jelly fish…certainly 100 times fewer than I had seen on my trial swim here 6 weeks before. The sun was out which warmed the top 4 inches of water…it was a little unsettling as with each stroke I drew very cold water onto me, but I realised that I could live with that slight discomfort if the water could just keep me warm….I could swim all day like this….
Following our plan, Wayne swam on a due west heading, the tides taking him gently south so his overall direction of travel was south-west. Wayne was in the counter-current that hugs the Scottish coastline and runs to the south-east just before the tide change (whilst the current in the main channel still runs north – we had identified this counter current as a way of ‘stealing’ an hour’s start on the swim).
About one and half hours in, we realised that we had possibly departed too soon. Wayne’s plan involved continuing to progress south-westerly, but the south to north current, which would die away on the tide change, was still stronger than we had hoped and so Wayne’s route started to drift to the north, despite the navigators now having altered our heading to 236 degrees. This error would impact the entire swim – it meant that Wayne’s route never took him as far south as planned. Getting south was critical, because the coastline there had far less turbulence and there were sandy beaches where we could make a landing. But being too far north at this point meant that the chances of making shore to the south of Torr Point had already reduced significantly.
After about my second or third feed the sun disappeared as did my luxury warm water layer due to the wind picking up and mixing up the sea. It was no longer a fun-day-out swim.
Between hours two and six, the conditions gradually deteriorated. The wind started to pick up, and soon started to blow very strongly from almost due south. This was directly against the tide, and had the effect of creating a very nasty chop. Furthermore, it had the effect of holding up the support boat and preventing the current from taking us as far south as we had predicted. Navigationally, this further compounded our earlier issues.
Holy crap. Every time I breathed to my left… I could see the flag on the boat fluttering…harder and harder and harder… eventually it was like a board. The sea state got nasty. The boat was rising up next to me and then crashing down, and when it did so, it would ‘jet’ a wedge of sea water out sideways…. fairly frequently straight down my throat. Drinking sea water I knew was a recipe for ending a swim… especially for me, as soon as I get any sea water into me… I quickly feel grotty. But there was little I could do, if I fell back the boat fumes got me, if I moved forward I couldn’t see the boat for direction. I couldn’t just breathe to the right, as I wouldn’t be able to follow the boat. I was stuck with this. The wind was howling, the waves were just getting bigger and bigger.
Jonny and I had done a couple of stints as support swimmers earlier in the day – Wayne had been very concerned about jellyfish and so, even though he had seen very few, felt that having a ‘jelly spotter’ in the water would help. Wayne, Jonny and I knew that the spotter could in fact do very little to help, but that it was psychologically important. It allowed Wayne to forget about one worry at least, and concentrate on swimming.
When the seas really got up, though, we decided that he needed a support swimmer purely for moral support. I took the idea to Sean at the helm – I knew that having two swimmers to watch in these rough seas would make Sean’s job even harder, but he could see the importance to Wayne so didn’t hesitate to agree. I’m a strong swimmer, I was wearing a wetsuit, I was warm, well fed and fresh – and yet I really struggled. Had the conditions been even just slightly rougher I could not have swum – I was right on the edge of staying afloat. And yet Wayne who was next to me had been in this cold and rough water for 6 hours already…
Throughout the swim, Wayne was being fed according to his pre-arranged plan. In general terms, this involved half-hourly feeds – administered via the approved English Channel method of a drinks bottle on a string – and comprising a warm mixture of energy drink, with some oats every third or fourth feed. On three occasions he also took 400 mg of Ibuprofen to combat a stiffening shoulder.
I was drinking sea water like beer…and it was causing me to throw up…but only in little bits. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I was throwing up underwater between breaths, which meant that my team didn’t notice it and hence were not worried. Feeding was becoming very very difficult. Each time we stopped, the wind was blowing side onto the boat, pushing the boat onto me as I was leeward. With the boat being a rib, it was flat-bottomed and hence moved across the water fairly quickly. To make matters worse, the waves had built and the boat was rising way above me and then dropping past below me… so in addition to trying to feed, I was continuously back peddling hard to try to not get smashed on the head. I was finding feeds very hard work… I was coming out of them exhausted.
We were conscious that the feeds had started to become very difficult. Such was the wind speed, the boat ‘chased’ Wayne when he stopped swimming making feeds dangerous. Consequently he rushed a couple, and I was worried that he wasn’t taking enough nutrition on board.
At approximately 6 hours, Wayne’s morale took a big dip.
He was unhappy being in the water, the increasing swells and the boat crashing down into the water on every swell, were throwing water into his face, he was feeling the cold, his legs were cramping and his demeanour was generally very miserable.
Each time I stopped for a feed, my legs started to cramp. It was my thigh muscles that were the issue. I would stop… start to feed and feel the cramp coming on… I realised that as long as a swam it would go away, so on a few feeds, I half fed, threw the bottle back and had to swim to prevent the cramp coming on fully.
Through verbal encouragement, we were able to urge him to continue, always setting the next feed as his immediate target. Gary Knox, an experienced open water swimmer, was incredibly helpful in describing what Wayne would be feeling both physically and emotionally. When Wayne showed signs of frustration or pain or whatever, we would urge him to continue.
However, after about 7 hours, at a feed Wayne didn’t make an effort to come to the boat but instead told us he was feeling extremely cold.
On the English Channel swim a couple of years ago, Wayne was in the water for 20 hours and didn’t once complain of cold – physiologically his body deals with it very well. But now his face was wracked in pain and he was saying he was so cold.
At this point I feared for his swim. He had swum strongly and made good progress, but there was still a very long way to go. The tide would shortly turn and propel us rapidly in a northerly direction – and because of the issues discussed above we were nowhere near where we had hoped to be, to have a chance of landing.
The sea was too big to take chances; we were just doing this for fun at the end of the day, and if he was becoming hypothermic then we’d need to take the decision for him and pull him out.
From this point onwards, at his feeds we asked him questions which were intended to gauge his coherence, and therefore allow us to spot any signs of the onset of hypothermia. These questions were mathematical calculations, or similar tests. Even at his darkest hour in terms of morale, he answered quickly, lucidly and accurately. So we kept him in.