Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.
So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.
Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary. At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.
The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.
We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.
One of the features of the North Channel according to Quinton, is that the final couple of miles outside Portpatrick are almost always bad, a local feature of the confluence of wind, tide and currents, a micro-climate different to the rest of the Channel. A good day very rapidly degenerates and the swimmer is fighting a maelstrom of white water and waves from seemingly all directions.
Fin was fighting onward, but on the boat we finally knew he would make it. He knew he would make it, because there comes a point where it makes less sense to give up than to continue, because you have already invested time and pain.
Portpatrick was clear ahead and slightly to starboard, buildings clear in the late afternoon sunlight. All along the coast were the empty hills and the wind turbines that had been vaguely visible for hours. Killantringan was north-east of us, but we were south enough to get swept in. He would not, could not be stopped now. Two laps of Sandycove, the Metalman to Tramore beach, one full lap of Dover Harbour. He would, he could.
At 5:05 we gave Fin his feed and I got to say the magic words, the words every swimmer wants to hear, the words every crew wants to say: “This is your last feed“.
Craig and I discussed which of us would swim Fin in. I told Craig he should go as I’d swum both Sylvain and Gábor and others in and I wanted to photograph the finish.
At 5:45 p.m. as Craig gets ready, I make my final note of the swim in my notebook to that effect. I’m stood on the bow, my Dad’s old football whistle, now a feature of all swims I crew on a lanyard around my neck, whistling and shouting. We’ve been pushed just to the north of the small bay between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Craig, proudly wearing his yellow CSA Channel Swimmer’s cap, (as I wear my own orange C&PF Channel cap) jumps over the side at two minutes to six. His instructions from the ILDSA observer Gary and Quinton are clear. Don’t swim in front of Fin or touch him, from Gary, and given the usually dangerous cliff finish of a North Channel solo, get Fin to touch a rock and raise his arm, that’ll be enough, (standing wouldn’t be necessary, or possible) from Quinton.
Craig is on the far side of Fin within seconds, and we’re only a hundred metres from the rocks. They disappear behind waves, appear a couple of metre closer to the shore. I try to get them both in frame, the waves, the angle the boat rocking, the zoom, all make it difficult. Closer still, I see Craig and no Finbarr, then Fin and no Craig.
Craig is at the cliffs. Where’s Fin? And then there he is. Three or four metres away from Craig, Fin touches the cliff and pushes off on his feet trying to raise both arms, he looks like he’s pushing off a pivot turn and heading for the second lap. It’s 6:01 p.m. July 7th and Finbarr Hedderman has swum the North Channel.
Not sure if the waves have blocked our view of Fin, Craig tells him to raise his arm again. I get a shot of him like that, but I prefer the above photo,the real touch. Because it doesn’t matter if wasn’t elegant, it was real, it was what he worked for. Elegance, clarity, zoom and photographic composition are less important than the reality. The swimmer thinks of that touch, visualises, works for it, swims for it, dreams of it. The entire sport, all the words and the images, all the endurance and time are in that moment. The suffering is over, the pain vanishes, the coast is reached.
Touching an unnamed bit of rock on the Scottish Coast, never before touched by a human, probably never to be touched again, Finbarr is Neil Armstrong, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Edmund Hillary reborn, even if there are only two friends, a pilot and a crew there to see and appreciate it.
At 6:02 p.m. and back safely on the boat with Craig, Fin announces his retirement from Channel swimming.
He lasts a full six weeks in retirement before he shares his next idea with me. But I’m not telling.
Finbarr had neither cold water nor jellyfish in the North Channel. He took a calculated risk based on training and his known capability to go early and he didn’t even have to fall back on his cold expertise. Yet his North Channel was unexpectedly tough, because sometimes the biggest challenge is ourselves. Two weeks later, though the weather stayed warm, a highly experienced Channel swimmer was pulled semi-conscious from the water. The water temperature had dropped five degrees.
Two weeks after Fin’s swim, he said”it means something to me, I just don’t know what yet“. I know he was surprised, even shocked, how much it had hurt mentally, and how hard it was. For years he’d joked how he’d forgotten his English Channel solo, but said after his North Channel that he’d remembered during the swim when memories of difficulty returned. It’s the nature of pain that we must as animals forget it when it’s not present, otherwise any species would never survive.
The mystery of the North Channel has been evaporating for the past couple of seasons. Aspirants no longer need to be successful English Channel soloists, and some North channel swimmers have recently completed it at their first marathon swim. The people approaching the North Channel already now include some less than experienced individuals, such as the one who though they could get on the boat to feed and wanted an artist on board to paint them while another crew member played the flute. I am not making that up. Like the swimmer pulled semi-conscious from the water, this also happened in the early 2014 season after Fin’s swim.
Quinton’s piloting makes swim time and the route more quantifiable. It makes the North Channel definitely quicker than the English Channel, and of course it’s shorter, with a more defined time envelope. Success rates have risen dramatically in just two years, though the overall numbers remain small for now, limited by the changeable weather as always and the mere two boats in the fleet, with the other main constraint associated with Channels swimming, appropriate tides. If the current demand for North Channel swims continues, which seems likely, then the fleet will grow and a few more years will tell us a lot more. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third pilot-boat operate in 2015 or 2016.
Of all the things I know or suspect or feel or hope about marathon and Channel swimming, one of the most important things I know is that, trite as it sounds, every swim is different. Profoundly, fundamentally different. Maybe it takes a crucible swim, one of those swims that puts you to the question, to make you realise this, as I realised this. Sitting on a boat, as crew we laugh and fret and chat and even worry. We don’t, we can’t, sit there and let ourselves inside the swimmer’s head.
Finbarr and I share, as do many marathon swimmers, an interest in adventure books, specifically climbing and polar adventure. Maybe it’s partly because the literature about Channel and marathon swimming in limited. Journalists can write about mountain climbing or exploration, but who can write effectively about Channel Swimming, except Channel Swimmers? And that’s a pretty small number in global terms, something we tend to forget when we are immersed in the community.
Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, the tale of the opening of the Eiger’s notorious North Face, and one of the great true life climbing books is replete with wisdom for anyone either wishing to understand these crazy ridiculous adventures, or wishing to explain them. He quotes climber Geoffrey Winthrop Young: “The modern lay-public,” he writes, “is now ready to read mountain adventures among its other sensational reading. It still demands excitement all the time. [...]. It wants records, above all. Records in height, records in endurance, hair-breadth escapes on record rock walls, and a seasoning of injuries, blizzards, losses of limbs and hazards of life…. I have suggested that the writers and producers of mountain books must also take some of the responsibility….”
Substitute Channel Swimming for mountain adventures and the analogy is clear. When covering Channel swimming some of this applies. I can cover Trent Grimsey’s English Channel record because I was there and it may stand for a generation, and no other swim will ever hold the same prestige. I covered Sylvain Estadieu, because even us Channel swimmers boggle at the idea of twenty-one miles of open water butterfly. In Part One of this series I wrote that I do these swim reports in part because I’ve had the privilege to be part of them and because these swims also allow me to bring aspects of marathon and Channel swimming to a wider audience, to share the fortune I’ve had to be part of them. But I myself by doing so have to be careful not to feed the idea that just because a swim isn’t a first or a record that it’s less important to cover.
Also, to retain your interest I split the narrative at appropriate points such as “That’s It, I’m done“. Such implies a dramatic point whereas in the swim it was part of a continuous linear event.
Like Lisa Cummins and Sylvain Estadieu, Finbarr set out to swim a two-way. Neither Sylvain nor Finbarr did, and not once I consider either a failure because they didn’t complete that goal. Each though did complete a crossing, as every Channel swimmer does, a feat of endurance and courage. As did the other friends I know and have crewed for and didn’t cover here. There’s a quotation from Homer that I haven’t used on the blog for a few years that seems apposite: “For wreaking havoc upon a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea“.To dream so large and then to attempt the feat has always seemed to me a triumph in itself and success of its own and each dream alone makes me proud to be a friend of each.
Channel and marathon swimming differs from tales of mountain climbing in some obvious aspects. The time frame is usually shorter, the possibility of safe extraction is greater. It’s not an us-versus-them comparison though, and few would understand the Channel swimmer’s motivation as would a mountain climber.
But for someone writing about Channel there’s a difficulty. Every mountain has immovable features and famous landmarks, whether it’s K2’s Serac or the Eiger’s White Spider. The pitons and ropes and ladders are still fixed and still used on the Hinterstoisser Traverse and Everest’s Second Step.
Channel swimmers only have pilots, boats, water, wind, currents and locations. No swimmer leaves their mark on a Channel.
The swimmer passes and the water’s surface is immediately wiped clear of their passage. The water holds no trace. Only the stories and legends live on and to his friends, Finbarr is a legend.