Tag Archives: Finbarr Hedderman

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – VI – The Sharp End

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – I – Flowery crap.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat.

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone For An Early Morning Dip?

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight laps of Sandycove

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s It, I’m Done.”

Swimmer & boat
Small Universe of Swimmer & Boat

Sometimes I wonder if it is these few moments that best explain marathon swimming. When the swimmer swims until maybe they think they can swim no more. It’s not about the time or the distance or even the swimming, but when this point arrives, it’s about what happens next.

So we ignored Fin’s protest and he kept on swimming. Maybe just articulating the difficulty is sufficient for the right swimmer to continue onwards. It happens and it’s not a reflection of the conditions or the day or the swimmer. Channel swimming can be out there on the hairy edge of human capability. We can never explain it fully, despite that Channel swimmers often have an over-riding to try.

Craig and I discussed if one of us would go in for a support swim, but we decided it wasn’t really necessary.  At the next fee we offered and Fin discounted the suggestion anyway.

The wind and hence the sea settled for 15 minutes, but then blew up again and continued to deteriorate, all while the Sun shone overhead and the afternoon passed. We were at the Sharp End of the swim, the place where we say the swimmer has merely swum to the start.

In the English Channel it’s ZC2, in Manhattan it’s the Hudson, in Catalina it’s where the seafloor suddenly rises. The swimming hours before are just part of the price of entry.

We fed him at 4:35 p.m. and the Sun belied the nasty conditions. The random short-period wind waves rolling in from the south-west, coming over his shoulder, rolling the boat, each wave trying to be the one that would catch him aware, each one trying to assert the Sea’s dominance over any puny human foolish enough to dare its primacy.

Battling
Battling

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.

Killantringan
Killantringan

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.

Happy crew over a certain favourable finish
Happy crew watch over Fin and anticipate over a certain favourable finish

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.

Looking for Scotland
Looking for Scotland

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 & Fin and cliffs IMG_3566.resized

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.

Touch
Touch

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.

***

marine traffic Finbarr & ship IMG_3317 Best Shots 5.resized

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.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – V – “That’s it. I’m done”

Shoulders & willpower
By shoulders & willpower

Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.

First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.

From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.

Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr
Storm clouds grow behind Finbarr

Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.

We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers.  But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.

Choppy closeup IMG_3431.resized

I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.

Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything.  A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.

While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.

Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.

*

Killantringan lighthouse with wind turbines on the  peaks
Killantringan lighthouse at 4 p.m.

In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s  are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.

There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.

From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.

Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west
Choppy Force Three water as a yacht sails west

By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.

That it,” he said, “I’m done“.

Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – IV – Just Eight Laps of Sandycove

Port side swimming
Port side swimming

For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.

English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig "Rubber Knickers" Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot
English Channel soloist & proud Tasmanian Craig “Rubber Knickers” Morrison poses for his magazine cover shot

It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through.  But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.

Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis
Craig watching Finbarr. preparing his camera for a bit of mid-swim stroke analysis

On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause  for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.

I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.

Photographer's "Artsy" feed shot
Photographer’s “Artsy” feed shot

Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.

Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.

Quinton and First Mate Mark
Quinton and First Mate Mark

A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.

Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?

Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel.  Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel,  what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!

Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throwing an gimlet eye over his swimmer
Quinton Nelson, the pilot who changed the North Channel, throws a gimlet eye over his swimmer.

So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.

It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.

The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.

Jellyfish fly-by
Jellyfish fly-by

The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.

The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:

Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.

Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.

Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.
Grumpy face, recalcitrant cap.

Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.

Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.

Just after the switch to starboard
Just after the switch to starboard, clouds starting build in the west over Ireland.

The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.

During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.

Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.

A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.

The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence.  Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.

By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.

*

At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)

Calm day at sea Guy & Clare Hunter IMG_3179.resized

By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.

Weather builds in the west
Weather builds in the west

 

On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones  in the world, was barely visible in the haze.

Craig watches the thunderheads grow
Craig watches the thunderhead grow

 

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – III – Anyone for an early morning dip?

There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.

We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.

We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.

Donaghadee Harbour Lighthouse IMG_3005_01.resized
Dawn peeks behind Donaghadee Lighthouse

Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.

Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.

As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.

Apprehensive IMG_3019.resized
An apprehensive Finbarr

At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa  or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?

Swimming into the start
Swimming into the start

At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.

Swimming out to boat at start IMG_3048_01.resized

Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.

Dawn light highlights Finbarr
Dawn light highlights Finbarr

We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.

First feed IMG_3121.resized
First Feed

The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.

Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse
Fin & Donaghadee Lighthouse

The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.

from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.
from left, Donaghadee Lighthouse, Copeland Island and Mew Island with Mew Lighthouse.

The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.

Ninety minutes into swim, with Mew Light house  closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape
Ninety minutes into the swim, with Mew Light house closer, the errant swim cap attempts to escape. This much blue is rare in Ireland.

At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen.  Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.

For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.

Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the  second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.

Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Fin swimming IMG_3142 Best Shots 14.resized

Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d  planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium.  He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.

By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped  to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.

Inner turmoil, outer calm
Inner turmoil, outer calm

Finbarr Hedderman and the North Channel – II – Famous Pilot, Famous Boat

Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.

The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour
The night before the swim in Donaghadee Harbour

I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.

Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.

I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any  swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards.  Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.

Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey  for the wider swimming community.

The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere.  While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI  boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard

For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.

Quinton casting off Donaghadee
Quinton casting off Donaghadee

His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.

When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.

Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.

Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now).   Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013.  One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.

At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.

Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won't be stuck with me on a boat for a day.
Finbarr & Craig argue before the swim. Craig says Fin is getting off easy as he won’t be stuck with me on a boat for a day. Fin says he’ll take the jellyfish.

 

Finbarr Hedderman & The North Channel – I – Flowery Crap

On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.

Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us.  A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.

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

We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined  monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.

He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:

I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.

He still says it to me.

Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.

Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.

I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.

In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.

Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.

July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring.  Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.

July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.

Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at  next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.

 

Related articles

Tom Blower and the first successful North Channel swim.

Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route swim report – Part 1.

King of the English Channel Kevin Murphy, concerning the North Channel.

Images of 2013 – 1 – Swimming People

I wrapped up 2012 with a few posts on some photos I’d taken through the year related to swimming. About the time I writing those posts, I embarked on what is known as a 365 Project, taking a photograph (often many more) every day for a year, which I completed this week. (I started it thanks to Sandycove swimmer Riana Parsons and those 365 photographs can be seen on my Blipfoto account.

Portraiture is a difficult aspect of photography for some, including me, as it requires either a willingness to demand co-operation from subjects or a constant almost covert imposition of a camera. I’m not comfortable with either, but I have been learning to pursue the form. The number of portrait photographs from the year is still low and time goes by when I completely forget to take any.

So here are a few of my preferred shots of swimming people from the year. Once again, i chose mainly based on photographic merit rather than any personal relationships, but the range illustrates, I think, what attracts us about this sport, the people we met, the friends we make.

David IMG_0256.resized

My swimming Dad: David Frantzeskou, along with Evelyn, the owner of Varne Ridge Caravan Park outside Dover, one of my favourite places and amongst my favourite people, with so many different and enduring memories. It took some convincing of both David & Evelyn that this was a shot that I was proud of, displaying that slightly perplexed look we know so well on David’s face.

Getting ready IMG_8674.resized

I was fortunate to be part of another World Record English Channel swim crew for the second year in a row, this time with my friend Sylvain Estadieu. While images of Sylvain butterflying away from the White Cliffs or standing triumphant with the French tricoloeur are popular, this one is my favourite, the moments before the swim, a glimpse into Sylvain.

Liam MaherOn a grey day in summer we took to a few laps of Sandycove to wish our 2013 Manhattan Island Sandycove swimmers, Liam, Carol & Lisa the best. One of my shortlived waterproof cameras from this year (three!) caught a typical Liam Maher pose, English channel swimmer in front of Sandycove’s famous Red House (now beige). The Red House is used to mark final 400 metre sprints, the best line for the slipway and for the marathon swimmers of the club, could be seen from about two kilometres out for those who have braved the Speckled Door to Sandycove swim. The laugh on Liam’s face is entirely typical.

Eoin, Carol & MaeveIMG_9712.resizedAfter the Global Swim Conference visitors had all left the island, there were a few local Sandycovers hanging around chatting. Probably eating cake. Left is Eoin O’Riordan, middle is Carol Cashell and right is Maeve Moran. Eoin joined Carol in an English Channel two-way relay team as a substitute and did some great training, and the team went on to set a new two-way six person national English Channel record, after Carol had returned from getting second placed lady in the Manhattan Island Marathon swim. Maeve is another Sandycove regular and perennial and invaluable volunteer who will be swimming an English Channel relay next year.

Sakura & Nick IMG_9444_02.resized

Nick Adams, President of the CS&PF and multiple English Channel soloist and other swims, celebrates being inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as the Global Open Water Conference in Cork. With him is English Channel solo and many other swims, Dr. Sakura Hingley. Nick and Sakura had been married only recently, on August 25th, the anniversary of Captain Matthew Webb’s first English Channel solo. Both have been promising me articles for this blog for over two years. I am starting to lose hope.

Lisa IMG_9716_01.resizedMy very good friend Lisa Cummins, now living down-under and getting a free summer, well-known to all as one of the legendary two-way English channel swimmers. Lisa and I were once again on a few adventures this year, and therefore she had to put up with many attempts at portrait shots by me before I finally found one I was pleased with, in Sandycove of course.

Ray IMG_9237_01.resizedRay is a member of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, my other (non-racing) club. Every day of the summer, from May until the end of September, Ray empties the bins, picks up rubbish and litter, keeps the coves and lawns of  Newtown and Guillamenes pristine, and even cleans the public toilets for the tourists, after the town council refused to so do. Ray is one the quiet heroic volunteers without whom no club in the world could survive and I have enormous respect for him.

Friends_MG_4547_01.resized

Left to right, Ciáran Byrne, Eddie Irwin, Craig Morrison, , me being manhandled, Finbarr Hedderman in back and Liam Maher, after a spring swim in Sandycove. Channel Soloists all. I didn’t take this shot, but handed the camera to Maura (Hynzie) Morrison. When you are being manhandled by Finbarr (6’4″) & Liam (6’8″) it’s like being caught in a landslide, there’s no fighting it. It’s good to have such friends.

President Billy_MG_7754.resized

Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, 85 years old, and swimming at the Guillamenes for 75 years. I don’t think a single occasion has passed over the years that Billy hasn’t used the same joke with me, that I am not to swim past the Saltees (Islands), despite my offering to write him some new material. Billy is currently working on a history of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club that hopefully is almost near completion and to which I am really looking forward and will hopefuly publish her and on the club website, which I have completely neglected .

Paul Foreman IMG_8489.resized

Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation pilot and gentleman, Paul Foreman. Formerly of Pace Arrow, now of the Channel fleet’s best boat, Optimist, pilot for Gábor Molnar and Jen Hurley and our tragically lost friend Páraic Casey, Paul holds a special place of affection for many Sandycove swimmers who know him and were friends of Páraic.

Freda IMG_8419.resized

If you were to come up with any list of the ten most important people in the history of Channel swimming, Freda Streeter would be on that list. Mother of Alison, the Queen of the Channel and CS&PF Channel pilot Neil, Freda has trained hundreds of Channel swimmers and was instrumental in the formation of the CS&PF. For thirty years every weekend from May until September, with Barrie and Irene Wakeham and many others who assist, Freda runs a free Channel training camp for all comers.

Roger Finch IMG_8411.resized

I finally met cheeky chappie and South African Channel soloist Roger Finch in Varne Ridge, where all Channel swimmers eventually meet and then one day on Dover beach. He was training with Otto Thaining, whom I briefly met later. Otto was training to be the oldest Channel Soloist. Roger and I knew many people in common. Unfortunately Otto got weathered out, but my money is on him both returning and being successful next year. With the ebullient  Roger in his crew he’s all set.

Owen O' Keeffe closeup

My young friend Owen, the Fermoy Fish and I voyaged together again this year, most notably on his pioneering Blackwater swim. After Trent Grimsey’s swim last year, I’d come to the conclusion I may have taken my best ever photo of a swimmer. I guess my development as a photographer now leads to me realise that was a laughable conceit.  Reviewing my pics of the year, I’m currently of the belief this is the current best photo of a swimmer I’ve taken, getting past the stroke, the conditions, and inside Owen, as close metaphorically as I can get into another swimmer’s mind.

Group shot_MG_6640.resized

During Sandycove Distance Week, about 20 of the less lazy of the swimmers came over for a swim with me on the Copper Coast. It was one of the best days of the bet summer in a generation. There were complaints about the water being too warm! granted, this photo wasn’t chosen for its photographic merit, but for the sheer pleasure I derived from so many visitors.

Dee on Kilfarrassey Beach B&W _MG_5674.resized

Constrained as I am from publishing a photo of her, here’s my silent partner in most adventures and supporter in others. 

I look to meeting you all and capturing your images in 2014.

The race that wasn’t

Finbarr started it with the idea of a Sandycove three-lap invitational race at the end of October. With two weeks to go and no mention, Carol Cashell and I raised the idea again and discussion ensued.

With less than a week to go the starting lineup was small. The forecast for the weekend showed the Irish south-coast would catch the spin-off of storm Saint Jude. (I know, I’ve never heard a storm called after a Saint either). Winds were forecast to be Beaufort Five minimum.

Excellent! A bit of rough water was ideal to level the field. After all the Sandycove locals have it too easy at times, when the weather blows out they just start swimming inside the island. Pfft.

The worse the forecast the better, as far as Carol and I were concerned. Although as the fastest of the group, it wasn’t like she needed an advantage. By Thursday the weather forecasters were all getting excited like we don’t have big storms every year. Jude would bypass Ireland and clobber the UK, and Ireland would be assailed by nothing worse than Force Nine or so. The worst of Saturday’s weather was due to hit before mid-day when the worst of the storm would arrive on the south coast. We were aiming for TITW at 11.30am.

Email negotiations about all the various safety requirements, race rules, evacuation procedures and volunteers led to a concise rule set:

  • Two laps, handicapped.
  • Cake to be proved afterwards by Carol.
  • No rubber knickers.
  • Finbarr was allowed to drown anyone foolish enough to get within an arm length of him (a rule on which he insisted, disguising it as English Channel Rules).

Despite beating Rob and Craig this year, I was due to get an excellent three-minute handicap over both of them, which i didn’t refuse. All’s fair. Rob Bohane is a member of the “M” 1000+ lap club, as is Finbarr and Craig Morrison is a member of the “D” 500+ lap club,. Eddie Irwin, Carol Cashell and myself are all “C” swimmers of 100+ laps. All highly experienced marathon swimmers with many and varied skills.

The local forecast for Sandycove showed winds peaking between 10am and 1pm, anywhere from Force 6 to Force 8.

Second Corner IMG_0094
Second Corner to third corner, buoy in the distance.

The second corner looked quite reasonable when I arrived, though the rain meant I could only take one quick shot. The wind was still rising. Down at the slipway, another M club member (1000+), Mags Buckley (no relation) said the water was lovely and warm but she’d stayed to the inside.

From the slipway we could see the waves breaking across the first corner, and the outside wave that only breaks when winds are getting high, reaching into the corner. The expert round beside the first corner was impossible. The normal route outside first corner was impossible. Even the cowardly route outside the normal first corner was … (f)risky. I like (f)risky.

At the last minute, the handicap and race was thrown out. Then the five others started swimming just as I was on the slipway. The water was indeed warm, an extraordinary for end of October fourteen degrees (57F).

Just getting to the outside was testing. The narrow point between the island and mainland produced an unpredictable wall to swim through, which ripped my goggles off. Going over the top resulted in a crash into the trough. Unlike a breaking wave, it wasn’t predictable. Meanwhile waves were peeling off the corner rocks where the expert Sandycovers normally cut inward. The first corner was froth but all the guys were waiting beside the outside break. I took a slightly inside line, watching for the rock that is only exposed to air in conditions like this, having seen it once last year from above in similar conditions, and therefore having its location well imprinted. I stopped to fix my goggles a second time, something that was to continue for the whole swim as they were constantly loosened by the waves. Then we were all off again.

The waves were about three metres, not at all unusual for a Tramore Bay swimmer, and in the “lumpy” category. But outside the island, things change. Apart from being in the direct path of the south-west wind coming over the Old Head of Kinsale, some wind was diverted at water level along the side of the coast. Waves climbed out of deeper water onto the island shelf to produce one of the most unpredictable of water states, that of reflected waves over rock.

First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.
First corner. Note the outside wave, which had grown by the time we started.

The waves hit the island and bounced back, doubling up with incoming waves at different times and places, causing sudden occasional peaks of four to five metres or shelving waves to scend suddenly, like a punch of water. The 360 degree horizon was mere metres away for everyone, all of us sunken into watery bowls, except for the island’s grassy profile, the wind and rain and spume filling the air, grace in the water impossible even for a swimmer of Carol’s style.

It was excellent fun, that feeling of being hurled and thrown by an ocean that would be terrifying for beginners but feels like an opportunity to revel for a more experienced swimmer.

One moment we were two or three metres apart, the next we were thrown onto each other. I picked up a scrape, not from rocks, but from Rob being thrown onto me fingernails first.

The second corner is where expert Sandycovers risk the limit. The interface of gradually descending reef and pushing swell. How close? How much risk can you take? We love the second corner. Approaching out of the kidney bean shape, you can be too close or too far out, and even if you get a great line, you still have others to deal with. Others who put you on the reef, or risk the reef themselves, and laugh. People like Finbarr, Craig, Rob, or me. The second corner is a melee, a game of chicken played not with other swimmers but with rock. Unthinking, unmoving and therefore always triumphant rock.

But not that day. The second corner was instead a marine Jackson Pollock, the reef as canvas, the sea as paint, the wind as artist. From outside we could only see the precipice of the artichokey-feldgrau waves as they crashed onto the corner. We all went wide, to a greater or lesser extent. Carol and I cut in a little as we passed the first two hundred and seventy degrees of turn, catching a wave to pass the trailing end of the reef.

We stopped again to regroup. Past the second corner is a favourite spot of Sandycove swimmers, inside the mush, behind the reef, where if you are not racing, you can stop and chat, before you race back anyway.

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Inside the island, deceptively calm an hour earlier

Assembled again we all re-started, as I grabbed the positional advantage. The visibility decreasing as the wind of the leeward side funneled around the low third corner. Then around into the inside. Sheltered from the outside storm, the visibility, already poor, actually decreased. The wind poured up the inside, driving rain and chop head-on. The Red House (now grey) took ages to pass swimming against the wind. Eddie passed on my left. Carol passed me on the right, their better strokes more advantageous in the lesser size of these conditions. Was I middle of the Channel or left of right? I couldn’t see. The water here lacked any visibility also. Any one stupid enough to be on a boat in the channel on the day better be keeping an eye out for the even-more-stupid swimmers.

Past the Red House eventually, the forward chop constantly slapping me in the face. Stay low. Get under it. I know where the slipway should be, but instead I swing left. The fourth corner seems miles away on my left. It’s an island though so I can’t get lost.

Had to line up for the first corner again. From this angle you normally approach really close in. But there are rocks beside the island between fourth and first so outward, back through the middle of the gap, once again getting hit by the waves of the narrow point. Further out this time, the waves looked bigger. Outside the corner, finally out of the head-on rain, I stopped and looked around. No sign of the others. Ha! Loneswimmer alone again.

No further waiting I set off again, enjoying the outside once more, watching for the pure white water indicative of a sub-surface reef, watching for square waves within two metres of me, sliding along the faces of the sudden peaks to surf in and swim back out, tacking and gibing my way around the island, going wider around the second and third corners to enter the inside channel again, and to cruise back to the slipway, the driving rain dropping but the water visibility still being impenetrable, until I crashed into the slipway, the other five already changed having only completed one lap each. Default winner of the race that wasn’t! Didn’t even bother towelling dry in the rain. Cakes and buns from Carol and Maura Morrison.

Thirty minutes later the wind had almost died, the rain was gone, and the water settled. We had got the timing exactly right. By accident.

I once suggested Mike Harris’s “It’s a bit lumpy, chaps” could the club motto, and this day was the epitome of that attitude. Rough water is fun (once you know you don’t have to swim through it for the next twelve hours).

An introduction to swimming at Sandycove – Part 2

Part 1.

The first few hundred metres out to the first corner are the most shallow and generally considered difficult swimming on a low tide due to heavy tough seaweed. Around the fourth (nearest to slipway) corner is also very shallow and can require a long detour if approached from the third corner on a multi-lap swim.

feeds on Finbarr's beach during 2012 Distance Week's  final English Channel qualifying swim

Directly across from the slipway is a small sandy beach known to local swimmers as Finbarr’s beach after Finbarr Hedderman, who was first to start using it as a feed location during his English Channel training, a practice now common to all of the local distance swimmers, and swimmers swimming out to the island towing feed boxes behind then has raised an occasional eyebrows amongst tourists.

First corner at dropping  tide

If you have not swum regularly in Ireland or the UK, it’s important to note the tidal range, which ranges from the lowest, which rises about 3.3 metres above a ocean mean of zero, on a low neap tide, to almost six metres on a high spring tide . This tidal range has a number of implications, the first of which is that already mentioned of the much-reduced swim range on the first stretch the inside of the between the slipway and the first corner. Next is the  variation in distance around the island from low to high tide of two to three hundred metres. Navigation of the first and second and fourth corners changes significantly. The first corner particularly is a jumble of reefs submerged or exposed by different degrees during the tide with many rocks all around the actual reef of the corner. Only significant experience around the island combined with an indifference to contact and probable lacerations will allow safe navigation through these.

The second corner is a sloping terraced reef on the approach which splays out in ridges as the corner is passed. Lacking the local experience it is best to swim wide around the first and second corners.

Leading side of Second Corner as seen from the island

The island is generally described as kidney-shaped, as seen in the map. Even so locals describe it as having four sides, two short (the near and far sides) and two long (inside and outside).  and personal preference and speed dictates how the outside is swum. Whether close in to take a longer line, wide to avoid wave reflection off the island on lumpy days or straight to the second corner for the shortest line. Taking the straight line takes practice as initially it is difficult to see the line. Taking a close line results in swimming very close to into the terraced reefs which jut out into the sea at all tides. The second corner is the corner most likely to cause injury and is the one most exposed to incoming waves and swell. Most local swimmers will attest to injuries from trying to see how tight to the corner they can go, and many swimmers who get it wrong and end up on actually the reef including locals and visitors.

Yacht moored in the Sandycove estuary beside third corner
Yacht moored in the Sandycove estuary beside third corner

Crab and lobster pots are occasionally placed on the outside of the island and it is possible to swim into submerged lines. The far side can be deceptive as in direct sunlight it is possible to swim into or even behind more reefs, but it is also one of the two location’s on an island location most likely to be slightly warmer. The third corner which leads around onto the inside is straightforward for swimmer and it’s possible to swim fairly close on most tides. It is al important to note that boats, both powered and sail, that come out from Kinsale often power into the cove to berth and great care should be given to the real possibility of unfamiliar boats running over swimmers on the third and inside sides. For single laps, having come around the third corner there is a long straight to the slipway. the well-known Red House (well known to anyone who knows anything about Sandycove Island that is is to the right. The Red House is also visible through the gap from many miles up the coast to the west). The best way to head for the slipway is a matter of debate and personal preference and can be critical in races and is also one way for the most experienced multi-lapper 500 and 100 to excel.

Morning view from the outside west entrance with the sun in the east. The slipway is on the left, some of the reefs at the first corner are appearing and the tide is dropping toward low.

There are boat moorings between the Red House and the island and during summer months boats are regularly moored here. For multiple laps the line to the fourth corner is straight but the lower the tide the wider the line that must be taken to get around the fourth corner or the swimmer will either swim onto sand or into the reef just past the corner, another long outward leading and mostly submerged reef which most multi-lap swimmers have swum directly into at some point. On lowest tides swell can wrap entirely around the island and produce small clean breakers inside the fourth corner.

Sandycove Island from Google Earth high-res (annotated)
Click for better detail. Major landmarks and hazards indicated

There are other wrinkles to swimming around Sandycove Island that come with time and experience. The best way to learn those is to swim with locals.

Guest article – Ciarán Byrne – Lough Iochtar Ice Mile

As long-time readers will know, Rob The Bull Bohane, Ciarán Byrne and Finbarr Hedderman are all Sandycove Island Swim Club members, English Channel Soloists and very good friends. Ciarán and Rob are two members of our 2010 Magnificent Seven Channel training squad. All three are very experienced open and cold water swimmers, and are three of the people I most like and trust swimming with (when Finbarr is not trying to drown me). 

Recently all three took part in another ice-mile, the week prior to the Lough Dan Ice Mile and I’m delighted to have Ciarán’s account of the swim.  (I was to be part of the attempt but for various reasons decided against it). I’ll stress that these three swimmers have a wealth of cold water experience, and the helpers and assistants as you can see below also have great experience. The location was in the Kerry Mountains in the south-west of Ireland. (Lough is the Irish for lake, by the way and is pronounced “lock”).

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Ice Mile Lough Iochtar, Kerry, 10th Feb 2013.

Ram Barkai from South Africa set up the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009. To become a member you must swim a mile (1609.3m) in water of 5.0°C or under. At time of writing there have been 51 recorded ice swims by less than 50 swimmers.

Sandycove Island Swim club decided to join the fun. We scouted the sea and lakes in Cork and Kerry. Through Rob’s Kerry connections 3 lakes about half way up Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s highest mountain at just over 1000 metres- Ed.) were identified which were accessible by 4×4 vehicles.

Lough Iochtar
The peak of Carrauntoohill on the bottom right, small Lough Iochtar on the upper left, Coomloughra Lough in the middle and Lough Eagher on the right respectively.

Rob, Finbarr and I agreed to try one of these lakes on Sun 10th Feb.

Leaving Cork on the morning of the 10th the weather was great. Clear blue skies ahead. We went first to Lough Acoose to meet the great support team from the Sandycove Island Swim Club. Lisa (English Channel Two-way swimmer), Eddie (Triple Crown Swimmer), Carol (Lake Zurich silver medallist and Irish Masters Squad member) and Pascal (Finbarr’s dad).

We met the Kerry Mountain Rescue team of John Dowd, John Cronin and Angela O’Connor near the water treatment plant. We headed up in two 4-wheel drive cars including the fully equipped Kerry Mountain Rescue Ambulance.

When we reached the first of three lakes, Lough Iochtar, we stopped for a look. Lough Iochtar is a small lake approx 300m long and approx 75 metres at its widest point. It’s at 440m elevation. There was a small stone beach near the road. It looked ideal.

The next check was the water temp. Below 5C. We were in business. The temperatures taken
during the swim were 4.5, 4.9 and 4.8C. Average 4.7C. The air temp was 3°C. There was a cold wind and the wind chill was -3C.

The altitude didn’t adversely impact our breathing. That was something that had concerned us about the location. We unloaded the jeeps and set to measuring the swim distance. We went for old school. Rob had brought a measured 50m length of line. Rob and John used it to measure out a 100M course. We marked the ends with fluorescent jackets.

DSCN0047.resized

The plan was to complete eight loops of the 200M course, which was marked 10 metres from the start, the ends of the course to be marshalled by observers. The wind was picking up so we got a group photo and then got changed.

Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three
Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three

Eddie and Carol put on their wetsuits in case they needed to help any of us out of the water.

Lisa helped set up the GPS tracker on my goggles. We were going for high and low tech on this swim. We each had an observer to count strokes and watch for signs of hypothermia. Eddie for Rob, Carol for Fin and Lisa for me. We had agreed that if there was a sharp drop in stroke rate that we’d be pulled. We pre-arranged a signalling system to warn us when we had to come out. The back-up was that in the event of no response Eddie or Carol would swim in to get us out.

We got changed on the beach. One standard silicon cap, ear plugs, one pair of standard togs and goggles. A little Vaseline under the armpits for chafing. Pascal gave words of encouragement. We shook hands and set off. The large stones were sore on the feet. The water biting at the feet.

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The first couple of metres were shallow. There was then a sharp drop off so we slid into the water and into our stroke. The experience in the first 100M was not unlike our experience in Tooting Bec Lido at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. The hands soon got icy cold. The arms felt tight at the stretch. The first 200M passed quickly. I had completed the Endurance swim (450M) at the CWSC so I knew I could go that far. However I was concerned that I was so cold so early. The next 200M were tough. My hands were as cold as they were in the endurance swim and I had another 1200M plus to go! Nothing for it but to keep swimming. Concentrate on the stroke.

DSCN0070.resized

Eddie manned the nearest mark and Carol the far one. Turning at the end of the 100M was a
challenge. Once you passed the fluorescent vest you had to turn in deep water. I had a near collision with Rob after the 600M turn. He had turned ahead of me and I was breathing to the right looking for the mark. No damage done and quickly back into the swim. After 600M I started to settle into the swim. I was closing in on the half way mark. I wasn’t getting any colder. My stroke was holding up. The sun had come out and was very welcome. After 1400M my feet got very cold and borderline cramping – I knew if I kicked too hard I would cramp. We got the whistle for the final loop. Head down and go for it.

I came into the finish. Fin had finished first, well ahead. The Lough Iochtar Monster. He came into his own in the second half of the swim and left us behind. Rob was in next and I came in not too far behind.

After the turn
After the turn

I tried to get in as close as possible to avoid wading in over the rocks. They were going to be painful. I was very unsteady on my feet and Pascal helped me up and gave me my crocks. Lisa was waiting with my towel. Carol came over to help Lisa get my jacket on. Then straight into a warm Jeep to get dressed. Lisa was great, organising my clothes, getting tea and making sure I was ok. Once dressed I got into the front into the heated seat – pure luxury.

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We were all a bit unsteady on our feet when we go out. Fin didn’t need the car to get changed. He seemed unfazed by the swim and probably could have done a double. Rob got changed outside but soon joined me in the jeep and recovered quickly as well.

DSCN0056.resized

After about 20 mins we were all in good shape. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. We certainly got the best of the weather for our swim. We decided it was time to get our gear together and head back down to Killarney.

Selection_057

I’d like to thank the great support we got from our Sandycove friends, Lisa, Carol, Eddie and Pascal, Angela from Caherciveen and the two Johns from the Kerry Mountain Rescue. These events are not possible without volunteers who freely give their time to help others reach their goals. We believe this is the highest altitude ice mile in Europe.

Minutes of first Chris Bryan (International) Fanclub AGM

Special Guest!

Chris Bryan, Irish International Team open water swimmer

Attendees: Finbarr Hedderman, Owen O’Keefe, Donal Buckley

IMG_8465-resized

Minutes

Item 1: Fanclub financials: Economist Finbarr appointed de facto Treasurer to start fundraising.

Item 2: Get some international members. Action Chris.

Item 3: Get some girls members. Action Owen.

Item 4: Owen’s pants. Special working sub-group convened to seek external consultation.

Item 5: Discussion regarding Chris and Owen returning Finbarr and Donal’s rightful Beginish Trophies before next year’s race.

Item 6: Possible conflict of interest over Donal and Owen’s membership of the International Trent Grimsey fanclub discussed. Solution: Trent to be invited to join Chris’s fanclub and visa versa. Action Chris.

Item 7: Chris Bryan International Fanclub members table motion that Chris Bryan is great. Motion unanimously passed.

Meeting adjourned. To the bar.

Next scheduled meeting: TBD.

HOW TO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Moderate & Severe Hypothermia

Previous article: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers: Mild hypothermia.

Moderate hypothermia is obviously more serious than Mild hypothermia which I covered previously in the first part of this series. I’m always a bit bemused by the medical terminology of hypothermia. Many serious open water swimmers will have experienced moderate hypothermia and can tell you there’s nothing moderate about it. Moderate is from 35° C. down to 32.5° or even 32° Celsius. Experienced Sandycove swimmers will regularly swim into or experience Moderate Hypothermia during Channel training, (but they are too tough to call it that, they’s just say it was a bit cold).

Something I’ve noticed is huge variation in defining the differences between mild and moderate hypothermia. Hypothermia itself is body temperature below 35° Celsius. In Part 1, Understanding hypothermia for swimmers, Mild hypothermia, I said mild hypothermia was 35° C. to under 37°C (normathermia). Yet I have seen medical articles that define Mild Hypothermia as 32° to 35° C. and Moderate as 29° to 32° C., with Severe Hypothermia as under 29° C. We could argue this point but here’s my specific point for choosing the higher ranges: hypothermia is dangerous. You want to play around with more risky definitions in cold water? More power to you but that’s your own call.

I made the point in the last article, worth repeating, that you can’t become hypothermic in water instantly.  Your body is a heat reservoir, so hypothermia develops over time.

Take a good look at that chart. 0° C. is a safe zone (assuming you exit, and excluding any cardiac problems). In fact the chart indicates lethality occurs post one hour at freezing temperatures.

At a temperature of 10° Celsius you are in the marginal zone of survival until about three hours. Equate this with moderate to severe hypothermia. Also, that doesn’t mean that you definitely can survive three hours at that temperature, nor that you are definitely going to die. Think of it as a realm of possibility.

Now, if you have one, put on your cold water swimming cap, and look further along the x-axis. We know however that some Sandycove swimmers (Lisa, Finbarr, Rob, Ciaran, myself at least, no disrespect to other SISC swimmers who’ve done the same) have swum six hours at under 11° C. Lisa has swum nine hours at that temperature. So wear  an SISC cap (actually we don’t have those), and the zone of lethality moves. And for these articles I’m talking about hypothermia in the spectrum of swimmers. You can see it’s a moveable target.

Another point from this chart; hypothermia is inevitable at temperatures up to about 15° C. I can’t quantify that from any other sources. Theoretically, at any temperature under body neutral, hypothermia should always result. This would exclude acclimatisation, the amount of bioprene (body-fat), using food to offset the extra calories requires or thermogenesis (heat generation) from swimming. Think of 15° Celsius as an average English Channel solo temperature and we see that there is a variability in resulting hypothermia cases among soloists.

I keep stressing experience, because that means acclimation to cold, which really means as I’ve said previously, we/they are PHYSIOLOGICALLY adapted to tolerate cold easier and for longer. This is NOT just a matter of will-power or a psychological advantage or strength. You cannot think your way into cold adaptation. You may be the world’s most confident person, a 5k per hour swimmer, with no self-doubt, but without physiological adaptation due to repeated cold immersion it will mean little.

You train to swim longer and further. You train to swim faster. And you train to swim colder. The human body responds to physical stress by adapting. This is the Training Effect. Adaptation to cold from training in cold, is another less discussed training effect particularly important to open water swimmers.

Effects:

One of the most dangerous effects of hypothermia is the slowing of thought processes and the person’s consequent inability to gauge their own condition. As blood cools in the body, bracycardia (slower hear rate) ensues. The blood undergoes partial coagulation, in effect becoming thicker and more viscous, and so less oxygen gets carried to the brain. Therefore, like the previously headlined item above, you cannot think your way out of hypothermia.This makes hypothermia deceptive, it sneaks up on you, those not familiar with cold shock and initial responses imagine hypothermia as a prolonged intense cold whereas it enfolds the sufferer gently, lulling them into a gradually more dangerous state. This is partly what makes hypothermia so dangerous, with thermoceptors overloaded, the sense of cold is reduced or eliminated, the cognitive functions are impaired and the person won’t or can’t realise the danger.

Violent shivering in or more commonly out of water is a symptom of moderate hypothermia. Violent shivering is the bodies attempt to warm up through exercise, by muscular contraction. Almost every distance Sandycove or Irish or UK swimmer has had happen this post-swim. This happens five to ten minutes after exiting the water, when the cold blood in the periphery reaches the core (Afterdrop). How do you tell violent shivering from normal shivering? Normal shivering can be stopped voluntarily, violent shivering can’t. We all know what it’s like to stand talking after a swim with severely chattering teeth, difficulty standing still and straight and pain in the lower back.

When swimming distance in cold water, one point of danger is when the person starts to feel warm, after being cold for a long time. This is not just acclimatization, this is paradoxical undressing, which on land can cause people to shed clothes when they are freezing. The swimmer will have passed through violent shivering to get to this point but it may also arrive for swimmers without violent shivering . Again, many distance swimmers will have experienced getting this feeling of warmth while swimming, but those who understand what they are doing will recognise it as an immediate warning sign to exit the water as soon as possible. As swimmers we have to recognise and deal with the problem that we have the Immediately option, having to swim to a safe exit point. There’s no point getting out where you have no access to clothes. About 25% of the deaths caused by hypothermia arise from poor judgement and decisions made by the hypothermic person.

It is also important to always be cognizant of ambient conditions. Irish and UK open water swimmers training through the winter and swimming in five or six degree water will have similar air temperatures and at least in Ireland, wind is a fairly constant factor. (Ireland in fact is one of the windiest countries in the world and that’s not including all my writing here). High humidity and wind means heat stripped from the body faster, both in the water when shoulders and arms can get cold even more quickly, and especially outside the water when wind can cause violent shivering within minutes. For example, last Saturday Ciarán Byrne & I were swimming at Garrylucas, water temperatures were very variable from about 10 Celsius to 13 Celsius, the day was warm by Irish standards at about 20° C. but at the 90 minute feed on the beach, there was a howling offshore south-easterly and we were both shivering violently within less than two minutes. Swimming in cold water on the Northern European seaboard generally means constant cool or cold air temperatures.

Experience, and I mean significant experience, not just the initial four to six immersions required to blunt cold shock, does allow a swimmer greater awareness of their own hypothermia progression, though this is a variable process with a lot of external factors which vary every time, and therefore is not to be advised. Even the most experienced cold water swimmer can’t tell for sure exactly much more time they might have while swimming before moving further up the scale of hypothermia severity. However we live in a world where we are seemingly perpetually warned about the dangers of everything, and if this is something you choose to do, then you should choose to do it with knowledge and awareness. /End short rant.

Next article: Diagnosing and addressing hypothermia in swimmers.

Related articles
Lisa on her second Sandycove lap, when the rest of us were still arriving. Zoom to see.

Cork Distance Week is coming but May gets in the way

Cork Distance Week is coming.  The water is cold. (The water is always cold, relatively speaking). For the locals who know the conditions, Distance Week is still a very tough week. For many of those coming from abroad it will be even harder, maybe the toughest week’s swimming they have ever done. But to get to Distance Week for the locals, May stands in the way.

Though May is officially Summer, we tend to think of it as Spring here in Ireland. And it’s the toughest period of open water swimming of the year.

Why? Because the water is still relatively cool and conditions are extremely variable (at the start of May, 7.2° Celsius in Tramore, 10°C in Sandycove, with a two to three degree possible range). We can (and did) have frosts and days where the temperature was below the water temperature and for half of May this year at least the average air temperature was about ten degrees Celsius.  The Aspirants and others have to be putting in the mileage training. Constant cold winds and low air temperatures bleed the heat and resistance from the swimmers, building a cumulative effect of attrition. It’s the 23rd of May this year before temperatures got to 12° Celsius (53.7° Fahrenheit to be exact) and the day was actually warm (18° Celsius).

When the water is colder no-one is doing much more than hour and generally only the experienced distance swimmers will do that, but some of the less experienced will look at calendar and think the date is all is all they need to know.

And there’s the repetition, the grind of getting very cold day after day, when it’s acceptable for one or two days, the first couple of weeks of getting hypothermia  every day, thinking on nothing but swimming, eating, cold and heat is like a millstone, grinding swimmers down in a race between breakdown or crack up, and making it to the degree or two warmer waters at the end of the month. All the Sandycove Channel swimmers and Aspirants will make it because it’s what Sandycove swimmers do.

Lisa & Finbarr finishing a six-hour Sandycove swim at the start of May, in temperatures under 11°C. On this swim Fin and Lisa did their 100th laps of the year, Lisa joined the 500 laps group (“C”), Fin joined the 1000 laps group (“M”).

Someone will do something extravagant and push their exposure but it will only feel good for a day because Sandycove swimmers Lisa Cummins and Finbarr Hedderman, two of the world’s great cold water marathon swimmers, who have no publicity machines, will out-swim everyone in time and distance.

Lisa on her second Sandycove Island lap, when the rest of us were still arriving. Zoom to see her.

Feel good because you did an hour? Lisa had two done before you got started.

Feel great because you did four laps of Sandycove? Lisa and Fin did twelve.

Just swum your first double lap of the year? Fin already passed his hundredth for the year.

Finally joined the Centurions (100 lifetime laps)? Fin became a Millenarian (1000 laps). (Liz, what are we calling that one?)

Related articles:

Sandycove swimmers: Pressure to achieve (loneswimmer.com)

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

A Sandycove legend guest post: Finbarr Hedderman

Getting blood from a stone would have been easier than getting this article out of Fin. He was the first person I requested to do a guest post, a very long time ago, and many times since.

Fin is Sandycove personified (along with Mike Harris, Lisa, Ned, Stephen Black and Imelda). But don’t tell him I said that or it’ll go to his Cork head! :-)

Fin was born with the affliction of being a Cork person, so therefore he already knows he’s better than the rest of the world by default, since everything good in the world can be found in Cork. (It pains me as a Tipperary person to agree).

In his video tour of Sandycove Island below, towards the end he mentions a beach on the island that the Channel and marathon swimmers use for a feed station. What he doesn’t tell you is that it is actually known to us as “Finbarr’s Beach”. I can also tell you that you should never try to pass Fin on the inside going round a buoy if you don’t want to learn to swim with a partial concussion. (I speak from experience).

If you go to Sandycove, Fin will be there. Therefore go to Sandycove.

 

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to see the loneswimmer’s recent tweet that his website was now two years old; this meant that it has now been nearly two years since he started badgering me to write a guest post. Yet I couldn’t think what should mark my entrance into the blogosphere, my channel swim was so long ago I only remember bits and pieces of it and I’m not training for anything in particular at the moment; so nothing there to touch on. However I still retain a real grá* for swimming; it’s something I want to do nearly every day of the week, so maybe…

My swimming is based at various locations at the moment: I work in Clare during the week so I train with the masters section of Ennis Swimming & Lifesaving Club; I play water polo with the Cork Water Polo Club so I come down once a week to Cork to train with them and afterwards I join with the masters session of Sundays Well SC. But when the weekend rolls around there is only one place I like to swim and, despite the fact it’s January, this can only be in the sea around Sandycove Island, outside Kinsale in County Cork. This weekend I completed my 916th ever lap around the island, and I’m delighted to say it places me at number 5 on the leader-board of Sandycove laps. Later this year I hope to join Steven Black, Mike Harris and Imelda Lynch in the exclusive Sandycove “M” Club when I complete my 1,000th lap.

So for my first guest post I whipped out my new waterproof camera (thanks to my sister for the Christmas gift) and thought I’d introduce you to the Island we in Cork love so much (I must apologise before you watch it the team behind the movie especially the director, camera man, and script writer were fairly poor) and look out for the cameo’s from the loneswimmer’s hero Lisa.

And there you have it, a little intro for those of you yet to visit and a reminder for you who’ve already been.

ps: follow me on twitter: @mrfinbarr

*grá is the Irish for love.

Lewis Pugh

Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale

Next year’s Cork Distance Week will have a record number of attendees, many from outside Ireland. Some will be coming nervous or terrified about the potential temperatures especially if they heard any of 2011’s details.

They need a scale of reference for that fear and we need a common terminology!

Steve Munatones on Daily News of Open Water Swimming had a post recently on the temperatures at which people consider water cold.

I remember Finbarr once saying to me that; “10ºC is the point at which you can start to do some proper distance”. But that’s when the temperature is going up in the late spring. What about when it is dropping in the autumn and winter?

Jack Bright might have some input into this also. :-)

I think it would be fair to say that many, if not most (but not all), of the (serious) Irish and British swimmers would fall into the 7% category, it’s getting cold under 10° C.

So here’s my purely personal swimmer’s temperature scale:

Over 18°C (65°F): This temperature is entirely theoretical and only happens on TV and in the movies. The only conclusion I can come to about the 32% who said this is cold are that they are someone’s imaginary friends. Or maybe foetuses.

16°C to 18°C (61 to 64°F): This is paradise. This is the temperature range at which Irish and British swimmers bring soap into the sea. The most common exclamation heard at this stage is “it’s a bath”!!! Sunburn is common. Swimmers float on their backs and laugh and play gaily like children. They wear shorts and t-shirts after finally emerging. They actually feel a bit guilty about swimming in such warm water. Possible exposures times are above 40 hours for us. It’s a pity we have to get out to sleep and eat.

14°C to 16°C (57° to 61°F): Aaahhh, summerAll is well with the world, the sea and the swimmers. Exposure times are at least 20 to 40 hours. Sandycove Swimmers will swim 6 hour to 16 hour qualification swims, some just for the hell of it and because others might be doing so. Lisa Cummins will see no need to get out of the water at all and will just sleep while floating, to get a head start on the next day’s training.

13°C (55° to 56°F): GrandYou can do a 6 hour swim, and have a bit of fun. Daily long distance training is fine. Barbecues in Sandycove. The first Irish teenagers start to appear.

12°C (53/54°F): Well manageable! You can still do a 6 hour swim, it’ll hurt but it’s possible. Otherwise it’s fine for regular 2 to 4 hour swims. This the temperature of the North Channel.

11°C (51/52°F): Ah well (with a shrug). Distance training is well underway. Ned, Rob, Ciarán, Craig, Danny C., Imelda, Eddie, Jen Lane, Jen Hurley & myself, at the very least, have all recorded 6 hour qualification swims at this temperature. Lisa did 9 hours at this temperature. Swimmers chuckle and murmur quietly amongst themselves when they hear tourists running screaming in agony from the water, throwing children out of the way… 

10°C (50°F): Usually known as It’s Still Ok”. A key temperature. This is the one hour point, where one hour swims become a regular event when the temperature is rising. We start wearing hats after swims.

9°C (48/49°F):A Bit Nippy”No point trying to do more than an hour, it can be done, but you won’t gain much from it unless you are contemplating the Mouth of Hell swim. Christmas Day swim range. Someone might remember to bring a flask of tea. No milk for me, thanks.

8°C (46/48°F): The precise technical term is “Chilly”. Sub one-hour swims. Weather plays a huge role. Gloves after swims. Sandycove Swimmers scoff at the notion they might be hypothermic.

7°C (44/45°F): “Cold”. Yes, it exists. It’s here. The front door to Cold-Town is 7.9°C.

6°C (42/43°F): “Damn, that hurts”. You baby.

5°C (40/41°F): Holy F*ck!That’s a technical term. Swimmers like to remind people this is the same temperature as the inside of a quite cold domestic fridge. Don’t worry if you can’t remember actually swimming, getting out of the water or trying to talk. Memory loss is a fun game for all the family. This occurs usually around the middle to end of February.

Under 5°C (Under 40 °F). This is only for bragging rights.There are no adequate words for this. In fact speech is impossible.  It’s completely acceptable to measure exposure times in multiples of half minutes and temperatures in one-tenths of a degree. This is hard-core.  When you’ve done this, you can tell others to “Bite me, (’cause I won’t feel it)”. (4.8°C 1.4°C is mine, Feb. 2013). Carl Reynolds starts to get a bit nervous. Lisa make sure her suntan lotion is packed.

Ned Denison during the winter

2.5°C  to 5°C. South London Swimming Club and British Cold Water Swimming Championships live here. If you are enjoying this, please seek immediate psychological help. Lisa might zip up her hoodie.

1.5°C to 2.5°C: Lynn Coxian temperatures. You are officially a loon.

0°C to 1.5°C: Aka “Lewis Pughiantemperatures. Long duration nerve damage, probably death for the rest of us. Lisa considers putting on shoes instead of sandals. But probably she won’t.

*Grand is a purely Irish use that ranges from; “don’t mind me, I’ll be over here slowly bleeding to death, don’t put yourself out … Son“, to “ok” and “the best“, indicated entirely by context and tone.

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