In November 2010, Cork and Sandycove Channel Coach Eilís Burns held one of her irregular brief seminars for prospective Channel solo swimmers for the 2011 Channel season.
It wasn’t an open-to-all seminar. Those attending were people who had contacted Eilís asking her to coach them. Eilís is careful in whom she agrees to coach, requiring a proven desire, a willingness to do the required work, and the temperament to do what she says.
As part of that seminar Eilís had asked four of the local Channel swimmers to attend and speak briefly on subjects of our own choice. The four were; Lisa Cummins, two-way English Channel solo; Imelda Lynch, first Sandycove and Cork female Channel swimmer and a local legend amongst Sandycove swimmers for her tenacity and tough training regime; Rob Bohane, aka The Bull, who as part of the Magnificent Seven, first attempted the Channel in 2010 a few weeks after me; and the fourth was myself.
I remember all the presentations with varying degrees of clarity. But my own and Rob’s are much clearer.
Rob had attempted the Channel in late August, a couple of weeks after Jen Hurley and I had swum, and within 12 hours of Ciarán Byrne soloing. Liam Maher, Jen Hurley, myself and Ciarán had all succeeded, the first four of the Magnificent Seven, with Rob, Danny and Gábor still to go.
All through training, and Eilís’ training regime for us was brutal, we became increasingly convinced we would be one hundred percent successful as a group. The Channel taught us all otherwise. Rob encountered the horrendous weather of which the Channel is still capable of throwing at Solos even with modern forecasting. Ciarán had gotten to France before getting shut out by the Channel but Rob ran into the full force of the Channel’s brutal face. After a dozen hours of swimming, Rob was pulled from the water by hos crew and later hospitalized with cold water pulmonary edema. That story continued because Rob recovered and on his second attempt in 2012 he was also denied with more horrendous weather. But he eventually prevailed and indeed Rob went on to set the Sandycove club Channel record. Less than the fast time, what is far more important is Rob’s journey to get there.
In 2011, following a visit to the Cork University Hospital Emergency by Liam Maher after a particularly … challenging, Sandycove Island Challenge race, a new Sandycove Island Swimming Club annual award was introduced for the most dangerous swim undergone or most damage suffered by a club member, known as the Hardship Award. I was the retrospective inaugural 2010 winner for my Channel solo, followed by Liam, then Rob, with Ned being the 2013 winner for the emotional damage he suffered for losing many of his records in 2013 to other club members. The not-at-all-coveted Hardship Award is a Hard Hat!
At EilÍs’ 2010/2011 seminar, still raw from the first crossing, Rob spoke eloquently of how he had a great family and life, and that if not making it across the English Channel was the worst that had happened him, then he was a very lucky man.
My own input was brief, I only wanted to say one thing really:
I told the assembled aspirants that the thing they most needed to comprehend themselves, that they most needed to discuss honestly with their partners or parents or family, is that solo Channel swimming is dangerous.
We don’t like to discuss this aspect. We like even to pretend otherwise.
In 2010 I had my own near-lethal experience in the Channel and then Rob had been hospitalised. Lisa had been hospitalised after her two-way Channel swim, Ned had been hospitalized after Santa Barbara. Four members from one club, and while I was the only one of that four not hospitalized the experience was no less dangerous. (BTW, as Evan once pointedly asked me, just where is the full account of my Channel swim, given the other swim’s I’ve covered? The answer is, it’s a long comprehensively written account and part a longer term project that may never see light and so may eventually surface here, Frankly the story is far too often told and repeated as a rumour in Ireland, such I’ve been asked, “did you hear about the guy who swam and the Channel and …”).
Let me repeat: Open water swimming is dangerous. To be responsible to the others we help, advise or even inadvertently inspire we MUST honestly acknowledge this. Channel swimming is especially dangerous.
2012 we lost Sandycove swimmer and our much-loved friend Paráic Casey in the English Channel. In 2013 the Channel swimming community and her family and friends lost Susan Taylor in the English Channel. I mean no disrespect to any others by not continuing a roll call, as part of my point is these are the dangers and losses incurred within the community of people I know myself. (I’d met Susan in Dover in 2012).
I looked at those people in Cork at the seminar and told them this was their first task as Aspirant Channel swimmer: To be honest with themselves and the people important to them. Open water, Channel and marathon swimming is dangerous.
Regardless of our experience and skill, the sea particularly is a vastness beyond us. To accept this and the inherent risk is to improve our ability to survive.
If you can accept that fact, integrate it as well as it is possible for anyone who thinks they the measure of their own dreams, you have taken a significant first step to being a real open water swimmer.
After that seminar, one of the attendees, who had been present with their partner, decided against the Channel. As someone who encourages open water and Channel swimming, I considered and still consider that a good result.
I am obviously not against people being open water swimmers or setting their sights on extreme swimming goals or following dreams. But I do strongly believe that you should do it from a prepared base. I will not help someone whom I don’t think takes the risk seriously.
I’m (mostly) a lone swimmer. As a consequence I am not reckless (despite views to the contrary) but consider carefully both my own abilities and thresholds, and each day’s conditions, and weigh each and every swim before I start.
By accepting the existence of risk and hazard (the potential outcome of risk) we actually gain another tool in our repertoire. By being brave enough to stand our ground and know when not to swim, when not to risk our limits is to know ourselves.
No-one swims, or at least no serious open water swimmer, with the thought of not returning, any more that mountain climbers or polar explorers do. But the possibility is part of what makes open water swimming what it is and a properly cognizant open water swimmer is pursuing a type of existentialism, not fatalism. By realising that understanding our constraints and boundaries and the immutable superiority of nature, which we don’t actually conquer, but temporarily deceive or elude, you are making yourselves a more capable and adaptable swimmer.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.
After 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.
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.
My 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 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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the sickness, the changes in feeds, how the crew felt, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Sylvain was still swimming strongly. That despite everything, he was very much the star and focus of our private show, and our entire concern. The earlier change of goggles had finally resolved the ongoing leakages. Every internal downturn or recovery he felt was (mostly) invisible to us, only a hint of how he felt on each particular feed visible to us on his mien, and in his eyes, to try to interpret. Over the late afternoon and early evening period, he undulated his way across the Separation Zone and on toward the north-east shipping lane.
Let me tell you about Sylvain’s stroke. Maybe you have swum ‘fly, like most swimmers do. Maybe like me, you sometimes do it for fun, sometimes to make a point, sometimes because it’s on the training set, sometimes because few things say fuck you to the world quite as comprehensively as swimming butterfly. Maybe you even love ‘fly. But how much do you swim? How long before your technique abrades away? How long before you start one-arm fly drill? How long before you feel like you are trying to pull yourself out, out of the water with rubber shoulders, paper biceps, spongy triceps?
For most of us ‘fly is an equation which quickly equalises to zero. Two hundred metres in Dover harbour with Sylle for me, playing hide and seek as we swam out of phase, swimming side by side, but his head submerged when mine was up, every time, knowing he was there, and not seeing him, that was enough before I reverted to front crawl.
Sylle’s ‘fly is elegant and looks easy. He flows through the water. There isn’t the big powerhouse flipper-splash of legs and feet like a 200 meter ‘fly meet swimmer. Instead there is a glide, a slipping and sliding, as Sylle works with the water. He reminds you of nothing so much as an otter, as his feet and legs, on every beat, (28 beats per minute), like the highest rated divers, penetrate the water with barely a splash. In some way that what he did. He dived his way across the Channel. He doesn’t look like he is being pushed by those legs but neither does he look like he is being pulled by his arms. Instead, he demonstrates some other ineffable skill. For swimmers it is beautiful and amazing to watch swimmer, so much so that as effortless as it seems, that you come to think it is effortless, that it is easy. But, of course, it isn’t.
Feed changed. Lisa and I regained the feed schedule from Mike over a couple of hours, with every single feed necessitating a discussion of the content: Malto, sliced bread or a roll, cheese, ham or chicken slices, water, a taste of fruit.
By 6.00 p.m. light levels were dropping with oncoming dusk. The sea state was a bit more unsettled. No glorious sunset with the heavy cloudbase. Official Observer’s Log indicated wave height remained, as it had from the start, zero. Feet or metres it didn’t matter, but the sea state was marked “slight” which sounds good but is actually the centre of the scale on Mike Ball’s newly designed Observer’s sheets, which start at smooth, through calm then slight and moderate to rough.
At 18:35 we entered the north-east shipping lane, the ships now passing up the Channel, and around this time the tide slackened briefly. More importantly Sylvain indicated at his feed, now happening on the half and full hour rather than the quarter-to and -past, that he was feeling much better. It had been a long two hours from when he first got sick.
At 7 p.m. the light had almost failed, and before the half-hour feed we could see that the lights that Sylvain had started the swim with were not sufficient for good safety visibility. I had my own Adventure Lights with me, but they had come back from a recent Channel swim not fully functional so were unsuitable. We gave Sylle a light from Mike’s spares at the 7:30 feed for him to place on his helmet strap, but either a wave or catching it with his biceps ripped it off and 15 minutes later we gave him another and a chemical lightstick, the second working better. By that time the light was entirely gone, the usual long twilight attenuated by the clouds, and we were well into Channel night, with a long way still to go.
Conditions on the boat were fine, the evening was mild, if very dark. Conditions in the water still would have been good … if you were swimming front crawl. But butterfly changes so many parameters of a swim. The wave height on Mike Ball’s Observer’s report was zero, all day. But there was that slight ruffled surface. Such a surface, instead of being sliced by a front crawl swimmer’s arms and head, presents a series of physical barriers, into which the butterfly swimmer, Sylvain, will inevitably crash. Repeatedly, hundreds then thousands of times. Each impact is small and transitory but cumulatively exhausting. No wonder his stroke rate dropped, apart from the sickness, he couldn’t fully engage his long stroke, the wavelets and tiredness shortening his stroke somewhat.
Sylvain’s preferred position was about eight to metres out, and with Gallivant using one starboard side main spotlight, it felt like he was really in two worlds, even more so than a usual Channel swim, if there is any such thing. Darkness on three sides of him, in front, behind and on his far side. He was just like a butterfly specimen pinned to a display board, but instead he was pinned to the night and the dark and the water.
And now with night’s arrival and heavy cloud obscuring the moon, almost no light fell on the water’s surface. The swim became a war between Sylvain and the surface. Every movement came at him out of pitch back, each wavelet arriving with no notice. For hours he battled as we cycled feeds for him, malto, some electrolyte, water. At 10 p.m. Sylle refused his malto and took only water and mouthwash and told us he wasn’t swimming back. As Lisa, Zoe and I sat together on the forward deck
Because there’s another part of the story I’ve neglected to now. Sylle had three potential goals: The first was to be the first man to butterfly the channel. The second was to do so in a record time. The weather and tide change, (not the sickness) has scuppered the record attempt. The third prospective goal was a potential two-way, returning to English by front crawl. He had done the training but hadn’t even told his family. He told them the night before the swim, just in case they managed to be at the point where he landed on France, because if they were and they hugged him, that would disqualify him.
We took Sylle’s assertion, not as the joke it might be on another swim, and we set it aside, unconcerned. It was irrelevant to us. We wanted to get him across one-way and for the long period of the afternoon and night that single goal swung backward and forward, in and out of view and possibility.
Feed to feed. That’s all that counts in the Channel. That’s the swimmer’s world, every new horizon thirty minutes away. The past doesn’t exist, the future and France is away over that horizon. Only now.
At 10.30 p.m. we changed the feed to porridge, once again concerned, as we had been intermittently for hours, that Sylle was still sick or really uncomfortable, even beyond what we could sometimes see in his eyes or twist of mouth at feeds, the roller-coaster of feeling good and feeling bad continuing through the night.
I asked Sylle to come in another few metres toward the boat while swimming and reminded him of his pull-through, seeing as he’d been struggling with the constant chop for hours had shortened his stroke. Concentrating on it would give him something else to focus on, but during that 10.30 feed he said “I don’t think I’m going to make it“.
Few Channel swims are easy, few cross without daemons presenting themselves.
The eastern most ships in the lane passed between us and France, their presence marked only by occlusion of the lights on land, not even their silhouettes visible. Another hour slid past. At the 10.00 p.m. feed Sylvain was holding his lower back so at the 11.30 p.m. feed we gave him paracetamol. Sylle had never used painkillers in training until shortly before his swim, but Lisa and I had insisted he take them as a test, just in case. They worked and his back loosened and we had finally passed into French Inshore Waters by the midnight feed and were only 1 mile from ZC2, passing well inside it, the buoy that gives experienced Channel crew and swimmers a good indication of their position, but only in daylight, as ZC2 wasn’t visible to Sylle.
Raiding our supplies, we found Zoe had some Pain Au Chocolat, and we had brioche and we used these for the next feeds, each bringing a big smile to Sylle’s face, such that he uttered “ooh la la!” in reference to some stereotypical joking back in Varne.
The clouds finally lightened around 12.30 a.m. and while they didn’t fully part, the moon was finally able to illumine the water’s surface beyond the tiny world of the spotlight and the water calmed as the inshore waters of La Manche welcomed their globe-trotting son home.
By 01:30 we were directly outside the lights of Wissant, and I recalled Sylle and I in the same place on Gábor’s swim, and I wished Gábor could have been there with us. For those last two hours, the stress and strain lightened and we knew, finally, that after hours of uncertainty, Sylle would make it.
We were turning into Cap Petit Blanc, the vertical headland north-east of Wissant village, where in 1941 Herman Goring had stood and watched as the second biggest wave of airplane to attack Britain in the second world war had streamed overhead. It was the third Sunday of September, Commonwealth Battle of Britain Day and the invasion was one lone Frenchman, reclaiming La Manche for La Belle France, en papillion.
The last metres wound down. I prepared to swim in. Mike and I discussed the potential turn-around for the return. Sylvain was perfectly placed up a Cap Blanc to catch the tide back into the Channel. But he would have to decide.
My own lights adequate for the short distance, Mike Ball did the correct thing by reminding me of the rules for a support swimmer, especially for a turnaround. Stay behind the swimmer, don’t touch him in any way. If he needed to be greased he would have to do it himself, and I carried a tub of grease in my swimmers. I got the word to enter the water about 2.15 a.m.
Mike Oram had a bright spotlight shining on the cliffs for us to follow in, as Gallivant needed to stay a few hundred metres back to avoid rocks, the tide having risen again. I swam to the far side of Sylvain. I could tell he was still swimming strongly, not the sometimes very slow pace at the end of a Channel swim. Positioned on his right, I lifted my head and heard shouting from the boat, Lisa and Zoe exhorting me to finish with Sylle the only appropriate way, and so I switched into butterfly myself.
Every Channel or marathon swim that I’ve crewed has left some deep personal memory for me. They include swimming in Cap Gris Nez with Alan Clack the previous year, while I cried in my goggles thinking of Páraic, the upper reaches of the early morning Blackwater with Owen O’Keeffe, sunlight streaming over Bray Head for Rob Bohane, Sylvain and Gábor and I hugging on Wissant beach and others.
My favourite moments of Sylvain’s swim will be these:
The searchlight was strong, a white ball exploding onto us. The world was only fuligin and supernova, the water was galactic black, solar white, particles trapped in the glare like insects frozen in an explosion, grainy film strip in my eyes; Sylvain to the left and ahead of me; the usual intense and isolate night swimming sounds; breath and movement, breath and movement, breath and movement. Sylvain, a perfect silhouette moving through the water, imprinted on my retina like a perfect moving negative.
As we reached the cliff, my only concern was his safety. But he reached out, a rock presented itself perfectly in the water, and he glided into it and touched with a two-handed butterfly finish. He stood and stumbled through the boulders to the cliff two metres away, while I stayed back still submerged. He climbed above the waterline, a spiderman now as well as a butterflyman. And I hooted my head off. And I hooted and the crew hooted and Gallivant’s triumphant klaxon split the empty night for our friend who had just crossed the English Channel, La Manche, in a time of 16 hours and 42 minutes, becoming to first man to ever so do.
Aah, to finish there would be sweet, but incomplete.
We discussed the turn and the return. Sylle did not want to attempt the swim back, after the brutal one-way crossing he had endured. He had accomplished his primary task. But my task was to push him. And so he agreed that he would stretch out while we swam back to Gallivant, and he would have time to stretch his muscles into a more forgiving front crawl. I told him he was perfectly lined up for the tide. I didn’t let him off. Back to the boat through the by-now warm French coastal waters. I climbed out of the boat while Sylvain stayed in the water, and we talked with him and gave him time to decide. For fifteen interminable minutes, for the second time in as many weeks, Lisa and I berated a Channel swimmer to do something they did not want to do. But we pushed them so that if and when they made their own decision, as the swimmer must, they would be sure afterwards it was the right one. Eventually Sylvain put Lisa and I thankfully put us out of our misery of torturing our friend. He ended the horrible task of trying our best to convince him to torture himself further, when he reached out and grabbed the ladder, and we pulled our heroic friend aboard.
It was an enormous and stunning swim, and as has been repeated by Lisa, Zoe and Mike Ball, it was a privilege to witness. Even daring to dream of a butterfly crossing, let alone more, is beyond the capacity of most of us. The timing was personally redemptory for me in reminding of the courage of ordinary Channel swimmers. Sylvain and the CS&PF’s commitment to clear rules were also a lesson to all. Sylvain has not got even one Yellow Card fro a stroke infraction on the entire swim. At a time when some of us were being falsely accused of not celebrating one swimmer, which only meant we didn’t buy the Diana Nyad lies, Sylle helped rescue us and showed us all true historic achievement, like others have this year.
It was not easy. But it was great.
Next day in Varne, we took some more photographs, aware that Sylvain’s place in swimming history was cemented forever. I said to him that The Flying Frenchman was a good nickname, and he should embrace it. Because it would last him a lifetime.
I wasn’t sure when I started this how long this series would be. Previous long series have run to five posts. This will take six. Given his achievement, I think it’s fair to say that Sylvain deserves a six-part series!
As I wrote in the previous post, almost immediately after Sylvain got sick Mike Oram started feeding him, with no discussion with crew. Between getting sick and Mike’s feeding the time lost was about five minutes.
Twenty minutes later was the next scheduled feed, at 16:45, and adhering to the plan wasn’t as important at this time, but Mike again fed Sylvain, this time with a watery porridge, water, and mouthwash to remove the vomit taste. Five minutes after this feed, Sylvain got sick again but reported feeling better afterwards. Less than ten minutes later again, just before 5 p.m. Mike fed Sylvain this time with a cheese spread on bread. We as crew were superfluous at this stage, and since this was Sylvain’s swim and his success the only important thing, it wasn’t about how we felt, so we bit our tongues. From Mike’s point of view about many things in the Channel with his 800 crossings, crew are mostly baggage, which will be not be a surprise to anyone who has read or heard his many “swimmers are only my third and slowest engine” comments. The 5 p.m. feed was lengthy, taking Sylle over two and a half minutes.
So why did Sylvain get sick? As I’ve also said previously, this happens usually because swimmers take in more carbs than they can process as they mostly are in liquid form and happens many people.
Channel swimming burns about 800 calories per hour. The human body, regardless of size, can take in about 280 calories per hour. Earlier during that morning “discussion“, Mike had ridiculed me for not having a “T-form“, or for not knowing the term. Not needing Mike’s approval I’d asked what he meant, and I had mentioned I’d read all his emails to the Channel Chat group over the years, a repository of which articles Niek Kloots hosts on the Netherlands Channel Challenge site. They are worth reading if you are interested in Channel swimming, and being here, you may be interested, as Mike knows more about the Channel than most people, Fred Mardle and Reg Brickell being the only other pilots with similar experience.
The T-form, is essentially a calorific input/output balance sheet (my explanation). Mike explained to me all about calories and liquids and blood and liver etc, not really accepting that I, or indeed any swimmer, might have some or any knowledge of these matters. Mike explained how he had brought the idea from his sales training in the US, in between his extensive sailing and piloting etc and plotting swim routes from California to the North Channel. Apparently.
Mike’s T-form is the written form of the mental calculation that experienced swimmers do subconsciously or even occasionally consciously. Written down or not, there is the same net result: calories-in do not equal calories-out. Eventually a swimmer goes from having a positive glycogen amount in the liver and muscles to a deficit. Part of training is to get adapted to the transition from glycogen burning to fat burning, also known as ketosis. Writing it down adds nothing except work, unless you are so poorly organised or inexperienced as a crew that your swimmer is feeding too little or too much.
Lisa and Zoe and I continued to discuss with each other and to talk to both Mikes. Mike Oram’s primary assertion was “this year’s Maxim is bad“. He said that this Channel season had seen a significant increase in the number of swimmers getting sick.
Maxim is the most used carbohydrate by Channel swimmers and that used by Freda Streeter to feed swimmers on their Dover Harbour training swims, so it became the default. I’ve used it, Lisa and Zoe used it and many more. Maxim is a 99% maltodextrin carbohydrate and both Evan and I’ve written previously about different aspects of feeding. Evan’s posts on maltodextrin product comparisons and osmolality are particularly useful in this discussion if you want to understand some of the varying factors.
In 2012, Maxim became increasingly more difficult to source until it disappeared. Freda and the beach crew and many others, including myself for MIMS2012, and Lisa, sourced anther product, called Vyomax Maxi. Sylle was using a different product as Maxi wasn’t available in Sweden, but his was still just a generic 99% maltodextrin. I’ve also used Sponsor Competition Sponsor Long Energy, Hammer Perpetuum, Go Energy and others.
During the immediate hour subsequent to Sylle getting sick, Mike Ball looked at Sylle’s feed stuff and then asked why we hadn’t informed him that Sylle wasn’t using Maxim. Lisa and I tried to explain that 99% maltodextrin was 99% maltodextrin, regardless of label, we even still call it Maxim. I don’t think Mike Ball, whom I greatly like and respect, really believed us!
During this time Mike Oram spoke much about noted American Channel Swimmer, friend of his and one of the Channel greats, Marcy MacDonald, who only recently had completed another two-way swim, her third, with Mike, her regular pilot. Mike said she had been sick most of the way, and he’d reverted to the older English Channel feeds of porridge, tea and bread to keep her going.
I am of the opinion, as I’ve written about other swimming subjects, that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones: Did Diana Nyad catch a magic unknown current and after over 30 hours swimming somehow start swimming faster than world-record pace? Or did she make it all up for money and fame, following a lifetime pattern of attention-seeking? Is all this year’s maltodextrin, regardless of vendor, bad and causing illness, or are more swimmers overfeeding?
It is certainly the case that something had happened that I haven’t yet told you. When mixing the feeds the night before the swim, Sylle had mixed the feeds to quadruple strength, so that when diluted with our warm water supply that was used each feed, the concentration was reduced to double. There was … discussion … of this, shall we say. Lest you think this was a crazy ad-hoc last-minute decision by Sylvain, it wasn’t. Sylvain was already a Channel swimmer. He is a very experienced swimmer, a very experienced open water swimmer, and he was following the feeding regime he always used, including his first Channel swim and which he had used for his long training swims.
During our discussion I mentioned how last year during his English Channel solo, Alan Clack had wanted a double strength feed, and how without telling him, I’d changed it to single strength. In that case I was completely in charge of looking after Alan, and with more experience than Alan, felt sufficiently certain to so do. But I never told Alan, because I knew he needed to believe that I was doing exactly what he wanted.
It’s also the case that I’ve seen a document circulating on email which outlines double-concentrate mixing of feeds. But this document states that this is intended to be mixed to achieve single concentration.
Without actual details of the swimmers affected I can’t categorically say, but in Sylvain’s case, we know for a fact that he was using double-concentrate and that was the cause of his illness, rather than some manufacturing defect.
I use Sylvain to explore further this whole problem and the challenges of gauging individual feed requirements, and situations that can arise, even for an experienced swimmer and crew, and it’s not meant to reflect poorly on Sylvain.
We all make decisions and the Channel finds us all out one way or another.
Keeping the communications open and being receptive to Mike over the next couple of hours, we continued to watch Sylle closely. The tension for us his friends and the concern for him, was high. Over the course of a couple of hours, between four p.m. and 6 p.m. Sylle’s stroke rate dropped from 28, to 26, to 24. Not a cause for panic but needing to be watched.
I closed last part with a question: Did Lisa, Zoe or I really consider Sylvain’s thoughts as he passed into the south-west shipping zone?
Not really. There was no-one on Gallivant that day who wasn’t intimately familiar with Channel swimming, with four Channel Soloists aboard, one as Observer, the most experienced pilot, the best co-pilot, and the most experienced Observer.
No-one on the boat wasn’t aware that swimmers must swim in their heads, must call on mental as well as physical training during a Channel swim. Four of us knew intimately that every Channel swimmer must find their own way across, swimming across the water and swimming through their own internal landscape. Four hours into a Channel swim is still early.
The water surface had finally smoothed to a state that would only last a couple of hours but nature and Sylle weren’t entirely in union.
Fifth hour in the Channel and Into the South-west shipping lane, the lane on the England side. The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with a thousand vessels a day of all sizes from rowing boats to VLCCs (very large cargo carriers) travelling through and it therefore requires command and control and identification of all vessels operating through the strait. Vessels, most travelling to and from the major European ports, including Hamburg, Calais, Rotterdam or Copenhagen all follow “rules of the road”, the outbound traffic on the English side, the inbound traffic on the French side.
The Bow Saga, a gas carrier, passed closely behind us and we watched the aptly named box wave travel toward us, but it wasn’t large and didn’t swamp Sylle too heavily, the foreshortening caused by the camera lens making Kent’s White Cliffs seem but a short distance behind us.
In the fifth hour the tide changed from ebb to flood with little slack between, from dropping tide to rising tide, from swimming south-east to north-east and the very slight breeze shifting southerly and Sylle requested that we dilute his next feed.
Thirty minute feed intervals passed in the afternoon, as we took turns. From the fourth hour there were feeds where Lisa and I noticed that Sylvain sometimes looked less than happy or glad to be swimming. We gave Sylle dilute mouthwash with every fourth feed, passed him fruit with his feed a couple of times and during the diluted 2:45 p.m. feed where he had the requested a change of goggles the next feed, which we gave him. But he hadn’t verbally indicated any significant problem.
The feed at 16:15 pm, late afternoon by the third week of September, was the tenth and half-way into the eight hour. Weather and water conditions hadn’t changed in any significant way. Sylle had looked however distinctly uncomfortable but said nothing and I’m not inclined to interrogating a swimmers in the Channel, adding time as it does. As happens on feeds, the swimmer can drift off behind the boat, and so happened on that feed. Five minutes later, Sylle still returning to his position the starboard side he stopped. and got sick.
Channel swimmers often get sick. Too many undigested carbohydrates, the liver can’t cope, a quick ejection, and everything is better afterwards. But this was different. Sylvain immediately got sick again. I was the only one who saw the initial vomit, and I called Lisa and told her, and we informed Mike.
With this began a very long and very difficult period, mostly for Sylvain, but also for us. Lisa and I were ready to take immediate remedial steps and yet, though Sylvain had asked us as his crew, there arose a tension between what we wanted to do, and what Mike as pilot did.
From this point, for many hours, I did not have time nor even thought to take more photographs. Visual documentation is nearly always an extra to a swim during the event, its existence only really becoming more important as time passes and the swim and the crispness of the experience slide into the past.
Lisa and I planned initially to change Sylvain’s next feed to tea, to allow his digestion time to settle. Subsequent that we would have had further available actions. None of these are a secret, they are what are done by experienced crew.
Before we had the chance to do anything, Mike Oram started his own feeds to Sylvain, first giving him a cheese and white bread sandwich within five minutes of Sylvain getting sick.
Though at this point we have only covered half of the swim in four parts, and the most momentous and difficult part of the swim lay ahead, the narration will quicken from here.
That Sunday morning of late September was overcast and dull as Sylvain undulated away from Shakespeare beach almost parallel to the kilometre-long Admiralty Pier. There was a light Force Two breeze ruffling the water surface, which was a slightly cooler than hoped for 15.1 degrees Celsius.
It is always important, vital even, to grasp the environmental parameters both predicted and in operation, to really understand any Channel swim. Like mountaineers and adventurers, marathon swimmer’s comrades-in-spirit, we are aware that we operate in an arena and world greater than we are, greater than we can be, and that we at best negotiate our way through. A weather prediction is the battle plan and the old adage about battle plans is that they rarely survive first contact with the enemy. (If this was a badly-made movie, we’d be arriving at the voice-over narration for the boring exposition):
Sylle’s wait had moved him from a neap to a spring tide, and not the edge of a spring but a big 6.8 metre tide bringing with it a bigger tidal current. His weather window meant he and the other swimmers departing that morning were doing so on a low tide. The preferable tide for leaving Dover is a neap high tide. Swimmers leaving Dover take advantage of the flood to get pushed north-east, the first leg of the more usual “backwards-S” chart. Leaving on low tide doesn’t negate the tidal current assistance or increase the distance, but changes the heading, swimming south-east instead. The pilot must still plan the approach to the Cap and consider the changes in wind direction.
The weather forecast was for light breezes for the morning, slackening a bit in the afternoon and early evening. The swim would start cloudy but skies might clear to patchy in the afternoon. Not very warm, but not chilly either, most important for Sylle as any direct sunlight is a boon for a swimmer, reducing heat loss and sunlight can lift a swimmer, and give mental energy. Bathing both literally and metaphorically in vivid mid-day sunlight, even as the wind rose, is one of my favourite Channel memories.
The night’s forecast was more opaque. Possibly mixed clouds and clear skies. Clear skies mean lower temperatures but increase visibility for a swimmer, a trade-off that cannot be chosen and can only be evaluated as it is underway. Also important is the fact that a late in September swim means shorter cooler daylight hours. A morning swim start instead of night start means that a swimmer will be swimming into night, a veil that obscures the latter toughest part of a swim, whereas a night swim holds a promise of dawn and hours of daylight for a swimmer.
The other boats were almost out before Sylle, a couple of hundred metres ahead, all to our starboard side, the same as Sylvain. (Oh, that reminds me, I spent the day, when we had time, which wasn’t much, trying to teach Lisa Cummins (PHD!) about port and starboard. I am not sure if I succeeded). Only CSA pilot Reg Brickell’s Viking Princess was astern of us, about a kilometre back.
Sylle’s information to Mike had included the fact that his stroke rate was 24 to 28. Open water swimmers and long-term readers here will know I often speak of the importance of stroke rate for open water thermogenesis, (heat-production). Front crawl Channel swimmers vary in rate from typically low sixties to high eighties, depending on size, stroke type and training most importantly. Sylvain’s stroke rate looks low in comparison, but of course it was a different stroke, the whole body movement of butterfly.
The ruffled water off Shakespeare beach presented no obstacle to his stroke as we moved away from the beach, the well-wishes staying until we ceased to notice them. After about 20 minutes we moved outside the sheltering mass of the Admiralty Pier and into open water, the fleet just ahead and starboard of us. As we passed the pier terminus, we could see the tide line just ahead, the interface of the current and the water making for a choppy transition. Within ten minutes the fleet spread out, caught sooner by the tide than us, they pulled away. However ten minutes later, at 10:15 we passed into the transition and by 10.25, the choppy transition water at the tide’s edge required Sylvain to stop a couple of times to reseal his goggles, but we were into the ebbing tide, following the fleet, catching the ocean conveyor south-east and out, out into the Channel.
Sylvain’s first feed was at 10.45, after an hour, taking a 500 ml bottle of maltodextrin (carbs) and apple juice. The feed schedule called for hourly feeds for the first three hours, then feeds ever thirty minutes, the carbs mixed for taste with either apple juice or blackcurrent cordial, alternating, for four cycles, then a feed of electrolytes, with dilute mouth wash every two hours.
The morning continued grey and overcast with the breeze shifting through Force Two and during the early swim we moved all the supplies under the poop deck canvas cover. Cloudy and dry, the air was nonetheless laden with salt and moisture, such that we all stayed fairly covered and found impossible, for the entire day, to have dry hands, the marine moisture clinging to skin.
Ninety minutes into the swim Sylle had stopped to adjusted his googles a few times more. Unplanned stops are always a cause for concern. Is there something subconscious in the swimmer’s mind causing the stops or is there a minor problem that could grow with time into a major problem? By 12.30 p.m. we had eventually realised that every time he adjusted he was catching the lip of his swim cap under his gasket-type Aquasphere goggles and not knowing this, which then led to a gradual leak and after we shouted this at him, he finally got the problem sorted before it led to too much brine in the goggles, which will lead to swollen shut eyes.
About an hour after the swim started Mike joined us on the poop deck, (yes, I will keep saying poop deck!). There was a … long conversation soliloquy from Mike about many different subjects related to Channel swimming; the problems with the organisations, the problems with the committees, the problems with swimmers, the problems with crews, the problems with coaches, the problems with other pilots, the problems with … etc. I was the primary audience, Lisa and Zoe taking the opportunity of a scheduled feed to escape to the bow. Seeing my chance in a lull for air, I asked Mike something I’ve wondered, having read and listened to him many times. I asked him if he liked Channel swimming … The answer, was less than categorical.
By the third hourly feed, the breeze has dropped again ever so slightly, to low force Two, but the sky remained impenetrable. Sylle’s stroke rate was steady averaging 28 strokes per minute. Thirty minutes later at 13:15, three hours and thirty minute elapsed swim time, we swapped to feeds every half hour. It always sounds like one only has to spend two minutes mixing a feed, and a minute feeding, and you will have the rest of the time to lounge around, but once you as crew are on a 30 minute feed cycle, it seems like you have no time for anything else. You might rotate the mixing, feeding and watching duties, or one person might like to do it for a while, as I did for a few hours, and the time is full of discussion of the previous feed, how he looked, how it went in, what the next feed was, the mundanities filling the available time to the brim and suddenly someone has to rush to get the next feed ready.
The breeze dropped to Force One, a whisper, though the surface didn’t glass-off (become still), and the Varne Lightship was visible away to the north-east, in the Shipping Lane which we would enter in the next hour. Not long after the 2 p.m. feed we were passed on the port side by a rowing team heading to Dover. Cross-Channel rowers are no longer allowed into French waters since early in 2013, after having been stopped by the French navy, despite the early teams having french approval, they now row out from Dover to the half-way point, then turn and row back. For Channel swimmers this kind of arbitrary action by the French coastal authorities is always a concern.
It was approaching 2.15 p.m. Sylvain had been swimming butterfly for over four and half hours and had just swum through a large oil slick without pause. We as crew, even though we knew what we going out to see and do, were still awestruck. The weather continued moderate. Did we stop to ask ourselves what was going on in Sylle’s head as we entered the south-west shipping lane?
This story started in different places and at different times, like all stories. For me, it started in a mobile home in Varne Ridge park in Capel-le-ferne, Folkestone, home of so many Channel adventures, in October 2010. It was a couple of days after my Hungarian “stepson” Gábor Molnar had completed his English Channel solo and Sylvain Estadieu and I had been on crew. The remainder of the crew were asleep and Gábor, Sylvain and I pursued a late not-entirely-sober night, talking Channel, swimming, Sandycove and future plans and dreams. Sylvain was raving about I.M. (individual medley, a combination of backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and front crawl). We agreed that whatever Sylvain decided, Gábor and I would be crew.
For Sylvain, I think it started even earlier.
After his previous English Channel Solo in 2009, on the same tide as Owen O’Keeffe and Lisa Cummins, he had decided in early 2010 to do four laps of Sandycove by I.M. Sandycove is about 1700 metres around (average), so that was about a mile of each stroke. He’d done it with Gábor as company and the seed was sown for the later grander adventure, though over the course of the following three years, we were party to some of his ideas. He finally settled on a butterfly crossing, as no man had crossed the Channel by butterfly, though both Julie Bradshaw and Vicki Keith had previously crossed the Channel using that stroke.
Booked for September 2013, in September of 2012, Sylvain, committed to transparent rules like most marathon swimmers, engaged in a discussion on the marathonswimmers.org/forum about what extra rules could or should apply to such a crossing, with particular reference to stroke judging, something with which those of us who swim front crawl don’t have to be concerned. In the autumn he contacted the CS&PF through President Nick Adams, asking for the CS&PF committee to agree the rule-set in advance.
Eventually Sylvain’s window arrived and we assembled as usual In Varne Ridge with Sylvain and his fiancee Greta. Gábor had just changed job and was very disappointed to not be able to be present but instead he’d drafted in a Hungarian friend of his from his EC solo and MIMS swims, Gergő “Kovi” Kovács. Lisa Cummins also joined the crew. But the weather wasn’t co-operative for Channel swimming for the week. Sylvain did electrify the Saturday morning Dover beach crew who had all heard about his butterfly attempt. He also made me do butterfly with him in training and Greta had to enter the water also. I did about 200 metres continuous and that was enough for me. Sylvain glides through the water with his ‘fly, I look more like I am trying to escape from the water.
During this week, Lisa and I stepped in as emergency crew for Haydn Welch’s Channel attempt, as there was still no visible window. Sylvain and Greta waved us off from the rare departure point of Dungeness for Haydn’s unusual English Channel attempt, something that was tough on them as conditions looked quite good from the beach, though as it (providentially) became aware to us crew, it was utterly unsuitable for a butterfly attempt. Two days later, Lisa and I both returned to Ireland and Kovi to Hungary. Haydn’s attempt provided Lisa the opportunity to leave from Dungeness, which nicely counterpointed the fact that she is the only English Channel swimmer to ever land at Dungeness. Sylle continued to train daily in Dover harbour. Torn between holding his nerve and taper, and the temptation to restart long swims, he agreed with coach Eilís that he would swim a couple of two and three hour swims.
I’ve said before, and I am sure will say again, that waiting for weather is one of the most difficult and least understood or appreciated aspects of Channel swimming. Years in the dreaming and training, everything can be lost with an unfavourable low pressure system. Many people in Sylvain’s situation would have lost their chance of a swim after the first week, and probably have to return home, and it being late in the season, may not have any chance at a late swim. The financial cost also escalates rapidly. Another week of accommodation and car rental. Cancelled or rescheduled flights for yourself and extra flights to bring crew back in, and more expensive due to short term booking.
Sylvain and Greta was prepared to wait for a chance of a spring tide opportunity, and so a week after we returned home, Sylle called us back to Dover. We arrived the afternoon of Saturday September the 21st with the prospect of starting the swim during the night on Sunday/Monday or during Monday.
Soon after we arrived, we did “the big shop”, using my checklist. Water for Sylvain. Water for crew. More water. Backup food for Sylvain. Food for crew. More food for crew. More water. WHIF food. (What-IF we can’t eat this or that? What-IF Sylvain or crew get sick?). A Channel swim’s provisions often look like a small desert expedition.
Then back to Varne to eat and prepare and mix, and await the next call after 7pm with Pilot Mike Oram.
Mike confirmed the swim was almost certainly on for Sunday with a starting time in the morning of about 9a.m. but Sylle still needed to to wait until Sunday morning on the pntoon, for final confirmation as weather forecasts still indicated a possibility of a 6 hour delay but the final, final, final morning discussion would gave us the go-ahead. Provisionally! Life of a Channel Swimmer! Hurry up and wait. But be on the slip-way in the morning, and there was still a chance of a tide delay.
Back to Varne to pre-mix, pack, eat and sleep.
Premixing the swimmer’s feed simplifies and cleans up things on the boat greatly for the crew. The swimmer can be sure the feed is mixed to their own requirement, and malto-dextrin is a sticky substance best avoided having to mix on a boat. Two or one and a half litre bottles are much easier to lift and pour than 5 litre bottles. Square bottles pack better than round. Minutiae, the type that comes from the combined experience of the group.
Then we packed all the boxes. Sylle’s pre-mixed feeds. Sylle’s supplementary and solid swim food. Sylle’s gear, crew food, more crew food. Sylle’s swim gear. Crew gear. Sylle’s clothes. Crew bags. Pack everything, then unpack it and repack it. Check the checklist. Then dinner, then re-check the checklist and boxes.
A morning start would bring its own challenges, but at least we would get a good night’s sleep before.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The chief inadequacy amongst my many photographic skills is the portrait. In fact I don’t think of them as portraits, but the more prosaic “pictures of people”. I really struggle with them, with imposing on people, especially when I know that it’ll usually be a waste of their time. So I try to grab snapshots unobtrusively where possible, and that’s when I remember. I have had to learn that people are mostly interested in pictures of people. And then I cheat in making them look better by using black and white. I’ve read a comment by a photographer I can’t find, that colour photography shows you the picture of their clothes, black and white shows you the colour of their soul. Take that for whatever it’s worth being repeated by an atheist.
Here are some of my favourite photos of swimming people from 2012. Apologies to all the important people, friends and family, in my life who aren’t here. And bigger apologies to those who are.
Alan Clack, aka the George Clooney of open water swimming. I actually took this on my phone, hence the slightly grainy look (which is not deliberate).
Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club. Seventy five years swimming there and a gentleman.
English Channel soloists Craig Morrison (left) and Rob The Bull Bohane (right). Craig set a new club record for the English Channel. And then Rob set a newer club record. It’s worthwhile visualising the pair drinking champagne from a bucket on Sandycove Island one autumn Friday night at twilight… in a storm. The bottle was in the bucket.
At nine feet tall, English Channel soloist Liam Maher is twice the height of the average four and a half foot tall French person, Sylvain Estadieu, the Flying Frenchman excepted. Sylvain is a strangely small four feet high but with a wingspan of nine feet.
Yours truly at Coumshingaun. How arrogant is that? I’m trying to overcome self-consciousness only exacerbated by this photo. This may not be the image to do it with. Photo taken by Dee.
She’ll kill me for this. Irish Queen of the Sea, Lisa Cummins, visiting the spot where she tumble-turned off France after her first lap of the Channel.
English Channel Soloist and King of Cold Water Finbarr Hedderman hides his happy face. He had just recently lost his flowing locks. Micro-seconds after this was taken, I sure was subject to the usual Corkonian abuse.
Channel swimmers Rob Bohane (right), Ciaran Byrne (left), and myself (centre), after a training swim in Dover. Owen O’Keefe Maybe Lisa actually took this photo with my camera? I finally remember, it was Super Crewman Kieran O’Connor! The Fermoy Fish did well. Only after you’ve struggled out of the water up Dover’s almost-lethal shingle can you appreciate its difficulty.
Sandycove island Club Chairwoman Liz Buckley (no relation, fake half-sister) is mammy to us all, while Club Secretary Ned Denison downs a quick swig of gripe-water. Not at all like the Soviet Politburo. At all.
I said on the day it was the best picnic ever. Cap Gris Nez. This was definitely better in colour, as was the day. Left to right: Liam Maher, Rob Bohane, Lisa Cummins, Paraic Casey, Riana Parsons, Catherine Walsh, Craig Morrison.
Having swam at Kilfarrasy with Lisa, a more extraordinary cave swim came two days later when we swam another section of the Copper Coast.
First we swam into one cave, exited and swam around a tall overhanging sea stack, getting gently pushed and pulled through the canyon between the cliffs on the half metre off shore swell.
We swam around and back, into another large and regularly scary looking cave, because it’s deep, completely black from the outside, and with even the smallest water movement sound booms out from the inside. Inside we made an extraordinary discovery.
The two separate caves were actually joined deep inside by a tiny shingle beach 50 to 75 metres from the sea. It’s dark but once you are inside, bright enough to see around. Video and photographs struggle to capture the conflicting darkness and bright cave entrances, with no flash on the waterproof camera. Even on small swell the waves are compressed and break onto the little beach with the sound amplified by the walls and cave roof. It felt like an extraordinary discovery, that we might be the first people to ever discover this as it seems possible that the kayakers, the other Copper Coast adventures along with myself, wouldn’t have entered the whole way for fear of being unable to turn or reverse their kayaks.
And even if not, surely we were the first ever swimmers to penetrate the cave system, which must 100 to 150 metres long in total.
A few short clips of the cave edited together.
I’ve said before, every day in the sea is mini-adventure, few though rarely so exciting as this. Want to find out where it is? You’ll have to come swim with me to find out. :-)
I have waited a long time for this official announcement and am very proud and honoured that Lisa has chosen loneswimmer.com to announce her big swim for this year.
But before we get to that …
For those of you who don’t know, Lisa Cummins was the twentieth person to swim a two-way English Channel solo in September 2009. She was the first woman to so do WITHOUT having first done a solo, and she was quite regularly told it would be impossible, by some well-known people in the marathon swimming community. Her time was an astonishing 35 hours (exactly).
I shall never forget the night in February 2009, during a charity Swimathon in Source swimming pool organised by Coach Eilís, when I heard of the plan. And the thought that I had then has never left me, of the sheer audacity of Lisa’s vision. I was completely captivated. At that time Lisa and I hadn’t become friends, she wouldn’t have known me from any other swimmer and when we greeted her in Cork Airport on her triumphant return, I was a face amongst many. I told her she was an inspiration for all and in her typical self-effacing manner for those who know her, she dismissed the notion. But I hold to this assertion, and know many agree with me.
I have maintained that Lisa’s two-way English Channel swim was one of the greatest amateur Irish sporting achievements. Ever. (For me, it’s actually the greatest). But not just that, it was a world-class swimming achievement. Suzie Dods, a well-known US marathon swimmer, said of Lisa after her swim: “Shows you what the mind can imagine, the body can do”.
To have any chance of understanding Lisa you should know that her inscription in the White Horse in Dover says; “it’s kind of fun to do the impossible“.
Lisa started training seriously while we were in Dover last September and has been training hard since, regularly swimming 75,000 metre weeks and has already done many multiple hour sea swims up to eight hours, under twelve degrees Celsius, done while many of the rest of us were struggling to get four hours done. It’s not for no reason that I call her (and Finbarr) two of the world’s greatest cold water swimmers.
She is already the Queen of Irish open water swimming and her next swim attempt will further decorate that crown.
Lisa recently, by the way, submitted her Computer Science Ph.D. Thesis, completed while doing the training! It’s an open secret among the Sandycove swimmers, that I’ve found it hard (but managed) to keep for two years. You have no idea how many times I’ve asked for a guest post, but in fairness, I’ve learned so much from her, that much of what appears here comes from her indirectly.
In September 2012, Lisa will attempt a swim never previously done, crossing the Irish Sea from Wales to Ireland. She estimates it will take a minimum of 40 hours with a minimum straight-line distance of 56 miles, (excluding tides, of which she will swim through many).
She will face unknown tidal currents, cold and clouds of stinging jellyfish (Lion’s Mane, Portuguese Man O’War, and our friendly Purple Stingers).
Her crew will once again be her mother Margaret, who was bedrock of calm and control on the two-way, and who will surely get even more knitting done on the next swim.
Her many friends, supporters and admirers have no doubts about her world-class tenacity, her ability to tolerate and endure, and while doing so, to even have fun doing the impossible.
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.
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.
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.
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’sgreatcold water marathon swimmers, who have no publicity machines, will out-swim everyone in time and distance.
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?)
I find a lot of similarity between Stephen Redmond’s fantastic Molokai Channel and Lisa Cummins’s two-way English Channel.
Waiting for news and updates all through a Sunday afternoon and night. The trackers working intermittently or not at all, and hoping for more updates from the boat through third parties. The agonising last 10 hours, wondering where they were, imagining ourselves out there in the water with them, wishing there was some way we could send out some mental help to them, wanting so hard to be able to send them our best, knowing that these two extraordinary people were making you really proud to be Irish and to know them even slightly is a privilege.
Stephen and Lisa both getting swept past the normal finish points and ending up in locations where no-one has ever previously ended a swim, Lisa on Dungeness and Stephen on Oahu’s Chinese Walls.
Finally, tired when the swims were over, trying to sleep, and lying there in the dark, thinking it all over, thoughts and imagination swirling around your head, knowing how difficult it would be to explain to others just how extraordinary these achievements are.
Another great moment in Irish and global sport, spent at home in front of a computer and a phone, connecting with friends also awake doing the same thing, done by two ordinary people, with nothing but dreams and extraordinary determination propelling them. In some way the loneliness of the watcher mirroring the loneliness of the swimmer, the empathic bond that distance swimmers feel with each other, purely through being the few who can understand.
First thing on different Monday mornings, listening to each of these extraordinary athletes on Irish radio, sounding like they hadn’t been through hell, my eyes tearing up just listening to them.
I thank them both for these unique moments and memories and making me so proud.
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!
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?
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°Cto 18°C (61 to 64°F): This isparadise.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°Cto 16°C (57° to 61°F): Aaahhh,summer. All 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): Grand. You 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 is7.9°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.
2.5°Cto5°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 Coxiantemperatures. You are officially a loon.
0°C to 1.5°C:Aka “Lewis Pughian” temperatures. 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.
There is a shared heritage of our international tribe and this is the man who started it all in 1875. In Dover this statue stands on the prom in front of the ugly flats, facing the sea, about 200 metes beyond Swimmer’s Beach towards the ferry port. Marathon swimming is a heritage and history of triumph and disaster, storms and sun, dark nights and dull days, bright sunshine and howling winds, waiting and hoping and success and even death, hopes and dreams, cold and tired, pilots, crew, friends, family and swimmers.
It was Captain Webb who dreamed of the Channel AND achieved it … who (possibly or even apocryphally) gave us, English Channel swimmers at least, our motto: Nothing Great Is Easy.
But it is everyone who tries, and fails or succeeds, who creates our history. We are, like most other tribes whose members are members by choice, a niche group. We exist, in our way, on the fringes, and most people don’t know we’re here. But Captain Webb will always be Primus of us all. I won’t claim Inter Pares for most of us, though when you can stand and talk face to face with greats like Kevin Murphy, Nick Adams, Freda Streeter etc and your friends from around the world, you can enjoy the mutual respect and feeling of belonging that all tribes of choice bring. Thanks Captain.
Lisa Cummins, Danny Walsh, and myself tackled the 24 miles in 24 hours swim challenge this weekend past, as I briefly mentioned last week.
Mark Robson alerted us to this UK charity swim back in January/February. I thought it sounded like fun and asked a few of my regular swim friends and the rest of the Magnificent Seven if anyone was interested for the past weekend.
We finally had the short list of four.
I had chosen Kilkenny’s Watershed pool back in February and the manager Aoife Mullins was immediately receptive and positive. The Watershed is only open about two years and is a beautiful FINA approved 25m pool (and fantastic sports centre) which has UV water processing.
We met at 9am on Saturday. Aoife had given us use of a First Aid room off the deck for the day and allocated a lane for the four of us (on their busiest day of the week) and we had discussed chlorine levels and water temperature previously. Aoife had posters up around and one staff member (Robin) had (unknown to us) even been on the local radio with our names and the challenge.
The use of the First Aid room was fantastic, given the huge amount of food and gear we all had.
People used to club and pool swimmers are always shocked when they see the amount of stuff required for a really long swim. We had circulated a list amongst us based on the experience of all the long pool swims the Magnificent Seven especially did last year and all our Channel swims, so everyone was well prepared, as you saw from my preparation list last week. We were able to get away from the deck and eat in peace. We also all made a point a showering off the chlorine after every session.
The pool was a lovely 29 C and the chlorine level was between 0.8 down to 0.2 overnight! (In relation to other pools, some older municipal pools might get as high as 2.5 to 3.0.)
We started at 10 am, sharing a lane for the day. After a couple of hours we noticed that Aoife had even arranged to give us a lane that was about a foot wider than the others. We had enough space that we only had one hand-clash in the entire 24 hours and that was my fault. The first few miles, despite trying to take it slow, went off at around 25 to 26 mins so we consciously dropped it a little bit to reserve energy.
Through the day Lisa and I also made a point of using a Asthma Inhaler (Ventolin Reliever, 100mg). In fact I really overused, just in case.
The day passed easily and by 7.30 pm the pool closed and we had the place to ourselves. I remember the early third mile as feeling great, as did number six.
Aoife put some music on the public system for us. Over the next few hours we discovered it was mistakenly playing a short playlist, so we heard the same few songs at the end of each hour and we all have some songs that we now particularly hate as they would be playing just before we got back into swim and would run around our heads for a mile.
The individual miles were all obviously different for everyone with us all peaking and dropping at different times. Lisa & I got shoulder twinges early on, and we were both concerned we were seeing flareups of our respective Channel injuries and took some prophylactic painkillers. But these aches abated and didn’t return for either of us. Danny (aka “hard as nails“) got a bad stitch somewhere around the eight hour mark which caused sickness and caused him to struggle intermittently from then on, though he never gave up completely.
The 12th hour saw us still feeling good, tweets and texts were exchanged occasionally with Mark in the Guildford Lido where the UK swim was progressing, with them having a cold open air night though these messages dropped on both sides as we all got tired.
We had moved our stuff to poolside at 7pm, and we were getting fed up with even the wide range of food and liquid we’d brought. After the public left we were able to spread out, each taking a lane.
I alternated between water and my homemade isotonic mix each hour, with a couple of cups of soup in the afternoon, and two cups of coffee during the night.
At around midnight or 1am, Robin arrived with freshly made porridge for us, a fantastic treat, and I can say, given how much of the stuff I’ve forced down unwillingly, the first time in my life I’ve enjoyed it and I had the single greatest jelly baby I’ve ever eaten at about 2 or 3am.
I remember mile 14 as being particularly good, as Marie and I cruised stroke for stroke very comfortably, yet mile 15 I found difficult and I started to glide like it was 1944 and I was invading Normandy, holding seven to nine metre glides of the wall for about 1000 metres until I realised it was making my neck sore and I had to revert to a normal glide.
Mile 16 was ok and I recall writing a future article for here in my head. Mile 17 was tough and mile 18 was my worst, with my times dropping to 30 mins for both 17 and 18, 18 was a real struggle as I felt strong nausea throughout and I had to concentrate strongly.
By this stage my throat and tongue were getting sore. To mile 19 I gave a theme, (relentless). On mile 20, I decided to forego my noseclip for the mile so change to my seas breathing pattern but I went back to it for afterwards. At some point in there, one mile went so well and I was so in the zone, that I forgot to stop and the girls, who were for that mile relying on me for the count, were not best pleased.
As I said each us had their own battles at our own times. The small hours were long, with tiredness and contracted muscles playing their roles. Though the rest times didn’t shrink nevertheless we felt like we had much less. Get out and shuffle to the showers. Back to deck for slowly consumed food and drink. Back to the toilet. Back to more vaseline or channel grease and putting the gear back on and to stare at the lane before getting in. Seemed like mere minutes. Pro-tip: always leaves your swim gear int he same spot so you don’t waste time looking for it.
My stroke count dropped from the initial 18 to about 20 by mile 14, reclaiming two strokes per minute on the kilometre where I was really gliding and I dropped further to 21/22 for the final hours. It’s funny how once you lose those four strokes per minutes, it’s hard to figure out where they were, because your muscles have shortened with use and you can’t extend/contract as you did previously.
But the bad phase passed, thanks possibly to a strategic Ponstan pain killer and some extra stretching and use of my tennis ball on shoulder and arm muscles.
It was all fine from there on for me, as I started to drop times on each subsequent mile again. Just minutes after the mile start at 5am we started to see the first hint of false dawn and by the time we’d finished that mile there was light through the windows. At 7.30 the Kilkenny B squad arrived for training and we were compressed back into one lane, making the second last and penultimate miles a real exercise in frustration as our mismatched speeds became more difficult. We started out last mile at 9am and were done by 9.30am, Lisa & I finishing 2 lengths apart (I had early on decided to do 25 miles to go to 40k).
Following last year’s habit set by Liam, Eddie and myself in our nine hour pool swim, butterfly finish for me FTW.
We’d done it and were feeling tired but good.
Everyone did well. Danny battled with illness, never giving up.
The standout, unsurprisingly, and she’ll of course not want me to say this, was Lisa who did it WITH NO TRAINING, displaying her phenomenal mental strength yet again! It was a privilege to swim to them all.
The after effects are ok. I have a sore ankle from all the tumble turns, Lisa & I both had sore throats. But a couple of days is all that is required for recuperation, (I did an easy 2k yesterday morning and it was fine).
Thanks once again to Aoife Mullins and all the staff of The Watershed who were so accommodating.
As long distance swimmers we are often seen as the freaks and outsiders of swimming and the best we often hope for is tolerance but this was not the case in Kilkenny where we were welcomed with open arms.
I hope I might run it again next year, when I will have more of you fighting for places, as I believe there is no better pool in the country to host it (including UL & the NAC). Start emailing me now for places! Well done to the large group in the UK who also finished, it was nice to know we weren’t the only idiots swimming early Sunday morning.
Talking to Clare later she asked me the most interesting question: “how would you rank it compared to the Channel, if you were to place the Channel as a 10″?
So, I have both a Channel double relay (25 hours, also overnight) and the solo, and Gábor’s solo to compare, I thought it was a really interesting question. I said 5 to 6 to her.
First point it that’s allocating a 10 to the Channel I know, not those who had different Channel swims. I think with even a few days I’d say no more than a 5, but you have to go with initial impressions on these things. It’s a tough challenge, but it’s nowhere near in the same category.
No cold. No tides. No horizon. No tides. No wind. No currents. No jellyfish. No tides. No diesel fumes. No vomiting. No unknown finish time or distance. The psychological difficulty is nowhere near similar. Did I mention the tides?