Fin increased his stroke rate after the feed and by 15:35 he’d made three kilometres in the preceding hour. Any half hour dip he suffered seemed to be compensated for in the thirty minutes either before or afterwards.
First Mate Mark was plotting every 30 minutes by hand on a chart, separate from the GPS screens, and throughout the swim gave us a continuing speed update. Something that’s not common, it was both good and bad, giving us accurate feedback on Fin’s performance but often not something we wished to intervene with or change.
From quite early on Mark had mentioned wanting Fin to increase speed at certain times, whereas Craig and I had mostly no intention of passing this information to Fin. We didn’t want to interfere with his stroke or whatever mental balance he’d achieved and to request a Channel swimmer to increase rate is something I don’t like to do until it becomes absolutely necessary. But when we later looked at the hourly totals, apart from the first two hours, Fin was consistently swimming just over three kilometres per hour.
Ten hours by had passed and the distance remaining was just over four miles. Despite his apparent recovery a few hours previously, it had been brief and he’d slid back into the same slough of despond, trudging onwards, hating every minute, every metre, every stroke.
We talk about these swims, and despite the images, the experience, the crew, the weather, despite the whole point of this nonsense, the hardest thing to keep at the centre of the story is the swimmer. Every swim narrative falls short of what the swimmer deserves. These posts are no different. Almost every time I’ve crewed on a swim, I’ve been front row centre at the greatest sport on earth and one of the least understood. Almost every swim involves pain and effort of which the average person has little concept. All carried out mostly in private, with the recent addition of online GPS SPOT trackers. But a swim is a small universe of swimmer and sea, boat and crew. To be present is a privilege.
I cannot, no matter what I know from experience of swimming or crewing, convert the swimmer’s internal swim into reality for you. It’s akin to trying to describe sensory deprivation.There are really two swims, the observable motion through liquid, and the swimmer’s internal swim, the mental effort that makes Channel swimmers say it’s 80 or 90% mental. The swimmer feels every second and yet somehow doesn’t, feels every stoke but can’t remember a single one afterward. There are seconds counting up slowly, and time itself warps, becomes both endless and meaningless simultaneously.
Cyclists can freewheel, climbers can stand, runners can walk. Channel swimmers must keep swimming. People quote a blue fish from an animated movie like it’s somehow a quote that clarifies everything. A swimmer cannot stop. If you are even feeding you not swimming and you are not moving forward. The best you can usually hope for is that you would stay in place, but on most Channel swims if you are not swimming you are going sideways or backwards.
While you swim you have a narrative, an arrow of time. “This happened then, and then I thought that, and then next..” But afterwards or from the crew perspective, well, take a headful of tiny events and suspected thoughts, and throw them in the air, then try to assemble them while blind into a narrative with no idea of the language in which they are written. Almost everything for the swimmer is somehow cast adrift from the world, because their hooks into the real world are tenuous and thin. Huge thoughts occur in a swimmer’s mind while swimming. And astonishingly, they evaporate. One cannot remember if something took a second or ten minutes, whether they happened early or late in a swim.
Ten hours. Ten hours is a short swim and ten hours is an eternity. There is no way to tell from the outside and there never will be.
In a tangible sense, crossing the North Channel as swim crew feels (all other considerations aside) very different from the English Channel in one definite respect: In the English Channel, while the swimmer nearly always feels like they are swimming to France, at least until the closing hours, on an English Channel pilot boat it’s obvious that it’s are heading in different directions. From north-east through east to south-east. At one point it seems like you are heading for Calais and can see the port apparently close and directly in front. Hours later you are heading south-east and Sangatte or Wissant are on the port side. Later again the Cap can be on the starboard side. But in the North Channel it always feels like you are heading for Scotland, it always feels like you are taking a straight line. Quinton’s route is more of a banana shape than the English Channel’s “reverse-S”.
There was a constraint though in Quinton’s route. A swimmer must make the stretch of coast between Killantringan and Portpatrick. Come in a tad too slow and the swimmer will get swept first parallel to the coast. Miss the rocks at Killantringan, regardless of speed or how fast you got across, and you are done. Though these aren’t currents of the severity of the English Channel, nevertheless, you’ll go north and then inexorably you’ll be swept back out. This can even apply to the faster swimmers who get there early, the timing of the landing with the tidal current is vital.
From Finbarr’s limited viewpoint the hills above Portpatrick had been visible for hours in front of him and seeming no closer, as is the way with all coasts and all swimmers. So when we told him that Killantringan lighthouse north of Portpatrick should be visible even to him, he muttered that he’d been looking at it for bloody hours.
By the tenth hour, conditions had much deteriorated and with whitecaps all around. We asked Finbarr if he’d take a coffee on his next feed and he agreed with no arguing. But not long afterwards he stopped in water.
“That it,” he said, “I’m done“.
Craig guffawed and I snorted. Maybe it was the other way around.
For the early hours of the swim, Finbarr was positioned and feeding (including a third of a Turkish Delight) on the port side, while one of the SeaCat fast ferries to Belfast was rapidly approaching about a kilometre south on the starboard side. This threw a large wake which reached Fin a few minutes after his feed, bringing the sudden swamping waves which always catch a swimmer unawares.
It’s said by those experienced with marathon swimming that one is better off having other marathon swimmers on board as crew (and I’ve strongly espoused this myself). One reason for this is that such crew will supposedly have greater empathy for what the swimmer is going through. But is this really true? We may have gone through what the swimmer is suffering, but that doesn’t mean we know what is going on with a particular swimmer at a particular time. Nor are we constantly trying to put ourselves in the swimmer’s mind. Crew must do what they can to help the swimmer meet their target and to do this sometimes requires deliberately ignoring a swimmer’s distress. What we can do as swimmers ourselves is appreciate that swims are long physically and mentally tortuous events and complete all the important tasks the best way for the swimmer and if possible anticipate their needs, even if they don’t. As swimmers ourselves, we are less likely to panic, better able to evaluate situations and we are more aware that things need to be as the swimmer requires. Our own experience allows us to anticipate problems and to have a greater range of responses to different situations that do arise.
On the drive North, one thing I’d requested of Fin was some brief indication, as simple as a thumbs-up at feeds, that everything was okay. Apart from the battles between his huge cranium and the swimming cap, those fleeting first three hourly feeds hadn’t given Craig and I any specific cause for concern. Crew expect that two miles from the Cap or Portpatrick, a swimmer will be suffering but otherwise those crew are preparing, feeding, eating, chatting, watching the sea and watching the swimmer.
I’m not very perceptive at reading people. Yet there was some subtle indication, whether just in his eyes during feeds or his cap struggles or the lack of his usual Cork wit, I couldn’t say exactly what, that indicated he wasn’t having a barrel of fun.
Continuing with hourly feeds, by the end of the fourth hour the concern about Finbarr’s speed from First Mate Mark “Sparky” continued.
Before that, I’d had a slightly longer conversation with Quinton while Craig stayed ever attentive to Fin. Quinton and I further discussed a subject, that as with Sylvain, was heretofore unmentioned. That was the possibility of Finbarr continuing on and attempting a two-way crossing. Quinton showed me how he plans and monitors a swim and his guides for determining the status and speed. It was very interesting but it’s Quinton’s long and hard-wrought information so I’ll leave it with him.
A two-way crossing of the North Channel has never been completed. Finbarr wasn’t the first to contemplate it, no less than Kevin Murphy, the only person to swim the North Channel three times had also considered it, as had Fergal Somerville. Prevailing thought based on the previous route was that it was probably not possible. But this was the new “Quinton’s route” that had significantly reduced crossing times and increased success rates and changed North Channel swimming.
Finbarr and Quinton has discussed this for a long time, and indeed Finbarr has apprised me of his goal to attempt a two-way the same day he told me of his desire to tackle the North Channel. The previous night’s briefing I so briefly and deliberately alluded to in Part II had included discussion of this. Quinton was of the opinion that, despite the new route, a two-way was nigh on impossible. What does that mean?
Well, Quinton said that the return leg is technically possibly, but will take two to three times the duration of the first Donaghadee to Portpatrick leg because even with a good fast first leg, the tides don’t line up for a return swim the way they can in the English Channel. Given the three primary constraints of the North Channel, what swimmer can step into the water expecting to spend 36 to 48 hours in water that’s potentially only ten to twelve degrees? So it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. Having written that I expect someone else will now add pencil a two-way North Channel to their list of targets. That’s great, just remember to call me to crew!
So during that hour when we spoke, Quinton showed me the maps again and we also once again discussed the possibility of a return swim. Not really aware of Finbarr’s ongoing inner struggle, I countered Quinton’s closing assertion to me; “you can’t do a two-way” with “we’ll see how he gets on at the turn“.
It wasn’t any arrogance or knowing better on my side. I knew Quinton was the expert, neither Craig nor I had even crewed the North Channel before. It was however part of our remit and task to be Finbarr’s voice on the boat, to try to ensure we did everything to forward his goals. And I recalled, couldn’t ever forget, that my own English Channel solo would have been called had it not been for the presence of Kevin Murphy on board arguing in my favour with a recalcitrant pilot unwilling to see that I refused to give up despite the events that had occurred. While Quinton wasn’t of the same mindset, I was more aware therefore than most of what some of my job as crew entailed.
The next few hours passed with the minutiae and concerns that illustrate any Channel swim. A seal briefly appeared, a cargo ship passed astern. A couple of yachts passed on a beam reach from Scotland and we frantically waved a power boat passing very close to slow down. A visible Lion’s Mane jellyfish passed close to Fin a couple of hours into the swim.
The third and last of the overarching problems in North Channel swimming is that of jellyfish generally and Lion’s Manes specifically, far beyond any similar found in the English Channel. They bloom in huge numbers in summer in the Irish Sea while they are only very occasional solitary visitors on the south coast. Swimmers trying to avoid the possibly ten degree water of early and mid-summer choose August, usually the warmest month in the water or early September. But this trade-off increases the likelihood of encountering the Lion’s Mane, which not only occurs in large numbers, but individually can be one of the largest of all jellyfish, with tentacles averaging of 10 metres and exceptional specimens up to 50 metres long. Stories abound of swims abandoned due to toxin build-up in joints causing extreme pain, swimmers attempting literally miles of thick Lion’s Mane soup, tentacles swallowed causing swollen throats and threatening a swimmer’s ability to breath, swimmers at night repeatedly crying out in pain, swimmers hospitalised.
The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:
Go early and risk the cold or go late and risk the jellyfish.
Finbarr had played to his strength and risked, and prepared for the cold. It paid off. After that visible jellyfish, we never saw another and Fin was not stung. He was doubly lucky in his risk-taking, because though no-one was better prepared for cold than him except Fergal, it wasn’t even cold. This gamble or dilemma is now one of the keys to understanding the North Channel.
Our hoped-for tide push by now seeming to be tardy, at the 10:38 a.m. we asked Fin for “a good hour” following a request from Mark. Fin admitted that he’d been having shoulder pain for the previous couple of hours. Yet shortly after the feed Mark told us that actually Fin had improved speed over the previous hour.
Shoulder problems. Shoulder pain. Swimmers have a range of responses; from accepting shoulder pain as normal, to shoulder pain instilling fear. It is potentially swim-ending if it develops early and gets severe enough.
The wind picked up slightly. We left him on the port side a little longer since he is a right-side-only breather. Then at the feed at 11:17 a.m., the last of his hourly feeds, we asked him to switch to starboard and he readily agreed, though he still looked unhappy.
During the sixth hour, the breeze having increased we switched Finbarr to starboard. He asked for a painkiller and we gave him two Ibuprofen 200 mg floating in a cup. The liquid ran out and the pills stuck to the bottom of the plastic cup, requiring him to retrieve them by hand. He wasn’t impressed and expressed his disapproval vocally to me. What is a tiny event for crew can be a real irritant for a swimmer if other things aren’t well.
Just after noon at 12:07 we also finally switched to 30 minute feeds. I asked Fin how he was feeling. “Shit,” he succinctly replied. Craig fed him and then told him he had a mere eight laps of Sandycove to go.
A lap of Sandycove is like perception of water temperature, something of a moving target and different things to different people. Anywhere from 1700 to 1900 metres, a Sandycove lap is for those of us with hundreds, or in Fin’s case thousands of laps completed, a perfect exemplar of the variability of the remaining distance of a marathon swim. “Four Sandycove laps to the Cap” is a common phrase amongst Sandycove Channel swimmers.
The nest 30 minute feed at 12:34 saw a transformed Finbarr. He looked much more content and cackled during his feed. It was finally clear that he did previously have that nebulous look of unhappiness, now obvious by its absence. Just to prove it, he launched into a stroke of butterfly.
By the next feed, the wind had lifted a little again to a high Force Two or low Force Three and getting choppy. Fin was swimming about 1.9 miles per hour early in the hour but dropped to 1.1 kilometre. The tide had slackened, phone signals were lost and Fin needed to increase speed again.
At the 13:35 feed Fin requested two Neurofen, a slightly stronger Ibuprofen-based painkiller. Eight hours had passed. I’d brought a large pump-action flask to make mixing feeds easier than using a regular flask (of which we also had multiples with hot water. We’d finally emptied that so I moved onto another flask for next feed, an old steel Thermos I’ve been using for well over a decade first when surfing, later swimming, always for coffee or hot chocolate. I mixed the feed and when Craig gave to Fin he was voluble in his pronounced dislike for the caffeine taste. (Fin doesn’t drink coffee normally. I switched to a different flask after that, but when I got home the next day I put some baking soda into the steel flask to clean it as I’d only ever used hot water previously. A decade and a half of caked-on coffee and chocolate residue slid out of the flask. It was pretty nasty. No wonder there was a coffee taste on that eighth-hour feed!)
By half-two in the afternoon the conditions were quite choppy to starboard (south to south-west) so we asked Fin if he was okay to move back to port side and he duly agreed, with Quinton saying he’d only use the starboard engine. Such flexibility of control is very rare in pilot boats, and any swimmer who’s ever swim through a patch of boat diesel exhaust knows how horrible it is, as at best it tastes really nasty and at worst can induce vomiting. The previous hour speed had again dropped, this time to two point one kilometres per hour, and stroke rate dipped from the steady 70 strokes per minute to sixty-six.
On the south-west horizon (the Irish coast around Strangford Loch) thunderclouds were building with reports of heavy rain from First Mate Mark. The wind ticked up again and we were now into Force Three, with regular whitecaps and a wind-driven swelly chop coming from the south-west. As the next hour passed the thunderhead grew steadily, looking like they were chasing Fin down, though since he was on the other side of the boat and the sky was blue in front, to him it still looked like a completely clear day and the sunny aspect made the water surface look better. The disparity of view between the two sides of the boat very obvious. North-east of us, some fifty miles away, the ancient volcanic island peak of Ailsa Crag, mining site of most curling stones in the world, was barely visible in the haze.
There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.
We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.
We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.
Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.
Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.
As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.
At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?
At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.
Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.
We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.
The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.
The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.
The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.
At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen. Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.
For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.
Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.
Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?
Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium. He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.
By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.
Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.
I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.
Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.
I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards. Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.
Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey for the wider swimming community.
The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere. While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.
Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard
For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.
His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.
When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.
Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.
Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now). Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013. One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.
At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.
On the boat as we steamed around to the start, Finbarrr admitted to Craig and I to being “more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life”. For those who know him, to say this was surprising is an understatement.
Finbarr Hedderman is one of those people whom it is difficult to describe without resorting to cliché. Having been at the cusp of his third decade for more than a year now, (perpetually 29), he stands well over six feet tall (193 centimeters). I am small beside him and he has a personality to match his size. He is endlessly jovial, utterly calm and seems impervious to the vicissitudes which assail the rest of us. A proud citizen of The People’s Republic of Cork, he has the acerbic wit common to the county and almost any conversation with him is a verbal jousting match, which you will usually lose.
We first met in 2008 when he was training under Coach Eilís for an English Channel solo and I was part of an English Channel relay team whose internal divisions led Finbarr to describe our combined monthly meetings with Coach as reminiscent of a soap opera. He comes from a water polo and swimming family. His Dad Pascal is a fixture around Sandycove also, and both men are passionate about their water polo, Finbarr having played for University College Cork’s team. I find the prospect of being in a pool holding a ball with Finbarr bearing down on me far more terrifying than any shark, storm or even jet ski at sea. I have been in the water and seen him alter course with the sole intention of sending me to the bottom forever.
He has been one of the trusted friends and swimmers whose opinion I value, once of course, I’ve steeled myself for the inevitable response to any question:
“I’m having a real problem with salt in my mouth” I recall telling him in 2008, when I had never much considered the problem previously as my swims had been shorter. “Just shut your mouth“, was Fin’s inevitable advice.
He still says it to me.
Generally he does not admit to reading my blog, except to say “I see Donal is writing that flowery shit again” so I feel reasonably secure that I can write whatever I want about him and his North Channel solo and he won’t be able to comment.
Finbarr was successful on his English Channel solo in 2008. Once, when the subject of my ridiculous, never-ending and overly eventful English Channel solo arose, Fin’s comment was “Not even one of those things happened to me. I just got in the water in England and swam to France“.
I have long been of the opinion that he is likely (with Fergal Somerville, Lisa Cummins, Anne Marie Ward and Craig Lenning) one of the handful of best cold water distance swimmers in the world. I’m not talking about the splash and dash (to him) of an Ice Mile, which he finds merely “great craic” (having done a couple by now) but those rare swimmers who can take deep cold for hour after hour, and rather than talking how great they are at cold, as some do, they just go out and prove it, repeatedly. The tiny beach that local and visiting marathon swimmers use for feeding on Sandycove Island is named after him.
In early May, when the best of the rest at Sandycove are happy to complete two-hour open water swims, he has been known to swim six to eight hours. And then do it again the next day. At the same time he is fiercely anti-marathon swimming elitism and strongly supports those swimmers who are happy to swim a half lap or just to the first Sandycove corner and back. He’s also a committed experienced swim administrator having previously been heavily involved in national water polo and Sandycove Island swim club organisation. He’s also scared of sea-weed.
Finbarr started to think about the North Channel in 2012. It had always seemed not only inevitable to me, but indeed almost predestined. He shared his plan with a small number and I booked my place to crew for him immediately after he told me.
July 2014 arrived with a good Irish summer, an elusive occurrence that may only happen once a decade. Surprisingly the early summer of 2013 had also been excellent but it petered by late June. 2014 didn’t arrive with the same fireworks of mid twenty-degree heat, but stayed more consistent from the spring. Fin had been doing the serious aforementioned Sandycove laps with joined most regularly by English Channel soloist Rob Bohane for six-hour swims and by Channel Soloists Ciarán Byrne and Craig Morrison and marathon swimmer Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan. I even joined Rob and Fin one Saturday morning in June when they had already done a couple of hours, I swam with them for two hours and then left the water having developed the Claw. Fin and Rob swam comfortably for another two hours.
July arrived and the waiting and weather watching began for Finbarr to attempt the first North Channel solo of the year. Early in the tide week, Finbarr went up to Donaghadee only to have to return the next day. As the week progressed we spoke daily and the forecast made it seem there was little chance of swimming.
Like the English, Gibraltar and Cook straits, the North Channel is very much defined by weather and the aspirant Channel swimmer may have even less opportunity and notification. So it proved. We spoke late on Thursday night and ruled any possible swim for the remainder of the tide window. Only to find that at next day the forecast had changed yet again, and pilot Quinton Nelson called us north the following day for a tough day in the Mouth of Hell, as it has previously occasionally been called by swimmers who have attempted it.
Well-known Californian swimmer Jamie Patrick earlier in the year mentioned in the blog comments that he liked reading articles about the history of open water swimming. Apart from what already appears in various books it’s hard to find such stories. But I shortly thereafter carried the story of Tom Blower and the first North Channel swim. (Anytime I think of doing a history post, I imagine Jamie asking me).
At the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference, some of the guests were connected through a historical chain: The Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, Wayne Soutter, and Dolorando Pember.
Wayne Soutter was the first person to complete the Mull of Kintyre route from Scotland to Ireland in 2012, his account covered here. North Channel swims are ratified by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association. And Dolorando Pember is the daughter of Mercedes Gleitze, who first unsuccessfully attempted the Mull of Kintyre route (though she was successful on so many other marathon swims).
Before she attempted the North Channel, Mercedes was an English Channel swimmer, (still the qualifying requirement for a North Channel swim to this day). In light of the Diana Nyad Controversy, the story of Mercedes Gleitze’s English Channel swim, apart from the actual swims, is very interesting for some timely reasons less obvious than others:
False swim claims have been around for a long time in our sport
Other honourable swimmers are negatively affected by false swim claims
The development of Official Observation (“ratification”) in swimming
Mercedes Gleitze’s second “Vindication” English Channel swim was widely used for advertising by watch company Rolex, and the story of the Vindication Swim came to me from an website devoted to watches, of all places. With that link to the original in place, below is the story itself, leaving out the later advertising aspect of the article which describes how Mercedes swim was used to make Rolex the well-known watch company it is today.
Note that the terms we still use of Channel Swimmer, Channel Season and Channel Aspirant were all in use in the 1920s despite that less than a dozen swimmers had completed the Channel by the end of that decade.
One investigative source of this story says that the Channel Swimming Association “refused to recognize her swim as legitimate“. The CSA was only founded the same year with their handbook stating: “Since March 1927, English Channel Swims have been organised and regulated by the [CSA] and all Swims officially observed by its designated Officials/Observers are faithfully recorded“.
The CSA database for 1927 shows three swims and Mercedes Gleitze is recognised as a Channel Swimmer.
Marilyn Morgan, the above blog’s author, comprehensively answers this question when I asked her:
“[T]he CSA asked Gleitze to sign an affidavit verifying she completed the swim unaided. Gleitze refused on principle and was quoted as saying, “the best thing to restore the prestige of British women Channel swimmers in the eyes of the world would be for me to make another Channel swim,” and thus she embarked upon what became known as the Vindication Swim.
Because that swim was undertaken past Channel swimming season and she swam so efficiently for so long in the bitterly cold water under such extreme conditions, the CSA consented that she must have successfully completed the Oct 7 swim and then included it in its records retrospectively. This can be verified through a plethora of British and American newspapers as well as at the archives“.
October 7, 1927. It was a cold October morning, and Miss Mercedes Gleitze (1900-1981), a London typist and part-time professional swimmer from Brighton, was about to make her eighth attempt at swimming the English Channel.
Miss Gleitze began her journey at 2:55 a.m., as she entered the murky waters at Gris Nez. The Channel was uninviting, cold and thick with fog. Visibility at times dropped to less than five yards, so a fishing boat from Folkestone led her way—frequently sounding its horn to help avoid the heavy shipping traffic. Her trainer, G.H. Allan, fed her grapes and honey from the boat to keep up her strength, and strong tea and cocoa to help fight the cold.
After overcoming hours of pain and exhaustion—and being nearly run down by a steamer—“her feet touched the chalk rocks between South Foreland and St. Margaret’s Bay”. And at 6:10 p.m., she became just the twelfth swimmer to accomplish the feat, the third woman, and the first Englishwoman. This historic swim lasted fifteen hours and fifteen minutes, and was under bitterly cold conditions, with water temperatures never rising above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is worth mentioning that attempts at swimming the Channel were usually made earlier in the year (around August) when water temperatures are more accommodating. Why Mercedes elected to swim this late in the year is still uncertain.
Shortly after emerging from the water, Mercedes collapsed from exhaustion into the arms of her trainer, Allan, and her pilot, Harry Shart, Jr. She remained unconscious for nearly two hours, as the small fishing boat ferried her back to the Fish Market at Folkestone, where she was “cheered loudly by a big crowd”. Being in no condition to celebrate, she was quickly taken by taxi to her lodging for the night.
Unfortunately, Gleitze never really got to enjoy her success. Just a few days later, a series of events unfolded that put the legitimacy of her swim into question: On October 11, Dr. Dorothy Cochrane Logan (using her professional name, Mona McLennan), swam the Channel in thirteen hours and ten minutes. With this swim, Logan set a new record time for women, when she “walked a few steps up Folkestone beach”, at 8:50 a.m.
This was the second report of a woman swimming the Channel in less than a week, and suspicions quickly arose as to the legitimacy of her claim. Under heavy scrutiny, Logan soon recanted her story and confessed that her swim was a hoax. With Logan’s confession, Mercedes’ swim also came under suspicion. In a way, she was considered guilty by association and was said to be very upset by the accusations, and, unlike Logan, said, “All right, I’ll do it again”. Thus, the stage was set, and Gleitze was scheduled to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what was touted as the “Vindication Swim”.
Just a year prior (on July 29, 1926), Rolex patented the first waterproof wristwatch: the Rolex Oyster. When Hans Wilsdorf (the cofounder and Managing Director of Rolex) got word of the vindication swim, he saw this as a golden opportunity to promote his new creation. Wilsdorf wasted no time, and on October 14, dispatched a letter to Miss Gleitze by way of the S. T. Garland advertising service. By this letter, he formally agreed to provide her with a gift wristlet watch to be worn during the upcoming swim. In exchange, Gleitze would provide a written testimonial on the performance of the watch after the swim.
This “Vindication Swim” began at 4:21 a.m., when Mercedes again entered the waters at Cap Gris Nez. However, unlike her previous swim, the fog on this day was minimal and she had a full entourage accompanying her—numerous chase boats were filled with journalists, friends and well-wishers.
At this point, I would like to say that Mercedes Gleitze successfully completed the swim, and the rest, as they say, is history. I would like to say that, but unfortunately it is not the case, and “history” as retold by some over the years is incorrect.
According to the London Times, the conditions during this swim were brutal, with water temperatures ranging from 53 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit—a far cry from the near-60 degree temperatures she endured on her previous swim, just two weeks prior.
Shortly after entering the water, she experienced incredible pain and numbness from the icy water. To help keep her awake, the crowd sang songs, accompanied by musicians playing the banjo and guitar. Unfortunately, this was of little help, and, at 2:25 p.m., it became evident that she would not complete the swim. The bitterly cold conditions caused her to slip in and out of a coma-like state. At 2:45 p.m., she was reluctantly hoisted into the boat, some seven miles short of her goal, and her vindication swim would not be.
Mercedes was surely disappointed by her failure, but the overwhelming reaction from the crowd must have been of some consolation. The reporters, doctors and experts on hand were amazed at her endurance and ability to withstand the treacherous cold for some ten hours and twenty-four minutes. Thus, after witnessing her determination, few if any could doubt the legitimacy of her previous swim—it was, indeed, a victory in defeat.
As she sat in the boat, one such journalist made an incredible discovery and reported it in the London Times as follows: “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”
It may sound a bit more romantic to say that Mercedes wore a Rolex on her wrist as she swam across the English Channel, but this, unfortunately, was not the case. While she did “carry” a Rolex for more than ten hours during her vindication swim, it was not on her wrist, nor was it during the “successful” fifteen-hour swim she is remembered for. This is simply a story that has had some “specifics” misquoted over the years. With that being said, on October 25, 1927, Mercedes Gleitze forwarded a letter to Rolex, which summed it up very well, and read as follows: “You will like to hear that the Rolex Oyster watch I carried on my Channel swim proved itself a reliable and accurate timekeeping companion even though it was subjected to complete immersion for hours in sea water at a temp of not more than 58 and often as low as 51. This is to say nothing about the sustained buffeting it must have received. Not even the quick change to the high temp of the boat cabin when I was lifted from the water seemed to affect the even tenour of its movement. The newspaper man was astonished and I, of course, am delighted with it…”
In Part One I covered the physiological limiting factors in marathon swimming.
The various environmental aspects of a swim are not insignificant. They are especially important in that they all lay outside the swimmer’s control and often even outside the control of the support crew.
This is generally a known factor prior to a swim. Swims are either cool or cold water like the English and North Channels or warm water swims like Maui, Rottnest, Manhattan or Chloe Maccardels’ upcoming Cuba to Florida attempt. A few fall into an intermediate category defined more by the swimmer’s experience, such as the Catalina and Gibraltar Channels. Sudden changes in temperature are rare in marathon swimming and where they are possible they are also understood; such as South Africa’s west coast which is prone to sudden wide water temperature changes, and the California coast where the sudden transition from very deep water to a shallower continental shelf very close to the mainland can cause cold water upwelling at the end of a marathon swim. Air temperature is obviously much more variable and a condition of the weather but extremes of air temperature are not usual during a swim. A five degree Celsius differential can be significant for a swimmer if such a drop is also accompanied with a breeze or wind which can sap the swimmer of body heat.
The recent and future attempts at a distance and time records by necessity are held in warmer waters such as Cuba to Florida. These water are home to jellyfish with debilitating stings such as Box Jellyfish. While the cold waters of the North and English Channels are home to Lion’s Mane and Portuguese Man O’War’s endurance records are less likely and jellyfish stings in the English Channel are rarely more than intermittent, though the North Channel (the Mouth of Hell) can have miles of Lion’s Mane blooms, part of what makes it the ultimate channel swim. Attempts to swim in these waters divide swimmers in two ways: whether attempts should be made in locations not considered possible without additional protection or exceptions to the usual rules, and if so are jellyfish protection suits acceptable or the thin edge of a wedge that will inevitably lead to more overt (or hidden) performance enhancing suits? (See Evan’s analysis of his survey of marathon swimmers for an excellent overview of the contradictions of divisions and unity in the community).
The Man In The Grey Suit is a subject of great concern (and discussion) for distance swimmers. Not of any real concern here in the north-eastern Atlantic, they are a greater hazard in the warmer waters elsewhere, particularly California, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Africa and Australia. The Cook Strait Channel swim in New Zealand is unique in having a shark evacuation rule. Shark cages have been used for marathon swims in the Caribbean and South Africa at least. Shark cages are however considered swim assistance as they increase the swimmer’s speed through eddy current drag. Other possible control methods include electronic shark repellents (whose effectiveness is not entirely assured or quantified), armed boat crew or armed or otherwise scuba diver outriders.
These are amongst the most variable of environmental factors and therefore potentially also the most limiting. Because swimmers move slowly relative to even a sailing boat, we are vulnerable to slight deviations, miscalculations or just insufficient data, the most likely cause. Even in such a well-travelled and mapped location as the English Channel, especially for swimming, pilots will occasionally speak of tides arriving early or late or with a difference force than expected. Tidal currents are understood at a larger scale, hundred of years of navigation have mapped the seas for craft, not for swimmers. Tides act in a similar chaotic way to a weather system, which means that small deviations will always creep in. The only way to improve accuracy of prediction is to improve the data, and this is not practically possible or even desired for small tidal variations. As swims occur in less well-known or new locations, the likelihood of discovering unknown local variations outside marine charts increases. Half a knot current, barely detectable to a boat, is enough to deviate a swim over hours from a projected or necessary course.
Crew and boat
Any English Channel pilot will confirm that one of the most likely causes of unsuccessful Channel swims is poor selection of support crew. The most likely cause is mal-du-mer, seasickness. For some people seasickness is a completely debilitating ailment that can sap all willpower and strength and there is no way to know whom it will strike. The solution of course is to have experienced crew. Even this can fail because people experienced on powered craft will be at the mercy of the choppy water amplified on an almost stationary craft. Other crew issues can also arise, whether accidents or other illness. Anyone who hasn’t been on a rocking boat looking down on a swimmer is unlikely to understand! And not unknown are mechanical problems on the pilot-boat. Most pilots are by necessity practical mechanics able to address problems as they arise, but not all problems can be fixed with a wrench and hammer while rocking about on the sea.
Weather changes are the bane of English and North Channel swimmers particularly. Other Channels like Tsugaru and Gibraltar and Cook are also subject to constantly variable and unpredictable weather patterns. If you are used to the predictable weather of the west US coast, with morning offshore and afternoon onshore breezes, knowing your swim will almost certainly take place with a 48 window, the difficulty of allocating two weeks or even long (like the North Channel) and still being completely unsure of getting in the water is shocking. Weather constraints obviously ran the full gamut. In the North, English and Gibraltar channels the main concern is wind (and its effect on the seas). Fog can also be a problem with 2012’s Channel season infamously seeing three solos on one day abandoned within a kilometre of France for the first time in 137 years. I’ve warned previously that fog may be the most dangerous weather condition for swimmers. In warmer humid climes like Round Manhattan, and the Caribbean, lightning storms are a serious cause for worry, a swimmer or boat caught exposed out on the water is in real danger. Having to wait for or even postpone a swim is something many marathon swimmers have undergone and the mental pressure this brings is often not inconsiderable, which I will discuss further in the next and final part.
I came across this gem from 1963 in Sports Illustrated archives a couple of years ago. I’m just going to reprint it. Hey, an easy day, no writing!
From Donaghadee in Northern Ireland to Portpatrick in Scotland is a fraction under 21 miles. Between the two land masses the sea rages in swollen tides and hungry eddies. Out in the center a man could sink some 100 fathoms in places before touching the dark bottom. The water is so painfully cold that to swim in it is to feel as if one has a steel band around his forehead that gets tighter with each stroke. This is the deadly and cruel North Channel of the Irish Sea. To long-distance swimmers it makes the English Channel look like a wading pond. Only one swimmer has ever made it across—an Englishman named Tom Blower.
In fact, not many have even dared to try the crossing. Florence Chadwick made two unsuccessful attempts—in 1957, when her life was in danger for 24 hours afterwards, and in 1960, when she left the water with a body temperature of 90º F. A Greek, Jason Zirganos, died after an unsuccessful try in 1959 despite the efforts of a doctor who cut him open with a borrowed penknife to massage his heart. Just last year (1962) the Danish-born Canadian swimmer Helge Jensen, who holds the record for the English Channel crossing, quit the attempt because he could not stand the cold.
Tom Blower was a citizen of Nottingham, on better terms with the authorities than Robin Hood but a match for the legendary outlaw in bold charm. He was a blond and jovial giant (6 feet 1, 252 pounds). Two people could hang from, each of his outstretched arms; he could break six-inch nails with ease and liked to sit on the bottom of Nottingham’s River Trent for three minutes at a time watching boats pass overhead. Sometimes he swam in the river when it was snowing. During World War II, while serving in the Royal Navy, he dived into the Atlantic in January to try to save the survivor of a dive-bombing attack. To his native city’s youngsters he was always Uncle Tom, who helped crippled kids to swim, was devoted to youth clubs and gave exhibitions for charity. But when people contributed money, in turn, to one of his long-distance attempts, he said it felt like swimming with £500 in halfpennies around his neck and refused such help ever after.
The son of a miner, Blower decided early that he was not cut out to be a sprint swimmer. He had an extraordinary ability for standing or lying in the water without moving a muscle. Blower described himself as “a cart horse,” although in 1937 he was fast enough to swim from France to England in 13 hours 29 minutes. For plowing through the sea he found the trudgen best, a combination of overarm strokes and a scissors kick with the legs. Despite his bulk, Blower moved in water with grace and efficiency.
After the war he made two tries at swimming the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The first, early in the summer of 1947, was called off when the water became so rough that exhausted crews could not manage the boats that accompanied him. On July 27, 1947 he made his second attempt. As he kissed his wife goodby he said, “I’m not getting out for anybody this time.” And he did not.
When Blower slid into the water there was a forecast of 15 hours of perfect weather, but his wife was already beset by a feeling of disquiet. “The sea looked smooth,” she recalled recently at her home in Nottingham, “but it was a sort of slimy smoothness. And the sky was too red.” It was evening when Blower splashed away, accompanied by an armada of boats and an army of well-wishers who gradually drifted away into the night until he was left with only those directly concerned with the swim. He was at last almost as alone as a flyer in the sky. Around his waist he had tied an old, cherished and much-darned pair of swimming trunks with a piece of string.
The water temperature dropped as low as 49º F. He wallowed across fields of floating seaweed. Shoals of herring at one time surrounded him so thickly that they nibbled his feet. The sea looked like a carpet of silver, and the pilot’s boat propeller churned up fish. One observer from the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, who accompanied him in the water for an hour, came out so cold that he had to thaw out his feet by putting them, wrapped in a blanket, in a cooker oven. For eight hours Blower swam in comparative quiet.
But the morning after the start, one of the most spectacular thunderstorms Scotland has ever known swept through large areas of the country. Towns and villages were plunged into twilight as lightning struck and rain fell. Streets were flooded, bridges swept away, flowers and crops destroyed. Out at sea it took two men to hold the stove on which Clarice Blower cooked food for her husband. It was impossible to reach him with the food, however. Blower occasionally disappeared completely from sight, swamped amid the waves. Then hail fell in harsh lumps as big as eggs.
Some wanted to take Blower from the water, but his wife, obeying his instructions, would not allow them. For a brief time he changed from the trudgen to the breaststroke. Then he appeared to lose strength in one arm. Later, when his arm was moving again, his legs seemed to drag. At one time Blower swam for four hours without making a mile. The Irish Sea eventually grew quiet. Two fishing tugs, chugging by, sent out across the swell that eerie salute of sailors everywhere, the sound of a ship’s horn. Blower was going to make it, come thunder, lightning, wind and hail, badly bruised and torn though his body was.
As he swam into a small Scottish cove the sky seemed to clear. He climbed agonizingly out of the water onto the rocks, and raised his clasped hands, shyly, above his head. “I can’t tell anybody how I felt,” said Clarice Blower. “I’d been every yard of the way with him in my mind. I just burst into tears with joy. But when I looked round everybody else was crying—21 men and me, one woman.” It had taken Tom Blower 15 hours and 26 minutes to make the historic swim. In Nottingham a proud lord mayor interrupted a city council meeting to tell members of Blower’s exploit.
As Blower came limping ashore at Portpatrick the first man to clasp his hand was a Scottish policeman. “You’re the first one to do it, lad,” he said, “and you’ll be the last.”
Blower became a national figure and need never have done any more. But as long as there was a difficult swim to be made he wanted to make it. No amount of bitter cold, exhaustion, cramps, seasickness, sore mouths, puffed faces, arm ache and stinging jellyfish ever seems to deter such men. “They get the bug and it kills them in the end,” said Clarice Blower. Her husband joked about his strenuous addiction. “I am going to put my swimming trunks on a pole,” he said once, “and start walking with them flying like a flag. When someone stops and asks, ‘What are those?’ I am going to settle there, because that will mean they have never seen swimming trunks there, and don’t swim there—and that, brother, will be the place for me.”
He swam the English Channel twice more—in 1948 and 1951—both times the particularly tricky way from England to France. Between swims he went quietly about his job as an advertising representative for a cigarette manufacturer in Nottingham. Then in 1955, at the age of 41, he died suddenly of a heart attack in his home.
It should be noted that the next swimmer to conquer the English Channel was none other than the King of the Channel himself, Kevin Murphy, and not until 1970.
Torpedo Tom, BBC. (Which has an incorrect detail about him taking the English Channel record, repeated on Wikipedia)
Wayne’s narrative in grey on the left, Paul’s in green on the right.
I was cold. So cold. Colder than I had ever been. I needed this to end. I suspected that I was going hypothermic… as I started to feel warmer… and I hadn’t changed anything – so that was impossible. And feeling warmer…when very cold, is a sign of hypothermia. So I realised I needed to make a decision. I needed to know if we were close, say 1 hour, then I could push and finish even if cold. If longer than that, I needed to call it a day.
Over the course of the next four hours, the light started to fade and the sea state picked up to a point where, it was forming 6 foot swells with a Force 4 wind, gusting Force 6. We made very slow progress towards the Antrim coast, whilst minute by minute being taken north at an increasingly rapid pace by the freight train south-to-north current running up the Irish coast.
I started to demand to know how much further to go. Despite the fact that Paul and I had discussed many times and agreed, I would never be told how far to go. However, I was trying to make a final push or walk away decision. I had to know how far to go. I really threw a strop – I insisted that I wouldn’t swim another stroke unless they told me. But the wind was howling and the boat just blew away from me…so I didn’t have a choice but to keep bloody swimming after them.
Suddenly they stopped and said they were going to tell me. They said 1.6 to go. OMG… 1.6 km to go! I shouted to them that I could do that, they responded with a war cry and off I was… swimming hard as hell, I needed the pain to be over, I knew I could do 1.6 km in about 40 minutes… I swam harder than I have ever swam. I knew the faster I swam the faster the pain would be over.
The universally accepted wisdom says that you never tell the swimmer the distance to go. Today we really learned why. Wayne’s insistence on knowing how far to go was distracting him and slowing him down as he kept stopping. So we eventually decided to tell Wayne how far we had to go. I called to Carlos who was navigating and asked the question. He looked at the Satnav and replied – 1.6 Nautical Miles.
It wasn’t long before I was feeling better… I realised that I was warming up… I had just been terribly cold…and hence feeling miserable. The false hope of 1.6km allowed me to swim hard, pick up pace and warm up. That was without a doubt the turning point of the swim.
The jellyfish, which had been visible in large numbers since about hour 5, but which had been 5 or 6 feet below the surface, were now present in enormous numbers in the top two feet of water. Wayne lost quite a bit of time trying to skirt around them, but after a few hours of this realised that avoiding them was impossible and from that point on, swam through them regardless. He did pick up a number of stings, but he was fortunate in not reacting badly to them so they generated discomfort rather than threatening his immediate health. We positioned a spotter at the bows of the boat and if we saw a cluster, shouted to Wayne but of course a swimmer rarely hears shouts. Blowing referee’s whistles I’d brought for just such a purpose similarly went unheard. Wayne would swim right upon to the jelly, stop abruptly on seeing it and look accusingly at us, whistles still in our mouths! We never got this right – all our ideas for jelly spotting failed. On one occasion we spotted a massive jelly far too late, it was directly in Wayne’s path, just two metres ahead of him. On the boat we all held our breath. Wayne’s head and shoulder came within an inch of it, and he swam straight past without noticing. On the boat we just let out a huge relieved laugh!
The Jellyfish came in their hundreds…nay thousands. They seemed to group together and suddenly I would find myself in the middle of a field of them, literally hundreds of them everywhere I looked. I tried in vain to find holes to swim through. I would sink below the surface, look for a gap and swim through it, pause, look for the next hole and swim into the next gap. This was very slow going… I was burning precious minutes each time I swam through a pod. Eventually Paul jumped into the water with me, swam up to me, looked me in the eye and said “listen we are going to swim through them together, let’s go” and so we did. I started to swim straight through the pods. I struggled to control the fear factor, but we did it. Did I mention that Paul was wearing a wetsuit… when he made that brave gesture! Actually I was so grateful, without it, I would not have made it, I was wasting two or three minutes per pod.
The stinging wasn’t nearly what I had imagined that it might be. It was more like a nettle sting than a burn. Thankfully once nightfall came, the Jelly fish disappeared, I think they dropped lower as the water cooled. All I knew is that I stopped being stung.
Thankfully, after about 9 hours into the swim, the sea state reduced and swimming conditions became a little easier. By this time we had drifted quite a considerable distance north.
There had been a time when we did not know whether this drift would take us left (and west) around Torr Head and towards Ballycastle, or whether it would take us due north and towards the eastern coast of Rathlin Island. Looking at the tide charts, it was like approaching a fork in a motorway and we were bang in the middle, would we be swept left or right? Had the second possibility transpired, his swim would effectivelyhave been over.
Wayne’s morale was improved at this stage – his stroke was visibly more determined and committed, and at the feeds he stopped referring to his discomfort.
In actual fact, his misery had to an extent been replaced by an irritability – he would express deep dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms, should he deem our strategy to be less than perfect! We took this as a good sign because every time he made his feelings known, he perfectly demonstrated his lucidity to us so the crew were quite happy to be abused!
With much relief, we rounded the Head and proceeded towards Ballycastle, all the time trying to cross the current so that we could make a landfall. This period represented anawful lot of effort, and some determined swimming towards the shore, but the net result for a two to three hour period was that we simply paralleled the coast about one and half to two nautical miles off.
So, when after half an hour, and then an hour, and then ninety minutes after we’d told Wayne he was “1.6” from the coast, he was very frustrated at not having beached. Perfectly understandable. But when he asked us how much further, we resisted at all costs telling him. Because the receding coast line effectively goes away from the current, the real answers, post the “1.6” announcement, would have been 1.4, 2.4 and3.0 before we started to once again close the gap on the coast.
We could only tell Wayne that ‘you’re doing well’ and ‘at this rate you will achieve it’. He smelt a rat, and became incredibly frustrated ‘you’re lying to me’ ‘why are you lying to me?’ ‘just tell me the f****g truth!’. He was so cross, it was affecting his swim at a time when we really needed him to get his head down and cross this awful current.
Remember what I said about never telling a swimmer how far they have to go…..
This was a very difficult and frustrating period of swimming. We put cyalumes (night-sticks)on the boat so that I could see the edge and the boat put its big lights on. The boat kept moving ahead of me and I was having to follow it rather than stay next to it. I have been told that this was due to the strong currents and change in wind direction due to our new course we were steering. The boat couldn’t stay next to me safely so that moved slightly ahead. I wasn’t happy with this, even though the second boat Boisterous was behind me, lighting me up with their spot light. I was really struggling to follow the boat, it was very difficult to see if the boat was moving directly away from me, or whether it was moving perpendicular to me and hence I was frequently unsure of my swim direction. Apparently I frequently let the boats know of my significant dissatisfaction!
Dangerous? Just a little.
Here’s the scenario. The wind was playing havoc with the boat’s ability to steer the right course. Ribs steer from the stern and Wayne’s positioning just off the starboard sternquarter meant that any attempts by Sean to steer further to port, as we needed to, would bring the stern right over the swimmer. So Sean had no alternative but to bring the boatahead of Wayne. Tide and wind then conspired to take the boat away, ahead of him. Although the wind had largely abated there was still enough swell to make swimming difficult and to make spotting the swimmer tricky too.
So the boat would drift ahead. Jonny and I effected a routine like a man overboard drill – at any point at least one of us would have eyes-on contact and be pointing at the twocyalumes on Wayne’s hat (which were all we could see in the darkness). The boat drifted ahead quickly, and when the gap got to 30-40 metres we relayed a message to Sean whohammered around in a circle to re-position the boat just ahead of Wayne.
Sean’s professionalism at this stage was incredible. His skippering skills in these impossible conditions without question saved the swim.
Jonny and I were extremely worried at this point, and were wetsuited up all the while, ready to swim to immediate assistance if we lost sight of the cyalumes for a second.In my mind I was playing through the questioning at the drowning inquest “And didn’t you know that the swimmer was tired?” “Oh yes, at least 5 hours previously he’d quite clearlytold us he was very cold, cramping and extremely tired but we just told him to get on with it…”
From approximately hour 11, Wayne really started to close the gap between ourselves and the shore – he’d made it through the worst of the current. Travelling WSW we made good progress, counting down the distance steadily. At this stage, despite being very tired, unbelievably Wayne picked up his pace, conscious that we were in the last stretch.
Up until this moment I had not once looked backwards towards the Mull or forwards to where we were travelling, on my feeds, I just looked at the boat. However when it get’s dark, if there are lights on the shore, you can’t help but see them and suddenly I started to see lights. It confused me… as I knew there were no lights along the Torr head cliff face. I assumed we must have done well on our planned route and were near Cushendall, many miles South of Torr Head. Shortly thereafter I stopped for a feed and since I had seen the lights, I started to look around… and was completely startled to see the unmistakable curve of Fairhead to my left against the skyline…. OMG we had passed Fairhead… OMG… the lights I was looking at were on the North side of Northern Ireland… these light must be Ballycastle. I was very disturbed by this… I realised out swim plan had fallen to pieces. I also knew that this was the last chance of a landing before heading north to the Faroe Islands.
I swam even harder, if that was possible. Well it felt harder, all the time I was nursing my right shoulder which was hurting a fair bit.
Our skipper and navigators scanned the coast, identifying known points by the presence of streetlights, trying to identify a good place for Wayne to make a landing. Eventually adecent looking place was identified, and both boats used powerful lamps to pinpoint the spot on the shore and to give Wayne a target.
When I saw the light shining on the shore… I knew the end was near, the pain of being cold was still patently with me. I still desperately wanted this swim to be over as soon as possible. I swam following the boat initially and then headed for shore…. As I approached I thought they had found a lovely sandy beach, only when I was 10 meters away did I realise that it was the base of the cliff washed out to a white colour and covered in algae. I touched it… In fact I clung to it. It was over. The pain was over.
The shoreline was a rock shelf, dipping into the water at 45 degrees. Wayne reached out, touched it, and turned to face the boat. Our observer gave his approval, and the skippersounded the boat horn to indicate that Wayne should return to the boat.
Because the CRS boat is very specialised in its purpose, it had some very good equipment on board and a delighted and still-very lucid Wayne was quickly helped into a special sleeping bag, designed to accommodate water-born casualties. This helped him to regain his warmth very quickly indeed, and he was quite comfortable on arrival at Ballycastle, some 15 minutes later.
As far as we were concerned, we were entering a deserted harbour at around midnight. But as we rounded the breakwater a massive cacophony of sound reached us across the water. Hundreds of people were waiting at the dock to greet us, and car horns were blaring all over the town. The wonderful people of Ballycastle had come to see us home – what an incredibly emotional experience.
Wow. We’d very nearly proved Commander Forsberg to be absolutely correct.
Wayne and I believe that only through the benefit of some very detailed modern tidal information, and the repeated mapping and re-mapping of this against a timetable, was the swim achievable.
Having said that, the route we eventually took was not as planned. Would we have succeeded had we been able to follow the intended route rigidly? Or did the vagaries of the day divert Wayne onto what was perhaps the only genuinely achievable strategy? We’ll maybe never know the answer to that, but what’s certain is that this impossible crossing has now been conquered, and Wayne has opened up the possibility to long distance swimmers everywhere.
- Paul Greenhalgh (liaison between swimmer, Skipper and navigators)
Although this was almost half the distance (12 Miles vs 21 Miles) and half the time (12:15 versus 20:01) of my English Channel in 2010, this swim was still harder. I think this was a
combination of the colder and rougher water.
What could I do differently?
In terms of the water temperature… little we could do. It’s about as good as it gets.
Weather – if you had the time, you could wait for a better wind window… but this is a hard, cold part of the world… it blows a lot. So again, probably as good as I could realistically hope.
Jellyfish – this was lucky, I managed to go when the Lion’s Main’s were dying out and before the Atlantic Jellies had come in. In fact they came in within days of me completing.
Route – I would start closer to the tip of the Mull and I would start about an hour later than I did. But I still believe the planned route would be a good one.
Crew & Boat – couldn’t have hoped for a better Captain or crew. Sean was incredible, doing wonders with a flat bottomed boat in strong wind and the crew with their support, dragged me across.
So on reflection, due to a massive amount of planning and a fair bit of luck on the day, we caught all the breaks we could have hoped for on a swim that had never been done i.e. we had no experience to go on. – Wayne Soutter
We finally made a GO decision on Thursday evening to swim on Sunday, I booked flight tickets for Saturday, we got the last few tickets and hence didn’t have much choice in terms of flight times – we were departing Heathrow at 19:30.
We were supposed to arrive in Ballycastle around 9:30pm, but the flight was delayed and so by the time we got in, it was gone midnight. When I say we, it was Paul Greehalgh (Swim manager) Jon Fryer, Carlos Roas (Navigator) and Mark Syrett (Food preparer) and myself.
Our charity we were raising money for, Community Rescue Services, were still out in the town going from pub to pub, collecting donations in buckets, so we felt obliged to head straight into town to support them and to enable them to “show the crazy swimmer off” to help them raise awareness.
We had a few beers, but I needed to take it slow, as we had an early start and most likely a long day ahead. So a single Guinness was all I was allowed and to bed by 02:30.
Up at 7:00 am. Bit of breakfast (eggs on toast) and I prepared my Oats Porridge & four flasks of hot water, which I would be consuming on the swim.
Down to the Harbour at 8:00. Captain Sean McCarry and his team were all there including two boats, Bravo Three (main swim boat) and Boisterous (backup / media boat). I also met Gary Knox for the first time face to face, he was my appointed observer for the swim. While everyone was putting the kit on the boats, I slipped away and dipped my hand into the water next to the jetty… trying to give myself some kind of confidence that this was possible. It didn’t help. Just felt bloody cold.
The pressure of having a large team supporting me, some of whom had travelled a very long way and were investing their own time (taken holiday) and costs… was immense. I pictured how I would feel if I just couldn’t stand the cold after say 1 hour… what would they think of me? I brushed it aside and realised I had to stay in until I made it or was pulled out unconscious
We headed out the harbour, boat accelerated and we tore across the channel. Took about 45 minutes to cross. That too was scary…with my English Channel swim, you start the swim after a brief boat ride out of the harbour on the other side of the harbour wall – you don’t get to experience how far you need to go. Yet here I was on a boat doing about 30 knots for 45 minutes… and I would need to swim all the way back. The visualisation of the scale of the task was quite overwhelming.
I didn’t want my team to know I was full of nerves… I didn’t want them to have doubts or disbelief… I didn’t want to let them down.
All the swim experts we had spoken to prior to the swim told us that this route could not be achieved. Even the historical figure and swim guru Commander Forsberg had declared before his death in 2000 that it was impossible.* We had understood from early on, therefore, that this was a real challenge and that the success of this swim would be very dependent upon accurately modelling the anticipated tidal flows in the North Channel between the Mull of Kintyre and Torr Head. So, on the day of the swim, we arrived off the lighthouse (see chart below) on the Mull about an hour before the planned start time, to try to gauge exactly what the currents were actually doing versus what the computer models said they should be doing.
At around 11h00 we deemed that the currents had died to almost slack water, and so we motored close to the coast, about one km north of the lighthouse. * It was very amusing at the time, but in fact very telling retrospectively, that the only person who didn’t tell Wayne this wasn’t possible was skipper Sean McCarry, who, when he first heard the plan, laughed and said “well it sounds crazy but what the hell, let’s give it a try”.
I stripped down, and Jon started to apply Vaseline to me. I had been testing with many different greases over the past few months, but Vaseline was the best hope I had for it to stick to me… everything else just washed off fairly quickly including lanolin. It wasn’t in fact the cold I was trying to protect against, but the Jelly fish. I was truly petrified of them. I had never been stung before…and didn’t know what it was going to be like. Legend swimmer, Kevin Murphy gave me an insight into them on Dover beach a few weeks before… and on all three of his North Channel swim, he had to be sedated due to the number of Jelly fish stings.
Wayne entered the water, swam ashore and climbed onto a flat rock. He looked pretty calm – I think that despite all the inevitable nerves, there was still an excitement – after all the planning and training, any swimmer just wants to get cracking and fortuitously a window had opened in the weather. This was it! On the observer’s signal, he dived in and the attempt began.
Wayne struck out strongly, swimming alongside Bravo Three.
The weather for the first two hours was remarkably kind. The sea was very flat, there was very little wind, the sun occasionally appeared from behind the clouds and there were no jelly fish. Looking at the weather-battered cliffs of the Mull, though, all our instincts told us that this could be a harsh and perilous place. Long may this fair weather last.
As I was swimming, I was giving myself a virtual pat on the back for finding the calmest and warmest day…probably EVER to try this attempt. I couldn’t believe my luck. Also there were practically no Jelly fish…certainly 100 times fewer than I had seen on my trial swim here 6 weeks before. The sun was out which warmed the top 4 inches of water…it was a little unsettling as with each stroke I drew very cold water onto me, but I realised that I could live with that slight discomfort if the water could just keep me warm….I could swim all day like this….
Following our plan, Wayne swam on a due west heading, the tides taking him gently south so his overall direction of travel was south-west. Wayne was in the counter-current that hugs the Scottish coastline and runs to the south-east just before the tide change (whilst the current in the main channel still runs north – we had identified this counter current as a way of ‘stealing’ an hour’s start on the swim).
About one and half hours in, we realised that we had possibly departed too soon. Wayne’s plan involved continuing to progress south-westerly, but the south to north current, which would die away on the tide change, was still stronger than we had hoped and so Wayne’s route started to drift to the north, despite the navigators now having altered our heading to 236 degrees. This error would impact the entire swim – it meant that Wayne’s route never took him as far south as planned. Getting south was critical, because the coastline there had far less turbulence and there were sandy beaches where we could make a landing. But being too far north at this point meant that the chances of making shore to the south of Torr Point had already reduced significantly.
After about my second or third feed the sun disappeared as did my luxury warm water layer due to the wind picking up and mixing up the sea. It was no longer a fun-day-out swim.
Between hours two and six, the conditions gradually deteriorated. The wind started to pick up, and soon started to blow very strongly from almost due south. This was directly against the tide, and had the effect of creating a very nasty chop. Furthermore, it had the effect of holding up the support boat and preventing the current from taking us as far south as we had predicted. Navigationally, this further compounded our earlier issues.
Holy crap. Every time I breathed to my left… I could see the flag on the boat fluttering…harder and harder and harder… eventually it was like a board. The sea state got nasty. The boat was rising up next to me and then crashing down, and when it did so, it would ‘jet’ a wedge of sea water out sideways…. fairly frequently straight down my throat. Drinking sea water I knew was a recipe for ending a swim… especially for me, as soon as I get any sea water into me… I quickly feel grotty. But there was little I could do, if I fell back the boat fumes got me, if I moved forward I couldn’t see the boat for direction. I couldn’t just breathe to the right, as I wouldn’t be able to follow the boat. I was stuck with this. The wind was howling, the waves were just getting bigger and bigger.
Jonny and I had done a couple of stints as support swimmers earlier in the day – Wayne had been very concerned about jellyfish and so, even though he had seen very few, felt that having a ‘jelly spotter’ in the water would help. Wayne, Jonny and I knew that the spotter could in fact do very little to help, but that it was psychologically important. It allowed Wayne to forget about one worry at least, and concentrate on swimming.
When the seas really got up, though, we decided that he needed a support swimmer purely for moral support. I took the idea to Sean at the helm – I knew that having two swimmers to watch in these rough seas would make Sean’s job even harder, but he could see the importance to Wayne so didn’t hesitate to agree. I’m a strong swimmer, I was wearing a wetsuit, I was warm, well fed and fresh – and yet I really struggled. Had the conditions been even just slightly rougher I could not have swum – I was right on the edge of staying afloat. And yet Wayne who was next to me had been in this cold and rough water for 6 hours already…
Throughout the swim, Wayne was being fed according to his pre-arranged plan. In general terms, this involved half-hourly feeds – administered via the approved English Channel method of a drinks bottle on a string – and comprising a warm mixture of energy drink, with some oats every third or fourth feed. On three occasions he also took 400 mg of Ibuprofen to combat a stiffening shoulder.
I was drinking sea water like beer…and it was causing me to throw up…but only in little bits. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I was throwing up underwater between breaths, which meant that my team didn’t notice it and hence were not worried. Feeding was becoming very very difficult. Each time we stopped, the wind was blowing side onto the boat, pushing the boat onto me as I was leeward. With the boat being a rib, it was flat-bottomed and hence moved across the water fairly quickly. To make matters worse, the waves had built and the boat was rising way above me and then dropping past below me… so in addition to trying to feed, I was continuously back peddling hard to try to not get smashed on the head. I was finding feeds very hard work… I was coming out of them exhausted.
We were conscious that the feeds had started to become very difficult. Such was the wind speed, the boat ‘chased’ Wayne when he stopped swimming making feeds dangerous. Consequently he rushed a couple, and I was worried that he wasn’t taking enough nutrition on board.
At approximately 6 hours, Wayne’s morale took a big dip.
He was unhappy being in the water, the increasing swells and the boat crashing down into the water on every swell, were throwing water into his face, he was feeling the cold, his legs were cramping and his demeanour was generally very miserable.
Each time I stopped for a feed, my legs started to cramp. It was my thigh muscles that were the issue. I would stop… start to feed and feel the cramp coming on… I realised that as long as a swam it would go away, so on a few feeds, I half fed, threw the bottle back and had to swim to prevent the cramp coming on fully.
Through verbal encouragement, we were able to urge him to continue, always setting the next feed as his immediate target. Gary Knox, an experienced open water swimmer, was incredibly helpful in describing what Wayne would be feeling both physically and emotionally. When Wayne showed signs of frustration or pain or whatever, we would urge him to continue.
However, after about 7 hours, at a feed Wayne didn’t make an effort to come to the boat but instead told us he was feeling extremely cold.
On the English Channel swim a couple of years ago, Wayne was in the water for 20 hours and didn’t once complain of cold – physiologically his body deals with it very well. But now his face was wracked in pain and he was saying he was so cold.
At this point I feared for his swim. He had swum strongly and made good progress, but there was still a very long way to go. The tide would shortly turn and propel us rapidly in a northerly direction – and because of the issues discussed above we were nowhere near where we had hoped to be, to have a chance of landing.
The sea was too big to take chances; we were just doing this for fun at the end of the day, and if he was becoming hypothermic then we’d need to take the decision for him and pull him out.
From this point onwards, at his feeds we asked him questions which were intended to gauge his coherence, and therefore allow us to spot any signs of the onset of hypothermia. These questions were mathematical calculations, or similar tests. Even at his darkest hour in terms of morale, he answered quickly, lucidly and accurately. So we kept him in.
I’m delighted to have another historic swim report for you to read.
Toward the end of August (2012) just passed, Wayne Soutter, originally from South Africa, contacted the Channel Chat group, looking for any last-minute thoughts or advice on his attempt to swim the never-before successfully swam Mull of Kintyre to Ballycastle route, instead of the only other route that’s previously been swam, the Mull of Galloway route.
There were key responses from two-time English Channel Soloist and Northern Irishman Jim Boucher, Mike Oram, (English Channel pilot), and The King, Kevin Murphy, who has swam the North Channel three times, and considers it the toughest swim in the world.
Kevin said: “The reason the Mull of Kintyre swim was never done is because it’s much narrower than Donaghadee-Portpatrick. That means there’s a lot of water passing through a relatively narrow gap and conventional thinking has been that the tides’ are too strong – that and the fact that mile for mile the North Channel is already about as tough as anybody wants it. But Mull of Kintyre route is there to be done. Love to see it conquered.“
The Mull of Kintyre tidal current map above. Tides are strong thoughout the whole strait, as indicated by the larger black arrows, with particularly strong currents at both sides.
Mike’s post was interesting:
“I have looked at your question reference wind for this area but it’s a hard one to answer.
The wind is a minor part of the problem you are taking on and quoting a wind speed will be of absolutely no benefit to you, unless I say – flat calm. [...] I would say go in light winds and with the direction being nothing prominent – but that’s very unlikely so listen to your pilot.
The crossing is surrounded by land a lot of which is very uneven and mostly of solid rock. This has a big influence on the local conditions and will mean you will have very localised wind conditions and direction because of the land masses and also an added consideration for the possible temperature differential between the land and the water. These can create both land and sea-breezes to add or subtract from the ambient wind force. The wind will be changing in speed and direction with your position as it will be dependant on the closest headland and open water areas, even if it is the same direction as the tide. There is also your swim speed to consider as that will determine the tidal pattern you are fitting into. The direction and speed of the tidal flow will be giving quite serious problems depending on if it is with or against the wind. The Tide is basically North North West to South South East direction in general changing every 6 hours or so. However around the Mull of Kintyre and all the other headland and bays (I use that word lightly) it is multi-directional and basically a mess. There is a venture effect as the wind is forced through the small gap that is the entrance/ exit from the Irish sea plus the wind direction when it is flowing in the sea areas between the headlands.
The Irish side of the Channel has strong tides (3 knots plus on the bottom of Neaps & 4.5 knots plus on the Spring tide for the middle hours of tidal flow).
The Mull of Kintyre is well know[n] for it’s overfalls and seriously congested seas for most of the tidal flows regardless of the direction – the overfalls just move North or South when the tide changes. The area has a small craft warning reference these overfalls that are present in various degrees of ferocity for 10 to 11 of the tidal pattern. It is an area know[n] for its negative tides travelling around the headland and meeting the general flow This is a negative tide as far as a crossing to Ireland is concerned as the tidal flow is back towards Scotland both north and south of the point. It might look the shortest route but I doubt if it is when to tidal direction is taken into account – (unless you are swimming from Ireland to the Mull), It will be a hard 10 miles to concur in a not very hospitipal [sic] place with a narrow, busy shipping lane thrown in and a big island (Rathlin Island) just to make sure your arrival in Ireland is not too easy.
Intimidating, to say the least. Over-falls, you ask? These are more generally known as standing waves, most often seen in rivers flowing over rock, a sign of very fast-moving water and difficult conditions.
A very brief history first. The first successful North Channel swim was the Portpatrick – Donaghahee route by Englishman Tom Blower in 1947, on his second attempt. The Mull of Kintyre route was previously attempted four times by Englishwoman Mercedes Gleitze. Both Blower and Gleitze were English Channel soloists, at a time when there were less than 20 English Channel soloers. Gleitze was also the first person to swim the Gibraltar Straits.
The North Channel, aka the Mouth of Hell is noted for cold air and colder water, tough tidal currents, and not least often huge blooms of stinging Lion’s Mane jellyfish. Only 12 13 swimmers from over 90 attempts have successfully swum it in the 80 years since the first attempt.
A further complication to Wayne’s swim, was that because the route is six hours steaming north of the usual route, he would not have either of the two existing North Channel pilots.
I’ll be spitting the swim report into two parts. The swim is told from the viewpoint of both Wayne and his crew chief.
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.
Since Anne-Marie Ward & Stephen Redmond succeeded on crossing it in the last few days…
(Anne-Marie’s fourth attempt, btw).
“I’ve done 56-mile swims. I’ve done 52-hour swims. I’ve done a high-altitude lake swim. I’ve done Loch Ness where the temperature falls to 7°C (44.6°F). I’ve swum in air temperature of -34°C. I’ve done a Norwegian fjord passing the inflow from glaciers. I’ve swum in South Africa with the Great White Sharks. I’ve done the Catalina and Santa Barbara Channels. When I’m asked what’s the toughest of all, my answer is the North Channel. I’ve done it three times and it still frightens me..”