Tag Archives: RNLI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinton casting off Donaghadee
Quinton casting off Donaghadee

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

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

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

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

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

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


Riptide swimming at Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay, in County Wexford, right down in Ireland’s south-east corner, is one of the best known and oldest fishing harbours in the country. The village itself is small, picturesque with many thatched houses, and like the rest of the local coast, very exposed with few trees able to survive the constant onshore winds. West of the village the beach and dunes known as the Wexford Slobs runs for mile to the entrance of Bannow Bay, east the beach runs for a few miles until it reaches the very south-east tip of Ireland at Carnsore Point.

Ireland, as I’ve often written previously, has big tides. And nowhere on the entire coast are those tides as big and strong as they are around Kilmore and Carnsore.

Four kilometres off Kilmore Quay is the little Saltee Island, with the Great Saltee, Ireland’s biggest bird sanctuary’s another four kilometres beyond that, but seeming much closer. The coast therefore is home to a particularly large range of both birds and fish.

In the late 90’s a canoeist named David Walsh wrote a detailed guide book (Oileán, the Irish for island) following his canoe circumnavigation of Ireland, aimed at fellow canoists. I don’t think he had open water swimmers in mind, but when I briefly had a loan of the out-of-print book some years ago, I quickly devoured it. I recall clearly the chapter on the coast around Kilmore and the Saltees when the author-canoist described coastal currents so strong that at the wrong time of the tide, they were impossible to canoe or kayak against.

I had looked the coastal maps and charts for the south-east many times since, and although it’s less than 90 minutes drive, I hadn’t been in Kilmore before.

St. Patrick’s Bridge, a natural rock causeway, reaches out to Little Saltee, and consequently has been the ruin of many a fishing vessel almost at home. Indeed Kilmore Quay has been home port for the many of the most recent fishing tragedies due to the ferocious storms to which the South-east is exposed.

We walked out the eastern most working pier, looking east toward Carnsore. The breeze was easterly, pushing chop into towards the pier and the tiny beach nestled in the corner.  About a kilometre off I could see  a line  of white water looking like it was breaking for no reason, with calmer waters between. I quickly realised this must the fabled but submerged St Patrick’s Bridge, the tide being somewhere around High Water. Just beyond, seemingly about 1.2 kilometers from the beach, was a blunt black rock, a few metres high and wide. It called to me.

Kilmore Beach Craft shop IMG_1633.resized
The craft, which doesn’t have any thatch, probably because it sits right above the beach.

We walked the village, where I asked the proprietors of the flower shop, gift shop and butcher of any knowledge they may have of the inshore waters east of the Quays, especially of any currents. All I gleaned of use was that the rock was called, of course, St. Patrick’s Rock.

I’ve also said  previously, a long time ago, that every field and rock in Ireland has a name. Unfortunately some times those name can be a bit, well, predictable.  Many black coastal rocks are called…Black Rock. Of course if you see a black rock, and call it Black Rock, you need to be sure that it’s already called Black Rock and not Bird Rock, or something! I suppose, unimaginative as it is, St. Patrick’s Rock is an improvement.

Finally I called around to the RNLI station, situated here biggest because the marine fishing traffic and the local conditions, where one gentleman was doing a bit of afternoon work. He said there were no currents inside the St. Patrick’s Bridge. We chatted a little about local water conditions as I picked his brain for further knowledge of any peculiarities.

The Sun was nudging in and out behind clouds, with the gentlest and briefest of occasional showers as I changed into swimming gear on the road fifty metres from the beach. With the easterly breeze running toward me and guessing the distance I gave Dee an estimate  of 35 to 40 minutes,  45 minutes at the outside.

The water was crisp, about 10 degrees and shallow. I aimed straight for the rock. For the swim out, the depth rarely dropped below chest high, with plenty of kelp, and the sea floor liberally dotted with scallop shells from the fishing boats. The Sun dodged and hid.

As I closed on the rock, the bottom rose again, and when I got to about seventy-five metres from the rock, I noticed that suddenly I was shooting forward, the sea floor shooting under me, as it rose to waist deep. I was at the submerged causeway and stood to grab a quick video. When I tried to do so however, I realised that even in thigh deep water, I couldn’t stand in place against the current and was buffeted and then dragged off my feet.

(Yes, I know I say Skelligs instead of Saltees in the video).

Behind me small choppy waves were breaking against the submerged causeway. They were more like standing waves (overfalls)  than waves breaking on a shallow-sloped beach. They were breaking forward, but pulling hard back underneath. Next thing I was pulled over the causeway, and almost before I knew it I was on the far side of the causeway. I tried to get back onto the causeway by swimming into and with the biggest peaks, but I was still pulled back. The water was still shallow so I tried grabbing the underwater rocks to see if I could pull myself forward against the current but was unable to progress.

It was a classic rip or undertow as powerful as the lethal rip at Couminole in Kerry, or trying to swim against the flow of the East River in New York.

Rips are dangerous and every year drown people around the world, because  usually because those who encounter them don’t know what to do. The land or safety seemingly very close, they continue to swim against the flow, exhausting themselves against the pull.

When you encounter a rip, there is one simple solution.

I simply turned in a 90º direction and headed inward along the submerged causeway. As I had swum out diagonally from the beach, I was still only a few hundred metres from shore. A mere hundred metres or so along the causeway and the rip current eased. With a bit of sprinting, I was able to once again swim back across the causeway, and back to my starting point, coming in just over 40 minutes after I’d started.

At lower tides, as St Patrick’s Bridge is more exposed,  it’s possible there will still be a rip running south-east along it.

It was a fun little swim made so mainly by the unexpected challenge which helped to confirm Kilmore’s reputation of extremely strong currents. It’s certainly not a location for the inexperienced or easily panicked. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy the frisson of apprehension and the challenge.

The white line of the rip can be seen on the horizon, along with St. Patrick's Rock.
The white line of the rip can be seen on the horizon, along with St. Patrick’s Rock.



The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

How To: Using Tide Tables

Because I live and swim in Ireland, I am constantly made aware of the large tidal range here.

I’ve written extensively about tides previously because I feel they are an aspect of open water swimming not appreciated by enough swimmers and because global variations can mean that many people never see nor even realise the apparent extremities of a higher tidal range in other locations. I therefore think a better understanding of tides is important for open waters for safety reasons.

To understand tides better is to increase your knowledge, your range of options and responses and locations and therefore your safety around the coast. Combined with this is that tidal knowledge is sometimes incorrect, that people make very basic incorrect assumptions, that the tide goes directly in and out from the shore regardless of the coastal position, is amongst the most common misconception (which is only true in some locations).

Because of this North East Atlantic tidal variation, most experienced Irish and United Kingdom sea-goers are used to checking tide times when the sea is not immediately visible to them daily.

You can revisit some of the more detailed tide articles I’ve written but for a brief recap let’s remember that each tide is about six hours and fifteen minutes, which means that high and low tide times change each day. A practical consequence of this is that Sandycove, which is usually swum above half-tide, usually only swim times designated for group swims every second weekend. (I am luckier at the Guillamenes as it is deeper water and can be swum on any tide).

Let’s a look at some graphs and data of a daily tide cycle, for the week I’m writing this. This data comes from MagicSeaweed’s Tramore tide report.  The undulating sine wave indicates the rising and falling tide. You can see that there are four tides in each 24 hour period and that each tide on this current cycle varies from just under six hours to about six and a half, with rising tides being longer than falling tides. On each chart you can also see the tide heights of high and low tide. As the four days pass the range between high and low decreases, and the high tide gets lower as the low tide gets higher, all indicators that the tide is moving from a Spring tide to a Neap tide, this pattern of changes from springs to neaps and visa versa repeating every two weeks.

tide graph 2

Tide programs and applications are usually similar in this presentation and a good understanding can mean a quick glance at a tide table can tell you a lot. Since I know that spring tides here are over 5 metres, I can tell immediately from this where in the lunar tide cycle we are. Lower tidal range means lower tidal currents, (not usually a concern for me anyway), important information for some locations.

The other usual tide tool, which I prefer myself, is an annual national tide table. These are currently about €3.00 for the pocket-sized book and I keep one in the car. There are two types of tide table books. Those often issued by the local port or regional publishing company, and a national one. Ireland is small enough that a localised tide table is too specific and of little utility if one is visiting the far side of the country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI find physical Tide Tables more utilitarian. Always to hand when needed, and useful for longer term planning many months in advance. Free and online tide apps usually don’t provide future tide times.

More importantly in Ireland, the island nature of the country makes the tidal situation far more complicated than many people realise, with the tides washing around the coast in diverging or even opposing directions. Therefore the Tide Table is sub-divided into five regions with further tide time offsets (delays) to even more localised ports. This provides a level of forecasting that gives a far greater level of accuracy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe detail is of the same type, date and day, high and low water (tide), with tide heights and in this case, moon phase to indicate more easily the spring and neap tides. On the page above can also be seen the variation of other locations from the Cobh location, Cobh being the Standard (reference) Port, i.e. the main tidal location, for the south-west to south-east Irish coast. A fuller list of Secondary Ports for each region is also included.

What’s equally important about these tide tables, and hidden in a note inside the back, is that the data is compiled from the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which, bizarrely and which I haven’t mentioned in a couple of years, owns the tide data for all of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and from which it must be licensed. Not that I am in favour of this arrangement, but it does mean you can be sure of the table accuracy, unlike with many free tide applications where license fees haven’t been paid.


A local sources of tidal information if you are unsure or without any better information is to check any RNLI  or local inshore rescue stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom which at least usually display the month’s local tide times on the outside of the stations. These always use the accurate UKHO (below) tide data. Some broadsheet newspapers can carry the information also in the weather section.

The important points therefore are:

* Tide tables are essential for coastal safety in area with high tidal ranges, such as across the continental European coast.

* When using tide tables note the tidal height as well and high and low tide times.

* If you are using tide prediction tools, safety is important and to this end, the origin of the data is vital.

eBay Grants for Top 3 Charities – Support the RNLI (for nothing)

Most of our swims have a charity fundraising element. My own EC swim was for the RNLI.

eBay are giving grants for the Top 3 voted charities at the end of the summer. All you have to do is visit http://bit.ly/duUibX and vote!

For once this costs nothing and us OW irish & UK swimmers all know and respect the RNLI.