Tag Archives: storm

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

Port side swimming
Port side swimming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinton and First Mate Mark
Quinton and First Mate Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jellyfish fly-by
Jellyfish fly-by

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

The dilemma of the North Channel can be put simply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Calm day at sea Guy & Clare Hunter IMG_3179.resized

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

Weather builds in the west
Weather builds in the west

 

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

Craig watches the thunderheads grow
Craig watches the thunderhead grow

 

Swimming 2012 – the pictorial tour continues – Almosts

This follows the 2012 Swim Locations post. I was considering calling it the My Swimming Life series. These photos were almost but not quite amongst my favourites for 2012, which will be coming soon. Like anyone with a camera, you notice that you sometimes take more photos on those really good days than you get to share. So here’s a chance to see some new ones, and revisit some others. Not all are chosen because they are good photographs, as some aren’t great, but they capture something relevant or interesting to me.

Also, I’ve been trying to improve my post-processing skills as well as my camera skills, the two in inextricable in the digital age, and I found a few that I didn’t take much notice of the first time around that have benefited from a run through the bit-machine.

Also, for a variety of reasons I’m struggling to write at the moment, so we’ll continue on this pictorial tour of 2012.

Alan Clack in the English Channel
Alan Clack in the English Channel

The day before Trent’s swim, I crewed for Alan. Despite all I’ve written about Trent, Alan’s solo was personally more important.  Alan first made in contact in 2010 after my solo and I guess we were on the Channel journey together ever since, (me in a supporting role of course). Alan travelled to Ireland three times, swum two full Distance weeks, (more than I’ve done). The risk of bad weather during his window was bigger for him considering the lack of travel availability from Canada. On the day, conditions were very choppy and not conducive to great photography, but I managed what has become a traditional Channel image for many swimmers. Alan swam a fantastic Solo, in a great time of eleven and a half hours.

Swimmers and crew.
Swimmers on the right, crew on the left.

One of the undoubted highlights of my 2012 swimming year was being on Sandycove Island for the final day of qualification swims. I was on crew on Saturday for the Total Brain and Body Confusion “torture” swim, as I was previously in 2011. However the last couple of years I’d swum on the final qualification day. This was my first time on the island, with Finbarr, Ned, Riana, and Andrew Hunt. It was an extraordinary day, to see from land-side what we put ourselves through. I know what it’s like to suffer unending hypothermia around Sandycove, to not be able to stand straight or talk clearly or use my muscles fully. To see it first-hand and up close was another thing again and to be able to help the swimmers was nothing less than a privilege with the level of marathon and Channel swimming knowledge and competence rising each year.

Tramore beach
Tramore beach

Just another day in Tramore. The photo looks black and white, but isn’t. These are the colours of late winter in Ireland.

Tramore pier
Tramore pier

Another wintery almost colourless shot, this was taken looking around the corner of Tramore pier out toward the Guillamenes, fractions of a second before the wave reflected back off the wall.

Blackwater morning
Blackwater morning

Some much-needed colour, motoring up a calm Blackwater on the late-summer morning with Owen for his swim from Cappaquin back down to Youghal.

Climbing to Coumshigaun
Climbing to Coumshigaun

Long-suffering Dee, accompanying me up the Comeragh Mountains so that I could swim Coumshingaun. Look carefully, the doglet is at her feet.

Simple pink.
Simple pink.

April is pinks (sea-thrift) month. I love pinks.

Trent
Trent

My other favourite of Trent, taken by hanging off the bow. I was sorry I didn’t take more from this angle.

Scout flying.
Scout flying.

Scout regularly accompanies us to the coast along with my older dogs. He refuses to demonstrate his flying ability for others publicly though. The Pomeranian breed’s tendency to go ballistic with excitement has earned them the term berserking. And there’s nowhere more exciting than the coast.

Huge Newtown Cove breaking wave
Huge Newtown Cove breaking wave

The post of the south-easterly summer storm was one of the more popular during the year.

Owen in the Blackwater
Owen in the Blackwater

Speaking of the Fermoy Fish, there were a few minutes early in his Blackwater swim that couldn’t have been better for photos. You’ll recognise this as his banner picture.

Inside the Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral

Looking out from inside St. John’s Island. I seem to have become a cave-swimmer over the past couple of years.

Near. Far away.
Near. Far away.

Now, I’ll explain again Dougal.

Please welcome, the Purple Stinger
Please welcome, the Purple Stinger

2012’s special guest appearance, at every swimming location.

More to come …

Bollards

Summer Storm Force on the Copper Coast

There is no swimming in this post. I really wanted to get swim just for the fun of it, but there was no safe exit point except at the pier and I knew I’d cause mass panic there, probably resulting in Rescue 117 being called out again. Does this mean I am growing up? Surely not.

Storm season is a nice phrase. Like Earthquake weather. And like the reality of  earthquake weather, storm season in Ireland is 12 months long, (as it seems for the past five years anyway).

Still, a couple of times a year we get a really big blow that hits the south and south-east. It’s half way though August, the month most Irish people take their hollyers (annual vacation), and a big low depression out in the Western Approaches drove a howling short-duration south-easterly Storm Force 9 onto the south coast. A south-easterly always provides a spectacle on the Waterford coast. Two trees were lost on the Loneswimmer Estate, and the brand new replacement diving board at the Guillamenes was snapped off, a board so heavy it took 6 adult men to lift recently.

High tide was late afternoon, and the wind increased from mid-day, luckily not hitting the maximum Storm Force until a few hours after high tide had passed. Anyway this is just an introduction. Everyone loves storms pictures. I took a lot of photos (400!) at the Newtown and the Guillamenes, Tramore Pier, Ladies Beach, and both ends of the Prom and managed to whittle a few I liked from the lot. (I’ve held a couple other back for future use, including my favourite). Long time regulars might have noticed I starting reducing resolution earlier in the year, to save me uploading full resolution images which weren’t required, it saves me time and WordPress Server space, and  saves you trying to load a 200 MB panorama pic. (I still have to go back and tidy up some of those, housekeeping isn’t fun).

Newtown Cove was wild before high tide and despite the rising storm, the sky was blue and the day was warm.

The sea breaking down onto the Newtown Cove platform. The blue sky only lasted a few minutes later than this image and was disappearing by the time I walked back to the car park.

Outside the Cove it was pretty big, waves looked about five to six metres, with occasional set waves at maybe seven to nine metres.

With the howling onshore, this meant breaking waves with spray reaching up to about 80 feet high.

The Guillamenes platform was completely inaccessible as waves exploded over it, occasionally even breaking over the top of the changing alcove. It wasn’t safe to go down past the first couple of steps, and it certainly wasn’t dry.

No wonder the diving board snapped with the volume of water bearing down on it.  Normally the board would be removed before the worst of the storms hit.

The bay provided a nice canvas. Tramore is a shallow bay, it was this type of onshore storm that was responsible for the loss of the Merchant Marine vessel the Seahorse in the late 19th Century in the Bay, and led to the erection of the pillars on Newtown and Brownstown Heads at either side of the bay, pillars you are well used to seeing here, the indicators of my swimming home.

The bathymetry of Tramore Bay is a long sloping sandy bottom with sandbanks going out a long way, which cause waves to jack up and break far out in these conditions.  And of course the bigger a wave the farther it reaches down to touch bottom, the slowing of the bottom of the waves is what causes it to break from the top as the lip spills over.

By the time I reached the pier, there were rain showers and photography became a bit more difficult.

From Newtown Head, past the Guillamene and Comolene rocks, into about a hundred metres in front of the pier under the cliff, was the direct straight line from the incoming south-easterly waves. The bay is shallow in front of the pier and there also are reefs and heavy thick kelp beds to suck the energy from the waves before they hit the cliff under where I was standing. And I finally got a decent image of something I’ve long been trying to capture; direct line of an onshore storm.

Taking pictures of just the sea is bloody difficult. Like you always look heavier on camera, photos often strip the power, grandeur and pure scale from the sea. This image isn’t as showy a photo as big breaking waves, not as obvious as most of my shots here, but this is a sea-lover’s image, at least, this sea-lover anyway.The beaten-steel grey-green of the Atlantic, Mananán Mac Lir howling and driving his chariot led by his white horse, Aonbarr of the Flowing Mane.

I shot some brief video above the pier, but with nowhere in the deep cliff-edge grass to anchor the small tripod and the wind buffeting me, I had to keep it short. I took also some video on the waterproof camera, but I haven’t reviewed it yet.

I moved into town, but got no good images at Ladies Beach. I’d gone through most of the lens wipes in my camera bag trying to keep the lens clear.

The town end of the Promenade and seawall is always popular during onshore storms, waves breaking on the wall, and you can get close enough for reasonable photography because there’s a nice dry spot right at the end of the prom. This time I didn’t spend too much time on the usual photos from here, and focused on some other stuff, life a father and son running and laughing and racing the spray over the wall. And the spray itself. I got really lucky on this one.

I went around the prom and onto the beach beyond the Surf Centre for a contrary view with the town providing the backdrop. I still miss the yellow and red of the lifeguard centre, the white roof is characterless.

I wish I’d been able to wish Hook yesterday, it must have been fun out there.

I really wish I were a better photographer, but I’ll keep trying. About 15 good images from 400 is an improvement on my previous rate of 1%. I have high resolutions of these images, if anyone want to purchase any by the way.

If anyone cares, someone(s) nominated loneswimmer.com for four categories in the Irish blog awards.

The categories for which I’ve been nominated are;

  • Getting Cold And Wet While Covered in Sheep Grease
  • MAMIL (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra)
  • Special Category for Inventive Use of Baby Dolphin Juice
  • Doing Stupid Things While Devilishly Handsome But Also Cold And Wet And Still Wearing Sheep Grease And Lycra

I’m told the award for the last one is a rubber statuette.

Maybe. Categories are never what they should be. LoneSwimmer.com will pass 150,000 views within a week and that’s not including the direct subscribers. I’ve got you readers, you keep putting up with this nonsense, ergo … je suis tres contente. Thanks again to you all.

Thanks Google, for fixing my storm videos

Google added Video Stabilization to YouTube, a boon for crap video takers, mobile phones and video shot without benefit of a tripod (all apply to me), (and a frightening indication of just how much CPU processing power they have available). I stabilized both the Shakespeare Beach Storm Force 10 videos and they are much improved. They were shot in howling wind, so there’s still shaking but they’re much better (I could see them side by side and see the difference).

30 sec one:

1 minute one:

Here’s a fun 8 second video from Malin Head on Monday of the full force of Hurricane Katya, beats my leaning into the wind at Varne. I wish I’d been out west to take some good footage for you. I’ve been out there in Force 10 before and it’s a sight to behold.

Donal on Varne cliffs in Force 10