Tag Archives: Wayne Soutter

Mercedes Gleitze and the Vindication Swim

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

Glietze-bdg-full-front-page-1927-774x1024

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.

As an addendum, British Pathe archive has a few great silent movie clips of Mercedes. Starting her second attempt (head-up granny stroke!). A News clip about failing one attempt. Getting married in Dover. Channel season. This one of out-takes has plenty of her swimming.

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.

mercedes-TALIM-open-waterOne 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“.

The Vindication Swim: Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex take the plunge and become world-renowned…By John E. Brozek © InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2003     International Wristwatch Magazine, December 2003  

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…”

1927-Rolex-Oyster-Mercedes-Introduction

photo 1946

Wayne Soutter’s historic new North Channel route – Part 3

Wayne’s narrative in grey on the left, Paul’s in green on the right.
Photo taken by passing boat?

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 effectively have 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 an awful 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 and 3.0 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 stern quarter 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 boat ahead 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 two cyalumes 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 who hammered 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 clearly told 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 a decent 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 skipper sounded 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.

Actual route vs planned route

Wayne has put together an excellent annotated Google Map of the swim which includes his Observer’s notes.

Wayne’s and Paul’s Afterthoughts:

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

Wayne Soutter’s historic & new North Channel route – Part 2

Part 1.

This swim is told from two viewpoints, of both Wayne and his crew chief Paul. Wayne’s is the grey text on the left, Paul Greenhalgh’s text is in green and justified to the right.

*******************************************************************

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.

Just brilliant.

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.

Fairhead is in the distance. Still a long way and a lot of rough water ahead.

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. 

Part three coming soon.

Both North Channel routes

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

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.

Both North Channel routes

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.
Standing wave in the North Channel, seen from a boat bow.

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.