Finbarr, Craig Morrison and I arrived in Donaghadee on Saturday evening after a long drive. A not-so-brief trip around a Bangor supermarket saw we accumulate the usual Channel swim expedition-load of food, stopped off at our accommodation and proceeded to meet pilot North Channel Quinton Nelson on board the boat down in Donaghadee before sunset for a final briefing.
I’ve previously covered some, but not all of the extraordinary swims that I’ve been fortunate to either be part of or to know the people involved. I’ve covered Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel swims because they were important to the sport as a whole and I was lucky to be able to so do. I have always thought it important to de-mystify marathon swimming and I’ve chosen to cover certain swims for that primary reason. For example Peter Stoychev’s English Channel record was a thing of legend for most of us. Covering Trent’s Channel record allowed me to share my view of a similarly potentially mythical swim.
Only a handful of people get to be involved and present on almost any swim. Our sport happens in private and the recent additions of social media from boat crew and visible GPS trackers only tell a fraction of the story and not always even the truth.
I certainly know that we as crew do not always report what is happening during a swim, as we don’t want to worry family and friends if things aren’t completely fine. Crew don’t know how any swim is going to end, and have no desire to seem to be negative afterwards. Coverage of swims therefore is usually left to personal blogs, such as this and blogs can be hard to find and most of them go unnoticed outside a small group.
Saying all this is required (again) to explain that each of these big swims I’ve covered has something that I feel is important to convey for the wider swimming community.
The North Channel has for decades been marathon swimming’s greatest mystery and challenge. The numbers attempting it have been very low and the numbers succeeding have been even lower. Therefore the information that filters into the wider swimming community is built on myth. Even though it’s considered an “Irish” swim (despite linking Ireland and Scotland, because it is regulated by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association) until Finbarr’s swim, I never had a chance to crew on it and my previous signing up as an Observer for it led nowhere. While I will talk more about the North Channel itself as we progress, all this introduction is required to speak about the other (silent) protagonist in this story, Quinton Nelson.
Sunrise hits Donaghadee harbour light, with Quinton Nelsons ex-RNLI boat the Guy and Clare Hunter nestled underneath with the crew onboard
For a couple of decades the North Channel had has one pilot, Brian Maharg. Quinton Nelson had previously been a pilot for the North Channel but not for many years. He operates a boat charter service out of the small but pretty and active port of Donaghdee south of Belfast Loch and is recognised as the global expert on the older RNLI rescue boats and their conservation and restoration.
His main boat, and his North Channel boat is the beautifully maintained ex-RNLI lifeboat The Guy and Clare Hunter, unlike any other boat on which I’ve crewed. She’d been on active service on the Isles of Scilly from 1955 and retired from active rescue service in 1981 and from relief service in 1988, having been involved in saving 130 lives over her service life, including the infamous Torrey Canyon tanker wreck.
When Fergal Somerville wished to attempt the North Channel in 2013, Brian Maharg was booked and Fergal was directed to ask Quinton if he would return to piloting for Fergal. That collaboration led to Fergal successfully crossing the North Channel in June 2013, earlier and in colder water than anyone else had previously done so, piloted across a new route by Quinton.
Fergal convincing Quinton to return and their successful swim was arguably the most important thing to happen to North Channel swimming since Mercedes Gleitze first attempted it, or since Tom Blower was finally successful.
Wayne Soutter’s 2012 alternative route across the North Channel, also covered on loneswimmer.com, while recognised as an official swim, has never been actually recognised as a North Channel swim. (Frankly, that’s a rabbit-hole I have no wish to go down right now). Nonetheless Fergal and Quinton’s swim opened up the North Channel by using Quinton’s new route and adding a second pilot, after Quinton decided to return to a full North Channel piloting schedule. Indeed Quinton set the records for both fastest male and female crossing later in 2013. One could even say that Quinton’s effect on North Channel swimming is greater than any other pilot in any other Channel, regardless of the claims of others.
At the evening briefing we were set for departure from the harbour around dawn. The weather forecast was good. Time to eat again, and Finbarr to try get some sleep.