There are three overarching obstacles with the North Channel, all similar to the English Channel but two at least are usually worse. The first that had already affected us in the earlier call then stand-down, then call again, was the very unpredictable weather, similar to the English Channel. The North Channel just happens to be another 200 miles further north.
We arrived in the harbour as dawn was lightening the sky, Observer Gary pulling up the same time and Quinton and crew Jordan and Mark arriving a couple of minutes later.
We loaded the boat; food, boxes of swim and feeding gear and backup swim gear, clothes for afterwards, foul weather clothes, bottles of water, flasks of already heated water, more food.
Quinton pushed off and we moved out of the harbour around the lighthouse which previously had marked Donaghadee Harbour for the steam packet mail-boats that endured into the latter half of the twentieth century and now give their name to a ferry company. The Sun had just risen in the east over above Scotland and with clear skies we were suddenly awash with the gold and sharp horizontal and contrasty shadows of dawn making the Irish Sea a deep hammered steel-blue. The breeze was light, Force One just texturing the surface as we motored the short trip around outside the harbour.
Finbarr was subdued as we motored out, and it was then that he made the surprising admission of nervousness to Craig and I mentioned in Part I. We, as was our job, dismissed it and concentrated on the tasks at hand.
As we got closer and mark gave us the word, Fin started to change and get greased up. His shoulders still bore extensive scars from the chaffing of spring training, scars which still marked a time of stress and change in his training that he had kept to himself.
At five twenty-nine a.m. Fin jumped in the water to swim about 200 metres into the shore. Unlike the stone shingle and white cliffs above Shakespeare Beach or the rocks of Tarifa or the darkness of Catalina Island, the shore outside Donaghadee is unusually prosaic for such a challenging swim as it’s backed by a small estate of semi-detached houses and children’s playground. Maybe woken by a crying infant,or leaving for shift work, I wondered does anyone ever chance to look out from the bedroom window of one of these houses, mere dozens of metres behind and, with dawn just having broken, see some crazy person throw themselves into the cold water? And if so, what do they think?
At the shore, the dawn light fully illuminating him, Fin raised his arm, and dove forward to swim back out toward the boat and then onward. The swim start time was five thirty-three a.m. with water temperature reading warm for the North Channel at 14º Celsius while on the boat the early morning was a bit chilly. North of us was Copeland Island and beyond in the north-east was Mew Island with Mew Island lighthouse sheltering the entrance to Belfast Loch. Scotland was clearly visible in front of the bow, a few miles closer than France is to England, with the day quite different to the prevailing wisdom of the English Channel, where the old saying is that if you can see France it’s not a good day to swim.
Finbarr started steady and made a good mile and a half in the first 30 minutes, setting off a good stroke rate. He passed the outside of Copeland Island in 45 minutes as marked by the first visible to crew jellyfish . We’d started before high tide and hoped that once we passed the line of Mew Island, that the flow would increase and give Fin a speed boost and we’d even later pick up a tide change increase.
We gave him his first feed slightly late after about an hour and five minutes, I was too busy taking pictures when Craig noticed the time. Fin took almost three-quarters of a litre of single strength Maxi which he downed in a mere seven or eight seconds. He said nothing, and made no mention of the fact that he felt unsettled and wasn’t relaxing into the swim. By seven a.m. he was finally passing outside the line of Mew Island and lighthouse. This was where we hoped for a slight increase in speed, but First Mate Sparky informed us instead that Fin’s speed had dropped slightly from two point four knots to two knots.
The breeze continued Force Two, a good day for swimming. During a quick chat though with Quinton he told me something quite surprising; that these conditions, which would be good in the English Channel) were about the limit for North Channel swimming.
The water temperature readings had stabilised and it was an excellent fourteen degrees, after a particularly good Irish summer. This was a temperature that many English Channel swimmers fear but in which Irish channel swimmers train all the time. It’s also a temperature that few North Channel swimmers would expect and to hope for such was a mistake some had made.
The second of the three overarching obstacles to the North Channel and principle amongst them is the temperature. Thanks to the elevated latitude, it’s colder than the English Channel. The summer temperature expected by those who take the North Channel seriously is a mere twelve degrees. It is because of this historically low temperature that swimmers has usually chosen to risk the third obstacle and swim late in the season during August and September, hoping for thirteen or fourteen degrees but not always getting such. Fergal Somerville’s North Channel swim 53 weeks earlier in the previous year had also occurred during a good spell but temperatures had been at or under ten degrees.
At his second hour feed, the chill starting to leave the air, Finbarr was five miles out and as quick feeding as the first, after which he voiced “Jesus Christ, these jellyfish are huge“, his Cork accent travelling over the water. He hadn’t been stung though and on the surface the jellies were few and a mostly giant but harmless Barrel jellies with scattered blue stingers and just a couple of smaller Lion’s Manes seen. Otherwise everything still seemed fine to us. His stroke was a consistent 70 strokes per minute rate, a significantly higher figure than a year previously after a conscious change in his training to include more speed and sprint work.
For Finbarr however, despite that the day was good and the water warm and the breeze had dropped in the second hour to “light air” or Force One, he was not feeling good for those first couple of hours.
Swimmers often take an hour to relax and settle into their stroke but as the first hour changed to the second, he wasn’t enjoying himself. He’d noticeable twinges in his shoulders and wasn’t feeling comfortable. This is one of the challenges of marathon and Channel swimming; that despite all the training, on the day, not all is copacetic and at a time when most athletic events are already long over, the Channel swimmer is contemplating the many hours still ahead, often while already in difficulty.
Fin and I had often discussed and agreed on certain precepts of marathon swimming: That there was little point unless somehow, despite the suffering, there should be fun. That the swimmer must take something of enjoyment from the attempt. Otherwise, what would be the point?
Finbarr had stopped three times by the middle of the third hour to adjust his swim cap. He’d planned and hoped to wear the old style bubble cap allowed by English Channel rules but the official ILDSA Observer Gary has told him it wasn’t allowed. So he’s switched to a backup Speedo silicone cap designed with extra ridges inside to help hold it in place, a cap often favoured by tonsorially-challenged swimmers. However Finbarr’s huge gigantic enormous colossal head was proving more than a match for even the specialist cap. This seemingly minor (to a non-swimmer) irritation wasn’t helping his mood and his internal struggle for some equilibrium. He was probably reminded that, unlike any other of our group of swimmers, he was often to be found doing double or even triple laps of Sandycove without any cap in twelve degree water.
By the time three hours had elapsed one concern had become concrete. The hoped-for tidal push hadn’t materialised. Speed for the previous hour had dropped to 1.9 miles per hour and Mate Sparky (Mark) was slightly concerned. Minutes before the third feed Finbarr has called for his favourite treat, a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight, (which I have to agree is an exquisite confection far superior to its pale pastel middle-eastern predecessor). I was mildly surprised that he would request it so early, but of course Craig and I weren’t aware of that inner battle Fin was already fighting.