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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.