I’ve only met Quinton Nelson twice. But since each time I spent a good 15 hours on his boat, the beautiful ex-RNLI boat, the Guy And Clare Hunter, I guess that counts for something.
I’ve been (mostly) fortunate enough over the past six years to have met quite a few pilots. Some of them belong to the largest marathon swimming organisations such the CS&PF or the CSA. Others were unaffiliated guides of swimmers on pioneering routes outside the ambit of existing organisations (those type of swims for which the Global Rules of Marathon Swimming were specifically written by The Marathon Swimmers Federation). Regardless of the waters, or their own personality, the country or the number of swimmers they’ve piloted, most share some recognisably similar characteristics.
They harbour (hah) a deep respect for the sea and knowledge of their local waters, a jaundiced view of land-lubber crews and the defining idiocy of swimmers who choose to get into the bloody cold wet brine when they could stay dry on deck. They are often taciturn and always practical and always possessed of strong opinions. Many such as Paul Foreman, Reg Brickell and Des O’Connell I’ve liked and respected immensely for their knowledge and deep commitment to what they do and how they do it.
Like those, Quinton Nelson is a swimmer’s pilot, even a pilot’s pilot. A lifetime in the North Channel piloting for decades before returning to swim-pilot the forbidding stretch, no-one knows the water like he does. He’s a world expert on the restoration of ex-RNLI like the aforementioned Guy And Clare Hunter, and I am likely to get a stern email within 24 hours of this post being published, either due to some gaff I’ve made of which he will disapprove or simply due to the existence of this introduction! That’s Quinton.
He is the pilot who opened up and transformed swimming the North Channel for the swimming world, and arguably has had more effect therefore on Channel swimming than any other pilot worldwide. As a pilot to whom I’d trust mine or any other’s care, he ranks amongst the very best in the world. Enough of my ráiméis, over to Quinton himself.
(By the way, Quinton provided some photos. Typically he himself only appeared in the distance in one, used further down. Luckily, I had my own of him!)
THE NORTH CHANNEL SWIM, A pilot’s view
The North Channel, sometimes called the Irish Channel has, over the years accumulated a fearsome reputation for chewing up and spitting out swimmers. Many have tried to conquer it, if conquer is the right word, the majority have been beaten back by the combination of cold water, adverse currents, unpredictable weather and not least, the lions main jellyfish.
Local knowledge is the key to understanding the North Channel, I live right on its shores, see it in all its moods day by day, have worked commercially on it for a lifetime and while its power should not be under estimated, when judged correctly, crossing in the right conditions is a joy.
Swimming was first tried here from the 1920’s by the famous Mercedes Gleitz, the first successful swim was by Tom Blower in 1947 (Ed: account on LoneSwimmer.com), but it is really in recent years with the advent of Ocean’s 7 that the North Channel, considered by many to be the toughest of the seven, has seen the upsurge in swim attempts.
No doubt many more will try, not all will succeed. There is no shame in not making it.
The swim season is very short and in reality can be confined to July and August with the possibility of some days in early September and in recent years, some dates in late June as the waters warm up…I have been a pilot among other commitments on the North Channel for more years than I care to admit.
My first success was with Margaret Kydd from Scotland way back in August 1988 when she was and still is, the youngest swimmer to accomplish the challenge and only missing by a day, being the first female swimmer ever to cross the North Channel. 1989 saw the legendary Kevin Murphy complete the Scotland to Ireland swim.
Commercial commitments took me away from the swimming for some years but recently I have been “called back”.
Over the past three years I have piloted swimmers whose times have slashed long standing records: Fastest relay team record, “The Machine Men” 3 man team from New York, Ireland to Scotland 10 hrs 16min, August 2012. Fastest female record, Michelle Macy, USA, Ireland to Scotland 9hrs 34 min, fastest overall and 2nd female to complete Oceans 7, July 2013. Fastest male record Milko van Gool, Netherlands, Ireland to Scotland 10hrs 34 min. August 2013. Other equally fantastic successes include Fergal Somerville Ireland, June 2013 in under 11º C water, Sabrina Weidmer of Switzerland, Finbarr Hedderman, Ireland (Ed: account on LoneSwimmer.com), Adam Walker of the UK and Kimberley Chambers, New Zealand, all in 2014.
No doubt in the future these record times will be surpassed again and again.
The swim has been commented on recently as “becoming easier”, possibly due partially to the upsurge in the successes we have had. It is not easy, swimmers will know better than me the effort that is required, to accomplish any open water swim, the pain to be endured only overcome by the elation on a success. Being involved with so varied a group of swimmers in recent years has proved to me that 49% of the effort needed to have a success is down to training and stamina.
Training in cold water for this swim is vital, its not rocket science, it doesn’t particularly require anything special, OTHER than this one thing that is necessary to bring any chance of success, swimming for hours in as cold water as you can bear for as often and as long as possible, right up to the days before your attempt.
I would advise all aspiring swimmers to get here as early as possible and acclimatise in the local waters. The average sea temperatures a swimmer can expect on the North Channel over the summer vary between 11c and 15c, however in 2014 we had late July and early August temperatures of up to 18c, positively tropical.
Stamina. Before accepting a swimmer I will ask questions on performance. All will be expected to maintain a minimum speed for up to 12 hours on average, which can complete the swim. I am convinced the balance of 51% of the effort needed to complete the swim is in the mind of the swimmer.
We have had swimmers with excellent swim credentials come and try the North Channel, we have given them excellent starts with full offshore tidal advantage, superb hot summer days with glass calm sea, negligible jellyfish interference and yet perhaps only a few hours into the swim, some could not go on.
I say again, there is no shame in not making it.
The Lion’s Mane jellyfish
The scourge of the North Channel, it is most prolific in late summer mostly August through September.
They generally frequent the surface layers of water and drift around on the currents with trailing tentacles usually lower than the main body so swimming above them is relatively harmless. The stings are likened to nettle stings or bug bites, on their own again relatively harmless but I would urge every swim aspirant to know their limitations on toxin resistance as multiple stings are not uncommon.
There is no substitute for experience on the North Channel, tides and currents vary every day in the normal scheme of things, winds from days before, or storms brewing hundreds of miles away, in the days to come can have adverse affects on the swim day and its only experience and the local “gut feeling” for what will happen over the day, that has brought about the successes of recent years, all added to by the superb strength of the modern open water swimmer.
The Fickle Weather
The North Channel is renowned for its fickle weather patterns if it can be called a pattern at all. It can be flat calm onshore on either or both coasts and be blowing a storm down the middle or vise versa. Planning a swim depends on judging the weather correctly, plain and simple. I will not go if I think there is a risk of the weather blowing up.with Fergal Somerville
The Scottish coastline is sheer, barnacle encrusted jagged cliffs with a few inlets and just one very small sand beach so the swimmer has to be prepared to touch the rock and return to the boat, hence the reason why good weather is vital. It takes very little onshore wind to make the coastline uninviting.
I can think of nothing more soul destroying that starting off and making it across only to be deterred from a landing by rough waves breaking against the rocky shore. This is where the experience and knowledge of years on the North Channel pays off.
Ireland to Scotland is the preferred route and has been completed in 9hrs 34 min. The general average is between 10 and 13 hours.
The route we use while not new, is simply a variation on the old seafarer route between this part of Ireland and Scotland when fishermen used sails and oars combined with the power of the tides to get across in the shortest time.
The route I have pioneered has been copied by others with modest success as the modern GPS tracker shows the world every move, I hope my record shows how to “tweak” the route hour by hour to full advantage. Good weather is vital, again I stress, I will not start a swim if the weather forecast is not as ideal as it can possibly be.
The Scotland to Ireland route is the more difficult second choice route and takes on average around 17 hours with a very very limited chance of landing, again, against a rugged shoreline, due to continuous contrary tides on the Irish coast. I had one of the first successes on this route with Kevin Murphy and even for such a strong swimmer, the hours took their toll.
This Oceans 7 swim is becoming more sought after as the years progress, there is only one other professional pilot with a track record (Ed- Brian Maharg, Bangor Boats). I have a boat and crew dedicated to the swims and can take every available tide window, to allow as many swimmers as possible in each season.
No doubt there will be other pilots in the future, at the moment there are no others with a proven track record or the all too important local knowledge and experience necessary to gain that record.
I can only urge all aspiring swimmers who are contemplating the North Channel in the immediate years ahead to make contact with me in the first instance as soon as possible, if they want me as their pilot, to plan their attempt. Swim slots year by year are very limited.
I will advise you what is expected of you, I will tell you what I can do for you and between us we can decide on the slot available, best suited, to make your dream a reality and add your name to the North Channel Roll of Honour.
For those who have read this article and are thinking, he hasn’t mentioned a two way swim. I have been asked repeatedly about the possibility of a solo 2 way attempt. Personally, I think its nigh on impossible, for a number of reasons, mainly the contrary tides, the water temperatures and having seen the effects of a one way on the strongest of swimmers taking up to 12 hours, I consider a return attempt that could take a further 24 hours for a weakened swimmer, could be extreme punishment.
Having said that, someone is going to insist on trying it.!!
I am happy to talk to all aspiring swimmers about the North Channel.
All the swimmers I have piloted, those who have been successful and those yet to be, are well known in swim circles and will also be happy to recount their experiences and share any advice they can.
(Unrelated note: I’m still receiving congratulations for taking over the Editor in Chief position on DNOWS. While I appreciate the many kind sentiments folks, that was the fifth consecutive April Fools joke on LoneSwimmer.com. Some of you guys should just stay off the Internet on April the First !!)
8 thoughts on “Guest Article: Quinton Nelson, North Channel Pilot”
Gorgeous photos – so lovely. My previous boss was a channel pilot – they do awesome things 🙂
Thank you Sasha.
It is real amazing! We swim hear all the year, but the minimum temperature in the all year is 17° Celsius. We are consider crazy for swimming in the winter (17°-20°) about 1 KM.
Your article encourage me to continue swimming in the winter and even swim more distance as I usually do.
The shot of Quinton’s boat and Finbarr is almost alive, what a great read!
Reblogged this on Ocean Walker Ladies Relay Team and commented:
An enlightening and thought provoking look at the North Channel from our pilot Quinton Nelson with a forward from the legend that is Fergal Sommerville
The introduction was by myself, Fergal wrote the comment underneath!
Quinton is too humble. He has pioneered what we North Channel (and others) call the Quinton Nelson route. I was lucky to be the first solo swimmer to be successfully piloted on it with Quinton’s return to North Channel piloting. Brian Meharg was good enough to provide me with the introduction. I can’t thank Quinton and crew (John Daly, Tom Healy and Mags) enough with bringing me across the North Channel in June 2013 to achieve my greatest sporting accomplishment. I became the oldest to have completed the solo and was met in Portpatrick by Maggie (still the youngest). I expect Quinton to be part of re-writing these records in the coming year(s). If you have aspirations contact Quinton. The North Channel offers the toughest channel swim in the world…… Make sure you have the great man on your team