Success in the North Channel
At 2.30am on Thursday 25th August 2016 I woke up in my hotel room in Donagadhee, Northern Ireland. I had managed to get a few hours of broken sleep but the knowledge that today would be the day of my most challenging swim to date was stopping me from getting any further rest. My heart was racing and the adrenalin was pumping already even though I had over 2 hours until I would need to enter the water. This was the day I had worked towards for the past 3 years – the day I would conquer one of the world’s hardest open water swims between Ireland and Scotland, all 35km of the notorious North Channel.
As I made my way through 2 large bowls of porridge whilst mentally preparing myself for what lay ahead, my ever supportive wife Rebecca was already up carefully measuring my feeds into 20 small plastic bottles. Each one contained a precise amount of maltodextrin (carb powder), fruit squash and fruit sugar which I would be relying on at regular intervals through my swim to keep me hydrated and energised. Each bottle was diluted with cold water and would be warmed up with boiling water shortly before my feeds to give me much needed comfort at every feed. The plan was to feed on the hour for the first 3 hours and then every half hour until we reached Scotland. As with all Channel swims I would not be allowed to touch the boat whilst feeding and would instead have to tread water so it was vital that my feeds were pre prepared and efficiently delivered. Perpetration is key for a successful Channel Swim and thank goodness Rebecca was there to handle this for me as I was getting more nervous by the minute about what lay ahead for me.
At 4.45am we made our way down to Donagadee Harbour which was right outside of my hotel room door. We had arranged to meet my boat pilot Quinton at 5am so it was still very dark. This is the moment which most Channel swimmers will dread as it is entirely possible the pilot will tell you that the conditions are wrong and to try again tomorrow. This has happened to me many a time and is absolutely torturous when you have psyched yourself up only to learn that you cannot swim. I was half expecting this to be the case on this occasion like it was two years ago but these worries were soon laid to rest when Quinton emerged from his car and said we would definitely be going! We loaded the boat with all my supplies and by 5.05am we were making our way out of the harbour on the boat to the starting point in a small bay surrounded by jagged rocks just to the right of the harbour mouth. Accompanying me on the boat was my wife Rebecca and good friend & training partner Iain. Rebecca knows my mind better than anyone and Iain knows my stroke better than anyone so between them I had a perfect support team to look after me for what lay ahead. Also on the boat was an official observer from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association to monitor my every move and to ensure there was no cheating! Channel swim rules are very strict and even an accidental brush up against the boat by the swimmer can prematurely end the swim by counting as aid.
As we pulled out of the harbour it was time to get ready. I stripped off down to my swimming trunks, put on my hat and goggles and Rebecca started to apply a thick layer of Vaseline to my arms, chest and neck to stop chafing. The air temperature was bitterly cold and I could feel my teeth chattering as I stood there on the deck. Everything around me was pitch black apart from the faint illumination of the moon so for safety reasons I had to wear a flashing strobe light on my swim cap to make sure the boat would not lose me in the night. Suddenly the engines of the boat slowed and I knew we must be approaching the start point for the swim. Quinton shone a flood light on some rocks about 50m away in the distance and told me to swim to them to mark the official start of the swim. A Channel swim must start on land and finish on land so starting from the boat would not count. I said my goodbyes and at 5.09am I jumped from the side of the boat into the pitch black waters of the North Channel. As I hit the water I could feel every skin cell telling me this was a bad idea. The water felt colder than any water I had ever felt before. I later learned that it was a tropical 14 degrees but when it is dark and adrenalin is rushing through your body all of your senses are heightened. I knew the feeling would pass so I sprinted my way over to the rocks. My face was hurting with the sheer cold but I knew this was only temporary and would soon pass. The waves were hitting the rocks as I reached them which made it difficult to stand but I managed to find a footing and stand clear of the water which officially marked the start of the swim. The boat’s fog horn sounded and I dived back in to start my journey to Scotland.
Those of you that have followed my swims over the years will know that I got to this point once before in 2014 only to fail 8 hours in due to hundreds of jellyfish stings. I took my first sting in 2014 within the first few minutes of the swim so I was very apprehensive this time round of a similar experience. The scars of my previous attempt were still very fresh in my mind and I was starting to panic. I was starting to doubt myself in terms of physical and mental strength but I pushed these thoughts aside and before I knew it I was starting to relax into my usual easy stoke. The temperature no longer seemed so awful either. Pain from the cold had been replaced by numbness, which I can work with. As long as I kept my arms moving I could generate enough heat to keep my core temperature exactly where it needed to be. My preparation and training was paying off and I was officially feeling positive about the swim for the first time that day.
After 1 hour of swimming I heard a whistle sound which marked my first feed. The hour had gone very slowly and I was grateful for the chance to stop and assess my progress. I stopped to tread water as my crew passed down a basket containing a warm bottle of my feed mix. It was a welcome relief from the cold salty water and I could feel myself warming from the inside out. I was feeling strong and determined having pushed all negative doubts away. I turned to look back at how far I had swam and was pleased to see some decent progress. I returned my feeding bottle to the basket it had been passed down to me in and started swimming my second hour.
The second hour went a little bit quicker than the first and also brought with it the welcome addition of the sun rising. I was no longer swimming in pitch black and could now see my hands in front of me which gave me more confidence. I always breathe to the right when I swim so it was really good for me to be able to make out my crew’s faces with every breathe I took. They were looking positive and I could tell they were pleased with my consistency. I was holding 48 strokes per minute and my technique felt good. The water was uncharacteristically calm and I couldn’t help but think this felt more like swimming in an outdoor lido rather than the ocean. I reminded myself how lucky I was for this and prayed that the conditions would hold, which they did. By the time my second feed came around Ireland was starting to fade into the distance. I had covered 6 miles by now which I was delighted to hear and was feeling stronger with every stroke
Swimming any Channel is considered much more of a mental test of endurance than a physical one. Hour 3 is the time when most Channel swimmers will hit their first psychological wall and I could feel mine starting to come. I have been in tears before at this stage in a swim due to feeling so hopeless and lonely but I was determined not to fall into that spiralling trap. The key is to nip these negative thoughts in the bud before they get a chance to gain momentum so any time I caught myself starting to give way to the demons I quickly pulled myself out of it by reminding myself this was just 1 day out of my entire life and would all be worth it soon. I replaced any negative thoughts with positive ones and managed to avoid the 3 hour wall all together as a result. The water was still beautifully calm and now the sun was up I could see below me into the depths. I was expecting it to be murky but it was in fact crystal clear. I could not see the bottom as the water was a good few hundred metres deep but I could make out various forms and shapes in the depths, mainly jellyfish, which kept me occupied.
It was round about this point that I realised I had still not been stung! I had seen numerous jellyfish but somehow managed to glide over the tops of them. At this exact point I typically took my first sting… right to the face. I had swam face first into a Lions Main jellyfish and could feel it’s burn coursing over my face and torso. I freaked out a bit but reminded myself that this was just 1 sting in 3 hours compared to hundreds in that time frame last time round. This was good and I embraced it as a positive.
Lions Main jellyfish are strangely beautiful and hypnotic creatures. They are the largest species of jellyfish in the world and can grow to vast sizes. The largest on record was longer than a blue whale coming in at 128 feet from body to tentacles so it is a little intimidating to know they are everywhere in the North Channel. Luckily I did not see any of monstrous size. Most of the ones I saw had bodies the size of dinner plates and tentacles spanning about 3m in diameter. They certainly still packed a punch though and I took a total of 6 stings during my journey by accidently swimming into their floating tentacles at various points. After my first sting at the 3.5 hr mark I knew what to expect and the thought of being stung again was no longer so terrifying.
I was now on feeding every half hour and knew I must be about a third of the way through my journey. I could no longer make out land behind me and could see a faint silhouette of land in front of me. This is a truly magical place to be during a swim when you cannot see land anywhere. It defines channel swimming in my opinion so I took time at my 4 hr feed to lie on my back and soak in the atmosphere. My pilot did not take too kindly to this and told me to get a move on. Feeds should take 10 – 20 seconds as every second you stop is time when you are potentially drifting back so from this point on I tried to be a bit more disciplined and speed my feeds.
As we reached the 4.5 hour mark I was just over half way. My crew informed me that if I kept up this pace I would break the world record which filled me with confidence. My stroke had remained at a consistent 48 stroke per minute the entire time and my shoulders were still feeling strong. The waters were calm and I was still somehow dodging all of the jellyfish. This swim was meant to be! In the North Channel the tides can be very temperamental but generally the harder you work at the start of the swim, the easier it is to break through the strong tides towards the end. I therefore decided to pick up my pace as I was feeling fresh enough to do it so increased my speed to 52 strokes per minute. This may sound a subtle increase but it does take more effort to do. It would however be worth it if it meant a greater chance of breaking through the tides off the Scottish coast which many a swimmer fails to do. Some swimmers get within a few hundred metres of shore only to be pulled from the water due to missing the tides so keeping up my pace was essential.
At my 5 hour feed I could tell I was way over half way. Scotland looked like it was getting closer by the second however I tried to avoid looking at it too much as the distance can appear very deceptive. Land looks close enough to touch for a good ten miles before you reach it so it can be very torturous to keep looking for it. It was round about this point that I could feel my energy levels starting to drop. I took a couple of caffeine pills to give me a much needed boost and powered on through.
By six hours I was starting to hit another psychological wall. I could feel myself doubting my abilities as my body was staring to give way to exhaustion. My core and shoulders were now starting to ache and it took all my strength to push through and keep swimming. This is where the power of the mind really does come in. At the time I desperately wanted to be anywhere else but in the cold waters of the North Channel and the pain was really starting to bother me. My technique was holding nicely and there was no more I could have done physically so I put into practice something I have been working on a lot on training, managing to dissociate my mind from my body. Dissociation involves detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis. When mastered, it is a very useful skill to have. I took my mind back to my warm bed in my hotel room where I knew I would soon be and I stayed there for a good few hours. During this time my stroke and form held perfectly whilst my mind was completely at peace despite the extreme conditions my body was experiencing. I was bought back to reality at around the 9 hour mark by the sight and sound of dolphins which apparently had been swimming with me on and off for the last few hours. Swimming with dolphins in the wild is always fun and makes these swims extremely special.
At 9.5 hours Scotland looked close enough to touch. I could now see the white houses of Port Patrick on the shore line and could make out the distinctive colours of the rocks. Progress however had slowed as I had now hit the notorious Scottish tides. My speed had remained perfectly constant throughout but now I was moving much slower than I was previously. I had 3 miles left to cover and had no choice but to power on through. I could feel my arms working hard and bringing me closer with every stroke. I later learned that my shoulders had turned black by this point due to the circulation of the blood in the extreme cold which shows just how hard I was working.
Ten hours arrived and we decided it would be my final feed. One last push to get to land in order to beat the tides which were fast pushing me down the Scottish coast. The water felt very choppy at this stage as the various currents of the tides battled each other. It was a very exhilarating experience and I knew I was very nearly there. The houses and buildings looked very close now and I could see my crew getting excited. We had officially broken through the tides.
My friend Iain got in to swim beside me at this point so he could escort me into land. It was wonderful to have the company after 10.5 hours of loneliness and I knew this must mean that touching land was inevitable. We swam hard and at 10 hours 58 we landed on Scotland. We had missed the lighthouse of Port Patrick which we were aiming for and instead landed on jagged rocks. I tried to gain my footing but standing up vertically after such a long time horizontally in cold water is easier said than done. I could feel the rocks cutting into my feet as the waves crashed against me but finally I managed to stand and the swim was officially a success. I had officially swum the North Channel.
We swam back to the boat and my crew helped pull me on board. I wrapped up as my wife got me dressed and reflected on what had just taken place. I made my way down into the engine room, curled up and went to sleep whilst the boat made the return journey back to Ireland.
As I slept I dreamed about what had just taken place. It was a life changing experience and the end of a 3 year obsession. The thing that made the swim so special for me was that it was my second attempt. After my failed attempt in 2014 I was devastated. It would have been easy to give up and never return but I worked hard for a further 2 years and came back stronger. Completing this swim on my second attempt was a deeply humbling and spiritual experience which I will remember for the rest of my life, for the greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.