The build up to the swim was an emotional roller coaster. As the team scoured weather forecasts from several sources trying to figure out if the weather gods would give a window of opportunity and if so how kind would that opportunity be. After the first attempt the rest of the team knew what challenges lay ahead; tidal eddies, whirlpools, overfalls and random waves. The stretch of water between the Mull of Kintyre and Ireland is renowned for its hostile sea state when 1km either side might be flat calm.
On Thursday the initial forecast showed Tuesday to be the day and it looked fairly steady but a big high pressure off the Atlantic was playing havoc and making weather predictions difficult. The forecast soon changed to a Sunday start at Midnight and we all began mental preparation for a night swim. It held this way for some time, Saturday and Sunday was spent checking lists, prepping food and supplies and making sure that I ate well. Padraig and John travelled up to Ballycastle early on Sunday to see the skipper of our boat Aquaholics 2and check the weather onsite. After waiting anxiously all afternoon the call was made at 5pm that the swim would be delayed to a Monday midday start. A quick scan of the forecasts proved it was the right choice as the calmer weather had not come through as quickly as predicted. We all stood down and enjoyed a nice dinner and off to bed early (with a glass of red of course).
We all met at Ballycastle Marina with smiles and welcomed each other, spirits were high as the forecast looked good and a massive improvement on the weather from the last attempt at the swim earlier in the summer. The mood was kept light by everyone, some friendly banter as I felt some nerves start to kick in for me anyway and I can only guess by othersl. Richard the skipper soon arrived and we got straight to loading the boat. All the swimmers had been here before except me there was a quiet determination as everyone got on with the tasks at hand in preparation for departure. A few team photos on the pontoon and a very simple and effective pep talk by Padraig. He told us the order we were swimming Me, John, Olive then Adrian and simply stated ‘and we keep going till we hit Ireland, Yeah!!’ No opportunity for questions as we were all accomplished swimmers. No stopping for any reason was the very clear message. John then piped up to read a text instruction from a friend and swimmer from Camlough ‘Don’t F*&^ it up’. It was the same message from the same person that I received after
I screwed up a qualifying swim for the EC. And that was the motto for the day.
We wasted no time and headed straight for Fair Head on the Irish coast before taking a direct course to the Mull of Kintyre. Everyone found their own space on-board andobservantly watched the sea state as we travelled. It certainly wasn’t as calm as we had hoped or predicted. No one was willing to say anything negative in front of each other but you could read from each other’s faces what was felt.
We slowed to a stop and hovered in the water approx. 1km off the Mull’s most south western headland to allow Richard and Padraig time to look at the tidal flows as the water is very unpredictable in this area. Initially we thought we would wait there for approx. one hour to watch what the tide was doing to get the right time. Suddenly I am told to get changed and ready to swim. After countless hours examining charts months with Padraig in the build up to the swim I had complete faith in his decision. I have become extremely impressed with his approach to each swim presenting meticulous planning and technical analysis of both tides and swimmers ability. I finish my carb drink and get myself ready with the help of Eoghan to get greased up. Probably a good thing not to spend too much time thinking. Richard takes the boat as close as possible to the Mull.
With a few roars and Yoo’s the encouragement begins. It’s about a 100m swim to a very steep and rocky coast line and I pick my spot between two big seals lounging on the boulders. Within 10m of swimming to the shore I can feel an ice cream head kicking in. What the feck have I let myself in for! As I climb out of the water the seals slide into the sea obviously put out by the new guy on the block. I carefully balance on a huge boulder raise my hands and wait for the whistle. As Gary signals the start the team quickly follow with more shouts and screams of encouragement.
One good thing about the cold, it helps you swim fast and I can feel that I am starting off a little too quick but it’s hard not to with the shock of the cold water. I am quickly distracted from the cold before I reach the boat as I encounter some of the North Channel local inhabitants (Lions Manes), 3 big browny red Lion’s ManeJelly Fish in front of me. It fairly focused the mind and I managed to swim through a small gap in the Jellies not wanting to get stung so early on. Then another Jelly and another. Some with their tentacles trailing along behind others upside down with their tentacle spread out like a spider’s web. It was like this for 5 mins or so and with the expert guidance of Gary and his whistle I managed to avoid them for now. Thankfully the visibility is excellent and you have a good chance of seeing the Brown Blobs before swimming into them.
The calm waters close to the shore quickly turned to the messy chop we had witnessed on the boat while driving to the Mull and I slapped my way through the waves trying my best to keep some momentum. Then after half an hour it all just calmed down, there was still some wind chop but not the mess I had just been in. I settled down and found a good rhythm interrupted by the occasional whistle from Gary to help me navigate past the brown monsters. I am feeling strong and as I get out of the boat I learn I had put in 5.6k for the first hour happy with this performance even with some tidal push. Eoghan is very attentive and quickly gets me inside, changed and warmed up with some hot drinks.
John is the 2nd swimmer and he soon settles in to a steady stroke rate and we make good ground in a South Westerly direction. Padraig is pleased with our progress as he compares our current position against the previous attempt. Olive starts to get ready as John finishes his last 15 mins. The youngest swimmer among us at only 16 years old. She shows amazing maturity and needing no encouragement just jumps in and tackles the job head on. As member of Armagh ASC she is one of our stronger swimmers and puts many oldies to shame.
Our resident DJ Adrian is the final swim in the first rotation. He has been motivating us with his eclectic tunes from his IPod. In 2014 Adrian completed a North Channel Relay and was also part of the original attempt earlier this year in much tougher conditions. With much calmer seas and the benefit of going fourth Adrian knew that we were making great progress and was eager to get in and play his part. As Olive climbs out on the ladder to the encouragement of the crew, she pauses and just says ‘what is that shit music’. The entire boat busts into laughter as we bring our awareness to the current background music. Perhaps some of the older tunes from Hot House Flowers isn’t very current to a 16 year old and I kind of agree to her statement. Unfortunately Olive was the only team member to get stung and is quickly attended to by Eoghan and her Dad Ian as they use a lotion of baking soda and credit card to scrape off the tentacles that are still stinging. Not a word of complaint from Olive. Soon into the Adrian’s swim we learn that we have covered half the distance but are very quickly warned the hardest part is yet to come.
Our first full rotation is complete and I fuel up and grease up ready for round two. The water somehow feels warmer and there are occasional warm patches. I think I am going well but Padraig then presents a sign. Your speed is 4.2kph we need 4.7kph. I dig deep and try to find more saying to myself ‘Don’t F*&^ it up’! For the next 30mins I try my best to keep swimming at full capacity. I Get signalled from the boat one minute to go and I can see John ready to jump in. I had just avoided a few jelly fish but just as john jumped in about 3-4 appeared nearby. As luck would have it he landed two feet first on top of the Jelly. My heart went out to him, not a whimper he just got on with the job and away he went. I later found out, miraculously he did not get stung and the two of us rejoice after at having no stings so far.
As olive swims we are all keen to get updates from Padraig on how we are tracking. An excitement is building and simple calculations based on speed and distance suggest that we could finish within Adrian’s swim. Padraig is quick to remind us that the last swim got to 800m of the shore before being swept away by the tide along the North Coast unable to get in. During Olives 2nd swim the tide is turning which means slack water. With 30 mins left of Olive’s allocated swim time I gather the team at the side of the boat to shout, roar and wave encouragement at Olive every time she looks at the boat. It was vital to use this slack water to gain ground to shore (Plus it might mean I wouldn’t need to get in again!) She responds brilliantly to every bit of encouragement and you can noticeably see more power being applied to every swim stroke. Enthused by her response we all shout louder! Again we are all amazed at the toughness and resilience of this 16 year old girl who no doubt has a bright future in Channel Swimming. The shore is now tantalisingly close but everyone is too afraid too get too ahead of themselves given previous experiences. Padraig has given instructions for lights strobes to be fitted to John and my goggles, no doubt to keep our minds focused that there is every possibility we might have to get back in.
There is approx. 2km to reach shore as the crow fly’s and Adrian is getting ready. Before he jumps in he is told by several people including me ‘Don’t F*&^ it up’. We eagerly stand over the side of the boat willing him on with every stroke. Constantly assessing our current speed, he is pacing at 3.6kph with less than 2k to go. Everyone is nervous as we watch the tracker and we are swinging hard north again as the tide turns. The water is calm and we are all watching to see if any standing waves or turbulent water might appear. At 200m to go I reach for my hipflask and declare that’s me done no need to get back in. Milo’s red bottle is waved at Adrian for some extra motivation to finish. There is a roar of rejoice from Adrian and the boat as he stands up on a boulder and holds his hands up in celebration.
We finished in a time of 7hrs 33mins at the bottom of Slieve Cross in Cushendall Bay.
Adrian swims back to the boat and in typical Northern Ireland Sarcasm we tell him he still has 30 mins to swim!! Within minutes he is on-board and we are speeding back to Ballycastle. As we pass Torr Head and Fair Head minutes later we can see the tidal eddies, standing waves and angry tides clash together from the Atlantic, North Sea and Irish Sea. There is a quiet sigh of relief from the entire boat that we did not end up there. Thanks to the expert piloting from Padraig and Richard we finished well south of Torr Head purposely to avoid the angry waters that meet there.A huge thank you to Padraig and the crew from Infinity Channel Swimming (Richard and Eoghan) http://infinitychannelswimming.com/ . Your care and attention is second to none. Also thanks to our observer Gary who also took a very proactive role in looking after our well being.