Take a teaspoon of cement, and toughen the hell up!
It says something about a person, when they choose to take on the challenge of swimming the North Channel. I am not too sure that it is all flattering, but certainly it includes a clear mandate to face down your deepest fears. To jump all in, to laugh in the face of icy waters. To punish your quivering heart with pain and suffering, to chase a goal and get there, whatever the cost. Or die trying. That is the kind of steely determination that I found myself surrounded by, supported by the cast and crew of Infinity and the class of 2019 in Donaghadee. I measured myself to be wanting in many of these characteristics, flawed in the quiet corners of my deepest fears, but vowed to plod on regardless. If the measure of a person is the company they keep, then I figured that I was in pretty safe hand with the incredible people of this tight-knit Irish community and the vista of the Emerald Isle. Fake it till you make it was my unspoken mandate. And so, I took my medicine: a teaspoon of cement, and washed it down with briny water, a side of Lions’ mane, and toughened the hell up! This fair-weathered Aussie girl was going to swim the North Channel.
I spent a week in the charming seaside Irish town of Donaghadee, passing the time “marinating” in the cool (actually bone chilling) water and nervous weather-watching with my fellow swimmers. We were guided daily by the ever-calm and cautious Padraig, and the kind consideration of Jacqueline, the cheeky confidence of Milo, the endlessly updated WillyWeather App, and the support of my friends and family and the wonderful Chunky Dunker community. My turn eventually came. My number was up. It was time to put up or shut up, to piss or get off the pot (pardon my French). An so I packed, repacked, and packed my bags again, slept not a wink, pulled on my lucky red swimmers, and jumped into the backseat of our tiny rental car to face my fate. We drove the 10 minutes to the marina, fast, lost and just a little out of control. I sat in the back seat, silently nibbling on a banana but tasting only metallic fear, and was reminded of the mad dash to a maternity hospital. Hopefully this would be marginally less painful and come with some of the rewards, and all of the bragging rights of a well delivered baby. It was game day.
The boat ride from marina to the starting point on the rocky shores of Donaghadee was eerily quiet. The sky was showing the first bruises of a sunrise and the water began to lighten from inky to blue. And to my delight, it looked glassy flat with barely a breath of wind. Could it be? Surly not. Could the weather forecast be correct in its promise for the perfect day? I began to feel a little giddy with relief, things were looking so promising, all was going to plan. And I had the A Team aboard in my corner. Looking about the boat, no one looked worried, everyone had a task and they approached every move with professional precision. They were resolute and ready, willing to do whatever it took to get my well-tanned, Queensland butt across this patch of water, where no middle-aged Aussie girl had any business, but was going to have a crack anyway. What the hell, this is my turn!
For any marathon swim, I always find the hardest part is finding the courage to get in. I faff about with sunscreen, chafe-barrier cream, clear goggles, tinted goggles, yellow cap or blue, a million last minute instructions that get lost in the blur, until I have no choice but to slide over the edge of the boat. I am certain that Padraig was moments away from pushing me overboard, had I not finally summoned the courage to slip my well-greased body off the edge of the boat and make way for the craggy shore to make a start. I remember gasping as I hit the water, catching my breath, and calling to the crew “positively tropical”. Fake it till you make it, remember.
The endlessly kind and generous folk of the Chunky Dunkers had set an early alarm this morning, and come to gather with guiding torch lights on the foreshore, to see the channel wanna-bes safety on their way. Bless them, I could never have found that starting rock without them. There were three swimmers in the water on this perfect day, the whistle sounded and we were all away to the cheers from shore and crew. Bingo, this was it. I settled in and started doing what I had come to do. Come on, old girl, you can do this.
What goes on at war should stay at war, never really spoken of again. But suffice to say, I had the perfect day. The Infinity crew aboard the boat that day were superb. They were genuinely engaged in each moment, invested heavily in the outcome of my dreams. The A Team indeed, I felt their support willing me along every stroke of the way. Jacqueline asked me at one point how I was doing, to which I replied “Easier than childbirth” My husband retorted “Well, you have done that four times”. Bugger.
With a trusty whiteboard, I was given regular updates and cheerful messages, and the day clicked over largely without mishap to the beat of some of my favourite tunes. I did have the good fortune to have worn non-prescription goggles, and optimistically interpreted some of the messages written upon said whiteboard. As the sun came out mid channel, a water temperature update read 16.8 degrees. Holy smokes, I was beside myself with delight. I had managed to nail it, and scored the warmest day in the history of the Irish Sea. Never mind that my myopic vision had misread 14.8, the lift in my spirits was immeasurable. Time ticked over it the strangely warped fashion that seems to flow in these big swims. It was taking forever, an eternity, and then suddenly it was drawing to an end. Padraig leaned over the side of the boat, peering out through a pea-soup fog, and gave me strict instructions. “Anna, stick with me and I’ll have you ashore in 30 minutes”. Well, let me tell you, Velcro couldn’t have attached me closer to that boat. I stuck with him, and Padraig delivered on his promise, and we finally found the shore as it appeared ghostly from the murky fog. “You found it” I yelled at the boat. “Shut up and finish” they replied. And so I did.
My husband was manning a video camera at this point, filming my reaction to hitting the shore. I was thinking about what I should say, considerate to the sensibility of viewers, as it would surely include my kids. Not wanting to swear, I settled on thick blasphemy. “Holy Mary, Mother of Christ” I mumbled with an entirely numb face, raising a cackle from all aboard and sent straight to Facebook. Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.
Back aboard my trusty pilot boat, I quickly changed into every piece of clothing that I had, covered tightly with a dry robe and my toasty Chunky Dunker beanie. I lay down, sipping warm sweet tea, and entered into a true state of bliss. I had done it. We had done it. The Infinity crew had got me across the roughest and coldest damn stretch of water on the planet, completing one of the toughest ocean swims, and I was alive to tell the tale. Damn, I was one happy and relieved fish. I wanted for nothing more, completely sated, I could only grin like a fool (once my face thawed).
The crew fussed about me for a bit before we made way back to Irish shores. I deposited the majority of the last few feeds back over the side, good riddance. I arrived green and undignified at the safe harbor of Donaghadee to a warm welcome, a quick pit stop in the liquor store (I have a 50 hidden in my swimmers, always), and a Very Very VERY long hot shower.
So as they say, marathon swimming is a sport that requires 10% physical delivery and 90% mental strength. I would like to make a significant alteration to this equation, and submit it to the general fray of the international ocean community for comment. I believe that any marathon swim requires 10% physical delivery, 10 % mental commitment, and easily 80% effort comes from friends, family and support crew aboard the pilot boat on the day. And so, you see, this Aussie girl who seemed to be the “Swimmer-Least-Likely” to get across the North Channel, was actually a sure bet. The odds were fixed, the betting rigged, the outcome assured the moment I stepped aboard that trusty Infinity vessel surrounded by the A Team. Thank you Infinity, you are the best.
And to those who perhaps don’t believe me, I actually have proof. They must be the best, because I have signed up to do it all over again. Watch this space, I can’t wait for the recap. (I had better get myself a whole truckload of cement too).