A new start to the open water swimming history books and in the history of marathon swimming commences as the 210•SOUTHWEST relay team complete the Dál Riata channel crossing.
This swim was first pioneered by Wayne Soutter and is a challenging stretch of water between Mull of Kintyre, Scotland, and the headlands of Northern Ireland. Tough tidal flows mean that landfall could be within a long radius between Cushendall, Cushendun, and Torr Head.
The hungry look in the eyes of these four swimmers as they each prepared to undertake the challenge was immense. North (Irish) channel waters are unpredictable, cold with tough eddys currents to navigate, and the ever present lions mane jellyfish.
TEAM 210•Southwest started at 11.42 am with Keith Garry as the first to swim. With a previous English channel solo success in his repertoire speed overtime was his goal. With large seals surrounding him there was no doubt even their swim speed was tasked to keep up as in Keith’s first hour he covered 5.6 kilometers taking the team well out into the channel.
Next to swim was John McElroy with precious North channel relay swim knowledge and many hours of swim training and acclimatisation he attacked the high waves and rough water.
Sixteen-year-old amazingly talented open water swimmer and ice swimmer Olive Conroy was next to weave her magic and like a mermaid, she makes no master of the tough tide gracefully advancing through some cold waters at top speed hitting 70 strokes per minute giving this team all the more urgent to set their eyes on the prize of landfall at Cushendun in record time.
Adrian Poucher was the fourth swimmer of this record-setting relay team. Again his knowledge of the North (Irish) channel as a member of the eleven feet relay team held good stead for this swim. His powerful swim stroke taking no mercy to the many jellyfish encountered.
Each team member would swim twice guided by pilots Pádraig Mallon, Richard Lafferty and crew on Aquaholics II and at 7.15pm Adrain Poucher climbed onto the rocks raising his hands in celebration of a first-ever successful relay crossing of the Dál Riata channel reaching landfall at Cross Slieve, Cushendun Bay in an amazing time of 7 hours 33 minutes 16 seconds.
Olive Conroy, Keith Garry, Adrian Poucher, and John McElroy swam as fast as the wind to take this one home. Congratulations to them on this pioneering relay success.
It is with this team, Mo McCoy and Wayne Soutter who’s a wealth of knowledge about this body of water can now be an aspiration and achievement for many solo and relay teams for years to come.
TEAM 210 SOUTHWEST DÁL RIATA CHANNEL SWIM (MULL OF KINTYRE TO IRELAND)
7TH AUGUST 2015
Earlier in the summer the team had attempted a relay swim of the Dál Riata Channel. The weather conditions were less than favourable with big swell and gusts. After 13 hours the team threw in the towel after pushing for hours only 800m from shore but making no ground only to be swept North towards Rathlin. 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.
I was a new addition to the team and the others included John McElroy and Adrian Poucher from Newry who had both been part of a successful relay team to cross the North Channel on the traditional swim route. The fourth swimmer was Olive Conroy a 16-year-old from Armagh and a very strong swimmer who had recently entered the world of open water. Her father Ian and boyfriend Eoghan Jones were crew. Also on board was Gary McCourt who acted as observer/crew, Pilot Padraig Mallon (infinitychannelswimming.com ) and the skipper of Aquaholics II Richard.
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.
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 II and 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. 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 for the others also. Richard the skipper soon arrived and we got straight to loading the boat. All the swimmers had been here before except me and 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 English Channel. 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 and observantly 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 southwestern 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 was told to get changed and ready to swim. After countless hours examining charts 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 yoos the encouragement begins. It’s about a 100m swim to a very steep and rocky coastline 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 follows with more shouts and screams of encouragement. I later find out my start time was 11:42 am, this happens to be the exact time it took me to swim the English Channel last year. A little bit of fate perhaps!
One good thing about the cold, it helps you swim fast and I can feel that I am starting off a little too quickly 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 (Lion’s Mane Jellyfish), 3 big browny red Lion’s Mane Jelly 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 tentacles 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 covered 5.6k for the first hour. I am 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 into a steady stroke rate and we make a 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 a member of Armagh ASC, she is one of our stronger swimmers and puts many oldies to shame.
Our resident DJ Adrian is the final swimmer 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 with 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 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 near 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 jellyfish but just as john jumped in about 3 or 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 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 Olive’s second 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 the added advantage of me not needing to go 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 to get too ahead of themselves given previous experiences. Padraig has given instructions for light 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 flies 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 GPS Navigation and we are swinging hard north again as the tide turns. The sea state 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 upon a boulder and holds his hands up in celebration.
We finished in a time of 7hrs 33mins 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 as planned to avoid the angry waters that meet there.
More photos of our journey can be found here
A huge thank you to Padraig, Jacqueline, and the crew from infinity Channel Swimming. Your care and attention is second to none.
The Dal Riata Channel was first pioneered by Wayne Soutter in 2012. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he finally completed the swim on 26th August. Through the preparation stage, Padraig was in contact with Wayne who was very excited that 3 years later the swim would again be attempted. He has been very supportive and very giving with information to assist our challenge swim. Information on his original swim can be found here
Our thanks and respect go to Wayne for his help and his groundbreaking achievements on this channel swim.
Coverage of the first attempt by Team 210 Southwest Click to view