In this post I’ll tell the story of my North Channel crossing, what it meant for me, and how I prepared for it. A month after my swim I’m still in disbelief, processing the great feeling of accomplishment, and licking my wounds, but I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get started…
The North Channel
The North Channel is one of the most difficult channels in the world. It’s one of the Oceans Seven, 21.4 miles (34.5km) between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Water Temperature is on average roughly between 51F and 59F (11C and 15C), so much colder than the English Channel. The weather is also quite variable and strong winds can pick up any time. The swim is cross-current, just like the English Channel, but the tides are shorter so that the swimmer has a shorter window than usual, and can take the swimmer so off-course that completion becomes impossible.
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish are almost synonymous with the North Channel! These critters can become quite large, and are fiercely poisonous. It’s quite common for swimmers to go into shock after being stung, and some cases can be quite serious.
Fear(s), Weakness, and Training
As I described, there are two things the North Channel is infamous for: Very Cold Water and Vicious Jellyfish.
I’ve never been good at cold water. As a kid I used to shiver uncontrollably when swimming in poorly heated pools in winter. When I started swimming in the Bay without a wetsuit I noticed right away how I was getting cold faster than my friends. During my very first marathon swim, the 5 Coves of Death, I would have pulled myself if it wasn’t for Andrew, who motivated me to swim one last cove, of which I remember very little.
Jellyfish and I also have history. My first open water swim, in San Terenzo, the Gulf of Poets, when I was 16 (20 years ago) ended with me pulling myself because I was frightened by the many jellies! I had nightmares that night, dreaming of those ghostly balloons bumping into me.
I approached Bay swimming right at the time when Kim Chambers completed her Oceans Seven. The stories of her North Channel sounded like something out of a scifi novel. I couldn’t even fathom how I could get from my 20′-30′ in 60F to more than 10 hours in water hovering around 55F.
As I started getting serious about this sport I kept dreaming big of trying my best on this huge challenge. As I met more and more crazy likeminded people that supported me I started thinking of it seriously, even without admitting it out loud. Then, in 2018, my partner in Crime, Lauren Lesyna, and I finally bit the bullet and emailed Pàdraig (from the best piloting company over the North Channel: Infinity). We got our dates for 2021, which seemed enough in the future… At the time our plan was to ramp up to it with our English Channel crossing in 2020, so we started some intense cold water training that winter, just to be curbed by the COVID-19 pandemic… we took the rest of the year pretty easy, and started again in October, with our Angel Island Swim. From there, with the clubs still closed, we hit winter hard, swimming out of the beach, getting changed off the trunks of our cars and using the car heater as our personal sauna. Needless to say that the lack of the crutch of the sauna helped immensely in building acclimation and silencing some of the insecurities.
Lauren and I were a Dream Team all through these months, motivating and pushing each other. She’s an absolute badass and having her as a training partner inspired me to push harder and never give up. Of course we had plenty of moments to slack, float around, chit chat and snivel, taking an insanely long time to get in whenever Randy wasn’t there to corral us into the water, but we also had a lot of hard cold swims. All through winter we hit aquatic park 6 days a week, jumping in the dark before work, and coming back for 3–4 hours swims in the weekend. We also did plenty of crucial long swims with Sylvia from Pacific Open Water Swim Co.. two 6 hours swims and two 8 hours swims were excellent training, and a great chance to try out new feeds. Sylvia is one of the most capable pilots out there, super knowledgeable (also due to being herself a badass marathon swimmer) and a great Friend.
Lauren, Sylvia, and yours truly having a lot of Type II fun.
We had our qualifier swim at the end of February, and here’s where I hit my biggest challenge: my hips seized very bad and I barely made it to 6 hours. Another 8 hours swim ended at 6h50′ for me, when my right leg cramped so bad I couldn’t swim anymore.
It turned out that the lack of cross training together with sitting down for work caused a lot of tension in my hips that resulted in excruciating cramps and ultimately in my leg getting so stiff I couldn’t swim any more.
I have to thank Erin and Albert for putting me back together: strength training twice a week and weekly sessions of deep tissue and cupping finally brought results and in a couple of months I was pain free again and able to swim 8 hours without issues!
As Lauren crushed the swim on July 1st 2021 I was so inspired by her strength and I couldn’t wait to get my own chance. I spent the last two months of training visualizing the swim and taking exclusively cold showers (I hate cold showers), since the Bay was getting too warm. After a few Round Trip Golden Gate swims with my favorite South Enders (Ariana, Zach, Miguel, Peter, Maryam, Fiona, Andrew, etc.) the time to leave for Ireland finally arrived!