The alarm went off at 3.30am although I had barely slept a wink that night due to the nerves of what was about to come. 18 months of hard training 6 days a week had finally come to fruition as I was about to prepare for the hardest swim of my life, the North Channel. The hotel would not provide a breakfast at such an ungodly hour so I loaded up on 3 pastries and 2 bowls of instant porridge. I could barely eat as I was so nervous but knew that I had to so forced myself to do it. We had prepared all of the kit bags the night before and these were all waiting at the door. Bags full of high carb drinks, cake, jelly babies and emergency supplies were meticulously measured and planned to aid me over the estimated 12 hour swim. 5am came and we started to make our way to the harbour to meet the rest of the crew.
As you may know from previous articles of mine this swim was supposed to take place 2 weeks earlier but was aborted due to bad weather which stopped me even entering the water. This meant that the only crew I had this time was my mother and a contact from Dublin Mark who had kindly agreed to step in at the last minute as none of the original crew could make it. He had selflessly driven through the night to help me. Both did an amazing job through the swim and I could not have got as far as I did without their support. The three of us discussed a feeding plan and at 5.15am we were picked up by the boat crew. We boarded and started getting me ready for my journey.
I was introduced to the observer from the Irish Long Distance swimming Association who would monitor the swim and record my every move to make sure there was no cheating! It was time to get ready to swim. This involved greasing up with Vaseline to stop me chafing, applying a glow stick to my goggles to stop me getting lost in the night and making last minute adjustments to the kit. The boat then guided us to the start just outside of Donghadee harbour.
At 5.30am I entered the water and swam to shore as a Channel swim is only valid if it starts on land and finishes on land. I was expecting the usual extreme pain of the cold as I entered the 13 degrees water but this never came. Perhaps it was the nerves or the sheer joy at finally being able to swim but I was in a good place and the water felt absolutely fine. I touched land and was given the signal to start my swim. It was pitch black still and all I could see was the light on my support boat as I turned to breathe every few strokes. The water temperature was perfect and I was very comfortable. The conditions were ideal and the sea was like a mill pond. This was awesome and I could not believe my luck as the North Channel is usually very rough! If I had swam the week before it would have been 12 ft waves all the way. Today though was totally calm.
Within 5 minutes I felt a familiar jolt of pain to my face and arms. It was like a net of acid covering me which was quickly spreading to every cell of my skin. I had swum straight into my first Lions Main jellyfish something which I was about to get uncomfortably familiar with. I have been stung before but I have always been able to see them. As it was pitch black I had no warning and this was a shock to me. I knew what it was though and just carried on expecting that to be just one of a few.
My feeding plan was to feed every hour for the first 2 hours then every 30 minutes for the duration of the swim. This was designed to give me a strong start and catch the tide as in the Irish Channel you need to swim fast as well as strong in order to work with the tides. My first hour had passed and it was time for the first feed. When I swam the English Channel in 2006 my bottles of feed were thrown down to me and I would attempt to throw them back. As I am an atrocious thrower (my one year old daughter throws better) I lost several bottles at sea so this time we devised a method of lowering my feeds to me in a basket on a pole! This worked really well as I could simply place my empty bottles back in the basket after each feed. This worked like clockwork and I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling. I had been stung a few more times by this 1 hour feed but thought nothing of it.
I was swimming at my usual 48 strokes per minute which is a very low stroke rate for most swimmers who will do 75 or 80. My stroke is very long and graceful and has been carefully designed to conserve energy and keep me at exactly 2 miles per hour pace which I thought would be OK but the boat crew were looking concerned. I could see them talking hurriedly amongst themselves with worried looks and knew there was a problem. I stopped and asked what was up. Apparently I was not swimming fast enough. I was surprised as I think of myself as quite a fast swimmer. My personal best for 100m is 57 seconds and my plod pace for a channel swim is exactly 2 miles per hour. The tides however had other ideas and were due to change earlier than we first thought. If I didn’t pick up the pace I would miss the tide change and not make it into Scotland. I know so many swimmers who have got within 1 mile of their destination never to make it in as the tides are pushing them backwards faster than they are swimming forwards. I was not going to be one of those statistics so picked up the pace. This was a change in plan which I was not expecting but I picked up the pace and went at 2.5 – 3 miles per hour for 4 hours. I was feeling strong and managing my feeds well. I was however being stung repeatedly every few seconds and it was like swimming through jellyfish soup.
The water was still like a mill pond and the temperature was a tropical 16 degrees! These sound like ideal swimming conditions but there is a down side. The warmer and the calmer the water the higher the jellyfish stay and in higher numbers. The North Channel is famous for its concentration of Lions Main Jellyfish. They are huge red animals with tentacles of up to a meter long and for the duration of my swim I was constantly banging into them and being stung.
This was not pleasant and was starting to affect me. Each sting was like a shot of agony. The jellyfish are so big out there and their tentacles so long that when you swim it to them it can take a couple of strokes to get out of their grip. I could feel their tentacles clinging to me and could feel them pulsing their venom into me which was really unnerving as well as agonising.
6 hours into the swim I asked how I was doing and the response was absolutely brilliantly. So well in fact that if I kept this up I could potentially break the world record time of nine and a half hours. This was music to my ears and filed me with confidence. I carried on knowing in my mind I would make it. Every now and then I would have a down spell as I often do on these swims where I wonder what the hell I am doing and want to stop but I was determined not to, despite the hundreds of stings I had taken from face to toe by now.
I was coping with the pain and the cold numbs it considerably but something was starting to feel wrong. I was cramping in my muscles and starting to be sick. This was concerning and not something I had planned for.
8 hours into the swim we were less than 4 miles off the coast of Scotland. We could see the detail in the buildings and the light house at Port Patrick. Under normal circumstances I would put my head down and get on with it but something was very wrong. I suddenly lost all power in my stroke and muscles were spasming in ways they never had before. This was not exhaustion as 15 mins earlier I felt perfectly fine, this was something else and it was worrying me. By now I had been stung hundreds of times and it was starting to occur to me that I had taken one sting too many. I turned to take a breath but no air went in. I went down to exhale and no air came out. It was clear to me that I was going into respiratory failure which indicates a severe jellyfish reaction and is one of the final stages before things turn very nasty indeed.
I was literally on the verge of death. I had slowed down so much due to the breathing difficulties over the past 15 minutes that I was no longer able to regulate my body temperature so to top things off was going into hypothermia. It was time to call it a day. I thought about my wife and daughter and was not going to put my life in danger for the sake of a swim and leave them on their own. The decision was hard but was totally the right call on this occasion.
The crew dropped the boat ladder, pulled me out and wrapped me in a space blanket. I passed out and woke 3 hours later back in Ireland. By this time I was extremely sore from jellyfish stings but thankfully the breathing had recovered. I had just dodged a very serious situation and despite every instinct to carry on had decided to put safety first and call it quits.
When you prepare yourself to complete a journey nothing prepares you for failing it. The North Channel is famous for its unpredictable conditions and had there been less jellyfish I would have made it without a problem. This is so frustrating but I will not leave it there. I have already booked to return next year and will give it another short. I will have my day and conquer the North Channel – the hardest open water swim in the world.