|Scared to death on the ride to the start|
I've been told that I'm part "Scotch Irish," a descendent of protestant dissenters who left Ulster (Northern Ireland) for America. These folks were originally from Scotland and had settled in Ulster and are called Ulster Scots in the UK. Maybe it's some primordial yearning for home? Whatever it is, I decided back in 2011 that I was going to toss my hat in the ring for this very intimidating swim, so I booked a slot with the Bangor Boatman, Brian Meharg, one of two pilots who currently assist swimmers in their efforts to cross the Channel.
|Swimming ashore to start the swim|
The first leg of our trip was to Hereford to visit with Mark's family. We were there for about a week, so I was able to acclimate to the time difference. However, it was hot there, and I did not have access to any cold water training locations while we were there. Instead, I spent the week as I had most of the summer here in Boston, sweating my butt off. It's been a terribly hot and humid summer, and keeping cool (as well as my cold acclimation) has proven to be difficult.
We arrived in Belfast the evening of Sunday, July 28 and hailed a cab to Bangor, a quaint seaside resort at the edge of Belfast Lough. We quickly connected with Brian and got bad news: the forecast was not looking good for my tide window. As with the English Channel, this waterway is plagued by variable weather, and getting a good day is critical to the success of the swim.
|New friend John came down to see me off|
Based on the best forecasts we could find, Brian determined that Wednesday was looking like a possibility, as was Saturday. Everything else was looking impassable. Tuesday evening, Brian called and told us that Wednesday was shaping up to be OK and might well be our only chance to make the crossing, even though he thought it would probably be less-than-ideal. We decided to roll the dice and take a chance on Wednesday; I'd rather make an attempt and fail than sit on pins and needles the whole tide waiting for another chance to go that never materializes.
As it turned out, Saturday may well have been the better day. But I gave it my all on Wednesday. Still, I was unable to cross the whole channel under my own power. I managed to get to roughy halfway across in the 5 hours and 15 minutes I was in that terrible water. I was thwarted by jellyfish and the cold.
A Dutch man, Milko van Gool who has a fabulous write-up of his swim on his blog, managed to get across the day before me in record time on a very sunny, warm-ish day. Turns out, jellyfish don't like bright sunlight, so tend to stay lower in the water on brighter days. On overcast days like I had, they tend to rise closer to the surface, where I swim. Ouch.
|An ungraceful and inauspicious start|
In addition, the water temperature the day before my swim was recorded at about 14 degrees Celsius, or a balmy 57 degrees Fahrenheit-- water I know is in my wheelhouse and something I can manage. But how quickly the temperature can change; the next day, the water ranged from 12.0 to 13.1, or a prickly cold 53 to 55 degrees F. There's a big difference between 57 and 53 degrees, and that was a bummer for me. Without strong sunlight on my back to help warm me and keep the jellies away, I was at the mercy of both brutal forces.
|Into the sunrise|
I started complaining about wanting to get out at about 3:30 into the swim, but Mark convinced me to hang in there a little longer at each feed stop. We both wanted to be sure I'd given it my best shot. Finally at 5:15, I became fearful for my health and safety, and we terminated the swim. That wasn't an easy decision to make, and we didn't make it lightly, but on that day, it became abundantly clear that I wasn't going to make it all the way across and I was in agony (and I don't use that word lightly, either), so it was time to leave the water.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Bangor is a lovely seaside town, and we had a nice time getting to know the place. People were extraordinarily friendly and helpful. My pilot, Brian, and his first mate Melvyn, are superb, and my observer, Irina was kind and supportive. Can't ask for more than that. Nice people, all of them, and I truly believe they wanted me to succeed as much as I did, and possibly more so.
|Middle of Nowhere, North Channel|
In addition to jellyfish, we also saw an assortment of sea birds, which Mark says were dive-bombing me at one point. A few others seemed to think I was a rock and tried to land, but were put off by the fact that I was actually moving when they got a little closer. The crew also saw some porpoises-- I missed them, but I sure as hell did not miss the seal that decided to speed up toward me out of the darkness--twice--to have a good look-see. I nearly shit my pants both times because I couldn't tell what it was, she was moving so fast. I thought it was a Beluga at first, but despite being frozen solid, I knew that was unlikely. She played around me for an hour or so, getting a good look from all angles at what this foreign, gangly thing in her living room was. Apparently, she's shadowed several other swimmers this year. Neat to have had an escort, now that I think about it, but in that moment, when survival seemed so tenuous, I was terrified to see this beast rising from the murk toward me. Tells you something about my state of mind in the moment and why I wasn't able to keep it together for another 5 to 7 hours until I'd reached Scotland. (Bummer, because after we got the chart from Brian, it was clear, I was very nearly smack in the center of the channel. I also learned after the fact that my stroke rate had been well over 70 for most of the swim, meaning that I was churning over quickly. That was in part to keep warm, in part out of fear. Either way, it meant I was progressing well when we terminated the swim. But I just knew I didn't have another 5 hours, let alone 7, or 10, or whatever it might take. Once the jellies got down my suit and sat there stinging and stinging and stinging, I was toast.)
|Ce-seal-ia checks me out during the swim|
Since we got home, a lot of people have been asking me how I'm doing with the whole thing, handling the disappointment. This isn't the first big swim I've had to terminate before its intended finish point. It's the second, and both were aborted in large part because of jellyfish. I don't like having to pull out of a swim, but it's OK. It's part of the sport that some days don't go as planned. And it doesn't change who I and or what I am capable of. I'm still a Channel swimmer and we learned a lot. We saw part of the world we otherwise would have missed-- to our detriment. And I'm well and fine now. It took a full day for the residual jellyfish stinging to subside (an unexpected and terrible side effect of being stung over almost every inch of my being), a period of time during which I almost wished to be back in that cold water that numbed the stings a bit. But once that passed and the salt tongue sloughed off, I was back to normal.
|Obligatory post-swim swollen tongue shot.|
Life goes on. A single swim defines no one. I'll tackle other challenges, perhaps this one again someday, but right now, I'm content to be proud of what I did endure and how far I've come since picking up this insane sport on a whim in 2006.
Last week, somewhere in the middle of the North Channel, I found a limit, and that's what this journey has always been about for me: To find my boundaries and then push them back, stroke by stroke.
Who's ready to go for a swim?
|The only good kind of jellyfish is a dead jellyfish. |
Giving this one a piece of my mind the day after the swim. They're massive, horrible things.