I have tried to put together an accurate account from memory of my 30th August English Channel swim. One thing that I am aware of is that as each day passes the memory of the positives come more to the fore and some of the more difficult moments fade into the past.
The English Channel has been somewhere in my mind for many years, certainly since I completed my first Lee swim from Glenbrook to Monkstown around 1976. Having swam competitively at a young age, as I grew older the sea became an important part of my life. Something my senses needed regularly. Diving became my sport for about ten years with my brothers Tom and Frank and others, until I found myself based in Crosshaven fourteen years ago. Myrtleville was my back garden and so sea swimming became a renewed interest. With Damian O’Neill and others a group was formed and attracted many swimmers of all abilities. I always believe this is what makes Myrtleville great: whether you are ten years old or eighty, whether you can swim or not, whether you are fast or slow all are welcome and equal. A fantastic place and people.
Having steadily built up my swims from 2008 on to 2014 I decided the time was right to sign up for EC. It’s important the time is right from a family, personal and business point of view. I now had to put a plan in place. At this stage Eilis Burns was the key person, I asked Eilis (whom I have known for many years) after training one morning if she would coach me for the EC, ‘Yes’ she said but we need to meet and discuss the journey and conditions. ‘Great’ said I and told her I was going to do another eight lengths to give me an advantage!! I remember her looking at me very strangely indeed. We met and she promised to get me there and look after me if I kept my side of the agreement. We both kept our words. Thank you Coach for everything. You were brilliant and kind and tough throughout the whole journey and always there for me.
I promised myself not to moan or complain about the training at home, at work, with Eilis or with other swimmers. After all it was me who had put these wheels in motion. I had watched an EC swim documentary on BBC and one guy was constantly moaning. He wasn’t very impressive.
Based in Cork we have a huge advantage over other locations on an EC journey. There is a huge support group of open water swimmers who can be relied on for training, advice, encouragement or just to listen. I asked Carol Cashell to be my crew team leader and she agreed. Rob Bohane, John Kearney and Liam Maher also agreed to support crew. I couldn’t have wished for more. And so the real training began.
A 20K session after four weeks got me focused on the demand ahead. I had my general routine: 2 hours Monday pool; 2 hours Tuesday pool; 3 hours Wednesday pool; Thursday (a long one) usually 10K and 20K every fourth week; Friday 2 hours; and Saturday 2 hours. Most of this was completed before 9am each day, except Thursday. Thanks to all in Source for swimming along – particularly Carol who always swam at my pace.
As the weeks went by my fitness levels increased. This was important as previously I thought I was swim fit, only to find out on some swims it was not really so. Eddie, Carol, Liam and I completed Roches Point to Ballycotton in September and I was feeling good. Trevor got me sorted on energy drinks and his recommendation of Maxim worked for me as previous drinks used to make me sick. One swim I was on nearly had to be abandoned because I could not take any more feeds. Damian’s comments that day kept me going 🙂
I spoke to Rob and Craig about pilots and they advised me well, after their own experiences. I still went to Dover to meet Andy King my pilot to make sure we were a good match. I knew from the moment we met he was the pilot I wanted and he proved this right throughout the year, when I was in France on family holidays and on the day. A great guy and a brilliant pilot. At this early stage I also booked good accommodation in Varne Ridge with David and Evelyn.
Over the year Eilis was happy (most of the time). Distance and endurance was building and speed increasing. It was great to have so many channel swimmers in Source and in contact. Eddie told me “it is doable”, Rob was always positive and realistic and Finbarr didn’t know what all the fuss was about 🙂 Then there was Ned and his visualisations of storms coming and cliffs collapsing and one more mile left, Trevor always saying how well I was doing and Carol always constant and willing to help and swim. So many more at Source like Joyce, Steven, Hilda and Johnathon and many others. Thank you.
Having developed a lot of shoulder problems over the year I regularly visited Rob in Source and Colette in Imokilly for physio. They always made things better, thank you. A very important part of the journey was Eilis’s training plan and my own log of same. It was my goal, important to me and important I kept to it. It gave me great mental strength. I did not want any doubts. Trevor also spoke to me of this. January to August 2016 I logged 1,380,000 mts. Not bad too bad for a 49 year old 🙂
From May it was into the sea regularly. We had kept swimming at least once a week in the sea right throughout the year. But now this gradually became my permanent training base. Swim distances increased all the time with 3 and 4 hour swims the norm, increasing up to 8 hours in Lough Hyne. Thanks to Sean Foley for supporting me on that 8 hour swim. A big thank you also to Carol, Eddie, Charley, Orla, Trevor, Ellie, Liam, Alan, Ned , Rob, Jim, Finbarr, Damian, Rebeca, Barbara Anne, Eilis, Anthony, Eoin and many others for supporting me throughout this. Chasing around after some of them certainly helps your speed.
My swim window was the eight to the sixteenth of August. I had booked holidays in France in Carantec from the first to the nineteenth of August. The plan agreed with my pilot was that he would give me 48 hours’ notice. I would drive to Calais, get a ferry to Dover, meet crew, prepare for a day and then do the swim. Then return to France for some nice wine, food, beer and relaxation 🙂 I spoke to Andy on a daily basis and watched the weather every hour, but unfortunately got weathered out and on top of that Eilis had me back doing four and five hours in the sea on holidays!! Some thought our opportunity was gone but Andy was very positive even if it meant going into October. I knew it would happen, I had visualised the whole thing with Julie O’Brien. I saw myself starting and finishing. I just knew.
Back in Cork, back training, back watching weather after four weeks before having a farewell swim with half of Myrtleville!! Carol, Jim Shalloo (he who swims with sharks!) and Charley Breen swam loads with me at this stage.
The call came on Sunday the 28th of August from Andy. He said he could get me away on Tuesday the 30th if I could make it. I confirmed immediately. I rang Carol who put everything in motion, one hour later she told to be at the airport at 5am on Monday. I checked “Loneswimmer’s” Swimmers checklist one last time to make sure nothing was missing. The crew was Rob, Carol and Siobhan. I did not have to organise anything – just myself and be there. Genuinely when I came home from the trip I was not sure what airports we had flown into or from. We arrived in Dover, checked into our house in Varne Ridge, packed a small bag and went for a swim off swimmers beach to check the sea temperatures. We met with Kevin Murphy who had swam the channel 34 times successfully and also had some unsuccessful outings. He gave me good advice. We mixed up all our drinks and went through our feeding plan one last time. We had something to eat and went to bed.
Swim day was an early start, got up and had breakfast. Everything was organised 100% from gear to nutrition and for any eventuality. My mind was clear. Rob, Carol and I had spoken about the swim again the night before. I had spoken with Ann and my children the previous night and told them I would talk to them straight after the swim, which was tough. Thank you Ann, Abby, Conor and Emily for everything. Even though I was feeling calm I had not slept the night before the swim. Rob said this was normal. I wondered if lack of sleep would have an effect later in the day.
We left Varne Ridge and five minutes later got to Dover marina. It was great to meet my happy pilot, Andy and just get the gear on board. He was relaxed and with no sense of pressure. We motored out to our starting point Samphire Hoe which took about twenty minutes and by this stage I was greased up and ready to go. Eilis had told me I was good for 19 hours. This was a great feeling. I was relaxed and calm, my mind positive and felt I could deal with the task ahead. Andy was great and just said for me to do my job and he will do his. I organised a bet of £1 each from all on the way to our starting point on what the finishing time would be. Andy won the £5. Andy asked if I wanted a lift into the beach on the punt to begin the swim – about 200m – but I told him I probably would make it!It was good to hit the water and swim into Samphire Hoe. It was like a relief. The water temperature in Dover was over 18 centigrade and no hint of cold. I swam to the beach and exited. The horn signalled “GO” and off we went. My crew would not tell me how long I was in the water or how far we had travelled so I tried to count feeds to work it out, but soon lost count. Trevor was right, I was enjoying the swim for the first few hours and watching the traffic (amazing) and the cliffs behind get smaller and smaller. There was one other channel boat to our port side who had left before us and after each hour I was getting closer. After 4 hours I caught up and passed them to see them flying ahead on the 5th hour, I wondered had I slowed or what. Carol told me later they were a relay with a really fast 5th person!!I passed another channel boat about 1.5 hours into the swim and rightly or wrongly this gave me a positive feeling. On and on the swim went from feed to feed and once we got out of the separation zone the sea really flattened out after being a bit lumpy for the first few hours. I had started off at a strong pace for the first 4 hours which I knew was unsustainable but would stand to me at the later part of the swim. Rob kept checking for a smile or signal every 20 minutes or so, and all was good. The crew gave me treats (not many), Maxim and painkillers and coffee. Certainly beats a day in the office, or so I kept telling myself.
I could now feel the tide against me and myself slowing, it was getting harder. Carol joined me for an hour at this time and brought my speed right back up, it was great to have her. She knows my swim speed capability better than I do and immediately got us back on track. After another hour or so the crew and Andy asked for a power hour, a gear change. I don’t like swimming flat out but have had plenty of experience from Myrtleville – “it’s always a race with Eddie”. Andy and Rob told me to stay closer to the boat and get on with it. As promised to Andy I did my job and again all the crew were happy eating cakes etc while I was out of breath 🙂
Swim feeds from start to finish averaged 30 seconds and during one I looked up and could see France. Jeez, I thought for a second I’m nearly there but then remembered Liam, Eddie and myself coming around Power Head and seeing Ballycotton lighthouse. Liam shouted “We’re nearly there!” to me, but three hours later it still seemed miles away. It was difficult really to have any bearing as to where you were swimming with tides etc so I just ignored France and trusted my pilot. France never seemed to get closer, at least for a few more hours. In between Rob told me their phones had changed to French networks. Another plus!
My mind dreamed and I thought about my wife and children. Knowing they were at home with a tracking party, supporting me meant a lot. I thought about my mother, brothers and sisters. I also knew my father would have been proud of this swim. I thought about Conor and all the gang in Centra who were supporting me all the way and all the swimmers from Myrtleville. I thought about all the swimmers from Cork, who have completed this challenge before and the unfortunate swimmers – many of them better swimmers than me – who were unsuccessful. I thought of Paraic and Riana. Riana had sent me a lovely text the night before. I know all you can do is prepare well to give yourself a chance and after that luck plays a big part in your success or not. ‘The Man in the Arena’ speech is one appropriate to sea swimming and occupied my thoughts throughout. I thought about Eilis and all the hard work we had done and I knew for all these reasons and more I was going to make France. The only way I was getting out was if my crew told me too. These thoughts and Julie’s discussion and visualisation plus previous experiences got me through the dark periods. Funnily enough once you know and understand them they get easier to deal with and after 20 minutes of questioning why, who cares etc you come out feeling better. Kevin Murphy told me about his dark periods on each of his swims, I was in good company.
My only other concern at times was the pain in my left shoulder which would drift down across my chest. Two days previously there had been a tragedy in the channel and it is always something you think about. I concluded it was no worse than I experienced many times on training sessions at home. Also I thanked God for the jelly fish at home because I would not have liked this to have been my first time. I worked out about two stings every 30 minutes during parts of the swim, which added up to a good few stings. Again in Ireland we are well used to them and genuinely kept my mind off things for a few minutes each time. It’s only the ones you see coming that are bad. 🙂
I thought I had passed the French shipping lanes with all the traffic behind me, until I looked up again to see more tankers in front. “Jeez”, I thought but at least France looked bigger. Rob joined me for an hour and told me that I should be able to match his pace. Needless to say the pace went up at once and “Tallyho” off we went. This got my pace up which I think was maintained for the remainder of the journey. It was getting dark with the sun setting behind, the lights on ships twinkling around and the lighthouse beam searching. I felt good and positive and thought how lucky I was to have given this opportunity. I always enjoyed night swimming and this night was beautiful with the glow sticks and lights reflecting on the sea and two spotlights from Louise Jane constantly on me.
I then saw Rob and Carol changing; I thought into their togs. I thought they must be getting ready to swim in with me to France. Fergal Sommerville told me he had watched for this sign on his swim. Alas they were only putting on warmer clothes. On and on and the crew told me they were very happy and Andy thought one more hour. I could visualise the end even though my arms and shoulders were sore and tired. Carol had changed to 20minutes feeds and then told me two laps of Sandycove and we are there. I took exception to this so she agreed on a measurement of Myrtleville to Fountainstown return 🙂
The beam of the lighthouse on Cap Griz Nez seemed to be there just for me guiding us home. Eilis had given me a beautiful card . You know when you actually connect or take meaning from something, this was on my mind a lot and I swear that’s what I saw and felt coming so close to France and the Cap.
I kept looking and looking at the punt at the back of Louise Jane, when were they going to start getting it ready, it was dark and hard to make out the distance left. Then I saw the punt moving faster than Louise Jane and knew. Carol and Siobhan were so excited, Andy with his head lamp and Rob came alongside me in the punt and told me put the head down and drive on. To me it’s an iconic photo of Rob driving me on fist waving from the punt. It’s says everything about him. His commitment, his support, enthusiasm and happiness. I speeded up again. It never ceases to amaze me when you think you have given it your all yet you can sprint the last kilometre. Eilis was right, we were trained for more.
About 200m left to go and suddenly my body started been pounded under water Andy shouted Garfish or something and I saw them jumping all around attracted by the torches. It could have been ‘Jaws’ at this stage and I would not have cared. I could see the restaurant but was being pushed to the left of it as we faced it. I swam around a big nautical marker buoy but Andy said come back and land to my left. I swam and waited remembering Rob saying after a hard swim in Myrtleville one day it will all be worth it when you feel the sand in France between your toes. I have this picture in my office of a guy on a sandy beach in France just landed. The punt had to stand off about 30m. I had a balancing act to clear the water on boulders – ‘No sand, Rob’. I stood up, it was a nice warm feeling. I understood. I would have liked to have taken in the sights but the captain wanted to get a move on with the strong tide and to get back to the mothership which was about 500m off shore.
I swam to the punt and was greeted with a smile from Rob and Andy, I hugged them both and they wrapped me in a towel and off to Louise Jane. Carol and Siobhan were so happy and gave me a big hug. The captain confirmed a time of 12 hours and 58 minutes, I would not have cared if it was 22 hours and 58 minutes. We had made it. Carol sat me down and had Ann on the phone, I was emotional. It was a weight gone.
The crew cleaned off as much grease and lanolin as they could. The one job I had that morning was to bring my change of clothes in a dry bag, which Carol had handed to me. I forgot, hence superman t-shirt, Andy’s jeans, a hat found on the boat and to top it all off Rob stuck a beer in my hand and SNAP. Not me at my photogenic best. There was a nice feeling of a job well done on the way back, how lucky was I. what a crew and captain.
On the journey back Andy pointed out the largest cargo ship in the world (it reminded me of Manhattan). The traffic was constant; I wondered at how beautiful the EC looked at night. Andy phoned Dover port ops and got clearance to re-enter Dover harbour where the huge port lights changed from red to green. We had good banter and chat on the way and tied up at about 2am in Dover. We unloaded the boat, said our goodbyes to Andy and James and straight back to Varne Ridge where the Irish flag was flying and the house decorated with congratulations. A lovely touch from lovely people, David and Evelyn.
We sat up and the guys had a few beers, I tried but could not really drink it after all the maxim. I went to bed about 4AM that night but I could not sleep and sweated a lot and eventually got up about 7AM. I looked at my phone, texts and twitter from the previous day and was overwhelmed to think that so many people had an interest and all the good wishes. To you all, thank you.
After many phone calls we went for breakfast and a beer then on to the “Whitehorse” to sign the wall and two more beers. Rob nominated Carol driver for that day 🙂
We then headed back to Samphire Hoe to collect a stone from my starting point as there was none on the French side when I landed and then back to Varne Ridge for a BBQ and a glass of champagne with David and Evelyn. After our goodbyes we had to rush to the airport to make our flight home.
When we arrived in Cork airport I was so surprised and delighted to be met by Ann, Abby, many family and friends, Myrtleville swimmers and Centra staff. It was so thoughtful, Thank you, it meant a lot to me. To Siobhan for giving me the beautiful pictures to help me remember as the years go by ; A huge Thank You 🙂
In summary it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. As Rob said “they will mention that at your funeral”. It wasn’t just the swim but the whole journey, the friends, Myrtleville, Source, the training and the overall experience. Eilis used to give me a page a month with some thoughts, I’m looking at one now on my notice board in work.
“The moment one definitely commits oneself,
then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise
never have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising
in ones favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and
meetings and material assistance
which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
P.S Where to from now?
So many swims around Cork and Ireland.