We now have a provisional departure for the English Channel swim. It’s 2am on Wednesday 14th August. For live updates and tracking instructions, please follow www.facebook.com/cormacswims
In early April, I went to Mallorca for a 5 day ‘swim camp’ organised by Swim Trek. I had heard about the Long Distance Training Camp on the way back from the Alcatraz swim the previous September. On the flight home (via London), myself and Cameron were seated opposite the jump seat where a Virgin manager was seated, and we got chatting to her about what we had been doing in SF. She must have mentioned it in the cockpit, as half an hour later the pilot arrived down and started chatting to us. It turned out that he was training for an English Channel solo the following September, and was planning to do the training camp and recommended it.
The early April camp was the first on the calendar (they ran 6 camps over 6 weeks this year). Just like at home in Ireland, the weather hadn’t been so good in the Med and the water temperature, although supposed to be around 15 degrees at this stage, was still a couple of degrees off that. That made me nervous, not because of the water temperature in itself, but because the water temperatures around Leinster in late March had been so low that I had done no acclimatization to speak of when setting off (I dragged Ger Kennedy to Greystones beach on the Monday before going, only to pull myself out of the water after 60 seconds whimpering like a wounded dog). Also, I had never completed 6 hours in the open water before, and that was what I was there to do.
This was the timetable:
Saturday – arrived mid-afternoon, meet and greet and 30 min swim
Sunday – 2 hours in water over the day
Monday – 5 hours in water over the day
Tuesday – one 6 hour swim
Wednesday – 4 hours in water
Thursday – morning only: review and one or two hours in water
As the 6 hour swim was scheduled for Tuesday, and there were no direct flights back to Dublin on Thursday, I decided that I was safe enough to book a direct flight back later on the Wednesday and miss the last ½ day on Thursday.
Pre-night swim – Anna Wardly, Matthias Kassner, Kevin Murphy and me.
The first day or two were fine – we were never in the water so long to get really cold. On the Monday, I began to have doubts. After a couple of hours in the water, I was feeling cold – really cold. We ended up doing a 3 hour swim during which time all I could think about was how cold I was and how much I wanted to get out. If I had been on my own there is no question that I would have got out long before the end of 3 hours – the only thing keeping me in there was that I could see that no one else had got out. After 3 hours were up, we broke for lunch on the boat. It was cold and breezy and it’s safe to say I never really warmed up. I hoped that someone else would protest and we wouldn’t have to go back in the water (this was the earliest camp week after all, and with unseasonably cold water), but after an hour we were told to get back in – this time for 2 hours. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to do it – I was still felt so cold in my core. Again, for 2 hours all could think about was how cold I was.
The next day was supposed to be the 6 hour, but we already had an inking that it wouldn’t happen that day (Tuesday). The weather was forecast to get better (sun and less wind predicted), and I guess as the water temperature was low, this could make or break it for a lot of us. So we swam a 3 hour on Tuesday – a relative rest. Cold, as always.
On Tuesday night, I faced into the prospect of the 6 hour swim the next day. It was scheduled to start at 10am,and so finish at 4pm. Having booked a flight out that following night, that left me 3 hours to get back to base after the swim, pack, and get to the airport for my flight. I thought I could do it but didn’t fancy the prospect of having to travel so quickly after swimming for so long. This was unknown territory for me.
The day was glorious – all you’d wish for for a swim. Not much wind and blue skies. At 9.30am, they let some other swimmers go directly from our base camp – not much later, word came back of a problem: jellies. Many, many jellies. I hate jellies.
There were so many of them outside of the cove that it was impossible to swim – it was jellyfish soup. After some consultation, we took the boat and started swimming to a cove about 20 minutes away, which was jellyfish-free. We swam there for about an hour, but then the jellies started moving in on us. Over the next hour or so, we were gradually closed down to a smaller and smaller area, to such extent that we had a rectangle to swim around that took 5 or so minutes to navigate.
When you’re trying to complete a long swim – in my experience – you need to be able to switch off to a large degree. Hitting jellyfish every 2 or 3 minutes does not allow you to switch off. After a while, the stings didn’t really matter, but it was becoming impossible to see an end to this. Around the 2 ½ hour mark, Simon (Swim Trek Supremo) gathered all swimmers around and said that anyone who didn’t need to be in the water shouldn’t be in the water, i.e. if we didn’t have a qualification swim to complete, get out. This was a low point – a big low point. It was a route out of the water – I was already cold from swimming slowly around in circles or squares or whatever and couldn’t see myself completing the swim. Simon said: if you want to stay in the water, move to the right, if you want to get out, move left. As the groups assembled, I found myself in the middle, and all the other qualification swimmers (English Channel and Manhattan Island) moved to the right. I was not going to be the only qualification swimmer to pull out. With much cursing- only some of it under my breath – I moved to the right.
For another hour or so we swam in the other end of the cove – for the most part it was jellyfish free. Then we hit a break – the open water beyond the cove was jelly free as the wind had picked up and they had sunk down. All we needed to do was swim though a wall of them to get to FREEDOM! I breast stroked out – playing jellyfish dodgems – and got to open water. It was great. I remember this as the favorite part of the swim as I was able to pick up the pace – swimming with the target of a distant cliff made it easier to turn off mentally and swim hard. An hour or two went by in the blink of an eye. I wasn’t cold.
The great thing about a 6 hour swim is that you know it will last 6 hours. As we passed the 4 and then the 5 hour mark, I knew I would do it. Others had experienced real difficultly with the cold earlier in the swim and I knew there was no guarantee of being able to withstand the cold. But after 5 hours I knew that if I kept going I wouldn’t get too cold. (Stopping in cold water is a bad idea – you need to keep going to generate heat.)
Our main support boat
As we approached 6 hours, I was starting to get cold. I think I was mentally turning off and slowing down. I swam towards the main support boat but it was getting further and further away. What were they doing? I checked my watch again – 5 hours 55 minutes. But the main support boat was in the distance. That’s when we got the news from one the ribs – due the stoppages earlier in the swim, the observer (Kevin Murphy) had added 20 minutes to the swim. Words cannot describe how I felt. I think I ran out of expletives. Twenty more minutes of this. Twenty long, long minutes.
In the end, the boat’s horn sounded the end of the swim. It felt good to be out of the water and to have reached the goal that I came to Mallorca to complete. Within 3 hours I would be in a haze in Palma airport on my way home to Ireland, thinking about what was next.
6 hours 20 minutes, 13.8 degrees.