Fergal Sommerville, who completed a fantastic early season North Channel swim in 2013, was delighted to have the opportunity to crew for Sabrina Wiedmar, the first Swiss Swimmer to make the crossing from Ireland to Scotland. Here’s his full report of events from 7 July 2014.
“OK girls, let’s go to bed,” I say to Sabrina and Yvon. It’s gone midnight; all the talking is done. I am ushering two very beautiful young ladies from the Pier 36 lounge to the guest accommodation upstairs. We set the alarms for 5:50am. I am first into bed; well I was born ready. I am excited. I’ve never been in this position before. This is going to be great. I have waited, I’m prepared. This is it; we’re within touching distance. History is going to be made.
I got a good night’s sleep even though I woke at 4:50. By 5:19 I’m up and showered. I looked out the window; a beautiful morning. I grabbed the camera and scurried downstairs, out the door and looked west to Donaghadee Castle. The flag is motionless, the water in the harbour flat calm and the sky brightening with the arriving Scottish sun. A good night has heralded a good morning. I went down to the pier to look over the wall. Way off and clearly visible is the Scottish coast; like a pencil line on a grey page. The sea in between is glistening and there is little or no stir.
On the hurried way back to the B&B I met a young lad with a backpack walking along the quay. I ask if he is with Quinton. He is; name of Jordan. A car window is lowered and a head appears to ask if I am here for the swim. I am but I’m not the swimmer. Gary Knox introduces himself as the official observer of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association. I recognise the name and introduce myself. Gary recognises my name and we are suddenly united by the name of a great friend, a certain Wayne Soutter, a South African who swam across the top of the North Channel in 2012 with Gary as observer. I am relieved to meet someone who I know already I can trust and will become friends with over the coming hours. The Soutter endorsement is a treasure.
As we chat the brains of the operation turns up; the North Channel’s expert pilot and good friend, Quinton Nelson. We are joined by Jordan’s buddy, Chris. Handshakes and warm greetings are exchanged. This is the core of a team that will witness one of Ireland’s toughest marathon events over the dawning day; a feat of endurance that has been accomplished by a mere 20 individuals; the most recent on the previous day. Under the steady ruddership of Quinton, Corkman Finbarr Hedderman, a veteran of the English Channel and two International Ice Mile Swims successfully swam from Donaghadee to Portpatrick in 12 hours and 24 minutes. His crew was another two English Channel veterans; Donal Buckley of Loneswimmer.com blog fame and Craig Morrison. Both are members of Sandycove Island Swim Club, the most famous nursery for marathon swimmers. Quinton Nelson has pioneered a route across the North Channel which has attracted several swimmers in recent years.
Today, another swimmer will attempt the swim. I return to Pier 36 B&B. The girls are up and ready to go. Yvon McCarthy, a seasoned sea swimmer, from North County Dublin is the other member of the crew on the boat. Sabina Wiedmer is the swimmer. Today, she aims to make history in a number of ways.
We make our way to the Guy and Clare Hunter, the escort boat that started life in the 1960’s as the RNLI lifeboat for Donaghadee and was crewed courageously by many, including Quinton’s forebears. The boat has been lovingly restored to its former glory by Quinton.
We boarded and cast off from Donaghadee for the short trip south of the harbour. Sabrina is in her swimsuit, proudly wearing her Eastern Bay Swim Team hat. Today, she represents one of Dublin’s most famous swimming teams; a team that has become her family and passion over the preceding 12 months.
Final checks are made and with the heartiest best wishes of all on board. Sabrina smiles and jumps into the chilly 11 degree water. She swims to the shore, turns to face the boat and raises her hand to signal she is ready to start the most gruelling hours of her life to date. She is still smiling broadly.
At the signal the swim starts and Gary Knox confirms 6:36 as the official start time. Sabrina swims front crawl out to the boat and another North Channel attempt is underway. Quinton’s route runs northeast from South of Donaghadee past the Copeland Islands to eventually turn directly East towards Portpatrick. At the outset of the swim Gary is impressed with the fluidity of Sabrina’s swimming stroke and the power of her kick. His experience as a swimming coach reassures all on board of his view that this is a quality swimmer. We settle into watching Sabrina’s progress. It’s a good day; it’s going to get better and then it’s going to be brilliant.
Sabrina will swim at a relentless pace for more than nine hours. We have spent months wondering how much more than nine hours. We know it won’t be much more, and we know that Portland Oregon’s Michelle Macy’s 9:34 last year, under Quinton’s rudder, clipped Ali Streeter’s 1988 record of 9:53. With Sabrina, we have dreamed, wished, fantasised, effused and coveted a sub 9:30 time. Such a goal is in the lap of the gods and every North Channel crossing is agitated by the immutable variables of strong currents, cold water , fickle and often volatile weather and blooms of jellyfish. Sabrina can cope with all of these; except maybe the jellyfish.
Sabrina feeds every 45 minutes; feasting on 300ml of porridge made on milk and hot water and washed down with 500ml of sports drink. Each feed is meticulously planned. Yvon prepares the porridge and drinks. With five minutes to go to the 45 a pink reflective jacket is waved to notify Sabrina that fuel is on the way. With Gary and Yvon we count the strokes and record them on the observer’s report. She starts the swim at 72 strokes per minute. Is that fast or slow? The answer has to be framed in what stroke rate does the swimmer normally hold. Mid-60s is about average at the outset of a channel swim. The great Tom Healy did the English Channel in an amazing 9:51 in September 2012. A sub 10 hour swim in the English Channel is a phenomenal swim. His stroke rate was 45. Other factors to consider about stroke rate are consistency and variability. One the amazing aspects of Sabrina’s North Channel swim was that she maintained 71/72 strokes per minute for the whole swim. On one count the stroke rate dropped to 68; the lowest recorded; and I somehow feel that that might have been a miscalculation.
The North Channel is famed for many reasons. It is a mysterious expanse where Scotland wakes Ireland with a swathe of sunshine and later Ireland bids Scotland a peaceful slumber. For swimmers it is a gulch of cold water, volatile weather and seaweed soup. The pillars of land on both sides goad the tides into fast flowing blood shivering strips which tangle the sinews and torture the mind. Conditions are so very unpredictable. Flat calm windless days call the swimmer to Donaghadee. These can rapidly turn into washing machine conditions in the middle. And even getting across the Channel can leave the swimmer with a strong tide running the length of the Galloway peninsula which absurdly turns the bravest of colleagues away from land. In a gallant attempt of 2013 the great Pat Gallante Charette experienced the pain of the turning Scottish tide in August of 2013 when after 16 hours and 44 minutes and only 900metres from the Scottish shore she retired as her progress was reversed with the tide pushing her back to Ireland. Pat was less than 1 kilometre from being the oldest ever to swim the North Channel at age 62. She returned to the boat and there and then resolved to return in 2015. On the same day Darren Miller became the first swimmer to complete the Oceans Seven Challenge on seven first attempts. He followed Ireland’s greatest open water swimmer and first to complete the Oceans Seven; Stephen Redmond. In July 2013 Sweden’s Anna Carin Nordin's successful North Channel swim made her the first Oceans Seven woman and was followed into the record books by America’s first lady of open water swimming Michelle. Also in 2013 Holland’s Milko Van Gool broke Kevin Murphy’s 1970 11:21 men’s record with a time of 10:34. Padraig Mallon made the crossing of the North Channel a mere six weeks after completing the English Channel. The 2013 season had started with my own crossing on 16 June in a time of 12:21, the earliest (date), coldest (water).
The North Channel is an exclusive club. Tom Blower’s 15:26 opened membership in 1947. It was 23 years later that Kevin Murphy made his first of three crossings. By the start of 2014, 19 individuals were recorded as members. July beckoned applicants.
On 6 July Finbarr Hedderman took on the challenge. Finbarr had good weather and some swell. This Cork giant powered through the North Channel relentlessly; there isn’t any other way to swim the North Channel. On Sabrina’s swim we proudly flew the Cork flag in the hope that Finbarr had left some of his good fortune on the boat. After a 12:24 swim he returned to the boat to announce his retirement from marathon swimming. I’ve no doubt that by the time he got back to Donaghadee he would have been wondering about what other swims might attract him. Sabrina took to the 11 degree water just 24 hours after Finbarr’s success. There is approximately 20% success rate for individual North Channel swims and only Ali Streeter (England) and Maggie Kidd (Scotland) had back to back success, back in 1988.
Not many people outside of the sport of open water swimming appreciate the enormity of taking on a North Channel swim. For most swimmers a four year plus period is devoted to a single day; a day that might never come or cruelly might throw the swimmer back in foul conditions and bad luck. Most readers of this article will not understand that a solo swim is a beautiful event to watch. I was honoured to be asked to ‘crew’ the boat for Sabrina. I agreed and insisted that the only proviso was that ‘she was not getting back in the boat’; a mantra that holds through the many months of training (not implementable under concerns of safety but nonetheless a target). Yvon McCarthy was also asked. Other swimming colleagues offered, some pleaded. At the end Yvon captained the team escorting Sabrina. Pilot Quinton was engaged in the process very early and last to join the group was independent observer, Gary Knox. (Observers have a very important role on a swim. They are above the event as judicial assessors, but they are human and appreciate and support the swimmer with encouragement). A solo swim is anything but a solo effort.
The rest of the team was made up of Sabrina’s friends, family, colleagues and many others. On 7 July Sabrina, as a spot on a Google Map Tracker, became the focus of swathes of supporters worldwide. Her progress was watched in Ireland, across Europe, the US and Afghanistan. Milko texted and phoned several times during the day from Kabul. Her brother, parents and grandparents were attached to laptop screens in various parts of Switzerland.
The swim started well, maintained a good pace and finished strongly. Every feed stop was characterised by short punchy statements of fact and insistence on keeping up the pace. It was my first time performing this role and I was confident of completing the task successfully, if only for the reason that John Daly (EC 2010) had driven my English and North Channel efforts. Replicating his performance would, I knew, be sufficient. Yvon managed the feeds throughout the day. I have spoken to many who have ‘crewed’ for swimmers and swimmers themselves. None were familiar with Sabrina’s performance. On each of 13 stops she fed on porridge and drank a sports drink. She rarely took on solids (half a banana, chocolate bar or energy bar). What was most interesting about the swim was that she never complained or questioned instructions. She took in every message appreciatively. She enquired how the Irish Deaf Ladies Channel Relay Swim was going; seven ladies (including two Eastern Bay colleagues) at the same time were on their way to a 14 hours and 44 minutes English Channel relay. We relayed as many of the text and FB messages as we could and, like all swimmers, she visibly warmed to hear of messages of encouragement from her parents, her Eastern Bay colleagues, the many friends she has made in her short time in Ireland and complete strangers.
She literally flew the first half of the swim availing of the Irish coast’s ebbing tide. We expected this level of progress. It cannot, however, be extrapolated into a forecast for a finish time. Cruelly, or otherwise, the swimmer encounters a tide that will push them back and slow progress. Although Sabrina’s stroke rate was maintained throughout the course of the swim we could visibly see her speed dropping. The oncoming tide in the latter part of the swim was met by southerly breeze and the swell rose and progress was impaired. Still, feeds were characterised by good humour and determination to continue. Sabrina knew that progress was slowing and that the Scottish coast was not being neared at an appreciable rate. A swimmer should concentrate on keeping pace with the boat. It is not a good idea to look to the headland with miles to go. A swimmer cannot register progress if they look to the finish point on every stroke. However, to look beyond the boat to the finish every 20+ minutes does help, as it records a different picture. Houses become clearer, swathes of green become individual fields, and later the population of sheep and cattle can be seen, even if they show complete disinterest in the swim. Some swimmers have been lucky enough to have had Maggie Kidd sitting on the headland above Killinatrangan Lighthouse to cheer the swimmer to Scotland.
As we wave goodbye to Michelle’s record we discuss the strategy to get Sabrina to the coastline. The swell continues to rise and Sabrina is now four hours beyond her previous longest ever swim. The water has warmed, getting to 13 degrees early on and now at 15; so the cold is not a big factor. Sabrina has trained in Switzerland’s beautiful Lake Thun over the winter to the bemusement of locals who witnessed the standard swim suit entering the five and less degree water throughout the winter. Of concern to the team is the strong tide which is pushing Sabrina south. We feel it will not prevent her making land but for some time it looks like it could push her past Portpatrick where the coast falls back to the east making the swim an even longer event.
We called for Sabrina to increase the effort and maintain the stroke rate. We cajole her to go faster. I know what she is thinking: “I can’t go faster, I can’t try any harder than I am. He knows I am doing my best.”
We did, but we wanted to ensure that effort didn’t slow down. Quinton knew we had to keep her going at full pace to get across the southerly flowing tide; which was picking up speed. Quinton later admitted that Sabrina kept a better line towards the Killanatrangan lighthouse than the boat. She got across that tidal flow quicker than we had expected and at 10 hours she was in almost slack water. We knew she was going to make it. She was going so strongly that there was no need for a buddy swimmer. In fact, there was a danger that a buddy swimmer might not have maintained her final pace. At 75 metres from the coast the engine was cut and the Guy and Clare Hunter bobbed appreciatively to herald the 21st successful solo. Not noticing that we had stayed back for safety reasons Sabrina swam on to the most dangerous point of the swim; to touch the Scottish coastline. We are positioned just south of the lighthouse. We are cheering in the blustery Scottish sunshine. We watch, we cheer, we look around at each other, we cheer again, we are getting nearer and nearer and nearer. She is at the base of the cliffs, and the waves are breaking back from the stone fortress and she is like a bottle bobbing and been thrown around by the surf. But she is having none of this; she is going to finish, she is just about there and we are cheering loudly and applauding and waving frantically.
She touches and turns to sit on a makeshift throne of granite. She has conquered the North Channel. She is done. She waves appreciatively to the boat and we wave back. In a moment she is off the throne and heading back to the boat; job done. What an amazing experience; not just for the swimmer (who will take months to take in the level of accomplishment that is a North Channel swim), but for everyone on the boat as well.
No sooner is she on the boat than Quinton has it turned and headed towards Donaghadee. He is beaming with pride; as well he might. He has had yet another success, which pleases him. More importantly, as swimmers will appreciate, the success comes from his partnership with the swimmer. We measure the North Channel as a straight line distance of 18.6 nautical miles. The tracker shows the route taken. In a ten hour plus day a swim encounters two tides (running south north and then north south). Working in tandem with the swimmer is demonstrated the accuracy of the swim’s course and ultimate destination. Quinton has had many successes in completing North Channel swims. He has an enthusiasm and experience that is unmatched and his knowledge of this cruellest of the world’s seven oceans swims is unfathomable.
The swim is over. The anti-climax can begin. It is amazing that such an effort finishes with the swimmer returning to the boat to be helped into clothing and being asked innumerable times if ‘she is ok’. She reflects on her swim. She is unfazed by it. It was a piece of work which she came to do and she did it. Not breaking the record is irrelevant. It would have been nice, but the task is to complete the North Channel. She has done just that. She is tired, very tired, has never been this exhausted, but she is awake and chatting. Important calls and texts have been made, especially to home. Switzerland now proudly boasts its first ever North Channel swimmer. That swimmer has come to Donaghadee and taken on her first channel swim; in fact it is her first solo swim. This is a point which is being tossed around the internet on many sites. Completing the North Channel is a phenomenal achievement. She is now the third fastest individual to complete the North Channel. She started the day a Swiss swimming sensation. She heads into the Donaghadee as the sun sets on her greatest day and acknowledges that she is now a world swimming sensation.