Friday, 2 August 2013

Account of my North Channel crossing on 30 July 2013

I successfully crossed  the North Channel on Tuesday 30 July 2013! 

The time was 10h and 34 minutes, and this is currently attracting a lot of (media) attention as the fastest ever crossing done by a man (with two women, Michele Macy and Alison Streeter being still faster). But speed is for me only one of the components determining the beauty and merit of an NC crossing, and not even the most important or interesting one - more on that further below. I am of course incredibly pleased with my crossing, but at the same time humbled by the experience, which was the most grueling I have ever had.

I arrived in Belfast on Sunday 28 July with my coach Marcel van der Togt, who also coached me during my English Channel crossing in 2011. forecasted not very good conditions (wind up to Bft 4, gusts of Bft 5) for Tuesday and Wednesday, with even less favourable conditions for the rest of the week. The tidal window would close next weekend. Captain Quinton Nelson expected more cloud cover  on Wednesday, which would make the jellyfish come to the surface. Rather than wait for a perfect day we decided to settle for 'good enough', hence Tuesday.  (Seeing the weather on Wednesday it turns out that Quinton was absolutely spot on.)

I am quickly losing my precise memories of the swim. (This is an experience I also had with my English Channel swim, where others (Marcel, Asha) remember the swim more accurately than I. Also, in the hours after the swim I was adamant that this was the first and the last time I had done such a cold swim, but the very next day I already found myself daydreaming with Marcel about ideas for future swim projects.)  ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle gracefully shared his swim report with me and I have copy-pasted it at the end of this post. I complement it here with some of my own observations.

The swim
The day after the swim Quinton gave me a map with the swim plotted on it. I posted a picture of it on my Facebook page. The trajectory is a gently curved line, showing the influence of the tides. We landed very close to the intended landing point, Portpatrick. This is a credit to Quinton Nelson's planning and navigational skills.

Start was appr. 6 am on Tuesday morning, and conditions looked beautiful: a flat sea, and an open sky with some clouds. On the boat were my coach Marcel van der Togt, captain Quinton Nelson and his two crew members, Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust representative and deputy director of communication Alan Machin (who kept in touch with a communications team shooting off Twitter and Facebook messages and arranging various media covereage after the swim), and ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle. 

The weather changed after a few hours. Wind force increased and the swell and chop got much worse. Feeding became more difficult, and slower. as I got more exhausted. Good footage of this was posted by ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle on Youtube: In the last two hours of the swim there was rain and thunder.

I had been warned that there would be a strong current off the shore of Scotland that would require an extra effort to overcome, and this turned out to be accurate. I remember the last couple of miles to be slow, and my frustration to be mounting as the coast did not seem to be getting any closer and I was desperately cold and tired. Andrew Coyle uploaded images of the final seven minutes of my swim to Youtube, see

Marcel informed me later that my stroke rate was 70 strokes per minute at the start, which stabilized at 66/minute after an hour or so and did not go below 60 for the remainder of the swim. I am happy with that, as it shows that I was sufficiently prepared for the distance - not something to be taken for granted for a comparatively lazy swimmer like myself.

Feeding went very well also, even if a bit slow at the end because of fatigue on my side. I didn't get hungry throughout the swim even in this cold, so carboloading the days before (including a double pasta dinner, pff...) and 1,5 concentration Maxim with bananas and good old Dutch stroopwafels must have worked.

There is not much more by way of objective fact that I can say about the swim. Andrew Coyles report copied below gives a more accurate description of it. I just highlight below some aspects as I have experienced them.

The cold
When I got into the water to swim to the starting point, the water was 13-14 degrees Celsius, and it would remain 14 degrees Celsius, with even a patch of 15 degrees in the middle. This is admittedly warm for the North Channel at this time of year (although NC can reach 16 degrees in September but then the place is infested with jellies), and when comparing this to recent successful NC crossings in much colder water it feels almost like 'cheating'. But cheating or not, for me the water turned out to be at the very limits of what I could stand for such a long time. My preparation in Malawi has never allowed me to train in water colder than 15 degrees, and that only sparsely. Only at the start of the Cork Distance Week (Ned Denison's 'holiday camp')  in the beginning of July did I experience water temperatures as low as 9-10 degrees, but never for more than 2 hours at a time and then the heatwave struck and the sea warmed up quickly there too. Before and during the crossing I drew comfort from the fact that I had managed to train 11 hours over two days in 2011 in Dover harbour in 12 degrees Celsius water, almost straight from the plane from sweltering Bangladesh. So my cold water preparation had not been ideal.

I felt only comfortable with the temperature of the water for the first half hour. After that, i.e. for the remaining 10 hours of my swim, my hands, forearms and feet got agonisingly cold, and I wasn't able to properly close my fingers, swimming with the 'claw' so familar to fellow cold water swimmers. The cold was an almost continuous presence and it was sapping my physical and mental strength. It prevented me from getting into a flow, and kept me painfully aware of each and every stroke. On the other hand I noticed that as usual I did not shiver until six or seven hours into the swim. But by the time I got out I was positively hypothermic, and getting warm again after the swim involved 30 minutes of violent shivering in an aluminium hypothermic blanket (courtesy of our concerning friend Tonny in Lith) and a 45-minute hot shower in the Harbour House Hotel in Portpatrick who graciously allowed me the use of their facilities - a gesture of kindness I will not forget.

Jellyfish and other wildlife
My team told me that for some time there was a seal playing around me, as well as dolphins later on. This makes for salient imagery in some media reports, the seal supposedly even 'lifting my spirits', but frankly I didn't care much at that moment. Looking back upon it however it is indeed a potent mental image, capturing one of the reasons why I like open water swimming so much.
In fact I didn't see or feel any other wildlife but jellyfish, the infamous Lion's Mane. These were truly scary, as big as garbage bin cover lids and with fine white tentacles of over 2 meters. I saw from up close countless numbers of these monsters, most of them at appr. 1-2 meters below the surface especially in the first 4 hours as they avoid direct sunlight. But when the weather became cloudy, more of them came closer to the surface. Marcel's warning whistles helped me avoid many, but I did swim into a couple of them, and their stings were very painful. Even if the cold water then numbed the pain to some extent, it came back with a vengeance after I left the water and did not go away until the next morning, keeping me from sleeping the night after the swim.

I should mention here the importance of the team behind the swimmer, and this is not just an obligatory gesture of courtesy to the crew.
I can state with certitude that I would not have finished this swim if it wasn't for Marcel van der Togt's coaching, both before and especially during the swim. The North Channel is 30% physical and 70% mental, one NC swimmer once famously said, and I can only agree with that. Marcel provided me with exactly the right kind and right amount of information on my progress, was the master cheerleader on board hopping frantically up and down the deck with his stentorian voice even in the driving rain, managed to make me accelerate when I needed to, adapted my feeds as he saw fit, kept me from swimming into jellyfish (well, most of them), and raised my spirits with silly jokes: he had me in stitches by drawing a pair of woollen socks on the whiteboard after I had complained about cold feet.... You can't beat 30 years of coaching experience at the highest level.
The other crucial factor was Quinton Nelson, my pilot. He was extremely conscientious in plotting a route tailor-made for my presumed speed, and it worked out beautifully. He also helped me decide on the best day to do the crossing, and also there his advice proved crucial. Decades of boating experience in the North Channel at work. In the months before the swim Quinton was utterly reliable and ever helpful and accessible by email and telephone. Quinton's two crew members Jordan and ... did their jobs efficiently and quietly in support of the whole operation.
I am also grateful to the people of the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust, especially Alan Machin, who liased with a communication's team in the UK giving regular updates on the swim and arranging for various media coverage after the swim. I hope the swim will help raise a nice amount for the further restoration of the Chauncy Maples hospital ship on Lake Malawi. (Please keep the donations coming on!)
Thanks also to ILDSA observer Andrew Coyle who meticulously observed and recorded my swim,  spending a difficult day on the boat without any sleep the night before as he was called in at short notice. I am very appreciative of the video footage and report that he shared with me.

On 'records'
Of course I am pleased with the fact that I did my swim in good time, even the fastest time ever swum so far by a male on this crossing. I am not quite sure what to think of the fact that some media outlets highlight this as the key element of the crossing. This it is not in my view, as conditions are often so incomparable between swims, much more so it seems than in most other crossings and races. The best parallel is probably with mountaineering.
Even if I don't want to downplay my own achievement, of which I am very proud, there have been much more impressive stories in the history of this crossing dating back all the way to 1923. What to think about the swimmer  who recently swam the NC at the mature age of 49 in a little over 12 hours in an unimaginable 9 degrees Celsius. Or the woman who mustered the courage to try again and again and was finally successful  the fourth time. Several swimmers of the past displayed such incredible mental and physical grit against the odds that they finished the swim but had to be taken to hospital for treatment of hypothermia and jelly stings. Some of them stayed in the frigid water for more than 18 hours. Another came out after almost 15 hours in 10-11 degrees without even a shiver. Two swimmers achieved the incredible feat of three successful crossings each. Also the dozens of swimmers who didn't make it across can tell tales of incredible endurance and dogged determination besides delirious pain and exhaustion, but without the satisfaction of making it all the way across.
These are all feats that defy belief, and I don't think I would be able to achieve any of them, at least not now; this crossing in relatively favourable conditions (partly calm seas, relatively warm water and relatively few stings) was at the very limits of my abilities. There will be ever faster crossings of the North Channel. However, for me this Channel is different from other swims in that it is not about time and speed, but about the stories of preparation, determination and perseverance we create while crossing it.

Addendum:Text of the report by observer Mr. Andrew Coyle on behalf of the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association:

"As Quinton Nelson and I walked to the boat at 0515, a tiny black rental car was being driven towards us on the harbour wall. It was filled by its driver, a tall, bulky, fresh looking man with fair hair, known as Milko van Gool. Quinton the pilot asked Milko how he was feeling and the reply was very positive. The hire car was parked, Milko had his photo taken with his passport open, the boat was untied, and without any further ceremony we departed.

The conditions were very soft for the start, almost calm, with a clear sky, no precipitation and a full tide. Milko had a thick layer of grease applied around his limbs for comfort during the swim, this was done by his very dedicated trainer, Marcel, who supported him with strong voice and even stronger whistle throughout the entire swim, and did not leave the deck once. When the boat, named Guy and Clare Hunter arrived as close to the rocks at Donaghadee as was safe, Milko jumped into the water and swam over to them. Quinton then approved that he was ready to depart by sounding the boat’s horn, and it took a further wave of encouragement from the skipper before Milko began his 18 nautical mile crossing to Portpatrick. Milko’s stroke was very strong, with a positive roll and steady six beat kick which lasted right to the finish.

A couple of hours from Donaghadee we began to sight Lion’s Mane jellyfish, at which point Marcel would issue a deafening whistle, which he could produce almost instantly, lifting his fingers to his mouth, he would then visually instruct Milko what direction to swim in to avoid them. One jellyfish, which Marcel hadn’t seen, caused Milko to take a bad cramp as he kicked violently to avoid it. This happened two hours forty minutes into the swim, and Milko groaned in pain when it occurred. Nonetheless, 2 minutes later he had recovered fully apparently, and was back kicking as strong as before. Apart from jellyfish, the only wildlife visible in the water were a number of very sturdy looking seals who seemed intrigued by the Dutchman, swimming along quite close to him for a period when we were about seven miles off shore, these fellows lifted Milko’s spirits unlike the nuisance jellyfish.

Milko was accompanied by two others apart from the boat crew and I, these were his trainer Marcel, and a photographer and chronicler named Alan, who worked for the charity which the swim was in aid of. This charity was set up in order to restore Africa’s oldest boat named Chauncy Maples so it may be used as a mobile clinic for the benefit of people living around lake Malawi, and when we arrived in Portpatrick we were met by others belonging to the charity who welcomed Milko to shore.

To maintain his energy levels, the swimmer was fed regularly from the boat, this was done by passing a sports bottle containing a measured amount of warm liquid to him on a string. The feedings were done every twenty minutes for the entire duration of the swim, when Milko would receive a varying amount of liquid each time, and food was given once an hour in the form of a half banana or biscuit. This formula seemed to work well for Milko as his stroke rate remained very steady for almost the entire swim, except for the last hour when he was in a state of exhaustion.

While for the first five hours of the transit wind was not an issue, blowing between zero and five knots, in the later stages it became a retarding factor. Around noon the wind began to increase steadily and at 1400hrs it was blowing a southerly twenty knots. This created a number of sub-issues: first, the waves impeded the steadiness of Milko’s stroke at a point where he was tiring; second  the boats pitching made it difficult for him to feed and the waves sometimes covered his head while he was drinking; third, the choppy water made it impossible to sight jellyfish because of reflection. On top of all this, as we approached Scotland the wind was blowing from the South, as it had been all day, but simultaneously the currents of the rising tide were moving southwards, thus we had a wind against tide situation which creates very rough water, made the boat pitch considerably and produced less than comfortable conditions for swimming.

Nearing the Scottish coast, skipper Nelson was concerned that the rising tide, which floods southwards around Portpatrick, would pull Milko along with it and cause him to have to swim a further distance because of a turn in the shoreline. With a natural tendency to veer right when he is swimming, this was to augment the problem for Milko, as right, heading from Bangor to Scotland, means South. Thankfully, heeding a great number of gestures, whistles and hollers from Marcel, Milko was able to maintain a good course along with the boat.

 As we closed in on the shore, it became more and more apparent that the onshore breeze was creating a hostile landing place for Milko, with waves crashing against the cliff face and frothing quite dramatically. Exhausted and cold, Milko gradually pulled closer to the rocks, and despite the current, actually managed to maintain a course north of Portpatrick village for touchdown. In the final yards before touching land, Milko actually disappeared in white froth before his two hands became clearly visible against the black rocks.

Start time (boats horn) 05:56:53 , 30/07/13

End time (boats horn) 16:30:56 , 30/07/13

Both verified by video"