“I am not a person to do things by halves. If you’re going to swim, swim a bloody channel, man, not the length of a pool! Also, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m in the throws of a mid-life crisis, which hasn’t so far manifested itself in the sudden purchase of a sporty red convertible.
It’s widely considered the hardest channel swim in the world
“On Thursday 7 August 2014, I exited the water and took my place up on the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, France, an unsympathetic crop of boulders that many a successful English Channel swimmer has clambered onto. Barely able to raise my arms in celebration from the shoulder pain, I looked back across the busiest shipping lane in the world and said to myself, ‘Is that it?!’
“On Tuesday 11 August 2015, I found myself in Donaghadee Harbour, Northern Ireland, about to attempt what’s widely considered the hardest channel swim in the world, the North Channel. Unsatisfied with joining ‘The Club’ – a cliquey members-only joint populated by around 1,500 smug English Channel swimmers – I wanted ‘in’ to a much more exclusive hangout, with only 30 or so members.
“The atmosphere was relaxed in the early morning, as we had already been there three days earlier. We’d intended to kick off with the swim then, but decided that the weather window was too slim for me to wade out into the water and head for Port Patrick, Scotland. This was round two.
“My crew were revving engines, filling in forms, checking cameras and stacking storage boxes of expedition supplies: carb-heavy feeds, sandwiches, water and chocolate squares, made by my mother’s cousin Margaret.
“Myself and my uncle Jim were more concerned about our bowel movements, and snuck into a nearby hotel for some release. (For the record: it was Jim who blocked it!). There was no toilet on our vessel, a vintage 1950’s RNLI Lifeboat skippered by wizened sea-dog Quinton Nelson, a man who takes no prisoners and always tells you how it is.
“Swim at 2mph all the way and I’ll get you there,” Quinton told me
“’Swim at 2mph all the way and I’ll get you there,’ he had told me. By those words I had lived the last year, training in the pool and riding the currents out at sea.
“We said our goodbyes to our insomniac supporters and set off. I stripped to my Speedos, Dad slapped the lanolin on me, I checked my goggles, and then jumped into the Irish Sea –a treacherous stretch of subarctic water that rarely makes it over 15°C, requiring cold water training that kept my genitalia around my prostate for most of the winter. I swam out to the nearest rock, climbed onto it, and when instructed by the official observer dived back in.
Your mind swarms with the magnitude of what you are doing
“At the start, your mind swarms with the magnitude of what you are doing. You try to catch yourself on, but never really grasp what you’re at.
“Within 15 minutes I’d been hit by the first of many a lions mane jellyfish, a meaty looking critter whose sting would remind me of its existence for days. But I was ready for that, having already endured 13 hours of grinding agony following a seven hour swim the week before. They were there, that was that, get on.
“When I stopped for my first feed after an hour, I could still see the Copeland Islands, which lay a little over a mile off the Irish shore. (Dad never failed upon their mention to tell us that they inspired Swift’s floating islands in Gulliver’s Travels – yawn). This sight frustrated me to swim harder, hoping to break out into open sea, but still they lingered! (As did my need to further clear my bowels, which I did.)
If it’s not the cold, you’re hitting a jellyfish, or increasing your pace, or trying to pee…
“There’s not one second of comfort in an North Channel swim. If it’s not the cold, you’re hitting a jellyfish, or increasing your pace, or trying to pee, or enduring sore shoulders, or wishing for sunshine, or crying for your mother, hoping for an excuse to get out, telling yourself to stay in, maybe there are sharks!
“But failure was not an option. I was flying. Quinton even gave me a sneaky thumbs up. I had this!
“Time leaves you in a marathon swim. After 11 hours in water that never got over 13°C, my left shoulder finally packed in. The officially-permitted painkillers didn’t touch the sides. I needed a double dose of tramadol and a fish supper. Gary – the official observer – later told me, ‘You were like a bird with a broken wing.’
“I was dreading stopping for the next feed. All the crew were looking on in sympathy. ‘You’ve got six miles to go,’ I was told. ‘You had five miles to go, but the tide is pushing you back. If you dig in and increase your pace, it’s going to be another five or six hours…’
I threw my feed at the boat in rage and called for the ladder
“I threw my feed at the boat in rage and called for the ladder. Yes, I could keep swimming – but increase my pace? ‘F— off.’
“Once on deck, they all fussed over me like old ladies. ‘F— off’ was all I had until dressed in five layers and ensconced below deck in my foil-lined sleeping bag and hand-knitted Liverpool FC woolly hat.
“I wasn’t hypothermic, I was raging! My body had let me down. In that moment, I swore I was never going to put myself through the North Channel again. ‘A swim is a swim,’ I told myself. ‘I do this for the experience, not the glory…’
“In reality, I attempted the North Channel to see what it would take to get to the other side. I wanted to relive that English Channel-crossing moment where your goal seems impossible but you persevere through doggedness, and fully live out the drama.
“Swimming the North Channel was an idea that could only be stopped either by myself or by nature. I needed to prove I was great. Yes, it was all about my ego.
“So, 2017 it is then…”