The North Channel

S: On June 26, 2019, at approximately 5:00am, I attempted to swim the North Channel. Onboard my pilot boat to ensure my safety, guide the way, provide nutritious feeds, coach me through the strong currents, and encourage my spirits were: the brilliant boat pilot Padraig Mallon, the magnificent Maryl Carow, the enthusiastic nut Jack Boyle, and the thorough and thoughtful Sean McDonald.

O: Preparation:

It was before dawn when we arrived at the marina to load gear and board the boat that would take me to Donaghadee to start the swim. The sky was overcast obscuring the stars, but there were Black Guillemots perched along the edge of the marina seawall, next to the stairs that led down to the boats. They didn’t seem to be disturbed by our passing, as they stood, extended their wings, and then resumed their initial position.

There was another swimmer also preparing. Graham, a two time English Channel Swimmer Veteran, from England, with his son (who looked slightly older than my son Tiernan) who was serving as his crew. They were boarding the neighboring boat to embark on Graham’s second attempt of the North Channel. His first attempt was last September. He said, he was back to settle unfinished business and wished me luck.

Our boats cruised about a half hour south east to Donaghadee, just as a red sun rose over Scotland. It was high tide and we could see people on the shore cheering our start. The shore area where they stood, however, was surrounded by large, black rocks, which the waves repeatedly crashed into. Graham dove in from his boat approximately 50 meters away from mine, and Padraig pointed toward a gap in the rocks where I should aim, to officially start my swim. The start would consist of me standing in waist-deep (or less) water, with both arms raised above my head, and a whistle from the boat.

This was more challenging than it sounded. Once in the water, I could no longer see the gap between the rocks, where I was instructed to swim to, because of the crashing waves and my tinted goggles (designed for daylight, sunny swimming, which it would be soon enough, but not yet) made everything look dark. Although clumsily, I eventually balanced well enough with the arches of my feet on a large pointy boulder, waves beating my thighs, to begin the swim. Graham didn’t appear to have trouble coordinating his start and was already well ahead of me. This was not a race though, it was my own individual challenge. I tuned out Graham and his team, lined myself up so that my crew was to my right, blocking the view of his boat, and got into a groove. The water temperature felt comfortable, there was no chop, and I felt strong.

The Scenery: The swim was beautiful. There were three islands called the Copeland Islands to my left at the start. The island furthest from shore had a white lighthouse, that was the last part of Ireland still visible to me later in the swim. There were also many enormous Lion’s Mane Jellyfish, with heads that I estimate to have been 1.5 feet in diameter, and their hundreds of tentacles stretching at least the length of a 25 meter swimming pool. The greatest adventure of the entire attempt was when Jack and Sean stood on the bow of the boat and directed me through mazes of the jellies with their hoots, points, and “come here” gestures. On one feed break, as I drank mint tea on my back, Jack instructed me lift up my bum so I was completely flat on the surface, as a large one apparently drifted right below me. The Lion’s Manes remained very deep for the most part, adding to the beauty of the swim, but I did hit one that’s head was maybe 20 feet below me. It was upside down and all its tentacles rose to the surface, where they brushed against my right forearm. Strangely, I barely registered the stinging since I was experiencing other more concerning issues.

Physical Sensations: Just before I was informed that I was in the slack tide (I have no idea how long I’d been swimming as time seems to no longer exist when in the swim), my chest started to hurt on inhalation. It felt full of gunk and my sternum stung. I was having difficulties rotating to my left side to breathe, and I could barely inhale enough air to keep my face in the water for two-to-three strokes. I began to hear an audible rattle and wheeze on all my inhalations.

Jack asked me to switch to backstroke for a half hour to see if it would help me power through the slack tide, before I encountered the current that would arrive with the next tide shift. Backstroke worked with consequences, I was faster, but my chest hurt more. I felt like I needed to cough, but couldn’t, and the rattle and wheeze of my breathing was always present. I switched back to freestyle after the next feed. I was more comfortable on the pain scale, but I still struggled to breathe to my left side, and I couldn’t hold my breath, in order to breathe every four strokes, which meant I was breathing every two strokes to my right (a very inefficient and dizzying stroke in open water).

Jack started writing comments on the white board instructing me to focus on my pull and the mechanics of my stroke. These were excellent cues because they distracted me from the chop that had blown in with the current, and the obstruction I felt in my chest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t correct my stroke. I have no clue what my left arm was doing, but my right arm was being led by my shoulder, not my elbow, and my forearm would just crash into the water all at once at my side, rather than fingertips first, up above my head. Jack again tried to encourage me to flip to my back, but it was more painful and I couldn’t inhale enough air when on my back to feel comfortable.

Eventually, Padraig emerged to my side, having left his spot behind the wheel and said, that he didn’t like the sound my breathing was making, and that I had a half an hour to increase my stroke rate before he called it. I asked about Graham as we had passed him hours before and I hadn’t seen his boat in the distance for several hours.

During my struggle, the thought of Graham was comforting because I knew that I wasn’t alone in this battle. He was behind me fighting the same wind and chop. I was informed he had turned back already. I dropped my face back in, knowing that I was alone, but relieved that my crew realized my breathing difficulties, and that it was their concern for me that would stop the swim, rather than me giving up. I focused all of my attention on increasing my stroke rate and couldn’t do it. It just made me hyperventilate more, and I could no longer inhale sufficient air. I popped my head up, admitted to not being able to breathe, and was quickly pulled from the water, dressed, warmed, an oxygen mask was placed over my mouth and nose, and oxygen was administered as the boat cruised back to Bangor.

A: Padraig confirmed the worry that plagued my thoughts, when he said I experienced Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE). He has seen it many times. I first read about it after Bainbridge. Although, I never had breathing difficulties during that long training swim, I experienced lower oxygen levels when lying on my back at my dermatology appointment two-days afterwards, felt extremely winded after easy routine tasks like showering, walking, and cleaning, and when I swam four-days after Bainbridge, I couldn’t side breathe on either side and ended up swimming backstroke. That initial swim was so discomforting, every training I swim I did, even short ones in very warm water afterwards was with a kayaker. Maryl was very sick with a cough during this time and allergies were rampant for students and teachers, so I chalked my breathing difficulties to allergies, and a side effect of my longest swim in cold water, and pushed the possibility of SIPE out of my mind.

I don’t have my North Channel observation notes yet from the official observer, but will include them in a post when they’re available. I do know I swam ten-ish hours, more than half-way with an intended distance/route of approximately 45 km. The water temperature was reported to me to be between 50 and 53 degrees, which felt comfortable (I didn’t experience grumpiness, a clawed hand, slurred speech), my quads got sore (which an Ibuprofen fixed), I had no cramps after a preventative Hotshot, and I experienced SIPE. Before Padraig discussed stopping swim, observers were concerned that my consistent stroke rate of 56-57 had dropped significantly to 44.

P: Take it easy while my lungs are repairing themselves, and work with my medical providers when I get home to Oregon so that I can continue to swim in open water safely.

3 thoughts on “The North Channel

  • Hey Rijl, Good to get the full aftermath of it. I know nothing of why swimmers get pulmonary edema but your message seems to indicate the swim around Bainbridge may have initiated the circumstances. You didn’t say so, but somehow I picked that up? Am I right here? Yes, I think your followers do want to know if one recovers from these sorts of things, and what you are doing to look after yourself now. Is this something that rest cures? or is it there like a time bomb waiting to go off under favorable conditions to it on subsequent swims? All go here for tomorrow’s leap to Ireland. Looking forward to getting a first hand story on all this. Imagining you enjoying N. Ireland and having fun with Meryl. Love and anxious to see ye! at cottage. Sean wrote this morning and says it is gonna be tip top for ye. Threase

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  • Dear Rijl, No matter the outcome, we are profoundly proud of you for your great efforts on this endeavor! To come up with such a grand plan, train for it and surround yourself with a tremendous team….we are so unsurprised. ☺️ Your strong will, perseverance and commitment to things you do in life is commendable; you are amazing! Hope you’re enjoying your stay and are feeling much better. We look forward to connecting when you return. Many stories are to be told I’m sure…..!
    All the best and our love, April, Dave & Kiddos

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