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Fergal Somerville

Ilfracombe to Swansea 19/20-9-2021

Swim time:  15hrs 35minutes 0seconds

Start: Ilfracombe

Finish: Swansea

Observer:      Ros Edmonds

Swim Crew:   John Daly

Pilot:              Ceri Davies

Ratified by the BCSA.

Swimmers report:

On 17 September I confirmed that I would take on the challenge of swimming 25 miles (the longest I have ever attempted) across the Bristol Channel to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. I was on the Rosslare/Pembroke ferry and heading to Swanseathe longest swim I have ever attempted. On Sunday I went for a 10 minute swim in The Mumbles to get a feel for the water and a view across the Channel. The boat pilot confirmed a swim time of 10:30pm for Monday night. Originally set for the Tuesday the swim was brought forward to take advantage of the weather and to complete before an anticipated change in conditions. Monday was spent preparing equipment and supplies. My crew was Mags on land and John Daly, an English Channel Swimmer from my own club, Eastern Bay Swim Team. Along with food, snacks, flasks, raingear, we packed 10 * 2 litre bottles of energy drink made up of glucose and fructose to maintain effort over an anticipated 14-18 hour non-stop swim. Goodies for the swim included bananas, chocolate bars and Mags’ home-made muesli bars. Also included were lights, whistles, togs, towels, hats, earplugs, coats and the Ma’s miraculous medal.

 

Before leaving Swansea I prepared in my customary fashion. For all my long swims I draw the '3 of Hearts' on my chest; for the thee people who mean the most to me and inspire me - Mags, Eoin and Conor. On my palms I have Eoin and Conor's initials - two galoots I call on in swims when I need to up the effort and the mantra of calling their names on each stroke pushes me through the water. In the past three years I have added more guns; grandsons Cole and Ryan. And, I also have Jen and Jenny. On the back on my neck I have a single heart with an 'M'. I added Jerry Kiersey and Don Barry to my shoulders; two great Eastern Bay colleagues who passed away in recent months. In the middle, to keep me on track, is a signpost for 'Wales' 


The adventure commenced at 9:55pm with a one hour, ten minute boat ride from Swansea Marina (Wales) to Ilfracombe Pier (Devon). In the harbour I dressed in Speedos, laytex cap and rubber earplugs. Plastered with copious amounts of lanolin (fat from sheep wool) in crevices and creases to prevent chafing) and suddenly it’s swim time.

 

Ilfracombe pier is under the watchful gaze of ‘Verity’, a 25 metre stainless steel and bronze statue of a pregnant woman holding aloft a sword. She carries the scales of justice and stands on a library of law books – just to ensure adherence to the Channel Swimming rules.

 

The Bristol Channel is famed for having the second highest tide range in the world. The difference between low and high tides can be 15m+ (higher than your standard family home). In Ilfracombe on the day high tide, at 12:48pm, recorded 6.34m on the pier wall. Low tide, almost six hours later was at 7:25pm was 3.87m. Luckily (for me)  this was an ebb tide with a height difference of 2.44m.

 

 A final check on hat, togs, and goggles I went over the side of the RIB into the calm 18C water. I swam to the pier and walked up the steps. I had a quick look around. Boat and crew were ready on waiting on my confirmation. I waved and with a final adjustment of the goggles I plunged back into the 18C water. The toot of the boat’s horn ending the five second visit to Devon. It's 10:48 – the swim has started. 

My swim came in three stages. A fellow swimmer, Phil Warren (Reading, England), also taking on the same challenge, started about 5 minutes ahead of me. Phil opted to swim breaststroke. I exited the dimly lit harbour under ‘Verity’ and took to the abyss. But for the torches and security lights on the boat we were in complete darkness. Wales was 25 miles ahead and the 6:57am sunrise, 8½ hours away. The tide, flowing West to East, was filling the Bristol Channel, for the next 3½ hours. I was swimming due north. The first three hours I was swimming across the tide – a tiring start to a long day.

 

This was my first swim through the night. I was not phased by that and knew I was in the capable hands of John, Ros (official observer) and the boat’s two crew members.

 

At around 5:00am I felt my left hand touch something, almost solid, in the water. I got a jolt but didn’t lose rhythm. I swam on. The night was black dark. I was wearing two lights (one attached to the goggles' strap on the back of my head and the other pinned to my togs). Throughout the swim the boat was never more than 5m away. A few minutes later I saw what I initially thought was two plastic bags. I guessed that they weren’t plastic bags. I came upright and looked to the boat. John told me a pod of dolphins were swimming around me and the boat. For several minutes they darted under me in rows of three and four and sped past. When I looked at water level again I could see them jumping. Beautiful animals and so graceful. I wonder what they made of the big lump doing less than 2 mph in hat, togs and goggles and flashing lights.

 

I have swum in the sea throughout the year for the last 15 years. I was not worried. However, what I had not anticipated was the cold. I got colder and colder and complained at some of my regular 35 minute feed stops. I was uncomfortable and my pace was slowing. By 6:00am I knew I could not continue with the lowering body temperature. I did know that a warm feed would help and had a coffee. I also knew that getting back in the boat to end the swim would have seen me requiring sunscreen by the time I would have gotten back to Swansea. I wasn't getting out. I kept going.

Shortly after 7:00am the sun rose from the Bristol end of the Channel. Good times were coming. Within 30-40 minutes I convinced myself that I could feel the heat of the sun on my back. Stage 2 of the swim started. I picked up the pace. I sprinted for over an hour and regenerated the heat I needed to stay on course to complete the swim. The day brightened, wind was almost non-existent, and the swell very low. All was good with the world.

Solo swimming can be one of the loneliest sports in the world, but you can’t do it on your own. There is nothing solo about a solo swim. Every 30-35 minutes (at this stage) I am supping my energy supplies from a bottle with a 10m tether back to the boat. Every 3rd or 4th feed a banana or chocolate bar is tossed into the water beside me and consumed to keep hunger pangs at bay. At all times the swimmer is watched by support, observer and boat crew. Each feed comes with a comment or two, always positive and encouraging; never negative or obscure. Swimmers don’t have the capacity to take in too much information and generally take a paranoid stance that they are being misinformed, duped, fenegeld or a combination of all three.

The loneliness of the long swim comes with the completion of the pit stop and the resumption for at least another 30-35 minutes of pure effort of pushing one arm after the other and kicking. And when it gets tough it gets really tough and two galoots, Eoin and Conor, are called upon to take up the pace. They have never let me down. They're in straight away and the 'stoke rate' picks up. 'Eoin and Conor', Eoin and Conor, Eoin and Conor, Eoin and Conor'. The mantra is relentless, both names, every breadth, stroke maintained, speed picked up. And, pretty soon, the next feed is called and I'm back at the boat. The boredom is relieved within the swimmer’s head with conversations with dead relatives, reliving past experiences and accepting that the challenge is to keep going. I usually line up my parents, George and May, grandparents, brother, aunts and uncles, and anyone else who is prepared to join me in full two-way conversations. The Ma and Da didn’t show up till 4:00am this time; a little later than usual. Others came and went. Time passed and I’m called to the next feed, not noticing the duration.

In recent years I have printed photos of my own family; Mags, Eoin and Conor, Jenny and Jen and the main men, Cole and Ryan. These are laminated. Throughout the night John held up photos in torchlight and it was lifting to see the sons’ on their wedding days, even Mags and me in our Daimler back in 1987 (still horrified that I was cajoled into wearing white socks with the black suit). I did actually complain to John at about 4:30 when I saw he had our small grandson up (out of bed). By sunrise the laminations were tied onto the side of the RIB. I could swim in and touch one of them and realise how lucky I really am. By 9:30 the lads were gone to Day Care. I was flying.

 


 

You can only be a channel swimmer by completing the swim of a channel. That means; wearing only hat, togs and goggles, swim from the start point to the finish point without touching the accompanying boat. That might seem pedantic, but I have friends who have stopped or been stopped in their swims within a few hundred metres of the finishing point. It can be a very cruel sport. It took me four years, 12 hours and 40 minutes to swim the English Channel. The four years was the preparation, comprising of swimming over 1,000 kilometres every year. Some swimmers have given this effort but not gotten to swim because of bad conditions, tides, and rotten weather. Cruel does not describe it. So, I consider myself very lucky to have completed the English Channel and North Channel (12 hours and 21 minutes).

 

 

The third stage of the Bristol Channel left me with approximately 8 miles to swim. My normal pace of 2mph meant I’d be done in another 4 hours. However, this is like the mid-point in a marathon when a runner thinks ‘that’s great, I’m halfway there’. But you’re not. You’ve done half the distance and now you have do the same again and you’re already ‘bunched’. And you start to convince yourself that you can’t repeat that effort for that distance and different bits and pieces are aching and even the earlier aches now have their own aches.

Marathon swimming is 90% mental and the rest is all in your head. You get dark thoughts that are hard to dispel and elations which are short-lived. Only one thing to do – plough on.

That remaining 8 miles came after completing almost twice that distance already. I’d been here before. I knew what was needed. I had a goal. I had a reason. I had a cause. And best of all I have the rarest of attributes – ‘Dublin Indignation’. Tell a Dub that he’s attempting something that can’t be done and bump, you’ve secured his success – he’ll plough on. And so I did. And it got harder and harder. Then, it got harder. The feed times lengthened. The questions repeated. The frustration grew. But, there was Wales. This is what I had come to do. I wasn’t stopping. The advice came from the boat continuously and consistently, counting how much time I had swam and guessing how much time it would take to land. John spoke with the others on the boat and told me, with just one mile to go that I had an hour and a half left before the tide would turn me back into the channel.

I had very little left, but I was determined to get that hour and a half done within the next 30 or so minutes. I had already passed Sian Clement’s record time of 14 hours. I had only cared about beating that record up to the 13½ hour point (with about two miles left) and then I had the original record, established by Gentleman Gethin Jones in 2010 of 22 hours. It wasn't important, finishing was important.

I was exhausted for the final component. I felt I had very little left. I had never expended so much effort. I could see the finishing point. Even though I felt I was not getting any nearer I wasn’t pulling up. John offered me a final feed. I declined. I put the head down and charged for about eight or nine strokes and came back up for a look. I continued in this mode. At the observer’s agreement John was allowed to join me in the final 50 or so metres to mind me as I completed the swim. This is the point you know you are going to complete. I swam. I was in water of 3m and could see the sand on the bottom. I was in 2m and could see the rocks and sand. I went a little further and made 3 or 4 attempts to stand, but just could not get my legs to agree to the request. I went a little further, and made a strong effort to stand up momentarily. I looked to the boat and heard the hoot of the horn. It was 15 hours and 35 minutes since I left the pier in Ilfracombe in Devon. Here I had little time at the cliff face on the Gower Headland. I’m not a great tourist, but I will come back to see and enjoy these venues in the future. I was done. Done and dusted. I swam back to the RIB and was helped onboard. Mags was at the top the cliff behind where I finished. I called to her, waved at her and told her "I love her".

Swim’s done, back to Swansea. All is good with the world.

 


 


 

On my return to Swansea I was exhausted and unable to communicate effectively with the team. Sian Clement was there. You remember her from earlier; the current record holder at 14:00. Sian is also a doctor. As a precaution I was taken to Swansea Hospital A&E by Tom and Sian. I was examined extensively by a number of doctors and had heart and lung x-rays, blood tests, ultrasound, and two cardiac enzyme marker tests to measure 'Troponin T' or 'Troponin I' proteins in the blood specific biological markers in the blood. High (elevated) levels of cardiac enzymes can be a sign of a heart attack or another heart problem. They are released when the heart muscle has been damaged, such as occurs with a heart attack. The enzyme test was conducted early on in the examination and repeated four hours later. The result of both tests, thankfully, indicated normal enzyme levels. The staff in the Hospital were absolutely fantastic and amazed to hear on my earlier exploits. The heart specialist who examined me is a Dub, trained in Beaumont and is coming back to work in the Mater. Mags stayed with me throughout. With a clean bill of health the medical expertise decided that exhaustion arising from a little more than 5/6 hours sleep in the previous 48 hours and more than 15 hours physical exertion caused me to be a tad less than euphoric at the completion of the swim. Not downplaying this I am truly grateful to everyone involved and their reaction to a serious situation. I cannot thank the team and medics enough for their assistance. 

 

I had previously hoped to re-fill with some Vitamin G after the swim. Instead, I got back to the house after midnight and had the most delicious cup of tea and three slices of toast with marmalade. Pure heaven. 

 

This swim has served a purpose in my sporting life. At 59 I have completed the Original Triple Crown of Swims; the English, Irish and Welsh (Bristol) Channels.

 

 

23/09/2011         English Channel 12:40
16/06/2013         North Channel   12:21
20/09/2022         Bristol Channel 15:35
Total time                                     40:36

 

For the 25 mile route I am the 1st Irish swimmer, oldest swimmer and fastest male. You will be delighted to hear that Phil Warren completed his breaststroke swim of the route in a time of 21 hours and 55 minutes. This year, Kerry legend, Elaine Dillane Burrows nipped in and swam the Bristol Channel. The day before my swim my very good friend Pat Gallant Charette (Maine, US) also swam the Bristol Channel. The Bristol Channel Swimming Association has details on swims and routes at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100078428844409.

 


This swim I am proud to dedicate to two mentors who pointed me in the direction of Wales. Ireland’s Martin Cullen, a father figure in open water swimming for many years provided fantastic encouragement as a I increased swimming distances to completing the English Channel in 2011 and North Channel in 2013. Wales Gethin Jones, similarly promoted open water swimming, particularly the Bristol Channel. In 2013, Gethin invited me to take on the Bristol Channel. I told him I was interested and would get back to him. Both Martin and Gethin have passed on, but they both have left such a legacy that is an honour to carry forward.  

 

 

This swim also has a secondary and more important purpose. It is a fundraiser for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and all money raised goes directly to the charity. I am deeply thankful to the 100+ donors who contributed over €8,000.00 in the week of the swim. If you are impressed by the swim, the work of the IMNDA or have a few bob to spare you are welcome to donate at the following link.

Observers report:

 

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