Sea swimmers from NI to take on North Channel and its jellyfish
On July 5, five brave swimmers from Londonderry swam the North Channel as a relay team, completing the journey in 14 hours and 35 minutes.
Now the second half of the 10-strong team from City of Derry Swimming Club are waiting for the green light to tackle the same 21.6-mile stretch of water from Northern Ireland to Scotland.
But what drives a person to want to traverse choppy water filled with stinging jellyfish with only a pair of swimming trunks and a bathing cap for protection?
Gerard Curran, who is part of the second group of the swimming team who have not yet completed the challenge, said sea swimming came with a “serious feelgood factor that it’s hard to put your finger on”.
“There’s something about just hitting the sea in just your trunks,” he said.
“There’s the adrenalin and there’s a great sense of achievement. The cold water is great therapy.
“The main differences between open water swimming and swimming in a pool would be the temperatures of the water and the currents.
“These are non-wetsuit swims – you’re basically in your swimming togs so it’s even colder. Then you have the unpredictableness of the weather.”
Of the mechanics of the challenge, he said: “The only fair way was to split into two boats of five; any more than five and you’d have been sitting in the boat for too long before you got a swim.
“Any less than five and it gets much tougher.
“In the boat of five, someone will start off and swim for an hour, then the next person will get in and do an hour, and so on.
“In the first boat, they all had three swims each. We’re hoping that we’ll be in the water for no more than three times as well.”
Only 18 teams have ever completed the crossing.
Bizarrely however, a greater number of individuals – just over 30 – have completed the entire challenge alone.
Talking about the 10-strong team, Gerard said: “There’s a range of ages from 34 up to ones in their 60s. There’s a range of bulks as well, all different shapes and sizes. I’d be fairly fit and I would suffer a bit with the cold. There’s times I’d love to have some extra blubber. It works both ways.”
The remaining five men from the City of Derry Swimming Club team will get the call when the water temperature reaches 11 degrees.
According to forecast their next window for the attempt opens this Saturday.
Gerard said: “The first boat found out on Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm that they were going ahead. They had to leave Derry at midnight. Some of them had been working until 7pm so hadn’t got any sleep. They had to be in Donaghadee for around 3am. The first guy, Daniel Meehan, was in the water ready to go at 4.30am. He said he felt it especially cold at that time.
“We’re likely to be faced with the same situation of a ridiculously early start.
“We’re lucky that we know what’s ahead of us. We know we’re not going to get much notice. We’re trying to get as much sleep as possible.”
Gerard said City of Derry Swimming Club first started dipping their toes in open water in 2008: “We have been swimming in the Foyle for close to 10 years. The year the Peace Bridge opened, we had a race from the Craigavon Bridge to Foyle Bridge.
“It was through John Coyle and George Meenan that we got started. They were part of a team in 2008 that crossed the English Channel from Dover to France. Both John and George are part of this North Channel team.”
Gerard continued: “Before 2008 we would have been doing pool swimming. It started with two or three of us going into the sea, now any night there could be 30 people in the sea swimming.
“Sea swimming has got so popular round here in Derry and just across the border in Buncrana. It’s for anybody, not just the super fit. You could have some doing 1,000 metres and some doing up to three or four kilometres.”
He continued: “Where we swim we’re lucky because it’s a bay (Ludden Bay). You don’t have to go out of your depth too much. You can just hug the coastline.
“What makes it good for everybody is that it’s very, very safe. You can bring the whole family down. You could be in swimming while the kids are on the beach.
“You’ve got to treat the open water with the utmost respect. I can’t say it’s totally safe, because you never know what could happen.”
He said another favourite sea swimming spot in Buncrana was Ned’s Point: “As soon as you go in you’re out of your depth. It’s a cracking spot to swim but you need to be a more competent swimmer.”
Of the attributes necessary to take part in open water events Gerard commented: “There’s a severe doggedness in our group. We’ve been in some cold, cold places.
“I remember some of us went up to Cavan a few years back for a 10K swim. It was a freezing day, absolutely Baltic. There was a few of us that day that suffered really, really badly.
“It started as an individual race but we ended up doing it as a group. It was about survival. We made sure no one got left behind.
“I remember at 3K left I was in a bad place. If I could have got out I would. George stayed with our group and saw us through. The sense of completing that swim is what builds the durability.”
If the team’s green light for the North Channel swim comes on Saturday, it will clash with their involvement in the Foyle Maritime Festival.
Gerard said: “We’ve organised a swim in the Foyle this Saturday which is the day our window opens for the North Channel swim.
“There’s over 70 swimmers registered which might get closer to 100 on the day. We’ve got people in place to take over if we get the call.
“Ideally I’d like to do the Foyle Maritime on Saturday and the North Channel on Sunday.”