Thursday, September 9, 2010

North Channel Swim 2010- Annemarie Ward-

It's 8.36pm in the evening Annemarie has been rotating her arms for over 8 hours, ploughing her way across the 20 mile stretch of the North Channel, she has been here before this time it is different. The water is calm and the jellyfish are a lot more friendly. The water is 12/13 c (56-58 f)degrees but starting early in the day seems to have allowed her body to maintain some level of body heat. Hypothermia is not an issue at the moment. Pushing her fingers into the dark water-it's late afternoon but the water in the North Channel is dark. The bottle of feed drops in front of her, she gulps some sugar and warm liquid into her system, it is the sentence that she is waiting for. "The tide is turning" for the next six hours she will be swimming against the flow. "You will need to really push hard for the next few hours, so we don't go backwards" a calm and concerned voice came from the rib.
After 8 hours of rotating her arms now she needs to push hard. Smiling to the boat she digs re enters he liquid world. Annemarie has not stood up, breathed freely, wiped her eye, taken off her goggles, blown her nose, scratched her leg or stopped for more than a minute in the last eight hours. She has maintained a 62/63 spm and now she had to push hard for 4 hours so they would not go backwards. This time she has covered just under 12 nmiles which is super progress.

There is no other sport where you have to fight hard so as you don't go backwards. How does a swimmer be so mentally strong as to want to go forward? How can Annemarie come back here 4 times just to push her body through this? To know the pain and take it anyway. How can a team focus on something and want this as much for themselves as for her? This has become personal for all of them and this time the full team are throwing the kitchen sink at it.

Breathing in, her mind switched over to 2008 when her body was rotated back to Ireland, she was taken from the water for no other reason except that she would not get there with the strength of the tide. That pain is still fresh. The pain on the faces of the crew after 17.5hrs in complete darkness, they brought the rib close to her, if she touches the boat it's over. She back pedelled from the boat as if screaming "don't touch me, it'll be over, let me swim & continue" relenting and knowing it was over they lifted her in. They journeyed back in silence.
Filled with determination she dug as deep into the water as she had ever done before. After 9 hours swimming in 12 deg water her stroke rate rose as high as 68 spm-slightly concerned Brendan asked her to take it back a bit. He sensed that she was driving too hard.

With the wind and tide together from the SE, once the tide turned the wind whipped the surface aware that she was swimming against the flow, the mind started to play. They had originally planned to take the swim on the 3rd of Sept, this was the 1st Sept, would the strength of the 2 extra days change the plan? could she hold her own? would her body be turned back to Ireland? Looking up at the crew she regained focus and pushed hard as the waves beat against the tide. The next 4 hours she covered 3 nmiles.

Dive Ciara- Gus and Ivan Team Delta Int.

The Dive Ciara and the Zebedee who carried her rescue crews rotated crew every hour allowing the guys to stay fresh and alert for her. The crew would swop over to the Lucky Lizzie owned by Gus O Driscoll, have a break and transfer back. This activity allowed Annemarie to count the hours and it was fantastic to check out the new faces each turnover. Who's here now? the different methods of crewing? what are they chatting about?
It is so strange so low in the water, you can still seek out the pupils of the eyes that follow you. To have a body bearing down on you is the most exerhilating moment in the world, it takes away all the fears. Like a child screaming " are we there yet?" the signals would come for the next feed.

8.35pm Annemarie has done great against the odds. The next feed she asks "Am I back in Larne?" The smiles told her that she had made progress, you never tell a swimmer the truth that in mind she dug in again. It's 5 miles to Scotland. How far is that? Is it 6 more hours? How do you take that on board? when you're broken and chaffed from movement what does 6 more hours mean? no doubt she is cold but that is no longer an option.
Noel B and Annemarie
Nothing matters to an Open Water swimmer, you could be so close as to throw your water bottle up on the shore but still not get there, the water that flows close to shore often the fastest as many have discovered in the English Channel this summer. It's over when it's over.

The darkness falls and there is a super level of calm in the crews, "all I have to do is swim" she mantra'd.
The crews had been awake for 30 hours, travelling through the night, we're a team. Sitting on a rib, watching, counting the stroke to see if there are any changes, feeling the pain, crewing is the toughest job. The swimmer sees all activity on the boats, tries to figure out conversations through movements, senses anquish so the crew need to be strong for the swimmer. She thought about the sacrifices that they had made. The years that they had plotted and planned, the miles they had travelled, their families, her family, her work all for her to reach a rock in Scotland.

"I'm not coming back here. This is it, give it everything, please don't let the bar be too high, I can't ask anymore from these guys" a voice screamed.
Absorbing the smiles, the sun set over the North Channel. The faces became shadows as the large Jenny spotlights lit up her way, they searched out jellyfish as she took stings but nothing like before. Progress far outweighed any pain.
Annemarie and Derek
At 11pm, 14.5hrs swimming, Annemarie had covered 2 miles in the last 2 hours but she was still facing Scotland. Her stroke jumps to 66 spm. There is power coming through. Her throat was starting to hurt and her tongue was swollen from the salt, so with the next feed she takes in mouth wash. The worst of the tide had been beaten and the outgoing tide was now weakening. The chaffing was becoming a greater pain, friction burns from skin folds crossing over.

It is a very bizarre feeling but the adjustment to darkness needs the swimmers to relax a bit. The arms rotate like regular but the mind needs to slow down. The lights of the boats became too bright though it was important for them to light the way it was more important for her to relax and try and 'sleep' for a while. She asked the crews to turn off the lights. It's like being in a very bright room at night, the phosference of your hands cutting through the water,as your fingers reach into the darkness can be quite hypnotic and often times relaxes the mind. The darkness anhisthisises the pain or allows the mind to numb it. Darkness can be comforting to a swimmer.
She accepted that this was it, there will be no other journey here and whatever she had she was going to leave it in the North Channel.

The crews were getting urgent and at the next feed she could sense that something was happening. The course changed and despite wondering she felt a strength come into her arms. The faces were bearing down on her. The boats so close that there was nothing that could come between them. You want the boat right on top of you, like an umbilical cord you can draw oxygen from the faces. Being able to look into their eyes so close is something that a swimmer learns over years, finding a focus and as the time passed, the energy of the crew was transfered.
The next two hours covered 1.7nmiles- Annemarie was making excellent progress. The thoughts of Stephen Redmond crept in, what his crew must have felt like a few days ago.
How can you actually stop? it's easy on the road to ease to a jog, or slow down on a bike.
A scream came"can you see Portpatrick?" The sense of hope huge. In 1988 Maggie Kidd completed a crossing 24 hours after Alison Streeter. This might be the same.

Temptation to touch her goggles was there but she knew she had a seal and she could not risk looking and breaking that seal. 
2.16am Annemarie was swimming 18 hours non-stop in 12/13 degree water. The veil of darkness that had dropped was no longer an obstacle, taking her last feed, the word came that Scotland was .75miles away, Land was 1km from her. Some athletes would shake that off as being 15 minutes of their time, but the sea allows you through if and when it wants.
The North Channel today was different, it was allowing passage. Closing her eyes she screamed "the boys will get me home, the boys will get me home". trying to prevent the welling of tears, her breathing elevated. This was her mantra for the next hour.
As Derek guided her into a bay, there was a sense of closure, a sense that she was gliding somewhere. Ryan her brother joined her in the water. For one person to touch a rock it takes a full team to get us there. All our responsibilities have to be carried while we pursue our dreams and as swimmers the friends & family who allow us to fly are the true heros. Annemarie began to list the people who made this happen and that last 1km took Annemarie 1hr 30 minutes.

At 18 hrs and 59mins Annemarie became the first Irish Woman to swim across the North Channel and the 11th person in History to complete it.
It is the longest immersion by a swimmer in the channel as well. Overall Annemarie has spent 43 hours swimming in the North Channel. Though it's crossing is 35km/20m it is without doubt the average of 60 km that a swimmer rotates.

Her Crew
Surrounding her was Brendan Proctor who has been at her side in swimming for many years. He captained the Command boat with the beautiful Sea Breeze during the Round Ireland Relay Swim and his wisdom, humour and caring nature was the saviour of our sanity over 56 days. I always remember a comment he made
"it's never worth having a bad swim today, because you could jeproadise a really good swim tomorrow"

Annemarie and Brendan
Team Delta International as they are now called and members of the Sheephaven Sub Aqua Unit, guys who's knowledge of the North Coast & waters and it's heartbeat, is worth it's weight in gold. Ivan, Gus, Joe and Eoin are rogues to the highest level but there is nothing they would not do to drive you forward. I often during our swims thought they were like the Steven Segal of the movies, without the long hair of course. Mad but had your back. They manage those ribs on the edge of safety with the precision of a chef slicing the thinist cut. Her brother Ryan who is so selfless and as solid as a rock, together with Noel Brennan who morning after morning at 6am winter pushed her distances in 5 & 6 degree water. Sillyness that Noel put a big heater into his van so Annemarie could heat up faster.
Ivan, Joe and Gus-3/4 of Team Delta

Her super friends Beulah and Brendan whose support is unending and whose good humour and strength you can only draw from. Derek Flanagan, the marine co-ordinator, whose knowledge of the sea and understanding of tides is something to behold. He has a very special knowledge. They had one common goal and it became as important to all that they would finish what they came to do in 2008. I think the North Channel respected that as well.

What makes the North Channel so different?
When the thousands of miles of water try to squeeze between the Ireland and Scotland, the space being so small and ragged, it forces that water to act very erratically. Like an excited child it runs through islands and in and out of headlands and bays, it goes every direction, even sometimes backwards. Therefore, to a swimmer, there is no definite system of movement. Add to this the fact that the water temperature is only 12 degrees C (late 50′s in F), To take it on requires a swimmer who is willing to take defeat as objectively as success. There is nothing personal in there.
The North Channel is scary in a strange sort of way, it is dark in it's beat and movement. Kinda like a pychopathic nature, difficult to understand yet easy. a variable that you can't take your eyes off.
I remember my dad telling that if a fish box fell over board that it would fly away from the boat at speed, this always stays in mind when in troubled waters.

Annemarie Ward;
How can a swimmer, know the pain, feel the pain, know the challenges and still feel the need to go back in.
Why did crossing this body of water mean so much? No reason except it is here.
Annemarie Ward is one of the most amazing and genuine people that I have ever and likely to meet, her attitude to everything was sure "We'll give it a go".
I met her in 2005 and along with Tom Watters, Ian Claxton and Ryan we would hold a love and respect so deep for her, we shared the highs and lows of the Round Ireland Relay Swim, 830 miles over 56 days. Annemarie was the binding force, the voice that said "Sure we'll see how it goes" She is so unquestioning and supportive. A laugh that lights up a room with the courage of the greatest lion.

The final march of the penquins.. 830 miles later 56 days..
Years have passed and the journeys we have taken together, all of us, those who have watched and those who have been part of her swims, feel the highest level of respect and admiration, plus relief that it is over. The wheel has come full circle.
It is only fitting that the swimming community would finally recognise the force of nature that is Annemarie Ward.

The entire community feels good for Anne Marie, including Kevin Murphy, the King of the Channel.
Kevin knows well how tough the North Channel is, "I've done 56-mile swims. I've done 52-hour swims. I've done a high-altitude lake swim. I've done Loch Ness where the temperature falls to 7°C (44.6°F). I've swum in air temperature of -34°C. I've done a Norwegian fjord passing the inflow from glaciers. I've swum in South Africa with the Great White Sharks. I've done the Catalina and Santa Barbara Channels. When I'm asked what's the toughest of all, my answer is the North Channel. I've done it three times and it still frightens me.."

Chatting to her tonight her first statement was "can you believe that I haven't been out to celebrate yet?"

The North Channel -Tick.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing feat ! Many congratulations to Anne Marie and her support team for completing the North Channel. Thank you for writing this, it is super to read - I am looking forward to reading the rest of the blogs on this site...I love the water to :)