Swimming 2 channels in 2 months – West Lothian Chamber of Commerce webinar

September 1, 2020

It was great to be asked to present to West Lothian Chamber of Commerce on 25th August via webinar summarising the lessons learnt from swimming 2 channels in 2 months in 2017. As part of Team MAD (which stood for mother and daughter and also a description of the challenge), my mother and I swum the North Channel and English Channel in summer 2017, raising over £20,000 for Maggie’s Centre, Glasgow.

For those of you who might be interested, the speech is below.

“Thank you very much for inviting me today. I am here to tell you about how my mother and I were the first ever 2 person mother and daughter relay team to swim the North Channel and English Channel and what lessons we learnt from completing 2 channels in 2 months.

So how did it all start?

Well to be frank alcohol as the old saying since Alcohol as no good story every starts with someone eating a salad. Rewind to 6 months before in September 2016 and my mother and I were celebrating completing a 10 km swim of Lake Coniston with a bottle or two of rose wine. Talk turned to what we would go for next and a channel was mentioned. Since we are Scottish, we thought needed to incorporate Scotland into the swim and hit upon the swim between (Northern Ireland to Scotland) know was the North Channel was the channel for us. Neither of us had any inclination to swim a solo, so we decided that we would choose to swim a relay team whereby each team member swims of 2 hours until the swim is completed. Further googling found out that there had never been a 2 person relay team let alone a mother and daughter relay team to swim the North Channel so that was the challenge for us!

Waking up the day after our Lake Coniston swim, we laughed off the thought. It wasn’t until the New Year 2017 when the topic came up again, blame the rose that we decided to do it and manged to secure a boat to take us across in July 2017.

In terms of key statistics. The North Channel swim is approximately the same distance as the English Channel 22 miles between Dongahadee in Northern Ireland and Port Patrick Scotland. For those of you have not had the pleasure of traversing the North Channel it’s a 45 minute flight between Glasgow to Belfast, 2 hour ferry, 10 to 17 hour swim.  According to the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association the North Channel is world-renowned for being the accepted pinnacle in open water, long-distance swimming, due to the contrary currents, unpredictable weather, blooms of lions mane jellyfish and not least, the coldness of the water.  Swimming the North Channel is only possible between late June and early September with lows of 10 C and highs (I use the word advisedly) of 15 C.

To get across our coach explained in his opinion that 49% success was down swimming for hours in as cold water as you can bear for as often and as long as possible, right up to the days before your attempt. Your body remembers each cold water swim and while its never enjoyable you do build up resistance to the cold. The other 51% is mental and he explained that while there could be perfect conditions, everything can become too much for swimmers and they fail to get across with 1 out of 3 North Channel crossings failing.

Under channel rules you are not allowed a wetsuit but only a single swimsuit, one cap, googles and ear plugs. Unfortunately, no wetsuit means no layer of warm water between the wetsuit and your body, so it takes practice to get used to swimming in skins as swimming without a wetsuit is known. This was our first challenge since all of our swimming to date including the Lake Coniston swim was with a wetsuit and we had to get used to cold water swimming quickly as well as taking part in a qualifying swim non wetsuit of 2 hours to prove to the governing body and boat pilot that we would be able to start the swim.

Accordingly, off we went to a swim camp in Malta in March 2017 where we swum non wetsuit in water temperatures of 16C. It is not so much the physical discomfort (49%) but far more of a mental challenge. The best way I can describe it is that you are swimming and begin to feel your fingers and toes start to feel cold and stiff since the blood is no longer going to your extremities but going to your core. As a result it is not the most comfortable swim and frankly not matter how beautiful the scenery is all you want to do is get out and get changed and drink a very hot coffee to warm up!

The first day in Malta I got out after an hour in a thoroughly bad mood feeling cold and miserable and was not the best team mate for a relay. However after several coaching sessions on positive psychology where our coach who had also swum the North Channel I learnt a couple of valuable lessons namely:

  • Never using the word cold but rather the water is not as warm as I want it to be and repeating the words “I am warm, I am hot” over and over again.
  • It is incredibly easy to drift to negative thoughts when you are swimming and to prevent that from happening, it was suggested by Ada that we focus counting strokes to 100 and then once finished start counting again. The rationale for this is that by focusing on counting this stops your brain thinking about getting out and prevents from self sabotaging yourself.

Those tricks mentioned above had a profound effect.  The following day I managed to swim for 3 hrs 15 mins, swim non wetsuit and felt although rather chilly I was over the moon to be have done so.  It is amazing the power of positive psychology it really does make a difference.  It has to be repeated and often for it to work and you can’t let your mind wander but I couldn’t believe the difference

So by the end of the time in Malta we had completed the qualifying swim and I think it started to dawn up on us that with our slot confirmed for July 2017 that we only had 13 weeks to train for the swim. At this point we decided since it was such a big charity to raise money for charity. Despite many years of sports my mum and I had never raised money but the North Channel was different.  Since my aunt had passed away from cancer we decided to raise money for Maggie’s Centre Glasgow, a local charity providing support to cancer patients. 

The positive was that with such a challenge the donations rolled in which we both delighted with.  This also generated a sense of accountability but also a large amount of pressure that comes from telling everyone that you have signed up to swim from Northern Ireland to Scotland in the next couple of months, We also decided on a team name which was Team MAD which not only described the fact we were mother and daughter but also a description of the challenge that we were aiming to achieve.

Those 13 weeks flew by….Neither of us had swum longer than 10 km (3 hours) at any one point so going from 3 hours to swimming 8 hours was a lot of extra swimming to do.  From March to June the water temperature warms up considerably from 8C to 18C. I was travelling a lot for work but I was uncomfortably aware that the tropical waters of the lake near London where I swam regularly was 18C.  Very different to cooler waters of the Irish sea. Hence I spent time in Scotland swimming in the Loch Lomond with my mum and practising swimming 2 hours in the water, 2 hours break then 2 hours in the water to acclimatise for conditions on the North Channel swim.

All too soon it became time to travel to Northern Ireland on 30th June and I met my mum in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland.  Our boat captain Quinton was a taciturn Northern Irish man, who along with his helper Alan, Irish long distance swim observer Dave and our coach Adam Walker were our support crew on the boat.

So much of swimming depends on the weather and tides. When you sign up for a channel swim, you are allocated a week’s slot where the tides are favourable and it is up the to boat captain to tell you a suitable time based on the weather window. Sometimes the weather doesn’t play ball and you do not get a chance to cross. We arrived on the Friday 30th June and on Sunday evening we got the call from Quinton that Monday 3rd July at 6 am was the time we were to leave.

Arriving the boat, we were excited and nervous. We brought food galore, principally peanut butter sandwiches, porridge, pasta, and Ribena as well as numerous swimsuits, jackets and towels galore.

We were ready to go! The boat left the harbour and 10 mins south of Donaghadee harbour as the starting swimmer, I was told to jump in swim to shore and swim for 2 hours. The anticipation was nerve wracking and it felt so good to in the water swimming. I was too keyed up about the cold unfortunately that was not last.

We were advised to swim without a watch on to avoid constantly checking our watches in the hope that we would be getting out soon.  The only sign you knew you were getting out was when quintons crew lifted in the ladder into the water.  At that point my mum would jump into the warm water swim past me and I would get out and get warmed up for 2 hours and repeat it all again. This is the swimming version of a relay where there is thankfully no baton to drop!

After the first 2 hours, the tide was behind us, the sun rose I felt very positive. As time ticked on we made good time and began to see the famed north channel wildlife.  seals dolphins and one point ever a pilot whales circled the boat. Our coach Adam was very excited about this while the ever dry Quinton merely observed he felt like he was in an episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. My mum was swimming at the time and Adam wanted to stop her to tell her about it. However, I managed to convince him not to in some cases ignorance is bliss.

Our coach Adam videoed our progress taking short videos and due to that we managed to raise an extra £3,000 6 hours into the swim which was amazing and kept me going. However, at 2 pm when it came to my third 2 hour slot, I felt the fatigue from the cold and it was at this point my positive psychology began to fail.  And I started to have serious doubts that I was going to be able to make. That is when I began to mentally draft the update to the just giving page  which I can tell you is not a good place to be. I focussed with a huge effort on counting to a 100 over and over and again and I can tell you I have never been so glad to get out the water.

I was so glad to get out after the third 2 hour slot and went for a brief nap which very much helped as at this point my muscles were screaming for a break. By this point that tide had turned and while the cliffs of Port Patrick were visible the cliffs did not seem to come any closer!

Adam convinced me to really go for it at the fourth 2 hour slot but after a hour of going for it, I had nothing left for the second hour which was not nearly as fast. This was worrying as the boat set the pace that we had to keep up so that the tide would not push us back to Dongahadee.  This is what makes the north channel such a challenge the tide pushed you back where the English Channel you get pushed along the coast and have more chance of making it.

My mum jumped in for her fourth 2 hour slot. It was now 8 pm, and we had been swimming for 14 hours. It was beginning to get dark, the water was not as warm as we wanted it to be and Quinton wanted to abort the attempt and take us back to Donaghadee but Adam convinced him to carry on until it was too dark. The tension on the boat ratcheted up and it explained why there were no live videos at this point. My mum did a fantastic swim despite getting stung by a jelly fish and at 10 pm after 16 hours on the boat the cliffs were in touching distance.

 I jumped in the water with glow sticks so I could be seen and pushed towards the cliffs repeating “We have reached Port Patrick”. All the tiredness was forgotten and I swam towards the rocks to touch them and complete the swim.  Words can’t express how hard the challenge was and I don’t think it sunk in for both of us as rewatching the videos we both look shell shocked and frankly just exhausted at finishing. That also explains why I am not showing you the videos today!

We were the first 2 person relay team and first ever mother daughter to have swum the North Channel which was a world record. Moreover, due to donations after the swim, where Alan Wiseman of Wiseman Dairies donated £5,000, we raised over £20,000 for Maggie’s Centre Glasgow double our original target which was simply fantastic news for the centre and patients.

We also swim the English Channel bit after the North Channel was very uneventful. The challenge with North channel was that we started the swim at night so I had to do a lot of counting to 100 to stop my mind wandering about what lay beneath the water. In the end I had to tell myself that all the night creatures were asleep so they wouldn’t come to bother me. It worked!

3 years on, reflecting on our swim I think my 3 key lessons learnt which I have put into practice since in work and sport are

  1. Power of positive thinking
  2. How you chose to describe something changes the way you look at it e.g. not as warm as I would like it to be rather than cold.  This I have found
  3. Accountability is key

Thank you for listening to me. I am more than happy to answer any questions about swimming and challenges in general.”

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