Wayne Soutter is a South African open water swimmer who lives in London and completed the English Channel in 2010. He also became the first person to cross the North Channel 17 km (10.5 miles) from the Mull of Kintyre on extreme west coast of Scotland to the north Antrim coast in northern Ireland.
He started swimming from the tip of Kintyre at 11:19 am on August 26th and arrived at Port Campbell on the north Antrim coast around 11:30 pm on the same day.
This is his guide, along with crew member Paul Greenhalgh, on how he achieved what was previously thought to be impossible.
Due to the fact that this particular course in the North Channel has only been done once, this is not a definitive guide as to how to achieve this swim. Rather it is merely a record of the approach that we took and our particular views.
Although we state that the swim can only be done in August and September, but it may be possible to do it in other months.
Keep in mind that this guide is our early-day views. It is not meant to limit your thinking on how to improve on the swim.
We hope that in recording our approach and views, it might make some of the planning easier for future swimmers attempting this course. We would hope that future swimmers will build upon this body of knowledge.
To contextualise this account, let’s look at my background as a swimmer. I am not a fast swimmer (3km/h in a pool and 2.5km/h in the sea) with an English Channel crossing to my credit (20 hours 1 minute in 2010) and a number of shorter swims like solo swims across Windemere. But I have an unusual capacity for coping with cold.
Other swimmers may, and if appropriate should, plot a different route, based upon a faster swim speed. However, remember that the water of the North Channel is cold, and my route might not have been possible for a less cold-resistant person.
My swim team is based in London. Given the fickle nature of the sea conditions off the Mull, waiting for a suitable weather window and then being able to quickly get ourselves up to Northern Ireland and onto the water was very important.
Whilst we originally factored driving and ferries into our travel arrangements, we soon realised that in order to be able to react quickly enough, flying was the preferred route. There are other lower cost travel options available.
When planning for a 2012 swim, we identified 3 tidal windows of about 3 days each. It turned out that only one of the 3 windows was swimmable. The others were not just marginal. The BBC issued weather warnings for the west coast of Scotland. In terms of timing, you’re going to need to be flexible as you may end up swimming on a less than perfect tide.
Where is it?
This swim has an ancient history. It was repeatedly attempted by Mercedes Gleitze, a pioneering open water swimmer in the 1920’s. She attempted during 1928-29 to swim between the Mull of Kintyre (MofK) in Scotland, and the north east corner of Northern Ireland (NI) three times without success.
Initially we looked at swimming Ireland to Scotland, but realised that the tip of the Mull is quite a small target and missing it had dire consequences, so we actually swam the reverse route.
Looking at charts of the NI coast, you will note two things. Firstly, there are very many icons representing whirlpools, races and other swimmer-unfriendly quirks of this troubled piece of water. Secondly, from pictures, you will see that the majority of the coastline is rocky cliffs. We identified the sandy beaches at Cushendun, 3-4 miles south of Torr Point, as being the ideal landing spot.
How far is the swim?
The shortest point-to-point distance is 20.2 km from the tip of the Mull of Kintyre to Torr Head.
How long does it take?
This is very difficult to say as we have benchmark of one. It took me 12 hours 15 minutes. In our planning models, we estimated somewhere between 9 and 10 hours. We expect that a fast swimmer, could perhaps cross the channel in 7 or 8 hours by catching the tides just right.
When can you swim it?
Our thinking is that August and September are the two months which this swim should be attempted. The rationale for this is:
o Water temperature maximised
o Lion’s mane jellyfish are starting to die off and the bigger nasties from the Atlantic have not yet come in.
Currents: If you look at the charts, they look terrifying. The channel is littered with whirlpools and standing waves.
Keep in mind that the charts are showing the problems and risks for every hour of every tide at any point in time. But at any point in time, there are periods when there are far fewer or no whirlpools or standing waves. Don’t be scared by the charts.
On the day I swam, although there were periods when you could visually see the effect of the currents on the water (see photos above), I didn’t feel like we were caught in a whirlpool or coming up against a standing wave. Even if you do get to standing waves, I swam through some on my training swim. They are nothing more than rough water: 100–150m wide which is totally swimmable for short periods.
The weather is unsettled in this area, but I have experienced days when there isn’t a hint of wind and the water is like glass. The start of the swim was like that, but it deteriorated significantly over 7 hours. The point is, you can hope for great weather if you have the time wait.
We had 3 tidal windows: ~August 26th, September 10th, and September 25th. Only August 26th was swimmable; all the others were far too rough to even consider.
A useful Met Office observation site we used for weather data is Machrihanish but it doesn’t offer water temperature.
The tides I managed to catch were neap tides with a fetch of around 2.3 meters. I used a great free app (Android) called Tide Prediction. The rest of my team used brilliant iPhone apps (TUCABO).
The tidal information for the tides on my swim on 26th Aug were:
Low Water 00:50 BST
High Water 06:30 BST
Low Water 13:30 BST
High Water 19:20 BST
In 2011 I tracked the water temperature on a daily basis, so that I would have real data to compare it to in 2012.
I also found this graph. I have never actually seen sea temperatures as high as 14 degrees C, but I did use this to make a decision about attempting it in August and September.
There are only 2 Met Office buoys in this area that actually supply sea temperatures. (almost all supply air temperature)
The 2 buoys are K5 and K4 – shown on left. As you can see they are fairly far off from the Mull of Kintyre, but that is all you have to go on. I adjusted the K5 temperatures by +1 to try to work out what is going on near the Mull of Kintyre.
Charts & Software
We used the following charts:
North Channel to the Firth of Lorn Chart number 2724
• Where to buy: www.marinechandlery.com £20.99
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas – Firth of Clyde and Approaches – NP222 Edition 1
• Where to buy: www.Sailingbooks.co.uk £9.40
I have included some tidal stream data from tidal simulation software, which gives a better indication of tidal direction than the Tidal Stream Atlas.
The biggest part of the planning phase, and perhaps the most critical was the route planning. Basically this was our process:
1) We got hold of a set of detailed tide tables for the area, which showed anticipated tidal strengths and directions at hourly intervals. Later, we supplemented this with even more accurate Admiralty information.
2) We saw that the real hazards (i.e., predominantly whirlpools and races) were concentrated along the shorelines and perhaps 2 kilometers offshore. We saw that they were least prevalent when the tides were flowing fast (i.e., between high and low water) which seems opposite to what you would expect. However, at the turn of the tides (High/Low) the water is changing direction and a mess, so that is when you can expect the worst whirlpools and races.
3) However, in order to allow us to make headway away (West) from the Mull of Kintyre and not get sucked (Anti clockwise) around the Mull (towards Campbell town), we had to depart on or near slack water.
Similarly, following a trial swim in July, we figured the only way to land on the Northern Ireland side, would also be during slack water. In my trial swim, the currents were so strong mid-tide, it just kept me about 1 kilometer offshore and it carried me straight up the coast. I could not make any headway towards the coast, despite swimming perpendicular and towards it. So we figured we had to land during slack to break into the coast.
4) This, then, gave the core of the plan because we knew we had to depart at slack water. We knew we had to be on a southerly tidal flow (in mid channel) because we needed to travel south to Cushendun. We also knew we had to be across in time to land at the next slack tide.
5) The most logical departure point would seem to be the tip of the Mull, near the lighthouse because that projects the shortest distance to NI. However, very shortly after slack water, the tide tables showed strong currents whipping around the Mull, and taking water eastwards (towards Cambelltown) and that would be disastrous. So, we started a mile or so further north to give ourselves a better chance of avoiding that.
6) We also identified that about an hour before slack water, when the main channel is running south to north, there is an eddy along the coast of the Mull which runs to the south. If we could get into this eddy, we could start sooner and get a kick from its clockwise rotational movement which would propel us into the Channel.
The map above shows our intended route, and then our actual route.
An hour before our anticipated start time, we took the boat to 100 metres, then 1 kilometer offshore, from a point about 1 mile north of the lighthouse, and watched the boat’s movement. The moment we saw we were being pushed south, we knew that the eddy had started to occur and this would be the signal for our start.
Why was our actual course different from the intended one?
1) We probably departed 30-40 minutes too soon. Whilst the eddy did indeed propel us south west (the swim heading at that point was due west so it helped us beautifully) when we exited the eddy the main tidal stream was still running reasonably strongly from south to north, so we were lifted well north of our plan.
2) The amplitude of our southerly drift was far less than anticipated. This was probably down to a combination of two factors. Firstly, tidal information is only a projection, many factors affect tides so they are at best estimates and on our day, the estimates were stronger than the reality. Secondly, we did not factor wind into our plan and a very strong southerly wind got up, at times F4-5, which could easily have stopped us drifting as far south as we had planned.
What would we change in the future?
This is very hard to say. We certainly would not start any further north than we did. We might start further south, and later in the tide, but who knows whether that would have brought us success?
When to start?
Our actual start time 11:19 BST which was 02:11 Before Low Water Dover. Please also bear in mind daylight. If at all possible, being able to land in NI in daylight would be a great help so you should take that into account.
How does the swim happen?
We were blessed with the assistance of volunteers of the Community Rescue Service in County Antrim who were able to provide a boat from Ballycastle. This worked perfectly. From Ballycastle, we could steam across the Channel in 50 minutes and be ready top drop the swimmer ready to swim back to Ireland.
Ballycastle is easily accessible, had good resources and provides a good head quarters. A local contact person who can arrange a boat is Gerard McIlroy (telephone: 07709353735).
On the lead boat we prepped the swimmer while the navigator and skipper were assessing the tides. At the appointed hour, we motored in close to the shoreline. I swam 20 metres to a flat rock which I stood on and awaited the observers signal to commence the swim.
The only wildlife we encountered were Lion’s mane jellyfish. On both the trial swim in July and on the actual swim in August, there were lots of them.
They were typically distributed as follows:
• For 45 minutes of swimming, seeing maybe 1 per minute at a depth of around 6 feet. I found them fairly unnerving, but not a problem.
• Then once every 45 minutes, we would enter a fluther of jellyfish, it was impossible to swim through them without touching them. There were literally hundreds in every direction. At first, I made vain attempts to swim into gaps and look for the next hole. But finally with some prompting from the boat, he just swam through them.
The stings were far less painful that expected. It was like a nettle sting. I believes that the Vaseline made a difference, as the main areas where he was stung were on the inside of his arms, his chest and mouth. All of those areas had very little Vaseline applied, or it had rubbed off.
Following a discussion with a jellyfish expert we learned the following:
Dr. Tom Doyle of the University of Cork, an expert on anatomy and jellyfish stings, advised to NOT use vinegar on Lion’s mane stings. The only reason people think vinegar works is due to the box jellyfish in Australia, where vinegar can help. However for Lion’s mane jellyfish, vinegar can actually make it worse. If you do get stung, try to remove any bits, then just wash with SEA water. If you use fresh water it can trigger any unfired stings to fire.
Further more, Dr. Doyle uses Vaseline to cover parts of his body that the wetsuits don’t get to when he works with the jellies and he feels it helps. We opted for Vaseline as a protective barrier.
How much does it cost?
The costs to take into account are:
Boat – Gerard estimates it will cost around ~ £2000
Flights booked last minute £170 per person
B&B’s £50 a night
For this swim, these roles are essential:
• Navigator – it is absolutely critical that you have a very good navigator who understands the route. Ideally, he will have been the one who planned it and who understands how to make adjustments on the day to accommodate the local/daily conditions.
• Feeder – Nutrition is very important on this swim.
• Invigilator – if you want your swim to be recognised, chat you your ratifying body and agree a plan prior to the swim regarding an observer etc.
• Morale man – most swimmers really appreciate it if, when they look at the boat, they see someone watching them and clapping. For me, this has always been a great help so the morale man played an important role. NB it takes a special kind of person to be cheerful hour after hour, even in bad weather so choose your person carefully.
• Support swimmer – the support swimmer was useful for morale purposes, especially in the presence of jellyfish – and when it became difficult to keep the boat close to the swimmer at night, for safety purposes too.
• Manager / extra man – it’s useful to have an extra pair of hands either keeping an eye on the whole operation, or standing in when a reserve is needed (e.g., when our feeder became seasick).
If you are short on support crew, chat to Gerard, he has access to local people who can help.
Advice to the support crew
The swimmer will really depend on you if they are to succeed with the swim. Plan the entire swim very carefully, then share the plan with the team so everyone’s absolutely confident about what they should do and when. Also, people should be aware of each others’ roles, in case substitutions are needed for periods.
The navigator bears a huge responsibility, and will invariably be making decisions that waiver from the original plan. So this person needs to be competent, and confident too.
Feeding – it has to be absolutely spot on. The warmth of the feeds, as well as the content, will be critical to your swimmer.
Manager – needs to be intimately familiar with the navigation plan, the feed plan and all the other aspects of the swim. Needs to be able to alter any or all of the plans should conditions so dictate? The manager should also be responsible for gauging the swimmer’s well being, especially with regard to the effects of the cold. The manager should think about how he/she will gauge the swimmer’s health during the swim.
This is important – the manager and swimmer should have a candid discussion about the circumstances under which the manager will terminate the attempt and pull the swimmer from the water.
During the event, it is very likely that the swimmer will have dramatic changes in his/her morale and may at times indicate that they want to quit. At that moment, it becomes a hard decision for the manager who has to weigh the swimmer’s current wishes, with what’s known about the swimmer’s long-term burning desire to achieve this swim, with the swimmer’s current safety.
An agreement pre-swim where the swimmer perhaps says “unless I am showing signs of hypothermia, even if I get really unhappy I want you to keep me in” makes it easier for the crew to keep him in there even when it feels like a distinct act of cruelty.
Skipper – The main man. Keeping the boat in the best position for the swimmer is as hard as it is crucial. This may all be happening in strong winds and rough seas. The skipper will need to be watching the swimmer over his shoulder for the entire swim. The skipper’s local knowledge will be a key factor in the information at hand for the navigator, so choose your skipper carefully.
How to get there?
– Car Ferry – Liverpool > Belfast. Stena Ferries ~£140. Ferry is a truck ferry, so a little rough. So take a cabin.
– Flights – The three closest airports to Ballycastle are as follows:
o Belfast International – 40 minutes to Ballycastle [Easyjet]
o Derry – 40 minutes to Ballycastle
o Belfast City – 60 minutes to Ballycastle
Who to contact?
• Organise a boat: Gerard McIlroy (telephone: 07709353735)
• Coast Guard: Gerard has contacts within the Coast Guard and can sort that out for you. You will need to give them a swim plan prior to the swim – as you will be crossing the shipping lanes.
• Harbour master – I met up with John Morton, the harbour master, on one of his reccy weekends. It would be good to brief him on your swim, but Gerard can do that too.
Where to stay?
There are many B&B’s in Ballycastle.