One of the greatest marathon swimmers in the annals of history has called the North Channel the most difficult swim in the world. It is beyond difficult, bordering on nearly the impossible, demanding the best from the very best.

The stretch of water between Scotland and Ireland is notorious for laying waste to the best plans and preparations of dozens of the most capable cold-water open water swimmers for decades. Cold water, fickle currents, unpredictable winds and weather, jellyfish – the North Channel is difficulty defined.

From the 1920’s to the early part of the 21st century, the number of successes across the North Channel have been few and far between – and vastly outnumbered by aborted swims:

1. Tom Blower, 28 July 1947, 15 hours 26 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
2. Kevin Murphy, 11 September 1970, 11 hours 21 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
3. Kevin Murphy, 29 August 1971, 14 hours 27 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
4. Ted Keenan, 11 August 1973, 18 hours 27 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
5. Alison Streeter, 22 August 1988, 9 hours 54 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
6. Margaret (Maggie) Kidd, 23 August 1988, 15 hours 26 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
7. Colleen Blair, 12 September 2008, 15 hours 23 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
8. Anne Marie Ward, 1-2 September 2010, 18 hours 59 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
9. Craig Lenning, 27 July 2011, 14 hours 44 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)
10. Howard Keech, 2 August 2011, 14 hours 47 minutes (Ireland-to-Scotland)

1. Alison Streeter, 25 August 1989, 10 hours 4 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
2. Alison Streeter, 18 August 1997, 10 hours 2 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
3. Kevin Murphy, 7 September 1989, 17 hours 17 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
4. Paul Lewis, 27 July 1999, 14 hours 28 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
5. Stephen Price, 21 July 2000, 16 hours 56 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
6. Colm O Neill, 31 July 2004, 11 hours 25 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
7. Stephen Redmond, 31 August 2010, 17 hours 17 minutes (Scotland-to-Ireland)
8. Wayne Soutter, 26 August 2012, 12 hours 11 minutes (17 km course)

Each of these swimmers trained hard and long. They had to prepare themselves for all kinds of obstacles: acclimatization to the cold was only part of the equation. So was acceptance of the pain of jellyfish stings, and the unpredictability of the currents. But one common thread among these successes was their timing. These swims happened in summer, between July and September.

However, one of the greatest swims in open water swimming history reportedly occurred this winter. Darren Jaundrill claimed a solo crossing of the North Channel on December 16th in 15 hours 16 minutes from Belfast, Ireland to Portpatrick, Scotland. His self-monitored swim was the second swim of his Three Channels Challenge, a series of charity swims on behalf of the British military (Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, BFBS Big Salute and Help for Heroes).

Three channels for three charities supporting three forces,” explained Jaundrill. “The best things in life are in threes. That was borne from a night with some Royal Marines. The concept is simple, spread awareness of the charities by taking it across the major land masses in the British Isles.”

But it was not land that attracted Jaundrill. “I have never been much a runner or cyclist. My swimming background is limited to swimming for personal recreation although I have done some search-and-rescue training in the past. I find swimming in the sea the closest I get to pure bliss, almost like liquid heaven to me.” His first marathon swim was a 31 nautical mile swim from England to Wales, from Ilfracombe to Swansea. The May 2011 swim was not easy for the first-timer despite the warmish 14ºC (57ºF) waters. “The Bristol Channel was a swim of lessons with good visibility, a sea state of 2, and a gentle unimposing breeze pretty much throughout. [With a time of 21 hours 46 minutes], I came within minutes of beating Gethin Jones‘ record [of 21 hours 29 minutes] on the Ilfracombe to Swansea route. Personal ambition may dictate I give it another try someday.”

The next year, Jaundrill stepped up to the highest alter of the marathon swimming world – the North Channel.

In winter.

In temperatures that have never been attempted before, for over 15 hours.

[My] plan was to swim from Belfast [Ireland] to Stranraer; however, it was clear from a weather system moving in that it wasn’t going to happen. It was shortened in the mid-morning to have me swim into Portpatrick [Scotland]. That said the GPS track shows me firmly on course for Stranraer due to the water movement. It became quite frustrating constantly revising direction.”

While the weather threw some obstacles at Jaundrill, the cold water didn’t seem to bother him. “The water was much cooler averaging 9-10ºC (48-50ºF) and the sea state did get to a 3 during the course of the day. But otherwise, we were lucky in the weather conditions.” 15 hours 16 minutes in the 10ºC conditions is not luck; it is an example of indomitable strength and cold-water acclimatization of the highest order.

His exploit, if true, is in order given his preparation in the North Sea. “People often ask how much swimming I do in a pool to prepare. Quite simply, the answer is very little. Though it certainly helps as cardio exercise and to build stamina, it does nothing to prepare you for the beast that is Mother Nature at sea. Tides, currents, wind, rain, hail, sea creatures, it’’s all there waiting for you. And the nice pool temperature is somewhat different to what Mother Nature gives you in the sea. I tend to therefore do a great deal of gym work on the chest, shoulders and legs with my preferred training location being the North Sea.”

But he now plans to one-up his incredulous December crossing of the North Channel. “2013 will see me take on the St Georges Channel from Dublin to Anglesey to Liverpool. The estimated time to completed the [99-mile] St Georges swim will be between 44-46 hours though this could change considerably. There is plenty that could go wrong over that length of time. Nearly two days is a long time in terms of weather and conditions. Jellyfish are always a concern and I have been stung previously during the Bristol Channel swim. I am slightly anxious about being stung early on in the St Georges swim.”

While his first two swims did not have observers or media representatives, and was not ratified by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association or other third party, his pilot for his upcoming 99-mile St Georges attempt this year will allow observers and representatives of the media, his chosen charities (BFBS Big Salute, The Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, and Help For Heroes), and the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association on board. With his claim at completing the North Channel in December, there will be no shortage of representatives ready to board his escort boat – as well as fellow marathon swimmers who may want to train with him.

Certainly with his mind-expanding winter swim across the North Channel, Jaundrill has substantially moved the bar for endurance athletes. By going outside the typical July-September time frame in the channel swimming community, Jaundrill demonstrated a completely different mindset for open water swimmers. No longer bound by the traditional swimming calendar, channel swims can be attempted outside the short summer season at different times of the year. It is this breakthrough mentality that is undoubtedly enabling Jaundrill to believe in his 99-mile sea swim later this year. With this kind of unprecedented thinking, Jaundrill can be an unlikely influence-maker in the sport. There will be at least a few hardened and adventurous athletes in the global open water swimming community who will wish to train with him as he prepares for his third channel challenge – and many more who will wish to study his courses across the Bristol Channel and North Channel.

But could these arduous swims be done in the Bristol Channel? What about the North Channel – in December – without the usual pedigree of completing the English Channel? Was it actually completed without video evidence, independent observers or with the aid of an experienced pilot and crew with no reports of even mild hypothermia? While his swims are not officially certified, Jaundrill is confident in his claims and abilities – and welcomes others to join his cause and his team as he trains for his 99-mile sea swim.

Jaundrill looks forward to others joining his cause. He has raised over £1000 from his first two swims, but feels “there is more I can be doing to publicise the [99 nautical mile swim connecting Ireland, Wales and England]. My challenges are going to be physically and mentally demanding and intense, but that is nothing compared with the work of our Forces. I can only hope that people will answer my call and support me supporting the charities supporting the forces.

For more information about his previous swims and charities, visit here.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association