Open water swimmers accept the risk that every swim, every race and every challenge will not be successful. At the same time, they also understand success is a relative term.
One such adventure was brought to us by Martin Cullen, an official observer with the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association.
42-year-old Anne Marie Ward, a Disability Services Manager from Ulster, Ireland, accepted the challenge of crossing the treacherous North Channel.
The North Channel (Irish Channel) is a 21.6-mile (40K) channel between northern Ireland and southwestern Scotland and has been successfully crossed by only 9 people to date. The water is cold even in summer, the chill factor is even colder and a sea of jellyfish is the norm. Accounting for the tides, the actual swim distance is more like 35 miles.
The history of the North Channel crossings has seen more failures than successes. Only two swimmers have completed the swim on their first attempt: Kevin Murphy, who has swum the English Channel 34 times, and Colm O'Neill from Dublin.
One swimmer died in his attempt. Two swimmers almost drowned, including Alison Streeter, who ultimately crossed the North Channel three times and the English Channel 43 times.
AnneMarie’s swim started in the dark at 4:16 am from the Irish coast in The Gobblins, North of Belfast Lough. With two night sticks tied to her swim suit, Anne Marie was escorted by an experienced team including a film crew from the Irish-language television channel TG4 who were filming her attempt as part of a series about amazing feats by amazing women.
Through the morning, Anne Marie faced strong winds, overcast skies and water between 13.7ºC - 14.4ºC (56.6ºF - 57.9ºF). Early afternoon came without change in the conditions. Still AnneMarie forged on. As she swam through the early evening, her crew continued to feed her with High 5, an isotonic drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes, tea and water.
But, after 15 hours fighting the cold, jellyfish, wind, waves and cramps, AnneMarie’s stroke rate began to decrease and her left arm was no longer clearing the surface of the water.
Psychologically, it was difficult as AnneMarie started in the early morning darkness, swam through an overcast morning and afternoon, and was now facing swimming in the dark again as night fell. She could never see the Scottish coast as it was obscured by a sea mist. With nightfall, the rains started as AnneMarie struggled onwards, but without great progress. Her 1-knot-per-hour speed would not be fast enough to beat the changing tides. Facing an oncoming tides, AnneMarie would be pushed away from her goal at an estimate rate of 2-3 knots per hour.
17 hours and 12 minutes after she started, it was decided to call AnneMarie’s swim off at 9:26 pm. Still four miles off the Scottish coast north of Portpatrick, her pilot, Brian Meharg, and support crew agreed that AnneMarie had given it her all.
She was called over to the escort boat and was informed of the situation. AnneMarie graciously accepted her crew’s decision, climbed on board and apologized for letting everyone down. She was wrapped in two sleeping bags to get her core body temperature back to normal, but wanted to remain on deck with her crew.
As Martin described, and as open water swimmers can attest, “the only failure is not to try.”
Quote by Arthur Ashe. Photos of Anne Marie Ward from Martin Cullen.
Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association