Long distance swimming happens in your head, says local swimmer after he crosses the North Channel

David Conradie who is a member of Atlantic Masters Swimming Club Galway is the first Galway resident to achieve the momentous task of swimming the 35kms from Donaghadee in Northern Ireland to Portpatrick in Scotland. The North Channel is known as one of the hardest of the Seven Ocean Channels due to its colder temperatures, strong tides and currents, which means a swimmer may swim in excess of 45kms, and the infestation of lions manes jellyfish that can stop a swimmer in their tracks with their stings.

David moved to Galway last year and was welcomed with open arms by the Salthill swimming community where he has been training all year round. The cold Atlantic sea during the winter months was the perfect environment to test his tolerance and mental and physical strength for enduring long swims in bouncy choppy cold water.

Atlantic Masters swimming club offered David a club with channel experience having had the first three-person relay successfully swim the English Channel in 2018. It also had two swimmers attempting solo English channel swims in 2019 the week before David was going to making his North Channel attempt (both swimmers Fergal Madden and Dee Newell successfully completed their solo attempts in August this year ).

David’s North Channel swim was not without its moments of tension and drama. The weather did not play ball for the first few days of his window and there was a possibility David may not have got out at all. Luckily a weather window opened up recently and David entered the water at 08:45am in Donaghadee under the watchful eye of the Infinity Channel team and his personal crew members Annette Cullen and Helen Colfer on board.

Fierce reputation

The North Channel lived up to its fierce reputation. It tested David at all levels, mentally, emotionally and physically. David’s strength of character was unbreakable, he never gave up and his crew never gave up on him. David left Northern Ireland on a bright sunny morning making it to Scotland 13 hours and 13 minutes later in the dark with waves crashing up against the ragged Scottish rocks having suffered multiple lions manes stings with arms working hard to “just keep swimming”.

“I started my preparations for my North Channel swim more than a year before the swim - a long time to have something on your personal horizon. During the training programme I went through more waves of emotion than I can count - with self-doubt a constant companion, ready to swell after every training swim that didn’t go exactly to plan and every time my body gave the slightest twinge (“how will that shoulder last 40km if I can’t do 3 without feeling it?” ).

“But something magical happened in the final weeks of preparation. The swimming community rally around everyone who tackles a challenge and they surrounded me with an ocean of advice, support and infectious optimism that wormed into my head and heart.

“By the time I slipped into the water at Donaghadee to start my swim, I knew I had a massive group of wonderful people watching and willing me on, and I started the swim with a feeling of ironclad certainty that I would finish it.

“But ironclad certainty doesn’t buy you much credit with the North Channel. It’s routinely rated one of the hardest swims in the world, and no-one gets across without a fight, even when you’re lucky enough - as I was - to get nigh-perfect conditions: I struck one of the Channel’s warmer periods with temperature hovering around 14-15 degrees C (well above the normal expectation of 11-13 ); and a midmorning start on a sunny day meant I had the benefit of heat on my back for the first few hours - perfect for keeping cheerful.

“The water was a little choppy during those first few hours - not really difficult, but not my favourite conditions - and I did have moments in that period where I thought to myself “if it stays like this I’m in trouble”; I couldn’t get into a rhythm and I find that incredibly off-putting.

Noticing how much I’m talking about mood, and what was happening in my head - not really a word about my body, my arms, shoulders, legs? That’s something that happens for every long-distance swimmer: after a certain amount of training, you realise your body can just keep going - up to a point, of course, but all else being equal, once your body can do 10km your body can also do 20km, and so on.

Psychologicial battle

“Long-distance swimming happens in the swimmer’s head. The most valuable advice shared around the swimming community deals with what happens in there - because that’s where a long-distance swim is won or lost, finished or abandoned, done or ... not. So anything that gets in your head - anything that chips away at the ironclad “I’ll finish this” certainty with which you left the beach - is a potential problem.

“So another way in which I was lucky was my crew. One of the adages of the community is “there’s no such thing as a solo swim”. My crew Annette and Helen - experienced and accomplished Galway swimmers in their own right - know me and knew how to drive me through those first choppy hours with regular feeds and a certain amount of (there’s no better way to describe it... ) hootin’ and hollerin’...

“After the first three or four hours the real work started. The water smoothed out (more luck ) so I was able to get into my favoured rhythm and stroke pattern. As always happens at this stage of my longer swims, I went into a bit of a mental shell - it’s not inaccurate to call it my happy place: comfortable, warm and no pesky waves - so I can’t honestly tell you that much about it. I have flashes of memories: sea birds flashing overhead; the clarity of the water; the occasional glimpse of other boats. But the one thing I deliberately avoided thinking about: how far have I gone, and how far do I have to go? That’s something drummed into prospective channel swimmers: don’t think too hard about the whole channel, but “swim from feed to feed” - breaking up the crossing into a series of short swims punctuated by drinks and treats (for me: chocolate, lots of it, and keep it coming ).

“As the day progressed my comfortable mental shell became something less safe. After that long in the water - and after being stung a number of times by the Lion’s Mane jellyfish for which the North Channel is notorious - I was undeniably spending too long inside my head. In fact, I didn’t know at the time how far inside my shell I’d gone. My crew have had to fill in a number of blanks for me: it turns out I was, to put it bluntly, off my head.

And just as well they did so; not only was I not communicating, but I was hallucinating too. By the end of the swim, darkness had almost completely fallen and I was approaching Scotland. In my mind Scotland looked like a tropical island fringed by lovely green trees and undergrowth - I was too far gone to wonder “when did Scotland become so tropical?”. It was only later that I discovered I was swimming straight at a rock cliff, with some traditional Scottish waves beating on it. It took some heroic efforts from Annette (swimming as safety cover ) to get me to the finish and then back to the boat in one piece. My memory of those chaotic, turbulent minutes bears no resemblance to what actually transpired.

I’m left now knowing that - thanks to my wonderful crew, the support of friends around the world and considerable doses of luck - the ironclad certainty paid off: I finished.


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