Irish Sea, UK
The North Channel is the name given to the stretch of water between Northern Ireland and Scotland, measuring approximately 35km. In late 2019 I decided I wanted to prone paddle across it, and made plans for May 2020. Then COVID struck, and my plans were scuppered.
Fast forward to the 10th of September 2022. I had teamed up with Infinity Channel Swimming to act as support for the crossing, and we were heading over to Port Patrick to pick up Niall “the Loch Lomond SUP Monster” Colquhoun, who would be guiding me from his SUP.
We had already had a go on the 6th, but the water was so rough that Niall couldn’t stand up on his board. The start would take us through a narrow gap with big rocks on either side, and Niall said that it would be hard enough getting himself through this gap in these conditions, never mind trying to guide me through as well. Due to the sound of the crashing waves, verbal instruction would be impossible.
By the time I had my board ready to go into the water, Niall had called it off, having already taken an involuntary swim. A tough call to make, but the right one!
Today, (10th September), the conditions were nearly perfect.
As Niall and I paddled out from the beach, there was a wee swell, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue.
15 minutes into the paddle, I had to take my neoprene vest off, as at an air temperature of round 16 degrees, I was roasting. Even in just a thin rash top and neoprene trousers, I still found it very warm, so welcomed any waves splashing over me.
I soon settled into a steady rhythm, counting my strokes, and setting a comfortable pace. Well, it was comfortable for me. As I was hitting just under 7kmph, and Niall’s usual pace is over 8, it was safer for Niall to kneel on his SUP, so as not to take a swim.
For the first 14km I had a routine which worked very well. I did 20 sprint strokes, followed by 100 steady, then 30 and 100, 40 … Normally by the time I got into my 50 set, I had completed 1km. For me, the best way to deal with distance stuff is to break it down into small steps.
I changed my routine at 15k, but this didn’t seem to work so well, and from 16k to 19k, I was finding it a bit tough. But when I hit 19k, I got my second wind. Knowing I was over half way gave me a real mental boost, and I got back into my sprint/steady stroke routine, picking my pace back up. At 20k I asked the boat how far did we have to go. The reply was 12-14k. “12 to 14k”, yee ha, I was almost home!
With my head down and feeling brilliant, all of a sudden things went bad. I started to feel sick, and then I was. For the next 10 minutes I tried to paddle through it, but it wasn’t happening.
Eventually I had to go over to the support boat, and tell them, (Rhona, Connla, and Padraig), what was happening. They gave me an anti-sea sickness tablet and some flat Lucazade to try to help. Rhona also gave me some biltong to eat. For the next 5 minutes I tried to go forward, but struggled.
Then all of a sudden everything felt good again, and I was off, feeling like Superman. I had beaten the sickness and I was feeling good. This lasted for about 10 minutes, before the sickness came back and took a proper hold of me.
For the next 30 minutes I would paddle 20-30 strokes, stop, hug the board, throw up, and repeat. I struggled to hold my course and zig zagged all over the place. I even asked Rhona to throw buckets of water over me, to try and shake me out of this, but to no joy.
Eventually, after much support and encouragement from everyone, I decided to call it a day.
I remember coming alongside the support boat, and Padraig directing me along the rope at the side. The next thing I remember was Rhona slapping my face trying to wake me up. I was now lying down on the support boat. I guessed that somebody must have lifted me off my board and put me on the boat. But when I asked later who had done this, I was told I did it myself. I have no memory of this, so now know that I must have blacked out. I’ve no idea if I was out for 5 seconds or 5 minutes.
When I came around to Rho slapping my face, I was shivering really badly. With the help of the others, I got changed out of my wet kit and into my dry stuff, and Connla helped keep me warm by hugging me and rubbing my hands. Thanks Connla!
When my brain started to kick back into action and I realised I’d just failed to complete the paddle, I felt pretty low. However, chatting to Padraig and Connla, they told me that when sea sickness strikes, there isn’t a lot you can do about it. I’ve been on much lumpier sea than this, in many different crafts, from SUPs to sailing boats, and kayaks to ferries, but this was my first experience of sea sickness, and I didn’t enjoy it!
I had pushed myself hard for over 4k while feeling crap but had come to my limit. I often wonder after I’ve completed a challenge, whether I could have done more, been faster, gone further, etc, but for this one I know I went to my limit, and a little bit beyond, as the black-out proved.
It was tough, but I know that if I hadn’t been sick I would have completed this one. I hope to be back next year to prove this to myself.
Thanks so much to Niall, Padraig and Connla for your help and support on the day, and to everyone else who offered me lots of encouragement on the run up to the paddle.
Last but not least, I want to say a special thank you to my wonderful Rhona, who knew how much this meant to me, and kept pushing me that little bit further. She knows me well and knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d quit with the slightest hint of anything being left in the tank! Love you gorgeous!