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The English Channel: In at the deep end

By Roisin Delaney

The English Channel is regarded as the Everest of open water swimming, annually attracting scores of swimmers trying to make it across the 21 miles from Dover to Calais, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

he first person to successfully swim the Channel was Captain Matthew Webb in August 1875 and 2874 others have followed in his wake. While the distance is not extreme, swimmers face many other problems including the cold and swarms of jellyfish.

The dangers can be gauged from the fact that nine people have died in the attempt, the latest earlier this year.

Susan Taylor, an accountant from Leicestershire, collapsed just a mile from the French shore and attempts to revive her failed. She had been hoping to raise funds for a local charity.

Later this month four swimmers from Northern Ireland will make the attempt to raise money for the NI Children's Hospice.

The swim is a personal crusade for Gerry Meehan who had promised his dying father he would undertake it.

The Hospice was a favourite charity of his late father. It is the only facility of its kind in the province and an estimated 600 life-limited young people and their families require its specialist care for their complex needs. Last year a new facility was opened in Fermanagh to extend the work of the Children's Hospice.

We talk to the four members of the relay team, three men and a woman, on how they have prepared for the adventure.

Paul: 'My first outdoor swim was in paddling pool'

Paul McCambridge (46) is a photographer and lives in Banbridge. Paul is married to Oonagh and they have three sons, Darragh (26), Conleth (23) and Kealan (16). He says:

I was a keen swimmer when I was younger. I represented Ulster in the back stroke in my youth. Then about seven years ago I decided to take up swimming again as it's great for my health and it's a form of exercise that I find really enjoyable. I met Gerry and the team through the Lisburn Masters' Club and I'm excited about the challenge of the Channel.

Like Gerry I had only swum properly in swimming pools before. Maureen introduced me to open water swimming and I think she did the same with Gerry and Ciaran too.

In 2011 I swam the North Channel as part of a team. Team situations are great to be involved in because you have a support system in place and there are people on your team who you share things in common with.

It's rewarding and therapeutic. Through Gerry we are all delighted to be doing this for such a deserving charity as Northern Ireland Children's Hospice.

I think outdoor activity and fitness regimes are becoming more and more popular. They're a part of my family's life too. When Kealan was younger I remember we were after watching Ireland play the All Blacks in rugby and Ireland were beaten quite badly so the mood in the house was low.

It was pouring rain outside too but regardless of the rain Kealan and I went outside to the inflatable pool we had set up in the garden, got in and started messing around in the water for the afternoon. The neighbours must have thought we were mad but I still class that as my first real open water experience.

Obviously there are dangers with the open sea. Nobody knows what health risks are there.

One thing we have had to do in the lead-up to this was a heart check to make sure our bodies would withstand the strain and cold temperatures we're about to face. So to prepare your body is essential. After training in the waters of Northern Ireland I don't think the cold temperature of the water will phase us too much.

I trained year-round for this, even in the winter. In winter months I trained mostly in the pool and the down side to that is that you are a faster swimmer in the pool. Once the milder weather came I took to the open waters. This is great for the body as your speed and endurance is really tested and it's a great way of losing weight too.

The calories are burned off so much faster than by doing other things like jogging. We will be careful to nourish our bodies with warm fluids and healthy food throughout the relay so that we have enough fuel to keep it going and last the distance.

Gerry: 'Initially I was so cold I could hardly dress or even talk'

Gerry Meehan (45) lives in Belfast with his wife Gillian and three children, Amy (20), David (18) and Gavin (14). Gerry works with Mercury Security. He says:

My father Gerald Meehan snr passed away four years ago. Before he died I promised him that I would swim the English Channel and that he could accompany me by watching from the boat.

My Dad excelled in many sports. He was the first cyclist from Northern Ireland to cycle for Ireland and he was also the first to take the yellow jersey in the Ras Tailteann, one of the premier cycle races in the country. In later years he took up sports such as hang gliding, wind surfing and squash in which he became number one player in clubs in Co Antrim and in Belfast. He was quite a character.

The reason behind this swim to raise funds for Northern Ireland Children's Hospice is a personal one. The idea came about in 2007 when I spoke to the organiser of an event for my five-year-old niece who was suffering from cancer. The charity was close to dad's heart. Unfortunately he won't be on the boat when I take to the waters but I'm living up to the promise regardless.

Dad died in July 2009 and that September I took my first steps towards swimming in open waters. Up until that point I had been a pool swimmer. Maureen McCoy is more experienced in open water swimming so she was there with me when I took the plunge for the first time, and if she wasn't there I probably would have backed out once I was up to my knees in water because it was so cold.

I had been training to swim the Channel solo when I injured my shoulder and I thought that I wouldn't be able to go through with the swim. Thankfully as a member of the Lisburn Masters' Club I knew Paul, Ciaran and Maureen were experienced swimmers and they jumped on board and said they would do a relay of the Channel with me.

As you can imagine a lot of preparation goes into this. Your body needs to be at its best but swimming the 38km will be 30% physical and 70% mental. There'll be pain, hunger and jellyfish but I would say the biggest threat to me is the cold.

As part of my preparation for the swim I needed to put on a few pounds to help my body resist hypothermia. We have been training in the Crawfordsburn and Helen's Bay area and it's recommended that if you want to swim the English Channel you must swim the distance of it once a week in the months before. So that's what we've been doing there.

In the early stages of our open water swimming I regularly took mild hypothermia after a swim. I could barely dress myself due to shaking. My mouth would drop as though I was having a stroke and I could not think straight to even hold small talk. This would last for approximately one hour after the swim. To overcome this I began to sleep at nights with only a very light sheet over me and wearing light clothes. I also installed a bath in my garage with only a cold tap for taking ice baths.

When you commit to this challenge you are presented with a swim window. This is the number of days allocated for the challenge to be completed by the team. The swim window I choose coincides with my dad's birthday on August 28.

Our window ranges from August 27 to September 4. Ciaran and I hope to fly to meet the crew of our boat a few days before we take to the waters. It all depends on the weather of course.

I will start the swim at Shakespeare Beach, Dover. The way the relay works is that we will each swim for an hour and keep the order going until we reach the other side. The average swim time to cross the Channel is 15 hours but with a team of us in it we should be able to do it a bit quicker.

I'm aware of the challenges that lie ahead, especially after hearing the tragic news of Susan Taylor who died after attempting to cross the channel in July. I think we're prepared and I'm hoping the training will see me through. The only thing I can do now is complete the swim.

My son David will be watching from the boat and he'll be acting as a support swimmer.

Unfortunately my dad won't be there but I'm committed to going through with it after coming this far. In July of this year I got to fulfill my ambition of swimming with basking sharks off the coast of Donegal.

Ciaran: 'I'm terrified of being stung by the jellyfish'

Ciaran Pollock (40) lives in Lisburn with his wife Eleanor and their daughters, Natasha (16), Nicole (15), Nadine (11), Niamh (16 months) and baby Neesha (eight weeks old). Ciaran has been a lifeguard for 18 years. He says:

Swimming wasn't a big interest of mine for years. Then I met my wife, Eleanor. She worked at the swimming pool in Lisburn and taught me how to swim. I have known Maureen for years through using the same swimming pool in Lisburn. I used to wonder why she was always in the pool. Anytime I went there she was swimming length after length so I presumed she was an expert swimmer in training.

After getting to know Maureen I got really into swimming. She advised me on my training and then the team formed and we all became the best of friends. It's great being part of a team where everyone shares the passion to succeed while enjoying being healthy and active. Through Gerry and the rest of the gang we've all made friends for life.

My daughter Natasha is massively into swimming too so I may have passed it on to her. She swam for Ireland in the British Youth Games but I think it's an interest all of the children are beginning to develop.

I trained for four years once I came to the decision that I would swim the English Channel.

Initially I trained a couple of days a week in the pool on my lunch break. Then I moved up a few gears and was swimming up to 14km a day multiple times a week.

The key is building up your strength, speed and endurance – it's like marathon training.

I love the cold and the wild aspects of the open water. It's the most surreal feeling to be at sea looking at the shoreline and seeing these people in their jumpers and jackets while you are in the coldest of waters. I feel lucky because many people will never get to feel that.

As a team we know that very few people actually succeed in swimming the channel. We're all well prepared and the fact that it is in the form of a relay will help us from getting too tired.

You could be the best swimmer in the world and struggle. My biggest fear is the jellyfish. I'm terrified of them. Their sting is like a nettle sting so it's not nice and it hurts for a while after you leave the water. I'm like a magnet for them so if I can avoid them then it'll be a bonus.

Maureen: 'It really is my childhood dream come true'

Maureen McCoy (44) is a swim teacher and diving coach in Lisburn. She lives in Hillsborough with her husband Brian. She says:

Swimming has always been a part of my family's lifestyle. I tried my hand at competitive swimming but I hated it so I threw in the towel on that side of the sport. I decided swimming was still the way forward for me so I began a course in lifesaving and teaching and now I teach what I love so it's worked out well. I swim throughout the year and try to take part in two to three events per year.

My grandfather was a fantastic open water swimmer and my mother swam for her school so that's where I probably got my love for the water from. I was inspired by the movie Dangerous When Wet (1953), which starred talented swimmer Esther Williams. In the film Williams enters a contest to be the first to swim across the English Channel. I remember watching the film and thinking I want to do that someday. From there I decided that I would like to take part in some open water events. Now I am able to swim all year round, taking part in open water events so it really is my childhood dream come true.

Paul McCambridge was my photographer on the boat accompanying me when I swam the Channel solo in 2009. I was responsible for getting Paul and Gerry to take their first dip in the wild open waters in Northern Ireland.

Being the most experienced swimmer of the group I suppose I did advise the others on training and what they needed to be able to do. But in all honesty I never had someone coach me or show me what I needed to do in order to swim in the vast, cold waters.

I read lots of books on swimming and spoke to people who had experience in open water swimming and conducted my own research so that's really how my knowledge of open water swimming has grown over the years.

I haven't done any training specifically for the Channel relay. On August 4 I swam eight and a half miles in the cold waters of Alaska so I should be able to last an hour here and there on a relay. The temperature in Alaska was on average 13 degrees celsius but the Channel temperatures should be up around 16 or 17. When you're in the water your body really notices the difference in one or two degrees.

Of course there are dangers with the open sea whether you are on a boat or swimming. You have to realise that and prepare yourself as best as you can. If you're not used to this sport then your body really will feel the burn. In particular your pectoral muscles, shoulders, upper arms and legs can be in agony if you don't know what you're doing.

Paul and I recently set up a webpage, wildswim.wordpress.com. We upload photographs and articles about the wonderful places in the wild where you can explore and be active outdoors. Anywhere we think would be of interest we log the location on the blog and share it with others. Outdoor activity is becoming more and more popular and there are so many places to discover in Northern Ireland.

Keeping eye out for danger

The team will be monitored during their marathon swim by technology from a local firm.

The Mercury Eye is a waterproof camera that will be installed on the boat accompanying the swim team by Lisburn-based Mercury Security Management Ltd. As well as withstanding the sea, the device is able to work in temperatures as low as -20C.

According to Frank Cullen, a senior manager at Mercury Security, the device, which operates on long-life batteries that can last up to four years, will ensure the safety of the swimmers by sending photographs live from the swim back to the monitoring centre in Lisburn. This would enable the alarm to be raised if the swimmers get into difficulty.

Currently The Mercury Eye is being used by management agencies, large businesses and in Tyrone brick quarries where the emergency services can be alerted if someone is caught on camera taking to the dangerous waters of a quarry.

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