Donegal’s Mermaid Does it Again

Portnablagh woman Ann-Marie Ward successfully completed a momentous swim across the North Channel Sea entering the record books as the first Irish woman to ever have completed such a swim. She completed the swim from Ireland to Scotland in an amazing 18 hours 59 minutes and 26 seconds.

The North Channel is familiar to all who have ever taken the ferry crossing from Larne to Stranraer, a distance of 35 kilometres or 18.6 nautical miles. Amongst the long-distance swimming fraternity however, the North Channel swim is regarded as ‘the Everest of Swims’ and has only ever been successfully completed by eleven swimmers to date.

On the morning of the 1st of September, two miles North of Carrickfergus, Ann-Marie slipped out of the support vessel ‘Dive Zebadee ’, watched by Independent monitor, Kieran Fitzpatrick and officially touched off the rocks of Whitehead. Wearing only a swimsuit, hat and goggles she faced this surmounting challenge once again – her fourth attempt.  On Ann-Marie’s first attempt she spent 18 hours in the water but with an unfavourable tide in the last section of the swim, she failed to reach Scotland by some five miles.  On her second attempt, the weather fell foul.  On her third attempt, just six weeks before, she met with failure once again when swarms of jellyfish came in with the tide and made safe passage impossible. Even though she bravely attempted to battle her way through swarm after swarm, safety concerns meant she had to give up.

And so to the fourth attempt.  Conditions looked favourable and the forecast for the day ahead was encouraging, if somewhat less bright than expected.  As the haze burned off the morning sky, a Traffic Report was logged with the Belfast Coast Guard advising that a support crew of eight persons aboard three boats would be crossing the channel over the next twenty hours.

Butterflies in her stomach, Ann-Marie started to settle as her body adjusted to the cold water temperature of 12.5 degrees. With her heart rate rising, she worked her limbs and consistently rotated her arms at 62 strokes per minute.  Gradually she began to move out from the Irish Coast and into open waters, and the race was truly underway.

International swimming rules dictate that once a swimmer commences a swim that they do not touch or hold onto anything.  Should Ann-Marie have touched the side of a support boat then her swim would be invalidated.  So in order to replenish her with essential fluids her support crew attached a bottle to a line and threw it overboard to her on the hour, each hour whilst she treaded water momentarily.

Ann-Marie’s stroke rate of 62 arm rotations per minute was monitored by her support team. The lead vessel which stayed slightly ahead of Ann-Marie was able to direct her along the most advantageous route to Scotland.  Hours whiled by, stroke on stroke. After two hours of the north running tide, Ann-Marie hit slack water and progress was good. But after six hours the inevitable happened and the tide turned to run north again.  As she desperately fought the tide, her stroke rate went up to 68 per minute, but she managed to hold and even make slight progress by crossing the tide at a right angle and moving in a north-easterly direction.  But it had been a long endurance and mental test.  To make matters worse, there were jellyfish to contend with which had left her with a few stings.

With the mounting hours, her only conversations were brief exchanges of words with the boat crews at feed time.  ‘How are you feeling?’  ‘Good.  How am I doing lads?’ Words of encouragement came from all.  ‘Progress is good and we are on schedule.’  Important to keep her spirits up but words of caution.  ‘Keep it steady, Ann-Marie, your swim rate is high, drop it back and we will bring you home.’  As daylight faded and the swim continued on into the darkening night this became her mantra.  ‘The boys will bring me home, the boys will bring me home.’ Repeating this mantra over and over again in her mind to dull out the pain, she was determined now more than ever in her life.

Up on 14 hours in the water she now reached the start of the final section.  The south side, albeit light, began to run and gave a push in the right direction. But not the push she had hoped for.   Mile by mile slowly her team counted down.  Fluid stops were reduced from 60 minutes to 45 minutes.  She was maintaining 62 strokes per minute.

Midnight came and yet there were several more miles to go.  She was now battling with all her might.  ‘The boys will bring me home, the boys will bring me home.’  Her mantra was all she had to hang onto as she battled in solitude.  Her tongue was now swollen from the salt water.  She had not drawn a relaxed breath in over 18 hours.    The tide was turning and the shore had not been reached. She was starting to exhaust and the tide was now pushing her northwards again.  We desperately needed to cover just one half nautical mile eastwards to reach the shore.  We could hear the waves breaking in the distance.  To boost her morale, her team decided to drop her brother Ryan Ward into the cold dark water to swim alongside her and encourage her along.

A previous swimmer had failed just 100 metres from the shore, and Ann-Marie was determined this would not be her fate. Brendan Proctor leaned over to her, ‘Ok, Ann-Marie this is the final feed, keep it going, you are nearly there, just 200 metres to go, you can do this’.

The searchlight was powered up and her support crew lit the rocks on the Scottish coast to show her the endline.  Nothing would take her from her dream now.  Pounding out to the last, her arms slapping the water, kick on kick, pull on pull she counted down each metre and eventually after almost nineteen hours she stumbled onto the rock beach of the Scottish shore to successfully swim the North Channel.  Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief.  In the dead quiet of the night, Ann-Marie had made history.  Ryan stood proudly by her side.  A cheer was raised aboard the vessels.  The stopwatch showed a time of 18 hours 59 minutes and 26 seconds, on 2nd September 2011. In the house just above the shore, where the hall light shone, the occupant slept unwittingly.  Donegal’s Mermaid did us proud.