Channel hopping

Sat, Jul 21, 2012, 01:00

Steve Redmond has swum seven channels, and he’s not done yet, writes LOUISE ROSEINGRAVE

‘NEVER. GIVE. UP.” The extreme swimmer Steve Redmond used the phrase coined by his eight-year-old son as a rhythmic mantra to guide him across seven of the world’s most daunting sea channels. Each time, clutching victory from the jaws of defeat, he faced a breaking point, “a moment of insanity”. “In that moment you go into another place. You realise you are close to death, but you are not going to die. You keep stroking, it becomes mechanical and the arms become effortless.”

Sitting at the kitchen table of his west Cork home, Redmond throws an eye over the mist that shrouds Ballydehob Bay. The sea is invisible, and Redmond is glad. “Right now I never want to see it again,” says the father of two, although he is down for a 42km swim, in the near future, from Baltimore to Schull around Fastnet Rock in aid of Cork Southwest Autistic Association.

Each ocean channel presented a unique challenge. The 46-year-old swam through mutating walls of jellyfish and smiled at sharks circling beneath him. “They look you in the eye, as if to say, ‘We will come back when you’re dead.’ What can you do but smile back?”

The story of Redmond’s epic achievement – he is the first person in the world to complete the arduous seven-channel swim – is peppered with preposterous scenes. On the first crossing his wife, Ann, played her button accordion in the dead of night as ferries navigating the English Channel rumbled by. In the darkest moment of the North Channel crossing, Redmond’s brother Anthony, travelling on the support boat, entered the water with him.

“It was an incredibly brave thing to do – he’d never even swum at night before. We were laughing so hard, two idiots in the water. That’s the trick. You go as far as you think you can, then a little bit further. And then it becomes their swim: you can’t let them down,” he says.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in May last year, Redmond dodged a constant stream of tanker traffic driven by ruthless skippers spurting bilge in his path. At this point Redmond was way behind his three main Oceans 7 competitors, who had conquered five channels each. “They said we didn’t have a chance. But I said, ‘To hell with this, why don’t we?’ That’s when I really got going,” he says.

Five months later, in the build-up to the Catalina Channel off the California coast, also known as Shark Alley, Redmond was on his knees praying. In the water he was overcome by ferocious stomach cramps. He wanted out. “I was screaming for 15 minutes. Then I get this message, that my kids had been on the phone, wanting to know why I was messing about. That was my brother again. He knew what buttons to push. I took a mouthful of saltwater, puked everything up and kept going.”

With just two channels left to swim, victory was within reach. Communities in Cork, Clare and his native Castledermot rallied to raise cash in a hurry.

After a failed first attempt at Moloka’i, in Hawaii, last November, time and money constraints forced the team to attempt two channels in as many weeks. After crossing the Cook Strait, in New Zealand, Redmond returned to Hawaii to take on Moloka’i once more. After more than 22 hours battling “crazy currents” he arrived onshore, in shock but victorious. Now on the brink of swimming into history, he faced new problems on the final challenge, the Tsugaru Strait, in Japan. Left penniless by previous expeditions – the Oceans 7 challenge cost his team €100,000 – the crew was desperate for success.

“Japan is a money pit. Everything is so expensive. What really killed us is that we couldn’t come back and start asking people [for funding] again. It was turning into folly. I started having these doubts . . . It started chipping away at my head,” he says.

On Saturday, July 14th, Redmond and his support companion, Noel Brown from Skibbereen, had packed their bags. A German film crew set to capture the closing moments of this epic three-year feat had departed in a blowing gale the previous night. “Five minutes before we were due to get on the bus the skipper came in and said, ‘You can swim today’. I thought it was a lost-in-translation moment: they don’t let you swim through the night there. But he’d called up the admiral of the Japanese coastguard and said, ‘Look, we are swimming.’ And that was it.”

Fourteen hours and 24 minutes later Redmond entered history books. “For that one moment in Japan, when we finished Tsugaru, everyone involved was connected,” he said. “We cried like idiots all the way home.”

Seven swims

English Channel England-France: 43km in 29hr 1min; August 2009

North Channel Scotland-Northern Ireland: 35km in 17hr 17min; August 2010

Gibraltar Strait Spain-Morocco: 19km in 5hr; May 2011

Catalina Channel Off California: 32km in 12 hr; October 2011

Cook Strait North Island-South Island, New Zealand: 30km in 12.5hr; February 2012

Moloka’i Channel Hawaii: 70km in 22hr;February 2012

Tsugaru Strait Japan: 22km in 14hr 24min; July 14th, 2012

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