Sabrina Wiedmer: used to swimming against the tide

Ian O’Riordan on the long distance swimmer who conquered the deadly Dál Riata route

 

June 29th, 11.10am, Mull of Kintyre: Standing knee-deep in cold slippery seaweed, Sabrina Wiedmer taps the front of her goggles one last time, pulls her swimming cap tightly down over her ears, takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, then crawls gently forward into the deep water. 

She’s pointed towards Cushendun, on the Antrim Coast, 17km away. It’s actually the shortest stretch of water through the North Channel, the narrowest crossing from the eastern seaboard of Scotland to Northern Ireland. And it’s lethally dangerous. 

Known locally as the Dál Riata, it’s because it’s so narrow that the volume of seawater is forced to flow at speed, the currents often sweeping down from the north at a hazardous six knots an hour, powerful eddies mixed in too. It’s the most treacherous stretch of water around Ireland and the British Isles and rated as one of the seven most extreme sea channels in the world. 

It’s also one of the coldest – even on this June morning shivering between 10 and 11 degrees Celsius, at best. Wiedmer doesn’t mind the cold too much by now, although at age 27, she’s still relatively young and inexperienced compared to the more typically seasoned open seawater swimmer. She grew up in Switzerland, which of course is landlocked, and she only swam in the sea for the first time when moving to Ireland three years ago. 

Now here she is attempting to swim across a stretch of seawater which no woman has ever swam before, and only four years since the first and still only man.

Wiedmer has no fear of the water, although she is terrified of everything that lives in it, even the smallest fish, and especially the big jellyfish. 

And the Dál Riata is teeming with the giant species of jellyfish known as the lion’s mane, their crippling stinging tentacles unavoidable to anyone who crosses their path. Seals often congregate in this stretch of water too, and there have been sightings of sharks. Although no one dared remind Wiedmer of that.  She deals with this fear by swimming with her eyes tightly shut, never once looking down at what lies beneath, allowing herself only brief glimpses away from that darkness when lifting her face out of water to take a breath at the end of each stroke. 

“Nothing in the Irish sea will attack you,” she reminds herself. “And if I don’t see it, it’s not there. Except for the jellyfish. I know they’re there because I can feel them. And they’re painful. They hurt.” 

There’s no escaping the cold either, given the first rule of open seawater swimming – at least for any record purposes – is that only standard swimsuits are allowed, plus standard goggles, and a standard swimming cap. A wet-suit would make such a swim infinitely more doable, but here Wiedmer is relying purely on the strength of her stroke, and her will. 

It’s propelling her in an almost straight line through the water, and soon, brings her within her first sight of Cushendun, and the black granite cliffs of Antrim, bathed in June sunshine. “It’s so near already,” she thinks. “I’m already so close to home.” 

Only then she suddenly realises she’s not moving at all, essentially swimming on the spot, battling against the current. Or is she going backwards?

“This is heartbreaking,” she says.

Now more than ever the strength of that swim stroke is paramount. She’s been practising it most of her life, since first starting swimming at a young age in Uetendorf, in central Switzerland. It’s much easier to develop a good stroke in the swimming pool. She also competed for the Schwimm Club Delfin. 

Her first swim in Ireland was also in the pool, at Dublin City University, where she came in early 2013 to complete her BA thesis in biotechnology. It was here, on one of her morning swims, she met Fergal Somerville, a strong enthusiast of the Irish seawater swimming scene, who had just recently swum the English Channel. 

Somerville was training for the North Channel swim, the less treacherous although longer stretch of water between Scotland and Northern Ireland, from Portpatrick to Donaghadee, south of Cushendun. Equally enthused about any talk of swimming, Wiedmer took up Somerville’s offer of dipping her toes into the sea for the first time, when she joined him at the Eastern Bay Swimming Club in Clontarf. 

Later in 2013, Somerville completed the North Channel swim, and suggested Wiedmer might want to try likewise. “Why not?” she thought.  After a brief spell back in Switzerland, she moved to Dublin permanently, where she now works with Quintiles, the US clinical research company with offices at East Point. It’s the perfect base for open seawater training too, out by Bull Wall or Malahide, or at the WestWood pool in Clontarf, during winter, when the sea is either too cold or too rough. 

Still, she found her first dip in the sea suitably shocking. “It’s so cold, these Irish people are mad,” she thought, before a few weeks later realising once you’re in, it becomes pretty tolerable. Just for some reason she’s able to tolerate it better than most. (In February of 2014, a group of swimmers from Eastern Bay attended the ice-mile challenge, at Lough Dan in Wicklow, the simple rule there being to complete a mile swim in water colder than five degrees Celsius; Wiedmer swam 25:51, a world record for a woman.) 

Intrigued, she became more curious about the possibilities of open water swimming. Later in 2014, she completed the North Channel swim, in the fourth fastest time ever, still unaware of the more difficult Dál Riata route. That idea was only planted last Easter, when attending an open sea training camp organised by Pádraig Mallon, who runs the Infinity Channel Swimming and Piloting Services. 

“Did you ever think of swimming the Dál Riata?” Mallon asked. Again she answered “why not?” without realising what that meant, forgetting too she’d just drunk a few glasses of wine. Mallon agreed to sponsor the attempt, including all the necessary piloting and support services.

All they really had to go on were the failed attempts, including that of celebrated British endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, the first person to swim the straights of Gibraltar, and first woman to swim the English Channel. Gleitze attempted the Dál Riata back in 1928 although it proved beyond her.

It took another 84 years before someone eventually made it, when in 2012 the South Africa Wayne Soutter used his knowledge of the tides in the area to find a way across. It took him 12 hours and 15 minutes, his effort and exertions later turned into a stage drama.

Wiedmer trained mostly alone for her attempt, swimming between 35-55km a week, between the sea and pool. At 17km, the Dál Riata would be well within her range, but could she handle the cold? 

“I’m really not sure,” she’s thinking now, stuck, it seems, in that struggle against the current, the cold penetrating every bone in her body. “Is this physically possible? I don’t think it is. Is it? And I’m cold, freezing cold. Don’t think about the cold. But I can’t. Don’t panic... but I want to get out. And this is scary now.” 

So she stops, for a minute max, nourishing those negative thoughts with another feed from the support boat, a bit of a banana, a sip of warm watery porridge.

 Only along with her will, her stroke is also weakening, the first sign of hypothermia, as her body tries to save itself by moving all the cold blood to her extremities. 

“Sabrina, what is your name?” Mallon shouts from the support boat. “Sabrina, what day of the week is it?” 

These, she knows, are the standard test questions for hypothermia, so she forces herself to answer. She remembers again her secret way of dealing with the cold, which is to think about nothing at all except the next stroke. Don’t allow any more wild thoughts escape. 

Now for the last gamble. The coast is coming clearly into sight. The faster she swims, the warmer she’ll get. But will she have enough energy to sustain it? 

Suddenly and without warning the boat stops, and so she knows this must be the finish now, which it nearly is, a mere 20m away. She just has to hold on, then grab on to the nearest rock, raise her hand in the air to signal the end. Except she can’t, too dizzy to do anything except stand there, knee-deep again in cold slippery seaweed. 

Then her hand goes up. 

“What a relief,” she thinks, “now just get me into the boat, just get me dry.”

 Which of course they promptly do, and she sheds tears of relief.

 It’s just before 8.0pm, and she’d been in the water for just over eight and a half hours, thus smashing Soutter’s time by nearly four hours. And although Mallon’s guidance and judgement of the currents had been near perfect, she’d actually covered 32.2km in distance, almost half of that, in other words, swimming simply to stay still in the water. 

 She gave herself two days off work to recover, and without any trophy or prize beyond her own satisfaction, is now back training again for next month’s Loch Lomond swim in Scotland, which although 35km in length will feel like downhill compared to Dál Riata. 

“And I don’t have to worry about any sea creatures this time,” she realises. “Or monsters. Different lake.”

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