Scilly Island Channel, UK – 26 Miles
The 26 mile stretch of water from mainland Britain to the low lying Isles of Scilly due west of Land’s End is a sea kayaker’s rite of passage. It never gets deeper than 67m, so strong currents and choppy seas are standard fare. The chilly waters of the Atlantic sweep straight past the islands in a prevailing westerly direction, meaning that to swim from Cornwall to the isles you have a minimum current of 300m against you when the tide is with you, exponentially more with the tide against. Typically cold and strong currents and tides with fickle weather mean that this crossing had never been made before.I’d never set off in daylight before, and rather enjoyed it, a seal was in attendance as I climbed on the rocks to start my swim.
The sea was deceptively calm. It only took about 15mins before the boat was swept off course due to immense side currents that, with it’s bigger draft and all important stabilising drag bags, was unable to navigate alongside me. After a very stop-start 45mins, my support got into the kayak and took a mental bearing and we forged ahead while the boat crew attempted to sort their rig. It was frustrating and more than a little nerve wracking. But 3hrs in, we were away from the worst of the coastal currents and the boat was back alongside. We chuntered along happily for the rest of the day, even surprising the skipper by topping 2mph! I heard dolphins clicking off to my right which made for a lovely interlude.
As the sun began to drop, we had a turn in the weather; a gentle breeze from behind, a rare north easterly. Perfect for swimming west. Except for the diesel fumes from the boat. I was surrounded by carbon rich fumes and ingested so much that after the he first hour I was nauseous. At the end of the second hour, now dark, I felt chilled to the bone, and very suddenly was almost unable to keep my eyes open. I then began to lose the surface of the water with my hand. Once again, I was joined by the kayak so I could swim away from the boat, but I was so nauseous I was having stomach cramps and dry retching for almost an hour before I could start to regurgitate the toxic cocktail. It was a pretty close call, but in the end, I managed to clear it out and start to piece strokes together again. I was also beset by jelly fish all through the night, too numerous to avoid. Every inch of my body stung, I ended up switching off to the discomfort.
As dawn rose, the fog descended, robbing me of a morale boosting sight, but knowing I was less than 2 miles away, I stormed forwards and at 5.20am, 17hrs and 28mins after starting, I clambered onto Great Britain rock on St Mary’s. Elated, surprisingly recovered from the diesel ingestion and jellyfish and stunned at having actually made it all the way across!
Molokai Channel, Hawaii – 26 Miles
The Molokai channel, from Molokai to Oahu in Hawaii is known locally as Kaiwi, or channel of bones. It’s a 26 mile stretch of water that frequently hosts pacific swells that give Oahu its famous surf. The formation of the Hawaiian archipelago means that the cones that make up the islands funnel the pacific waters, the deepest and largest ocean, between them causing swirling currents and vicious lateral rips along coastal regions. The Hawaiian Islands are also home to plenty of sharks and the warm waters mean that jelly fish are a year round feature.
Setting off at 9.30pm in the pitch dark, with only a head torch on my kayak support’s head to find a landing spot was more than nerve racking. Black lava rock in sharp shelves make up the coast of much of Molokai so all I could see was the white intermittent wash of waves as they broke on the rocks. Knowing that sharks are largely nocturnal hunters played loudly on my mind as I tried desperately not to get cut as I timed my way onto land.
I love swimming in the pacific, the movement of the water is so strong and defined that the ocean is a real entity to find your way through. I had no idea setting out just how much of a entity I was to encounter! The night passed smoothly with the phosphorescence spiralling off my fingertips like a private fireworks display. With dawn I felt a niggle in my left elbow, so I adjusted my stroke, happy to paddle on.
12hrs into my swim, that niggle became a scream that pinged up to my shoulder and I suddenly couldn’t move my arm. I couldn’t extend it, nor could I move it behind me or out of the water. I tried switching to breaststroke but yelped every time I tried to pull water with my left arm. I was 7 miles from Oahu, I’d been held by a current hitting me off my right shoulder for over 3hrs without moving forwards. A long conversation with my support later, I gave up trying to swim as I knew it and made it my mission to simply get to the other side, no matter what. I one-arm doggy paddled for a further 12hrs to get to to the other side.
I painfully watched as the sun set, still a couple of miles off shore. I knew that coastline was brutal with only one small area of sand. We aimed for that, but the lateral rip across the bay meant that I could tantalisingly see the truck and landing party, but in looking up to sight, I was swept back out and further along, away form the sanctuary of a soft landing. The last 100m took almost an hour to swim and punching through that current was sublime when it finally happened. Picking my way over rocks, timing it in with the waves once again in the pitch black, I had no idea I was capable of swimming for 24hrs even though I just had.
First woman to successfully complete crossing twice
English Channel, UK – 21 Miles
Considered the Mount Everest of open water swimming, its level of difficulty and prestige mark this channel as the gauntlet thrown down to all long distance open water swimmers. 22 miles from Shakespeare Beach, just outside Dover, to somewhere along the French coast near Cap-Gris-Nez can easily become 30 miles given the strong currents, fickle but vicious tidal range and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Add to that cold water, around 16°c, and the British weather, it’s no wonder more people have summited Everest. The water turned 16°c two days before my swim, along with a lucky break in the weather. Leaving at 2.30am, setting off from Shakespeare Beach on the 25th July 2012 into the inky black night and water it all felt eerily calm. Dawn rose to a blissful, calm sunny day. The water a rippling glassy expanse and the air temperature reaching 27°c. Porpoises joined me as the sun rose, not that I could see them.
All went smoothly until a couple of miles from France. There’s a band of current that is the battle ground of the swim. It’s where your channel swim truly begins. I was perfectly placed to land at the cap at around 11.30hrs of swimming when I hit the current, and then the tide turned over an hour before it was due. Fickle localised tides are common and add another dimension to this challenge. Having started sprinting to punch through the current I had to haul it all back in, not knowing whether it would be 3hrs or even 8 before I would land. Watching the cap get whisked out of reach I was turned away to Wissant bay. Doggedly stroking, arm over arm, with the tide and current carrying me along the coast, but holding me offshore, I battled through the current to make a Wissant landing, staggering up onto the town beach to a lovely welcoming committee of onlookers, 15hrs and 16minutes after setting off.
Catalina Channel, USA – 20 Miles
The Catalina Channel is a deep-water channel that is comparable to the English Channel in terms of water conditions, difficulty, distance and the physical and mental challenges to the swimmer. From Emerald Bay on Santa Catalina Island to the San Pedro Peninsula the crossing stretches 21 miles. Water temperatures tend to be a bit warmer (15ºC – 20ºC) here compared to many other channels, however nearer the coast do drop off. Strong winds and currents are commonplace, and swimmers usually encounter large marine life including migrating whales and large pods of dolphins. The channel’s long distance coupled with its other challenging factors makes its crossing a formidable undertaking.
Molokai Channel, Hawaii – 26 Miles
Having already completed Molokai Channel once in December 2012, I am fully aware of what a formidable challenge it poses. During my last crossing, strong currents delayed my attempt significantly pushing my finishing time into a second night. At 26 miles it is the longest swim on the list and is also the warmest – a factor I find challenging as it means my already hyper-mobile joints become even more so which can increase the risk of injury. The is also some dangerous wildlife such as sharks and Portuguese-Man-O-War jellyfish.
Record: First woman to swim the Molokai Channel twice
Cook Strait, New Zealand – 16 Miles
The Cook Strait covers 16 nautical miles (26 kilometers) across immense tidal flows in heavily choppy water conditions. Water temperatures average a cool 14ºC-19ºC (57ºF-66ºF). Jellyfish and sharks are common place with 1 in 6 swimmers encounter sharks on their crossings. Both sides of the strait have rock cliffs making access and exit a struggle. To date, only 71 successful crossings have been made by 61 individuals from 8 countries. Hypothermia and quick changes in weather conditions during a crossing are the most common reasons attempts fail.
Strait of Gibraltar, Spain & Morocco – 8 Miles
The Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The channels shortest point is between Punta Oliveros in Spain and Punta Cires in Morocco. This 8 mile crossing sees an eastern flow of water from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea with an average of 3 knots (5.5 km per hour). Heavy boat traffic, logistical barriers and surface chop confront swimmers who take on this challenge. very strong currents combined with the unpredictability of the water conditions and high winds have resulted in only 185 successful one-way crossings and 7 double-crossings having been completed. Most attempts are made from Tarifa Island due to the influence of strong currents, a distance of 10-12 miles (18.5-22 kilometers).
Tsugaru Strait, Japan – 12 Miles
The record setting fifth swim in her series, the Tsugaru channel in Japan is 12 miles at its closest point but due to incredibly strong currents, swimmers must tackle a 20 mile course. The crossing, between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido has been completed by less than 100 people, and is considered one of the toughest of the seven due to the language barrier, logistical difficulties, cold water, very strong currents and abundant wildlife.