The North

Luca Pozzi
Stile Libero
Published in
18 min readOct 15, 2021

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In this post I’ll tell the story of my North Channel crossing, what it meant for me, and how I prepared for it.

A month after my swim I’m still in disbelief, processing the great feeling of accomplishment, and licking my wounds, but I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get started…

The North Channel

The North Channel is one of the most difficult channels in the world. It’s one of the Oceans Seven, 21.4 miles (34.5km) between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Water Temperature is on average roughly between 51F and 59F (11C and 15C), so much colder than the English Channel. The weather is also quite variable and strong winds can pick up any time. The swim is cross-current, just like the English Channel, but the tides are shorter so that the swimmer has a shorter window than usual, and can take the swimmer so off-course that completion becomes impossible.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish are almost synonymous with the North Channel! These critters can become quite large, and are fiercely poisonous. It’s quite common for swimmers to go into shock after being stung, and some cases can be quite serious.

Fear(s), Weakness, and Training

As I described, there are two things the North Channel is infamous for: Very Cold Water and Vicious Jellyfish.

I’ve never been good at cold water. As a kid I used to shiver uncontrollably when swimming in poorly heated pools in winter. When I started swimming in the Bay without a wetsuit I noticed right away how I was getting cold faster than my friends. During my very first marathon swim, the 5 Coves of Death, I would have pulled myself if it wasn’t for Andrew, who motivated me to swim one last cove, of which I remember very little.

Jellyfish and I also have history. My first open water swim, in San Terenzo, the Gulf of Poets, when I was 16 (20 years ago) ended with me pulling myself because I was frightened by the many jellies! I had nightmares that night, dreaming of those ghostly balloons bumping into me.

I approached Bay swimming right at the time when Kim Chambers completed her Oceans Seven. The stories of her North Channel sounded like something out of a scifi novel. I couldn’t even fathom how I could get from my 20'-30' in 60F to more than 10 hours in water hovering around 55F.

As I started getting serious about this sport I kept dreaming big of trying my best on this huge challenge. As I met more and more crazy likeminded people that supported me I started thinking of it seriously, even without admitting it out loud. Then, in 2018, my partner in Crime, Lauren Lesyna, and I finally bit the bullet and emailed Pàdraig (from the best piloting company over the North Channel: Infinity). We got our dates for 2021, which seemed enough in the future… At the time our plan was to ramp up to it with our English Channel crossing in 2020, so we started some intense cold water training that winter, just to be curbed by the COVID-19 pandemic… we took the rest of the year pretty easy, and started again in October, with our Angel Island Swim. From there, with the clubs still closed, we hit winter hard, swimming out of the beach, getting changed off the trunks of our cars and using the car heater as our personal sauna. Needless to say that the lack of the crutch of the sauna helped immensely in building acclimation and silencing some of the insecurities.

Lauren and I were a Dream Team all through these months, motivating and pushing each other. She’s an absolute badass and having her as a training partner inspired me to push harder and never give up. Of course we had plenty of moments to slack, float around, chit chat and snivel, taking an insanely long time to get in whenever Randy wasn’t there to corral us into the water, but we also had a lot of hard cold swims. All through winter we hit aquatic park 6 days a week, jumping in the dark before work, and coming back for 3–4 hours swims in the weekend. We also did plenty of crucial long swims with Sylvia from Pacific Open Water Swim Co.. two 6 hours swims and two 8 hours swims were excellent training, and a great chance to try out new feeds. Sylvia is one of the most capable pilots out there, super knowledgeable (also due to being herself a badass marathon swimmer) and a great Friend.

Lauren, Sylvia, and yours truly having a lot of Type II fun.

We had our qualifier swim at the end of February, and here’s where I hit my biggest challenge: my hips seized very bad and I barely made it to 6 hours. Another 8 hours swim ended at 6h50' for me, when my right leg cramped so bad I couldn’t swim anymore.

It turned out that the lack of cross training together with sitting down for work caused a lot of tension in my hips that resulted in excruciating cramps and ultimately in my leg getting so stiff I couldn’t swim any more.

I have to thank Erin and Albert for putting me back together: strength training twice a week and weekly sessions of deep tissue and cupping finally brought results and in a couple of months I was pain free again and able to swim 8 hours without issues!

As Lauren crushed the swim on July 1st 2021 I was so inspired by her strength and I couldn’t wait to get my own chance. I spent the last two months of training visualizing the swim and taking exclusively cold showers (I hate cold showers), since the Bay was getting too warm. After a few Round Trip Golden Gate swims with my favorite South Enders (Ariana, Zach, Miguel, Peter, Maryam, Fiona, Andrew, etc.) the time to leave for Ireland finally arrived!

Donaghadee & The Dunkers

I counted the days for the last month, visualizing and even dreaming of the swim, keeping acclimated with cold showers and cutting off drinking. I packed my suitcase a month earlier, and repacked it a few times before go time.

Traveling in times of COVID-19 is obviously more stressful that usual. The mask is uncomfortable and makes the beard itch (I always grow my beard before big swims as a protection from the Sun and Jellyfish). A storm in Chicago almost had our connecting flight canceled which would have implied re-testing, etc.

When we finally got to Ireland we were enormously relieved! We hopped on our rental car and drove up to Donaghadee.

Our Airbnb ended up being absolutely awesome and extremely close to the harbor. We celebrated the successful trip with hearty and delicious meal at Pier 36 where the owner, himself an Ironman athlete, knows all the NC lore and told us great stories of the past years.

Donaghadee is a beautiful little town with plenty of views, Great Food, and lots of fun things to do
Meeting the Dunkers and receiving the legendary hat, the cap, and the patch!

The next day I finally got to swim with Martin and the Chunky Dunkers!

The Dunkers are the local group of swimmers, a tradition started by Martin Strain, also author of a great book on Tom Blower (first to cross the North Channel) and a soon to be published book on Mercedes Gleitze (renown pioneer of marathon swimming who made the NC her nemesis!). The Dunkers swim daily at high tide (Donaghadee harbor is extremely tidal!), and they eat (excellent) cake (or other forms of dessert). The group is very diverse, with some members swimming a mile or so and others floating around and enjoying the cold water.

Martin, his wife Kathryn, and everyone else (I would name them all but it would lengthen this post…) warmly welcome swimmers from all over the world, who come to measure themselves with the North Channel. Their support is priceless and warmed my heart.

They also stand in the pitch black of the early morning shining a light over the rocky start point so that swimmers can safely climb on shore and jump back in to start the swim. Being sent off by them is another heartwarming experience and I’m extremely grateful for it (but I’m getting ahead of the story!).

My first swim with them was a lot of fun, but felt cold. This got some of the insecurity voices to start whispering, specially since I was shacking a bit after that (a few Dunkers looked at me with a little worry in their eyes…), but by the next day I was feeling way more at ease.

The conditions were great all week, so Jacqueline already told me that I was going to be likely to swim on the next Monday (3 days later). This gave Kris and I 2 sleepless nights since we were too wired up to fall asleep before the bell chimed 2am…

The Swim

On the morning of August 28th (Saturday) Kris and I drove to Bangor to meet up with Jacqueline who showed us the boat, answered all our questions, and gave us a great briefing that helped me visualize and plan the last few details.

The weather was wonderful, even a tad bit too warm, we were all excited for the next day that was supposed to be the same.

We hit a supermarket on the way home (it’s only 6 miles from Bangor to Donaghadee) to buy extra water jugs, food for the crew, and antihistamine to be prepared for the inevitable kisses of the Lion’s Mane Jellies.

Jon was going to fly in from Copenhagen to help Kris out on the boat. I’m beyond grateful for his presence: he proved to be a great crew member and had a lot of fun on the boat while keeping my morale high. My mum fell sick right before the trip, so without Jon Kris would have been my only crew member (granted, Pàdraig was going to come to help but having more known faces really helps).

In the afternoon we pick up Jon from Belfast, drive home, have a quick Pappardelle dinner and brief Jon and Kris about any contingency and piece of gear in my kit. We go to bed early-ish.

August 29th: Alarm goes off at 1:45am. Ouch. I stumble out of bed and race downstairs to gorge on a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich and fill with boiling hot water my feed bottles and a few large flask that Martin generously provided.

It was gonna be a LONG day and we needed water reserves to make sure we could replenish my feeds in case they were not going to be enough (this proved to be an especially good call).

We drive the 6 miles from Donaghadee to Bangor in the pitch black on a very narrow road and we get to the harbor where a group of young kids is stumbling home from the bar and looks at us confused and amused.

We also get to meet the adorable Cara, observer extraordinaire, who never lost direct line of sight on me and delighted the crew with her stories and her lovely personality.

A Few minutes later the boat pulls up and we get to meet the legendary Pàdraig and the rest of the crew: Bobby and the pilot Keiron.

I crack a few nervous jokes about the wind and Pàdraig says that the hope is that it will abate. We board the boat and zip back to Donaghadee.

On the coast we see 3 lights in the absolute darkness of the night: the Dunkers wake up at ungodly hours to shine a beacon light on the swimmers to help them find the starting point!

The swim starts from the rocks on the South side of Donaghadee harbor and the swimmers jump from the boat and climb on the treacherous rocks in the darkness of the early morning to clear the water before jumping in.

Martin and the Dunkers shine lights from shore so that we can safely climb those slippery rocks and start safely. Needless to say that seeing them cheering you it’s the best way to fortify your morale.

The Time has come! As my nerves start acting up and my knee starts to jerk I get greased up by Kris and Jon: first a thick layer of Sea Safe sunscreen to protect me from the Lion’s Manes, then another thick layer of Badger, in case some sun come up (yeah, right).

To top it off I grease with abundant lanolin in every area that could chafe due to prolonged friction. I slip in my suit the good luck charm South Enders and Dolphins have been passing to each other’s for years.

I’m as ready as I can be. I crack more nervous jokes about how I don’t want to lower Pàdraig’s success rate and, as he grows impatient with the tide and the timing, I climb on the side of the boat, slap my own ass twice for good luck, and jump head first in the ink black water.

Picture from the start, courtesy of Martin Strain, who woke up super early to send me off!

The Cold shocks me and takes my breath, but habit kicks in right away, and I’m at home again. I swim to the rocks, send a kiss to the Dunkers and, once the boat gives the sign, dive back into the choppy water and away from the cold wind. Here we GO!

My first fear is to swim straight into a jellyfish in the dark, fortunately Bobby climbs onto the prow of the boat and shines a beacon in front of me. This allows me to dodge a potentially terrible encounter: two Lion’s Manes, one on my left, the other on my right, with their tentacles weaving a net right in front of me!

I stop with a screech and get around them. And so the dance starts, as the boat is violently shaken by the waves I plow through them, focusing on keeping my stroke rate high, my pull strong and my head high to keep dodging the jellyfish.

Hour after hour this goes on, until dawn, when no Sun comes up but the light makes things a bit easier, I keep feeding every 30 minutes, hot feeds thrown masterfully by Pàdraig or Bobby.

A precisely thrown bottle makes the swimmer’s life much easier. Feeding Time!

What I’m unaware of is that they’re considering pulling the swim since the conditions are terrible: Kris uses her best diplomatic skills to persuade them, and to convey the fact that I actually LOVE chops!

I’ll spare you the nitty gritty, but this is when a swim is won: one arm after the other, keep pushing and eating, keep communicating with the boat, crack a joke, read some message from the whiteboard from my Friends at home, get comfortable in discomfort.

The cold is mostly uncomfortable, at ~57F (~14C) it’s not freezing, but definitely not a hot bath. My neck is very tight (and chafed) from sighting for Jellies, the arms hurt, but not too much, my hips get tight and cramp, but don’t seize.

None of this is enough to really stop me, so I keep singing to myself in my head and keeping my mind as empty as I can.

I saw hundreds of these through my swim!

I keep seeing the jellyfish in the crystal clear water and fortunately I keep being able to dodge them. They’re quite beautiful with their namesake mane of tentacles all around them.

At 2 thirds of the swim (9 hours approximately) I hit the Beaufort Dyke: a very deep trench where a huge amount of WWII ordnance has been sunk: here the temperature drops by at least a degree for the 2 miles of the trench.

As much as the drop is unpleasant it informs me that I’m past half way! I keep plowing along, but as sleep deprivation starts taking its toll I get distracted and at hour 11 a jellyfish gets too close!

It grazes my left forearm. It burns, but it’s not excruciating: Sea Safe seems to be working! For good measure the crew feeds me some antihistamine: it’s quite common for swimmers to go into shock!!!

Now I’m very close to Scotland! I think I can smell the manure from the pastures! Water gets back to normal temperature and jellyfish virtually disappears!

As I finally get within the last few strokes from the finish and the boat sends in Jon to escort me in: I finally touch the cliffs of Scotland!

Done! 13 hours 37 minutes, the very first Italian to make it across! (91st ever)

As I look around in disbelief a Scottish gentleman from the cliff congratulates me and wishes to offer me a beer, but my crew hurries me back on the boat where I’m scrubbed and washed with warm water, changed into warm clothes and then put to sleep.

The whole time I had the refrain of this song in my head like a Mantra, which almost drove me insane!

Aftermath & Learnings

The boat trip back to Bangor is a blur, and so have been the days since August 29th!

Dinner at Pier 36, with two Guinness’ and a huge steak, soon my parents join us and we embark in a super fun trip all around Ireland, but not before showing them Donaghadee, introduce them to the Dunkers, and signing both the wall of Fame at Pier 36 and the “Fleg” (the Dunker’s Ulster flag)!

Life is hard when you’re a Celebrity :P

But, as Kris pointed out, no one gets out of this swim unscathed. A few days after my swim I start feeling some discomfort, and today, more than a month an a half since my swim, I am still under antibiotics to flush out a nasty UTI I contracted during the swim. All in all it was worth it, but ouch…

Despite the bad conditions I was able to keep a pretty straight line

This swim means a lot to me: it’s one of the most challenging swims in the world and I am still in disbelief I made it (specially on such a gnarly day!). Ramping up to the swim I felt like I had at most a 50% chance of being able to handle it, and it turned out to be the hardest swim I ever done! I had to be constantly engaged and pushing, making every single stroke count and never lowering my guard. I could have handled few more hours of this, but I surely didn’t finish fresh as a rose: the next day I needed help in taking off my t-shirt or to get off the couch. I feel like my 16 years old self who had a fobia of jellyfish and got hypothermic in the pool would be proud of me.

I also learned a few things, both from the training process and from the swim itself.

From the misadventures with my hips I learned the importance of rolling and general maintenance (Lacrosse balls are great, and super easy to carry with you everywhere). Albert also taught me the importance of salt tablets to keep the cramps at bay and just keeping muscles efficient. During the swim I realized that taking one every two hours is definitely keeping the cramps for becoming unbearable, but that I should experiment with taking them more often, to stave off the pain (why wait until it gets bad?).

My favorite feed, the Coca Cola I drink at the end of my swims, should also be revisited: even a couple of hours of it made me feel like my sugar levels were too high and got me a little weak.

Fun Fact: Jon and Pàdraig did heat up the Coca Cola during my swims, since only hot feeds were really pleasant: I can assure you that in that moment hot Coca Cola tasted delicious!

On this note I‘ll also scrap the plastic bottle in favor of metal thermos since the temperature of the feeds could be crucial.

Twinkies confirmed themselves as the best solid feed I can have! They taste awesome and they’re super easy to eat: it’s quite hard to chew and swim, but a Twinkie is easy to send down with a sip of chocolate beverage, and doesn’t need much chewing!

Acknowledgments

Marathon swimming may involve a lot of Solo swims, but it’s definitely a Team sport, many are those I need to thank for making it, so I’ll try to thank a few of them here:

My training partner and Friend Lauren Lesyna was a constant inspiration during training, she’s unbreakable and still flexible, just the perfect attitude to tackle marathon training, I have so much fun swimming with her or just chatting while sniveling or floating on our buoys. I’m SO looking forward to the next few years of training together!

Sylvia from Pacific Open Water Swimming Co. is a great Friend and the Best pilot on the Bay! She took Lauren and I out and made sure we were ready for this swim and for many to come, charting routes in areas of the Bay we never been before and keeping us safe. We had so much fun on the Bay with her and can’t wait to be back to it!

Erin has not only made me stronger with her killer training sessions, but she also gave me great advice when I was in a dark spot with my hip. Some days she must feel like she’s a trainer a Sea World considering that I have the coordination of a pinniped…

Albert put me back together when my hips were broken. Whatever I break during swims he seems to be able to fix with his voodoo! Can’t wait to hang out again, I hope I’ll get the courage to try the needles eventually since any time he approaches the acupuncture needles cabinet I basically try to jump up and flee…

The pod wouldn’t be complete without Randy “The Be(a)st” Edwards who kept us on schedule and organized all through winter: we would never get into the water without you!

Ryan Utsumi has been (with Steve Walker) the main inspiration to even try this swim, and he’s a great mentor and Friend.

Ariana has been a great support during training, with long sniveling sessions, Round Trip Golden Gate and a gnarly night swim with her and Andrew Packer (congrats on your first 2 crowns man!).

Lauren Au, Zach, Maryam, Peter, Fiona were the best training partners, and Miguel a very generous pilot, I can’t wait to swim with them all again and celebrate all their awesome swims!

Martin, Kathryn, and the Dunkers for the warm welcome to Donaghadee and for being there to send me off: it meant the World to me and I’m very grateful, I had so much fun swimming with them that I’m looking for some excuse to get back to Ireland…

Infinity Channel Swimming & Pàdraig are truly competent and they kept me safe and on route. It’s a huge relief to only have to think about swimming and not have to worry about anything else. If you can make it they’ll do anything to get you across!

I’m very grateful to Corsia4 for covering the swim in a great Article.

I would not be able to endure the training and get through any of my swims (or Life for that matter) without my lovely wife Kris, who always advocates and takes care of me. I am beyond grateful for Jon who flew in from Copenhagen and stood by her side and cheered for me, prepared my feeds, and stayed positive for 15+ long hours on a very rocky boat in the cold Irish Sea, and even jumped into the water to escort me to shore!

I want to dedicate this swim to my prematurely departed but dearly Loved Man Crush Chris Weaver: you’re sorely missed buddy

Secondly I dedicate it to our beloved Sugar who brought us Sunshine.

Stay tuned and please share.

Ciao.

[Versione Italiana]

Appendix: Calories

If you’re wondering how many calories I go through during a swim like this…

During my swim I went through

  • 4 Twinkies: 1,040 calories
  • 5 Gels: 500 Calories
  • 14 Perpetuem Feeds: 2.5 bottles -> 975 Calories
  • 11 Carbo Pro Feeds: 2 Bottles -> 600 Calories
  • 2 Coca Cola Feeds: 100 Calories give or take

Which, assuming that in each feed times I have the following

  • 390 calories if Perpetuem
  • 300 calories if Carbo-Pro
  • Gels: They average around 100 Calories.
  • Twinkie 260 Calories

Imply

Total 3,215 Calories

However I easily burned way more than that..

This article reports the following figures (depending on the swimmer’s weight):

  • A 130-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 590 calories swimming fast, and 413 calories swimming slower.
  • A 155-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 704 calories swimming fast, and 493 calories swimming slower.
  • A 180-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 817 calories swimming fast, and 572 calories swimming slower.
  • A 205-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 931 calories swimming fast, and 651 calories swimming slower.

I’m around 185 pounds (i.e. ~80kg, ~10kg more than when I started my journey in marathon swimming!), considering that, while I may not be swimming at high intensity all the time, cold water makes me burn more than I would in the pool, taking the numbers at face value I should be burning around 650/700 calories per hour, which adds up to around 9,500 Calories!

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