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I swam almost daily out of the village harbor, where herring boats were being unloaded, and along the rugged coastline, past the ruins of 16th-century Dunskey Castle, or up to the Killantringan Lighthouse, where the keeper would come out to wave.
All told, I started on three attempts to cross the Irish Sea, the first two in mid-September. The first time I took off from Donaghadee, as did Tom Blower, the only person ever to complete the swim (in 1947). I wanted very much to better his time. This swim lasted a mere 2 hours 25 minutes and was abandoned when the wind blew up to twice what had been forecast. On the second try I set out from Scotland the day we returned to Portpatrick to await the next neaps. The weather suddenly turned for the better and looked too good to miss. And it did not seem so vitally important that I should start from Ireland. Consultation showed that the new piloting problems could be handled well enough, and at 1:42 in the morning I waded into the water from a beach near Portpatrick. This swim lasted five hours, when a strong wind again blew up unexpectedly to force me out.
I was disappointed but not disillusioned. As strongly as ever I still thought that I could swim the Irish Sea. Staring from my hotel room, looking out over the beckoning expanse of water, I had never wanted anything so badly in all my life as to get across it.
Because of weather, I had to wait for my next chance right up until the low tides at the end of the second week in October. But the time was not wasted. The British doctor who came along on my final attempt, Richard Hardwick, carried out an enormous amount of research into the subject of prolonged immersion in cold water, and he prepared his campaign to bring me back to normal when I would have finished. Some people apparently had been alarmed at the end of my 1957 swim when my heart fibrillated for a full 24 hours afterward. And last year, after a Greek swimmer, Zasson Zirganos, died while trying to cross the Irish Sea, the scare was really on.
Since I am a confirmed fatalist I was not worried. Actually, I had no reason to be. Dr. Hardwick had discovered that the condition I had been in three years previously could be combated rapidly and easily. The answer was to put me in a bath containing water at a little more than blood heat as soon as I came out of the sea.
The vessel which chugged alongside me during my swims, Hugh Campbell's Adoration, has almost no equipment aboard beyond the practical ones required for its job of fishing. It certainly does not have a bath or running hot water. However, we had an oblong wooden tub made by a local carpenter who is also the Portpatrick undertaker. It was fitted with a canvas top to stop the water slopping out as the boat rolled, and there was a place through which I could stick my head. To keep sufficient hot water aboard we borrowed some Thermos ice cream containers and a tea urn which, before the big swim, were carried aboard full of boiling water.
Good weather at last
Three days before my last attempt we moved over to Ireland to wait on the weather. I felt in fine shape. My only trouble was considerable chafing on the shoulders and under my arms caused by my swimsuit. It did not affect my swimming. Once I was in the water my skin became so numb I could not feel a thing. The day after we arrived in Ireland I was sick and ran a temperature of 100�, but this quickly cleared up. The following night the weather forecast was excellent. Light variable winds were predicted, and if the wind came up it would blow from the southwest, which would help to push me across. I had a steak and went to bed early.
The start was scheduled for 5:04 on Saturday morning, and at 3 I had my final big meal—white meat of chicken, dry toast and tea. Quietly I got ready.
We were driven down to Donaghadee Harbor, and I sat beside a charming, cheerful woman named Mollie Murray, who acted as my nurse on the three attempts. At Donaghadee Mollie applied the grease channel swimmers wear to impede leakage of heat from the body. In the privacy of a lighthouse at the end of the pier she managed to plaster me with some six pounds of the stuff. I remember that on my first English Channel swim my father and I were both so inexperienced that we put the grease over my swimsuit, with the result that the front hung down from me all the way across because of the weight.