Everything seemed right this time. The sea looked calm and somebody had even told me that the Pittsburgh Pirates had won the World Series. I'd been rooting for them. This time it was going to be all the way for me, too. A few minutes past 5 I touched the end of the Donaghadee pier, my last contact with Ireland, and was off.
I am always happy to get in the water and be on my way. Life seems so much simpler swimming. The experience must be similar to that of a flyer above the clouds by himself—I am also in my own little world out there.
I had planned to start off hard, then regulate my pace to keep enough in reserve for the finish. At the beginning I was doing 29 to 30 strokes a minute, but after about half an hour I settled down to 28 strokes—56 complete arm movements. I did this because the wind had freshened a little from the north and was slapping me on the left shoulder; a more comfortable pace seemed advisable. At two hours I gradually dropped down to 26 strokes, but as this has happened on previous swims I was not unduly worried. Now I know it may have been the cold water having a destructive effect on my timing.
The wind decreased in strength after the first freshening breeze. I kept up 26 for approximately the next two and a half hours, when I gradually began to drop again, leveling out at 25. Soon after six hours had passed I was signaled that my stroke was 24�. I was able to bring myself briefly back to 27. But I thought I was exerting myself more than I should, and so I settled again for a slower pace, 25 strokes.
At seven hours the cold began to have a marked effect on me. I found that I was becoming almost lightheaded. I gave myself a pep talk. I kept telling myself to keep concentrating, to keep my mind busy so I would not succumb. Nevertheless, the signals from the Adoration got progressively worse. My stroke dropped to 23 and then 22. I picked up for a moment to 24 but then dropped down again to 22, never to recover.
I just couldn't do it. My arms and legs felt heavy, like boards. When I tried to increase my stroke it felt as if there were heavy weights pressing my arms down. It was getting colder. There was a numbness creeping up on me, and it was rather like going under gradually to ether. Then my right thigh started to ache as if I had pulled a muscle or had a cramp, and I had to stand up in the water to try to kick it out. Even my goggles seemed to be giving me trouble, until I realized it was my sight that was blurred. I remember shaking my head as if to clear the cobwebs.
I could see that they were worried on board the Adoration and I called out, "I'm just cold." But my voice had a disembodied ring to it. The crisis came shortly after, when I was told that I had seven miles to go. Captain Orr Ewing asked me if I was getting too cold and whether I wanted to come out. I said, "No, I think I can shake it off." But moments later I stopped again. The pain in my thigh was now intense, and I felt I might black out. The captain shouted: "Florence, you're too cold. It is seven miles to go and I don't think you can make it." I then gave in. "I don't think I can make it either," I replied, and when he asked me if I was coming out I said yes.
It was a heartbreaking decision—I had swum two-thirds of the distance in 7 hours 33 minutes, in a water temperature averaging 56�, and I was ideally placed to come down on the flood tide to land near Portpatrick.
Richard Hardwick and Mol-lie Murray did a wonderful job. On board my temperature was found to be 90�, the lowest ever recorded by a channel swimmer after leaving the water, but the tub worked like a charm. In 25 minutes I was up to 93�, and in the same amount of time again I had reached 97�. As far as I know, it was the first time a hot bath has been used in this way to aid a swimmer's recovery. I would say that it is absolutely essential to have such a facility aboard during a cold-water long-distance attempt.
I can still hardly believe that I did not make it. Everything was perfect—the people on board and the weather. It seems I was not good enough in some way. At first I felt that I could not be the same swimmer any more, and maybe I'm not. Without searching for excuses, I think one reason for my defeat may be that I do not have enough fat on my body to beat the Irish Sea—ever. Whatever the answer, I'm quite convinced I'll never have any more channel swims.