The Bristol Channel

© Alamy

The Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world, with 50ft variance in tides complicated by scattered headlands and islands. As the crow flies the crossing, from Sandpoint, Somerset to Lavernock Point, South Wales is 12 miles, but swimmers often battle strong currents. It was first swim by Kathleen Thomas, 21, in 1927, followed two years later by Edith Parnell, 16, who remains the youngest person ever to have crossed it. In 2015 Jo McCready tried it.

© Alamy

Jo McCready, previously a climber, took up swimming as a result of osteoarthritis, and set his sights on the Bristol Channel as his focus for open water training. This is his story of how he achieved the crossing.

“In 2010 I learnt that I had osteoarthritis in my hips and was advised that further climbing was going to cause me more pain. My GP advice was to take up swimming.  I could breast stroke but it struck me that this was a chance to learn front crawl, something I had always wanted to do. Whilst having lessons, I fell head-over-heels with the activity especially the idea of adventurous, open water swimming. I realised that I was never going to set the world on fire for speed in a pool and coming from an outdoor background meant that swimming outdoors was always going to be more attractive.”

Jo looked at his swimming as ‘serving an apprenticeship’. “Serving an apprenticeship means learning from experience and looking to improve and develop. I found a coach and I established a working relationship with and researched articles, viewed videos, read interesting pieces and spoke to and observed other, better swimmers. I swam three times a week and gradually became a more skilled practitioner.”

© Alamy

After swimming the Dart10k in 2012 Jo starting looking around for bigger and longer challenges. “I started thinking about swimming the Bristol Channel, which is close to where I live, and in 2013, I  came across Steve Price, who had not only completed the Channel, the North Channel and the Bristol Channel but had even completed a double Bristol Channel crossing.”. As a local Jo was well acquainted with the channel’s strong currents, tidal range, and unpredictability, with swimmers being taken off course by currents and tides. But even so says ‘I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.’

Jo’s first attempt on the channel was in August 2015. “I was 2 ½ hours into my attempt to cross from Penarth to Clevedon when a flood tide started filling the Bristol Channel. A Force 5 North-Easterly was blowing and I started to fully realise the implications of wind against tide. I was in the middle of a maelstrom, a washing machine of silted water, as the small window of opportunity I thought I had has firmly closed. Swimming in metre high waves coming at you broadside is bad enough but when you are trying to feed and the boat is being blown past you, something has to give. I swam to the boat and called the attempt off.”

"I swam to the boat and called the attempt off."

Jo’s second attempt took place a month later, in September 2015. This time conditions were different, but Jo also felt in a very different position. “I was in the middle of the channel, two hours after leaving Penarth, but this time everything felt good. The weather was due to change with a rising wind coming from the SW, and I knew the boat skipper was concerned about the change in the wind and its impact on the tides, but I kept swimming. We started the slow turn for home past Flat Holm, with Steep Holm in the distance. The English coastline beckoned!. I had visualised myself swimming into Clevedon in a god-like manner, all coolness and composure. The reality was quite different. The force 4 wind from the SW meant that waves were being created that hit the sandbanks of the relatively shallow channel. This was creating small ‘stopper’ waves that I was hitting time after time. It was exhausting, hard and mentally tough. But 6 ¼ hours after leaving Penarth I crawled onto the slipway at Clevedon, battered, bruised but victorious.”

The Bristol Channel was Jo’s most major swim at the time of doing it and he says he learnt a great deal from the experience. “One of the key lessons was to trust the team around me; I could have listened more to the pilot and my partner, Gillian, who knew I hadn’t fed well during the crossing.”. To anyone thinking of doing their own challenge Jo would say: “Put in the hard work with your coach, from boring drills through to long swims, so that your skills are ingrained and your stroke is the best it can be. Gather as much information as you can to prepare you for the range of experiences and feelings you’re going to face. Mentally prepare yourself for the ‘dark’ time, when you are at your lowest so that you can look in the mirror, note the gleam in your eye, grit your teeth and endure.”. And finally, enjoy!

"One of the key lessons was to trust the team around me..."

One year after the Bristol Channel Jo supported his coach Kari Furre by swimming the length of Windermere with her, in August 2016. “Three of us swam from Weston-super-Mare pier to Clevedon pier – a 10 mile swim that had never been done before. The horizon continues to beckon and the possibilities are endless …” he says.

August 2016

Words : Jo McCready