25th August: Port St Mary to The Sound / in the wake of Mercedes Gleitze

A quick reminder that via this swim, I’m raising money to support the excellent marine conservation work of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation via this Justgiving page

Tweeting from @michaelpmdavis

A summary of my last few swims by Eden

Yesterday’s swim promised to be a fantastic tour of some of the Isle of Man’s most spectacular rock formations. But after starting at Kallow Point, near Port St Mary, Steve, his friend Neil and I were quickly buried in thick mist that made it impossible to sight on anything other than one of the kayaks on either side of me.

Choughs on the Isle of Man – credit: Neil G Morris

Close to the Anvil the submerged cliff face sprouts tiny weeds and barnacles and offers a buffet of nibbles for schools of tiny russet fish. We entered the sea caves slashed into the rock here and Steve encouraged me to wriggle through (“go on, just swim sideways!”) one of the gulping, churning passageways. I chickened out, citing the delicate constitution of my precious wetsuit.

Fish feeding off the underwater cliff face in The Chasms

The Chasms – formed of a white sandstone called quartz arenite – are a favourite haunt of climbers, seabirds and choughs, a member of the crow family that with its splendid scarlet bill and svelte physique carries a more sophisticated air than its heftier cousins. I didn’t see any choughs, but around the time we reached the mille feuilles tower of the Sugarloaf, the fog was starting to tease apart to reveal fulmars and gulls patrolling the upper ledges of the Chasms above.

The Chasms and Sugar Loaf from above (cheating a bit here, sorry, I took this in May!)

The last couple of kilometres from Spanish Head (whose name is widely believed to refer to a stricken Armada galleon that probably never existed) to The Sound was the loveliest part of the swim so far. Pushed firmly by the tide through golden light in the direction of the Calf of Man and dipping sun beyond, I could enjoy the illusion of speed and the ragged silhouette of the Kitterland rocks drawing closer every time I raised my head.

Closing in on Kitterland and the Sound yesterday evening

On arrival at the base of The Sound Café we were greeted by a deputation of the local residents. The Calf of Man is the kingdom of the seal and Kitterland its frontier post. A posse of snorting glistening muscular adults quickly set about a thorough inspection of Neil’s kayak. I was happy to see them distracted, mindful of the Langness toe-tuggers and the fact that I’d have a rendez-vous with this lot here in just 14 hours’ time.

Welcoming party at the Sound

Following in the bow waves of…

I alluded in my opening post to the element of imposter syndrome about this journey around the Isle of Man and figured it was time I expanded on this.

As I’m already discovering, this swim is seriously testing for me. But implying equivalence with those that have swum this route before is a bit like comparing one of those holidays that involves ambling from one vineyard to the next with a race to the pole.

The record for the fastest swim around the Isle of Man was set last September by Anna-Carin Nordin of Sweden, who belted around the Island in seven days, swimming two shifts of around three hours each per day. Anna told me that the Isle of Man hadn’t initially figured in her plans for 2018. But she was persuaded to squeeze it into her schedule as a sort of warm up for her main challenge of the year – swimming the 35km length of freezing Loch Ness in one go. She finished the final leg of the round the Island swim in the dark in Peel Harbour on the west coast at 10pm on a Friday night and eleven hours later was on a plane up to Scotland for the main event of the year.

Anna’s many distinctions as a swimmer include becoming the first woman to complete the Seven Oceans challenge: a terrifying menu comprising the English Channel, Molokai Channel (Hawaii), Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel (California), Tsugaru Channel (Japan), Cook Strait (New Zealand) and the North Channel (between Northern Ireland and Scotland).

When I spoke to her on the phone about her experiences she was in Tenerife. “What’s your next challenge?” I asked. She said “I am trying to talk to the captain here about swimming from here to an island just out from here – La Gomera. No woman has done this before. I have heard there is a man who has done it but there is no record of it as an official swim.”

In one of her most recent exploits, Anna swam 46km around Manhattan Island on 1st June in a time of seven hours fifty minutes.

Swimming pioneer Mercedes Gleitze

Anna’s Isle of Man swim broke a record that had stood for 88 years and was set by the pioneering Mercedes Gleitze. Mercedes was the first British woman to swim the English Channel and the first person to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. She broke not only physical barriers but social ones too – conquering a long list of previously un-swum channels, lakes and islands at a time when the concept of a woman pushing the boundaries of human endurance and doing so on a professional basis was neither established nor accepted.

Mercedes Gleitze around 1927 –
credit: unknown photographer/Gleitze Archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

She financed her expeditions through prize money and sponsorship from the likes of Liptons Tea and Bovril. Mercedes became the face of Rolex watches and wore a prototype of the waterproof Oyster model on a ribbon around her neck during a 10-hour swim in the English Channel in 1927.

Contrary to current wisdom about long distance open water swimming, Mercedes Gleitze used breaststroke for her swims, supplemented by occasional side stroke and a now largely extinct stroke called the Trudgen – credit: Northern Whig & Belfast Post/British Library/Gleitze archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

It is clear reading the excellent new book ‘In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze’, by Mercedes’ daughter, Doloranda Pember, as well as contemporary press coverage, that Mercedes went about her swims with a sense of style and fun that eludes endurance athletes today. She would often set off on her swims accompanied by a boatload of musicians – a banjo player was particularly important – or, at the very least, a gramophone and a deck of her favourite records. In the days before sports science, her rations included hot milk, omelettes and ham sandwiches and even cake, as well as gourmet supplements supplied by well-wishers and conveyed to her as she swam, including on one occasion a platter of roast duck.

The first ever swim around the Isle of Man

Mercedes came to swim around the Isle of Man at the height of her fame, in 1930. Before embarking on her circumnavigation of the Island she set a new British record of 37 hours for an endurance swim – meaning continuous swimming with no breaks – in the Henry Bloom Noble Baths in Douglas. This achievement provoked spluttering indignation from one of the town’s officials, a certain Alderman Crookall, who one local newspaper reported as saying that “Her exhibition was against all nature, it was against the health of the lady – it was a most disgusting exhibition!” One wonders if he would have taken the same view if the swimmer was male.

Having got this punishing-sounding warm-up out of the way, Mercedes set out from Douglas in an anti-clockwise direction on Friday 13th June.

Mercedes’ rations on her swims included hot milk, Bovril, omelettes, ham sandwiches and even cake – credit: Northern Whig & Belfast Post/British Library/Gleitze archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

An article in the Isle of Man Examiner, whose reporter was on the boat accompanying Mercedes describes her, on her first day, being fortified with Bovril, brandy, waltz tunes on the gramophone, and cheers from spectators on the shore. At Maughold Head, “lighthouse keepers [showed] their appreciation with loud blasts on the foghorn”.

Around Stack Moar, just beyond Maughold, the buffeting of an increasingly turbulent sea left Mercedes unable to see out of one eye and so she wore a bandage over it for the next leg of her swim up to the Point of Ayre the following day.

One of the toughest stretches proved to be the leg from the Point of Ayre south, where, according to the Examiner she was held back for hours by “various eddies and currents [that] seemed to be superior to human strength and endurance.” The paper goes on to record that

“It cheered the swimmer to be able to hear the conversation of those on shore, and she asked if everybody would join in singing “Ellan Vannin” and the Manx National anthem. This was done again and again, and the effect was splendid for she proceeded to draw steadily nearer Rue Point and was swimming strongly for the actual point at about nine o’clock. When everything promised to end very happily after all, another still obstacle arose, and this time it was decided not to try and surmount it today. The tide suddenly came rushing around Rue Point like a mill stream… two of the observers dived in and seized Miss Gleitze, and aided her into the boat at 9:32pm. This procedure was carried out with all possible haste, but so fierce was the run of the tide that from the point where she actually ceased swimming, and where bearings were taken for next day, to the point where she was taken on board was a distance of half a mile, the current having swept the boats and swimmers back on their course for that distance.”

The start of Mercedes’ first attempt at the North Channel (between Northern Ireland and Scotland) from Robbie’s Point, Donaghadee, on 23rd June 1928 – credit: Northern Whig & Belfast Post/British Library/Gleitze archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

The swim two days later, down to Peel, was much more congenial and the Examiner’s account, which gives a flavour of the public enthusiasm and participation Mercedes’ swim occasioned, again feels worth quoting at length:

“Today was the most delightful day experienced so far, for Miss Gleitze was able to swim close in to the shore and found the water very agreeable. The temperature was 62 [16.7 degrees Celsius] and the sea was perfectly calm. Many bathing parties were passed on the way down the coast, and a basket of crayfish was sent on board the pilot boat by the “Manx Princess.” These were cooked and served up to Miss Gleitze with bread and butter and coffee, and later in the day she had a second good meal of beans. It was 2pm when she walked into the water from the shore, and progress was steadily made towards Peel. When Peel bay was reached, the swimmer was going remarkably well and she was escorted across the bay by a large fleet of rowing boats and yachts. At the breakwater a huge crowd broke into cheers as she passed in the direction of Contrary Head, and hundreds of people scrambled along the rocks under Peel Castle to follow her progress. When she heard the wireless announcement that England had won the Test Match she was overjoyed, and kept swimming along with wonderful energy. Contrary Head was reached at 8:30pm and at this point she was taken from the water.

The population of Peel again accorded Miss Gleitze a splendid reception when she landed, and Mr Christopher Shimmin, MHK, greeted her on the pier steps and made a brief speech of welcome. The usual scenes of enthusiasm were enacted outside the hotel and once again the crowd sang “Ellan Vannin.”

Approaching the Calf of Man on day 7, Mercedes encountered “strong south-westerly wind, a choppy sea, and pouring rain [that] subjected her to the most severe experience in the whole swim. At the entrance to the Sound [the channel between the Isle of Man and the Calf of Man], the sea was frothing and huge waves were rolling through at a fierce speed. It would have been suicidal to attempt to go through the Sound, and, with great difficulty, Mercedes was taken out of the water at Kitterland.” 

Letter to Mercedes from Isle of Man open water swimmer Wilfred Thompson, who was an observer on the pilot boat accompanying Mercedes around the Island – courtesy of Doloranda Pember

She made it through the Sound the next day and then had a tumultuous final swim on day 9, as described by the Isle of Man Examiner:

“after leaving Langness Point, the sea grew rougher, until it was impossible to get near the swimmer to give her refreshements, and Douglas Head was rounded in stormy seas, which actually threatened the safety of the occupants of the two boats in escort. The brave girl thoroughly deserved the magnificent reception accorded to her by the admiring crowds who witnessed her great fight against the waves from the pier and the breakwater. Five minutes after she was taken from the water at the Victoria Pier, the Mayor of Douglas (Coun. Wm Quirk) boarded the pilot boat to tender his congratulations, and found Miss Gleitze sitting in her cabin, enjoying a dish of peaches and cream!”

The swim had taken her 56 hours over nine days.

A familial link with the Isle of Man

Mercedes was the daughter of German immigrants who settled in Brighton in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. When World War 1 broke out, Mercedes’ father, Heinrich, along with many thousands of other Germans, Austrians and Turks was rounded up as an ‘enemy alien’ and despatched to the Isle of Man.

Doloranda Pember has few further details but Heinrich must have been imprisoned either in a hastily converted holiday camp in Douglas or a much larger, purpose-built camp that was constructed later at Knockaloe on the west of the Island.  If he was interned in Douglas, he would have been under the supervision of camp commandant Colonel Henry Madoc, my great grandfather. This camp, and Henry’s role in it, is something I wrote a bit about in my 20th August post (below).

Section from an Isle of Man Examiner article, 30th June 1930 – copyright: Manx National Heritage

What’s next?

Tomorrow I’ll aim to post something on another seal-enhanced swim this morning from the Sound to Fleshwick before trying to get up to Niarbyl in the evening.

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