3rd September: Cronk y Bing to the Point of Ayre / the finishing line (almost) and laying an ancestral ghost to rest

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 series of rough but colourful final swims, courtesy of Eden

I’ve had a break from writing as well as swimming but wanted to post a final blog about my swim on Tuesday that took me around 10km up to the Point of Ayre and just round the corner to (almost) the spot where I started.

This last leg was tough but in some ways fantastic too, mostly because it appealed to my rather lowbrow taste in clichéd plot twists.

For a start, it was much harder than it was supposed to be. After being flushed 12km up the coast on Monday – in tidal conditions in which I could have been floating on my back and still covered the distance – I was expecting more of the same.

A semi-submerged view of the not wildly featureful northern tip of the Island

Initially things went to plan. The sea was rolling up behind me and filling my face with water when I turned to breathe but pushing me along quite nicely. I was able to get up to Blue Point and then Rue Point in about an hour. These are the beaches where my mum learned to swim under the tutelage of my grandfather, Guy. The process involved floating her offshore for a bit in a rubber ring… and then taking the ring away. Given the ferocious riptides I can hardly think of a more dangerous place for anyone to swim. Perhaps Guy just hadn’t done his homework. Or maybe he had. 

Beyond Blue Point and Rue Point was a landmark – a concrete water tower-type structure – of baffling obstinacy. It just wouldn’t get smaller. “We’re in an eddy. Not going anywhere!” explained Steve, before urging me in to the shallows to try and sneak round the edge of this unwelcome counter-current.

This eddy isn’t marked on the tidal flow charts I’ve been referring to. But I realised I was at the roughly the same point that Mercedes Gleitze, the first person to swim around the Isle of Man, back in 1930, ran into difficulties as she made her way anti-clockwise around the Island. She encountered here what the Isle of Man Examiner described as “various eddies and currents [that] seemed to be superior to human strength and endurance”, with the result that “hour after hour slipped by with no progress to show.”

Excerpt from the account of Mercedes Gleitze’s battles between the Point of Ayre and Rue Point by a reporter from the Isle of Man Examiner, June 1930 – copyright: Manx National Heritage

As I mentioned in my 25th August post that says just a little about Mercedes’ amazing exploits, she used music – either from musicians on her support boat or records on a gramophone – to energise her. When she got pegged back by the currents in this same stretch between the Point of Ayre and Rue Point, she was fortified by her supporters on the shore repeatedly singing the Manx National Anthem and ‘Ellan Vannin’ (a song sometimes termed the alternative Manx national anthem) to her. I didn’t get that but I got something that – for me – was even better.

Right on cue, around six slicked heads poked out of the water and surveyed me with what I took to be a blend of inquiry and mild concern. Some of these seals were probably from the same group that accompanied me on day 1 when I swam from just the other side of the Point of Ayre down to Dog Mills. In seal terms the distance between the two places is probably equivalent to shuffling from one end of the sofa to the other. (You can read about the huggy seal in my blog below or see this visual treatment from Josh Stokes of ITV: https://www.itv.com/news/granada/2019-08-14/rare-seal-encounter-sets-swimmer-on-his-way-for-isle-of-man-challenge/)

A helping hand / flipper from some of my friends from day 1, with the Point of Ayre Lighthouse in the background

Anyway, at the risk of squeezing too much from the seal assistance/doping analogy, their appearance gave me a major shot in the arm. After another 15 minutes or so I found myself able to inch forward once more, putting the unlovely water tower in my rear view mirror (or at least into a framed-by-armpit-whilst-breathing-to-the-right perspective) and able to concentrate on the Point of Ayre lighthouse.

The lighthouse is one of those classic red and white designs that looks like it has been ripped off from a mid-range tableware set. At first I could see just the black beacon house and cream rampart surrounding it poking above the sand and marram grass. Then a white stripe. Then I could glimpse a red band and then part of the next white one down.

I don’t know how long it was before I could see the whole pepper pot and became aware that I was hauling myself towards the tip of the Point of Ayre. Certainly well beyond the stage when near-total disorientation had set in. I could barely see my hand in the bisque-like shallows, the low moraine ledge of the land offered no features to latch on to and once the lighthouse became a hub to my orbital particle, it gave me no further sense of how far I was from the end.

credit: Steve Watt

Steve – worried about me being whisked off in towards Belfast, or perhaps the Isle of Whithorn, shouted to me to get as close in to the stony drop-off as I could and I was suddenly aware that I was almost under the feet of a group of onlookers, who might as well have been watching an infant thrashing about in the bath. 

I could hear the soothing hiss of the fish tank pebble beds rearranging themselves in a series of lateral avalanches. Then, suddenly the noise was my own fingers scrabbling against the stones as I was hit head-on by the tidal flow charging up the east side of the Island. Had I not been fighting to stop myself being swept away I could have put a hand on the precise point where the two currents smashed into each other.

Reaching the scrabbling stage, but in good company

I got only a few metres down the east side of the Point before it became clear that even with the most manic windmilling I was still being pushed backwards. I was about twenty metres short of the spot I started 22 days before. Should I walk the rest, get out and come back in a few days’ time to swim a distance equivalent to one lap of my local pool, or just hope that no one noticed? The third option in that befuddling moment was the most appealing (and still is) so I staggered out to meet my Mum and her by now tepid champagne bottle, my kayaker friend Lee and members of the Manx Wildlife Trust whom Mum had persuaded or coerced into forming a reception committee.

About to trade in my neoprene helmet for a plastic cup of champagne. My Mum appears to be considering legal action against Manx Radio for describing her bottle of Moet et Chandon as ‘prosecco’

Laying a neurosis to rest

A sub-plot to all of the above was overcoming the mild neurosis that I’d been cultivating about swimming around the northern tip of the Island, ever since discovering an ominous entry in family trees about a ‘John Christian of Cranstal’, or ‘John Christian of Ballamoar, Bride’, ‘who was drowned off Point of Ayre’ in the early 1720s. John Christian is recorded as being the first husband of Isabel Curghey, sister of my great x6 grandfather but the family trees don’t offer a whole lot more.

I’m not a great believer in portents but with that disconcerting factoid rattling around my brain I felt I needed to know a bit more about John Christian and what happened to him.

Who was John Christian of Cranstal?

I figured the only person who might know John Christian’s story would be Frances Wilkins, a historian who has written several books based on in-depth investigation into the Isle of Man’s role in the smuggling business and associated topics. I previously attempted to distil some of her quite startling findings in my 15th August blog about my smuggling and slave trade-supplying ancestor John Murray.

A portentous entry in the family tree

A first port of call, Frances’ book ‘2,000 and more Manx Mariners’ is filled with references to John Christian. But John Christian is about the most common Manx name it’s possible to have and even if you narrow it down to records of mariners of the 18th Century there are many to choose from and no obvious reference to Cranstal, a tiny hamlet in the parish of Bride, just south of the Point of Ayre, which I passed on day 1 of my swim.

So I contacted Frances – who has been a massive help and support throughout my efforts to throw a bit of light on my shady ancestors. She dug through her extensive datasets and pulled out notes she had made over twenty years ago on records from the parish of Bride at the northern tip of the Island and found this entry (highlight added by me):

‘Burials Anno 1722

Ewan Christian of Cranstol John Quark William Corkish & Pattrick Cotter ye boat crew, perished & were left at sea November 2th: 1722

So likewise John Christian of Cranstol & his boat crew viz Charles Christian, Daniel Christian & Daniel Christian were lost & perished by sea ye 3d day’

Parish of Bride burial records for 1722 – copyright: Manx National Heritage

Wendy Thirkettle and Kim Holden at the Manx National Heritage Archive then very kindly pulled out a photo of the original record.

This at least suggests that John Christian wasn’t trying to swim round the Point of Ayre when he succumbed. But what were he and his ill-fated crew doing?

A smuggling run too far?

Frances sifted her records of ingates and outgates (imports and exports) and herring fishing customs records in the Isle of Man in the years running up to 1722. There are 21 recorded voyages by John Christian of Cranstal or John Christian of Bride in customs outgates, in association with six different boats from Bride or neighbouring Ramsey, between 1711 and 1721. Five of what seem be the same boats also crop up, separately, in conjunction with entries concerning another boat master, Ewan Christian. Ewan Christian is the (admittedly common) name of the master of the other crew recorded as having drowned in November 1722 by the parish of Bride records.

Most of the entries relating to what appears to be our John Christian of Cranstal/Bride concern shipments of brandy and tobacco. Many give the stated destination as Derry in Northern Ireland. As Frances points out, the destinations recorded were frequently part of a cover story for a smuggling run, so a cargo stated as bound for Derry might well be destined for the southwest of Scotland.

Frances has found that what looks to be the same John Christian was hired to smuggle brandy, nominally to Whitehaven, in his own boat on two occasions – one in 1717 and one in 1718 – by a John Parr, who may or may not be the Parson John Parr who features in herrings customs records. In the context of the Isle of Man’s role as a smuggling hub, Whitehaven may well be a cover for any number of places on the English or Welsh coasts.

Another entry that has the ring of a classic smuggling cover story concerns a 1719 voyage from Douglas to Peel, i.e. one side of the Island to the other, with John Christian apparently carrying 24 kegs containing 200 gallons of brandy.

So, while there are few certainties in all of this, it seems very likely that John Christian of Cranstal was a locally prominent boat master who, like many of his peers, was involved in both herring fishing and smuggling. What was he doing when he drowned? This really hinges on the date – was it during the smuggling season or the herring fishing season?

The parish of Bride record states that he and his crew were ‘lost & perished by sea ye 3d day’. This is a little cryptic – ‘3d day’ of what? November, as with the previous entry about Ewan Christian and his crew? If it was 3rd November then John Christian was almost certainly smuggling, as the herring season ran from July to October. Moreover 3rd November 1722 would have coincided with a period known as the ‘dark of the moon’, favoured by smugglers because this is when the moon is at its dimmest.


John and Isabel

One more thing that intrigues me about John Christian is how he got together with my great x6 grandfather’s sister. At first blush it appears an unlikely match: Isabel the daughter of a powerful and wealthy landowner and John the fishing and smuggling boat master.

Frances Wilkins has unearthed another nugget which sheds a bit of light here: records of a legal case from 1721, the year before John Christian of Cranstal/Bride drowned off the Point of Ayre. It describes a John Christian – referred to as a son of Ewan Christian, a boat master from the parish of Bride – ‘carrying off’ from the Island Isabel Curghey, daughter of Mr Curghey of Ballakillingan, without governor’s pass and licence. As a penalty, John Christian’s boat was forfeited. With no further details, all I can do is speculate: had John and Isabel eloped? Either way, their marriage sadly appears to have been a very short one.

Some thank yous

Lists of thank yous take on an increasingly self-reverential flavour the longer they get. But it will be obvious to anyone who has looked at this blog that I wouldn’t have got very far with this venture without help from an awful lot of people. I do want to express particular gratitude to:

Krisna, Sean and Eden, for unwarranted levels of love and patience as I’ve pursued my pet project to the exclusion of other more important things (and Eden for her artwork!)

Mum and Dad for much love, support and encouragement

Steve and Lee for keeping me safe and for incredible generosity with their time and expertise

Wendy Thirkettle and Sarah Christian at the Manx National Heritage Archive for helping me locate some of the most interesting skeletons in the ancestral closet

Frances Wilkins for sharing her wealth of insights and data on the Island’s smuggling history and the lives and times of my inglorious forebears

Dan and Keeley at Swimfortri for teaching me how to swim better

Doloranda Pember for generously allowing me to use photographic and other records of the extraordinary achievements of her mother, Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel and first person to swim around the Isle of Man.

I have had lots of kind messages from people over the past 48 hours. Thank you to any of you who are reading this!

I’ll sign off by quoting a particularly lovely one from Doloranda Pember:

Mercedes Gleitze around 1927, so about three years before her swim around the Isle of Man –
credit: unknown photographer/Gleitze Archives; with thanks to Doloranda Pember

Hello Mike,

Huge congratulations on becoming the first man to swim around the Isle of Man.  A tremendous achievement.   If my mother, Mercedes Gleitze, were still alive today, she would be the first to salute not only your battle with wind and waves, but also your dedicated support of the Manx Wildlife Trust and Blue Marine Foundation.

Could I add to this message some words written by Mercedes, who was able to express herself much more eloquently than I ever could:

Sea swimming is a beautiful thing, in fact an art – an art whose mistress should be not the few, but the many, for does not the sea and its dangers cross the paths of thousands?  Nay, millions!  What could possibly speak more for man’s prowess as an athlete than the ability to master earth’s most abundant, most powerful element – water, no matter what its mood.

                                              Mercedes Gleitze

                                                   Diary of New Zealand Tour (1930-31)

Thank you, Mike, for paying tribute to my mother in your blogs, and good luck with any future swims you may undertake.  I’m told wild swimming is addictive!  

All good wishes,

Doloranda

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