James Whittaker’s canal swim diary

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On Friday 5 and Saturday 6 of September James Whittaker, Peel development director, completed a world first and swam the entire 36 mile length of the Manchester Ship Canal. Here is his swim coach David Quartermain's diary of his swim…

Day one

  • Start time; 0800hrs
  • Finish time; 1714hrs (negotiation of four locks added one hour in total)
  • Swim Distance; 21miles
  • Total swim time; 8hrs15mins

The adventure begins!

Friday 5 September; 0800hrs

Assembled media, friends and family watch in the pouring rain as James slides elegantly down the muddy banks of the Irwell River into the cold, dank canal (later much replayed on board ferry to amusement of well wishers!).

Everyone is a little tense and concerned for James and in awe at the magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead for him.

All together now

After 45 minutes James swims alongside the pilot boat, "Venom" which is waiting patiently by the Lowry Centre with the crew on board.

The crew includes:

  • Me (swim coach; David Quartermain)
  • Kayakers (53N) Steve Chicken, Andrew Waugh
  • Doctor; Grunty
  • Escort swimmers; Gary Shaw and brother Mark Whittaker
  • Boat crew; Ian, Peter, Charlie

Extreme cold

From the start James sets off like a train, not surprising considering how cold the water is at 13ºC. From the Lowry to the Barton Swing Bridge he swims 2 miles in 43 minutes, which is a tremendous pace, averaging a high 64 strokes a minute. James began to warm up and felt a little happier.

We all pass under the M6 Thelwall Bridge and marvel at the engineering skills that it took to construct it and how we, the crew, are privileged to view it from the canal. The rain is relentless and water pours into the canal from local streams and rivers keeping the water temperature very cold. We pass under a series of swing bridges packed with commuters who look on in total bewilderment.

In addition, from the banks, we are accompanied along the route by the 'Whittaker Support Gang', a collection of James' friends and supporters. This was much appreciated support and great entertainment for us all.

Strong swimming

James is still swimming at 64 strokes per minute and feeding regularly every 45 minutes to keep his energy levels up. Note: each 'power-gruel' feed consists of a mixture of semolina, rice drink, fructose and carbohydrate powder that added up to over 1,500kcal per feed of pure energy. Tastes like baby food and was very comforting.

We arrive at Latchford Lock, our last lock of the day, at 1430hrs with six tough miles to go and with the end of a challenging day for James in sight. He is still swimming at the great rate of close to 3 miles per hour with a slight current assistance. Swim, Whittaker, swim!

We finish day one at Quarry Hole, 21 miles done and the time is 1714hrs. An exhausted James and bedraggled crew then travel to their Warrington accommodation with James and the kayakers receiving a well deserved sports massage from the lovely ladies from Techniq Corporate Wellbeing and Sports Therapy team. Then food and bed!

Day 2

  • Start time; 1004hrs
  • Finish time; 1853hrs (leaving water to allow tanker to pass added forty minutes)
  • Swim Distance; 15miles
  • Total swim time; 8hrs24mins

Sleepless in Sankey

James did not sleep well that night and was anxious about every aspect of the swim, feeling under pressure about the need to complete the Ocean Gateway Challenge and worried that today was going to extra tough with him having to swim a tough 15 miles. The team rallied around and gave him as much positive support as possible, encouraging him to complete the job. James is very determined to finish.

Debris and flotsam

The swim restarts at 1004hrs. The water was extremely dirty with lots of debris and flotsam causing much anxiety to the team. If James cut himself he would be at risk of contracting the dreaded Weills disease, which is caused by contact with rats urine and causes liver and kidney failure. Many times James has to swim breast stroke around various large pieces of junk in the water. Gary Shaw, James' friend and escort swimmer, jumps in and finds it very tough to keep up with James who is ploughing along at 2 miles in 43 minutes holding a strong pace.

Eventually our swim course takes us through the picturesque nature reserve called Ince where we spot rabbits and buzzards. In complete contrast, we then pass the industrial complex called Stanlow with its oil slicks and hot water discharges into the Mersey which causes James a mixture of discomfort and horror. I jump in alongside James and comment that it is like swimming in a foreign world and never to be attempted at home!

Morale boost

At this point, the ferry Royal Daffodil, laden with over 200 well-wishers, friends and family, passes us giving James a huge cheer and a massive morale boost. At six miles to go James has to leave the water to allow a huge oil tanker to pass. Then he jumps back in accompanied by his brother, Mark and friend Oliver Morton to make their way towards the finish of his great swim.

Eastham ecstasy!

With 500 metres to go and with the finish line of Eastham Docks in sight the pilot boat travels ahead to moor alongside the spectator-filled Royal Daffodil. The BBC is waiting for James to finish which he does in style with a tumble turn off the jetty, the showman! Cue tremendous applause from the assembled masses! He climbs out with arms raised in triumph. With so much at stake including raising money for the New Children's Hospital Appeal, the pressure was always on James to complete the swim and his finish is an emotional moment for us all.

James has become the first person to ever swim the Manchester Ship Canal, a distance of 36 miles in close to 17 hours, a feat that may never be repeated. A fantastic end to a long, challenging swim season.

Tale of the Tape – Ocean Gateway Challenge

  • Start; Friday 5 September, 0800hrs
  • Finish; Saturday 6 September, 1853hrs
  • Swim Distance; 36 miles
  • Total swim time; 16hrs39mins (excluding time taken to negotiate locks, climbing out to avoid tankers etc)

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Fantastic. Well done

By Paul Dickens