Hidden Figures, Not Now, Not Ever

Hidden Figures, Not Now, Not Ever

Courtesy of Track.RS, North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In the biographical drama film Hidden Figures, African-American female mathematicians served critical roles at NASA during the early years of the United States space program in the 1960’s.

But in the open water swimming world and throughout the history of the sport since Annette Kellerman burst onto the scene in the early 20th century, women’s talents have never been hidden in the open water.

Open water swimming feats by women have been recognized and renowned globally for the last 110 years of the sport,” observed Steven Munatones.

In the United States, only a woman has ever been given a ticker tape parade: Gertrude Ederle in 1926. Women from Greta Andersen to Ana Marcela Cunha have been supported by major sponsors throughout the Americas. In the most contemporary times, Chloë McCardel, Keri-Anne Payne, Natalie du Toit, and Poliana Okimoto have been highly celebrated from Australia and Great Britain to South Africa and Brazil.

Among the most highly sought after motivational speakers included Lynne Cox and Diana Nyad. Among the most popular books on open water swimming have been written by women including Linda McGill, Shelley Taylor-Smith, Marcia Cleveland, Juli Berwald, Annaleise Carr, Sister Madonna Buder, Kate Rew, and Nora Toledano.

Ever since the movies like Siren of the Sea over 100 years ago and aquamusicals like Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952, films about women in the open water has been proposed, produced and released including recent documentary films about Kimberley Chambers and Beth French. Similar to female beach volleyball players and female professional golfers in South Korea, female swimmers have arguably achieved at least as great a level of global celebration and recognition in the sport of open water swimming than men. That is, female swimmers have not been hidden figures, but instead, incredibly celebrated figures

One example of a contemporary celebrated figure in the open water world is Dr. Caroline Block, an anthropologist from Baltimore, Maryland.

. Not only did she become the 10th person in history to cross 51.8 km in Lake George, New York in 19 hours 21 minutes in 15°C water, but she also attempted an unprecedented two-way crossing of the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. Her first leg from Northern Ireland to Scotland was 15 hours 32 minutes 25 seconds. She ultimately lasted a total distance of 88 km and 28 hours 55 minutes until the tides proved too much.

With the possible exception of Chloë McCardel’s unprecedented four-way crossing of the English Channel this year, Dr. Block’s North Channel double crossing was perhaps the most followed DNF in the online swimming community in 2017.

Epic is often used to describe channel swims and marathon swims, especially those conducted in difficult conditions. It goes without saying that Dr. Block’s nearly 29-hour swim is most definitely an extreme example of an epic swim,” commented Munatones.

She wanted to double her first crossing of the North Channel that took her 14 hours 31 minutes from Northern Ireland to Scotland at the age of 32 in 2016. Her crew and pilot Pádraig Mallon were all in to help her achieve her dream.

Mallon described the brilliance and courage of her two-way attempt, “Caroline planned a two-way crossing of the North Channel upon her completion of her one-way solo on August 6th 2016. Caroline arrived in Ireland in mid-July ready to go.

The current trend for weather on the North Irish Channel for the available 2017 tidal windows has been irregular. On August 3rd with the closing of the third window (between July 30th and August 8th), the conditions were looking far from favorable. Following team discussions, the swim date options to this year were limited by her busy schedule. So it was decided in Caroline’s words ‘Let’s do this’. Making use of a forecasted lull in the whether between two low pressure fronts – one just leaving Ireland and one in its way – Caroline’s start date was set.

At 8:04 pm on August 4th with a water temperature of 12.9°C (55.2°F) and an ambient temperature 12.3°C (54.1°F) and a wind chill of much less, Caroline set off from Robbie’s Point taking choppy water in her stride and with the Donaghadee Lighthouse blinking to every second beat of her 58 strokes per minute. A positive mindset made swimming at night easy as she kept close to the boat and returned half hourly for her feeds.

With the sunrise at 4:40 am, the coastline of Scotland revealed a change of goggles that helped keep the sun’s rays from her eyes bringing some welcomed heat to both Caroline and the Infinity crew. The choppy conditions arrived, departed, and returned. Eight hours in, the Killantringan Lighthouse was in view with a northwesterly wind of 6 knots.

Contending with the infamous Scottish tides at 11:36 am on Saturday, August 5th, Caroline completed the first leg in 15 hours 32 minutes 25 seconds over a swim distance of 49.5 km. Caroline arrived to a small stony beach in the garden of the beautiful Knockinaam Lodge at the Port of Spittal bay with the Scottish flag bellowing in the wind.

As per the rules of a two-way crossing, a swimmer is permitted a ten-minute break on completion of their first leg. The sun shone with a clear blue sky as Caroline was joined by Pádraig. She had a short stop to re-grease, eat and focus on her return leg. Her one-way crossing was done and dusted and she was ready to rock for the second leg. At 11:44:10 am, she was on the move leaving Scottish shores behind. The tide had turned and she headed northwest against wind and waves joined by Pádraig until her first feed.

We all knew that this is where the swim would really begin. Forecasts of predicted good weather failed to appear and Caroline continued relentlessly to swim through these conditions including several squalls.

Caroline’s simple approach to the swim never altered. Her requests were for factual information of distance, time and sea state allowing her to calculate her performance. This mindset in a marathon open water swimmer is a golden ticket to success. Previous team planning regarding how the swim would progress and how each sections would go allowed the plan to unfurl. It was known that at this stage there would be wind against tide, but with the actual weather not matching the predicted (normal in this county), it meant that the seas were heavy slowing progress, preventing the much needed advances northwest.

After 63.4 km at 8:07 pm on August 5th, the swim course turned southeast at least 7 km short of the predicted target due to the wind and waves. Caroline’s pace and energy levels were as on her first stroke all those miles ago stroke rate: steady 54 spm with a perfect attitude.

With the currents pushing Caroline southeast back towards Scotland, her progress advanced slowly west. Caroline was advised to work with the presenting sea state and conditions against this tide to stem the loss of valuable ground and with the same positive reply she said ‘Let’s go’. So, for the next four hours, Caroline swam against the tide. With 77 km swam, the tides released their grip, weather conditions improved with less chop and further westerly progress was made, much later than predicted.

At 10:45 pm as Caroline had her feed, she had a factual conversation with Pádraig laying out all the details. It was clear that Caroline was unlikely to make landfall. In amazing physical and mental condition, Caroline would swim a further one hour to assess progress and make sure that the agreed decision was the right one. Swimming at an increased pace of 58 spm to the light of the moon, Caroline and the cold North Irish Channel waters danced in tandem weaving through the complex currents with the lights of Belfast harbour and Donaghadee tantalisingly close.

At 11:59 pm having swam 88 km just before a new day, Caroline whilst ahead and making history happen, bowed gracefully to the North Irish Channel fully acknowledging the amplitude of the success.

Infinity Channel Swimming with Caroline had agreed on media silence to fully focus on this pioneering swim. The track was shared after the turnaround point and the swimming world was watching and commenting with their own ideas of what was happening, filling in from the tracker and imagining what it would be like to be in such an amazing place on earth and this valiant swim – every stroke a winner.

The team at Infinity are amazed at Caroline’s stamina, mental and physical ability during this swim. Mother Nature did not allow Caroline’s access to Irish shores. Our admiration and respect is unsurmountable – a pleasure to partner on a journey into the unknown

Due to her achievements in 2017, Dr. Block was nominated for the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year. Among other things like setting a record across Lake George, she is only the second woman to successfully swim both ways across the North Channel – equaling the feat the legendary Alison Streeter achieved in 1988.

Her fellow nominees include the following individuals:

1. Katherine Batts (Great Britain)
2. Dr. Caroline Block (USA)
3. Arianna Bridi (Italy)
4. Chloë McCardel (Australia)
5. Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
6. Pat Gallant-Charette (USA)
7. Ludmila Maller (Russia)
8. Jaimie Monahan (USA)
9. Aurélie Muller (France)
10. Barbara Pozzobón (Italy)
11. Sarah Thomas (USA)
12. Julia Wittig (Germany)

Dr. Block was nominated as follows, “Dr. Caroline Block is an American marathon swimmer who attempted to push the boundaries to the extreme in 2017. An anthropologist on dry land, she takes things to a whole new level in the open water. In addition to participating in the U.S. Winter Swimming Association National Championship early in 2017, she set a new women’s course record swimming the 52 km length of Lake George in New York in 19 hours 21 minutes and then embarked on a legendary attempt – a two-way crossing of the bitterly cold, jellyfish-strewn North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. While the best of the best and the most hardened open water swimmers in the world have completed a total of 57 one-way crossings in history, Block followed up on her 2016 North Channel single by attempting the first two-way crossing this August. For swimming 88 km in 12°C water over 28 hours 55 minutes before running into impassable tides, for attempting the most difficult two-way channel crossing in the world, for not relenting until running headlong into insurmountable tides on her return leg, Dr. Caroline Block is a worthy nominee for the 2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year.

To register and vote on the WOWSA Awards and the 2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year here.

Dr. Block’s attempted course of her two-way attempt between Northern Ireland [landmass shown on left] and Scotland [landmass shown on right] is posted above and here, courtesy of Track.RS.

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Steven Munatones