By Paul Keane
A JELLYFISH sting? Ger Carty compares the painful sensation to a bee sting before correcting himself.
“I’d say it’s probably more like a bad nettle sting, that’s how I’d describe it.”
He should know because when he climbed out of the sea at Sangatte, in 2011, hauling himself up onto the unwelcoming, rocky coastline of northern France – almost 19 hours after leaving England – his body was covered in them.
“It was mainly on the legs and upper torso that the jellyfish got me,” he recalled, matter of factly.
Truth be told, after swimming for 18 hours and 52 minutes, through night and day, through shipping lanes, through body battering currents and in dangerously cold temperatures, the impressions left on his ravaged body by Compass jellyfish while crossing the English Channel were the least of his concerns.
“I was in a desperate state. My face and body had puffed up through stress, I looked about 70, my tongue was swollen, my eyes were swollen, my face was swollen, it was sheer stress,” recalled Carty who, on September 16, 2011, swam 68 miles in total, from one country to another.
“I was looking to do it in 10 and a half hours; I ended up just shy of 19 hours. As the crow flies, it’s a 23-mile crossing but I ended up swimming around 100km, 68 miles.
“I spent nine hours in the dark. There was a boat accompanying me but it wasn’t like it was two or three feet away, I had to keep 100 or 200 metres away because of the swell and fumes.
“You’re on your own, looking ahead into a black abyss. You look down at times and you see giant shapes moving beneath you. I saw an awful lot of cruise ships; I could actually hear the music coming from some of them.
“They looked ginormous. I was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and you do get scared that one of them mightn’t see you and might run over you.”
Young Gerard Carty began swimming when he was at Scoil Mhuire National School in Marino.
He tried athletics. “I was brutal”, he shrugged.
He tried Gaelic football. “I hadn’t got the aptitude or the co-ordination for that,” he concluded. So he tried swimming.
“I’ve a relatively long torso and short legs,” he said. “Even though I’m six-foot, that’s the way my body is built and it’s a good composition for a swimmer. I started taking part in galas with the school, and it went from there really.”
Carty won the Dun Laoghaire Harbour swim in 2004 and that same year set Irish records at 800m and 1,500m while swimming in Glasgow.
Four years later, aged 39, he set out with around 20 other hardened sea swimmers from Rathlin Island, off the coast of Antrim, and pointed his body towards Ballycastle 14kms away. Only five completed that race in August 2008 and Carty came first in just over three hours.
“That was the platform for me when I was told, ‘You’ve got to swim the English Channel’,” he recalled. If only they knew what they were asking.
His prep for the crossing, just over three years later in 2011, was flawless, even sleeping with just a thin sheet on his bed for a year beforehand to get his body used to prolonged periods of intense cold.
He satisfied all the criteria and competency tests laid on by the Channel Swimming Association and paid the €3,500 for a manned boat to accompany him across.
Hurricane Katia meant a false start before he finally entered the water on September 16 under a full moon.
Around 4am, eight or nine hours in, he could sense his body clock ticking towards sleep. Then he tore a rotator cuff muscle in his left shoulder.
For a while, he swam using only his right arm. The closer he got to France, the warmer the water and he was able to swim with both arms again.
“The cold took my mind off the pain,” he said. “It’s like an ultra-marathon, or someone running for hours and hours; it’s 90 or 95% mental. Everybody gets their demons, they start knocking on your door saying: ‘You’re too tired. You can’t keep going’.
“Your mind is making every excuse to quit or give up. I tried to think of my mind as a blackboard when those thoughts would enter. I’d pick up the duster and just wipe out the negative thoughts.”
Aside from ambition, obsession and sheer belligerence, what helped propel Carty through choppy waters and his demons was the real inspiration.
“I was swimming on behalf of my colleague, Paula Mulvaney, who was battling cancer at the time,” said Carty.
“Channel swimmers don’t normally do it for charity because 90% don’t make it across. Nobody wants to hear about you failing so that was keeping me going.”
Carty is a senior sports development officer/water safety development officer with Dublin City Council.
He still swims competitively and is a regular in the Leinster Open Sea races though initially after the channel swim, he fell out of love with swimming.
“I suffered from PTSD after it,” he admitted. “It was a very difficult crossing, the week after a bad storm, swimming through slop at times. I was way out of my comfort zone.
“I get the odd flashback even now; getting your feeds every 45 minutes, only stopping for 15 seconds to take them or you’ll be pushed away off course, trying to lie on your back and co-ordinate yourself to pee.”
Three kilometres from the shore, Carty remembers finally spotting France. Yet despite fresh adrenaline coursing through his veins, he couldn’t make that last surge forward.
“The boatman advised me not to go for it. The tide was against us and he reckoned it could pull me away and we’d miss our landing spot altogether so he took me parallel to the shore for what seemed like an hour. I got very frustrated,” he recalled.
So what was the feeling when it was all done, euphoria or relief?
“I was exhausted,” revealed Carty. “I remember looking at the rocks, wondering after 19 hours lying in the water if I could even stand up on them. ‘Would I fall and break my ankle on the rocks?’
“It took me a year really afterwards. I didn’t swim for a year, maybe 14 or 15 months.
“I was fed up of it, lost the gra for it. I know people who have failed the channel swim and given up swimming entirely.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people and I’m grateful to a friend of mine who told me: ‘Look, you have to get back in the water’.
“Even just for exercise and keeping healthy, and my boys were only young at the time, I knew I had to do it. It was the best decision I made to get back in.”