Saturday, July 14, 2012

Stephen Redmond Crosses The Tsugaru Channel

Today, Under the strangest and unlikeliest of circumstances in a far-away land, the remarkable Irishman Stephen RedmondTsugaru Channel in Japan to become the first person in history to achieve the Oceans Seven.

The 47-year-old former rugby player from Ireland entered the annals of marathon swimming history by completing the English Channel, North Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Catalina Channel, Cook Strait, Molokai Channel (on his second try) and the Tsugaru Channel (on his fourth try).

An unlikely, but likable swimming star, Redmond proves that training, passion and commitment will take one far in the world of open water swimming when he completed the Tsugaru Channel in 12 hours 45 minutes. But he acknowledges all the help he received from family, friends and his community in Ballydehob.

On the northwest corner of Honshu in the sparsely populated prefecture of Aomori where there are no supermarkets or convenience stores that are found in the big cities of Japan, the diet of the local fishing community consists of entirely of food from the nearby sea. Faced with meals of shark brain, octopus, squid, raw fish, seaweed and clams, Redmond existed primarily on water with white bread and butter for the week leading up to his swim. But with a forced diet and a laser-focused mind, he endured a third aborted swim and was resigned to go home a failure.

He was truly a troubled man whose heavy heart was filled with worry. The light at the end of his Oceans Seven tunnel seemed to be extinguished. "I just can't go home. Too many people have supported me," he said repeatedly with heartfelt conviction and deep creases in his wrinkled brow. "I cannot fail. This [Tsugaru] Channel will be the death of me. You just don't know what this [failure] would do to me." On his last day in Japan, he packed his bags with a depression that was palpable. Zipping up his luggage, the end never seemed so near. His broad shoulders nearly seemed to sag to his waist; his eyes were pleading for mercy.

But the man of deep faith whose many supporters prayed feverishly for him in Ireland looked out once more at the Tsugaru Channel from his hotel room facing the previously angry sea.

And his prayers were answered.

The winds miraculously shifted from stiff easterlies to a gentle northwest direction. The seas were ironed out and unexpectedly tranquil. His hotel windows that has shook constantly for five days with winds whipping off the Tsugaru Channel was still and framed a welcoming view.

He called Noel Browne, his trainer and fellow training partner, wiping his eyes with disbelief and an unswerving faith in God and simply said, "Let's go." They immediately contacted Captain Mizushima, the top escort pilot in the Tsugaru Channel, who agreed that this was his last and best shot at history.

"It looks good," calmly said Captain Mizushima with a steely resolve of a tuna fisherman whose livelihood is made in the Sea of Japan and Tsugaru Channel. "I want to do this for you."

Captain Mizushima had prepared his boat and set up the swim streamer by 10 am. The crew set off with great haste. Redmond jumped off near the peninsula of Kodomari Benten Cape on the island of Honshu around noon and started sprinting the 30 km to Cape Shirakami on the island of Hokkaido.

Under favorable currents and calm conditions, the formula on his final and fourth attempt of the Tsugaru Channel was spot on. Despite having no linguistic ties or cultural commonalities with his skipper or crew, their bonds were tight. Body language replaced words. Communication with done visually through the eyes and emotionally though their hearts. With the group fully committed to success, the crew melded together...come hell or high water.

Fortunately, neither hell nor high water came. Redmond enjoyed a gentle northwest winds and mild Tsugaru Current throughout the afternoon and evening swim. Swimming straighter than ever thought possible from Honshu to Hokkaido, Redmond followed Captain Mizushima's swim streamer while changing his breathing pattern and picking up his arm stroke pace to swim faster. He swam like a man possessed, carrying the expectations of a nation, feeling the weight of obligations of his local community, and facing self-imposed pressure.

The hours went by in water that was comfortably warm for the man who trains primarily along the cold Irish coastline. 30 minutes swimming followed by a brief feeding stop. "How's my stroke?" he would ask Browne. A nod and an affirmation that things were good, and Redmond was off on another 30-minute burst of inexplicable speed.

30 minutes on. Brief rest. 30 minutes on. Brief rest. Repeated over and over again as the sun went down over Hokkaido. As the darkness of night enveloped Redmond, Browne and Captain Mizushima, their strategy never faltered, their belief in one another never wavered, and their pace never fell in the inky black channel as the lights of Hokkaido seemed within reach.

Far away from home in a land where English is neither spoken nor understood, where the food is from the sea...Stephen Redmond succeeded to become the first person to achieve the Oceans Seven.

The Strait of Gibraltar and the Catalina Channel were a one-shot deal for the famed Irish swimmer, but the Tsugaru defeated him three times. He conquered the notorious North Channel and Fastnet in Ireland, and had to make two attempts at the Molokai Channel in Hawaii and the Cook Strait was terribly difficult, but the Tsugaru has taken four attempts to overcome.

Swimming faster than he ever has before, this crossing took everything he had. "A faster stroke and kick made all the difference. It was a huge gamble. I did not know if I could stick to the pace, but I enjoyed it." His 12 hour 45 minute effort will be the pinnacle of Redmond's remarkable career.

He is a common man with an uncommon vision; an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. A man with dream that was envisioned and ultimately executed.

Stephen Redmond has etched his name in history.

Redmond has completed the following 7 channels of the Oceans Seven:

English Channel (England-France) in 20 hours 1 minute
Catalina Channel (Catalina-California, USA) in 12 hours 39 minutes
Strait of Gibraltar (Spain-Morocco) in 5 hours
Cook Strait (North Island-South Island, New Zealand) in 12 hours 30 minutes
Molokai Channel (Molokai-Oahu, Hawaii) in 22 hours 29 minutes
North Channel (Scotland-Ireland) in 17 hours 17 minutes
Tsugaru Channel (Honshu-Hokkaido, Japan) in 12 hours 45 minutes

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Swimming Strait - Tackling The Tsugaru

The Tsugaru Channel is the least known of the 7 channels that make up the Oceans Seven.

The channel is in a far-away land where Japanese is the only local language spoken - presenting additional challenges for non-Japanese marathon swimmers.

The Japanese escort boat pilots are experienced fishermen in the area, many of whom have spent their entire lives fishing among the well-stocked area of myriad marine life.

Additionally, the channel presents many of the same challenges as the other more well-known waterways of the Oceans Seven: strong currents, tidal flows, unpredictable eddies, unswimmable waters when the winds come up, jellyfish, squid, large ocean swells, and large oil tankers and cargo ships running the channel.

The recommended time to attempt crossings is July and August, although some have attempted in May and June when the water is still closer to 10°C (50°F) than 15°C (59°F), but in July and August, the water temperature increases well above 16°C (61°F).

The distance between the two closest points is Tappi Misaki (竜飛崎) on the Honshu (south) side of the channel and Shirakami Misaki (白神岬) on the Hokkaido (north) side in 19.5 km (12 miles).

Note: "misaki" means "cape" in English. However, many of the successful solo and relay crossings follow the course pioneered by David Yudovin in 1990.

Yudovin started on the far western side of the channel on a small cape called Kodomari Benten Cape (小泊権現崎) on Honshu and allowed the west-to-east running Tsugaru Current to push him towards Shirakami Misaki on the Hokkaido. His pioneering swim took him 13 hours 10 minutes in July 1990.

An alternative course is to swim directly between Tappi Misaki on Honshu to Shirakami Misaki along the Shirakami Peninsula on Hokkaido. This course is a bit more high-risk in that the currents around Tappi Misaki run fast, but if the swimmer is fast enough, the distance is shorter. This course was taken by Steven Munatones a few weeks after Yudovin's swim in 6 hours 11 minutes in July 1990.

The shortest course in the reverse direction (north-to-south) is from Shirakami Misaki to Tappi Misaki that was pioneered by Munatones in 1990 in 6 hours 39 minutes.

Another course is between Shirakami Misaki on Hokkaido and Shimokita Peninsula (下北半島) on the eastern side of Honshu. This course was pioneered by Miyuki Fujita in 2006 and swum by Penny Palfrey in 14 hours 26 minutes in 2011.

The currents flow quickly from west to east as the water flows from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean.

Large swells, extremely turbulent water surface conditions, unpredictable eddies and abundant marine life from sharks to sea snakes exist, although jellyfish and squid are usually what swimmers see and encounter.

The challenges include issues both on land for planning and logistics purposes and in the water. The fact that English and languages other than Japanese are not spoken in area is an obstacle not a problem in the Cook Strait, Strait of Gibraltar, North Channel, Molokai Channel, English Channel or Catalina Channel. In the water, swimmers are often swept long distances due to the extraordinarily strong currents flowing from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean and can face large blooms of squid during the night. Swimmers are challenged by occasional patches of cold water that flow up from the depths that have even chilled such marathon swimming stalwarts as Stephen Redmond.

American Darren Miller shows his environment as he prepares for his Tsugaru Channel attempt this week. Miyuki Fujita, the most prolific Japanese channel swimmer, shows the usual conditions in the Tsugaru Channel below.

Besides Miller, Ireland's Stephen Redmond, Sweden's Anna-Carin Nordin and Americans Pat Gallant-Charete, Forrest Nelson and Michelle Macy will make attempts across the only Oceans Seven challenge in the Far East as well as relays from Japan and elsewhere.

Open Water Source will be following Miller and Redmond are their swims across the Tsugaru Channel this week.

Online information on the channel include: Openwaterpedia, Tsugaru Channel Swimming Association, Tsugaru Channel Swimming blog and Ocean-Navi.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Darren Miller Crosses The Tsugaru Channel

Bloodied from cuts on rocks and battered by many hours of constant turbulence, Darren Miller crossed the Tsugaru Channel in 15 hours 55 minutes.

Guided by Captain Mizushima's steady hand and constant navigation of the shifting currents, Miller completed his fifth of seven channels in his quest to achieve the Oceans Seven.

Miller started soon after sunrise at 4:10 am in the 68°F (20°C) water that warmed up to 70°F (21°C) as the sun rose.

While the water temperature was comfortable, it was the infamous Tsugaru Current that churned up the waters for Miller. "I have never been in anything like that," said the Strait of Gibraltar, English Channel, Catalina Channel and Molokai Channel swimmer. "It was tough."

"When Darren missed the cape (on Hokkaido), I didn't think he would make it," commented his brother Matthew who was on the boat. "I know my brother is tough, but I was just being a realist, not a pessimist."

Miller was also buoyed by the support of Stephen Redmond who was watching via Miller's GPS tracker. "Just tell him to keep moving. But God is it tough to watch someone on GPS." If conditions hold, Redmond will start at 2:30 am at the same point Miller began.

Captain Mizushima is fueling the boat and hoping for some Irish luck this Tuesday morning in Japan.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association