Howard Keech

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Howard Keech, North Channel swimmer
Howard Keech
Howard Keech (left) with North Channel pilot Brian Meharg (right)
Howard Keech is a famed marathon swimmer who has conquered the North (Irish) Channel (14 hours 47 minutes from Ireland to Scotland on 2 August 2011), the English Channel (12 hours 38 minutes on 23 September 2009 from England to France) and several other open water swims of note including British Long Distance Swimming Association events.


Irish Long Distance Swimming Association Report

Martin Cullen, Observer for the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association, presented the following report on Howard Keech’s successful North Channel swim from Ireland to Scotland on August 2nd in 14 hours 47 minutes.

Howard Keech (swimmer), Terry Lees (feeder and support), Brian Meharg (pilot), Christopher Beale (mate), Keith Jones (crew) and Martin got underway onboard the Blue Aquarius around 7:30 am.

"It was low water in the harbour but it was a spring tide. The weather forecast was for some cloud to start, but good sunny spells with perhaps some isolated light showers. We sailed north across Belfast Lough, past Whitehead lighthouse and arrived around 8.35 am at The Gobbins, Islandmagee which has amazing cliffs and birdlife. The sea was very calm, visibility was limited by a sea mist and there was a good deal of cloud cover.

Howard was very calm and showed no signs of anxiety. When asked he said he really didn’t feel anything. He disrobed, applied a good deal of Vaseline to all areas that might chaff, put on his Irish Long Distance Swimming Association swim cap, his goggles and light (in case we ended up in the dark). At about 8.45 am, Howard leapt off the side of the boat and made his way to the rocks at the base of the cliffs where at 8.52 am he commenced his swim. The water temperature was 11.3°C (52.3°F) which was some 2°C less than expected.

The current was with us and, with a stroke rate of 62 – 64 per minute, great progress was made. However instead of the cloud-clearing and sun coming out, it started to rain and continued to do so for the best part of the next 5 hours.

After 90 minutes, Howard had his first feed prepared by Terry, a hot sweet drink with a half a banana strapped to the bottle. Howard took less than a minute and was away again with over one stroke every second, good leg kick and nice and level on top of the water. The plan was that after the first feed, then all other feeds, would be every 30 minutes and be a mixture of different warm drinks, gels and banana or chocolate

When we checked the water temperature we were shocked that it had dropped to 10.6°C (51°F) and over the course of the swim the highest temperature reached was 12.5°C (54°F) but this was for only about two hours around the 6th and 7th hours. Howard had trained in cold water since January. Even during the snow and ice in February, he had gone swimming in the sea. However, over the past couple of months the sea temperature off the Kent coast was closer to 16°C (61°F) which was of concern to Howard.

Brian checked all the weather sites and according to them the sun should be shining. The reality was that we had rain or drizzle and a sea mist which meant that those of us on the boat were almost as wet as Howard. The only good thing was that there was no wind and therefore the sea was almost flat calm.

On a different front was the absence of jellyfish. The North Channel is renowned for the plethora of jellyfish of all species and a nightmare for all swimmers. We were blessed that there were so few but about 1.30 pm Howard shuddered and stopped briefly as an enormous one passed underneath him. After this, there were some small shoals and Howard got some stings. From the boat, very few jellyfish were visible but Howard said he saw many, but they were deeper in the water. Around 2 pm we were treated to a flyover by a puffin who was checking out what was in the water, but after 3 circles decided there was nothing worth staying for. Eventually about 3 pm, the drizzle stopped and we felt some heat from a very hazy sun. Our bit of luxury was short lived as it clouded over again about 4pm and a breeze picked up. Howard was still swimming strong and making really good progress.

Around 5 pm the wind shifted completely from due south to straight north with a chill in the air and an increase to force 5. In a very short space of time the sea went from almost flat calm to being lumpy and whitecaps could be readily seen. Another unusual bird, an Arctic Skua, came to check us out but again found us of no interest. Tide was now flowing northwards at about 2.2 knots which meant we would end up past Portpatrick and then on the next turn of the tide we would be pushed in towards Portpatrick.

At 6.30 pm we only had 3.3 miles to go and it took us almost 4 hours to complete this relatively short distance. These miles were the hardest as we were so close and yet we were making so little headway in the right direction. The lighthouse, north of Portpatrick harbour, was our main focal point. The houses around the harbour to our right could be seen, but not distinctly. The weather changed yet again around 8.30 pm when the wind dropped off, the sea calmed and it stayed dry.

Howard could see how close we were, his stroke rate had dropped to 56 strokes a minute and he knew he wasn’t making great progress. The last hour was so hard as we could see the coast getting closer and closer. Howard never complained, even though we did tell him a few untruths.

The lights began to come on in Portpatrick as we drifted along the coast leaving the lighthouse behind us and headed for the cliffs under the ruins of Dunskey Castle, just south of the harbour. Brian Meharg informed us that this was not far off where Ted Keenan finished his swim to become the first Irish swimmer to do so. Around 10.10 pm Brian got into the inflatable and headed to the shore.

Howard just kept going and at 10:17 pm, he touched the Scottish shore. He dragged himself into the inflatable and when he got back to the boat, everyone was amazed that there were no shivers and he needed little help in getting dressed. He then went below deck had a warm drink, chatted with Terry and Brian and then had a sleep. He came back up on deck around 1 am and we had a good chat

Howard Keech did an incredible swim under the circumstances. I believe very, very few others could have finished if they were presented with the same cold conditions.

Historical Information

The North Channel is one of the world's most difficult channels to complete and is part of the Oceans Seven.

Ireland to Scotland Successful Solo Swimmers

1. Tom Blower, 28 July 1947, 15 hours 26 minutes
2. Kevin Murphy, 11 September 1970, 11 hours 21 minutes
3. Kevin Murphy, 29 August 1971, 14 hours 27 minutes
4. Ted Keenan, 11 August 1973, 18 hours 27 minutes
5. Alison Streeter, 22 August 1988, 9 hours 54 minutes
6. Margaret (Maggie) Kidd, 23 August 1988, 15 hours 26 minutes
7. Colleen Blair, 12 September 2008, 15 hours 23 minutes
8. Anne Marie Ward, 1-2 September 2010, 18 hours 59 minutes
9. Craig Lenning, 27 July 2011, 14 hours 44 minutes
10. Howard Keech, 2 August 2011, 14 hours 47 minutes

Scotland to Ireland Successful Solo Swimmers

1. Alison Streeter, 25 August 1989, 10 hours 4 minutes
2. Alison Streeter, 18 August 1997, 10 hours 2 minutes
3. Kevin Murphy, 7 September 1989, 17 hours 17 minutes
4. Paul Lewis, 27 July 1999, 14 hours 28 minutes
5. Stephen Price, 21 July 2000, 16 hours 56 minutes
6. Colm O Neill, 31 July 2004, 11 hours 25 minutes
7. Stephen Redmond, 31 August 2010, 17 hours 17 minutes

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