“The doctor thinks I swallowed a jellyfish,” admits Scottish marathon swimmer Andy Donaldson as he reflects on the physical and mental perils of completing the world’s seven most dangerous channel crossings in less than a year.

“Swimming the ‘Channel of Bones’ in Hawaii [Molokai Channel], I ended up in hospital after encountering swarms of jellyfish – I’m not too sure what happened, but my throat was very swollen, and the uvula puffed up making it hard to breath.”

Despite being hospitalised twice, encountering a shark, battling dehydration and unrelenting ocean swells, Andy, who hails from West Kilbride in Ayrshire, couldn’t be happier with the results of his Oceans Seven challenge.

The Herald:

The 32-year-old is the first Scot to complete the Oceans Seven challenge and set the fastest ever cumulative time for the 200km (124 mile) endeavour. Andy completed his final race of the Tsugaru Strait in Japan at the end of July. He started the challenge in August 2022 with his first swim being the English Channel.

“I achieved my goal of breaking the World Record for the fastest cumulative time to swim the Oceans Seven, the record to beat was 64hours 35minutes, and I managed to do it in 63hours 2minutes,” Andy points out.

The other five channel crossings were the North Channel (Ireland to Scotland), Cook Strait (North to South Island in New Zealand), Molokai Channel (Molokai to Oahu Hawaii), Strait of Gibraltar (Spain to Morocco), and the Catalina Channel (Santa Catalina to Los Angeles).

The Herald: Andy swimming the North Channel at SunriseAndy swimming the North Channel at Sunrise (Image: Tim Kothlow)

Andy, who now resides in Perth, Australia, began swimming seriously at the age of seven, practising at his local North Ayrshire Amateur Swimming Club.

“In Scotland I competed at Scottish and British Championships, winning medals at both,” he notes. “I fell short of qualifying for the Commonwealth team at Glasgow in 2014, and looking back I think that was part of the reason for completing this challenge. I felt I had left the sport without really fulfilling my potential and this was a second chance to challenge myself, pursue unfulfilled goals, and do something I really enjoyed.”

The Herald: Andy swimming the Catalina Channel Andy swimming the Catalina Channel (Image: Tim Kothlow)

This wasn’t the only drive for Andy, however. For years he abandoned swimming and followed a new avenue by training as an accountant. He admits that “life wasn’t very balanced for a long time”. The long hours and heavy workload, grouped with a relationship breakdown and losing friends to suicide, led Andy to quit his job and travel the world in 2019.

“It all hit home really hard, and I fell into depression myself,” he says candidly. “That’s when I realised I needed to change.

The Herald: Andy after completing the Cook Strait challengeAndy after completing the Cook Strait challenge (Image: Tim Kothlow)

“Covid brought me back to Australia in 2020 where I was stuck without a job, trying to figure out what to do. It was some friends that encouraged me to get back in the water. There was no intention then of doing it professionally or to pursue any goals, but I really started to enjoy it. I realised how much of an impact swimming and being part of the community was having on my mental health.”

Open-water swimming paved the way for Andy to compete and win Western Australia’s 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim.

“Beating those swimmers, who were some of the best in the world, I realised I was still in great shape and that I was hungry for more,” he says.

The Herald: Andy Donaldson after winning the Rottnest Channel SwimAndy Donaldson after winning the Rottnest Channel Swim (Image: Jarrad Seng)

Another driving motivator for Andy was raising funds for charities close to his heart. For the Oceans Seven challenge he successfully raised $50,000AUD (£25,600) for an international mental health research charity.

“Knowing I was swimming to raise money for a cause close to my heart really helped me push through even the hardest of situations,” Andy mentions.

And there was no shortage of treacherous incidents during the challenge. During his 16-hour swim in Hawaii, Andy encountered playful, screeching dolphins. A few hours later, around 11pm at night, a dark shape loomed below him.

The Herald: Swimming the Molokai Channel in Hawaii alongside a safety kayakerSwimming the Molokai Channel in Hawaii alongside a safety kayaker (Image: Tim Kothlow)

“I knew it was big,” he confesses. “When there were no noises, we realised it was a shark stalking under the water. Thankfully there was a safety kayaker on that swim, and they had shark shield cables hanging underneath the kayak – which omit a frequency that disrupts the shark’s senses and drives them away. So I made sure I stuck very close to the kayaker. That was probably the scariest encounter of the entire challenge.”

On all seven swims, Andy had a safety boat tailing him with local skippers helping to navigate the busy shipping channels.

The Herald: Andy was hospitalised in Hawaii after completing the Molokai ChannelAndy was hospitalised in Hawaii after completing the Molokai Channel (Image: Andy Donaldson)

The last swim in Japan was very testing for Andy, and ultimately left him hospitalised with dehydration from vomiting so much. He also battled against unforeseen storms and was “thrown around like a rag doll in a washing machine” at times.

Yet despite all the struggles, Andy was able to break records in the process. His English Channel crossing broke the British record, additionally he secured a world record by successfully swimming across New Zealand's challenging Cook Strait, and Andy is the first Scottish male to swim the North Channel from Ireland to Scotland.

The Herald: Swimming the Cook Straight in New ZealandSwimming the Cook Straight in New Zealand (Image: Tim Kothlow)

“The North Channel is considered to be one of the toughest channel swims in the world,” he explains. “So, to become the first Scottish male to do it was a real honour. Having grown up on the west coast of Scotland, it was a very special moment to touch down safely on home soil.”

After some much-earned rest, Andy is toying with the idea of another swimming challenge aiming to raise funds and awareness of climate change and ocean conservation. One we hope has sufficiently fewer jellyfish involved.