It’s great jumping in the rivers of East Anglia from time to time; feeling the burn of the chill waters; sticking your head down and swimming; ignoring the ice-cream headache till it goes away; feeling your various extremities blink out of life one by one; feeling the warmth getting sucked out of you; trying to maintain swimming form and mental composure.
It’s also great to go to Egypt, in a dismal English January, and swim in the crystal clear, balmy waters of the Red Sea, where none of the above apply.
Helen and I booked ourselves on a 5 night break to the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh to get some OW winter training on board. Helen had even more reason than me, as she is swimming Rottnest Island in February, a 20 km ocean race from Perth to Rottnest in Western Australia. The water will be pretty warm in Perth, so getting some warm water training was doubly useful for her.
The first couple of days were disappointingly windy. A brisk wind powered its way down the Gulf of Aqaba, creating some pretty choppy conditions, especially out past the reef break. We contented ourselves with the odd mile in the sheltered water, and a little pool swimming, while enjoying the great food at the all inclusive resort we had chosen.
On the third day, conditions were much improved. We swam out past the break and were greeted with all the glory of the Nabq reef. The drop off was stunning. Visibility was officially ‘epic’, at least 20 m. The coral and fish were beautiful, some of the best I have seen, and I have dived on the Gt Barrier Reef. We managed a nice swim that day, 50 minutes up the coast with the current, then an hour and a quarter back against it. While I have done some long swims in pool, and a decent 6 hours in Windermere last August, this swim, at a little over 2 hours equaled my longest sea swim ever, which was the last time I swam in La Jolla Cove with Dan Simonelli. Slightly worrying given I am swimming the channel later this year!
The next day we did less swimming again. The conditions were still great, but we had booked ourselves a day trip from Sharm out to some local dive sites. Most people holiday making on the Red Sea are not swimmers. Many are divers, and some are casual snorkellers. We booked ourselves on a boat taking people snorkelling. There were three swim stops on the schedule for the day. The Egyptians were casual enough with their Health and Safety to let us swim off up the coast of Tiran Island while they took the group snorkelling, arranging to pick us up on the way up to the next stop. There was some good coral and some pretty fish, though there were a couple of not so great points about this site: the first was that there were quite a lot of bits of plastic and debris floating in the water. The second was not a biggie, but there were quite a lot of jellyfish. I have no idea what sort they were, but they were quite small, almost transparent, and had a nasty habit of finding themselves down Helen’s swimsuit. They weren’t stinging though.
The second stop was in the middle of the Gulf of Aqaba, 1/2 way between Tiran Island and Nabq, on a mid-channel reef. Again, we went off swimming round the reef while everyone else snorkelled, and had some time to take videos as well (see links). The last stop was at a nice cove between Sharm and Nabq, with some very pretty coral formations. We swam to and fro in the cove a couple of times, but made a sharp exit when the jellyfish started to grow pretty tiresome. They were slightly bigger at this location and had a mild but still not pleasant sting.
On the last day we were due to be picked up at 2.30 to go back to the airport, so decided to make the most of being in Egypt, and get a decent length swim in. After a hearty breakfast we hit the reef by the hotel beach, and swam north a couple miles. Distance was measured by the jetties that jut out from the various hotels and served as landmarks. The current was decent again, s it only took us about 40 minutes to cover that distance, and more like 1 h 30 to get back. The good news was that you could tailor how much current you wanted to swim with/against, by positioning yourself out from, or over the drop off. The current got faster the further you were away from the drop. This meant that Helen and I could easily maintain the same pace (she is roughly 10% faster than me).
For our 2 hour feed we had left some maxim made up on the beach with our towels and some Cadbury fudge bars Helen had packed from the UK. We stopped for a minute or so I guess, before getting back in, and swimming north again, this time taking more maxim in a bottle down the back of my jammers, and more fudge bars stuffed down the front of Helen’s, ready for our elevenses stop.
The swim finished after about 4 h 7 minutes, and felt great. I can barely imagine anything that could be much more pleasant than essentially spending 4 hours swimming in an enormous tropical fish tank, and can heartily recommend this venue for anyone wanting a bit of winter swim training.
Info for People Planning a Swimming Trip to the Red Sea
When I was planning this trip with Helen, I looked quite a lot for information on swimming in the Red Sea. There was precious little out there, so here are a few tips.
- Sharm-el-Sheikh is a 5 hour flight from London
- You do not need a visa if you have a short stay, and you are not leaving the area
- There are MANY hotels – we stayed at the Sea Garden and it was excellent
- Nearly all hotels are all inclusive – all food and drink is included in one (low) price
- If you stay at the Sea Garden, you can swim North for quite a few miles along a straight reef – it’s great!
- In the winter, you can bank on the air temperature being in the low to mid 20’s C
- The sea will be in the mid 20’s C too!!