Another guest blog! Only three weeks after crewing on Bojan’s EC swim, I had the pleasure of crewing for Helen’s awesome crossing of the Menorca Channel. Here is her account!
As I become older and wiser, I have come to learn that challenges involving long distances in cold water do not play to my strengths. I do not carry a large amount of bioprene and gaining weight is never easy with coeliac disease and intensive training! So when training for Catalina last October I decided that for future swims I should primarily focus on warmer waters. With a list of prerequisites I looked into various swims and came up with a little gem. A little longer than anything I’d done before (but not dauntingly so), yet relatively inexpensive compared to the Ocean’s Seven. I had stumbled across the Menorca Channel.
One of the major attractions of the Menorca Channel was that it had been done so few times before (only 9 swimmers under channel rules), yet there is the newly established Menorca Channel Swimming Association which would assist me greatly in organising the swim.
Preparations for the Menorca Channel went very well, unlike training for the English Channel which was hampered by undiagnosed coeliac disease or Catalina which was hampered by an overuse injury in my left shoulder. I have a habit of overtraining and not allowing my body to recover, so I was very careful to ensure I factored in recovery weeks this year and it paid off!
Every channel has been a big learning experience – I am always meticulous in writing up a full debrief after each swim to ensure I take the learnings into my next swim. So for each swim I am more confident in my feed pattern, my training, my taper, my kit etc which meant in the lead up to this swim I was more relaxed.
…well when I say relaxed, there was one thing playing on my mind. The fastest crossing to date was 11hrs 57mins, and the fastest female was 12hrs 18mins. By my calculations, I believed I was in with a chance of beating the record, or at least the women’s record. This time I was more honest with Jason about my aspirations so he knew how I would respond to any information he provided. Previously, to avoid sounding arrogant, I had not been open about what I’d hoped to achieve which left the crew baffled when I responded poorly to what they thought was a good crossing!!
However I did keep reminding myself that my swim time may be affected by many factors and not to get my hopes up too much. Being a swim I knew very little about, I didn’t know what impact the currents might have and there were also unfriendly jellyfish present as we discovered during training swims. Furthermore, there was always a chance I’d get digestive issues and in waters of 26-27C with air around 30C I could also suffer with dehydration.
We met with the Menorca Channel Swimming Association a couple of days after we arrived in Menorca. I felt honoured to meet Tita Llorens, president of the Menorca Channel Swimming Association, who had recently completed 85km swim from Ibiza to Mallorca, we also met Guiem who had been my sole contact until arriving in Menorca, Toni the observer, Francisco the secretary and Max(?) the pilot. I was very glad to have asked Guiem to try and find me an assistant crew member who spoke good English. This proved to be a wise move and Danny – a young welsh guy competent in Spanish – helped translate during our meetings and assisted Jason during my swim.
The meeting was very useful, primarily as it reassured me that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet and that they were a great bunch of people who were enthusiastic about my crossing and whom I trusted to work as a team and get me from A to B. At this point we also discussed weather and direction of swim, since it was all dependent on the wind and wave direction as to whether I swam from Menorca to Mallorca or vice versa. Having already studied various forecasts, it came as no surprise to me and Jason when they said the crossing was unlikely to happen before Thursday.
On Wednesday morning I received confirmation that the swim would go ahead on Thursday morning, we would meet at 5am at the Marina and I would be swimming from Menorca to Mallorca starting at the lighthouse at Cap D’Artrutx. I spent the rest of the day mixing feeds and making final preparations then applied the first layer of sunscreen before bed.
The morning came and everything was going to plan. I had a light breakfast, a moderate amount of fluids and some ibuprofen before setting off and I received another coat of sunscreen. The apartment was located so close to the marina that we could walk down to the boat with the kit.
This is the first time we’d seen the boat (except for some pictures), but it seemed ideal. A platform on the back to get on and off, a good sized sheltered area for crew and kit, and facilities inside including a fridge and toilet. We did some final prep, more sunscreen (zinc this time) was applied to my shoulders (it might sound like a lot of sunscreen, but I’m a redhead planning a fully day in the Mediterranean sun). Hat, goggles, lights, Vaseline …I was ready to go.
The boat made its way out of the Marina down the narrow channel and out into the Med – it was a mild morning, but still dark. The water was smooth (unlike previous days), but I wasn’t kidding myself about what I was about to face. The forecast was pretty reliable and stated I would have F3 for much of the morning until around 10-11am, I remained positive though, knowing that it would calm down nicely for the second half of the swim.
I entered the water at approximately 5.40 cheered on by Tita, Francisco and Guiem who stood on land up by the lighthouse. The rocks there were too steep to exit the water, so as instructed by Toni I approached land with caution and studied the rocks closely (or as close as you can in the dark, wearing tinted goggles!!) as I had been warned that sticking your hand inadvertently on a sea urchin might not be the best way to start a swim. I placed my hand on the rock, turned and raised my other arm shouting to the boat that I was ready. The horn sounded and I set off.
The first hour was beautiful, serene and gently illuminated by the rising sun. I try never to look forward or back during a swim, but made an exception on this occasion as the sun was rising behind me I even threw in a few barrel rolls to appreciate the full beauty of the moment.
I was told that the jellyfish came to the surface at night, so totally expected to be stung multiple times before the sun rose, but much to my delight I wasn’t stung at all early on. In fact, I only saw a few jellies on the whole crossing and was brushed by just a couple with mild tingles like that of a stinging nettle – nothing like the sting I had experienced a few days before. I had joked that I saw most when Jason jumped in at the end, accusing him of being a jelly-magnet, but the truth is more likely that the swell in the previous couple of days was heading away from Menorca and towards Mallorca taking the jellies with it.
After an hour or two the wind started to build and the conditions became lumpier. I didn’t mind to start, and it’s nothing that I haven’t dealt with before, but by 4-5 hours it was growing tiresome. I knew the conditions would improve, but I could start to feel a pain in my hip and my left shoulder – old injuries which don’t cope well with rougher conditions these days. The paracetamol didn’t seem to have any affect and I was starting to bloat quite considerably because it’s actually somewhat harder to pee when swimming in rougher conditions. My grump had started.
In addition to feeling a bit crappy, I started to notice boat fumes as the wind had swung around – it made me feel nauseous, so I switched to the starboard side. I was now on my less favoured side and couldn’t see Jason very well as I was looking into the sunlight each time I looked at the boat. I began to notice the boat’s position becoming flakier – I was either at the back getting occasional fumes and having to look up for direction, or I was up at the bow struggling to tell which direction the boat was pointing. I stopped for a moan. They explained that they were struggling with the boat positioning because of the wind, they needed to start the second engine. Great. More fumes. I swam off in a huff. The boat didn’t follow. I guessed they had issues with the engine and would catch up shortly. I was cross.
Then I noticed the sun was behind me, in fact it was almost to my right rather than my left. I still couldn’t see the boat.
I stopped and turned to see the boat chasing behind me with Jason shouting, ‘YOU’RE SWIMMING THE WRONG WAY!!’. I was swimming to Spain, not Mallorca. The thought of it made me even more cross, so I shouted. Obviously it was their fault.
I spent the next half hour having words with myself.
This was an inexperienced pilot compared to all 4 channel pilots I’d swum with before. The wind had changed and little did I realise at the time, that Jason and Danny were explaining to the pilot about positioning of the boat – they were aware there was an issue and were trying to sort it out. I feel ashamed for not trusting the team, but then maybe given how crappy I felt, I needed an excuse to vent some anger. The extra minutes added to my swim felt like my penance and had perhaps cost me the swim time I was hoping for.
At the next feed I apologised for my outburst. The crew did not seem phased and were even empathetic. I had managed to relieve the bloating too and was feeling a lot better.
The worst was over, the wind started to die down. I was still feeling surprisingly strong – I think the 6hour ibuprofen had helped along with the calmer seas. I have never used painkillers on a swim before, but after suffering with my shoulder in Catalina and ongoing hip pain, I resigned myself to the fact that I actually needed it – and it was worth it.
As time went on I felt good, I smiled and waved at the crew and they reciprocated with cheers of encouragement and some silly dancing to keep me entertained. I felt I was doing well, but reminded myself that first half wasn’t so great and not to get my hopes up.
This didn’t stop me from analysing every word that came out of Jason’s mouth. At about half way ‘I am very happy with your progress’ …okay, well I was honest about my aspirations, so I must be on target …but it’s a long way off, anything could change …I’ll probably slow up a lot …don’t read too much into it Helen. At 8 hours ‘I can’t wait to get in there with you’ … was I nearly there? no, that can’t be, that’s impossible, but maybe… just an hour or so…? I had 30 mins to mull it over and try to stop myself getting excited. At 9 hours came a blow ‘take it easy, nice long strokes’ …so I need to save myself …I must still be a long way off, the start wasn’t great …maybe there’s a current against me …but it all sounded so positive …I’m confused!!
At this point I had started to notice I wasn’t peeing much anymore. I was beginning to get dehydrated. I considered asking at my next feed that I wanted just water at 10 hours, but that would mean no ibuprofen, and I needed the ibuprofen. My left shoulder was feeling the consequence of a fast stroke rate (for me) and the confused seas earlier on. I should have communicated about the issue, but at the time it didn’t seem to be causing much of an issue.
At 9 hours 30 mins, I asked what Jason meant by take it easy …the response ‘You’re doing really well, I’ll be able to tell you more at your next feed’.
Jason had strict instructions to give me no progress updates until I was around 1 hour from finishing. So the fact that he said he could tell me more at 10 hours meant that at 10 hours I’d be around 1 hour from finishing! Yippeee! But still, I’m not going to look forward. I trust my crew. Looks can be deceiving.
I continued at my same pace – it turned out to be pretty consistent throughout the whole swim. As the breeze drifted around again (what little there was) I switched back to the port side to avoid fumes that were lingering due to the lack of wind. 10 hours soon came around. My spirits were high. I had my ibuprofen feed as Jason enthusiastically called out to me that if I skipped my next feed I could finish in under 11hours!!! Woohoo! I had as good as broken the record! But it was a tough decision – I explained to Jason I was showing signs of dehydration, I’d let him know in a while if I could carry on without the next feed. About later Jason asked if I’d stop for a feed. I declined.
It was at some point after 10 hours that I first looked up – I had been so disciplined. The land looked close, but then it would have looked close if I’d looked up 2 hours or maybe even 4 hours before. In fact, despite being further than the English Channel, Mallorca actually looks closer from Menorca than France does from Dover due to the mountainous terrain.
I thought that hour would last forever, in fact I was convinced that I’d gone over 11 hours. I had swum hard for 10 hours and even harder for the 11th hour. Finally Jason jumped in behind me and started swimming which meant I was about to land so I looked up again. This was it. The boat directed me to a part of rock that they hoped I might be able to climb out on but it was too steep. I touched the land and did my best to scramble up. The horn sounded, there were smiles and cheers all around. I was ecstatic. The swim was complete.
My final time was 10 hours and 54 minutes which is over an hour off the previous record (although I know there are many swimmers out there who are capable of faster!). But even more important to me was that I felt good – surprisingly so. I swam butterfly back to the boat to celebrate. Once again I have learned a lot, but more importantly this swim restored my confidence in my swimming ability.
I would like to say a massive thank you to the Menorca Channel Swimming Association, to my pilot, to the observer, to Danny and most importantly to the one and only Jason Betley. We all know, it is a team sport and I couldn’t have done it without you.