Helen’s Menorca Channel Swim – 20th August 2015

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.

About to Take the Plunge!

About to Take the Plunge!

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.

Great Sunrise!

Great Sunrise!

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.

Classic

Classic

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.

Not the Toughest Day of Crewing!!

Not the Toughest Day of Crewing!!

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.

Pushing On

Pushing On

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.

As Close as Was Possible to 'Exit the Water'

As Close as Was Possible to ‘Exit the Water’

I Did It!!!

I Did It!!!

Boys on the Boat Jubilant!

Boys on the Boat Jubilant!

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.

Happy With the Day!!

Happy With the Day!!

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.

http://www.menorcachannelswimming.com/

The Local Press!

The Local Press!

Post Swim Meeting with the MCSA

Post Swim Meeting with the MCSA

Swim Track

Swim Track

Guest Blog – Bojan Obradovic – Swimming the English Channel – 30th July 2015

On the 30th July this year, I had the privilege of being a crew member on Bojan’s Channel Swim.  Here is a man who managed to pack in getting married, swimming the Channel, and emigrating to the US with his family into a few short weeks.  Here is his unedited recollection of his day in the Channel……..

(The following text contains several references to childbirth and in particular it compares several aspects of swimming the channel to childbirth.   Any such comparison is intended to be metaphorical and is informed by my “crewing” on two childbirths, and swimming the channel.  Only those ladies who have given birth and swum the channel can make the actual comparison)

I should start with a little introduction to this text, as swimming the English Channel was not an ambition of mine nor an aspiration, therefore it is reasonable to begin with an explanation.  Indeed, I was often asked the “Why?”  question in the six months or so before my swim and I generally struggled to give a straightforward answer.  I would always answer honestly, but it would never be the same:

  • It’s a midlife crisis, certainly cheaper than a fast car
  • Because the Channel is there and it can be swum
  • To get that pebble from the beach
  • To find more about myself

The seed was planted by Jason, one evening of late 2013 over a curry in Buntingford. He was merely a ‘channel aspirant’ back then and the evening was spent by talking about life and other things, as two blokes in their early forties might do over a curry and a beer.  Jason suggested that I should give it a go as I coped well with cold and was the perfect build for a channel swimmer.  I didn’t take him seriously.  Really, the channel swim was stuff of legends, something that a few amazing people (like his girlfriend Helen, the first channel swimmer I met) could do.  I remember reading as a child the recollection of Atina Bojadži, the first Yugoslav woman to swim it.  She was a professional swimmer and I remember her story of jellyfish, cold grey sea and feeding from a plastic cup for thirteen heroic hours.  It was never something I would be able to do.

Without aspirations to do more after, I swam the length of Windermere in August of 2014 and was encouraged by the sense of achievement it gave me.  However, I was utterly spent after that distance (10.5 miles) and I worked out that swimming the Channel was not for me.  I didn’t tell anyone that my ambitions really ended there.  Then, one evening in September that year over a course of a romantic dinner, Bettina, my life partner told me that she had worked out that I had Channel aspirations and that if I wanted to do that, it should be this year.  Swimming the channel requires a lot of home support and I knew that if something like that was readily offered, I should take it up.  But the truth is I did not have any aspirations or ideas at the time!  Bettina often knows my mind better than I do, so I thought, this could be my time for something special.

I will not go into months of training and preparations as this is very similar to what everyone else does in preparing for this kind of swim.  Perhaps, if anything, I could have spent more time working on my stroke as that would have made my swim less painful.

I will take the story from the weeks before the swim, and from when I started thinking about how it would go on the day.  I started imagining my swim, the things I looked forward to the most, and things that frightened me.   I was not looking forward to swimming in the dark and that was one of the reasons why I chose an early season swim.  Jellyfish just frightened me and I didn’t even want to think about them.   I also knew that I wasn’t the strongest of characters when it came to the endurance for the sake of it and I knew that I would always re-evaluate my motivation and look for an exit opportunity if it presented itself.  I had to have a plan to deal with this. Even though this was totally new experience for me, and part of the excitement was that it was new, I had to make a mental plan in order to feel confident I would achieve it.  I decided to make a few rules that I would abide by.

  1. Never to think of how big the distance was. This was just another swim.  As I would enter the water, I would not look up and think about France.  Just get in and swim.
  2. Never look back and never look forward. I was warned by many experienced people that you can always see both shores and that it can play dangerous tricks with your mind.  Therefore, I will stop myself from looking back.  And looking forward…
  3. I will not ask how long I have to go, or where I am.
  4. My crew will have the ultimate responsibility over what happens to me. It will be their call to pull me out.

My plan was not to think about the distance.  I worked out that it would take me about 15 hours to complete the swim, maybe an hour over this.  I knew I could do 8 hours as I swam this long in Windermere last year and I completed one training session in Dover that was 7 hours followed by 6 the next day.  I was to get to 8 hours and only think about those 8 hours and count every half hour between the feeds and tick them off mentally.  Once I had done 8 hours, I would then set myself a goal to do another 4, then 2 etc, halving the time each time.  This way I could distract myself to 15 maybe 16 hours and by then I would either be there or that I would be asked to sprint in which case the goal would be apparent.

The week before the swim actually happened, I was convinced that the swim was on.

Thursday midnight start looked fantastic on Wind Finder and other web based tools so I prepared the feeds, and the boxes and had a few hours rest.  It was at 6pm that Mike Oram called and questioned my sanity.  He obviously had different sources of information and was proved correct.  I don’t think any boats went that night.  The disappointment of a cancelled swim combined with excess of sugars from carb loading and a total lack of activity of the week before to give me an awful deflated feeling.  I froze my feeds and went to bed.  The whole next week looked unswimmable and my imminent move to California loomed over the horizon.  My swim was not going to happen and I started to think of what to do with my booking.  The prospect of training for it next season was just something I did not want to consider.  I had given up hope.

On Wednesday 29 July things started to look up but the best weather was coming for the weekend and perhaps I was going to go on Friday.  I was having a relaxed dinner of curry, washed down with three large glasses of red wine when the tranquility of the evening was broken by the phone ringing.  It was Mike.  This time he said we could try at 7 AM, the next day, Thursday 30th July.  We could just look and see and if it wasn’t looking good, we could try again at 11 AM.  That was the best he could offer before I emigrated on Sunday.  Not perfect, but swimmable.  I was totally unprepared for this!  The week of dashed hopes has completely robbed me of any excitement I should have felt.

I rang Jason and consulted with him.  He immediately got excited as the 30th July was his “channelversary”, having completed his swim on the same day one year before.  He was in, so were Helens Gibbs and Liddle, and Andrew Maisey.

Jason came for me before dawn the following morning and we drove to Dover, talking about random things, occasionally Jason giving me some last minute tips.  We passed miles and miles of parked lorries as the operation ‘Stack’ was at its height.  The others were already waiting for us at the marina.  I was not getting ahead with any excitement as there was still a chance of my swim getting canceled or postponed till the afternoon.  I knew I couldn’t afford too many disappointments if the Channel chose not to let me swim that morning.

Sea Satin in the Marina

Sea Satin in the Marina

We walked down the steps to the marina where three boats were waiting.  I asked a chubby guy on board of Sea Satin if he was waiting for me, and he was.  It was Lance Oram, the same pilot that took Jason across, exactly a year earlier, on the same boat.

Now the excitement was building.  I stripped down to my speedos, I was greased up and we started to pull away.  Then, the pilot asked for the rest of the money.  One thing I was meant to remember – I had forgotten!    We turned back, sprinted to Andrew’s car and the three of us blokes rushed to the nearest cash machine to withdraw a large sum of money still due to the pilot.  A very embarrassing start and a potential show stopper even before the swim even started.

Bojan

Once back on board Sea Satin, I enjoyed the atmosphere around me.  This really was the beginning of my swim and the sea looked amazing.  As we pulled away from the marina and were near the wall I could see the imposing white cliffs painted pink by the rising sun.  The sea looked pinkish grey and was slightly roughed by the north easterly breeze but still inviting.  Over last few months I agonized over the actual moment of the start of my swim.  I wanted to start in the dark to avoid night swimming towards the end.  I imagined it in so many ways, but not like that.  I did not imagine that I would ever have that inner peace in me that had the ability to calm the sea and the sky.  I felt quiet.  Not excited, not nervous, I felt great.

Foxy, the ginger bearded crew member on board gave me a few tips and instructed me how to enter.  I was to jump, not dive, on the starboard side of the vessel, then swim to the shore and clear water.  Once I was out, the ship’s horn would blow on the nearest full minute and I was to swim to France.

He said:  “All you have to do is put one arm in front of the other and soon you will be there”.  This sentence resonated in my head in the hours that would come.

I repeated to myself again, “It is just another swim”.  Not to France, but just aswim.

As I jumped in, I was pleasantly surprised how warm the water was.  It was what I imagined 18 degrees would feel (I now know it was more like 16.5) and I was encouraged by this.  It took me less than a minute to get to Shakespeare beach where few people were sitting, one guy fishing.  I wondered at how different our worlds were.  Three people on the same beach, sharing the same space and moment yet one was about to do something out of the ordinary, to go where he has never been and the other two fishing, as they probably do every day.  Maybe this is wasn’t that special to them.  Maybe they see this every day, just another guy about to swim the channel.  I will never know.

I did not hear the boat’s siren but I heard the cheers of my crew and saw them waving me on.  I went forward.  To my mind I ran as if I was going to shave precious seconds of my swim, although it must have been an awkward waddle, for I cannot run since my car accident.  As I started my swim, I felt excited. Everything was right.  The water felt good, my shoulders were feeling fine and finally I had the boat with my crew next to me.  I never really swam next to a boat before and was not sure what to do and how to keep the distance, but Sea Satin had that calmness about her, as her name would suggest.  She proved to be such a trusted companion in the times of crisis that would come.  But I wasn’t thinking about that then.  I was just swimming, looking to calm my nerves and get to the first feed that I arranged for one hour in.  I loved it, yet I was eager to get to that first feed.  It was such a big milestone.  No hour that was to follow felt that long or was wished away so quickly, yet this was the hour when I was truly happy.  I did not think about what I was doing, no glance back or forward to remind me of the task ahead.  I just swam, next to her, like a dolphin playing in her bow wave, next to my crew who looked happy and excited and I smiled to them.  I smiled with nearly every breath I took.

Just Getting Going

Just Getting Going

I was swimming The Channel!  “Stop that thought!  This was just another swim”, I had to remind myself not to think of the challenge ahead.  Then, finally I saw the 5 minute board, I gave the thumb up that was to signal that I understood the message and soon enough came the feed.  I downed it and started swimming again to the cheer of Helen.  I truly settled into my swim.  I was thinking about my plan, getting to those 8 hours.  The messages of support written on the large whiteboard helped with this.  After every feed, my crew would write something on the board.  I couldn’t read it all at once and later on I learned to savour this.  If I read it too soon, it would take longer to the feed.  So I would glance with one eye and read a few words.  Sometimes I would make a mistake and totally get the wrong message which would make me chuckle.  But the time would pass and this early on, it was so important.  I loved reading the messages from my closest, from Bettina and the children but also from people I hadn’t heard from in a while.

I will not be able to recollect my swim in a minute by minute account as it was far too long for this and my mind does not work in straight lines like that.  I will try to give a few impressions that have left an imprint in my mind.

The first eight hours went slowly, but those hours were surprisingly smooth and beautiful.  The water was blue and clear which I didn’t expect in the sea renowned for its flotsam and jetsam.  I only saw one tanker, and only when I saw my crew pointing directly ahead.  Swimming next to Sea Satin was so quiet and tranquil.  I was also worried about what was to come and was thinking about my fears.  I knew there were jellyfish ahead and I was hoping that I would miss them.  I was also worried about night swimming.  I remember repeating to myself the famous quote from the British wartime leader: “This is not the end, not even the beginning of the end … etc..”.  At some point Jason jumped in with me, and we swam together for an hour.  There was banter on the boat, I could see the crew goofing about and laughing and even I made a few jokes while swimming and they understood them.  I felt part of a team.

Classic!

Classic!

At some point around the eight hour mark, I saw the first jellyfish.  It was deep, far too deep to give me a sting, yet it was disconcerting.  Then I saw a few more, and soon enough swam right past a couple.  Each time I would twitch and jerk in order to avoid them and each time I reassured myself how lucky I was to have missed them.  I really was worried about jellyfish!  Then I swam through a first pod(?) of jellies and remember protesting out loud how disgusting they were.  I even complained to Andrew about them as I was taking my feed, almost wanting to get out because of them.  Andrew’s reply woke me up a little.  His words were:  “The jellies are least of your problems, keep swimming!”  Yes, I thought, everyone goes through them.  The stings were unpleasant. Someone described it to me that they were just like stinging nettles, and that is exactly what they were.  The texture of their tentacles was like a worn out old rope, rough and hard, and they stung not more than a stinging nettle would.

Bojan5

As I swam though “swarms” of jellies, I would scoop them by my hands and they would sting my face and neck and mostly my feet.  The first few would not hurt much but by the time I was stung more than certain number, say twenty or more times, the pain threshold would be reached and they would hurt more.  But the stings would wear off in minutes, if not seconds.  They were such a big worry on my mind before the swim and turned out not to be a big deal in the end, but my real problems were just about to start.

After about eleven hours of swimming, my right, usually healthy shoulder began to tire and I cried out in pain as I stopped to feed.  I asked for painkillers and I got some sympathy from the boat as I think they saw it in my stroke.  My mind started to play up after that.  I knew I still had a fair way to swim but what I didn’t know was how much I had left in this shoulder.  It was increasingly more difficult to ‘zone out’ and just swim.  All I thought about was my shoulder and how much longer I had.  I began thinking about the distance ahead and that was not a good place to be.  I saw the land in front of me.  It looked close and far at the same time and I was trying to count the hours that remain and work out if my shoulder would last that long.  Occasional jellyfish would sting me and focus me on my swimming but these were rare now.  I prayed for them to return!

I started to throw tantrums.  I am talking, toddler, two-year-old-lost-my-dummy types.  I threw everything but the tears which for some reason did not come.  The croaky voice of a grotty three year old child was there though.  By looking ahead I had worked out that I had at least another five hours to go and I was in such a pain that I could not face swimming for that long.  I wanted it over.  I begged my crew to pull me out and all I got was four of them waving me on with a smile.  They stood together on the prow of the boat and waved me on with a smile.  Yes, with a smile.  I loathed them.  The smugness of their smile just insulted me.  What did they know about the pain I was in?  They didn’t even know that this swim did not matter to me anymore.  I hated my crew!

The Crew, Helen, Andrew, Helen, Jason

The Crew, Helen, Andrew, Helen, Jason

The trouble for me and for my tantrums was that I could only communicate to them at feeding times.  So when I stopped to feed, I would say whatever I could say in those 10 maybe 20 seconds in between swallowing the waves.   I would then be told to down my feed, which I would, and then my tantrum was over and I would swim on.  At the following feed I would forget about the last time I had a tantrum and it would carry on like that.  I wasn’t happy but I kept turning my arms over and sometimes even forgetting about the pain.  I didn’t know it but I was making progress.  (Editor’s note:  it wasn’t that bad – he didn’t tantrum that much)

Eventually, I saw something unusual at feeding time.  Normally I would get the signal at 5 minutes and would see one person with my feed bottle.  This time Helen was waiting by the little hatch where the pilot was sitting and others were busy doing something else.  I knew this was different and I paid attention.  They told me what I wanted to hear.  If I gave it all for half an hour, and she meant I give all I had, I could just make it to the Cap.  Wow, I thought!  This was it.  Jason jumped in with me and I sprinted.  My shoulder did not hurt!  An old cliché came to my mind: “channel swim is 90% mental”.  It was.  I was flying to the Cap.  Jason was swimming on my left side and I could not really see him but I felt his presence.  It makes a huge difference having a buddy to jog along at times like this.  We sprinted together.  I know he had to work hard to stay behind me as I could not have been fast, but I felt like I was moving again.  After the first half an hour, we did another sprint and then Jason had to get out.  But my spirits were high and I did another sprint, and then another.  By this time those physical 10% were not there and even my mental strength and optimism could not move my dead arm any more.  I was sinking into that mental low again and soon any drive I had was crushed when Jason told me that we had just missed the Cap.  Another tantrum from me and more misery with the realization that I would have to find another 3, maybe even 5 hours of swimming.  This must have been the lowest point.  I felt alone.  The crew were resting as they were probably bracing themselves for another 5-6 hours.  I gave up, wanting to get out.  My shoulder hurt every time my hand touched the water.  It then hurt as I was pulling it through the water and it hurt as I tried lifting it out.  It was dark and before I started I really didn’t want to swim in the dark.  Yet, I found consolation in the darkness.  I felt that nobody could see my pain, and I wanted to be alone.  I saw the moon, that big yellow moon, just one night from being full.  My throat was burning from the salt water I swallowed and I could no longer control swallowing more.  I didn’t want to feed when the feeding time came.  I was about to beg them again to let me out and then I realized something.  I asked myself, “why do I need them to pull me out?”  Surely, if I wanted to get out that bad, all I had to do was grab hold of that ladder and get out, or get into the safety dingy.   That would be game over.  Yet I didn’t do that.  I didn’t dare.  I guess I didn’t really want to get out.  I wanted someone else to make that call for me so I could go on and say I did so well and I got pulled out.  It was cowardly to expect the crew to make this decision for me and I was now ashamed of it.  I never thought I would get that low and that surprised me.  I knew the channel would put my character under test, and this was it.  The lowest place I could fall to I had just found.  Bizarrely, I was comforted in the knowledge that this was it.

Another thought started to play on my mind during this time. I was beginning to test the logic I used to convince myself that giving up is an option.  The logic was simple:  I had done enough, over 15, 16 etc. hours and the pain was unbearable.  Get out now, and I will still have done a gutsy swim.  I would say to myself and others that I did so well and that I just couldn’t get that last bit out.  But there was a flaw in that thinking.  I realized that in a few months the pain would go, and I would look at the map and see how close I got to France.  Then there will be “what if?”  It would be unfinished business that would get me to do this all over again.  So giving up now, is just making the whole thing longer as it will have to be done all over again.

There was no getting out, so I kept swimming.  I realised that I had behaved like a coward for asking my crew to get me out when I could have gotten out myself and I realized that I didn’t want to swim this water again.  Those two thoughts pushed me on.  I realized that no matter how badly I hurt and how bad I felt, I would just have to swim on and metaphorically ‘give birth’ to this swim as, like with childbirth, there was no turning back.  I swam like I was in a trance.  I would momentarily fall asleep as my head would submerge in the darkness of the Channel and would open one eye when I turned to breathe.  I didn’t think about the pain.  I didn’t think about time.  I didn’t think about my crew or the Channel or the feeds.  I was at peace with myself, with the Channel and the world.  I remember thinking that it was strange that I had to do all that to get to that tranquil state, as if all the pain and tiredness only had a purpose of getting me there and I was grateful for that.

And then it all ended.  I was given a stern message from home that “Bettina said, you are not to give up now” and I was told by the crew  “you are not getting any more painkillers as we are all getting ready to swim with you to the shore”.  I was happy for the message from home as in my weaker moments I fantasized of the warm bed and a hug from my wife and I needed that reminder that she sacrificed a lot and wanted me to go on and get to France.  I was suddenly alert and awake.  This swim was ending!  I wanted it to end and I was happy, overjoyed to see my crew jumping in.  We swam in with them in tow; I gave it all to get there as there wasn’t much left.

A Sting in the Tail

A Sting in the Tail

The Channel worked her magic and created something spectacular for me to see and to remember.  I could see the beach and the forest that framed it beyond, illuminated by the silvery glow of the moon.  The shadows played on the sand, formed by the ships intense reflectors moving with the waves and the strong moonlight giving it a silvery colour.  I was lifted by a breaking wave and I stumbled on to the sand.  I had another twenty, maybe even fifty metres to walk in order to completely clear the water.

I didn’t feel any sense of achievement at that time or even the intense emotion that I anticipated.  But I did walk slowly, slower than I could have done, enjoying the cheers and clapping from my mates who walked behind me.  I loved it.  Like in the hours before, I didn’t dare say to myself that I swam the Channel.  This was just a swim, even at that special moment.  However, my eyes well up whenever I think about it now.  It was truly a beautiful moment, one of those moments that will be savoured often and on demand, whenever in future I need to pull myself together and remind myself of what I’m truly capable of.  I remember thinking how I would never ever want to swim that water again, and yet, as I am writing this, I would give anything to stumble out of that water on to the soft sand of Wissant Bay.  I had made it! I got to the other side and picked up that pebble.  That was special.

Throughout my swimming training I struggled with my own company.  I reaffirmed what I always knew, that I am a team person.  That aspect of Channel swimming worried me a little.  I barely survived seven hours of Dover training and I was bored senseless, not talking to myself by the end having fallen out with that voice in my head several times.  You see, I need people to bounce ideas off all the time.  I need someone to challenge me and I need to challenge.  I have this need to pull the weight for another person, I need to give, and to take.  I am not a loner and never have been.

I could never fathom how I would cope with fifteen hours of my own company, let alone over nineteen.  Swimming the Channel gave me that answer.  Channel swimming is a team sport and I was so proud to be part of this team.  Throughout this swim, even when nobody was there to be seen, I felt the presence of my crew and I felt their encouragement. They looked after me in physical sense, by giving me feeds and support swims but belonging to this team pushed me further.  I had them in my darkest moments to be my enemies so that I could loathe them, so I didn’t turn on myself, and I had them in the moments of glory to love them when they jumped in with me and let me take those few steps together on the beach.  I had chosen my team well and we all pulled it together.

All I had to do was turn my arms over …

The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part III – Bala

After Debbie landed the swim at Ambleside, the team had no time to lose.  It was already lunchtime, and we still had to drive us and all of the gear to Snowdonia and swim Bala to complete the 3 Lakes Challenge.

I had a lovely snooze (again) in the back of the van, after a makeshift lunch from whatever snacks were left lying around in the minibus from the previous day.

The 3rd Lake - Bala, or Llyn Tegid

The 3rd Lake – Bala, or Llyn Tegid

While the shortest of the 3 Lakes at somewhere around 6 km, Bala was actually logistically the hardest.  Boat hire on Awe and Windermere was straightforward, but motorized boat transport on Bala was harder to organize.  While it would have been possible to get a permit, the boat would have needed to have been brought in from somewhere else, which would have stretched the budget too far.

In the end, we opted to hire a kayak to accompany the swimmer, with the added safety of a towfloat, to be handed over at the takeovers.  As we were swimming down the shore of the lake from one end to the other, each new swimmer would swim out from the bank for the takeover, with the observer staying on the bank.  We also lucked out, Graham Killingbeck, Dad of 16-year old Channel Conqueror Hazel happened to be at Bala for the day, and was press-ganged at short notice to kayak.  Thank you Graham!!!

As a note to future challengers, this was more than a little stressful at times, and warrants some prior planning for multiple eventualities.  We ended up swimming with a stiff wind behind us, meaning we went quite quickly.  At times there was a deal of scrambling along the bank through undergrowth and thickets of trees.  If we did this again, I think we would bite the bullet and hire a boat.

The team before starting Bala - bright and breezy!

The team before starting Bala – bright and breezy!

Helen Liddle started us off with the kayak at the Glan Llyn Outdoor Activity Centre Beach at the south of the Lake.  Please note that permission is required to use this start point, so please call ahead. The swim was windy throughout, with white crests for the whole duration of the swim. As Debbie had been the last swimmer in Windermere, and was in for more than 30 minutes, our pre-posted rules stated that the next swimmer in line would start Bala. Helen reported tough conditions getting round the corner and into the lake proper. All subsequent swimmers surfed down the lake with a tasty wind behind……

Helen L starting us off

Helen L starting us off

Sam and Helen G did their 1/2 hour slots, before in the end it fell to me to bring the swim home.  We completed in 1 h 43 minutes, with a small 13 minute last leg for me!

The finish point was in front of the Bala Adventure Watersports Centre at the north of the Lake, in very shallow water.  All of the others came in off a nearby jetty, and followed me in as I limped over the sharp rocks in to shore.

We had done it!

Challenge Complete!

Challenge Complete!

Under overcast skies, just after 6 PM on the second day, the inaugural 3 Lakes Challenge was completed.  It was LOT of fun, and we can recommend it to anyone who fancies a challenge, either as a team, or for anyone strong enough and daft enough, as a solo.

The benchmarks out there are as follows:

For a 5 person relay:

Total time elapsed from start of Awe to end of Bala – 36 hours 23 minutes

Total swim time – 19 hours 23 minutes

Travel time – 17 hours

I think the most meaningful time for people to shoot for is the total swim time, so long as the whole thing is completed within a given 48 hour period.  It would be a shame to encourage people to better the time simply by racing the drives between lakes.  Safety should always be the most important thing!

Many thanks to the team once again, including Tanja our observer, Roger our tireless driver, and Levi, the bemused, but ever-affable dog.

(Note – An observers report will be filed with WOWSA and MSF)

The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part II – Windermere

On finishing Loch Awe, and getting a good meal on board, the team piled into the 17-seater minibus, and Roger drove us south.  Each swimmer had a row of seats in the back of the minibus, padded out with bags and things, to try and fashion a bed each.

Luckily, I have always been great at sleeping while on the move, so went straight off as we made our way towards Windermere.  I think it took us 5 hours or so, with a couple of comfort breaks for everyone and the dog, during which time the weather closed in.  Heavy rain.

It was still dark when we arrived at Fell foot, the southern starting point of our second swim, so I went back off to sleep for another couple of hours, while thunder and lightning crashed around us.

At about 5 in the morning people started moving, getting what breakfast they could on board, before Tors arrived with the electric boat from the pick up point in distant Bowness.  She arrived about 1/2 an hour later motoring down out of the mist and gloom, and mooring up at Fell Foot.

Here is a photo taken of the team at about this time.  Everyone looking a little brown around the edges after a night on the road….

Forced smiles at 5:30 AM

Forced smiles at 5:30 AM

As the swimmer in the water at the finish of the previous lake, I was the one to start the next leg, albeit for only a 12 minute spell, handing over to Debbie.  I got changed into my wet swimmers, and made my way to the stone archway at Fell Foot, preparing myself for a swim I was really NOT feeling the love for in any way.

Love for swimming, wherefore art thou?

Love for swimming, wherefore art thou?

I swam up through the moored boats, and was soon joined by the others on the boat.  The water felt wonderful; it is always amazing how water has the power to restore when you are feeling a little jaded.  The records show that the temperature was up around 18C.

While the rain had stopped, it was still heavily overcast, and sheet lightning was still visible in the west.

It was quickly time for me to get out, and for Debbie to take over. Soon after getting in, the rain came back, light at first, then heavy.  Luckily we had hired a boat with covers, which we pulled over to protect us from the deluge.  If we had had weather like this on Loch Awe, we would have all got soaked.

Debbie was having a whale of a time swimming in the torrential rain, though we did feel a little sorry for her, isolated in the water while we all cowered inside the little boat.

Classic Lakeland Weather

Classic Lakeland Weather

We started to feel more than a little sorry for her when the sheet lightning started up rather closer to the boat.  This was a slightly sketchy moment.  What if the lightning was in danger of hitting the swimmer?  This was a scenario we hadn’t planned for.  Nothing in our stated rules allowed for this.  If Debbie had to be pulled out of the water, that was game over once again.  Fortunately, the lightning didn’t hang around too long, and by the end of Debbie’s hour, the rain had gone away too.  While it was by no means sunny, we were back on track with the swimming and the takeovers, all enjoying mirror conditions as we headed north towards Ambleside.

Helen L replaced Debbie, swimming nicely up the eastern shore, before Sam jumped in to take us past Storr’s Temple.

Sam - heading towards the ferry

Sam – heading towards the ferry

As we neared the ferry, Sam was replaced by Helen, who shot through the ferry line without needing to stop, and up past Belle Isle, shooting the lilies and arrowing north.

Helen on the charge

Helen on the charge

I jumped in with about 3 miles to go, expecting to soon cross the lake.  I got a bit confused when we never did.  It turned out that the lake got really busy at that point, with pleasure craft, kayaks, a waterskier, and various ferries plying the lake.  The team made the decision that we didn’t want to do a takeover in the middle of the lake.  Despite the boat and the flag alpha, it was too much of a risk, so Debbie jumped in for her second swim of the day, with around a mile to go, crossing over from the west side to around Low Wood Marina.

At the beach at Ambleside

At the beach at Ambleside

Debbie in the last mile

Debbie in the last mile

After 5 hours and 53 minutes, Debbie landed it at Ambleside, we had succeeded in completing the 10.5 miles of the second lake.  All swimmers swam a full hour, with Debbie and I topping and tailing at either end.  The temperature went up from 18C to 20C during the swim, conditions were nigh on perfect, other than the lightning of course!  Again, we completed the swim in good time, with strong swimming all round.  Nice work team!

The one thing we had struggled with was getting swimmers out of the water after their stints.  The rope ladder we had taken with us was by no means as good as the solid ladder we had on Loch Awe.  There was a good deal of grunting and swearing, as swimmers were part hauled out of the water!

We waved good bye to Tors, who had met us at the end, and was taking the boat back for us (Thank you Tors for helping us out so generously), while we all piled back into the minibus, for the drive to Wales.  Surely that was the hard bit done right? Little lake Bala at only 4 miles long couldn’t trip us up could it……..?

The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part I – Loch Awe

Thursday July 3rd 2015.

The team met up at Glasgow airport for the drive north to Loch Awe.  Helen (Gibbs) and I had flown up that morning from London, Helen (Liddle) had driven up the previous day, and joined Sam Plum, Debbie Taylor, our observer Tanja, and Roger (Sam’s husband) to pick up the minibus that would be our itinerant home for the next few days.  The team was rounded off by Levi, Sam and Roger’s quite gorgeous black Labrador.

Just as a recap, the ‘3 Lakes Challenge’ popped into my head as an idea almost 2 years ago, as the swimming equivalent of the ‘National Three Peaks Challenge’, a very well known UK institution: The National Three Peaks Challenge (Source – Wikipedia) is an event in which participants attempt to climb the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours. It is frequently used to raise money for charitable organisations. Walkers climb each peak in turn, and are driven from the foot of one mountain to the next. The three peaks are:

  • Ben Nevis / Beinn Nibheis (1,344 m or 4,409 ft), the highest mountain in Scotland
  • Scafell Pike (978 m or 3,209 ft), the highest mountain in England
  • Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa (1,085 m or 3,560 ft), the highest mountain in Wales

Our swimmy equivalent was (logically) to swim, as a relay, the length of the the longest lake in each country.  The 24 hour goal was a little on the ambitious side, so we decided to stage the inaugural attempt over two days. All I did pretty much was have the idea, before handing over the organisation to Helen Liddle, who assembled the dream team, and coordinated the transport and support for the event.  Thank you Helen!

A few hours later we arrived at one end of Loch Awe, where we were to start the swim the following morning. Inauspiciously, a steady drizzle, and clouds of Scotland’s trademark summer midges greeted us at the Torran Bay Hostel, at the extreme western end of the Loch.

Cliff our friendly boat-rental man also met us, dropping off our transport. Despite the limited visibility, it was clear that the Loch was very beautiful place, and we were in for a treat the next day. Torran Bay Hostel After dinner and an early night, we rose early, getting ourselves and our gear organised.  The great thing about the Torran Bay was that it was right by our start point, so loading the boat was straightforward. Loch_Awe_Route Helen Gibbs, as the fastest of the team and lead-off swimmer, started the swim a matter of yards away from where she had slept the night before!

Helen at the Start of Loch Awe

Helen at the Start of Loch Awe

The surface of the Loch for much of the first half was mirror flat.  As Helen and then I swam the first couple of hours, the weather was moody and atmospheric, with fog hanging over the hills and mountains, but a promise of sun glimmering further up the Loch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Third in was Debbie.  We were approaching a small island on the left shore of the Loch, and decided to shoot between the island and the bank.  It soon became apparent that while Debbie was going to make it through, the boat was not!  We waved Debbie on, telling her we would meet her on the other side, after doubling back round the island.  Off she swam into the misty gloom.

Debbie's Island

Debbie’s Island

While attempting to turn the boat around, the outboard engine on the boat died.  This felt like a massive crisis, as our swimmer was by that time out of shouting range heading off up the Loch, and we had no power.  It felt like the swim was massively at risk only 3 hours in; if Debbie got to the end of her hour and the next swimmer wasn’t ready by her side, that was game over, our self-declared rules broken – end of challenge.  All hinged, therefore, on the spare outboard, which Cliff had told us we wouldn’t need, sparking up, and getting caught up with Debbie in time.

Thankfully it did work, and after 10 minutes or so we finally caught up with Debbie, who was still swimming like a trooper, and had assumed we had got stuck turning round.  We called Cliff on the ‘phone, and a few hours later he came out and repaired the main engine.  You can see on the Spot Tracker image that it looks like we crossed the island on the boat.  We actually doubled back and went round it!

After Debbie came Helen L.  After Helen L came Sam.  And we made steady progress up the Loch, with the whole team swimming strongly.  The sun came out, and the day developed into a very lovely mixture of sunshine and scattered clouds, warm air and light winds.  The scenery was beautiful:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What wind there was was behind us, which was a piece of luck.  We had all done enough swimming to know that even after an hour, swimming into head-on chop is no fun!  After 8 hours or so, Cliff and his wife joined us again on the lake, bringing bacon sandwiches with him for the mid afternoon munchies.  Top bloke!

And so it came to the business end.  We had mentally planned for about 14 hours for this leg of the challenge, but favourable conditions and some strong, confident swimming all round was making it look like we might actually go under 12. Helen got in for her 3rd hour at hour 11, taking us up through the islands at the north-eastern end of the lake, and putting me, as second swimmer, within shooting distance of the finish.

The incredibly atmospheric ruined Kilchurn Castle loomed into view at the far end of the Loch as I jumped in.  Despite being less than 3 km from the finish, we could not yet see the finish point, which we already knew to be the railway bridge over the River Orchy which the Loch turns into at its finish. As I jumped in, it was striking how much warmer the water was.  It had been getting steadily warmer all day, from a starting point around 13C, up to 18C at the end, with some sun-warmed shallow patches feeling even warmer.

The water got very shallow at the top end of the lake, forcing me and the support boat over to the northern bank.  Kilchurn Castle was over to my right now, and still I couldn’t see the finish, until suddenly there was lot of excited pointing from the boat.  We had come round the corner, and there was the bridge, about 500 m distant.

Finished!

Finished!

Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn Castle

I was immediately spurred into some faster swimming.  Up went the stroke rate and the effort. There is nothing like seeing the end to inject a bit of energy into a swim.  It soon became clear as I got closer to the end, that progress wasn’t quite as fast as I felt the effort deserved!  It dawned on me that we were on a shallow river, and I was swimming against a small current.  I was really keen to nail the swim there and then, especially as I had lost sight of the boat by that point, and thought there might be a possibility that again, the team might be marooned, on the hour, away from the swimmer in the water, just like we thought we were at risk of earlier in the day when we lost the engine.

As it turned out, we were OK, and I made it under the bridge with 12 minutes to spare.  Furthermore, the boat finished under the next arch over from me at about the same time, having moved over from my left to my right, the side to which, in my haste to finish, I was no longer breathing to. At last, after 11 hours and 48 minutes, with a handful of butterfly strokes under the bridge, the first leg was over.

Loch Awe had far surpassed expectations.  Everyone had swum hard, and enjoyed some remarkably ‘unScottish’ weather.  Landing a 25 mile swim sub-12 hours was a great achievement for the team, and a great start to the 3 Lakes Challenge. Less than an hour later, we were all sitting down to some dinner and a well-earned pint in the garden of a local hotel, in balmy summer sunshine.  In a couple of hours we would all be back aboard the minibus, for Roger to drive us overnight down to the English Lake District, ready for Leg 2 of the challenge, Windermere…….

3 Lakes Challenge – Tracker Link and Rules

The 3 Lakes Challenge is nearly upon us.  Most of the stuff is packed, flights, B&Bs, transport booked.

Our Observer for the swims will be Tanja Slater,  former professional triathlete and cyclist, now a coach:

Link to Tanja’s Homepage

Here are the details of the Spot Tracker:

Link to Spot Tracker

We will be swimming under a modification of the rules set out on the website of the Marathon Swimmers’ Federation:

MSF Rules

This set of rules was developed by consensus over at the MSF website, driven largely by Evan Morrison and Donal Buckley. Special provision is found in the rules for multi-leg swims and relays.  This swim is both relay and multileg, and has the following special rules, which we deem to be within the ‘Spirit’ of Marathon Swimming.

(1) Each swimmer will swim for 1 hour, with standard rules for taking over.  Where 1 swimmer finishes a Lake with time remaining on their 1 hour shift, they will be the first to enter the next Lake to complete their hour.

(2) Bala is very short compared to the other 2 Lakes.  As such, in order that most or all of the swimmers get the opportunity to swim in that Lake, shifts will be only 30 minutes.  If the swimmer completing the previous Lake had already swum in excess of 30 minutes, then the next swimmer in order will be the one to start Bala.  If the swimmer completing the previous Lake had already swum less than 30 minutes, they will complete that 30 minute shift before the next swimmer takes their turn in the usual order.

(3) The swimmer who ‘brings the swim home’ at Bala may be joined for the last short distance (~ 100 m) by the other team members, so long as they do not touch, or swim in front of, the final swimmer.

Timings

The timing clock will start as soon as the first swimmer enters the water at either end of Loch Awe.  The clock will continue uninterrupted until the final swimmer clears the water at Bala.  The total swim time will therefore include all traveling time between Lakes, as well as the time required to complete the 40 miles or so of swimming!

Guest Post – The Three Lakes Challenge

By Helen Liddle – 24th June 2015

Almost 2 years ago, I emerged from swimming the length of Lake Windermere to hear stories of a guy who had appeared on the beach at Waterhead, who had also swum the lake that day.  But it wasn’t until a week later that I actually met Jason.  A lovely sunny day, we were sat by the river Cam talking swimmy talk when he mentioned a challenge that he had come up with.  Helen G and myself both showed an interest and the seed was sown!

JB and HelenG

JB and HelenG

So 2 years and a few epic swims and some fun in and out of the water later, we are a few weeks away from our challenge. Somehow, I’m not sure how it happened, I got the job of organiser, so the first thing was to find two more swimmers.  One drunken evening after Chillswim and Debbie Taylor and Sam Plum were persuaded that they would like to join us and so we had our team. 5 accomplished swimmers with swims such as Ice K’s, Channel relays, Channel solos, Windermere solos and 2Swim4Life to mention but a few!  I then set about the logistics of the challenge.

Helen, Debbie and Sam - in a Lake Somewhere

Helen, Debbie and Sam – in a Lake Somewhere

‘So what is this challenge?’, I hear you cry.  Well, you’ve heard of the 3 Peaks Challenge, where hill walkers scale the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales in a single weekend?  Well we will be swimming the 3 longest lakes in Scotland, England and Wales in relay format.  Standard Channel rules apply, only a single non-insulating swimsuit, cap and goggles.  We are attempting to do this in under 48 hours including traveling time between lakes.

JB was pretty sure that this was the first time this had been attempted and much excitement ensued about the prospect.  A few calls later and it was confirmed – we would in fact be the first team to attempt the challenge.

On the 3rd of July, we will start in Loch Awe in Bonny Scotland.  It is the longest freshwater loch in Scotland, measuring 41 kilometres (25 miles) from end to end with an average width of 1-kilometre (0.62 mile).  Loch Awe is not the deepest or the largest surface area of Scotland’s lochs, nor does it contain the most water, but it is the longest, beating Lochs Lomond and Ness.

We will then drive to Lake Windermere, 16.9 kilometres (10.5 mi).  The lake varies in width up to a maximum of 1.49 kilometres (0.93 mile), and covers an area of 14.73 square kilometres.

Finally, the third lake will be Llyn Tegid in Wales, or Bala as its better known.  It is 4 miles (6.4 km) long by 1 mile (1.6 km) wide.

And there you have it ‘the 3 lakes challenge’ or ‘Loch, Lake, Llyn’.  We will be supported by Sam’s husband Roger and Levi the dog!  When we get closer to the time, we will circulate a tracker link!  The challenge will take place on 3rd and 4th July.

 

The ‘Grown Up Swim’ – 12 Hours at Solstice-time

Last weekend I marked the summer solstice by taking part in Nick Adams’ ‘Grown-up Swim’.  Nick did the organizing, but was invaluably helped by Sakura Adams, and a small crew of helpers/kayakers, including Helen who was there for me.

Grown-up maybe in that it extended the swimmer’s normal 6-7 daytime hours in Dover Harbour to 12, overnight.  Not so grown-up in that most adults would think it an act of folly – just not very sensible at all……

Anyway – the format was as follows:

  1. You get in to the harbor at Swimmers’ beach at 9 PM on Saturday 20th English Channel rules apply – one single non-insulating swimming costume, one latex or silicone hat and goggles.  Lights on head and tail, and to aid in safety/spotting, a towfloat adorned with glowsticks and a whistle, to be tied to each swimmer.
  2. You swim for an hour, before feeding at the beach, thereafter feeds at half-hourly intervals until 9 AM.  Liquid feed was to be Nick’s own particular brand of Maxi containing fruit sugar, occasionally interspersed with different solids on the hour (more of that later).

Simple enough in theory. What’s so hard about that?

The main worry for me ahead of the event was the 14C water temperature, and the lack of any sun to warm the shoulders.  On my day in the English Channel last summer, the water was 18-19C, and most of the swim was in sunshine.  Cold was never in the equation.

Off we went, Stu Bowman, Philip Hodges, Becky Lewis, Dani Lobo, Vicki Miller, Deirdre Ward and me.  At 9 PM, there was still an hour or so of daylight left, so we all elected to go to the East Harbour wall just the once; after the first hour, we would all be limited to the western side of the harbor, no further east than the ‘slopey groyne’.  I had agreed to buddy up with Deirdre, as I had swum with her a few weeks previously, on a four hour in Dover, my longest swim since my April 6-hour in La Jolla with Kevin Smith.  I had warned her that I was a bit of a slow starter.  ‘So am I’, she replied.  A good luck kiss from Helen and off we went – all was well…..

Deirdre, Dani, Vicki, Phil, Me, Becky, Stu - Remember how cheerful we all look!

Deirdre, Dani, Vicki, Phil, Me, Becky, Stu – Remember how cheerful we all look!

The first hour was very pleasant, watching the daylight slowly disappear, and the lights of Dover come on.  Thinking things through, making plans for what I might occupy myself with during the coming night.  The water was fresh – but not bone chilling.  I had chugged a litre of my own Maxi prior to getting in, so felt well nourished.  The arms and shoulders also felt good: I had given myself 2 days complete swimming rest before the swim to give myself a fighting chance.

In a pre-swim discussion with Helen, we had agreed that any moaning or attempts to get out of the swim early would be viewed dimly.  Complaints of pain would be greeted with ‘Are you completely unable to get in there and turn your shoulders over?  If the answer is “Yes I suppose so”, then get on and do it’.  Cold would be sympathized with, but not accepted as an excuse for getting out unless it was clearly becoming dangerous.  Erratic behavior, slurring of words, dramatic fall off in speed would be the clues, and Helen would be the one to pull me out.

At one hour in, the first feed was good.   300 mL Of toasty warm Maxi, a quick ‘Hello’ to the beach crew, and we were off again. At the beginning of the second hour I started to work out some numbers…..

I like numbers.  I have always liked maths, and I found splitting long swims up into chunks a very helpful and motivating tool.  This swim was also a very easy one to chunk up, unlike the English Channel, which lasts as long as it takes to complete the journey to France.  12 Hours between 9 PM and 9 AM.  Each hour represents roughly 8 per cent of the swim.  Get to 3 hours and you are 25% of the way there, 6 hours and you are half way done.  So after only 1 hour, I was nearly 10% of the way through!  I also thought of the swim as ‘just a 10 hour swim’.  In my mind I felt that so long as I got to 10 hours, there was no way I was going to not do the last couple.  So each hour actually represented a whole 10%.  In this way I continued through the night.

In the second hour I actually started to get sore.  This was not welcome news at all.  My right shoulder was giving me some cause for concern and I wasn’t expecting it.  At the 2 hour feed I asked for ibuprofen at the 2 ½ hour feed.  I wanted to try and get on top of this if I could.  I remembered the last couple of hours of my April 6 hour, and how sore I felt, and didn’t want that for 8 hours!

It didn’t get fully dark until the 3rd hour really.  By this time we were confined to the western half of the harbor.   I was still in lock step with Deirdre.  After every feed we would set off towards the western wall, turn, then head back across the harbour, sighting off the white cliff over the end of the slopey groyne.  We would swim towards the slopey groyne, before turning back again towards the beach at about the right time to land there at the right time for the ½ hourly feeds.  This worked very well on the whole, mainly because I left most of the timekeeping to Deirdre.  We went a bit far a couple of times around the 3 hour mark but soon got the hang of timing our return leg to the beach.

The Well-Swum Route - Approx 1.5 km, in straight lines....

The Well-Swum Route – Approx 1.5 km, in straight lines….

At about half past midnight we were joined by Vicky Miller.  This was a bit of a shocker, as Vicki is normally in the super-speedy category like Helen.  Clearly she was in a spot of bother.  Here is her account of what happened to her:

“Although I set off at a fairly speedy rate, as the night set in, I really began to lose motivation and all I could think about was the long night ahead and how I would rather be in a warm cosy bed!  The negative thoughts really took over and I slowed down a lot, focussing on the bad bits much more than I ever have before.  Thankfully I realised I was near Jason and Deirdre so I started swimming with them which helped immeasurably.  I was aware I was swimming slower than normal, but immensely grateful for the company and their encouragement.  I felt bad as I was particularly poor company and did not contribute positivity like I usually try to, but swimming with them helped me focus on going from one feed to the next, and as the sun rose, and we reached two thirds of the way through, I finally started to believe I could make it!  My girlfriend & support swimmer Amy got in at 6.30am which gave me a great boost and I was able to pick up my pace a bit and drive through to the end.  Big thanks to Jason & Deirdre!!”

It only really started to get tough around hour 5.  I was starting to feel cold, still rather sore, and more than a little sorry for myself.  The maxi and hourly solids were starting to weigh heavily in my tummy.  So much that I requested warm water only at the 5 ½ hour feed, which helped a bit.

Soon enough halfway rolled around.  Luckily the air temperature hadn’t dropped much overnight which was a blessing as I was still really struggling with the cold.  The beach crew recorded at 6 ½ hours ‘Jason hurting but pushing through’, and that was how it felt.  This was my lowest point.  I remember vividly thinking to myself ‘Why did bloody Adams have to make this a 12 hour swim?  9PM – 6AM Would have been fine surely for an overnight swim?’

Despite all of this, however, and in a moment of absolute clarity, I knew that if I got to 7 hours OK, I was going to make it.  I am sure there was some number-related logic around that, and also the knowledge that the light of dawn would be coming up over the ferry terminal.  At the 7 hour feed – I knew I had it cracked.  Crazy when you think that 5 long hours remained till Sunday’s Dover training contingent entered the water at 9, and we would be done and getting out.  The power of the mind is an amazing thing.

After about 8 hours, the pain in my right shoulder started to subside, only to be replaced by other pains.  Firstly my hip flexors were acting up.  According to Nick this is a common thing on long, cold swims, and rarely ends a swim, you just have to swim through it, which is what I did.  The second thing was pain in my left elbow – probably some dodgy technique element – I have plenty to choose from.  The third was a pain in my left ribcage, which I think is a hangover from an old set of rugby broken ribs.  I have been a little plagued ever since, but not really on swims.  Again, I think a long, cold swim was the issue.

At 6 AM, the clouds broke, and the sun shone through, a massive psychological boost.  By 7 AM, the sun had gone again.  Nick sarcastically said at the 10 hour feed ‘I bet you are all glad that sun has gone away, especially as none of you have suncream on?’ That was funny, but bittersweet.  However, we were all then at 10 hours in, and only 2 hours to go.  They weren’t an easy 2 hours by any means, but relatively chilled-out (no pun intended).  During the last ½ an hour, Deirdre and I even did some head-up breastroke, and went Helen hunting.  We knew she was in the harbour somewhere, but she took some tracking down.  When we finally found her, it turned out she had already swum past us twice in the previous 1/2 hour and we hadn’t noticed!

Me and Deirdre Going In for the Last 30 Minutes.  Note the blue shoulders......

Me and Deirdre Going In for the Last 30 Minutes. Note the blue shoulders……

As we made our final return journey in to the beach, we could see lots of people coming down the beach to get in for their Sunday training session, most of whom didn’t know quite what we had been up to all night.  It was lovely to see the happy faces, and get a well-deserved hug from Helen, fresh out of the water herself:

Helen Hug

Helen Hug – That felt GOOD!

We all got quickly dressed, hot drinks on board, and there was shivering.  Well there was from me anyway!  Phil finished fresh as a daisy it seemed, good news ahead of his upcoming EC, but we all knew he could cope with the cold….

The post-swim picture tells a slightly different story to the one before the start.  The look of relief and delight on everyone’s faces is plain to see.  Many congratulations to everyone!!

Glad That's Over!!

Glad That’s Over!!

This was the hardest swim I have ever done in some ways.  The only easy thing I think was the certainty that at 12 hours it would all be over, and there was no open-endedness.  The cold, the dark, and the complaining body were less easy.  I am very glad to have done it.  On my Catalina double I will have to swim through (at least) one complete night, and it will stand me in good stead for that challenge.

I learned a fair bit about feeding on the swim.  I took in a LOT of calories in the form mainly of Nick’s mix of maxi with added fruit sugar.  I also had a good load of snacks.  I rarely if ever refused solids when offered.  While I felt a little uncomfortable, burpy and bloated with all of this, what I certainly never felt was low on energy.  I had aches, pains, cold-induced misery, but lifting the arms was not an issue.  I also (to my surprise and pleasure) never felt even the slightest bit sleepy, which again makes me feel better about the upcoming Catalina challenge.

Many thanks go to everyone who supported:  Helen as always there for me, Mike Barron, Ange Johnson, Boris Mavra, Mummy and Daddy Lewis, and Amy.  Special thanks to Nick and Sakura for organising the event though.  Very much in the spirit of ‘giving back’ to the sport that they love.  I would not have done a training swim like this off my own bat.

And finally a special thank you to Deirdre my swim buddy.  A hard swim would have been a lot harder for me I think if I had been alone.  The dark place around 6 hours would have been even darker.  Good luck with your second Channel Swim later this year!

The Odyssey

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache

of longing mounted, and he wept at last,

his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,

longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer

spent in rough water where his ship went down

under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.

Few men can keep alive through a big surf

to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches

in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:

and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,

her white arms round him pressed as though forever.

-from, The Odyssey, Homer

The Strait of Gibraltar – Swimming to Africa

Yesterday Helen and I swam to Africa.  Sounds cool huh?  But it was the swim we thought wasn’t going to happen.

Saturday we arrived from the UK, laden with a mixture of ‘stuff to take on a marathon swim’, and ‘stuff for a lazy beach holiday’.  Malaga airport is but a couple of hours from London, and Tarifa, hopping-off point for swimmers heading for Morocco only 90 minutes or along the motorway from Malaga, by-passing places I had only heard of before:  Marbella, Torremolinos and so.

Tarifa is an entirely different sort of place.  The charming old town is an interesting mix of kite-surfer cool, moorish decayed splendour, and bar culture, the whole set on a windswept piece of coast marking the most southerly point in Europe.

surf_tarifa_kites

And why, I hear you ask, are all of those kitesurfers attracted to Tarifa?  Well obviously, because of the wind!  It is almost permanently windy here, either the levante out of the east, or the poniente out of the west.  The day after we arrived, there was a 40+ mph levante running, massive whitecaps in the strait, and the forecast was mixed.

There was a short window on the Tuesday where the wind was forecast to swing round to the west (the more favoured direction for a swim crossing), but this window was allocated for an Irish trio, Noel, Sean and Eoin, who had been cruelly fogged and weathered out 2 years previously.

The Irish Lads

The Irish Lads

This left a rather uncertain rest of the week, with dominant easterlies.  Rafael (who is the president of the Gibraltar Strait Swimming Association) thought there might be a chance for us to go on Wednesday, but suggested that we share our crossing with another British duo, Vicki and Kirstie from Brighton.  We met up with the girls and we all agreed readily; better to share a swim than to possibly not swim at all!

The only wrinkle here was that the girls were faster than us on paper, and would have to undertake to stay within a short distance of me and Helen.  In theory this needn’t present a problem, but they were a little worried about getting cold.

Tuesday came around and the Irish lads set off and returned.  2 Out of 3 made it, and the conditions were pretty unpleasant by all accounts, but they got there in about 5 hours.

We met Rafa on Tuesday evening and he said we would go earlier than usual and head off slightly against the tide, as the weather was set to turn shortly after lunch, but he pointed out that it was up to the pilot on the day, and if he wasn’t happy, there would be no crossing for anyone.  We went to be on Tuesday night still not knowing whether we would be swimming at all the next day………

We arrived the next morning shortly after 9 AM, carrying our kit the short walk from pour digs in the old town to the port. The weather looked reassuringly good, and we were relieved to be told by the pilot that he was happy for us to go, starting at 10 AM, 2 hours earlier relative to low tide than the usual time.  Yes!!  The girls showed up with their partners who would be supporting them, and we all set to getting ready.

The set up was to be as follows:  Pilot Antonio in the lead boat, then a RIB for each pair. The pilot boat would lead the way by 50-100 m, with the swimmers behind and sighting off the pilot boat, with RIBs for support.  We motored out of the harbour, greased and ready, out round the island and to the lighthouse on the far side.  We had been told to swim hard for the first hour to get a good swim out through the currents coming from the west.  We all jumped in and struggled (yes really) to swim the short distance in to the rocky foreshore.  It was rough, and the pilot actually instructed us not to try and touch the rocks as it would be too dangerous.  Instead we were to stop a couple of metres shy, at which point he would signal the start of the swim with a whistle.

Me Swimming in to the Start

Helen Swimming in to the Start

Vicki and Kirstie at the start (wearing Neoprene)

Vicki and Kirstie at the start

We had been warned that the first 1/2 a km might be a bit tough, and it was, especially as we were swimming reasonably quickly, for me at least.  By half an hour in to the swim, things had settled down a lot, and it was possible to get into a nice rhythmn.  The Brighton girls were feeding every 1/2 an hour, Helen and I every hour Dover style, all of us off the girls’ RIB, where the guys had all the feeds.

I was feeling it a little bit.  I was swimming probably about 3.6-3.7 km/h pace, which is not what I would typically do for a long swim.  But I had the pilot’s request ringing in my ears, and also didn’t want to slow the three girls down too much, so I knuckled down and pulled as hard as I could, trying as best I could to concentrate on good form in the water.

The first feed was a bit of a disaster.  I had opted to use a wide mouthed bottle, and not really thought it through like I should have.  The water was by no means calm still, and there was enough movement to send half of it straight into my face, up my nose, mostly where it shouldn’t have gone.  I cursed myself, but did my best and got swimming again.

Sighting off the pilot boat wasn’t great.  I would rather now have to sight if I could avoid it, as it makes swimming that little bit harder.  You could just sight off the RIB nearby, but there is no guarantee he is pointing in the right direction, and so it proved on a few occasions.  The pilot boat always seemed to be crabbing over to the right relative to where the swimmer wanted to go, pushed by the prevailing West to East current in the strait.

At 2 hours there was much excited talk from the boys on the boat.  There had been pilot whales and dolphins nearby, not that we saw them with our heads down, me still grunting my way towards Africa. Helen asked how the pace was.  I replied that it was a bit fast for me really, but I would carry on anyway and do my best.  And so we did, dodging massive ships into the 3rd hour of the swim.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The mountains on the Moroccan shoreline are very high indeed.  They were clearly visible right from the start of the swim. But as the 3rd hour wore uncomfortably on, they seemed to get noticeably closer, and other things, like sand dunes, and a port started to become more obvious.  Part of me dared to think that this swim, which we had mentally allowed 6-7 hours for, might not last that long.

There was a greater sense of urgency as the 3 hour feed approached.  As we stopped, I looked up at Morocco, and said to Helen, “I don’t think there’s that far to go you know”.  She nodded and we cracked on – both of us thinking that there was maybe only a kilometre or less to go.  That was amazing.  Especially as my shoulders and arms were really complaining after 3 hours of swimming at a level of effort I was not used to.  The coast got nearer and nearer, and soon enough we saw the sandy bottom, then rocks.  We had finished!

We finished on the Moroccan coast 3 h 16 minutes after setting off from Spain.  Much faster than either of us had anticipated.  We got really lucky with a beautiful window between strong westerlies and strong easterlies.

Thanks go to Rafa, Antonio and team, to Kirstie, Vicki and the boys for being awesome.

We can recommend this swim very highly to anyone who fancies a OW challenge.  It’s great to combine an early season dose of sunshine with some early season training.

The next challenge is in early July, and is currently unannounced – more details to come.  It is new, and fun!!