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.

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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:

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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.

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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!!

Back in Blog – Winter Round-up and Gibraltar Preview

First blog since January.  I’ve rather been overtaken by events if I am honest.  A very busy life (personal and work) has left little time for blogging, or maybe the inclination has not been there to do so.

There have been a few swimmy events to write about as well!

Two of them were UK cold water events, in Jan/Feb, PHISH at Parliament Hill Lido, and Chillswim in Windermere.  For both I was entered to swim the endurance event, as well as a participate in a relay.  The relays were fun, and quite short, and at PHISH, the Hejakaro (Helen Gibbs, Jason Betley, Kate Steels-Fryatt, Rory Fitzgerald) managed a very creditable silver in the 4 x 66 m relay!

The endurance events didn’t happen though.  For both I scratched before even getting in.  Both were around a kilometre in water around the 5C mark.  While I did this sort of distance in the river the previous season, I just hadn’t done the work this season.  Helen and I had regular dips throughout the winter, but just not the sustained frequency and duration that would prepare me safely for these events.

It takes great dedication to train for distance cold water swimming.  The recent rise in popularity of the ice mile (a mile in water sub 5C, in just togs and a hat) has been remarkable.  But only the foolish go into these things lightly, and without plenty of appropriate training.  While there have not been (to my knowledge) any fatalities during ice mile attempts, some are worried that it is ‘only a matter of time’.  This is extreme stuff indeed.

Fortunately, the organised attempts tend to have very good safety cover.  Long may the unblemished record continue.

This season I left the dedicated training and hard work to a group of fantastic individuals who I am proud to know, all of whom achieved an ice mile.  Each has a story to tell.  These include:  Kate Steels-Fryatt remarkable in that she is really quite slim, not confirming to the more well-covered norms; Phil Hodges doing it the same year as training for the English Channel; Hazel Killingbeck still only 16 years of age, the summer after conquering the English Channel; Bryn Dymott the first (I think) Welshman, and swimming breaststroke to boot!

I salute you all!

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Many lovely winter swims were had though, in the rivers, in Windermere, in unheated lidos, in the North Sea, in Dover after the CS&PF dinner.  The Ice Mile will always be there, though I think I really dislike extreme cold a little too much!  Helen has done less this year as well, while still picking up her customary hatfull of gold medals at Chillswim!

Training has continued, though I am probably behind where I was last year.  Having said that, my ‘big swim’ the Catalina Double is not until 7 weeks later relative to my day in the Channel last year.  Helen is deep in training too.  The Menorca Channel awaits her in August.

A couple of reasonably big days have come and gone though.

April saw me reliving last year’s 6 hour in La Jolla.  This time it was with Kevin Smith (training for Catalina) for the 6 hours in and around the cover rather than up the coast and back. Dan Simonelli (training for SCAR and Catalina) also joined us for the first 4 hours (he was busy rather than anything less than capable!).  It wasn’t an easy day, though a few degrees warmer than a year earlier (high 50’s rather than mid 50’s), and the shoulders didn’t appreciate the chop in hours 5 and 6.

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A few weeks later, Helen and I participated as a relay team at 2Swim4Life.  This brutal event takes place every other year at Guildford lido.  The format is simple,  At 9 AM on a Saturday morning jump in and swim a mile.  On the hour for the subsequent 23 hours, repeat the process.  If you are doing this as a relay like me and Helen, it is REALLY hard work. Sleep deprivation and sustained activity get to you by the end, not to mention swimming 12 miles in 24 hours.  If you are a soloist, however, it is beyond brutal.  One of the toughest events you could imagine as a swimmer, mentally and physically.  23 Chances to not get back in.

Looking remarkably chipper after 21 hours....

Looking remarkably chipper after 21 hours….  Photo Paul Bates

And so, after successfully finishing Guildford, we find ourselves in Southern Spain, waiting to swim the Straits of Gibraltar. But more of that later…….