Scilly Swim Challenge 2015

On December 19th 2014 I had the crazy idea to sign up for this challenge. Those of you who follow my blog already will know I like to splash about in the sea from time to time, but I've never undertaken an event like this before. It wasn't long before my partner in crime, Kate Clement, also signed up and so the training began. By the time this newsletter came through in August however, I didn't feel we had a huge amount of training in place. Hectic lives, busy jobs, family commitments, hey we had it all to contend with. Anyway, in the final few weeks we squeezed in what we could and then suddenly it was registration day with briefing, goody bags and the optimistically named acclimatisation swim. The 141 entrants were split into 3 pods according to ability and we opted, quite rightly, for the slow one.

And here we are on on Saturday 5th September aboard my husband's boat with my dear friend Bo Lemm who has travelled with her husband, Dave, all the way from Portugal to be our personal support team. It was just before 8am and the morning was grey and overcast, with a stiff Northerly wind. We were huddled up against the breeze as we set off for Bar Point, St Mary's the starting point. As we turned the corner around past Carn Near we were more exposed to the wind and a passing shower kindly doused us as a welcome to the day ahead. I felt guilty that I had rounded up my supporters without much thought as to how they might or might not enjoy their day, and this didn't seem to be a very good start. We were slightly ahead of schedule and bobbed about, exposed to the elements while we waited for the canoes, safety boats and other craft to arrive. Gradually they all hove into view so Kate and I started to peel off our warm outer layers to reveal our wetsuits. 

I tugged and tweaked one last time at my gloves trying to spin out my preparations for as long as possible. But eventually there were no more delaying tactics left and we said our goodbyes.

Thumbs up and a brave face. Off we go! The water was a cold as ever. A tiny break in the cloud was all we had hoped for, but that was not to be. Grey and bleak salty water greeted us, and the challenge had begun.

During the briefing on the previous day we had been told to keep ourselves warm and dry right up to the last minute. Arriving on our own transport had seemed like a good idea up until then, giving us an extra hour in bed, but now we were wet and without the extra layers the others were snuggled into. We resorted to some gentle jogging up and down the beach and before long things started happening. Flags were erected so that we could gather into our pods. We were the Greens and I'd told Steve to follow the green swimming caps and that Kate and I would be at the back doing breaststroke. A last minute glitch meant we all ended up wearing last year's caps, all of which were orange. 

This was time now for our final registration where we gave our numbers and waited to be given the go ahead. The Red pod was the elite swimmers, many of whom had already swum the Channel or were in training to do so. They were set off first and as we Greens stood watching them swiftly disappear nerves set in. One lady competitor had taken fright and decided she couldn't face this leg of the challenge. It was hardly surprising really. We were going to swim directly into the wind which was creating a lot of sea chop, and this was not a welcoming sight in the least.

Next it was the turn of the Amber pod to go and we stood on the shoreline watching. Each pod had four canoes to accompany them: one to lead, one at the rear of the group and one on each outer edge. The idea being that we were all contained and had easy access to help if we needed it. On the outside of each set of canoes was a safety boat on either side of them, and these had ladders and first aid kit at the ready. And so it was finally our time to get into the water. I had told Kate to swim her own swim, not to look for me or wait, just to keep going. We waded into the sea and I decided to keep on the far outside on the left so that I could also see Steve in his boat. Earlier however, I had looked on in dismay as Steve and said vessel had slowly disappeared into the distance as he followed the lead group of swimmers. The plan for the slow group to leave the beach first had changed, but my lovely support team weren't to know that, and off they went following a green capped swimmer performing a fluid freestyle at a fair old rate!

In the centre of the picture you might be able to see Kate in line with the Eastern Isles.

From the moment I got into the sea, I knew this was going to be a massive challenge. In the lead up to the event it had all seemed a bit abstract, maybe even a little romantic (aka naive) to spend a whole day in balmy September swimming from island to island, making friends and being part of something different, exciting. On this chilly autumn morning, as the graphite sky brooding above us turned the sea dull and threatening, I realised I was in for a mighty shock. Head on chop is my worst nightmare. Swimming breast stroke and trying to catch your breath as you rise up into a faceful of sea is difficult at best, scary at worst. I'd suffered nerves all morning since I got up at 6. I had dosed myself up on Rescue Remedy in the vain hope that it might transform me into a calm, self-assured swimmer. Now my body was awash with adrenalin as I battled to find my way. One plus point was that my goggles didn't fog up so I could see where I was aiming for. We were told to aim for a white roof to the left of Higher Town quay and I was managing to sight it well whenever I needed to.

The initial flurry of leaving the beach en masse had been a new experience to me and I presumed that if I kept to the outside of the pod and clear of the guy ahead I would be fine. I hadn't taken into account the fact that swimmers might barge into me from behind - yes, naive is actually my middle name. I don't know what swimming etiquette there is for this type of run-in, but I turned around to say sorry and caused even more of a collision. Shut up and forge on quickly, seemed to be the answer. We began to spread out and I was in the back of the group, not exactly happy, but surviving. I couldn't see Kate, but neither was I really looking. The battle was just to keep afloat, moving forward and not swallow too much sea water. I must have swum about a mile when my right calf seized into cramp. I stopped in shock at the sudden onset and tried to stretch my toes up as I treaded water. It eased just as I was scanning the horizon to see where the nearest canoe was. Kate appeared then too and asked if I was OK. She said she was going to swim alongside me and off we went. It was only about 5 minutes later that it happened in the same calf again and this time a canoeist was quickly beside me asking if I wanted to stop. I considered my options and decided to get out and try the next leg once I'd sorted the problem. Kate carried on and we met up again on the quay where she was greeted with rousing applause. She had done so well considering that her goggles had steamed up so badly that she had to take them off, which meant swimming into seawater which stung her eyes until they were red and sore. That girl is so gutsy, that's why I love her.

We'd been instructed to get dry and warm as quickly as possible and this is what we did. For one day I had to give up any notion of being a fashionista and just layer, layer and layer up until I looked like a Weeble. Food and drink were the next priority and that was all laid on at the cricket pitch only a stone's throw away. Burgers and hot tea were the order of the day and everyone was happy. Bo had brought my own supplies and I ate some tuna and beetroot followed by two bananas and an electrolyte drink. Hopefully this would replace the salts which were lacking and had given me cramp. Soon it was time to pack up and move on.

The cloud had moved away and the sun shone silver onto the sea

For Kate, Bo and I this was the first walk of the day. The sun had come out and the islands looked idyllic. This was how I had imagined the event to be and I enjoyed this aspect while I could. Everyone seemed to stop at some stage or another to photograph the view or the brightly coloured crocodile of amateur athletes and enthusiasts heading to Lower Town. The walking created a camaraderie with an easy drifting from group to group to share a story or pass on a tip or two. Nearing Lower Town beach the weather seemed to change with a big bank of cloud drifting over us once more. As we clambered onto the tiny beach by the quay we were facing the wind again.

Tugging at the sleeve of my wet wetsuit, yuk.

We were given a briefing before getting into the water. The current between St Martin's and Tean was ripping through the channel and we were advised to head straight across and then we would be able to drift down to head on towards St Helen's. This time the Greens were to go first so we were a bit apprehensive.

This is the flurry as we battle towards the mast ahead. You will be able to see the riptide just beyond the first swimmers. Myself and a group of about 8 other swimmers were quickly washed to the left in the current which took all of us by surprise. We knew it was going to be a lively crossing but the tidal current was much stronger than we expected.

The Amber pod waiting to get going

We arrive on the sand spit of Tean

The Amber pod thrashing out into the fast flowing channel

The swimming was beginning to feel easier now, my breathing was more settled and the familiarity of the area was helping to calm me into a good rhythm. For time to time I looked around to find Steve in the boat, but it's not easy when there are so many boats around. He later told me how comical it is to watch some of these goggled swimmers periodically pop their heads out of the water just like blurry-eyed moles. Being so low in the water you have no idea of the effect the current and tide are having on your swim. I thought I was travelling in a straight line, but was in fact being washed slowly South well off route. At one stage a canoeist appeared to my left and held his paddle out in front of me pointing up North. He said something to me too, however wearing earplugs and two swimming caps whilst being half submerged in seawater isn't great for the hearing! I got the message and turned right to head up towards Northwethel island. Finally I was redirected left past the Small Islands and on to Old Grimsby. I sighted a small cluster of swimmers in front of me and suddenly had the confidence to strike out and see if I could catch up with them. Gradually I made headway and by the time I was coming into the shore I had passed three swimmers meaning that I wasn't last out of the water on this leg. On my final few strokes I could hear someone calling my name and as I rose to my feet saw Kate leaping and whooping on the sand. She greeted me with a hug and I felt relief to be on home territory. Kate, Bo and I walked the short distance to the community centre and plonked ourselves down on the cricket field. Another quick change and I was warm again. Soup and egg mayonnaise with more bananas and another electrolyte drink made up my lunch. However, after about 10 minutes I suddenly got cramp in my thigh - it was the same leg as before. I yelped at the onset and thumped and rubbed my thigh vigorously. It eased and I relaxed, carried on eating and drinking. But it soon returned and Bo heaved me to my feet so that I could try to walk it out. Kate suggested I get some advice from the medics. We found the doctor and she quizzed me on my food and drink intake. It turned out I hadn't been drinking enough water. In fact I hadn't taken any water on board since I'd left home at 7.30 which was about 6 hours ago. I quickly drank a bottle of the vital H2o and before much longer we were being rounded up to walk across the island to New Grimsby.

Exactly one year ago I had stood at my kitchen window and seen a human raft of wetsuited swimmers surge down this road and make their way onto New Grimsby beach before setting off en masse in a shark-like frenzy towards Bryher. The light bounced brilliant white off the water and at that very moment my desire to take part was born, and I knew I must not miss out again. The scene looked like something from a Steven Spielberg movie, one I wanted to be part of. However, that particular day was a perfect summer's day, the sea calm as a millpond with brilliant sunshine all day long. I had the opportunity to speak to one entrant the following day. He is a cross Channel swimmer and has even swum across the straits of Gibraltar, so is very experienced. He had loved the inter island swim, but told me he would never do it again because he wanted to keep the perfect memories intact, saying he knew it couldn't ever be so easy again. How right he was.

The swim from New Grimsby to Bryher was brief jaunt (ha ha) and therefore we were not split into our pods but allowed to enter the sea together. Amidst a flurry of arms and legs splashing furiously I tried to find my spot and off I went. Our timing wasn't very good as we happened to be leaving the quay just as the Firethorn was heading towards us around the quay head. There was a momentary stand off until a safety boat ushered us wide of the boat to head out, around and across the narrow channel.

I met up with Kate on Bryher beach where Bo joined us with the bags of supplies. We were immediately led off to the church where the famous Bryher cakes were awaiting us with mugs of steaming tea. I heard that this was a highlight of last year's swim too. The sun had come out and we camped on the grass, enjoying a bit of carbo-loading. It was here that I spoke to Kate and told her my plan. I had decided not to try to finish the whole challenge. She and I had previously swum from Samson to St Agnes so I felt no desire to complete this leg again. I would do the last and shortest crossing from Bryher to Samson and call it a day. The final leg from St Agnes to St Mary's was, for me, a challenge too far and not one I felt the need to complete. Kate was keen to continue and said she would like to attempt the St Agnes crossing but not the St Marys' one. 

The very patient boatmen waiting for the swimmers to reach Bryher

And soon it was time to pack up and head up the hill over the top of Bryher and along the grassy banks towards Rushy Bay. Once we arrived there was another briefing and an update for all the swimmers. The organisers had decided as we were running late that the next two swims were to be combined, effectively making this leg Bryher to St Agnes. Slower swimmers and those who weren't confident about this, the longest swim, were asked to consider skipping this leg and taking the followers boat to St Agnes where they could then take part in the final swim to end on St Mary's. A group gathered to be ferried onto the support boat and notes of their numbers taken to readjust the figures. At this stage I made my own plan clear and warned the organisers that I would only swim as far as Samson and be collected from there. I wished Kate luck and we hugged goodbye. The Reds set off first and were soon thrashing their way across the short stretch of water to the mound of Samson beach. Ambers followed in a similar fashion. This short swim was a good morale boost after some of today's longer slogs. And then it was our turn. I held back waiting for my space on the left as usual. A gap appeared in the melee and I set off one last time. As I swam I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I was so happy to have found my own level within this very personal challenge. I hadn't really been drawn into the competitive nature of the swim. Much as we had been told repeatedly "It's not a race", I think that if you put a group of people together like this, it will look like a race, and feel like a race, and inevitably be a race. For me, it didn't work like that. I was in my own little world, trying to achieve as much as I could. I saw Kate swimming ahead, looking strong as ever. I felt proud to watch her and know that she would carry on until she could do no more - she's a true fighter, tenacious and so strong willed. I admire her strengths, love her weaknesses too. She was swimming with Rachel Lewin a swimmer from St Agnes and I could see them making easy progress towards the shore. They were on their feet now and wading to the beach. Soon after I reached the sand and stood up. I heard a huge cheer and whoops of delight from behind me, and as I turned around there was Steve in his boat with Bo and Dave and Rachel Young our additional supporter. I had made it. My Scilly Swim Challenge was over and I was so happy!

Joy and relief!

The best feeling ever to climb aboard and be done.

Happy days!

So here it is, my own Scilly Swim Challenge. Pink marks the entire route starting and finishing on St Mary's. The solid black line is what I managed on the day and the broken black line is what I had already swum previously. It's a huge achievement, massive, and I'm so proud to have done it.

X marks the spot where I finished.

Sunday 6th September
Kate and I donned out tee shirts and posed for my blog. Kate had persevered with the St Agnes swim while all around her swimmers were being taken out to the water with exhaustion. Eventually cold got the better of her and she too had to be taken out. She was well on her way to completing what was to be her last swim. Soon afterwards the canoeists had to abandon the challenge as it was too rough for them to stay upright in the choppy Atlantic swell. Everyone was removed who hadn't made it to land. The final leg to St Mary's was rescheduled for today. Neither Kate nor I wanted to take part. Our challenges were complete and we don't think we'll be on the start line for next year's event.

PS I'd just like to say that I'm aware that my nutrition and fluids may well have been less than adequate for this kind of undertaking and would ask that anyone considering this kind of challenge take professional advice on the correct balance and amounts needed. Likewise, Kate and I acknowledge that much more training would be advised. Our experience of these waters proved to be lacking and our only advantage was that we were already acclimatised!

I also want to add that it was a privilege to share the water with some very elite athletes, who are at the top of their game, at the peak of fitness. I stood on the same shores as them, looked out onto the same challenge and like them I gave it my best. I'm proud to have been one of the 141 who faced the Atlantic Ocean and forged their way to their own goal. I give thanks for the opportunity to stretch myself and find my own true value through sheer effort and drive.

To all who follow my blog, I just want to let you know I'm off for a week's holiday now so there will be no posts for a little while. I think I've earned a bit of a break. Thanks for joining me and see you again soon xxx


1 comment

  1. Wow! I just found your blog so am looking through the archives. This is a really amazing thing to have done. You have given me tears in my eyes here & a couple of other times too. Thanks for your lovely blog!


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