8 miles, 6 hours

Hello my lovely readers. Forgive my absence, but I've been busy. Busy tackling the challenge I set myself some 18 months ago when I turned 60; that being to swim around the entire island of Tresco which amounts to approximately 7 miles. (Since first publishing this, one of the local boatmen told me it's 7 miles to walk around the coast, but that my swim would have been more like 8 - hurrah!) This is me at 7.50am on Sunday 8th of September looking keen as I stood on the shore of New Grimsby, waiting for Steve to finish his preparations on the boat for our quest together.

It was a still golden morning. The forecast showed a perfect weather window giving us the best possible chance and probably the last opportunity of the year to do this. As I slipped into the water I just wanted to get on with it. I was determined to give this my best shot, but the truth that lay deep inside me was that I was fearful, scared of the dark water waiting for me at the North End of the island.

The calm waters within the harbour soon gave way to the tidal current that washed through the channel between Tresco and Bryher. We had timed our departure to  coincide with low water which was 7.08am, but my nervous tummy and his last minute prep made us later than we expected. The tide was now coming in, but the wash we were facing seemed to be flooding in the wrong direction. No matter, we had to push on.

It was just about here that I looked up at the daunting task ahead of me. Keep calm and carry on was all I could muster.

We rounded the headland and the sea became more choppy as Kettle Neck lay in wait for me. I asked Steve if it was going to be OK to swim through and he said it would be lively, but do-able. Not quite the reassurance I needed. 

It was probably just around here that I became swamped, gasping for air as the short choppy water crashed over my head with no real rhythm to it. Panic took hold and all resolve left me. I resorted to prayer, inwardly calling on God, Jesus and every angel I could remember by name, asking for them to help me. I fully expected to drown. This wasn't just the drama queen speaking. I was desperately thrashing about, breathing in water, looking for air, swimming for my life. Steve was beside me one moment, the boat towering above me and seconds later it was 20 feet away, as the rising swell lifted and parted us. He was trying to keep far enough away so as not to be a danger, but the boat was my security blanket and this distance further accentuated my panic. 

I ploughed on, coughing through the briney waves, digging, pulling, plunging, making the shape of strokes and fighting to keep afloat. Eventually the black water, choppy sea and the rising and dropping swell all became too much and I called to him that I needed to get out. By the time I got on the boat I was shivering and scared. I drank some soup to try to get warm. I was worried - surely if I'm this cold already things are only going to get worse? I didn't voice those thoughts to Steve. No need to, as he was already thinking we'd be turning tail and going home. I caught sight of a distant figure on the headland above us. S**t, someone had come out to watch me! This was the push I needed - I couldn't give up now. (I later learnt that this was my friend Fiona, who was taking these shots for me.) With that, I said I wanted to get back into the water. Steve took me 100 metres through the worst of the slop and I slipped back down the ladder into the darkness again. Before I set off I asked, "Is the tide with me or against me?" to which Steve replied "With you." 

That was all I needed to hear. My resolve stiffened and I felt my gritty determination return. I could do this! I struck out, feeling the current carry me along, digging in with every stroke, rolling smoothly, stretching out, scooping the water past me with purpose, keeping each stroke as perfect as I could. I felt strong, part of the ocean's tide, like a creature of the sea, at one with the grey Atlantic wash. This was what I'd been waiting for. This was my moment. Afterwards, Steve told me that this was the strongest part of my whole swim. Maybe my prayers were answered after all.

Swimming past Gimble Porth for the first, and probably the last time. 

Looking down from Merchant's Point, Fiona said at times I was invisible.

I climbed on board again for breakfast once we arrived at Long Point, Old Grimsby. Hot soup and banana never tasted so good! The chills and shivers had left me and I felt happier to be entering into the white sandy shores that are my stamping ground. This felt more like home.

Fuelled up, I felt a renewed sense of vigour and struck out again in this more scenic stretch from Blockhouse through to the Diamond. Steve looked more visibly relaxed at this stage too, pouring himself tea from his thermos flask and eating something from his picnic. At seeing this I knew that all was well and my job was just to keep swimming. 

The water had turned into a clear pale turquoise colour, relaxing me further as I saw small crabs rear up and threaten me with their tiny claws. Little did they know I'd fought off bigger demons already this morning! 

My dear friend Fiona continued her shoreline walk following my progress, taking photos and videos along the way. I met up with her and Sarah (her sister) as I was skirting around some rocks at the south end of the island. It was wonderful to see them and to have some extra words of encouragement. 

With St Mary's in the distance behind me, I knew that I was well on my way. 

I rounded the end of Carn Near quay, feeling tired, but knowing that the end was in sight. 

My support team, Sarah and Fiona.

From here we rounded the southerly tip of Tresco passing through Carn Near Neck where we discovered that the tide had turned once more, leaving my final passage up the channel towards New Grimsby one where I'd be swimming against the full force of the tide. "It was running like a river." Steve told me much later. Initially, I was swimming as hard as I could just to stay in the same place. 

It was here in the middle of Carn Near Neck that I met my son, Jamie with his friend Adam on their way to play football on St Mary's. They were brilliant, clapping and cheering me on which gave me another lovely boost. Which was just as well, considering that I was right in the middle of the force of the tide, pushing me backwards despite my best efforts. What you can see as the rippling around me is the current pulling the body of water out of the bay in the opposite direction. Steve pointed for me to go into the shallows, right against the shore to escape the worst of the effects. By this time, I was exhausted, having been swimming for five hours. I stood up at one point, trying to catch my breath, searching for my reserve tank to draw on for this final push.

So near and yet so far. By this stage, cap nearly popping off my head and all attempts at holding my stroke together failing, I was done, running on empty. My arms were flailing about, feet thrashing in an effort to keep some forward momentum. It felt pathetic. It was all I had.

And finally, New Grimsby hove into view. I was almost there! 

The last push, through Plumb Island Neck was smoother than I expected and a welcome relief.

The bay along Farm Beach leads into New Grimsby and the starting point of this most epic challenge. My adventure nearly at an end, I allowed my stroke to slow so that I could observe the feelings bubbling up inside me - relief, wonder, joy, pride and amazement to name a few.

And here I am exactly 6 hours after I slipped into the water, back, full circle at New Grimsby. The welcoming party of Sasha, Fiona and Sarah gathered me up, wrapped me in towels and helped to peel me out of my wetsuit and boots. Half an hour later I was showered and tucked up in bed, surrounded by enough food and drink to feed a small army. Two days down the line, I'm gradually getting my strength back and strange to say, I have no desire to swim in the sea in the immediate future. I've done what I set out to do. I'm the first woman/person to swim all the way around Tresco which is no small achievement. A feather in my cap you might say. And with that, I'm off for another nap. I'll be back later on this week. I do hope you've enjoyed this post. It means a lot to me.

P.S. A huge thank you to my marvellous boatman, Steve for his seamanship and steadying hand. Thanks to Fiona and Sarah for their wonderful support throughout the day and to Steve, Jamie, Sasha and Fiona for capturing my adventure on camera and video.

                                                                               Anna x


The last Low Tide Event of 2019

Sunday the 1st of September was the last Low Tide Event on the Isles of Scilly and bang on cue, Mother Nature laid on some stonking weather for the epic day. As I sat at Timothy's Corner waiting for my friend Ann to arrive I watched with renewed amazement as the crowds gathered for this most unique of pop-up events.

The huge sandbar is subject to tide, being submerged under 6 meters of sea water which drains away twice a day. Spring and neap tides vary the depth of water and the biggest of tides create the opportunity for the bank of sand to be transformed into a playground for all to gather on and enjoy food, drink and music against this beautiful backdrop, but for only a couple of hours. The novelty of this makes it an exciting gathering as everyone mingles and meets with friends old and new.

Ann and Lucy having a chat to Melissa Hemsley of the famous Hemsley + Hemsley cooks.

Say cheese, er no, melon!

My son Jamie doing a piece to camera for an upcoming TV programme. 

The Island Fish Company took their boat to the customers on Sunday, serving fresh and cooked dishes to the hungry punters. Delicious it was too!

It's difficult to believe that in 5 hours this will all be under water again.

Jamie and I hanging out in the middle of nowhere.

Convict dog being named and shamed in public - poor thing! I think it's actually a sun suit to protect his fragile skin.

Girl power on the sandbar! There was some serious female bonding going on in the channel that day. It was so good to meet and mingle, to catch up with friends and to enjoy this end-of-term feeling after what has been a wonderful, but long hard summer. Work hard and play hard is what we say.

As the tide starts to flood the crowds begin to disperse. Another summer season draws to a close with this watery event marking the start of autumn on the Isles of Scilly. Happy days!

                                                                                             Anna x


Training day

The day after our last summer show, this was me, out in deep water in training for my big swim. My plan has been to crack the leg from New Grimsby around the North End of the island through Kettle Neck which is the bogeyman as far as I'm concerned. Kettle Rock is exposed, to a greater or lesser degree, according to the tide. Often it's not safe to pass through the neck of water as the tidal surge can lift a boat towards the rocks on either side with dangerous speed. If it can lift a boat, then of course it can easily wash a swimmer against the rocks too. 

This was my second attempt to swim this leg. It was Saturday morning and the tide was coming in, meaning I was swimming with the tide, giving me the best advantage possible. Much as the physical advantage was with me, mentally I was a bit wobbly. I much prefer swimming alongside the beaches as the they not only look pretty but offer an easy exit. Not that I would be exiting onto the rocks on these long swims as Steve accompanies me in our boat which has a set of steps for me to clamber onto if I need to. Still, this shoreline conjures up fear in my belly. Long distance sea swimming is similar to long distance running as it's all about having the right mindset. Some days that's easier than others.

Behind me is Cromwell's Castle, about halfway into my quest. I'd settled into my rhythm by then, breathing steadily and counting my rolling strokes in one yacht, two yachts, three yachts ... The counting helps to focus the mind, stopping that element of panic that takes me over when I consider being out here doing this crazy thing that is wild swimming. Feel the fear and do it anyway, never felt so real.

The end of the island is just coming into sight with Kettle Rock beyond when my trusty boatman made the call to take me out of the water. There was a ground sea on creating a tidal surge over the rocks, making it too risky for us to pass through this morning.

You can probably read the look of relief on my face. I wasn't sorry that Steve had made that call. It had been a lively swim so far and it was only going to get more so as I rounded through the neck. 

We turned tail and headed back home.

That afternoon I decided to walk the coastal path above where I'd swum. Seeing the stretch of water, imagining my strokes cutting through the water, counting my breath, one yacht, two yachts, three yachts ... 

The big black rock on the right, beyond the shore is Kettle Rock, my nemesis.

It was interesting to watch boats choose the outside line, avoiding Kettle Neck completely. These guys know what they're doing, and so does Steve having spent almost all his life here, messing about in boats, learning to read the sea, respecting the times to not even be on the water when it's too wild. If I'm to swim around the whole of Tresco then I need to leave the worrying to him.

The view looked picturesque, but when I was out there this morning, it felt anything but.

Less than 24 hours later and I was back in the water, making another attempt at rounding Kettle Rock. It was 7am as we left New Grimsby, the sun hidden by the clouds, the tide coming in, and the wind had dropped leaving the sea looking more like a calm lake. I felt completely different this time. "You can do this, you can do this, you can do this!" I'd repeated to my reflection as I was zipping up my wetsuit. The fear in my gut had been replaced by excitement and I was ready to give it another go.

With no waves to distract me, the swim became easy, the stroke a repetitive rocking, a meditative motion that calmed me, each action a gentle movement that was part of a rolling dance, each breath an exchange of inhale and exhale that happened mindlessly. This was flow.

As we rounded the end of the island, the swell of the Atlantic stole the calm waters introducing a lively aspect to the swim.

And then, without too much fuss or fanfare, I was suddenly through the Neck and out of the other side. Steve had shepherded me along the way, guiding me as I peered up from time to time, pointing me in the right direction. His face, alert yet calm, telling me it was safe. My success was a joint effort - we had done it! 

Now that I've achieved this leg, I feel much more optimistic about the round island challenge as a whole. Steve and I are looking at the tide chart to find the best day to plan our outing. The weather will play a big part too so we hope to find the perfect combination of wind and tide making this a feasible venture within the next few weeks. Wish me luck!

                                                                                       Anna x

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