Thursday, 11 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones - Part 2 - The Swim

Swimming in the dark doesn't bother me that much. I swam a 2-way Windermere (21miles) all through the night and the first half of my English Channel swim was at night. But it's a little more unnerving when you are swimming in a stretch of water notorious for it's abundant and toothy marine life. The first thing I noticed when I started swimming was the amazing phosphorescence in the water. Every hand stroke lit up with tiny bright bubbles of light and as I breathed to my left Jeff's Kayak stood out with his green, blue and red glow sticks, it felt like my own private disco! I really enjoyed the night swimming and I was relieved to find that as I had hoped, rather than the lethargy of the last few days, I was feeling quite strong and comfortable in the water. I started with energy drinks every 30minutes and a gel hourly, but fairly early on I could feel my stomach was struggling in the salty water and hadn't settled as well as I had hoped from my two days of nausea. I stopped the gels and just kept going with the carb drinks and tried to not think too much about the rising nausea. I had a few bad retches 90 minutes in but no vomiting and otherwise physically I still felt good. The other good thing was the conditions were fantastic at this stage, calm benevolent seas with minimal swells once we were away from Molokai, we even had a nice current in the first hour although it dropped off quickly after that. By 2 hours in the sky started to lighten and I felt a twinge of sadness that the light show was coming to an end.
I still haven't mastered the art of meditative swimming, I don't know what other swimmers think about to make the time pass but I always feel like it drags! Each thirty minute feed seemed to come round slower than I thought it should and I tried to pass the time by knocking off the sets of my July 42km pool session, the first hour was the 4km warm up then 100 x 100m, so every 30 minutes was another 20 hundreds. Then I was into the part of the session I had swum with the local swim club and that eventually took me through to the 5 hour mark. By the 5 and a half hour feed the crew told me I was well ahead of the record pace and over halfway to Oahu. But sadly that was the last of the good news because at about that time the wind turned around. The light southerly cross wind become a stubborn head wind and progress slowed. The waves chopped up too, but all things considered the sea was still behaving relatively kindly and, as Jeff had predicted, the big NW swells weren't proving to be an issue.
Jeff and John swapped kayaking and feeding duties and the minutes and feeds slowly ticked by. I was stung three or four times by jelly fish but nothing worse than I was used to. Little aches started to persist though, the back of my shoulder, my bicep and the knuckle on my right forefinger for some reason! Every feed seemed to take longer to settle in my stomach and I had a growing bloated feeling in my stomach. I kept saying to myself that each stroke, each minute, each feed was getting me closer to the beach on Oahu. I kept telling myself that I had to finish this swim, the conditions were so much better than they could have been and if I quit I would likely never have such an opportunity again. I kept reminding myself that if I didn't finish the swim no matter how long I lasted it would all count for nothing, it would just have been a long meaningless training session!
I had estimated 12-13 hours in total if conditions were good, twelve hours would set a new record and so I broke that into four lots of three hour swims, like 4 quarters of a football game (Aussie rules that is). I gradually worked my way slowly through the protracted third quarter and finally hit 9 hours, this was it - the final quarter! But at about that time I had the most spectacular vomit! All of the feeds that had been sitting in my stomach reappeared in spectacular fashion; this was not an unusual phenomenon for me and I so didn't even break stroke. At least momentarily my stomach felt considerably lighter! But I was really feeling pretty nauseous now and I knew would struggle to keep much more down. At the next feed, I sipped the energy drink without conviction and asked for plain water for the next feed. I had two more feeds of just cold water and then I bonked big style. I had completely run out of juice, my legs stopped kicking and my arms wafted ineffectually through the water, progress seems to grind to a halt. I was eleven hours in, the coast was well within sight but it might as well have been a million miles away. It felt as if the only way I could finish the swim was to float in! I asked for another gel at the next feed and tried to suppress the urge to vomit. I swallowed as much fresh water as I could muster and started off again. Within 5 minutes the kick started to come back and I could feel my energy levels returning along with the pain in the shoulders as I started to pull more effectively through the water. I had another gel with the next feed at 12 hours and knew we were only just over a mile from the shore. That should take about 30minutes so the record was gone but I felt more confident I could make it. We decided to skip any more feeds and push for shore. Jeff got in with three quarters of a mile to swim, and we pounded through a strong cross current that was trying to stubbornly sweep us away from the beach. That last mile took nearly an hour because of the currents but finally deep below me I could start to make out the sea floor, rocks and coral slowly coming into view. I could see the waves breaking on the beach a few hundred metres away. I had been warned by several people that this beach was notorious for its shallow shore break that could dump you on your head on the sand but my only disappointment was that the waves started so close to the shore that I didn't have a nice ride into the beach. I caught a wave and body surfed that last few metres before stumbling onto the sand to be greeted by Jeff's wife, Krista and Linda Kaiser the legend of Hawaiian channel swimming. 13 hours and 4 minutes of tough ocean swimming, done!    
By the end my shoulders were in pieces, my tongue was swollen and raw and the lining of my nostrils felt like they had been washed away by the salt water! My back was painfully sunburnt ('factor 50' only lasts so long) and my stomach was sending a steady stream of complaints that I knew would last for several days!

Why do I do these things? Why put myself through days of anxiety for a physical test so brutal and unpleasant that I suffer the after effects for weeks? And the question I ask myself the most - how many times can you go to that dark place of despair, pull yourself up and come out the other side only to do it all again?
I am the 26th person to swim the Molokai Channel. It may be the longest of the 'Oceans Seven' big channel swims but it isn't in my view the hardest, that honour lies with the brutally cold and unpleasant North Channel. Also, as long as the Molokai Channel is, there are plenty of other swims out there that are much, much longer. Two swimmers this year attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida a distance of some 166km! While neither made it, Penny Palfrey swam for 41hours and nearly 150km before the currents swept her away from Florida. I remind myself as well that plenty of swimmers have done the 'Double English Channel' (there and back) and three have done triples! If you think what you are doing is incredible there is likely someone out there doing something vastly more amazing!
Before I swam the channel I told myself that records, accolades or medals weren't the reason to do these things. That sometimes it is just about taking an opportunity when it is presented and rising to a challenge that you fear may be insurmountable. Maybe it also helps to remember that at the end of the day, it's just a swim.    
(me, Jeff Kozlovich and Linda Kaiser)
Lastly a big thanks to my support crew on this one. All people I met for the first time on the day of the swim! Matt Buckman the pilot was easy going, professional and got me safely from Molokai right to Sandy Beach in Oahu. John my 'stand-in' support crew rose to the challenge and allowed me to complete my swim when it could have fallen apart at the last minute and Jeff Kozlovich who was really fantastic; great support in the days ahead of the swim, knew the conditions and what to expect in the channel and really helped me to fulfil this crazy ambition. Lovely also to be greeted on dry land by Linda Kaiser and Krista Kozlovich at the end. Thanks guys, it might have been a solo swim but it certainly wasn't a solo event!


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones! Part 1 - the build up

When Vickie qualified for this year's Hawaiian Ironman World Championships I started to contemplate another Hawaiian channel swim of my own. It seemed a shame to be coming all the way out to Hawaii without taking the opportunity to do another long distance swim. Two years ago we were out here for the Ironman and I organised a Maui Channel swim, it was a pleasant 9 mile swim in beautiful, warm clear waters and I knew I would have to top that. At first I wondered about a double Maui channel swim - only completed once before, but I kept getting drawn to the monstrous Kai'wi Channel (The Channel of Bones) between Molokai and Oahu. One of the 'Ocean's Seven' big channel swims and the longest of all seven. While cold temperatures are not an issue, monstrous swells, rough conditions, abundant sea life - jelly fish and sharks and swimming a massive 26miles/42km across this wild stretch of Pacific Ocean provide a host of logistical and physical challenges.
I got some contact details from Darren Miller who had swum the channel last year and made some tentative bookings early this year with an experienced boat pilot (Matt Buckman) and kayaker (Jeff Kozlovich). My swim season this year was filled with swims and races starting with the Gibraltar Straits in May and then a series of UK based swims; the BLDSA's 'Champion of Champions', Torbay, Windermere and a few other races including the fun Brownsea Island swim. It was a full and successful season while all the time at the back of my mind was the looming Molokai Channel. In July this year I swam a 42km fund-raising swim in my local swimming pool, it was a training swim to practice feeding over the distance and get some longer miles in the body, the feeding regime didn't quite work as well as I had hoped but I covered the distance relatively comfortably and it was a good confidence booster ahead of the real event. Swimming long distance is such a mental game that doing a long practice swim of similar distance really helps me to prepare for a swim and gives me the confidence to know I can complete it. The 2-way Windermere did this for me in the English Channel and the 42km pool swim did the same for Molokai.
As September approached I fitted in as many longer sessions as I could while trying to avoid any last minute injuries or niggles. Finally on the 29th we flew out to Hawaii. Hawaii feels very familiar to us now, we have been three times before - always because of triathlon races but it's a great excuse to come to this beautiful little corner of the world. We arrived to the baking heat and set about acclimatising to conditions very foreign to us in the UK! The first few days I swam in the Kailua harbour daily, doing laps of the Ironman course - a nearly 4km circuit with more and more triathletes for company as the days went by. We caught up with old friends and the second Saturday competed in the annual Kukio Bay swim. A fun little 1.2mile race that we discovered last time we were here. I managed to win it last time and repeated the feat again this year, it was in theory a good pre-swim loosener. However, that afternoon I started to feel seriously unwell. I was overcome with a pounding headache and nausea and a feeling of such intense lethargy that I could barely drag myself out of bed. I barely slept that night and nagging feelings of impending stress about my swim were magnified by my physical symptoms. The following day I struggled to eat much at all. I knew I was feeling nervous about the swim but this seemed extreme. I confessed to Vickie that I didn't think I could do the swim, even a little 10 minute loosener in the sea left me feeling wiped out. My only hope was that the component of my symptoms caused by anxiety would settle when I was swimming and I would feel much better once I got the swim under way. I spoke to Jeff to confirm everything was still looking good for the swim, a part of me was hoping he would say the big NW swell that was now being predicted would scupper any attempt but he sounded enthusiastic about the conditions and so I packed my gear in anticipation of travelling to Molokai the following day. That night I took some sleeping tablets and tried to put my growing fears to one side. In the morning I was greeted to two emails, one from my local support crew to say he had been injured in an outrigger race and couldn't come and another from local swim guru and coach Steve Borowski who voiced his worries about the large predicted swells. Not the sort of details I wanted to deal with 12 hours before my biggest ever swim. I spoke to Jeff one last time and he said he would find a back up crew member and reiterated to me that the swell was not going to be an issue, with those reassurances I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport. I finally arrived at my Hotel in Molokai, the only hotel on Molokai, by late afternoon (after a long wait at the airport for my bags that took a different route!). The hotel was basic but adequate and I finally managed to stomach a decent pasta meal that afternoon - my most substantial meal in 2 days. I took a few more sleeping tablets and went to bed at 6pm ready for the early start. Harley the local taxi driver, from the only taxi company in Molokai, arrived at 2am to take me to the harbour and we arrived just before 3am to wake up the crew that had boated across the previous afternoon. It was the first time I had actually met Jeff and Matt and I was introduced to 'back up' crewman John who had never been involved in any sort of long distance swim before, to be honest I was just glad they had found someone. We loaded up the boat and motored up the coast towards La'ua point - the closest point to Oahu. Jeff sat me down and said "Quick question, what do you want us to do if we see a shark?", "Well" I replied, "If you see one that looks even a little bit interested I'd rather get out before it decides if I'm edible", "Good answer" said Jeff, "I just like to check because Penny Palfry told us we could only pull her out after the first bite!" As we approached the point even in the dark we could see waves pounding the rocks and we had to come further South away from the point (and Oahu) to find a sheltered cove where I could start the swim without the risk of getting smashed on the rocks. I had brought some water-proof shoes to climb onto the rocks at the start and at 3.40am in the clouded moonlight I jumped into the black Pacific Ocean and started my Molokai Channel swim.  

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Molokai - time to accept the challenge.

The date is tentatively set at next Tuesday the 9th of October. Weather conditions look reasonable, with a light easterly forecast but forecasts seem to change daily so I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed. Two weeks ago they had an outrigger race between Molokai and Oahu and I saw a short video of the 25 foot waves at the start of the race - not exactly the sort of conditions I want for my crossing.

With only a few days now until my swim I am finding myself flipping between excitement and nervousness. It's not an unusual scenario - so much of long distance swimming is mental. To help I try to prepare myself by thinking about the swim - breaking it down into different sections. I visualise the start (1am in the morning), swimming steadily in the first few dark hours, just getting into a easy rhythm. I visualise the sunrise after about 5 hours of swimming and the distant volcanoes of Oahu coming into view. I think about the finish of the swim, hopefully at Sandy Beach - navigating the dangerous shore break and feeling sand beneath my feet. Doubts are a normal part of most peoples psyche; have I done enough training? Will I be able to stomach my feeds? What will it be like swimming in such a deep dark ocean? What is beneath me??? The worst part of a swim in many ways is the build up. I think I was lucky in my first few big swims I didn't know what I was getting myself in for, but now I know that nausea, fatigue, serious physical discomfort lie ahead of me. Most of these things are easier to deal with when you are swimming than in the few days before.

The Molokai channel will be an incredible test of my physical and mental endurance. I have a great support crew lined up and I have a rare chance to complete one of the world's famous ocean channel swims, completed by only a few of the hardiest open water swimmers. This is a rare opportunity to add my name to a select list and in a way create my own piece of history. Life offers up only a handful of these chances to amateurs like myself. I don't think success is always measured by gold medals, records and accolades but sometimes simply by whether we are willing to stand up and take one of these rare chances when they are offered up.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Molokai Channel

The Molokai Channel is a 26mile stretch of water between the Hawaiian Islands of Molokai and Oahu. It is a deep stretch of pacific ocean at it's deepest over 2000m which is a hell of a lot deeper than the English Channel for example which barely reaches 50m. It is filled with seriously stingy jellyfish and seriously big sharks. Makes you wonder why you would want to attempt swimming it!
But it has been swum and conquered a total of 25 times to date. It is my ambition to make the 26th successful crossing early next month.
It will most likely be my longest swim to date, and unless I am extremely lucky with quite possibly the most challenging swimming conditions also. Although cold is not an issue, hyperthermia and dehydration is and this stretch of water can get seriously rough. Take a look at this video of an outrigger race in the channel.
As with several of my previous swims I am fund raising for two very worthy charities - Pancreatic Cancer UK and The Shark Trust. Anyone who has had someone close to them diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will know just how lethal a form of cancer this is. With only a 20% survival rate 1 year after diagnosis and 5% after 5 years, my father-in-law is one of the few lucky ones. Hopefully with time and research new treatments and possibly cures will become available.
The Shark Trust is a small UK based environmental charity that raises awareness about the conservation of sharks and their marine habitat. Did you know over 100 million sharks are killed each year by shark finning - the cruel practice of cutting the fin off a shark while it is still alive and then letting it drown. At this rate in 10 years many species of sharks will be threatened with extinction.
There is a link to my fundraising page here.  

Monday, 23 July 2012

A marathon is a long way to swim!

In my experience of long distance swimming it's never just about swimming. If it was then it would be a simple matter of training and fitness. More often than not it's the other stuff that makes it really challenging. For example - the repetitive strain injuries to the shoulders and arms. The tightness in the back and legs that builds and builds the longer the swim goes on. The cold that slowly works its way into your core until your fingers are clawed and your head feels faint. The nausea from swallowing salt water in the sea or the build up of energy gels and drinks sloshing around in your gut. All the other intangibles that you can anticipate but never really practice until they hit you at 7, 8, 10 plus hours.
Swimming 12 hours in the pool presents some additional challenges. 844 laps means 843 tumble turns, that's 843 abdominal crunches and 844 calf springs off a wall or, in other terms, a lot of lactic in a different set of muscles and the physiological effect of tumbling on the stomach while digesting whatever energy gels and drinks you can keep down.

My strategy to manage this swim was, as always, to break it down to small manageable chunks. Contemplating swimming 844 laps continuously or for 11-12 straight hours is mentally very hard, so I devised a session to break the swim up to small bite sized pieces and, instead of thinking about swimming for 42.2km, I just thought about completing the next set in the session. With the assistance of other swimmers coming down during the day to keep me company and short sociable breaks between sets, the kms ticked over quite quickly at the start. I kept up a fast turnover at the start and knocked off the first 20km in almost exactly 5hours. By this stage I was suffering from the expected calf cramps and tired arms but my back was starting to really tighten up across my shoulder blades. It was an unusal feeling and one I put down to the excessive tumble turns. I slowed the tempo down a little at this stage and was happy to be paced by the other swimmers who joined me. By the time I reached 28km I was a bit over the swim. The back was constantly aching and the monotony of the laps was wearing me down. I found myself starting to wonder whether I could wind up early and still hold my head up high. At times like that you have to try to stay in the moment and not think about how much further there is still to swim. Just focus on the next little set or few laps. When I hit 32km I knew I was about 3/4 of the way through the swim and only had 10km to go, that's a long session but quite manageable mentally.

I paused with about 5km left and gratefully received a brief back massage while sitting on the edge of the pool from Jane Rackham, who regularly helps me with my various shoulder and back niggles. The aching muscles loosened for a few kms. I finally hit 41km and decided to gun the last 10 x 100m. It's a bit hard to gun after 41km but I ticked them over as quickly as I could manage and hit the magic 42km. The last 200m was my 'swimdown' and with a small audience gathering to watch me finish I swam the last 25m butterfly. I don't think it was very pretty but it was fantastic to finish (in just under 12 hours) and receive a round of applause from the lifeguards, friends and family that had hung around to see me complete my marathon swim. I suffered some severe nausea post swim and revisited most of the energy gels/drinks I had consumed in the latter half of the marathon; think I'll avoid the huckleberry flavoured gels in the near future.

This swim was all about raising money and the profile of the Sandford Parks Lido. Long distance swimming means a lot of training, and for much of the colder months in England that means indoor pools, often heavily chlorinated and over-heated. Come April however the Lido opens and that all changes. Swimming in a pool like the Sandford Lido makes the training a lot more enjoyable. Apart from the rich history of the 77 year old pool it is just lovely to swim outdoors in such a beautiful setting. Wide grassy lawns and pretty flower beds are easy on the eye and when the sun is out there's hardly a better way to start the day than getting down early to fit in a quick session before work or set up the weekend. One of the comments that several friends and family members made was how nice they found the Lido when they came down for their first visit to see me swim.

As always the support that I receive makes something like this doable and so much more fun. Vickie was again my rock and chief help, she swam about 10km herself. But the constant procession of swimmers that came though the day really boosted the energy and helped to pass the time. Big thanks to Phil, Maude, Dave, Mark, Sarah, Jason, Brian, Penny, Karen, Colin, Tom, Nick, Jayne, Andre, Leigh, Geoff, Steve, Kim and all the others that swam that I am too water logged to remember!


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

42.2km Swim Set

All right these are the projected swim sets to make up a 42.2km pool session -

6am -  Warm up = 4km

7am - 100 x 100m; 10 on 1min 35s, 10 on 1.30, 10 on 1.25 repeat = 10km

9.30am - Swim squad 100m, 1x100m, 200m, 2x 100m, 300m, 3 x 100m, 400m, 4 x 100m, 500m, 5 x 100m, 600m, 6 x 100m, 700m, 7 x 100m. 400m easy = 6km

11am - Main set! 1000m x 1, 900m x 2, 800m x 3, 700m x 4, 600m x 5, 500m x 6, 400m x 7, 300m x 8, 200m x 9, 100m x 10 = 22km

Whenever200m swim down

Total = 42.2km/26.2miles.

Anyone fancy joining me?????

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Lido 42.2km Swim Challenge

Next month I'm taking on a new long distance swim challenge – swimming a full running marathon distance of 42.2km in my local Lido.  That’s 26.1miles or 844 laps of the 50m swimming pool! The aim is to raise awareness and funds for the historic Sandford Parks Lido that provides the residents of Cheltenham with a historic and truly wonderful swimming facility.

The Sandford Lido was opened in 1935 and like many traditional Lidos it hasn’t always enjoyed the popularity or patronage it deserves. By the 1990s it was losing money and the local Borough Council who ran the pool considered shutting it down due to high maintenance costs and the refurbishment work that needed to be done. In 1996 a charitable trust was set up to manage the Lido and not only did it survive but over £370,000 was raised along with government grants to refurbish the pool and fix many of the longstanding problems. It continues to provide an unrivaled swimming experience to the local community and is not only a mecca of activity on the occasional hot sunny summer’s day but is popular with local triathlon, swimming and water polo clubs. 

Like all outdoor pools in this country the fickle English weather has a significant say in how successful the season will be. This year the first 4 weeks the Lido was open saw a £4000 blow out of the heating budget due to unseasonably cold weather. In the past the council used to keep the Lido only minimally heated to save costs but this would result in an understandable down turn in popularity and a cycle of poor patronage and income would result. The Charitable trust that now oversee the running of the Lido are made up of volunteers passionate about maintaining and preserving the historical Lido for the local community. They have eschewed the narrow-minded approach that drove people away and keep the Lido well heated and well managed for the community.

Unfortunately there is still a perception that the Lido is cold and uninviting, only for cooling off on a scorching hot summer’s day, I’m hoping to raise people’s awareness about how lucky they are to have a pool like the Sandford Parks Lido on their doorstep, if it isn’t used it will one day be gone and that would be a real tragedy. Hopefully the swim will raise some money to continue to fund the Lido and encourage others to make the most of this amazing place. After all if I can swim 844 laps in one go maybe a few people will think they can come down and swim a couple.     

The swim will take place on Sunday the 15th of July at the Sandford Parks Lido in Cheltenham starting at 6am and continuing for as long as it takes! You can sponsor me at or turn up on the day to swim a few laps with me.  

Monday, 7 May 2012

Gibraltar Straits - The longest night

I literally didn't sleep a wink the night before I swam the Straits of Gibraltar. I can honestly say I have never been as nervous before a swim as I was prior to this one, not even close. On the face of it that may seem strange. The Straits are only 10miles across. A swim, timed with favourable currents, can expect to be finished in well under 4hrs – much quicker than many of my longer marathon swims. Admittedly the weather can be a bit variable, the area is popular with kite surfers for a reason - lots of wind, but on our crossing the forecast was for calm, benevolent conditions, in fact you would have been hard pressed to pick a nicer day except for one small thing, the water temperature. In summer the water reaches a toasty 23C/69F, in winter a low of 15C/62. So in early May I was expecting maybe high teens, nothing too chilly. The first day in Tarifa I went in for a quick dip, the water was surprisingly cold and the thermometer read a chilly 14.2C, this was not what I was expecting, this was not what I had been training for. Even though that first dip was only 20minutes I came out shivering, right then I knew I was in trouble. 

I had selected the Straits of Gibraltar for 2 reasons, firstly it was a short, straight forward crossing of some international acclaim and secondly it was close to England where I was living. I also really loved the idea of swimming from Europe to Africa! Serendipity had certainly played a part in this swim, I had been too slow to organize a solo crossing for 2012 (slots filled up quickly) but I knew an American friend of mine, Darren Miller, who was swimming the straits and he generously agreed to let me accompany him on his swim – two solo swims from one boat. Two turned into four when Darren invited two other long distance swimmers, Jamie Patrick and Jen Schumacher to come along as well and all of a sudden we had a party! Darren's swim was booked for the first week of the season and so late on the 29th of April all four of us arrived on the south coast of Spain to embark on our communal swim adventure. 

The following morning, our first in Tarifa and just after my chilly twenty minute dip, we met with the president of the Gibraltar swim association – Raphael Mesa. Raphael was friendly and welcoming and in his broken English he forecast a good week of weather but showed some concern at the unseasonably cold water. I was starting to share his concern but I didn't want to get too worked up without justification and we planned a second dip that afternoon to practice swimming together ahead of our projected swim locked in for two days later. That afternoon we got in for a 30minute swim and practiced swimming side by side. Fifteen minutes one way, parallel to the beach and then the same back. We were swimming relatively slowly and stopping to chat and swap positions but after 30min I was very happy to get out. I was chilled to the bone and shivering, the sun was out and I warmed up quickly on the beach but I was starting to feel very worried. I spent the rest of the day feeling anxious and pondering how I would cope for up to four hours in the cold water. 

We decided to have a longer practice swim on our penultimate day, a one hour swim, starting early to replicate the next days start time. By 45min my teeth were chattering and I felt very uncomfortable, I finished the hour but my anxiety levels were reaching new levels and I jogged back to the hotel for a long hot shower. I was coming to the realization that there was a very real likelihood that I may not be able to complete the swim. It was an anxiety filled day, I struggled to stomach my lunch and I had a nervous conversation with Vickie as I tried to talk up how I could make the swim. My strategy was to try and break up the swim into five, 45min blocks. Even in very cold water I can usually manage 45min so if I could just convince myself at each feed to persevere for another 45min stint I might be able to talk myself across, that might get me through the first three feeds anyway and by then I might be close enough to manage the last 90 minutes. The mental aspect of swimming through the cold was only half the battle though, the unknown was whether I would get dangerously hypothermic. What if I started to become disorientated or actually incapacitated with hypothermia?

We had a final carbo-loaded meal that night and prepared our gear for the swim, thermos flasks for hot feeds, energy gels and all our swimming kit and post swim clothes. I was feeling pretty awful. My stomach was in knots, I lay down in bed at about 10pm and stared at the ceiling. All I could think about was the cold water, every time I started to feel sleep overtake me a vision of the chilling sea would work into my thoughts. It was a long sleepless night and at times I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, a part of me found the physical manifestations of such severe anxiety fascinating but mostly I was genuinely unable to shake an impending sense of doom, a feeling that crept relentlessly closer with each passing minute. I looked at the clock just once at 4.30am and realized I had only 30min more with my thoughts before it would be time to get up. At 5am I gave up the battle and got up, I tried to eat some breakfast but could manage only a few mouthfuls and a sip of energy drink. I slowly gathered my things together and we started to pack up the car, as the others all congregated I slipped away to the far side of the car park and proceeded to vomit up what little I had eaten. All I could hope was that once I started swimming the nerves would settle and I would be able to stomach some much needed nutrition. I was banking on hot drinks to help with the cold, if I couldn’t even stomach them I was going to get cold and run out of energy very quickly. We arrived at the boats and started to prepare ourselves for the swim, the sun was creeping above the horizon but the air temperature was still cool. We had to apply any grease we were using before getting on the boat, the boat captain understandably didn’t want four swimmers getting mess everywhere. Darren had two large pots of a channel grease mixture and I was keen to get as much as possible on my torso. The addition of Zinc oxide in Darren’s mix meant I looked a little like Casper the ghost by the time I had finished but I was determined to get what little insulation benefit the grease would provide. We wrapped beach towels around us to keep us warm as the small boat took us around to the starting point of the swim and with little ceremony we launched ourselves into the cold, clear sea. We swam quickly over to touch the rocks at the end of the harbour to officially start our swim, as we headed off in the distance the Atlas mountains were visible above the watery horizon, only 10miles to Africa! 

I had been hoping that once the swim was actually under way I would not feel the cold as much as in the days before, telling myself the grease and the adrenaline would keep me a little warmer. Within thirty minutes I knew that wasn’t going to be the case, my teeth were starting to chatter and I could feel my muscles shivering as I swam. Five, forty-five minute swims, I told myself. At the first feed my hands were shaking significantly from the cold, I enjoyed the hot drink though and drank more than I would normally consume during a race, the nausea had gone, as had the anxiety. As it happened the concern I had had about being cold, was worse than the reality. Sure I was cold - trembling, teeth chatteringly cold, but I was swimming now and each minute was bringing me closer to my goal. I had been this cold before and it wasn’t dangerously cold just uncomfortably unpleasant. As I breathed to my left I could see the sun was rising steadily in the east and the sea was incredibly calm, it was like looking across a lake. The Spanish coastline was receding slowly behind us and in the distance I could make out the looming rock of Gibraltar. All four of us swam in a near perfect line keeping pace comfortably and the swim went from being a huge physical battle against the cold to feeling like a communal adventure, I wasn’t exactly having fun but I wasn’t struggling either. By an hour and a half I had warmed up a little, my teeth had stopped chattering and my hands weren’t shaking as much, I could still feel my muscles shivering but the improvement was enough to make me feel positive about coping with the cold. This swim is famous for sea life, dolphins and whales who often accompany swimmers but we saw nothing bigger than fish and unfortunately the only close encounters were with some fairly nasty jellyfish that lashed us across our faces and bodies. We were now into the middle hour of the swim, we had seen several tankers passing by from east to west and now in the distance they were travelling the other way which meant we were approaching the second shipping lane. I had been telling myself if I could get through the first three feeds then surely I would be able to cope with the last ninety minutes. As we stopped for that third feed the African coast was starting to look closer and we could make out the massive nearby port of Tangier-Med on the shoreline. We headed off again and we knew we were well into the far shipping lane when a massive tanker passed just a few hundred metres ahead of us, it was a reminder of how quickly these behemoths of the sea move up close. I was once asked whether on a channel swim they avoid us or we avoid them? The comparative speeds mean that the swimmer has virtually no ability to get out of the way of these enormous vessels, if the tankers didn’t physically avoid us there would be no practical way to avoid being mowed down. Raphael had warned us before the swim that if a tanker got within 1km of us and was not altering it’s course we would be instantly pulled from the water, bearing in mind that the tankers could be travelling at 15knots or 30km/hr comfortably that would give us about two minutes to get four people onto the support boat and out of the way of something weighing more than 100,000 tonnes! Fortunately even our relatively close proximity to that particular tanker was of no great consequence other than some sizeable waves from its’ wake and it was the last tanker to pass before we were through the shipping lane. We had a fourth feed at the three-hour mark and there was a little more chat and enthusiasm from the swimmers as we realized we were now getting close to our goal. In my head I was hoping that this was the last stop before we hit solid ground but I knew from experience that it was dangerous to assume you were close to the end of a swim, if tides or currents kept you out for longer than anticipated it can be desperately demoralizing. As the coastline was getting noticeably closer an official looking black motorboat intercepted our support boat and we could see some animated discussion between the Coastguard and our pilot. I wasn’t particularly concerned but the thought of being pulled from the water by the Coastguard within a kilometer of the African coast was a little disconcerting. They seemed satisfied however with whatever information they received and disappeared just as quickly leaving our final approach unobstructed. I could make out some rocks several hundred meters away jutting out from the shore and we seemed to be heading in that direction. It had been a great team effort, swimming in impressive coordination for the last three and a half hours and I imagined us all touching the African shore in unison to celebrate our success, it was about that point that Darren started sprinting! I am at heart a competitive beast and I wasn’t about to be outsprinted even if there was nothing at stake so I fired up the six beat kick and shot past Darren, I touched the rocks just ahead of him becoming just the second successful swimmer of the year to cross the straits (there had been one other successful crossing the day before). We all clambered out onto the rocks and congratulated each other. My whole body was still shivering and I was in no mood to hang around so I dived back in and swam quickly to the support boat where dry clothes and towels were waiting. The sun was now well above us and the air temperature a pleasant 19 degrees. I actually warmed up quite quickly once I was out of the water. I could feel aches in my muscles that were more from the shivering than the exertion of the swim and my face and shoulder throbbed from the jellyfish stings but I felt the best I had for two and a half days. No anxiety, no nausea and the immense satisfaction of another marathon swim successfully accomplished.

Each swim is different, each presents a unique challenge, physically and mentally. I almost defeated myself on this swim by being so worried about whether I could cope with the cold. I often repeat to myself a quote by Mark Twain – “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. Sometimes it is not success or failure that dictate whether we have achieved our ambitions but simply the willingness to attempt what we think is beyond us.

Many thanks to Brian Patterson for the great photos, Michelle and Kim for the vital support on the day and Jen, Jamie and Darren for being such fun to swim and hang with.