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. 

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