Back in the Open Water

Now gradually recovering from my glandular fever, in the past couple of months I have dipped back into the sea and I have surprisingly really missed it. Last year, Poldy and I spent a huge amount of time trying to get to grips with life swimming in the open water, which is a different sport to that of pool swimming. The tides, currents, waves, sea creatures, boats, salt, and the damn cold make it that way, and whilst these all sound like things which would make swimming unappetising, strangely when all put together, they are the makings of a weirdly enjoyable and rewarding sport.

Our initial taste of ‘proper’ sea swimming was April 2016, where Poldy and I went on a lo1ng distance swimming camp with other Channel hopefuls because we wanted to see if we had what it took to even contemplate swimming across the 21 miles to continental Europe. I nearly threw in the towel before we had really started – the initial 10 minute ‘acclimatising’ swim when we arrived in Mallorca on the 1st afternoon brought somewhere between 15-20 jellyfish stings all over my body. After a lot of complaining I did man up and we both enjoyed a successful week learning a lot about sea swimming and completing our 6 hour channel qualifying swim in 15C water. We then knew we had a chance out there.

Just a few stings on my shoulder and arm…

We returned to Blighty with a new found enthusiasm for open water swimming and planned to fit as much of it we could in our diaries that summer, as we had expected it would be the one summer of training we had before taking on the Channel in June 2017.

Dover every weekend would become our bread & butter – I’d drive us down before 7am on either Saturday or Sunday ready for the usual 9am start unless we had a very good excuse not to. Dover beach swimming starts from the 1st weekend in May and runs until the end of September and let me tell you it is bloody freezing on the May bank holiday! With temperatures just in double figures, you lose your genitalia within seconds of entering into that smelly Dover water. We struggled to have as much fun as the eccentric, seasoned Dover swimmers were having in the freezing murky sea, but in time we got into the swing of things, although I’m not sure we ever felt fully part of the club… You can’t deny it is superb training though, as you get accustomed to the severe tides, chop and the quite frankly disgusting polluted sea.

A typical Dover Saturday…

The volunteers there are amazing and everything is on a plate for you so you don’t have to do too much organising yourself. They grease you and they feed you every hour and importantly they watch out for you. Poldy learnt an important lesson down there on one of those weekends – not to touch a drop of alcohol the night before you go open water swimming. After a few glasses of red the evening before, Poldy plunged into the 14C-15C sea in his speedos and had to be pulled out of the water two hours later showing signs of hypothermia. Alcohol thins the blood which can cause your body temperature to decrease quicker, so the chances of getting hypothermia are increased significantly. It was very scary to see him not being able to answer the simplest of questions on the beach for 15 minutes after he’d been hauled out – an event he couldn’t remember afterwards.

Aside from Dover, we decided to join the British Long Distance Swimming Association and entered into one of their early season races in Torbay in June – an 8 mile swim from Torquay to Brixham and back. Although it was not a successful event and certainly not an enjoyable one, again we went on a steep learning curve and it was great experience. The conditions were tough and the sea was cold but we were on the back foot before we had even started because one of our support kayakers had dropped out, meaning we were the only two swimmers there that had to share a support boat. This was far from ideal as Poldy and I swim at different speeds and have our own feeding patterns, so to share just turns into a bit of a mess.

Poldy and I psyching ourselves up before the Torbay race

I became acutely aware that Poldy was struggling on the way across the bay to Brixham as his pace was dropping and his response to my questioning wasn’t clear. It was cold and he recently had the Dover scare so there was no need to be taking unnecessary risks. The RIB pulled him out of the water which freed me up to swim at my own pace. There were a lot of big jellyfish that day but it wasn’t the nasty sting that caused me to stop after making it the 4 miles across the bay, it was the stomach cramps and the impending diarrhoea. This was the 1st time we had ever made up our own feeds and I’m pretty sure I cocked up the carb-loader to water ratio because I hadn’t experienced the bad guts before. In hindsight I should have just taken my budgie smugglers off and gone in the water because that’s what other swimmers would have done but I was new to the sport and not entirely comfortable with it!

A significant swim for both of us last year and a very rewarding one was Lake Windermere. We somehow managed to pick the only weekend last summer that had severe weather warnings and the eye of the storm was definitely over Windermere that day. We were even refused kayak hire for Lisa as Poldy’s support because of the storm! So yet again we were forced to share a support boat but in truth it wasn’t such a major issue. We took close to 6 and half hours to swim the 11 mile length of the lake, which is more or less half the Channel. We swam this one in wetsuits which clearly made our task easier not just for the buoyancy in the fresh water, but for temperature control – being slightly faster than Poldy meant there was a bit of waiting around, however on the positive side I probably managed to eat double what he did that swim!

These little weekend adventures have been sorely missed this year. There was something fun about Poldy, me and our number one supporter Lisa, quietly slipping off after work on a Friday and hacking down a motorway towards our swimming destination with our car full of food and snacks. Apart from anything else I have missed the majority of the summer training so it is important that I make the most of the precious few weekends left in the open water swimming season. If we have a weather window we are planning on completing our 6-hour Channel qualifying swim for 2018 in the coming weeks so fingers crossed.