Scilly Swim Challenge – the big day!
September 12, 2015
We’d got everything ready the night before, so just needed to get dressed and eat breakfast. I opted for porridge with protein powder (as usual), and a bottle of Osmo preload (kindly provided by ProBikeKit). The night before, Roelie and I had drunk a bottle each of Osmo preload hydration in pineapple margarita flavour. I could taste the pineapple, but hadn’t realised it was margarita flavour, so it was tangier than I expected. It is recommended that female endurance athletes drink a bottle the night before extreme endurance exercise and some more 30 minutes before exercise. I figured that it might be more than 30 minutes before I started exercising, but that a bit early would be better than not at all.
Unfortunately, we weren’t quite as organised as we’d hoped and when Chris, the swimmer in the apartment next to us, knocked on the door, we weren’t ready. Five minutes later, we headed down the path towards the beach, where everyone was waiting. The sky was grey and the water looked cold and uninviting, but it was too late to back out now. Jane, our host, arrived with her camera and took a photo of the group of us. I also spotted someone with a SUTRI hat on, so we went over and said hello.
Soon, we saw the kayaks appear, so we finished putting our wetsuits on and clambered down onto the beach. There, three flags were set up and the baggage boat had arrived. I took my bag over and was then asked by a ‘skins’ swimmer if I could deposit her bag – this made me so nervous as I was afraid that I might drop it in the water.
I’d made the decision to wear my new wetsuit, with bootees, gloves and two hats. I chose not to wear my neoprene hat as it’s just not very comfortable. (Later in the day I spoke to a swimmer who had a strapless neoprene hat. She explained that it was made by P-Bear, who custom make a variety of neoprene swimming hats – that’s now been added to my Amazon wish list!)
We were told that we would set off in waves with the red/fast group going first, followed by orange/medium and then the green/slow group last. I gave Stu a final hug and the adventure started.
Swim 1. Bar Point, St Mary’s to Higher Town, St Martins (2 miles; 3.2k)
There was about 10 minutes between each of the waves, so there was plenty of time to get nervous. I tried to set off at the front of the group, but it was a bit like the mass start in a triathlon. The water didn’t feel terribly warm and I realised that I hadn’t used my inhaler – oops. I did my best to keep up, but could see others pulling away, so I decided to try to keep as many people within my sight as possible.
I didn’t really have a clear idea of where I was heading, but felt that following others should be OK. After we had got a little distance from the shore, I realised just how choppy it was. I felt like I was constantly being slapped by the water, so I had to change my breathing. For a short while, I was breathing on every other stroke, just to avoid being hit in the face.
Luckily, everything started to settled down and I swam for quite a long time. Sadly, I was approached by a kayaker and was told that I needed to be picked up by a boat. I had been aware that this was a possibility, but it was somewhat disappointing. The adverse weather conditions and the late start meant that it was necessary to hurry some of the group up. I climbed into a boat that already had two swimmers in it and was moved about 300m, where I was offered the chance to get back in to rejoin the other swimmers. One of the ladies was too cold and didn’t want to get in, but I literally jumped at the chance. Usually, I lower myself very carefully into water, as I hate being submerged, but I didn’t want to miss out, so I closed my eyes, held my nose and launched myself off the side of the boat. I then swam as quickly as I could to catch up with the other swimmers.
When I climbed up the steps on the quay, I saw my bag, but couldn’t see Stu or Roelie who had already headed off. I got my flip-flops out and put them on over my swim socks, which fortunately have a split toe. I then saw Bryony. It was nice to see a familiar face and she was incredibly positive.
When I arrived at the cricket pitch, people were eating and ranking everywhere. I had a small piece of cake and a veggie hot dog, along with a cup of tea. I then drank some more Osmo mango during exercise drink. Maybe technically I should have been drinking it whilst swimming, but I figured that between swims would also count as ‘during exercise’.
I removed my bootees for the walk to Lower Town; swapping them for a cosy pair of socks and some Skechers. The weather was starting to brighten up, but I wanted to stay warm.
On the way across the island, a car wanted to go past. Most people stepped off the road, and I managed to walk into a patch of stinging nettles – ouch! If I hadn’t removed my bootees, I would have been OK. I didn’t have any cream to put on my leg, but I figured that the cold water would be soothing!
Swim 2. Lower Town, St Martins to New Grimsby, Tresco (1.8 miles; 2.9k) (lunch)
At Lower Town, I decided not to put my bootees back on as I’m never convinced that they help with my swimming, even if they do keep my feet warm. I think the problem is that they were a great bargain (£5), but I would probably have been better off with a slightly smaller size.
This was a tough swim. Every time that I thought I could see the beach that we were heading towards, we had to swim away from it and through some rocks. However, I managed to stay calm and reminded myself of Dory’s catchphrase: ‘Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…’
When we arrived at Tresco, the sun came out which was lovely. People started to warm up and as it was quite a long walk, there were a lot of opportunities to chat to people. I had a chat with the amazing swimming ambassador, Beth French. She explained that her next challenge is to swim the Seven Channels and that she is currently seeking sponsorship for this endeavour.
The weather was really grey when we arrived at Tresco and there were even a few spots of rain.
People were sitting around in the field by the community centre eating and drinking, but the mood was slightly more subdued.
I didn’t fancy a pasty (and didn’t think there were any veggie ones), so I had a small cup of soup and a snickers. Then I rummaged around in my bag and found the nectar of the gods: Honey Stinger energy chews in cherry cola flavour. I was sent them by ProBikeKit and was keen to try them. They tasted good and were easy to digest. They also had the benefit of having caffeine in them, which helped to perk me up.
Swim 3. Old Grimsby, Tresco to Annaquay, Bryher (1 mile; 1.6k)
As the swim from Tresco to Bryher is very short, we were told that we would be setting off very close together. The green group went first. We were told what to aim for and were horrified to discover that the spectator boat had suddenly decided to start moving and was going through the pack of swimmers :-O It was only afterwards that we realised that this was simply our impression, and that actually it was because the current was so strong that some of us were pushed towards the boat.
I really enjoyed this swim as the water was very calm and the sun was out. It didn’t take long and we could easily see where we were heading. It was also nice not to be one of the last.
Swim 4. Rushy Bay, Bryher to Samson (no stopping) (1/2 mile; 800m)
In the briefing before this swim we were told that if we were considering not doing the long swim, we shouldn’t do this one as it would be difficult to pick people up. Lots of people decided to pull out and the green group ended up waiting for about 20 minutes for the bags to be loaded onto a boat, the other swimmers to set off and for the new spectators/retired swimmers to be picked up.
I had a chat with the team and explained how keen I was to give it all a go, but that I appreciated that they had to consider everyone’s safety, so if I needed to be picked up, that would be OK.
The short swim over to Samson was fine. I crossed the sandbar with a skins swimmer and then we were into a rocky/seaweedy area.
Swim 5. Stony Ledge, Samson to Porth Conger, St Agnes (3.3 miles; 5.3k)
When we had crossed Samson, the water wasn’t deep enough to swim, but it was hard to see the bottom because of the long strands of seaweed, so some people tried to swim. I was grateful that I had my bootees on and managed to keep wading. It was difficult for the kayakers, so they went around the side. Unfortunately, we didn’t properly regroup before starting again. By this stage, we could’t see the previous waves.
It was getting quite cold and the wind had got up, so the sea became increasingly rough. I did everything I could to keep other swimmers in my sights. I managed to hang onto another swimmer, which gave me some confidence as I’ve realised that I really hate feeling alone at sea when I’m quite a long way from the shore.
I think I swam for 1.5-2km before a kayaker came near. I really struggle to hear when I have ear plus in and with the rough sea, I really couldn’t understand what the kayaker was saying. I thought they were directing me to the boat, so I swam over.
The people in the boat were surprised and asked me whether I wanted to be picked up, which caused a bit of a dilemma. There were already two swimmers huddled in the boat and I didn’t want to quit, but I had now lost my swimming buddy, I reluctantly climbed aboard, managing to severely bruise my shins.
I felt like a quitter, but felt slightly better when I heard calls go out on the radio to start picking up the rest of the green wave. We were transferred to the spectator boat, where everyone was very generous. We were offered dry robes, scarves, hats and various other items of clothing, which I declined as I really didn’t feel cold.
When we got to the quay at St Agnes, we were just in time to see the first of the red wave swimmers arrive.
I disembarked and found my bag. I was then asked to keep an eye on a swimmer who was crouched on the quay with a dry robe on. He was a skins swimmer who was shaking with the cold. I asked a spectator if they would be able to get the man a hot drink and they generously gave their hot drink. Unfortunately, the swimmer’s hands were shaking so badly that he was unable to drink it.
I put on my dry robe and headed up the quay to where the hot drinks and cake were. I then walked down to look for Stu’s bag to help him when he arrived, but I was too late – he was already there. He said that he had done 4km, but although his arms and legs were moving, the sea was so rough and the current was so strong that he had not been moving and had been fished out. I later learned that half of the orange wave had been picked up (Roelie was also picked up) and several other red wave swimmers. I was disappointed, but it made me feel less bad about being collected.
I decided to refuel with a few more Honey Stinger energy chews and some Osmo so that I would have enough energy to keep swimming. I was pleased that I wasn’t feeling too fatgiued. I hadn’t been sure of what my nutrition strategy should be, but everything I ate seemed to work well.
A decision then needed to be made about the final leg. I was determined to do my best to finish what I had started, but in the end, the decision was taken out of my hands. Some of the swimmers were close to hypothermia, the wind had become much stronger and the light was failing, so it was decided that it was not safe for us to try to finish the event.
I’m not sure that these pictures from the boat trip back show just how rough it was.
When we got back, we then had the trek across the island. We had forgotten to bring a torch with us, but were able to enjoy the sunset.
In the evening when I got back, I showered and then slathered on some Flexiseq sport. I wasn’t sure whether it would work, but my muscles and joints were aching and I knew I needed to be ready to swim again in the morning.
Swim 6. Porth Conger, St Agnes to Porthcressa, St Mary’s (2.2 miles; 3.5k)
I had been looking forward to celebrating on Saturday night, but a good night’s sleep meant that I was ready to tackle the final swim. I wasn’t aching particularly, although my legs were very bruised and my neck was chafed – I’m taking the lack of weary muscles as being a sign that the Flexiseq worked. Roelie also felt prepared, but Stu’s arms were shot from his valiant effort the night before. As he has a torn calf muscle, he is unable to kick, so his entire swim had been arms only.
Stuart accompanied Roelie and I on our walk to the other side of St. Mary’s. I had a much smaller bag than the day before as I knew I wouldn’t need multiple pairs of shoes or lots of nutrition. There was also a much smaller group of swimmers than the previous day; I noticed several of the slower swimmers had decided not to do the final leg.
We walked to the quay at St. Mary’s and were loaded into a boat to go to St. Agnes. Stuart wasn’t able to come so he headed off towards the garrison to be able to watch the swimmers.
When we got to St Agnes, we put our warm clothes and bags onto the boat and got into our groups. As usual, the green wave was the last to leave
We were asked to try to stick together a group as much as possible. I went to the front of the group near to Beth French, in the hope that I would get a good start and would be able to stick with some of the other swimmers.
It wasn’t long before the majority of the group started pulling away from me. I saw two swimmers off to my left, so I decided to keep them in my sight and try to make my way towards then. Not long after, a kayaker pulled in front of us and pointed out that we were swimming as a 2, a solo (me), and another two with Beth and that we would be better off sticking together. This seemed logical to me, so we had to tired water until the other had caught up. We then set off again, but one woman decided to strike out on her own. A second swimmer and I tried to keep up but we couldn’t catch her. Unfortunately, this meant that we pulled away from the skins swimmers.
When we got into the most open part of the channel (where the Scillonian goes), it was again very choppy. I wasn’t really sure where I was aiming. I had been keeping an eye on the swimmer on my left, but I lost her in the swell. After a few minutes, I started to panic (if you’ve read any f my other blog posts about sea swimming, you’ll notice that this is a common theme – I really hate the feeling of loneliness when I out at sea). I knew I had to keep moving, but negative thoughts started to enter my mind and I was considering attracting the attention of a kayaker or a boat (although I couldn’t see them either). Just as I got to my most panicky, I spied the other swimmer who was now on my right. Her appearance was enough to calm me down a bit
A short while later, the two of us got to calmer water nearer to land. A kayaker gave us some instructions – I didn’t understand a word – and I set off with the other swimmer. It is so reassuring to know that there are other people around.
I could finally see Porthcressa beach in the distance. The sun was shining and the water was calmer and warmer. I knew it was quite a way off, but I started to feel much happier – the same feeling when you get to 23 miles in a marathon and you know you can do the last bit!
We then got to a very seaweedy bit. The water is so clear by the Isles of Scilly, so I could easily see the bottom, even though it was very deep. This distracted me quite a lot as there was so much to look at. I saw lots of fish, a couple of jellyfish and some crabs 🙂
After a while, I got through the seaweed bit, and then I got very cold. I wondered whether I had pushed myself too hard and I didn’t want to be removed for the water, but it was the coldest water I had encountered during the weekend. I decided to try to pick up the speed in the hope of warming up. I started kicking quite hard and making my strokes as long as possible.
I DID IT!!!
I went over for a hot drink, and another slice of cake and watched the last swimmers arrive. It had been a tough weekend, but I achieved a seemingly impossible goal.
When I got back, I had a shower and used some more Flexiseq Sport.
In the evening, we went over to St Martins for the celebration event.
It was really nice to have a celebratory drink and some food with everyone who had taken part in the event, but to be honest, we were all so tired that we wanted to go home and go to sleep!
So, that was the end of an amazing week. Below are some images that I took on the Scillonian on the way back from St Mary’s to Penzance.
When we finally got back into the harbour, there were sailing boats everywhere. The wind that had plagued us for the week had finally gone and the boats were becalmed.
A video showing what it was like for the fast swimmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4Snz-Hf-pE
Write up on the event by Beth French: Scilly swim takes the biscuit….and cake….and pasty