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A swim to survival

A successful assault on Bird Poop Island.  The date was June 2018, the location a little piece of rock protruding from the sea off the coast of Conneticut.  A little more than a stone’s throw from the beach-fronted homes flying their July 4thflags in anticipation of the holiday season.  The ‘island’ so named by my brother-in-law and intrepid nephew. I decided one day to swim there; it took 30 minutes in skins.  The seagulls were less than impressed but I beached.  It was less a triumph to land there than it was to swim there.  A success in my growing repertoire of sea swims of increasing distance and distancing fear – let’s not discuss the ‘whales’ that I only saw at low tide; that’s a whole other blog.


And so it is that from the Atlantic to the UK coast I have begun to swim further and for longer distances without a wetsuit and without that gripping fear that I first experienced in Blenheim Palace lake.  I forget the exact year but it was my first open water triathlon and I have written before about the panic attack.  It could have been attributed to the cold, the dark and the badly fitted ex-hire wetsuit that tightened its grip around my throat, restricting my shoulders, such that the swim was less enjoyable than even a novice open water experience is likely to be. But I feel I’ve come a long way since then.  I still haven’t invested in a proper, well-fitted suit but that’s just me.


And so it was with the island invasion close to my mind that I sat at the computer on a day, early this year, waiting for entries for the Seahorse Swim to open.  It was here I should have made two decisions, distance and category, not just the one I made – to enter.  Fast forward to Saturday two weeks ago, a few days before the mini heatwave, and I headed to the beach to see how cold the sea really was.  Bloody freezing.  The daunting realisation that there was no way I would manage 3.8km at that temperature in skins.  I’d have to change category and take my wetsuit.  Simple, decision made.


Only I was too late. Rooky error I can hear you thinking. Yes most likely, not ever having done an organised open water event before.  The switching and swapping has a cut-off date and for very good reason – safety. Then Mother Nature did one of her cartwheels and we lurched from end of Spring into full blown, hotter than ever Glastonbury, mini heatwave, basking in glory.  I nipped back to the sea on a blustery Friday, 48 hours and counting before the Seahorse and did a spot of wave jumping.  I got in, I got my head under, I controlled my breathing.  I was going to be fine, cold but fine.


I wasn’t.  It turns out I was bloody freezing.


It turns out I can’t even describe exactly when what happened happened.  Or what for that matter.  I was getting cold and I knew that but I didn’t want to do half the course having committed to the full distance – mistake number three, and I was talking myself round.  My friend said to me afterwards, “So you weren’t sensible enough to stop half way?” I suppose not but maybe by then my reasoning was already on the turn.


I remember being able to see clearly when I lifted my goggles.  I remember the light of the sun on the shore and the shape of Old Harry rocks. I remember thinking of the swim to bird poop island.  I know the only way I kept swimming was to count repeatedly from 1-10 and that is all I did.  But the actual swimming was an other-worldly experience, it was as deafening as it was silent, it was like being in a dream in which I was both trapped and suspended. I have no idea how else to describe it. I also know my jaw was tight and the vein in my neck that is like a lighthouse warning beacon was protruding, even I could feel it.


What I’m trying to describe is hypothermia.  At least that’s what I know now.  I think I did 2km in that state and I was not well when I emerged.  I should point out here that I finished, I got the medal, not that I was much aware of it.  Next time, oh hindsight you scoundrel, I will go full distance and wetsuit, or half distance and skins.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of swimming skins (that is clothed by the way if you’re uninitiated, it’s code for non-wetsuit).  But I don’t belong to an open water club so my experience is limited. This was no 30 minute island adventure, this was two hours in cold water and, whilst I was well trained for the distance, I was ill-prepared for the cold.  And as I’ve said my conscience waned and I was then ill-equipped full stop. Funny though that the instinct to get from orange to yellow to orange to yellow (buoys) was the preservation, the counting the mantra and thankfully, the wonderful shore crew the saviours.


There are times when an event goes wrong against your better judgement.  But will I be poised at the computer to enter in 2020, yes I know I will.

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