The Bristol Channel – 2 bites of the cherry

The Bristol Channel – 2 bites of the cherry

I’m 2 ½ hours into my attempt to cross from Penarth to Clevedon and my enthusiasm has got the better of me. It is August 2015, a flood tide is filling the Bristol Channel whilst a Force 5 North-Easterly is blowing and I fully realise the implications of wind against tide. I’m in the middle of a maelstrom, a washing machine of silted water, as the small window of opportunity I thought I had has firmly closed. Swimming in metre high waves coming at you broadside is bad enough but when you are trying to feed and the boat is being blown past you, something has to give. I swam to the boat and called the attempt off.

Let’s provide a bit more background here. In 2015, I was halfway through my ‘apprenticeship’.  In 2010 I learnt that I had osteoarthritis in my hips and was advised that further climbing was going to cause me more pain. The GP advice was to take up swimming.  I could breast stroke but it struck me that this was a chance to learn front crawl, something I had always wanted to do. Whilst being instructed, I fell head-over-heels with the activity especially the idea of adventurous, open water swimming. I realised that I was never going to set the world on fire for speed in a pool and coming from an outdoor background meant that swimming outdoors was always going to be more attractive.

Serving an apprenticeship means learning from experience and looking to improve and develop. I was swimming three times a week to put the skills into practice, I found a coach and started to establish a working relationship with and I researched articles, viewed videos, read interesting pieces and spoke to and observed other, better swimmers to help me become a more skilled practitioner.

Leading a school expedition to Ecuador in 2012 had first put the idea of the Bristol Channel in my head. One of my students spoke about her brother, Gary Carpenter, being the youngest person to have completed the swim. In 2013, I first came across Steve Price, who had not only completed the Channel, the North Channel and the Bristol Channel but had even completed a double Bristol Channel crossing. After completing the Dart 10k in 2012, I was looking around for bigger and longer challenges and the close proximity of the Bristol Channel seemed to fit the bill. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

One month later, I find myself in the midst of that Channel again. But I feel in a very different position. It is two hours since I left Penarth and everything feels good. The weather is due to change with a rising wind coming from the SW and I know the boat skipper is concerned about the change in the wind and its impact on the tides. We start the slow turn for home past Flat Holm and then Steep Holm in the distance. The English coastline beckons. I had visualised myself swimming into Clevedon in a god-like manner, all coolness and composure. The reality was quite different. The force 4 wind from the SW meant that waves were being created that hit the sandbanks of the relatively shallow channel. This was creating small ‘stopper’ waves that I was hitting time after time. It was exhausting, hard and mentally tough. 6 ¼ hours after leaving Penarth I crawled onto the slipway at Clevedon, battered, bruised but victorious.

This was my most major swim to date and I learnt a great deal from the experience. Trust the team around you from the pilot and their expertise to my partner, Gillian, who knew I hadn’t fed well during the crossing. Put in the hard work with your coach, from boring drills through to long swims, so that your skills are engrammed and your stroke is the best it can be. Gather as much information as you can to prepare you for the range of experiences and feelings you’re going to face. Mentally prepare yourself for the ‘dark’ time, when you are at your lowest so that you can look in the mirror, note the gleam in your eye, grit your teeth and endure.

This year I’m supporting Kari Furre by swimming Windermere with her and in September/October, I’m planning to swim from Portishead to Sand Bay Point – a 10 mile swim that has never been done before. The horizon is beckoning and the possibilities are endless…

Jo McCready

A springboard to a world of distance swimming

Clevedon waters have been an inspiration for many swimmers, and today act as a stepping-stone for a growing number of open water enthusiasts.

Many successful long-distance swims have been achieved thanks to Clevedon Marine Lake and its enduring accessibility as a training ground.  During 1980s and 90s, although Clevedon Marine Lake fell into disrepair, it was never abandoned, and quietly nurtured long-distance swimmers who have swum the world over.  One of a handful of such swimmers is Steve Price, who went on to become the first man to complete the 3-Channels’ challenge, by swimming the English, Bristol and Irish Channels.

Steve Price Long distance solo swims

Date

Duration

English Channel

October 1987

15 hours 4 minutes

Bristol Channel (Clevedon to Penarth)

September 1992

8 hours 17 minutes

Bristol Channel double crossing (Clevedon to Penarth and back)

September 1994

15 hours 43 minutes

Irish Channel Portpatrick to Country Antrim

July 2000

16 hours 56 minutes

Steve says ‘My toughest challenge was the Irish Channel.  It took 17 hours to complete, in cold water just 11oC, and was riddled with jellyfish.’ Steve, who swims without a wetsuit, continues to train in Clevedon Marine Lake.

Steve’s enthusiasm for open water swimming was sparked by day trips to Clevedon Marine Lake from his childhood home in Lawrence Weston.  But it was when he moved to Clevedon in 1985 that he developed a passion for long distance swimming, hanging up his rugby boots in his mid-twenties in favour of a pair of googles, motivated by ‘the completion of the challenge’.

A self-taught front crawler, Steve would cycle down from his house in Dial Hill to immerse himself in the briny of the lake.  Seeing the display of Clevedon Long Swim trophies dating back 60 years inspired Steve not only to enter the race, but also to research bigger distance events run by The British Long Distance Swimming Association.  He went on to swim long distance in New York, Canada, San Francisco Alcatraz and the Nile, after which he was lucky enough to meet his swimming idol, Egyptian open water legend Abu Heif.  It is fair to say, Clevedon Marine Lake has opened many doors to Steve.

As a gesture of thanks, in 2016 Steve made a generous donation to Marlens, the voluntary group and charity behind the renovation and management of Clevedon’s historic Marine Lake, to help with the upkeep of the lake.  He says, ‘The lake has given so much to me, and opened up a world I’d never imagined.  When I saw it for the first time after the renovation, I felt very emotional.  I want to help keep it this way.  I want people to know what a special place Clevedon is for open water swimming.  It’s the third most tidal estuary in the world.  It can be dangerous so must be respected, but this unpredictability adds to the challenge.  It’s never the same.  Likewise, the lake, sometimes a haven, but it too can get wild.  With this strong grounding, I hope to find an opportunity to swim between the North and South islands of New Zealand.  The Cook Strait is 14 miles wide at its narrowest point and considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world.’

Steve believes he must have swum 1,000 miles in Clevedon Marine Lake over the years, so knows every inch of the seawall, intimately.  His longest training swim in the lake was 14 hours, during which, in a trance like state, he began to see roast chickens on the wall instead of seagulls!

Not only does Steve continue to swim long distances, but he also gives talks, both inspiring and entertaining, across the South West on his experiences born out of Clevedon Marine Lake.

Kate Gay
September 2016