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…