It’s been nearly two years since I last trained for a solo, non-wetsuit open-water swim. In August 2008, I swam the English Channel for the second time. That swim was everything I needed at the time: successful, fun, shared with friends…it scratched the itch. Afterwards, I’d had enough. The love-affair seemed to be over and I took a year off, a year in which I turned my back on bone-chillingly cold training swims, mild hypothermia and weekly round-trips to Dover.
A year off turned into two. Here we are in 2010 and I haven’t got a non-wetsuit swim challenge on the calendar.
This weekend, I was back home in Kent for a couple of family gatherings. On Saturday night, I ran from my sister’s house, out along the Royal Military Canal and back along the seafront. The pouring rain stopped and a chunk of rainbow appeared over the Channel. So I jumped off the promenade, onto the shingle and walked down to the sea for a chat.
“How are you? Still cold? Still salty? Yeah, I’ve missed you too.”
That was it – I knew I couldn’t go back to land-locked Berkshire without a detour to Dover for a training swim.
So Sunday morning saw me creeping out of my sister’s house before anyone was up and making that familiar drive to Dover. As I walked down the groyne and jumped onto the beach, Freda (Streeter, aka The General 😉 ) looked up and said “now here’s a blast from the past!” I posed for a photo with her but there’s nothing on my camera, sorry. As Barrie donned his gloves to slap a bit of Vaseline under my armpits, Freda jokingly said I had to do 4 hours. I told her I’d do 6.
I was doing nothing of the sort, of course. The water’s still 14*C (57*F) – cold for this time of year – and I haven’t been in the sea in two years. (Although it’s worth noting there were swimmers in yesterday who were doing 6 hours, having done 7 hours the day before. Fun times, folks. Fun times. I’ve been there). After all this time, I had no idea how it would feel, no idea how my body would react. I would have been happy to do 10 minutes.
There was nothing left to do but walk down the slope of the shingle and into the water. So I did. First my feet, then my ankles, up to my waist in 14*C water. It was cold. I stood there til there was no reason to stand there any more, and then I dived in and submerged myself.
I surfaced grinning from ear to ear. Yes, it was cold, but not too cold. It was all the good things I remembered. I set off for the Prince of Wales Pier, about 500m away. All the little details I’d forgotten about sea-swimming came back to me in an instant, and my clever body remembered exactly what do to. At one point I stopped, turned to look at the beach from the water then ducked under the surface, just wanting to be as close to this old familiar water as possible. Before long, the barnacle walls of the pier were in view and I surprised myself by having a rush of emotion. I touched the barnacles with the flat of my hand, took my goggles off and cried. It’s been too long. So many memories.
Back across the harbour was a tiny bit bumpy, just how I like it. I enjoyed the feeling of a live body of water moving under my arms as I swam past the swimmers’ beach and onto the other side of the harbour. I was getting chilly and, when my hips started to cramp and the back of my neck got cold, I knew I’d had enough.
As if to prove my point, an old friend (Nick ‘the fish’ Adams) stopped and said “hang on…who’s that?!”. I replied with my name but even that – one word, one syllable – was hard to pronounce. I was cold enough to be unable to speak properly. I turned for the beach and swam in, under no pressure to complete any time or distance.
The cold hits after about 10 minutes of getting out, of course. We know that. I was halfway through putting my trousers on when the shakes started. I borrowed a coat off a nice man called Chris (he was swimming at the time) and lay on the warm stones to defrost a bit. I hung around to help with the 11am feed, and then said my goodbyes.
So, there you go. Perhaps we can call that the beginning of my reimmersion into the Channel?
PS I got killer racer-back tanlines, just from one 45 minute swim. Seriously, what is it about swimming the sea?