Today it is our turn. Last night we were warned of two problems that would face us. An easterly wind was forecast and it might hit us mid Strait, almost certainly causing the attempt to be abandoned. However, the wind might arrive late, in which case fog might fall, and that too would put paid to our efforts somewhere short of our destination.
“Be not anxious about anything…” I kept saying that, relaxing, and then tensing up again. So much was at stake: ten months of training, the commitment to the charity, bothering everyone I knew for donations to MAF, the blogging, the fantastic support, moral and otherwise. However, I knew that many people were willing success, many praying for a smooth crossing - and the most extraordinary day was about to happen.
Yesterday’s evening briefing turned out to be a tense affair. Most of us thought that Group One, having had a decent crack at the Strait, would take a breather, let the next groups have a go and join the back of the queue to make another attempt two days later.
Not so. Marc, our leader, said that Group One would try again the next day. Not only that, the weather was questionable thereafter. Group Three was warned that it was highly unlikely that they would swim during the week, and would be called back in October, or even next year.
Fog! I woke up to fog! Grupo Uno was down at the dock at 7.30am, had their picture taken in the fog, and then returned to bed. They were told to report back at 14.00h. Meanwhile, after a leisurely start Enrico and I did a training swim up the Atlantic beach of Tarifa, where we swam yesterday. The current was impressively strong.
Trish and I arrived late on Sunday night, 20th September. The intense WhatsApp traffic from the group of eleven swimmers informed us, on the long night drive from Malaga to Tarifa, that the weather was not acceptable for a crossing the next day. Thank goodness social media is not my modus operandi. I now understand how a sector of society is permanently glued to the small screen and the time it consumes is mind boggling (220 messages in 2.5 days). But this is about swimming…
Pace. To me this is the be all and end all of long distance swimming. What pace can you maintain hour after hour knowing that you will be getting tired, sore, hungry, possibly dehydrated, mentally not so sharp and with changing conditions? I know that English Channel swimmers are now and then called upon to “smash it” for the next mile or two in order to overcome an adverse current. If you don’t put that effort in, when you may already be tired, it will cost you several hours more in the water as the current takes you in the wrong direction.My friend Katia told me that in her Gibraltar Strait crossing, a few weeks ago, they were given a choice over the last two kilometres: either go for it now, hard, or be prepared to spend another 1.5 hours in the water.
By the end of August I had completed the Bridge to Bridge (14km) on one week-end, 17.5km the next (Culham Lock to Wallingford, on the River Thames), and a repeat 17.5km the next. I felt that I had the distance under my belt. Trish and I then visited my step-mother in Ireland. She lives on the shores of Lough Derg, a long lake which carries the River Shannon on its way to the sea. A few years ago I swam across the lough (2.5kkm) with a boat escort, a swim made memorable by the vicious chop on the return.
The Bridge to Bridge refers to the swim from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge, billed as 14km, but actually nearer 13km swimming distance. You have to get out of the water three times to get around the locks. This was the first long distance swim I ever did.
Back then I was 58 yrs old, and the whole challenge seemed daunting. There were 10 of us, including three English Channel swimmers and an Ironman. Some were in skins (without a wetsuit). I remember fearing the cold. One person bailed out with hypothermia within 4km. Luckily Trish, my wife, was on hand, wrapped him up, and put him in the car with the heating on full, and took him home. Eight of us finished and the sense of achievement I felt on reaching Marlow will never leave me. Trish said I looked grey.
Which brings me to the inevitable question I get asked: how can you contemplate taking on this swim at your age? This is normally followed by: “You must be crazy!” In fact, most of the kind messages of support I get include a comment about my sanity: see www.justgiving.com/gibraltarswimchallenge.
Of the four open-water swimming events organised by The Henley Swim (www.henleyswim.com) the Club to Pub is easily the most exciting. It is a race that starts on the east bank of the river at the Henley Rowing Club. The course takes you upstream for a bit, round an island then down a long stretch to the Angel on the Bridge pub (see photo). It is 1,500m long and typically attracts swimmers and triathletes who are comfortable racing middle distance as well as those who feel it is a bit of a challenge just to do it.
Determined to give it another go, I booked John Waters from Cornish Rock Tors (www.cornishrocktors.com) for a second swim along the north Cornish coast. For a few days the weather was grim, so I swam up and down the Camel Estuary instead, much to the ire of the local harbour master who lives in fear that a swimmer is going to get the chop any day now from the power boats that dash up and down. At one point I was swimming past the last marker buoy in some fairly big waves, summoning the courage to continue along the rocks to Polzeath. A massive black rib full of divers in dry suits came up to me. The skipper obviously wanted a chat. I stopped only to get an earful about swimming in the channel, which I was not, but clearly I had bothered him. He did not expect a swimmer out there, and in those conditions I was difficult to spot. I knew I was beaten, and swam back to Rock.
I kept seeing that skipper in various pubs around Rock, but did not volunteer that I was the swimmer in the bright pink hat. He was a lot bigger than me.