Last weekend I was lucky enough to be part of an elite band of swimmers who were attempting to swim one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world starting from Gosport over to the Isle of Wight. This epic event is organised by the Aspire charity who focus on supporting people recovering from debilitating spinal injuries. A fantastic cause and inspiration for people to support them attempting this.
The charity rely heavily on swim events for funding and facilitate Solent and Channel swims every year. To enter the Solent swim you have to be strong swimmer and able to commit to swimming for a continuous two hours but also to being able to raise the minimum charity contribution of £750 which is needed given the complexity of running something like this, The Solent swim is around 3 miles of sea swimming with it hard to give a specific distance ahead of the race as the tides influence the way you cover the distance heavily and mean the distance can vary heavily. For open water swimmers it is a really unique experience and nothing quite like any other triathlon swim leg or dedicated swimming challenge.
With the weather last week very unpredictable the week leading up to the event the organisers communicated that the weather could result in a deferral as the winds were high and forecast to remain throughout the weekend on the South coast. This made for a nervous few days waiting to see if all the training would finally be coming to an end and the event happen. Friday afternoon the safety pilot finally gave the green light and we were on. With kit packed it was off to Gosport in readiness for a big day in the water.
Saturday morning and a 6:45am meeting at the Gosport marina where we met our fellow swimmers and the safety team to brief us on the day ahead. Dry bags issued with coloured swim hats the 10 of us were grouped into waves of swimmers based on swim speed. Ahead of the event you had to commit to a mile pace in the pool and this was used as a benchmark to group the swimmers. Only 10 people attempting this sounds crackers being part of something with so few participants but given the safety needs of this it is necessary to limit it and restrict the waves to only 2 or 3 people. As I picked up my orange swim hat I was informed I was in the fastest wave and would be setting off last with the slower swimmers setting off ahead of me. Two other swimmers formed the orange hat gang and we compared notes on speed and experience. This was no novice field with 14km swimmers and some recent experience of swimming Loch Ness. Gulp. Time to put on the big boy pants.
Heading round to the marina some banter cut through the nervous chatter and we prepared to head out to the waterfront at Gosport. Reaching the launch point required our first introduction to some of the safety boats with a 5m rib boat ready to shuttle us out of the marina. Somewhat a relief as the marina home to some big boats and the new aircraft carrier in view it didn’t inspire confidence for a bunch of swimmers. The speedboat takes you our of the marina and then West heading along the coastline where there is a beachfront and the next phase of the swim prep. The boat approaches the coastline and in pairs you jump into the sea to walk up the beachfront where a dozen canoes were beached awaiting our arrival with their respective owners who would be our bouncers for the crossing. Each swimmer was to be paired with a canoe who would be both their guide and their cover for the crossing ensuring they were visible in the water. Coupled with this each wave of swimmers would have a dedicated speedboat with the Daddy of speedboats, “Maverick” a mighty gin palace who would be policing the waters across all the swimmers and giving us plenty of cover.
The slowest of the swimmers in their bright green swim hats got the all clear to hit the water around 8:30 and they entered with the canoes to head South and embark on this epic journey to the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately with a Force 4 wind the sea was rough and for all of us waiting on the beach the signs were ominous. For those of us who rarely venture into the sea a Force 4 is measured using the Beaufort scale with the wind reaching Force 5 as the day progressed so there was a real urgency behind getting going. A Force 4 is 11 – 16 knots of wind with wave heights of 1 – 1.5 metres. Waves under 1.5 metres may sound marginal but if you consider that while swimming you are submersed with a limited amount of your body above the waterline so a 1.5 metre wave coming down on you when you are centimetres above the water is gruelling and frightening for even the most experienced swimmer. The tides pushed all those entering the water East at pace so the direction of travel needed to work against this and had an impact on the amount of ground that could be covered.
As I waited on the shoreline for my wave to start the nerves kicked in and to combat this decided best to start to acclimatise to the water and occupy my mind rather than think about the task ahead of me. After a couple more waves my time arrived as the final group of swimmers were given the all clear. Me and two fellow swimmers sporting our orange hats entered the water around 9 o’clock eager but somewhat concerned by the sea conditions presenting themselves to us. The three of us and our canoes headed South accompanied by our boat making slow but real progress. The South-Westerly waves resulted in a continual battering in the face as you swam and a real threat that a wave would knock my goggles off and make the remainder even more tricky. Given the water a wetsuit had always been my plan but one of the plucky 10 swimmers opted for skins and was tackling this grey and blustery day with nothing more than their swimsuit. Hardcore.
My plan had been to use the canoe as both a barrier and a guide tasking them with staying on my right side slightly ahead so I wouldn’t bother with any land sighting and just keep the canoe on my right. A fine plan but given the conditions it was one destined to fail. As I adapted my stroke it was necessary to abandon my usual form and increase my body rotation dramatically so my head made it clear of the water. I retained bilateral breathing throughout but at times I needed to take multiple breathes from either my right or left as the waves collapsed on me at times and left me with no chance for air. My usual light “delicate” hand entry to the water again was developed to be more direct and aggressive in line with the conditions I found myself in. A mile into my swim and it was clear my canoe was struggling as she struggled to keep enough distance between us and out in front.
Progressively I found myself leading and eventually without a marshall leaving me to be in the channel unaided and having to come high in the water and attempt sighting to the distant Isle of Wight shoreline. At a similar period a giant container ship crossed my path and at this kicked up a huge swell impacting me and those around me. This resulted in me being spun around and heading North back towards the West of Gosport. Disorientated and swimming in the wrong direction. The support boat spotted me and headed to cut off my path and redirect me towards the IoW allowing my canoe to regroup and get out in front. We agreed an alternative approach for them to merely stay out in front and act as a guide. No barrier just keep going and stay ahead of me.
With one of the other swimmers struggling and having to abandon their attempt a spare canoe became available and as I ploughed through the other swimmers I picked up a second canoe to help usher me ever nearer to the Island and my destination. Approaching the shoreline the South-Westerly was sheltered by the island and resulted in the waves calming permitting a more natural swim stroke to resume.
Passing more swimmers I was able to begin to enjoy the swim and gain confidence that this was a challenge I would complete. Reaching the Isle of Wight after around 1 hour 25 minutes I rose from the water on Ryde beach the third swimmer to arrive somewhat relieved and exhilarated at the reality of making it under my own steam across the Solent. Stood looking back over the channel with a huge grin on my face proud of what I had been able to achieve. This was no race but I’d hoped to make it first across the Solent with my competitiveness ever present. There were then some quick photos before the support boats appeared ready to shuttle us at pace back to Haslar.
Its not the longest or furthest endurance event I have completed but having managed to raise over £2000 for the charity it is certainly unique and memorable. Something I would recommend to anyone who has the dedication to commit to the training and the challenge of crossing the Solent.