It is with mixed emotions that I am writing this post so lets start with whats been happening this side of the pond.
So the English Channel season is underway with a few Relays that have gone across so far but this is expected to ramp up quite significantly over the next couple of weeks – weather permitting. The swimmers at Dover beach continue to push their boundaries with this last weekend seeing them take on, what for many, was their first night time swim. As the harbour has changed somewhat in the last couple of years, there is no longer the 1200m plus stretch from West wall to east wall to play in. Due to the new marina that has been built, it cuts off a fair amount of that space resulting in a limited area to swim in. This area now has to be shared with other activities, the Dover Regatta, Champion of Champions, and many others. Last week the Channel swimmers started at the ungodly hour of 3am to finish their 6 hour swims before they had to make way for the Champion of Champions.
This is where the Slimhippo and the Zimhippo became involved. Mark Sheridan had asked us to help out this year so we both agreed – for a romantic weekend away – to help out, with one of us on the beach crew and one of us on the water. Yes, ON rather then IN. In my 10 years of Open water swimming, this swim has been the only one that has proved elusive.
It is a bonkers format seeing swimmers do 5 miles, get out, then 3 miles, get out, then 1 Mile. It has proved my undoing once and I have no desire to ever do it again. It is not a format that I enjoy. I am much happier just swimming and not having to deal with this get out, get warm and feed only to get back in again. However, I do love helping out and this is the 3rd time I have been on the support crew in one way or another. This year, it was a great day to support with the water being 14.6 degrees Celcius and the sun beating down on us the whole day. It is a humbling experience being on the other side of a swim and doing support, rather than swimming. Watching these swimmers bobbing around the harbour fills me with a new found respect for my Wife, the Slimhippo, who looks after me during my swims for up to 12 hours at a time. At least I had the opportunity to get out after the 5 and the 3 miles, The Slimhippo does not always have that option. To all the supporters, kayakers, timekeepers, safety officers, race directors, a huge congratulations to all of you. Without you, Swimmers would not be able to do what they do
My second congratulations goes to the swimmers. I do however have less sympathy for you. YOU Choose to put yourself through it and whilst you are all amazing, I still think you are all a bit mad. Sitting on a kayak watching you all, the thoughts that go through my mind is, why the heck would you want to put yourself through that. Cold, wet, salty. It is not long before my brain kicks in and says, ‘hey mate, you do far silllier things than what they are doing!’ I still argue with my head and say, Well, I do it without stopping, which is much easier. Yes my swims might be way longer but this format is guelling so I do have great respect for the swimmers.
Helping out is a great way to give back to the sport that I am passionate about and it also gives me the opportunity to watch swimmers and analyse their techniques to see what they are doing. Then I go back to the water and start tinkering with my stroke. From fast to slow, there are some amazing techniques out there and there are others that could do with their own tinkering but one thing that is apparent, pool swimming and ocean swimming are very different. What works in the open water may not work for the pool and vice versa.
All in all a huge congratulations to everyone on the day for a fabulous event and for those wanting a challenge, I do recommend this one, especially if you have any big swims coming up in the future. I will probably never do this event but love helping out and sticking to what I know best. But, never say never.
As it was The Hippos anniversary, and I had really pushed the boat out for a romantic weekend away, I do not think the Slimhippo quite agreed with the format that the first part of the weekend took. Long drive down to Dover, stopping at McDonalds for a quick bite to eat. Arriving about 10.30pm with a romantic stroll along the promenade then off to bed for an early start on Saturday. On the beach by 8am for a briefing of all helpers, followed by a day of timekeeping for the Slimhippo and kayaking for me. I thought that was pretty romantic. I even managed the romantic gesture of purchasing her an Event T-shirt – Cotton being anniversary symbol. I thought that was a stoke of genius. Clearly The Slimhippo and the Zimhippo have slightly different ideas of how to have a romantic break. However, we do agree that it was great to see so many swimmy friends and meet new ones. So to make amends, we had a lovely dinner at a fish restaurant on the beach front. Sunday then was the Slimhippo’s day and as per usual, she excelled at planning a great day out. Her cotton present to me also trumped my t-shirt by a few fathoms!!!
The Hippos went for a quick recky to check out the new Dover pier and then went up onto the White Cliffs for a lovely brisk walk to FanBay Shelter, where we swapped the breeziness above ground to a tour round the damp tunnels, 23m below the surface in Dover Cliffs. This culminated in the testing of two Sound Mirrors that were installed in the cliffs before the 2nd world war. They were carved out of the cliff by hand as a listening device to warn the troops of an invasion. It was an amazing experience. We were only down there for an hour. Troops spent weeks at a time down there; it was cold, damp and according to my wife, as dark as the inside of a black cat. Once the tour was finished, we made our way another 10 minutes along the cliffs to the South Foreland Lighthouse, which was built there to protect ships from the Goodwin Sands. It didn’t do a very good job! Over 2000 ships met their demise on the very shallow sand bank that stretches for about 16km and in fact during lowtide the sandbank is VERY shallow. For the amount of times I have been to Dover, it is the first time that I have walked out that far along the cliffs and it was a great walk although it was in a pretty brisk breeze as you are on top of the cliffs. In True Zimhippo romance, I treated the Slimhippo to an icecream after the trip to the Shelter and the lighthouse before driving us back to London.
So why the mixed emotions?
This last week, Open water swimming has been subject to intense scrutiny again after the shocking death of one of our own. Dr Charles VanderHorst sadly disappeared below the waters surface during one stage of the iconic 8 Bridges swim in New York. Charles was a passionate about many things and was a medical professor and prominent AIDs researcher. We as a community are still reeling from the news and our sincerist condolences go out to the family and the organisers of the 8 bridges race. I cannot even imagine what they must all be going through, especially the kayaker who was with Charles when he slipped beneath the waters surface.oWhat happened is a tragedy. Three other people have now died during swimming events in the last year. This does not include non open water swimmers, but merely normal citizens taking a dip on a hot day, which I do not have the numbers for. I mention this as the above 4 were not unfit people who just decided to take a dip on a warm day but were serious athletes who had trained and competed at the highest level of their sports. Some were record holders in certain disciplines. These deaths cannot be explained away. There will be many questions but few answers. It is easier to understand the occasional swimmer getting into difficulties but fit, healthy, experienced swimmers garner a lot more questions.
Human beings are unique in the fact that we assume things happen for a reason and we need answers. There probably will not be many in these cases. The result is that our beloved sport – which is the 2nd most popular sport in the UK, behind fishing, is now under further scrutiny and further legislation will undoubtedly be the final outcome. I totally agree that safety is the number one priority and any way in which that can be improved is a good thing. In all these circumstances the safety and support was exceptional, the responses to the situation fast but still not enough. As this sport is growing so fast, we have seen the demise of a number of big ticket swims as the costs of putting them on and the cover needed just becomes too expensive to make them profitable, let alone break even. There are various measures that we as swimmers can take under our control; obvious options are wetsuits, tow floats, rest tubes – whilst all would go a big way to offering vital time to a swimmer in distress, there are other areas where they can become a hinderance. If, for example, all 2-300 starters in a race with a land start (i.e. running into the water from the start) had towfloats tethered to their bodies, there is a possibility for entanglement occuring both in and out of the water. This in turn would result in panic. Rest tubes would not have helped in the above as they require intervention, either by the swimmer or a third party to deploy. Wetsuits can also be a hinderance. I think the benefits still outweigh the consequences. My only worry is a blanket legislation on wearing them.
I do not know the answers but what is clear is that the Open water world will have to grapple with these questions and in some cases realise that some questions cannot be answered. Legislating or litigating your way out of EVERYthing sometimes is not possible when you are dealing with passion alone.
So what is ahead?
Whilst grappling with these thoughts personally, it has forced me to look at the weekend ahead, I am clearly not as fit as I could be, I have clearly not been swimming as much as I could have and yet, I have a pretty busy weekend in the water. On Friday I have a 3 hour endurance swim. Swim as far as you can in 3 hours then on Sunday I have an 11.4km swim in the River Waveney up in Norwich. So I anticipate two 11 plus km swims in three days. I have turned down the option of defending my title in the 6 hour Humdinger endurance swim on Saturday. I think that would have been a step too far for where I am right now. Admittedly I have done way more than this in the past with my lack of training, but it is going to be a big challenge. A challenge I am actually looking forward too. It is always interesting to move out of your comfort zone. I am not worried about the distances at all but I am a little more weary of the recovery between the two and whether or not I can sustain an acceptable pace during these challenges. Either way, I will find out soon enough. I have let my physical training slide quite drastically but continue to do my mental training on a daily basis and am confident that I will get to the end. I may not be up to fighting it out for a podium position but will enjoy the experience all the same.
Happy swimming to all and Congratulations to those who have surpassed or achieved their goals over the past couple of weeks.