I have a short attention span, so in an attempt to keep my training for my upcoming English Channel swim, in 2012, “interesting” I set myself some short term goals.
The first had been to swim the Corryvreckan Gulf, which I did on the 7th of August, 2011.
The next goal would be to swim a short stretch of water that I knew would be very cold. (For this article I will refer to it as “Location X”, and will explain why at the end.)
“Location X” was not easily accessible, so just getting there would prove to be just as big a challenge as the actual swim.
Also, whenever I do my swims in local lochs, Rhona comes along in a boat acting as my guide and safety person. Due to “Location X” being remote, there was no way that we could carry our boat in, so another option was needed.
This is where the good folk of Alpackaraft came to our rescue. They agreed to loan me one of their packrafts for this adventure, and for some upcoming overseas training.
The first attempt was made at the beginning of September 2011. The route planned would need us to mountain bike in for 7km and then hike the last 6km in to the swim. Unfortunately this first attempt did not go very well. Around 6km into the ride, I managed to plant my front wheel in a hole, and flew over the handlebars. (What do you expect from a blind guy on a bike?) As I landed, I still had one foot in my toe clip, which twisted my ankle, whilst both knees smashed into the rocky path. By the time I had released myself from my bike, my knees had started to swell. Fortunately Rhona was able to do some quick first aid and strapped my knees up, to keep the swelling from getting any worse.
From here, we were able to finish the bike ride, very slowly, and stash the bikes. Due to the state of my ankle and knees, the 6km walk went extremely slowly.
3 hours later, due to my injuries, and some map reading errors, we found ourselves in the wrong location, and decided to call it a day. We had to then hike and bike the 13km back to the car.
The morning after the 1st attempt, a very good friend, and all round action man, Patrick Winterton , phoned me to see how things had gone. I gave him the run down, and said that I didn’t think I would get another chance this year, as Rhona was very busy with work, and the water temperature would be starting to drop again. He told me that he’d be keen to help me in 2 weeks time, as he had some time off work. 2 weeks would also give my injuries some time to heal.
So, on the 20th of September, Patrick and I headed off to “Location X”.
We mountain biked in for 7km and stashed the bikes in the same location as last time. I then pointed out the route we took, whilst Patrick matched it against the map. The route I was describing, from memory, would certainly get us to “Location X”, but would be 6km hiking, without a path, and then finish with a near 500m vertical climb. On closer examination, Patrick was able to find a much better route, which meant getting back on our bikes again, and heading 3km back on the route we had just come. We would then turn left and bike for another 4km, before stashing the bikes there. At that point we would have a much clearer footpath in to “Location X”, and back out, which would save us time and effort over the whole trip. (Due to my sight problems, I am fairly slow by foot, but can push things a bit faster on my bike. This means the bike takes a real hammering, hitting rocks, tree stumps, etc, but buying a new front wheel every now and then is better than what could happen to my feet and ankles.)
Patrick cycled just ahead of me over some very technical ground. (Well technical for a blind guy.) The path was narrow, strewn with rocks, and very steep in places. There were also many run offs, which cut right across the path and could not be avoided. (These are used to help direct the rain water running off the hills, and prevent the path from being washed away.) Patrick had to continually give me instructions on how to bike through them, e.g. “keep right, steep out”, or “middle and shallow”, or the worst ones “enter left, cross to right, steep out, quick left”. (Try working that out in a fraction of a second!) But he did a sterling job.
After 4km of this technical stuff, it was time to stash the bikes and start walking. The walk was only for 4km, but it was mostly uphill.
The weather hadn’t been too bad. A bit of sunshine, followed by a few drops of rain. However, when we started to gain some height, the wind really started up. Over the last few hundred metres, the rain joined in.
By the time we hit the shores of “Location X”, the wind and rain were almost storm force. There were fast moving waves being blown by the wind, and things didn’t look good for a several hundred metre swim. In fact they looked extremely dangerous.
We had the Alpackaraft with us, but due to the strong winds and waves, we weren’t sure how easy it would be to use it as a safety boat. Whilst Patrick blew up the packraft, I took the water temperature. It was 6 degrees Celsius! A several hundred metre swim was no longer on the cards. In these conditions, things could turn very nasty very quickly.
Once Patrick had got the raft on the water, he decided that battling against the winds, rain and waves might not be too bad, but to be acting as my guide and safety boat at the same time was asking for trouble. It was decided that the only option was a quick dip. After all, we couldn’t come all that way without me doing something.
As I started to get undressed, my motor skills started to fade. The air temperature was only 4 degrees Celsius, (not to mention the wind chill factor and cold rain), and as I removed each layer of clothing, my body started to take some punishment. By the time I had put my swimming shorts and cap on, my fingers were pretty much useless.
It was a quick dash to the water’s edge, and then a scramble over some rocks. Patrick directed me to the best get-in point, and in I went. I had to wade out til the water rose past my waist, to avoid swimming into any rocks. By the time I threw myself forward into the water, my upper body was already soaked from the rain, and I was shivering severely. I only swam for about 10 or 15 metres, before turning around and swimming back. The water was absolutely freezing, and I could feel my body getting heavier as I swam. As I got back to the rocks, my eyes were struggling to focus. I think Patrick was offering me a hand to get out, but I couldn’t really work that out. (My thought process was working even slower than normal.) As I reached for a large rock, I got a sudden pain across the top of my chest. It felt like I’d been hit with a baseball bat. Jeese was that sore. I grabbed the rock and managed to pull myself out. Patrick helped me over to a big rock which offered some shelter from the wind. He then handed me my towel and started getting my clothes out for me. My fingers were now of know use, and trying to punch my hands through my sleeves was almost impossible. As I started to dress my lower half, a severe cramp surged through both of my legs, which prevented me from bending my knees. This meant that Patrick had to put my socks and boots on for me.
From here, we quickly packed our bags and made our way off the mountain, down to a wee bothy to re-sort our kit. From here it was a 3.5km hike to the bikes, and then an 8km bike all the way back to the car.
I felt bad that we had taken so much effort to get into “Location X”, and I had failed to swim it, but at the same time, there was no way I could have done it in those circumstances. I had been in the water for less than 30 seconds, and chest pains and cramp had already set in. Imagine what would have happened if I had been half way across the loch!
As Patrick says, there is always next year. And hopefully we will attempt it again in mid August, just after my Channel swim, and when the water is going to be a few degrees warmer!
As for “Location X”, once I have swum it, I will tell you where it is!