By Lucie Robson, Cyprus Weekly – 30th March, 2012.
It is hard to imagine that the English Channel and the waters around Cyprus have anything in common but Scottish swimmer, Dean Dunbar, knows down to the last detail how they compare.
“The Mediterranean at this time of year is 16 to 18 degrees which is the temperature of the Channel in August. Also, you don’t get very high waves in either,” Dunbar said.
Why does the 43-year-old Scottish swimmer know so much about how these waters compare? Because this summer he is going to swim across the Channel for charity and is literally testing the waters after intensive swimming pool training in Scotland.
“The shortest point across the Channel is 34 kms. I will be in the water for 15 to 18 hours. It is too cold to swim outdoors in Scotland right now but I need some experience in open waters before the summer. My wife, Rhona and I did some research and discovered that Cyprus is a good place to simulate a Channel swim so we have come over for two weeks from Scotland to train and see an old friend at the same time.”
Dunbar was speaking to The Cyprus Weekly at Aphrodite’s Rock where he is currently undergoing training under the watchful eyes of Rhona, and the friend they are visiting, Bill-Marshall Roberts.
When Dunbar goes out into the water, his wife follows in a dinghy with safety equipment, energy drinks and a water gun.
She uses the water gun to keep Dunbar from veering off a strictly prescribed track devised to make the swim more efficient. Whenever he swims too far to the left or right, Rhona squirts the gun at his head to alert him.
Dunbar needs to be guided because he is registered blind.
Not that it is obvious. Walking with the Cyprus Weekly along the uneven beach at the rock, he strolls along with more confidence than some of the tourists visiting the site, chatting about his charity swim.
“As a child on family holidays, I crossed the English Channel many times by ferry. I knew that people had swum this crossing, and I had always thought them to be crazy. As I got older and took on my own adventures, I often wondered if I was “crazy” enough to take on the Channel swim. The thought normally crossed my mind whilst I was preparing for my next adventure, and knowing that I needed to dedicate a large amount of time to take it on, the time never seemed to be right.”
Dunbar’s ‘adventures’ include bungee jumping from a helicopter, white water sledging the world’s highest commercially run waterfall, being thrown by the Dangerous Sports Club’s Human Catapult, participating in the gruelling five-day Hebridean Challenge adventure race and setting a time record around the Isle of Wight in a Thundercat power boat.
These are just a handful of extreme sports tasks he has taken on over the years, usually in order to raise money for needy causes.
“In 2010, I decided it was time for the Channel. At the same time, I had been invited to take on a major trek in Nepal towards the end of the year. I had naively thought that I could do the training for both throughout 2010, and hoped to take on the Channel in 2011,” Dunbar explained. “But when I spoke to some Channel swimmers, I was told that this would not be a good idea. This meant that the swim would have to be put off until 2012.”
Throughout the spring and summer of 2010, he set his plans in motion. He booked his crossing (which entailed a very strict process with its roots in the first swim in the late 19th century) and pilot boat, found himself a coach and found out the basics.
“I was put in touch with a local swimming coach, Colleen Blair. She was highly recommended to me by the British Long Distance Swimming Association, and on meeting her, I understood why. She was very positive from the beginning, and has proven to be a huge font of knowledge, and great teacher. She swam the English Channel when she was 18, and is one of only nine people to have swum the treacherous North Channel, from Scotland to Northern Ireland.”
Dunbar learned that the most efficient stroke for this long distance swim would be front crawl. He had been used to the breast stroke so had to work at building up a strong new swimming technique to improve his chances of success.
“When I first tried the front crawl, Colleen watched and said that it was terrible but the good news was I didn’t have any bad habits so we could start from scratch. Now I train four times a week covering 22.5 kms.”
Dunbar’s blindness is known as Rod and Cone Dystrophy which means he has some peripheral vision but cannot make out details. Moving and static objects and people appear to be dark blurs with Dunbar having to figure out what they are and how to negotiate them.
The condition is rare so very little research is being made into finding a cure for it.
“At the age of nine I was registered as being “Partially Sighted”. At the age of 25 I was registered as “Blind”. I was given the diagnosis by a doctor who was in a hurry so in about 90 seconds he told me that I would be blind by the end of the year and needed to learn Braille and get a guide dog. I went back to the blind school where I worked, locked myself in my room and cried non-stop for half an hour.”
The condition of some of the children at the school helped Dunbar pull through.
“Many of them were worse off than me. Many had limited life expectancy. They helped me to get everything into perspective and pull myself together in order to face it all.”
Once back in Scotland, Dunbar will continue his training ahead of logistics training in Devon in July before heading off to the Channel swim.
Weather permitting, this will take place on a day between August 8 and 16.
“As this is the biggest challenge I have taken on, so far, I felt it would be a good opportunity to use the event to raise funds for charity. I am seeking sponsorship for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) and the Perth and Kinross Society for the Blind which helped me out a lot in the early days.”
Through determination and support of Rhona and friends, Dunbar has managed to come to terms with his blindness and live a more active life than many fully-sighted people.
“A long time ago I decided not to tell people that I am blind. I want them to see me and not the disability.”
For further information on Dean Dunbar, the Channel swim and the supported charities, go to: www.extremedreams.co.uk