In February I moved to the coast where I have been doing my best to fully embrace the pleasure of living by the sea—by swimming in it, in a wetsuit, usually with about 80 other people, most Saturday mornings. The idea was to join the local triathlon club and meet some like-minded folk, but really it just means that every week I spend an hour experiencing an unusual combination of joy and abject fear as I pootle along the English coastline, dressed a bit like a seal.
The season is nearing its end though—most people stop this nonsense at the end of September when the water temperature drops to a level where their hands are too numb to actually dress themselves post-swim—and having failed to enter a race this year, my thoughts have turned instead to an event I took part in last July: the Big Sea Swim, in Eastbourne.
Now, I’m a bit barmy, if there is an event with a range of distances, I immediately choose the longest available, to get the most from the experience. This meant I’d be covering 3 km rather than 1 km.
I stayed in The Sheldon Hotel, not far from the start/finish line. The night before the race I stuffed my face with pizza and wandered down by the prom, listening to loud rock music blaring out of the bandstand on the front.
Race day dawned fresh and bright, the sea “looked” calm.
It was a nice little set up, with plenty of safety boats and kayaks provided by the town’s lifeguards. We would swim along the coast, towards Eastbourne’s charming Victorian pier, turning at the end around a couple of massive orange buoys, swimming back down past the start line (if you were doing the 1km at this point you’d just head in to shore), then up and back around for another lap. I wasn’t racing, I’m not exactly swift, so I hung back and avoided any potential maelstrom at the start. However, with only 67 people taking part, that probably wasn’t going to be much of a problem.
It took a long, long time to get to the pier…the nice calm sea was hiding an impressive current.
Delightfully, once I’d turned at the pier, I was shot back down to the start, hardly noticing the buoy marking the turn for the 1 km swimmers as I passed by. As I came round again at the far end, ready for my second lap, I got a touch of cramp in my left calf and took a moment to massage it out. An inflatable lifeguard dinghy pulled alongside to check I was ok. I wasn’t defeated yet, but lap two was going to be tough, I was hardly fresh.
I asked the lifeguard if I was ok for time. He assured me there were some who hadn’t made it to the pier on their first lap yet. Reassured, I set off against the current once more.
Lap two was interminable. I tried aiming for points of note on the Eastbourne seafront, but I wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, having favoured breathing to my left to track my progress, I glanced to my right and saw I had my very own lifeguard paddling at my side. He directed me to slightly better water. However, if I stopped to take even a brief rest, I just drifted back the way I’d come. I needed to keep bloody swimming. I was also now the backmarker. More folk must have bailed at 1 km than had swum on. I wasn’t too far off the man in front of me, but it took all my willpower to get to the pier again. Once I was around that buoy I could surely just float back down to the start?
I rounded the buoy. Too close. I got taffled in the rope anchoring it to the sea bed. Trapped momentarily under the buoy, I panicked, turned onto my back, and got cramp again, this time in both legs. This was it, this was how I was going to die. My mum would not be impressed. What a stupid way to go.
I popped up on the other side, more than a little bit freaked out and with both calves still slightly cramped. A lady in a kayak paddled over, asked me if I was ok.
No. I really wasn’t.
I’m not one for giving up, but, as I clung to the end of her kayak, common sense finally took over. It was time to bail.
The lifeguard dinghy motored over. I was hauled on board, and we headed for shore. A woman told me it was ok, I wasn’t the first. I said I’d failed. She smiled and said I’d been in the water for nearly two hours and that I should be proud of myself, others hadn’t battled on that long. Time obviously flies when you are having fun, the whole distance in better conditions should have taken me just over an hour. Back at the start/finish, I climbed out of the boat to a round of applause and a medal. I felt like a fraud; I hadn’t finished. Somebody gave me hot chocolate and I sat in the sun, relieved that it was over.
Recovering later in a charming café cum antiques shop not far from the sea—Jasper Wood—I realised I had some pretty impressive chafing and could hardly lift my arms.
This Big Sea Swim is a well-organised, friendly event, and in aid of a very good cause (the Marine Conservation Society), but I’m not sure I’ll try it again, not unless someone can promise to turn off that epic current.
Note. Parts of the Eastbourne pier were sadly ravaged by fire later that month. I will treasure the view I had of it as I battled to reach the water in its remarkable shadow.