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Endurance swimming. Mainland to the Isle of Wight ~ Sue Mercer

Growing up in the 70s on the south coast, my mum would regularly take me during those seemingly endless long hot summers to Lee on Solent beach which is right opposite the Isle of Wight. It really never looked that far (it’s nearly 3 miles!) and I would often announce that I was going to swim over; she would just encouragingly say ‘off you go then’. But I never did!

Roll forward a few decades to the end of 2018, just before my 50th birthday (no hint of a midlife crisis!), and I decided to make it happen, securing a charity place with Aspire, the spinal cord injury specialists who organise a lot of swimming fundraisers. I even found a fellow school mum, Andrea, as a partner in crime. Unlike running – and understandably – you can’t just swim anywhere…trips throughout 2019 were planned around open water venues such as the marine lake at Clevedon, Mersey Docks (yes really, twice!), the Solent, Weymouth, Eastbourne, Lake Windermere, along with the excellent Vobster Quay near Bath where we swam many a lap of the 750 metre lake. Plus a bit of indoor pool training at the University.

Many are the challenges associated with open water swimming: – you can’t stop if you don’t fancy going on or get out of breath (even treading water is hard work!); – you can’t touch the bottom, or even see it; – the water is cold – the coldest was 12 degrees in April rising to a balmy 19 degrees in August. I only once swam ‘skins’ (open water swimmers’ speak for ‘without a wetsuit’) – the rest of the time I wore a special swimming wetsuit and often with boots and gloves (it’s not glamorous); – currents, tides, swell and the wind have a huge effect on your ability to swim and breathe – becomes your best friend; – there are ‘things’ in the sea – jellyfish, seaweed, jellyfish, rocks, jellyfish and more jellyfish.

The swim to the Isle of Wight is about 2.5 – 3 miles, depending on the current and starts from Gilkicker Point near Gosport, finishing on Ryde Sands. As part of the organised charity team, you set off with 11 other like-minded people and get a kayaker each to guide you across. The charity also sorts out all the logistics such as informing the coast guard and keeping all the shipping away, or at least steering you out of the path of the really big ships! And providing hot chocolate at the finish, and giving you a lift back in a really fast RIB.

Our official swim date was Saturday 7th September, but we knew the date was totally weather dependent. The wind needed to be less than a force 4, which roughly equates to no white horses on the water. Swims are scheduled either side of low tide and also during a neap tide to reduce the distance as much as possible. August’s swims had to be postponed due to the storm that hit the UK that weekend (remember all those festivals and outdoor events that were cancelled?). But we were in luck – the weather was perfect. Never have I been so pleased to hear a northerly wind is forecast – giving a slightly cool off shore breeze to push us across, combined with a moderate crossways swell meaning the conditions were good, and the swim was on!

One hour and 40 minutes after annoucing to my mum who was on beach that this time I really was off to swim to the Isle of Wight (and her saying ‘off you go then!’), I arrived safely on Ryde Sands dodging all the ocean going liners, tankers, yachts and motor boats. It was such a fantastic event to take part in and I fulfilled my childhood dream of swimming to the Isle of Wight. Oh, and I raised over £1,300 for Aspire in the process!


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