Sunday, 7 August 2011

Swimming for social enterprise

Love the hat, I look like an upside down exclamation mark 

Without opening my eyes this morning, I knew it was going to be a tough swim. The crashing waves on the shore outside my bedroom window and the blue sky told me the race was on but the conditions were far from ideal.

The Big Swim Race started last year but then it amounted to around 50 of us swimming from Port Gaverne to Port Isaac on the North Cornish coast to support local causes. It was a casual affair, tough but fun. I did it in 44 minutes, which was nigh on as slow as the slowest.

This year the race was in aid of a social enterprise, the National Lobster Hatchery, and in keeping with the professional approach that all good social enterprises take, they had worked on the event organisation, promoted it and, together with a local group of hard working volunteers, had upped the anti. Organisers had T-shirts, there were stalls selling such things as goggles and nose clips and the queue for registration stretched all the way through the village. It seemed every tri-athlete for miles around had converged on our little port to join the race and with over 300 swimmers they had split the event by 15 minutes into serious and non-serious, with the serious people going first.

It might surprise you to hear I opted for the ‘serious’ category when I picked up my natty yellow competitors hat. My reasoning was this was that it was better to come last in the first group than last in the second when stragglers get a really hearty but nonetheless substantially mortifying reception. I should know. We were given a warm-up routine by my mate Angela, who battled on through the high wind, despite not having a mike, telling reluctant participants that the sea was going to be bloody cold and they might as well take the opportunity to limber up.

My friend Andy and I stood next to each other at the shoreline for a final photo, he was claiming a crippling stag-do hangover and did, I have to say, look rough, but as nearly the fittest person I know I wasn’t having any of it.

At 12 noon we headed into the water with much cheering and splashing, and with me hanging back to avoid any collision that might prove embarrassing. Hardly the furore our first Olympic qualifier Keri-Anne Payne has had to endure in her astonishing career as the world's leading open-water swimmer, but quite a crush none the less. True to form Andy literally ploughed over me thanks mate – and with an efficient front crawl, slipped away from view.

Sticking to my customary stately breaststroke I headed out to sea, knowing what most didn’t: firstly, that what looked like small waves from the shore would, when we got beyond the headland, rise up to obscure the horizon and, secondly, that we were all swimming for social enterprise.

Practising for today I have swam out to the headland every day for the last two weeks, a swim I have been doing for 12 years, but today the weather in terms of the swell was as bad as it has been since we arrived.  Richard Cook, our Harbour Master, had put the yellow flags he had made for the race right out of the bay. Knowing these waters better than anyone he was, no doubt, ensuring that none of us got caught on the big breakers and swept towards the cliffs, but my God they seemed a long way away once we had cleared the headland. Richard told me in the pub later that he had placed the flags that far out to ensure that the race was a good mile of open water, as well as means to protect us from the rocks. Marvellous.

I made a critical error and having swum on the right of the first flag had thought the second was an outside flag. One of the sea rescue team surfed over to the group I was with and told us the bad news, we had undercut the second flag. My fellow swimmers said they were just trying not to drown so would carry on towards the harbour, but I turned back knowing that would delay me but, with my kids watching from the cliffs, taking a shortcut was not an option.
Once I had cleared the last yellow flag I headed for the harbour noticing that as we got closer to the loud speaker system, the cheering crowds and the finishing line, most of my fellow swimmers sped up. Having determined that I was going to make it and would not need rescuing, I slowed down to enjoy the swim and to catch my breath, if I am honest. It gave me time to think about whether I should put together a SEL team for next year, anyone fancy it? The lovely thing about open sea swimming are the views you normally only get from boats, and the sound of the coast, which changes with each minute progression. It’s magical, I absolutely love it.
Crossing the finishing line, my boys were shouting at me to get a move on, as I clocked in at 47 minutes, three slower than last year, oh dear. And they regaled me with the stats they had picked up: the winner had done it in 21 minutes, three slower than last year which made me feel better. Andy landed in 22, some 12 year old had managed it in 30, I was 8th to last of the first group having been lapped by several of the second group, and unlike last year around a dozen people had retired and come back in the boats. Still, I was chuffed and will sleep well tonight and there is always next year...


  1. If you're up for a former SELite to join in next year's swim then I'm in - looks fantastic!

  2. Great, you're in! Most training takes place in the pub, so again, perfect.

  3. Michelle is in as well, so that makes a SEL team then!