“Might as Well Swim It!” READY TO GO

The teachers at LSI/IH Portsmouth can be quite an active lot and certainly do their bit for charity.  Here Cathy Willatt talks about her recent dip in the ocean all in the name of a very good cause.

“It all started, with a conversation in a pub, in Portsmouth, with an old friend. She was visiting me from the Isle of Wight. “It’s SO expensive getting the ferry over from the Island.” She commented, “Apparently it’s the most expensive stretch of water to cross in the world.”
‘Might as well swim it” I joked.
Now, she’s the sort of friend who knows about stuff, the sort of friend you shouldn’t make jokes like that with. She replied, deadly serious, “I’d love to,” adding, “You can definitely join an organised swim… I’ll send you a link.”

So, in a fit of over enthusiastic adventurism I said, “Cool, let’s do it!” and (probably) went directly to the bar to get another drink. A fire of excitement lit in her eyes and I quietly contemplated a horrendous cold, British public appearance in lycra.
Wind the clock forward two years (it’s quite difficult to get a place on those organised swims..)
Then the day arrives. A trial swim the week before tells me that I can tolerate the cold, just. Word on the Isle of Wight street says that a fleece lined rash vest is the ideal solution to the cold, for someone who doesn’t want to spend £200 on a wetsuit. The weather forecast tells me that it’s cold in there, 15.8degrees. Thankfully, it also predicts good conditions. I consume as much sugar and porridge as a 6 am. appetite will permit, and together with my friend, leave for the rendezvous point at the Yarmouth Lifeboat HQ.

We didn’t feel brave. We didn’t feel adventurous. On balance I’d say we felt a little under-prepared and very under-dressed, particularly when almost all of the other 62 swimmers stripped off to reveal super-sporty wetsuits, some even with wetsuit gloves! One, an ex-paralympian had trained diligently for months to bring down his time from last year. Another, a woman well into her eighties was so slim and fit that parts of her antiquated wetsuit were loose around her body. Meanwhile, in the background, a TV crew gathered to  interview a  beach blonde and beautiful ‘minor celebrity’, looking focused on delivering the result she’d promised her audience. We got a cup of tea out of the machine and pottered around in our flip flops until our names were called to join our group for the boat journey across.
Now, nothing gives you that ‘James Bond’ feeling quite as much as whizzing across the flat water on a speedboat in the early morning light, surrounded by people shrouded in black lycra, heading for a remote beach.  We turned to each other, grinned and laughed. It’ll be fun, it’ll be amazing, if we survive! As we approached the remote beach, a truly beautiful sight greeted us: 41 brightly coloured kayaks were lined up, their oars in the air, the spectacular Needles behind them on the horizon. They would be our escort for the crossing.
Ater a few minutes shivering on the shore, it was our turn to go in.  The cold stole our breath immediately. Only short little puffs of air came in or went out. Our arms moved slowly and gently under the water just to build up some blood flow, gently gently, then legs, and then finally we found our stroke. It was cold. Cold enough for the threat of failure to be there. Cold enough that we wished we’d trained harder, hydrated more. Cold enough that we simply had to keep moving. There was only one way home now though, and as we gradually found our rhythm and relaxed into the hypnotic, synchronised stroke we know so well, the metres started to pass. ‘Keep breathing, keep moving, don’t stop or the cold will get you’ became the mantra going over and over in my mind.
A kayak oar was raised. Some activity. People moving in the wrong direction. Shouting. In the snapshots between breaths we could see someone being pulled from the water. Cramp maybe, or the cold? Nothing worse I hoped. Keep breathing, keep moving, don’t stop or the cold will get you.
I could see the tips of my fingers, not beyond. Below me the cloudy green water quickly turned to black. I thought vaguely of the huge ships that pass through here. Must be deep. Really deep. Keep breathing, keep moving, don’t stop or the cold will get you.
Something brushed my face. What was it? A creature? A sea snake? A SHARK? Don’t think about it. Keep breathing, keep moving, don’t stop or the cold will get you.
Then a signal. We turned towards the beach. Each snapshot brought a new, clearer view. A colourful line; huts, people, tiny people, many many tiny people. Among them my boyfriend, my island friends, and maybe other friends who had travelled just to see me. This was something special indeed. Keep breathing, keep moving, don’t stop or the cold will get you.
Then clearer water, what’s this? Sand beneath us and sounds, clapping & cheering as we moved towards the slipway. ‘Look triumphant’ we were told, and so, on cold tired legs through waves and loose sand, seaweed and stones, we threw our hands into the air, big wet hugs, and cold-faced smiles as we stumbled, ungainly, out of the cold water and into the arms of warm dry loved ones.
We had swum 2.5km, the water was 15.8 degrees, it took us 44 minutes, my friend and I  raised £900 for charity, contributing to a total ₤23,000 raised for The West Wight Sports Centre. We were 64 swimmers, 41 kayakers, 5 speedboats, 3 ‘nanny’ boats to warn shipping, and the Freshwater lifeboat.
The paralympian broke his previous record. The 80 year old woman swooshed out of the water fit and well, and the ‘minor celebrity’ was last seen high on a cliff, back in front of those cameras looking stylishly blonde and wet, as we had hot milky coffee and bacon sandwiches and looked on.”

Thanks so much to West Wight Sports Centre for organising the swim and giving us this fantastic opportunity to swim across the Solent. Thanks also to my boyfriend, my family,  my friends, and my colleagues at LSI/IH Portsmouth for their support and encouragement, and for their generous donations to the West Wight Sports Centre and the Motor Neurone Disease Association.
Cathy Willatt
November 2012