What a fab event! I’m talking about the BLDSA Torbay swim, an 8-mile sea swim across Tor Bay, from Torquay to Brixham and back. It’s a long way from Inverness to Torquay but this swim turned out to be well worth the effort of making the journey.
A late window of opportunity allowed me to travel from Inverness to enter the event held on 6 July 2014. Through the winter and spring my training had not been progressing particularly well and my motivation was low despite having some long swims planned for late summer and autumn. I needed a good strong swim challenge to test my shoulders, challenge my commitment and to focus my head. The Torbay swim is a good distance and known to offer challenging conditions, which are great preparation for any big swim. It is also an attractive event as kayakers are resourced by the organiser which removes the headache of finding your own kayak support.
Entering just before the deadline I was warned that kayakers are allocated to swimmers in order of entry form receipt and the later entries would be the ones missing out should kayaker numbers be down. This did worry me a little since I had already paid for my flights and car hire just to get there, but I was philosophical about the risk and put my faith in the organiser to ensure sufficient kayakers would be provided.
It was a nervous group of would-be swimmers who began to gather at the Meadfoot Beach Cafe and look out across the unsettled sea. Those of us further down the list would have to wait and see if the kayakers turned out as promised. The sea conditions were borderline after high winds the day before and none of us wanted to be told we would be swimming a reduced distance circuit rather than crossing the bay.
As registration progressed it became clear that the local kayakers had turned out in force to support the swim. And what a fantastic group of folk they were. Registration proceeded like clockwork and by 9.30am all 18 swimmers and kayakers had registered and were getting to know each other. There were even a few extra kayakers who would act as additional support. My assigned kayaker was Tim and he immediately put me at ease. The early discussion about experience and support needs quickly turned into an easy banter. The sun shone, the sea calmed a little, it was confirmed we would be crossing the bay and I actually started to relax a little and look forward to the swim. The swimmers really appreciate the kayaker support that allows us to complete the end-to-end swims while it seems that the kayakers are in awe of what we swimmers do. Safety is taken seriously and a number of RIBs are also on the water. All swimmers and kayakers are logged in and out. The swimmer is marked with a number corresponding to a bib worn by the kayaker.
The in-water start allowed for the use of footwear to enter over the sharp stones. Once removed footwear was handed to kayakers or thrown back to beach supporters, we lined up and then we were off. The early part of my swim progressed easily. I felt strong and was enjoying the feel of the water, working out the wave patterns and trying to make the most of my stroke. I had worn my watch, a mistake possibly, but there was mention of a half-way cut-off time and I wanted to make sure I was not unceremoniously hauled from the water before completing what I came to do.
Ninety minutes into the swim and I stopped for a feed. I had loaded my kayaker with bottles and a few solids and meds – just in case. Overkill of course, but it helped me to know it was there if required. Tim told me he thought I was about two thirds of the way across. My mind calculated and recalculated my likely time at the turn buoy. Based on Tim’s information I should be comfortably inside the time but I didn’t want to relax too much.
Setting off again I found myself working harder, Tim was disappearing behind the waves at times and the Brixham coastline didn’t appear to be getting any closer. Time was ticking on. Gradually, very gradually, we finally seemed to be hauling it in. I checked my watch…another 45 mins had passed. This was going to be a close one. On schedule Tim offered my next feed. I declined, aware of the time constraint and not feeling a great need to feed I indicated I would wait until after the turn buoy.
It felt like a long slog to get there, but once I was sure I would get in before time I relaxed a bit. Watching and time checking swimmers as they reached the turn was a friendly smiley volunteer who waved an acknowledgement. While at the buoy I was able to look back and note a couple of swimmers still on their way so I said to Tim I would take a feed once clear of the buoy and off we set on the return journey. Now I started to feel hungry, really hungry and I started to will Tim to stop paddling and offer me a bottle. Come on Tim, please stop, I’m ready for a stop now! Eventually I just stopped swimming and shouted to Tim that I was ready to take a feed. In reality it probably wasn’t long after the turn, but it sure felt like it.
The wind had definitely picked up and Tim was watching the other swimmers and kayakers taking a wide return route, blown off the straight line course. I listened to him telling me this and hoped he would be able to compensate. I was swimming fine, but had no wish for a longer swim than required. After almost four hours of swimming I started to feel my shoulders tightening. I still had a long way to go. Time to dig deep and put my mind into the place where I become unaware of the minutes and the swimming just happens.
Time passed, I was still swimming. I tried not to look forward, it was tough enough keeping track of the kayak next to me as it disappeared behind the waves from time to time. The safety boats began to visit with more frequency which tells me fewer swimmers are in the water, most will have completed and be dressed by now. More time passes and I am still swimming, but finally the hotel and beach markers of the finish line begin to take on some definition. I am aware we are approaching from the south more than the west. I guess even Tim found himself taking the banana route back to Torquay.
I am increasingly aware of the work my shoulders are doing, but now I can see my target I up the turnover and focus on making that finish line. It feels like a rip tide is trying to pull me away from the beach. Where is that green finish buoy. Where is it? Come on, where is the darned thing?! I begin to see figures on the beach, not yet recognising who they are, but it means I am making progress. I check my watch. I am going to finish in the time limit. Relief. Finally I spy the small green finish buoy. It had been hiding behind the big orange sighting buoy. Stroking out I focused on getting there, now ignoring my kayaker, people on the beach and anything else around me, giving all my attention to the flash of green and finishing the swim.
There were people clapping my finish and waiting to assist me over the stones and onto the beach. The BLDSA are great at recognising every individuals achievement, from the fastest to the slowest. Speed is not the most important aspect here. At 5hrs 30 mins I was within the 6hrs30 time limit. It was good to see that all swimmers were allowed to complete their swims, even those who did not make cut-off times.
I felt the swim well and truly tested my determination and ability. Mission accomplished. While I had felt the lack of training in the latter stages of the swim, it gave me real confidence to continue with my plans. Thanks BLDSA. Great organisation, great support, great swim.