Monday, 7 May 2012

Chasing Cold Water and Avoiding Hypothermia!

I am now seven weeks from departure to the UK and only 61 days from my swim window. Scary but exciting! Over the last few weeks I have been chasing cold water... At present cold water training in Sydney is quite difficult as water temperatures are a pleasant 20°C. The water temperature in the Channel is a good 5°C colder.

Hobart local swimmer, Pat
Work has been busy, but has also enabled me some awesome opportunities to swim in colder climates. Two weeks ago while working in Hobart I found some local swim buddies through Twitter and email, and was lucky enough to be adopted by the local Masters group for a pool session. The local ocean swim group introduced me to one of their members, Pat Fitzgerald for an ocean swim at Kingston Beach. The setting was stunning while the water temp was a cool 16°C. I also swam one evening after work at Sandy Bay, cheered on by my boss and colleagues on the beach until sunset. Getting back into such cold water was a great confidence boost.

The following week I headed to Melbourne with eight of my Channel squad buddies, (Ali, Wayne, Marty, Ben, Des, Wyatt, Lochie and Coach Charm). We descended upon the locals at Brighton for some seriously challenging cold, cold-water swimming. Coach Charm put together a great program for us and the local swimming clubs, the Brighton Icebergers and the Brighton Black Ice Club, welcomed us openly. Brighton water temps were a cool 14.8°C. The first night we swam for a couple of hours in the Brighton Baths to get an idea about what we were in for. The water was blacker than black and colder than cold! The sunset was amazing though, and it was practice swimming in the dark. The next morning we tackled a three-hour swim looping around Brighton Yacht Club. Starting in the dark it was cold, but once the sun hit our backs it was quite a pleasant morning. I struggled through the three hours, not from the cold, but because I was tired and felt very heavy in the water. I was also stressed anticipating how I would manage the following day’s marathon swim, and it was starting to play on my mind. I was feeling quite apprehensive, as we had set up a seven-hour swim with the Black Ice Swim Club. This was going to be the longest I had ever swum, and in the coldest conditions.

That afternoon while I was at work the crew swam again. I was still quite tired, so I sat that one out and headed to the dinner/briefing with the Black Ice crew. What a great group of people and so welcoming and excited for us to join them for their Channel qualifier swim on Saturday. At the briefing, the members said they were actually doing an eight-hour swim in the morning! This was not was not my plan...I said I was nervous. I had set seven hours as my goal, and believed that would be enough. However a chat with 2010 English Channel Solo swimmer and mate, Melbournian Dougal Hunt, encouraged me to lift to eight hours. I knew I had to decide there and then in order to give myself the mental prep time. It was the best opportunity I had to really prove to myself that I was going to be able to make it across the Channel. I felt that after an eight hour swim in sub 15°C waters, I would have a stronger sense of confidence about my upcoming challenge.

Friday night back at the ranch (aka swim camp HQ) we packed our feedbags and prepared our drinks. Some entertaining and tension breaking moments were supplied by various team members in their food prep, but in the end we all made it to bed with the goal to swim eight hours the following morning.

Saturday morning I woke up at 4:30am. I was really nervous. A quick bite to eat and check of the gear and we all piled into the cars and headed to Half Moon Bay. The Black Ice swimmers had organised shifts for land duty and swim duty so there would always be a crew on the pier to throw us our feeds and there would be new people getting in the water every hour to swim with us and keep us company. The support was amazing! With encouraging efficiency everything was set up and we were ready to go. It was now up to each of us to make the time.

Never have I been so scared in my life. Diving into the sea at Half Moon Bay at 6am in pitch black was very surreal. The phosphorescence danced on my fingertips and after an hour and a half I was frozen. I wondered how on earth I was going to make eight hours. Thankfully, due to the very cold water, there are no sharks down where we were swimming, so I had one less fear to think about. I had the song "Brother" by Matt Corby playing on repeat in my head, as it was the last song I heard before I got out of the car that morning. It was nice and peaceful, and made me wonder what my bro was up to at that moment in Hong Kong. Slightly comforting but after eight hours of that song, I can well and truly say it would have been nice to know all the words instead of singing lalalala for whole sections waiting for it to come back to the chorus which I knew!

Coach Charm
About 8am the sun finally rose above the hills, and I swam out into the bay to get the sun on my back. I was feeling pretty frozen, no wetsuits in these conditions does that!, however the sun started to warm me and before long I was back to a happy place. The next few hours went really well. I fed every hour and laughed and joked with the huge support crew we had on the pier. I looked forward to feeds and a chance to hear someone else's voice other than my own in my head! I was enjoying the scenery - I alternated fifty minute loops of pier to the point and back, followed by a feed and then from the pier around Cerberus (a ship wreck) and across the bay in an opposite direction and back. Mentally I was fine and really enjoying the fact that I was doing this.

Feeding time at the zoo!
Feeds were managed from the pier where the land crew would throw our bottles of drink down to us on a rope and pass down my prepped feedbags while I trod water. Most bags consisted of a gel, a honey sandwich, a chocolate brownie, sometimes a banana, and Milkyways. I would only decide what I felt like once I had my goodie bag, eat about half of it, and then swim off. The feeds were conducted in Channel conditions, whereby we couldn’t touch anyone or get out of the water at any time. Our drink bottles were topped up with hot water to keep us internally warm - these were an absolute godsend and I thank Dougal so much for bringing a kettle down to the wharf and keeping it constantly boiling throughout the day.

Land crew in action
At 4.5 hours, as I came in for a feed, I watched one of my swim mates start sinking as he was treading water next to me. He was completely disorientated, had no idea who he was or what he was doing, and started going under. Hypothermia! It happens very quickly and it is very scary seeing its impact on someone you care about! The land crew pulled him from the water and I swam off. But that stayed with me for the next few hours. I was determined that I didn't want to suffer the same fate and was very glad for the extra 10kg’s I had put on for insulation purposes!

I kept swimming, hoping to keep hypothermia at bay. I thought of mink coats, summer holidays, cocktails on warm sandy beaches, Ugg boots... Anything to keep me thinking I was warm.  At six hours, the land crew asked me what I wanted. I responded: "a fur coat, a massage, someone to feed me grapes, a holiday.... " we were having fun! Not long after another swimmer was pulled out with hypothermia. This was getting very real! 

Jubilant Wayne and I - 8 hours conquered!
The swimming conditions started to deteriorate. The water was really rough, and I was fighting against huge seas and drinking a lot of seawater. A couple of the guys were really seasick. Because we were doing loops we would get some reprieve when we came back with the swell, but it was a good 25 minutes hard slog each outward lap. It took a big impact on my shoulders. I also had random songs from the 90’s popping into my head. Highly entertaining when “Boom, boom, boom, let me hear you say ‘Way-oh, way-oh’” started playing loudly on repeat in my head.

Finally the conditions started to calm down somewhat. The last two hours went well, tough but fine; I knew it was almost over. The last 20 minutes were the worst as I was really bored and ready to get out. My shoulders were tired and sore, and I was sick of having the same song playing over and over in my head. Finally, at eight hours, we got the wave from the pier that we could come in, I was stoked! I had swum 23.5 kms, my longest swim ever, in both time and distance.

I got out, elated and put on some dry clothes straight away and began the natural warm up. I was surprisingly ok, everyone else ran for hot showers, but I didn't want to undo all my good work, so I just used my thick jumper and beanie and Uggs and enjoyed some of my home made brownies with the land crew and thanked them for their support. I was extremely grateful to have Coach Charm and my mate Dougal there the whole day. Not an easy day watching a bunch of swimmers dealing with some tough challenges both mentally and physically, but these guys and the Black Ice crew were awesome. I did it for them as much as myself, and I was truly thankful to be able to share the experience with everyone. The rest of the crew did well. It was a pretty big challenge for us all, so I will let them share their own experiences, however I was truly grateful to know they were all out there somewhere in the water with me, and that I was not alone in this endurance challenge.

Playing ball later that afternoon
We had a swim that afternoon as a "recovery" and threw a ball around in the water. However, I was getting quite sick of swimming by this point funnily enough!

Sunday morning dawned and we headed down to join the Brighton Icebergers for their 1.5km race around the marina and breakfast and coffee in the clubhouse afterwards. The Brighton Icebergers showered us with hospitality! One of their members, Grant Seidel, is also swimming the Channel the same week as me, which will be great. It appears there will be a serious Aussie assault on the Channel this year!

Team pose

Returning home from Melbourne I feel much more confident in what I am setting out to achieve. I know that I am in good shape both mentally and physically to be taking on this challenge in eight weeks. 
Pumped is an understatement - English Channel - BRING IT ON!