I swam the first hour (3km or so), which essentially followed the course of the "Big Swim" from Palm to Whale Beach, really happily at a good rhythm. I smiled when I thought back to the few times when I had swum this course before and really struggled with the distance. Now it's barely a warmup! I was swimming with a relatively fast group of B&B swimmers - Cae, Alex, Richard and others, and stopped with them to feed. I had to borrow drinks as all my stuff was on my boat which was probably 1km behind and 1km out to sea! I decided to leave these guys and swam the gauntlet out to my boat, joining up with them happily 20 mins later after being all alone at sea (not a nice feeling). At this stage the weather was cloudy, and looking ahead you could see it was going to get a lot worse! There were three of us sharing a boat, with four crew on the boat to drive, feed, organise, and generally keep a lookout. We were supposed to be swimming together, but it was hard to clump up. I found my stroke after about 3 hours, and felt strong. I could tell at the feeds that the boat crew were finding it tough to look after us as we were all so spread out with Collie heading way out wide to pass long reef, and me preferring a line about 1km offshore, point to point along the coast. I found myself getting cold, and wanted to be swimming a bit harder and faster, but I knew the others were behind me, so needed to hold back a bit. My hand was not too painful, though I had taken plenty of Neurofen, but I could tell we weren't making as much progress as we'd expected. After about four hours we'd only swum about 10km, so were clearly being held back by a current. The sea of jellyfish we swam through also whizzed past us during feeds, confirming the feeling, so I knew in my heart we'd be too slow to make it before dark.
However, I reconciled with myself that I could keep swimming until dark, then depending on where we were would have strapped on the "sharkshield" and swam the final stretch. Good channel practice! I talked myself out of the cold by reflecting on Melbourne. If I could survive more than 6 hours in 14.5 degree water, I could definitely handle the Sydney water which was probably 18 degrees or more.
When we had reached the point at the North end of Narrabeen, there was somewhat of a commotion. The big fishing boat which was supporting my friends Cae, Alex, Richard et al, who I had swum the first section with, was whizzing around in circles,much faster than they should have been. I tried to tell myself not to worry, my boat would look after me, but knew that the three of us were well spread out so were not really safe. Twenty minutes later my boat pulled up behind me and said the words every long distance swimmer dreads "We're pulling you out!". My first thought words were "Why, I feel fine", but I could tell by the look on faces that something was wrong so I did what I was told.
It quickly became apparent that we were on a search. Surf Lifesavers in IRBs, and Jetskis were whizzing around. It turned out that the boat had left a swimmer alone whilst dropping someone else off at a beach. When they returned they were unable to find the swimmer! By this time, the weather had set in. It was windy, choppy, reasonable swell, and raining cats and dogs. Scary to be looking for a friend, and the isolation you feel alone out to see is horrific so I knew how he would have felt!
After an hour of searching, we got to Narrabeen and were altered that he'd been found. He'd swum ashore and gone to the surf club. What a relief. By this time we were all so cold from sitting under wet towels for an hour, that the thought of getting back in the water was not appealing at all. We headed over to the second (of four) group, and saw that they were struggling with sea sickness and speed against the current. There was no way they were going to make it. We packed up, and headed to Manly, passing on our way the quick group (Tori, Wayne, Ali et al) who had made really good progress. They seemed to be a lot closer in than we were, so had perhaps managed to avoid the worst of the current. Either way they were doing really well and made it to the end before dark, in an amazing time of 8.5hrs. Well done to them.
Lessons learned: every swimmer needs a boat, or at a minimum a kayak. Safety is paramount, and things easily go wrong. Without this independent support it's also impossible to go in the direction or at the speed you want, likely adding time, distance, and frustration to the equation.
Overall it was a great experience, but it's really got me wondering whether I've got the pace and the fitness I need to successfully cross the Channel this year. I have four months to go. Mentally I feel strong, but some days I doubt it. My hand is an ongoing worry, and my fattening up may have made my body think I am obese and go pre-diabetic (I find out more on Thursday).
I will hit training hard this week, speak to my coaches, friends and mentor and see how we go. Thanks for your ongoing support.