Rowan Clarke ventures to the Isles of Scilly for an iconic swim challenge
At the beginning of September each year, the passenger ferry delivers, quite literally, a boat-load of swimmers to the Isles of Scilly. Dry-robed and tentative, they’re here for a bucket-list challenge for open water swimmers: the Scilly Swim Challenge.
Started back in 2014 by Dewi Winkle and Nick and Bryony Lishman, it gives swimmers safe, guided access to the clearest, aquamarine waters and whitest sandy beaches in the UK. In fact, it feels more like being in the Caribbean than just off the coast of Cornwall. Only, the climate’s British.
Arriving on Friday afternoon, the first day was about registering and acclimatising to the chilly Scilly waters. This is where SwimQuest comes in. Having worked with Nick, Dewi and for years, SwimQuest have taken over organising the event, giving Nick and Bryony more time to focus on their family and guest house business. But the friendly, intimate, family feeling remains. The emphasis for this challenge, whether you swim the 15km staged route over one or two days, is experience, enjoyment and the spirit of friendship, rather than racing – there’s even an award for the happiest swimmer.
As 150 swimmers from as far as northern Scotland sink into the white sand of Porth Mellon beach for the briefing, the air crackles with nerves. One woman sitting behind us looks terrified. But, twenty minutes later, the group breathed a collective sigh of relief thanks to the words of marathon swimmer Mark Richards. “There’s nothing as powerful as a made-up mind,” he says. “Don’t let a lack of training put you off. Swim your own swim.”
If not put off by a lack of training, the first swim was a tough test for the swimmers. Watching from the spectator boat, the 2.8km swim from St Mary’s to St Martin was rough, and it was lack of experience in choppy seas that scuppered those athletes who’d only trained in lakes and rivers. Recovering from sea-sickness, they then had to refuel before walking across St Martins to swim 2.3km to Tresco, and then a relatively quick 800 meters from Tresco to Bryher.
Day two was much calmer, but a thick sea mist made it cool. After three challenging swims on day one, the swimmers had to mentally and physically prepare themselves for the longest swim of the event, a 5.8km crossing from St Agnes to Bryher via Samson – but not before they’d swum 2.9km from St Mary’s to St Agnes.
For some, it was too much and they skipped day two. Others got picked up by the safety boats and returned to the water a bit further along. But it didn’t matter; in the spirit of friendship, support and swimming your own swim, the event gave the swimmers the space to make their own choices.
But there were also the swimmers who entered the event with dogged determination. As if to prove Mark Richards’ words, skins swimmer Mick from London had only done five hours training – altogether. Awarded a coveted gold swim cap for being the last person to finish all the swims, Mick told me that he had a plan: “If they tried to haul me out onto one of those safety boats,” he said, “I would’ve refused and swam as fast as I could in the opposite direction!”
The safety support was top notch. From the privileged position of being on the spectator boat, it was clear that the support network of safety ribs and 32 local kayakers was slick and thorough in both organisation and operation.
And then there was the sheer beauty of this unique archipelago of islands, and sense of privilege that comes from traversing across a world heritage site. As the sun came out on Bryher, the shared sense of achievement was joyful. Swimmers shared stories of kelp forests, sea-life and walking across the uninhabited island of Samson.
It’s the beauty of the Isles of Scilly and the spirit of the Scilly Swim Challenge that make this a bucket-list event for open water swimmers. Can you think of another event that has a Happy Swimmer award?