FEATURES,  Readers' Swims

Aspire Manx Minkes Channel Swim

Jill Bunyan recently completed an English Channel relay crossing raising an impressive £17,000 for Aspire, the spinal cord injury charity, in the process. She shares the story of how the team came together, braved angry French spear-fishermen and conquered the Channel.

Our team, all regular swimmers, started training in January for the relay. Unusually for Aspire, who normally recruit individuals and put teams together, we presented ourselves to them as a fully formed team, ready to go! Although we had signed up as a team of six, originally 8 individuals were training, 2 of whom had joined as reserves during a presentation given to the original team by Andrew Ogierman of Aspire. Of those 8, 5 are qualified swimming teachers/coaches (although not all are currently active in this area at the moment).
It was actually quite difficult for us to arrange training sessions as a team, as not all the members currently live on the Isle of Man, and of course we all had to juggle jobs, kids etc etc. We are very grateful to Jack Coop (coach) for taking time to organise some team sessions for us, and to Western Swimming Pool in Peel for being kind enough to close off several lanes for us to use, and being VERY flexible with their closing times on occasion! Aspire had also organised training weekends in Dover, which we all did our best to attend. It was fantastic to be able to meet swimmers from other teams, and to share stories and training tips.
Throughout the year we had also set ourselves some hard goals to reach, including the two hour channel qualifying swim which had to be undertaken in open water below 16C. Our first attempt at this was in Buttermere in June. Most of us had travelled over for the Great North Swim weekend, only to have most of our swims cancelled due to the weather, but we had arranged to meet some other Aspire swimmers on the Sunday and despite flooding throughout the Lakes, we duly headed over to Buttermere after a quick dip in Derwent water on the Saturday. We were expecting it to be colder than average but we called it a day after ‘only’ an hour and 10 minutes as we were all on the verge of hypothermia, and it was becoming unsafe to continue. The water temperature had been only 8.9C that day when it would normally have been 14-15C! Thankfully things looked up after that and most of us completed our 2 hour swims in Dover in July in water around 14C. Two of us then went on to compete in a BLDSA swim in Lake Derwent in August, of 5.25 miles in length, taking between 2hr 20min and 3hrs to complete. Once again though, there had been heavy rain in the Lakes and the water temperature was 15-16C max, and much colder where river water ran in.

Of course, in amongst all the training, we had a target of £10,000 in sponsorship to raise and we had lots of fun doing this although I don’t think any of us realised how much of our time it would take up.

For the actual swim, we had taken the risk of booking accommodation near Dover for the week of our tide, 7th to 14th September 2012. Although this is not generally recommended, as swims are often delayed due to the weather, the added complications of travel from the Isle of Man meant that we would have been unable to get there at short notice. This ended up in our favour since our boat pilot (Eddie Spelling of Anastasia) was able to call us mid afternoon on Saturday 8th September with a plan to leave Dover Marina at midnight that night, as a weather window would be open until late afternoon the next day.
Saturday 8th September is already going down in the record books as ‘Super Saturday’ as conditions were absolutely perfect, and both Trent Grimsey set a new solo record of 6hrs and 55 minutes and (unbelievable!) (http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-sport/trent-grimsey-breaks-channel-swim-record-20120909-25lsh.html) and Mark Bayliss set a new record for the Arch to Arc ‘triathlon’ of 73hrs and 39 minutes, also being the first to swim the Channel section without a wetsuit (for more info go here: http://triathlete-europe.competitor.com/2012/09/18/video-mark-bayliss-breaks-arch-to-arc-world-record/ ). There were also several other successful solos that day, so we knew that if we didn’t make it, we only had ourselves to blame – the weather forecast was fantastic for the Sunday.
The midnight departure from Dover Marina meant that we would all have to take a turn swimming by starlight. This was always going to be a possibility, so we had trained for it with night swims in Port Erin bay, and by jumping in off the divers jetty in the dark one at a time and practising relay takeovers. This did seem to be a source of amusement for passers by….. On the day, I think we all really enjoyed the experience of the night swims, there was a beautiful moon and really bright stars, and you could see phosphorescence coming off your hands as you swam. Chrissie swam the first (scariest) leg as that meant she had to leap off the boat in the dark, and swim back to shore (away from the boat) to start the swim from Shakespeare beach. She then had to leave the water, stand up, and signal to start the swim. The rest of us just had to stay close to the boat during our swims, which was actually easier than trying to navigate on a ‘normal’ open water swim! Beth was the lucky lady who had to swim through sunrise, while some of us (mostly me!) were catching up on some lost sleep.
It really didn’t take long for everyone’s second swims to come around, and by hour 10/11 we thought we were in with a small chance of beating the Aspire teams record (currently 11 hours & 20 minutes) which was set by the fantastic Aspire Otters earlier this year. Unfortunately this was not to be, and the expected tide which should have pushed us into France on the last leg of our course, didn’t run. This seems to not have been unusual for several others this summer. Eventually Chrissie had to get in for her third & final swim, to take us into shore. I think at that point she had a bit of a panic, that she would do something wrong & mess up the whole thing! None of us could quite believe it when pilot Eddie suggested that we might all swim the last couple of hundred metres so we could all touch land in France – although we had to take care not to get in front of Chrissie, but as she is much the fastest swimmer, that was unlikely to be a problem. That was the only time we saw really big jellyfish although as they were ‘root’ jellyfish they did not sting! More scary than that though was the French spear fisherman who popped up, we thought to congratulate us, but in fact to scold us soundly for swimming in his bit of sea. ‘Zees is not a swimming pool’ and ‘you are very stupid’ were two of the more polite comments he made… although we were not listening very closely as he was pointing a very large trident (in a spear gun) in our general direction. And we knew he had friends with him as we could see some other dive markers, and had no idea where their spears were pointing. We thought we had swum fast before but we swam even faster back to the boat.
I am not sure it has sunk in yet that WE DID IT (!) as we had such a fantastic night & day out. It could have been so much worse if the sea had been rough! According to the official stats, we had the second warmest day of summer, with an air temperature of 17.6C at midnight and 20.3C early afternoon; and water temps of 17.5-18.4C (http://cspf.co.uk/sandettie-da… ). We were so lucky! Had we been unable to go on the Sunday, we could still be waiting, as the weather has been so unsettled.
And a final note from our pilot Eddie “Excellent team effort from start to the end. A nice day for all. Well done team. And thanks for the jelly baby’s Luv ya Lots from us all on Anastasia xxx”
The team:
Johanna Barkwith – Senior Biomedical Scientist working in Haematology; Triathlete
Jill Bunyan – Pharmaceutical Regulatory Affairs Consultant & Swimming teacher/coach (team leader)
Christine Howell – Dentist (previously swimming teacher/coach in the Wirral/Merseyside area); ex-England national level swimmer
Heather Mattocks – Credit Operations Management Support Analyst – Barclays; ex-Wales national swimmer
Silla Parnell – co-owner of educational software firm ‘ Furry Elephant’ & Swimming teacher; Triathlete
Beth Swaine – Jet-set Nanny (previously swimming teacher/coach in the Wirral/Merseyside area)
Brandon Ellis – Properties Manager for Manx National Heritage; Ironman
Mark Gorry – Civil Engineering Associate at Burroughs Stewart; ex-IOM national swimmer
For sponsorship, please go to: http://www.justgiving.com/teams/aspiremanxminkes. We have to date raised almost £17,000 for Aspire and are very grateful to them for all their help and support with the training and organisation of the swims; not least for sending Emma with us on the boat to make sure we all did the right thing at the right time, and always had hot drinks ready when we got out! For more information on Aspire, please go here: www.aspire.org.uk.

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.