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Madeira Island Ultra Swim 2020

A navigation error made this swim harder than it should have been, but ultimately more satisfying

Swim events have been few and far between this year. Therefore, when Madeira was removed from the government’s list of places you could travel to without having to endure two weeks of self-isolation, I took the last minute opportunity to enter the first edition of the Madeira Island Ultra Swim on 12 September. The event offered distances of 1, 5, 10, 20 or 30km, along Madeira’s sheltered southern coast. Clear deep blue water at 24 degrees made a welcome change from a summer swimming in the Thames.

The 10km, which I opted for, started in Câmara de Lobos, a picturesque fishing harbour apparently much loved and frequented by Winston Churchill. There’s even a statue of the British wartime Prime Minister, cigar in mouth, sitting at an easel, facing the bay.

We arrived shortly before sunrise. It soon became clear there were two groups of swimmers. The first consisted of young, elite swimmers from Spain, Portugal and Brazil (including former world champion Ana Marcela Cunha), dressed to impress in their full body racing suits and limbering up professionally. The second, older, more relaxed, in regular costumes, were there for an enjoyable meander along the coast. I joined the second group. We started about 10 metres behind the first. Within a few minutes, they were out of sight and out of mind.

My swim started well. I settled into a steady pace and found myself near the front of the second pack. The swimming was easy, with a slight current assisting and beautiful water conditions. All we swimmers had to do was follow the coast and head east, into the rising sun. At 4km, I shared a fist-bump and a banana with a fellow swimmer, and all was good. I’d walked much of the route previously and picking out the landmarks as I passed them kept me entertained and informed, roughly, about how far I’d swum.

Eventually, however, my lack of long distance training (or any structured training over the past six months) started to catch up with me and my arms began to feel heavy. I also missed a feed-station as I had misunderstood part of the briefing (not surprising, given that it was in Portuguese, which I don’t speak), and this left me hungry and grumpy (the two usually go together). Luckily I had an energy gel stowed in my trunks, which provided some relief. Still, as I was swimming along the harbour wall, it felt as if the current had turned against me. It hadn’t. It’s just that the harbour wall is tall and long, and the finish line was hidden behind it. At this point, I swam through an aggrieved-looking bobbing flock of seagulls, who weren’t in the slightest disturbed by my flailing arms and barely bothered to move aside. Thankfully, the attack I feared never materialised.

Rounding the harbour wall, I spotted a pair of tow-floats ahead. I put my head down and swam towards and then past them. Maybe I wasn’t as tired as I thought. I noted they wore green hats, instead of my red one, indicating they were in the 5k rather than 10k race. A sensible rule in swimming is to never blindly follow another swimmer. This precaution is doubly needed if the person in front is doing another race. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that they might be doing a different course.

I approached the feed station behind the final turn buoy and asked for a banana and some water.

“Yes, but first you need to swim around that other buoy,” came the reply, from a person pointing in the opposite direction to the finish. I looked and could see nothing but the Atlantic stretching some 500km towards Morocco. I briefly considered getting out there and then.


“Sorry,” he replied, but at least he gave me the banana. I put my head down and set off in the direction of his pointing arm. I had the ocean to myself (the green-hatted swimmers had turned towards the finish, as they were supposed to) and soon began to question the directions I’d been given. I had almost given up hope when I spotted the turn buoys. Relieved, I rounded them and headed back in the direction I’d come from.

I stopped at the final feeding platform a second time and asked for more banana.

“Have you been around the final turn buoy?” asked the volunteer. It took me a second to realise it was a different person. At least this time I could answer positively. I plodded off through the harbour towards the finish. Exhausted but relieved, I staggered up the harbour steps and handed over my timing chip. It had taken me 45 minutes longer than I expected but it didn’t matter. I ordered a large mango milk shake and collapsed on a bench watching the ocean, soaking up the sun. Before long, I felt that warm glow of satisfaction from having overcome a tough physical and mental challenge.

Dates for next year’s Madeira Island Ulta Swim will be listed on their website as soon as they are available. As well as the swim, I had a fabulous time exploring Madeira (mostly hiking) and thoroughly recommend both the island and the swim.

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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.