On 22 July, Beth French swam from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly.
Residents of both the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall know the 26-mile stretch of water that separates them to be treacherous, rough and cold. It’s a sea kayaker’s rite of passage to make the crossing from the islands to the mainland, travelling with the current. So when Somerset single mum, Beth French (36), starting talking about her bid to become the first to swim solo from Land’s End to the low lying islands she says she was met with “incredulity, lots of teeth sucking and foreboding head shakes.”
Undeterred, Beth found a Penzance pilot willing to assist who even made the trip a priority and gave up other bookings to ensure Beth had the best chance of good weather on a neap tide. A dose of luck was needed to ensure that combination came together.
But luck was with the team as the mild winter was followed by a warm spring and early summer, which meant warmer than usual water. High pressure brought settled weather.
Beth trained throughout the winter in water as cold as 6 degrees Celsius and says by the time of the swim the Cornish waters felt pleasant, although the jellyfish thought so too. Unprecedented numbers of harmless barrel jellyfish made the news, but common blues and compass were also in attendance and were not so benign.
Tuesday, 22 July dawned fair, with partial high cloud and the faintest of breezes. Beth and her team had elected to start on the midday high tide to ensure landing in daylight the next day. Mark Johns, the pilot, thought the swim would take 24 hours, while Beth hoped for 20. With a curious seal alongside, Beth climbed above high water mark at Land’s End, and then struck out towards the horizon.
Within minutes it became apparent that there was a technical issue with the boat’s stabilising bags as the strength of side current pulled the boat off course. Martin James, Beth’s lead support, hopped into his kayak and paddled alongside to keep momentum, but it was not the best start. However, three hours later, the boat seemed to be sorted.
With nightfall came the jellies.
“After the first few stings, I no longer felt able to avoid them and stopped alerting my crew to the countless zaps I received over every inch of my body – even through my costume,” said Beth. “After a while, my body just seemed to shutdown to that particular pain. I could feel them sting but didn’t bother to react.”
As the sun dipped low, the best news came. A gentle easterly breeze started up, which was both rare and perfect for a swim to the Scilly Isles. However, for over an hour, Beth was in the direct path of carbon rich diesel fumes.
“Over time a pit of nausea became a nag, then a real problem. I swam further from the boat, but became disorientated. I was suddenly extremely fatigued and started getting stomach cramps, even when out of range of the toxic fumes. Things got pretty serious. I was wracked with spasms that jerked my knees to my chest, I was retching uncontrollably yet unable to bring anything up for almost an hour.”
Beth was finally able to massage her guts enough to bring up the toxic cocktail hindering her bid and she started once again to piece together a few strokes at a time. The cramping and spasms never fully left, but sheer determination meant she doggedly persisted.
“During my darkest hour I knew I was in trouble when I started to lose where the surface of the water was and stopped caring if I drowned. Luckily that’s the exact moment that Martin came alongside in the kayak. All that kept going through my head was – it’s not finished, I’m not there yet!”
Despite these problems, Beth was able to regain her regular stroke rate of 66 per minute and maintain a pace of 1.3mph against the tide. As dawn broke, the fog descended so there was no welcome sight of the Islands until she was less than 500m from shore. Finally, and with great relief, Beth clambered onto Great Britain rock on St Mary’s.
The swim took 17hrs 28mins and this was the first time it has been completed in this direction. Alison Streeter swam from St Mary’s to Cornwall in 1998.