Turtles, rum punch and sunshine. Swim coach Stephen Baker enjoyed his first trip to the Caribbean
The thought of visiting a new place in the world is very exciting and there can be few places as exciting and vibrant as the Caribbean. Situated in what was the Spanish Main, the scene of colonial ambitions and struggles since the 15th century, St Kitts and Nevis has a turbulent history of colonialism and slavery. The islands were among the first in the New World to be colonised by Europeans, and St Kitts became known as England’s “Mother Colony” – the country’s first West Indian colony in 1624.
My destination was Nevis, named ‘Oualie’ by its original Kalinago Indian settlers, which translates as “land of beautiful waters”. Separated by a narrow channel from its bigger neighbour St Kitts, the 4km Nevis to St Kitts Cross-Channel Swim is a long-established fixture in the Caribbean open water calendar. The adrenaline was flowing in anticipation. You rarely know the competition before a swim, but a 55-minute record for a 4km sea swim was certainly daunting!
The swim is the culmination of my first all-year season in open water and lido swimming. My winter included 4km training swims in Crystal Palace pool as well as 4-degree swims in Brockwell Lido. I gave up alcohol and chocolate and put in lots of training yardage in preparation. The Sunday before, the Beast from the East had left snow on the ground and a chilly 4 degrees in the lido. On arriving at Nevis the difference could not have been more obvious; from 4 to 24 degrees!
Arrival in paradise
I travelled from Gatwick to St Kitts and then Nevis by car, plane, taxi and finally boat. Despite the cloudy skies the sun was fierce. The sea was choppy but the water wonderfully clear and in places an unreal teal-blue colour. Two days of swimming in preparation for the race included perfecting my wave-length stroke, bilateral breathing and sighting.
The last supper before the race (it was Easter after all) saw the anticipated pasta with ribs and fish for protein. No booze, of course, and an early night.
Don't fight the sea
On race day an 8am start was scheduled, but this was island time, so at 8.35am we set off – 200 swimmers from the Caribbean, the US and Europe.
Argy bargy! Anything goes in a swim start but here the melee was surprisingly friendly, although settling into a 4km sea race in choppy seas was unexpectedly tough. Nerves and an hour standing in a pink rubber cap had pooled the blood and my legs were not responding. This passed and I soon settled into a nice long wave-length stroke (don’t fight the sea, it always wins) and the swim became a pleasure. Occasional encounters with a local golden spiny seaweed provided a free exfoliation of face, shoulders and back.
The twin peaks used for sighting were very clear: a saddleback hill to the left and a stout pyramid to the right. But the need to steer right and let the current and wind move you to the left made it a real focus to maintain a smooth stroke.
Halfway across a safety canoe played polo with my head, clearly designed to knock some sense into me. An unexpected rock formation (The Cows) caused a serious detour – but offered the first turtle sighting of the swim.
Look for the red buoys
As we neared the finish a second larger turtle moved elegantly away from the human forms above. The bottom was reassuringly in sight, but with the beach now in view there were two bay options – one of them false.
“Just look for the red buoys!”
Pink heads, conspicuous by their absence for the past hour, suddenly popped up like lonely corks.
A third turtle scuttled past as the two red buoys of the finish finally appeared. My swim finished with an unimpressive stagger out of the water and a short sandy run over the finish line to the whoops and cheers of friendly islanders.
The overall winner, Ceri Edwards, an Englishwoman from Portsmouth, clocked 58 mins, only three minutes behind the record – outstanding! Brits finished in no fewer than five podium positions despite robust competition from various Caribbean islands. There was also a strong contingent of scarily fit looking swimmers from the US, including the winner of the male 60-69 category and third overall in 68 mins.
This is a highly inclusive event with Special Olympic swimmers and escorts, relays, juniors from nine years of age and of course seniors over 60 – including me! The final swimmer in just under three hours was a British woman breaststroker, in many ways the performance of the day.
With good competition, excellent spirit and generous hosts, I highly recommend this event. Plus, post-swim drinks in the Caribbean include the obligatory rum punch and barbecue
Name: Nevis to St Kitts Cross-Channel Swim
Water type: Sea
Distance: 4km (solo and relay)
Categories: Racing – no wetsuits; Assisted – fins, snorkels, masks, wetsuits and flippers allowed
Water temp: 24 degrees
Next event: March 2019
Find out more: nevistostkittscrosschannelswim.com
Images: Stephen Baker, Nevis to St Kitts Cross-Channel Swim