Different swimmers can have very different experiences of the same swim. Last week we heard from Liz Torode, who came away from this year’s Nevis to St Kitts swim with one of their coveted turtle trophies. Here, Petra Shepherd, a novice breaststroke swimmer, tells her tale of the 13th Annual Bente Weber Memorial Swim.
The idea was always to complete rather than compete but as a novice open water swimmer, nothing had prepared me for quite how challenging or quite how thrilling swimming between the Caribbean island of Nevis to nearby St Kitts would be.
Firstly, I’m bigging myself up here, pretending that I’m an open water swimmer. I love swimming and swim daily between May to September in Tooting Bec Lido but other than swimming in the sea on summer holidays in Suffolk or cooling of when holidaying in the Med, I’ve never undertaken an open water swim of any distance. However, that’s the glory of the annual 4km swim across “the narrows”, it can be done by anybody who is reasonably fit, enjoys testing themselves and there’s no need to worry about getting cold (even if, like me, you are in the water for nearly three hours). There’s no need for wetsuits in the tropical Caribbean Sea.
In fairness I had done some training, travelling out to Hurghada on the Red Sea in February, to swim in its balmy and millpond flat waters. And, although swimming indoors in overheated and chlorinated public swimming pools fill me with horror, I swam for at least an hour a day in my local leisure centre in the weeks leading up to the swim.
All very noble but practically useless. Swimming in the open sea is an altogether different game! There were waves: not massive but enough to blind me.
Also, I’ve never even swum with goggles before and in hindsight not taking them was a big mistake, especially when hearing tales of all the wonderful marine life fellow swimmers spotted along the way. I was too busy keeping one of the more obvious triangular peaks on St Kitts always on my left. This being the only instruction I thought I needed (more fool me), “keep it on your left and you’ll hit the finishing post on Cockleshell Beach on St Kitts, if it’s on your right and you can’t see land then you’re in trouble”. I had no idea that you were supposed to take a line and that there would be currents to contend with.
It all started positively. The weather was glorious; early showers and sunshine had produced a symbolic rainbow, the end, the pot of gold so to speak at the finishing point. I loved being part of the pre swim camaraderie and any embarrassment that I would be the only one swimming breaststroke was quickly dispelled as thankfully there were a few others. Admittedly out of the 196 swimmers taking part literally only about four of us swam breaststroke, but at least I wasn’t the only one.
What I didn’t anticipate was losing the field so early on, as the triathletes, professional swimmers and what appeared to be everybody else forged ahead within minutes. Suddenly, I was all alone but the minutes passed quickly, I loved the peace and found swimming in the open sea far more interesting than swimming up and down lanes in a swimming pool. Then, just as I was getting a little bored, one of the kayakers there to ensure safety and offer water and support would paddle over for a chat. My first question always being “please tell me I’m not the last”. I was reassured that there were in fact others behind me, but I think they may well have just been humouring me.
On and on I swam and after two hours the bay and finishing beach were in sight as well as a smart yacht with its flag flying on its stern. I began to realise that things might be going slightly wrong when, half an hour later I still wasn’t able to make out what country the flag was for. It seems I’d stopped making forward progress and the current in fact was taking me along the coast and further away from the finishing beach. All rather heart-breaking for a very novice swimmer and also for the support boats who I knew were anxious to hit the beach, the barbecue and rum punches on offer at Reggae’s Beach bar. The early finishers would have already been celebrating for an hour and I’m never one to miss a party.
Safety within the swim was always paramount and although by now I was so of course, a kayak still remained with me. After nearly three hours in the water, I decided that I would still swim from Nevis to St Kitts and did it really matter where I landed? It was a 20 minute swim to some rocks on a headland when I finally landed on St Kitts. I then happily waved at one of the support boats who motored over, picked me up and then dropped me of a few hundred yards from the finishing beach, so that I could at least swim in to proudly get my medal and guess what, I wasn’t even last! There were in fact others behind me who did persevere against the current, one gentleman from China bravely swimming in five hours after the start of the race and another English lady who lives on Nevis, who really should have known better and foolishly followed me ended up so far along the coast that she hit the capital city and main port of Basseterre. If she had wanted to, she could have taken the bus back but let’s face it she wasn’t wearing any clothes.
All in all a massive adventure for us plucky and perhaps a little fool-hardy novices. Although none of us had any hope of winning one of the coveted turtle trophies, we could at least still say we did it and in the words of Bob Marley belting out as we registered on Nevis “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be alright”.