Helen Hislop shares her story of becoming the fastest skins swimmer to swim Coniston, Ullswater and Windermere consecutively, with a time of 10h 35m
It’s Sunday 10 September. I’m standing at the edge of Coniston clad in a swimsuit, hat, and goggles. The sun is still too low to penetrate the thick layer of fog covering the water. I’m about to embark on my solo skins swimming challenge, suggested by Uswim Adventure’s Dave Quartermain: completing Coniston, Ullswater and Windermere consecutively with only transition time and travel between each lake.
As far as we knew, no one had attempted this challenge in skins or had it ratified. In 2021 Uswim Adventure guided me successfully across the English Channel. This would require a similar kind of preparation, with a combined distance of 23 miles.
Iconic marathon swims, although desirable, can be inaccessible due to finances, logistics, and time. But the lakes are only 2.5 hours away from me, a stunning and accessible backdrop to a challenge that takes 24 hours with no waiting for weather windows or tides.
I followed my training plan devised by Uswim, swimming long hours, at intervals and at night. I swam the 3 lakes separately, plus waters in Wales and Scotland, did land training for injury prevention, and whatever I could within the restraints of family and work.
The challenge begins
The alarm went off at 2am. By 6.15am, I was approaching Coniston in the dark, my stomach churning from nerves, car stocked with feeds, spare costumes, dry clothes, snacks, lights, and goggles.
Mist rolled off the hills, encroaching on the narrow lanes leading to Bank Pier. Coniston was swathed in a thin layer of fog, blurring the line between the sky and water. Like something out of Arthurian legend, Karen and Dave Quartermain emerged in a small motorboat. I handed over my feed bottles and emergency drybag, warmed up, then entered the water.
Within seconds, my goggles started to leak, but I wasn’t going to stop. What lay ahead seemed insurmountable, so I said to myself, “let’s just get through the first hour, have the first feed!”
As the mist burned off, green hills were reflected perfectly in the mirror-like water. Only my strokes and the wake of the boat disturbed the surface. What an absolute privilege having such incredible scenery all to myself.
At the first feed, Dave and Karen confirmed I was swimming well and to schedule. At the second, I had a mile left. I tried to swim faster, then my fingers were dragging against the rocks on the bottom. I had reached Monk Coniston, in 2h 28m.
Onwards to Ullswater
The boat was deflated and packed into the van at astonishing speed. Elated after the first swim, I slugged some tea and a cereal bar, then our convoy wound its way to Ullswater, along lanes full of holiday traffic and slow caravans.
At Glenridding Ferry, the sunshine retreated behind clouds. The sky became ominous and grey. Feeling good, I waded into the water, which was cooler than Coniston. At first, the water was smooth, except when the ferry went past, when the extra waves were worth it, bringing cheers and encouragement from enthusiastic passengers. But soon, I could barely see when clouds obscured the edges of the lake and covered all landmarks. Thunder and torrential rain came, churning the water like it was boiling. When the sky cleared, Karen told me I only had 15 minutes left, so I swam hard, touching the pier in 3 hours 15. Only Windermere to go!
A stormy finale
Travel to Ambleside was at the mercy of speed restrictions and traffic. Loud cracks of thunder crashed overhead. Flashes of lightning lit up the sky.
Despite the bad weather, I jumped off the boat in a cossie, hat, and goggles. It would be dark by the time I finished. Windermere has many landmarks; I crossed the large bay towards the islands, then the chain ferry and Storrs. The light started to fade and darkness enveloped the figures on the boat.
As I fumbled for my bottle of feed in the dark, I learned that I had under an hour to go. Spirits lifted, I followed the boat’s lights like an expectant moth. Soon, moored craft signalled that we were nearing the end.
Light shone on the pier’s brick arches, guiding me on. I could hear shouts of “Hit the jetty!”. I’d arrived!
Windermere took 4h 50m. The entire challenge took 14h 55m, with a total swim time of 10h 35m.
Words cannot express how happy and utterly shattered I was, nor how grateful to my husband, Karen and Dave and land crew, Perry and Tina for getting me through the day.
The BLDSA have ratified the swim, which followed their guidelines, with two BLDSA witnesses, three stopwatches, spot tracker and photographs. I am awaiting a response from the Guinness book of records. If accepted, it will set a benchmark for anyone else that may want to try.
Read about Matt Dawson’s challenge to swim all 13 publicly accessible lakes in the Lake District as fast as possible.