It started one spring day in Leigh on Sea as an idle bet over a pint with a couple of mates on the Bembridge, the headquarters ship of the Essex Yacht Club. The challenge was to swim the four miles across the Thames estuary from Southend in Essex to All Hallows in Kent and then return (swimming!) to the Essex shoreline within one tide, before the mile and half of mudflats again saw the light of day (ie about five hours).As a keen open water swimmer with a fair few miles under my belt, this was a challenge I couldn’t refuse and an opportunity to relive, albeit over a shorter distance, the trials of my solo crossing of the English Channel some eighteen years earlier: chilly water, jelly fish, busy shipping lanes, strong currents and a merciless tide were again going to be the order of the day. And so after five months of logistical planning, extensive correspondence with the Port of London Authority (who wanted assurances regarding the safety and support provisions) and about three thousand pounds of charitable pledges I was ready to go.
Encouraged by a throng of EYC members the swim started next to the Westcliff Casino at 12.20 pm in glorious September sunshine, a light easterly breeze, a positively balmy 16 degree sea temperature and just enough water to take a full crawl stroke. Accompanied by the EYC tender I was soon into my rhythm and aided by the calm conditions and the inflowing tide the outward leg went so well, that after 1 hour and 50 minutes (and avoiding a rather large tanker in the main shipping channel) I was already standing on the beach at All Hallows, in Kent. There were plenty of curious Kentish well-wishers to welcome me, who were then surprised when after a quick chicken sandwich and a cup of tea I donned my cap and goggles and struck out for the Essex coast.
They say it’s a game of two halves. Fighting increasing wind, waves and another hour of incoming tide, the return leg of the swim was physically and psychologically challenging as I was pushed towards the Shell Haven oil refinery behind Canvey Island – not a pretty place! After about an hour and half with the tide now slackening, new vigour was found and I was soon leaving Canvey Point in my wake. Using the strengthening outgoing tide to its full advantage and with a flotilla of boats providing encouragement, the Bembridge was now in sight some 2 miles distant; it was all downhill from there.
Mission accomplished by 4.45 pm after a challenging 4 hours and 25 minutes, 11 odd miles and with 3 feet of tide still available, I landed on the east slipway of the Essex Yacht Club to a rapturous champagne welcome from members and bemused passers by.
If I have tempted anyone into giving this swim a go, I would be more than happy to provide you with helpful advice (firstname.lastname@example.org) as for me it’s the Gib straits next to celebrate my 60th.
Distance: 11 miles
Time: 4 hours 25 mins
Air temperature: 18deg
Sea temperature: 16deg
Sea state: Slight to moderate
Weather: Sunny with good visibility
Wetsuit: Yes, ORCA
Currents: 2 to3 knot tidal current
Hazards: Crossing busy Sea Reach shipping lanes