FEATURES,  View from the Water

The point of point-to-point

Last week I wrote about the need for patience if you want topace a race well for optimal performance. Swimmers also need patience in other ways; it takes time to develop good technique and build endurance and sometimes we just can’t do the swims we want to do when we want to do them. This could be for many reasons: bad weather, poor water quality, lack of funds, injury and others.
This summer I was really looking forward to swimming across the Solent from the UK mainland to the Isle of Wight. I cleared the date in my calendar and booked accommodation in Gosport but bad weather meant the swim was rescheduled to 5 October. Knowing the swim was hugely weather dependent I tried not to raise my hopes too high that we would get a suitable window. We did, and the swim was wonderful.
To me – and I suspect to many other swimmers – there’s something special about a point-to-point swim. It’s a great feeling to get to the end of a lake or across a channel and look back at what you’ve swum. When we swim in 25m pools, even if we do a lot of lengths, we don’t get a visual sense of the distances we cover. To a lesser extent, the same is true of multi-looped open water swimming courses.
For the Solent swim I don’t actually know how long it took or how far it was – and I don’t really care. I know roughly, based on what other people said, but I didn’t wear a watch and no one was keeping a record. The distance was a vague “about three miles”. I guess I could measure it a bit more accurately using Google Earth but it wouldn’t be precise because of the large expanse of sand uncovered at low tide at Ryde. The town was still several hundred metres away when I hit the beach.
At the start of the swim I stood nervously on the stones at Stokes Bay and looked across to the church spire in Ryde that was our approximate sighting point. This was my first longish non-wetsuit cool water open water swim since a case of hypothermia earlier in the year. While the water was a little warmer (at 17.5 degrees) than previously, the air was a fresh 12 degrees, and there are no guarantees in swimming. I tried to think warm thoughts but couldn’t help noticing as first my toes and then my fingers went numb. At one point I had to pause as swimmers were required to regroup before crossing the shipping channel and my temperature dropped a little more.
Towards the end I got colder still but I wasn’t sure if it was me or the water temperature. We later found out the water was a fresh 16.1 degrees on the Isle of Wight side. One degree doesn’t sound like much but it’s really noticeable while swimming. I decided to speed up, hoping it was just in a small patch of cold water, but before I escaped it I realised I could see the bottom. A few strokes later I could stand up and walk on to the beach. Job done, and sooner than expected.
I turned to look back and could barely make out the spot where we’d started. As other swimmers emerged from the water they pumped their arms with delight. Few could stop smiling for the rest of the day.
Swimming is almost always a rewarding experience but point-to-point swims more so. Time and distance are of little importance. It’s the fact that you’ve done it that’s important.
Point-to-point swims do take a bit more planning and organisation than circular ones – and a big vote of thanks is due to Anna Wardley and the team at the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust for making the Solent crossing happen – but the reward is proportionally higher. I suspect that as open water swimming continues to grow, ever more swimmers will seek the challenge of one-way swims and the satisfaction of looking back and saying: “I swam that.”
Find out more:
Solent Swim Challenge
Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.