Kate Steels pilots a new swimming challenge, raising an astonishing amount for a cause close to her heart. Rowan Clarke caught up with Kate to find out more about her Hurst Castle to the Needles swim.
Lots of people sit on beaches gazing out to sea at natural monuments. But how many of us wonder how they could swim to them? Durdle Door, The Giant’s Causeway, The Needles – geological landmarks that define the UK’s coastline – and outdoor swimming adventures.
But iconic swims like these aren’t always within reach. That’s where open water events come in. Organised for a group of swimmers, mapped-out with expert local knowledge and supported by skilled safety crews, events open up more swims to more people.
For Kate Steels – board member of the International Ice Swimming Association and Ice Sevens swimmer – organising mass swim events and sea crossings is well within her remit. But this time it was the personal closeness of the charity she supported that gave this iconic challenge such an intimate feel.
An unusual route
“It was quite an unusual route from Hurst Castle near Lymington to The Needles on the Isle of Wight,” says Kate. “It was for Papyrus suicide prevention for young people. Suicide is the biggest cause of death in young people aged under 35, particularly for young men. It’s very close to my heart because I lost my only child to suicide and there are others in the swimming community, good friends who have lost children too.”
Many people take to cold water while suffering bereavement. The cold water, being in nature and physical activity has many therapeutic benefits. For swimmers like Kate, training for challenging swims adds more personal and fundraising achievements.
And this swim was certainly challenging. The Solent is not only a busy shipping channel, it’s also subject to strong and varied tidal currents. “You go really fast,” says Kate. “At one point, our fast swimmers picked up 11 km per hour on that stretch.”
The twelve swimmers who took part were split into three groups, the slowest of the three setting off first. This first group ended up getting ripped too far west to make the Needles, so the boat picked them up and carried them there so that they could swim around these incredible chalk stacks before heading back to the mainland.
Planning around tides and currents
The Needles stands at the western tip of a chalk band that bisects the Isle of Wight from Culver Cliffs to the east, past The Needles and under the sea to Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck to the west. For most people, a trip to The Needles is by boat or by chairlift from the multi-coloured Alum Cliffs. Being able to swim there is a huge privilege, but like any channel with a strong flow, Kate had to plan around tides and currents. If you don’t catch the tidal flow just right, you get swept too far west to hit The Needles. Another consideration is the movement of ships across the Solent. Not just the passenger ferries, but also yachts that navigate that stretch of water.
“You have to get the approval of the coastguard; it’s not something that you can just do,” says Kate. “Swimmers can’t just take off at any point along the Hampshire coast. The more common route across the Solent is from Lee on Solent to Ryde, which is about five kilometres and you don’t have the same choppiness, whereas with this one you have a bit more of a challenge because it is much more daunting. It’s a lot further than you think with a lot of currents and a lot of shipping.”
Kate’s keen to highlight how important it is to train and plan properly for a swim like this. So, will she be doing it again? “I’d like to do it again. I’ve got to have further discussions with Chloe [McCardel, who was instrumental in planning this event with Kate], but no plans have been made at the moment,” she says. But with over £9,000 raised so far for Papyrus, it was completely worthwhile.
This article is an extract from Rowan Clarke’s interview with Kate Steels in the July edition of Outdoor Swimmer, out soon. PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide is a UK charity dedicated to the prevention of suicide and the promotion of positive mental health and emotional wellbeing in young people.