A split 6 followed by a perfect 10!

Anyone who has spent the summer training for a Channel swim under the ever watchful eye of Freda Streeter will know all to well the emphasis placed on completing a split swim in combinations of 6 or 7 hours over a weekend.

I had followed my plan to the letter and thus far, achieved every goal I had set for myself. My wall planner indicated that the weekend of the 12/13th July would be my first and only opportunity to complete a split 6hr swim.

My longest planned training swim of 10 hours was highlighted in bold, red letters just two weeks later. The importance of a successful weekend’s swimming was not lost on me.

Again, Albie kindly agreed to support my swims, this time he would be a bit busier as on top of recording my stroke rate and general well-being, I would also be feeding after the first two hours and then every hour or so after. The plan was to drink water mixed with carbohydrate powder and for solids I would eat either banana or home-made flapjacks (kindly provided by Barry Westaway). I wish I knew about LCHF back then as my nutritional choices would have been entirely different (more to follow on that in later posts).

Albie and I headed over to Budleigh beach early on the Saturday morning, aiming for a 9am start. I choose to do the majority of my biggest swims in Devon because the sea conditions are much more akin to those I would find in the English Channel. It was always very different swimming at Budleigh than in Dover harbour, but looking back, neither of these locations proved ideal as a training ground for a long swim in fresh water.

The first 6hrs went well, I was trying to pace my self effectively throughout but feeding took a little longer than normal as it is a pebble beach and getting ashore was sometimes tricky with the waves.

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I was feeling pretty sick after and had to stop at the side of the road for a ‘tactical chunder’ as it’s known in the trade. I felt better after that though and made sure I had an early night in preparation for the following day’s exertions.

The second swim went much the same as the first, it took a while to loosen up but overall I felt better than the previous day.

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My average swim speed seemed a little slow on the Garmin but I was aiming for about 2 mph which, when factoring in feeds is pretty much what I achieved.

It was a good weekend’s work but the thought of swimming further than I had ever done before in just a couple weeks was still quite daunting…

I took the next few weeks pretty easy, in fact I only did a 2 hr swim the following Saturday in Dover but I did manage to submit my Loch Lomond entry form before the deadline and suddenly everything was feeling very real.

Before I knew it I was back standing on Budleigh beach, this time it was 7am and the air was fresher at this time in the morning!

My family had been in Devon for the whole week and as it was Debbie’s mums birthday on the same day as my swim, both her parents had joined them for a weeks holiday. We were planning a birthday tea at the River Exe Cafe following my swim, which I was looking forward to as the sea food was rumoured to be excellent.

Albie was with me once again, and this time both my family and a few of the other Exmouth swimmers were planning to make an appearance at some point during the day. It’s always nice to know there is someone else on the beach or in the water swimming at the same time as you when you are doing such a long session.

This was the last big training swim before Lomond and I would then be tapering down in the weeks leading up to the swim. This was my one chance and I was determined to finish on a high. I strode into the water and got down to business..

10hrs

After about 8 hours of swimming I was finding swimming against the tide more and more difficult. I would fly down to mum’s bench in one direction and then fight my way back. I hadn’t really noticed it much for the first eight hours but the last few laps in particular were incredibly difficult both physically and mentally.

Crawling up the pebbled beach I felt knackered and happy in equal measure. I was struggling to stand upright after being horizontal for such a long time and after a couple of minutes I felt sick again. I was aware that I had ingested loads of sea water during the latter part of the swim, I think I must have swum with my mouth open quite a bit as well because my tongue was somewhat dehydrated. This is quite common amongst Channel swimmers and it makes your tongue swell and crack. It would take a few days for my tongue to feel normal again but it did, thankfully.

I went straight to bed and unfortunately missed the birthday celebrations.. My daughter still raves about the seafood platter to this day!

When I eventually started to feel more like myself again, the realisation that I could keep pushing through the fatigue was huge for me. It was only then that I truly began to believe that if I could maintain the mental strength to continue when things were that tough, failure in Loch Lomond would not be an option…

and without the salt, hopefully I would not be sick either..

 

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When the going gets tough..

I spent about 14hrs swimming during April, mostly at the lake. I did venture back down to Devon at the beginning of May because I knew that I needed to start upping my distance in the sea before Dover training started.

Albie was happy to sit on the beach at Budleigh, watch over my stuff and count my stroke rate at regular intervals, an incredibly boring way to spend a morning but the data he recorded proved really helpful, and I enjoyed reading his notes.

May 1

I was happy with the way things went (2hrs 50m on Saturday and another 55m on Sunday) as it was still pretty chilly. I decided that I should swim mainly in the sea at Dover for the rest of May and really ramp up my training in the first weeks of June before the Champion of Champions (CoC) on the 21st.

We were heading off for an early season holiday to Corfu at the end of May. It was not the most popular decision with the family but we would be in Lomond in August and with the training schedule already mapped out there would be no time to go away during the school holidays. Corfu would at least be warm and the hotel looked lovely.

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View from our room

I swam for 6 of the 10 days we were away, training in the morning and spending the afternoon with the family. The water must have been about 18 degrees or so as it felt comfortable, and I took full advantage covering  just over 50k with my longest swim being 4hrs and 15mins. I swam in circuits making sure to avoid the odd boat and jet ski as I went.

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Debbie sat on the beach keeping one eye on me whilst sun bathing, then every hour or so bringing me a diet coke or half a banana (squirrelled away at breakfast).

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Debbie’s spot

England was somewhat colder than Corfu but I still headed down to Dover the following weekend and knocked out 4 hours as per Freda’s instructions.

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Champion of Champions was now at the forefront of my mind and I was determined to complete a 5hr swim the following week and then 6hrs the weekend before the big day. Unfortunately this also happened to be my eldest daughters birthday and she was not overly impressed with the idea of me disappearing to Dover for a day. I had promised to be around for her party on the Saturday though, which helped a little.

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All went to plan and a number of hardy souls with planned Channel swims managed to complete 6hrs that day. It was a hard slog, and as we crawled up the shingle beach everyone was happy for it to be over.

66 hours and 250km of swimming since the start of the year and I was ahead of schedule. I was confident that under normal circumstances I could complete the CoC distance but this was not normal, it was a race.

No, actually it was three races…

I wondered if my inability not to try and beat the person next to me in the pool, sea, lake  or in anything actually, would be my undoing…

Nutters!

Paula and Dave run the Nemes Diving and Watersports Acadamy at Holborough Lake in Kent. I had spoken to Paula at the lake to book my induction on Sunday before heading home from Devon.

I woke up early, keen to head over for 11am when my assessment was booked. The whole family was coming for moral support and I’d heard that there might be some Easter treats at the lake as well!

We arrived at about 10.30am and the facilities looked great, proper changing rooms rather than the empty shipping container I’d seen at another lake I had visited earlier in the year. This lake was primarily a divers lake but it looked perfect for swimming with a well-marked circuit.

Debbie (my wife) and the girls immediately decided to take part in the Easter treasure hunt and various other activities that had been laid on. I paid my £15 and proceeded to change into my trunks. Dave was dragging his small rowing boat towards the small slipway that allowed for an easy entry to the lake. He was to escort me up to the yellow buoy and back (the pre-requisite distance for the swim assessment).

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The whole circuit is about 400m and I was planning to do at least a lap, just to get my monies worth. Dave was sitting in his inflatable dingy, oars in hand, waiting for me to lower myself into the water. I think I might have sworn on entry as it felt much cooler than the sea in Budleigh.

I later read somewhere that the sea, when compared with fresh water at the same temperature, feels warmer. I would agree with that based on my experiences that day and since.

I slowly stepped off the slipway and into the waist deep water by the wall. I lowered my goggles over my eyes and splashed myself a little in order to acclimatise and then I just decided to go!

Head down I swam as fast as I could (I may even have kicked a little) all the way up the side of the lake to the furthest yellow buoy, Dave keeping pace as best he could in his dingy. I stopped at the end and Dave had a puzzled look on his face declaring that I only needed to go as far as the smaller buoy that bisected the two larger yellow turning buoys. I didn’t really understand what he was on about as I didn’t remember seeing the other buoy on my way past. I asked if he was happy for me to finish the lap, he smiled and left me to get on with it as he rowed back to the slipway.

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At the end of the lap there was no sign of my supporters so I decided to swim another lap before getting out. I beached myself on the small slipway, clambered to my feet and made my way up the path to the changing room, I was offered a free cuppa en-route which was nice and as I got dressed Paula kindly wrote up my membership card.

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I hadn’t paid much attention to the noisy group of people eating cake as I exited the water but it turned out that they were all Nemes Nutters, a friendly bunch of scuba divers, swimmers, kayakers and long-suffering partners of the above. By completing my swim assessment it would appear that I was now a Nutter too!

I soon realised however that it was not quite as simple as that. The Open Water Swimming faction of the Nemes Nutters had their own special initiation practices.

It was absolutely necessary for me to engage in a lot of chatting, hugging, kissing, helping each other get dry and in some cases dressed, eat vast quantities of cake, drink tea and of course partake in a healthy amount of swimming!

In reality being one of only a few male Nutters, I was readily accepted into the group and I couldn’t have imagined the friendships that would develop over the coming months and years. Without exception all of the Nemes Nutters are lovely people and I’m proud to call them my swimming family.

Little did I know at the time, but the Nemes Nutters Swimming Club is legendary in Open Water swimming circles and as at 14th July 2014 the roll of honours looked like this!

  • 19 successful Solo Channel Swimmers
  • The World Record Holder for the longest ever Channel Swim
  • 4 successful 2-way Channel swimmers
  • Over 30 successful Channel Relay swimmers
  • Record holders from the Oldest Channel Relay Team
  • Ladies from the FIRST round the Isle Of Wight Relay Team – record holders!
  • The first UK Ice Mile Swimmer
  • The oldest Ice Mile swimmer in the world
  • Gold, silver and bronze medal winners at the 2013 UK Cold Water Championships
  • A World Championship Qualifying GB Triathlete
  • One of only 19 people to have swum Loch Lomond solo
  • The only person to have swum 2 miles in 0 degree water – record holder!
  • The first place in the UK to hold an official “Ice Mile” event
  • 2012 World Cold Water Swimming Championships Latvia 450 @ 0 degrees C. Gold in category
  • 2014 World Cold Water swimming Championships Finland 450 @ 0 degrees C. Gold in category
  • 2014 World Cold Water swimming Championships Finland. 150 @ 0 degrees C. Silver in category
  • Relay in Bering Strait, Russia to America, 6 days, two Nemes Nutters in the team!
  • First ever English women to swim 1,000 meters winner overall in the Arctic Circle @ 0 degrees C
  • First relay of the Great Caledonian Way 49 miles one Nemes Nutter in team

Compiled by Nemes Nutters Swim Coach and now good friend Giovanna Richards.

I was in awe when I realised the scale of the achievements from within this group of people and I wanted to learn from their experiences and add to the list of accolades.

The truth of the matter however, was that before I was able to do anything worthy of this list, I would need to train harder than I had ever trained before in order to prepare myself for my next daunting challenge, the BLDSA Champion of Champions!

 

 

 

Fed up with the pool!

From January to March 2014 I swam frequently in the local (very heated) 25m pool and I hated every minute of it!

The pool was always busy and the swimming lane was a ridiculous double width fast lane full of head up, screw kicking breaststrokers. All in all I swam 60 sessions in the pool over this period covering 114.5 km and  wasting in the region of 47 hours. On the plus side my Garmin told me that I had burned 39,000 calories, but I more than replenished these with cake! Apparently cake was the staple diet of all aspiring Channel swimmers and I was very happy about that.

Things were starting to look up, the wall planner showed that I was on track and on the 17th April 2014 the family and I were heading down to Devon for the Easter weekend, and hopefully my first dip in the sea.

Thankfully, I had also managed to secure a boat for my Loch Lomond swim, I was confident that it would be suitable for my crew and sorting that out had lifted a huge weight from my shoulders.

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Only the best for my crew. (Thanks to Loch Lomond Boat hire)

I still hadn’t submitted my entry form for the swim because I was sadly lacking in the pre-requisite open water swimming experience. The entry form was asking for evidence of at least an 8 mile swim within the last two years. Although I had achieved this during my first 6 hour swim, the entry form had space for 4 swims in the experience section and I wanted to fill it. I knew that ‘swimming in Spain on holiday’ was probably not going to cut it in this instance, and I wanted to beef up my experience with a couple more 6 hour swims before the entry deadline in July.

We always looked forward to heading down to Exmouth as since my mum died suddenly of cancer a few years before, Terry (my mum’s hubby of ten years since my parents divorce) had retained the house when he moved to Australia. It is great that we are still able to stay there when we visit and I certainly feel closer to my mum when we are at the house.

Being at home also gives us the opportunity to visit mum’s bench. We commissioned a commemorative plaque which has pride of place on a wooden bench at mum’s favourite spot, overlooking the beach at Budleigh. It’s right next to the war memorial at the top of the hill and marks the spot where we scattered mum’s ashes.

Budleigh Beach

View from mum’s bench at Budleigh Beach

I always love swimming at Budleigh, the swimming area is well-marked with equally spaced yellow buoys and offers a challenging mile long circuit. You swim 1/2 mile up and 1/2 mile back and always against the tide in one of those legs. Coincidently the turning point is level with the easily visible war memorial and mum’s bench. That always keeps me going on the long swims, thinking that mum is somehow present when things are getting tough.

Anyway I digress, my first venture into the sea was not as warm as I would have liked and lasted for exactly 12 minutes and 55 seconds, not even one circuit.

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The whole family was back on the beach the beach the next day. Slightly unhappy that I’d only managed a short dip the day before, this time I was determined to swim a lap. As you can see below I still hadn’t mastered swimming in a straight line, but at least I managed a mile.

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Slightly wonky course, I need to work more on this.

I exited the water in real style, very much like a beached whale and then hobbled gingerly up the stoney beach ( I will never get used to walking on those stones). I managed to dry and dress myself but when handed a cuppa tea I proceeded to spill it all over myself due to the onset of the shakes. The shakes took a while to subside but I’ve learnt since that shaking is good news and it’s all part of the fun..

Having enjoyed our short visit we decided that heading home on the Sunday would allow us to miss the bank holiday traffic, and would give me the opportunity to check out the lake that Mark Sheridan had mentioned before Christmas when we had lunch.

As it turned out I needed to do a swim assessment at the lake before I was able to swim alone, and the bank holiday weekend was the very first opportunity to do this. Apparently swim assessments are only conducted when the water temperature reaches double figures!

I was feeling confident following my dip at Budleigh and was wondering if the Nutters Mark had mentioned previously, would be in attendance at the lake…

 

It’s all in the planning

I had a thirst, not only for a drink (I’d been off the booze for a year) but for knowledge. Whilst I was researching everything I could find related to swimming Loch Lomond, I stumbled across a blog that would change my life forever!

There was this guy, Mark Sheridan who swam the Loch in 2012, having read his story I knew that I needed to track him down, buy him lunch and as my American friends would say ‘drink from the fire hose’.

You should check out his blog here:

http://reminiscencesofalongdistanceswimmer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/bldsa-loch-lomond-216mile-swim-2012.html

Eventually after much online searching, I managed to track down Mark’s email address. Luckily it turned out that he worked in London not ten minutes from my own office and I dropped him an unsolicited email with an offer of lunch, and hoping that he would agree to meet and share his wisdom. I was excited when Mark agreed and felt that finally I was making some real progress.

We met for lunch in Wagamama’s a week later, it was a bit like a first date. Mark trying to get a feel for whether I was really up for the challenge, or just another wannabe Loch Lomond swimmer. He was probing for the tell-tale signs and searching for common ground. I remember, when mentioning to Mark that the swimming and the distance would not be a problem for me, the wry smile that lingered from across the table.

Mark gave me some solid advice about choosing my crew wisely, and sorting out a boat early. We discussed the best route and the challenges of navigating at night, all invaluable for planning my swim the following August. Mark also mentioned that he often trained with some Nutters at Holborough lake in Kent. I told him that I would check it out as it was only about 30 mins from my home, and much closer than a drip to Dover. I paid the bill and we parted company.

Over the next couple of months in the lead up to Christmas 2013 I started putting plans in place to recruit a crew, book a boat, and propose (sell) a great holiday in Loch Lomond to the family, which would by chance, coincide with the swim.

As with the previous year Christmas was the time for planning but it became quickly apparent that this coming year, things needed to change.

My family suffered in 2013, I was single-minded, selfish and didn’t include them in my plans. I had tunnel vision and did not realise the extent to which my training and state of mind was impacting my family. My wife and I had a long and emotional discussion, the outcome of which was that I promised to find balance, to make time during the year for them and to include them in my plans. It dawned on me that they were really invested in my endeavour emotionally and wanted to contribute and feel part of what was to come. It was no longer my swim but our swim, and I realised I could not do it on my own.

This reset manifested itself in a written plan of activities for the next eight months to include not only all training swims, key milestones, events and associated travel but also dedicated family time, short breaks and holidays.

My simple aim was to swim further and faster every month than the previous year. I planned to swim in the pool until April then the lake at Holborough or the sea either in Dover or Devon. I also planned to swim my first BLDSA swim in 2014, the notorious Champion of Champions, and decided that a successful ten-hour sea swim off Budleigh beach prior to Loch Lomond would give me the necessary confidence going into the swim.

I stuck a daily planner on the wall of our study and used various colour coded dots to indicate progress.  I was ready to execute our plan to the letter..

 

 

 

Back in the pool

It’s Christmas 2012, I’m sat in the living room trying to figure out a plan for my first year of training in 2013.

The plan was to swim a lot in my local swimming pool in the beginning until the water temperature in the sea was warm enough to venture outside. A good plan I thought, get back into swimming, regain some of my speed and then work towards achieving a six-hour sea swim in the summer. I had never swum beyond 3 hours before and but as this was the qualifying distance for a Channel solo swim, it seemed like a logical goal.

I was training 4 or 5 times a week in the evenings after work and at the weekends.

2013 calendar

2013 Training Days

Initially I was covering no more than 2-3k in each session, and you can see below, although I was swimming frequently my monthly distance rarely exceed 60km by much.

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I swam in the pool until May when I decided to enter the H2Open’s first National Open Water Ranking Series, this consisted of a number of swims in lakes around the country and I thought this would be a good way to add some intensity to my training and finally escape from the pool.

My first was a 5k at Box End in Bedfordshire on the 4th May and I was one of only a couple of skins swimmers in a crowd of rubber. I was afraid that it would be too cold for me and I even tried to sit in a cold bath at home to replicate the anticipated temperature. As it turns out my worries were unfounded, as although it was cold at about 14.5 degrees, I managed it well, even if there was a bit of shivering following my exit.

I thought I was swimming pretty fast at Box End but as it turns out I was well down the field at the finish. I only realised later that I had lost a lot of time due to the fact that I was struggling to swim in a straight line, the data from my Garmin confirmed this as the 5K swim had turned into nearly 6km for me.

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Box End 5km H2Open swim statistics

Nevertheless, I took confidence from this swim and went in search of somewhere to train outside where I could practice sighting.

After a bit of online research I discovered Swimmers Beach in Dover. Freda Streeter and her team would observe and dish out regular beastings to Channel swim aspirants on a Saturday and Sunday morning. This sounded ideal as I could drive down to Dover on my own and the family did not need to worry about me swimming alone.

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Swimmers Beach Dover

I swam at Dover on and off for several weekends in the summer that year, slightly in awe of those around me I went about my business and completed a number of 3-4 hour swims en route to my 6 hour swim. I also continued with the 2013 H2Open Ranking series and to my great surprise I finished third in the mens non wetsuit category.

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I decided to attempt my 6 hour swim in the sea at Budleigh Beach under the watchful eye of Alan Franks aka Albie, an old friend who swam in the relay with me all those years ago and for whose Channel solo I crewed in 1994. Albie, had over the years trained and supported a number of Exmouth swimmers in their own solo swims across the Channel, and I thought it was highly likely that he would later accompany me on my attempt.

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My first 6hr swim at Budleigh Beach

1st 6hr stats

I remember it being a tough swim but I felt incredibly excited to have achieved my 2013 goal. Having swum over 375 km in the year, it felt like I had laid a good foundation for what was still to come.

I decided that my target for 2014 would not be the well trodden route that my friends had taken in preparation for their Channel swims, and instead of the recommended BLDSA two-way Windermere swim, I wanted to do something different. I decided I was going to swim the BLDSA Loch Lomond Championship!

Everyone except my wife Debbie thought I was mad to even consider it, the distance, the cold, the success rate and not to mention the logistics.

My mind was made up…

 

 

 

 

 

When did the madness start?

I think I learnt to swim when I was about four or five, I couldn’t tell you for sure. I do remember waiting for a bus to pick a bunch of us nippers up at the end of St Johns road, not far from my childhood home. I’m not sure where the bus took us exactly and I’ve never managed to find that pool again, despite looking in the years since. It turns out that my now sister-in-law also learnt to swim with me but she can’t remember either.

All I know is that I stopped swimming and left the swimming club at some point during primary school and did not return to swimming in a big way until I was about fifteen. I joined Exmouth Swimming and Life Saving Society (ES&LSS) and found within about six months that I had taken all of the club records for the open age group, except the backstroke (I still hate backstroke now). Given the amount of time I was spending in the pool at the time it made sense to me that I become a lifeguard at the sports center. I was earning and swimming every day and life was good.

It was not until competing in the ASA Devon County championships that I went under a minute for 100m freestyle, you never forget that day as a young swimmer. Progress beyond that though was really hard work and very slow going, it was not long before younger, faster swimmers were beating me and I was looking for something more rewarding on which to expend my energy.

I found what I was looking for in the game of Water polo, I love this sport and will return to it, maybe next year. I learnt my trade playing for Exmouth, determined to break into the senior team, and rarely winning a game but enjoying the experience non the less. It took a year or so before I started training at Newton Abbot, they had a National League team and my progress was rapid. It was not long before I was playing in the Bristol and District and National Leagues with Newton Abbot and whilst at University for Reading in Division One of the National League and for the Berkshire County side. A short spell playing for Bedford in the National League followed and I was selected for the Bedfordshire County team but when I moved to south London I found myself playing more socially in the local and London leagues for Penguins and latterly for Crawley at the amazing K2 Leisure Centre, although not with the same vigor as in my younger years.

It was at some point during my transition from swimming to Waterpolo that I dipped my toe in the open water swimming scene. A fellow swimmer, Waterloo player and now dear friend suggested doing an English Channel Relay to celebrate the centenary year of our swimming club. I was keen to take part and started training for the challenge.We spent many happy hours swimming at Budleigh beach and regularly took part in the Starcross Swim, a swim organised by the ES&LSS for its members as an introduction to open water swimming, only 1.75 miles in length down the Exe estuary, but finishing opposite the clock tower on Exmouth sea front. I also had my first experience of the BLDSA (British Long Distance Swimming Association) when I took part in an affiliated swim in Exmouth called the Fairway Buoy swim. The swim was about 4.5 miles and was tidal in nature, I even won a Trophy for first Exmouth swimmer home one year. I remember swimming against some amazing open water swimmers back then, the King of the Channel amongst them. This Fairway Buoy swim has morphed in recent times due to the changing shape of the beach and sandbar and last year the swim was renamed the Exe to Exe swim and has a completely new course.

We successfully completed our channel relay in 1993 in a time of 10hrs 23mins and following that several members of the team worked hard to complete their own solo channel swims with the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), I crewed for the first of them on the Viking Princess back in 1994 and I always believed I would join them in that feat, but life and work took over. I met my beautiful wife and my three lively daughters followed in subsequent years.

Three years ago my life changed…

One evening and a phone call to my wife from an old friend of mine ended in a snap decision to finally get off my arse and swim the English Channel….

I don’t believe my wife really understood what that would mean in terms of sacrifice and I realised very quickly that I was not the swimmer I once was…