a swim around anglesey: part 1

This was a charity swim in support of Sands Stillbirth & Neonatal Death charity.
Do consider making a donation to: www.sands.org.uk/get-involved/donate-sands

In early 2012, late one evening in our local pub, I agreed with my mate John that we would attempt to swim around the island of Anglesey. We had no business making this plan; our open water adventures had been limited to explorations of various bays and headlands of the island, never swimming for more than an hour’s duration. We were not trained swimmers with a competitive background, but simply enjoyed occasional open water swimming adventures. We certainly had no reason to assume that we could swim for 120km through the tidal waters of the Irish Sea!

Nevertheless, we committed to the plan, gave ourselves half a year to prepare – in which we swam endless laps of Llanberis’ Llyn Padarn – and found reasons to pursue our project. John and I each selected a charity for which we would seek to raise funds: McMillans Cancer Support and Sands Stillbirth & Neonatal Death charity. We also aimed to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute – just in case we needed a rescue! These commitments, and the public awareness they brought, kept us in training when distractions tried to dictate otherwise.

By late summer we felt as ready as we could be; thankfully, as our chosen departure date of 31 August was fast approaching. We had agreed to a set of principles that we would follow during the swim:

  • Each swim session would start / end on dry land
  • Each session would start at the exact place the previous session ended
  • We would be accompanied by safety kayakers, with no power craft assistance
  • We would accept support – navigation, food, water – from kayakers
  • We would not make physical contact with kayaks while in the water
  • We would wear wetsuits, for cold protection and flotation

We benefited from the support of numerous safety kayakers: Chris W, Greer Mac, Eila W, Nigel D, Marcus, John W, and Baz.

A special acknowledgement goes to Matt Giblin, who accompanied us for our entire 4-day journey – as a support kayaker, driver, film maker and constant source of good humour. Matt, you’re the hero of this tale…

The Swim Day 1: Rhoscolyn to Point Lynas

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light N wind in the morning with clear skies; moderate SW wind in the afternoon, rain and poor visibility 

We woke at 3.30am to find that Matt had arrived in the night and was now snoring on the sofa. Breakfast was a hurried affair as we focused on making our arrival at Rhoscolyn by 5am. Following a speedy drive up the A55, we busied ourselves with preparations in the pre-dawn gloom. Weather conditions felt calm. There was a slight delay preparing kayaks and camera gear, but we were in the water by 0540, within ten minutes of our target departure time. We swam through the narrow north entrance of the bay, into Rhoscolyn Sound and turned north west for Rhoscolyn Head. Dawn was breaking as we headed for the rocky islets off Rhoscolyn Head, with light in the sky to the east as Trearddur Bay opened up on our right hand side.

John led the way, about fifty metres ahead of me with Chris alongside him, as we began the first offshore leg towards the tide race at Penrhyn Mawr. Matt and Greer – in the double sea kayak – patrolled between us, filming and taking photos. John had clearly been impatient to get started, the months of training and anticipation now being channelled into a hard swimming pace. I knew we could swim at around 3km/h for long periods, but this felt faster and I found myself breathing hard with the exertion. Thankfully, Chris’ red paddling jacket was a bright target each time I sighted and I seemed to be maintaining my position behind John.

In the early gloom, navigation was not so easy and on a couple of occasions Matt and Greer signalled me to turn a little more west to avoid the slacker water inside the bay. We passed close to Maen Piscar, a little rocky half-tide spike that sits on the direct route between the headlands. As it loomed up in the grey dawn light, I realised I was directly up-tide of the obstruction and had to swim hard left to avoid surfing over its shallow reefs. Narrowly avoiding an ‘upstream pin’ for the team to deal with, I swam on – cursing my usual early morning lethargy. Still, it was good to see the flood tide already assisting our progress north west.

One hour into the swim, the kayak team stopped us for our first food & drink break. A swig of water, a munch on an energy bar and we were off again, Chris informing us that Penrhyn Mawr lay about ten minutes ahead. Once again, John powered away and I focused on keeping with him as we swam towards our first major headland. Chris stopped us after a short while to announce that we were directly upstream of the outer tide race and that, with a light north breeze after the previous day’s heavy winds, the approaching race looked choppy but manageable. Good job, we thought – there was no escaping it now! We agreed to stay closer together, as Chris shaped a course into the waves while Matt tried to film us as we swam through the occasionally breaking crests. Penrhyn Mawr ticked off, it was now 0645, 1 hour 15 minutes into the swim.

The next 45 minutes was a blur of wave trains, green water, frequent missed breaths and three-dimensional churning in a weightless environment. Afterwards, I recalled sighting the bay at Abraham’s Bosom, the cliffs of South Stack, its lighthouse as we passed about 500m offshore, and Chris’ red jacket – bouncing through the waves, always about fifty metres ahead of me. I didn’t remember much else, other than the constant effort of maintaining an effective stroke, and by the time Chris stopped us about 500m west of North Stack (2 hours elapsed swim time), I was feeling pretty sea sick. It was a struggle to down any water or food. As we set off again I focused on spotting the distant outline of Holyhead Breakwater to my right, now lit up by the early morning sun, to give me a reference point and to stave off the feelings of nausea.

Carmel Head, our next target at the north side of Holyhead Bay, was clearly visible with the Skerries islands also in view to the north west. This marked our first big open water crossing, a direct line 10km across the bay with the flood tide now taking us rapidly away from Holy Island. We were confident that our early arrival at North Stack would allow us to cross the Holyhead-Dublin ferry route before any morning traffic; even so, it was a relief to see the Irish ferry clear the breakwater ten minutes after we had passed the danger zone. Although the sea state had settled we now felt very committed, as our next realistic landing point would be Carmel Head itself – a remote sight from our sea-level perspective.

Three hours into the swim we stopped again for a feed and a review. Matt and Greer had done a good job of preventing me veering inshore and John and I were delighted at our excellent progress. My seasickness had abated, we were at well into our crossing of Holyhead Bay and, despite Chris’ concern that we were a little too far inshore, we felt well on track to reach the north coast of Anglesey in our first session. My remaining issue was that my body temperature was starting to dip, the combined effect of the thinner neoprene ‘swimming suits’ that we wore and the expenditure of energy from 3 hours’ hard work. At this point, Chris did an excellent job of maintaining momentum, cajoling us to get our heads down and swim for Carmel Head without any further delay.

We cracked on, as West Mouse came into view and became our next target. For a while we enjoyed sighting Carmel Head and The Skerries on alternate breaths as we swam through the Sound. We knew that this would be a critical decision point and my sea kayaking knowledge of the area told me that shaping an accurate course towards our next target would be vital. A large eddy forms on the north coast, east of Carmel Head on the flooding tide; swimming into this zone could prematurely end our first session. With this in mind, we passed just offshore of West Mouse to make best use of the now-decreasing flood tide.

Shortly after this waypoint, we passed the 4-hour mark and stopped to make a decision. It was clear that our original target of Cemaes Bay was out of reach; we would not have enough time to swim the remaining distance before the ebb tide began. It was vital that we were off the water before HW slack. We were also now in unfamiliar territory: the maximum training swim for John or me had been four hours; the remaining distance would be a new experience for us. We agreed to shape a course for Cemlyn Bay, a few kilometres away and close enough for us to feel confident of reaching our target. The only other realistic option was to swim due south for a kilometre to reach the nearest point of land. This would take us into the west-flowing eddy however, and possibly take us back to Carmel Head before we could make landfall.

I had been feeling cold for about an hour, had missed a proper feed due to my earlier nausea and knew that I had expended far more energy during the last four hours than in any previous training swim. The solution was obvious and urgent: knuckle down, focus on good technique and get to shore in the least time possible. We aimed for the enormous outline of the Wylfa nuclear power station for about twenty minutes, then headed further south for the now-visible low lying rocks of Cemlyn Bay. The green navigational mark of Harry Furlong’s buoy was a useful position line as we neared shore.

It was apparent that John had begun to suffer during the final period of the swim session; I started to pull away from him and was a couple of hundred metres ahead as we closed the coastline. Chris paddled alongside him, and as Greer and Matt reached shore to film the arrival, I made a beeline for their beached kayak.

I staggered ashore on the shingle beach about 100m west of Cemlyn Rocks at 1025, 4 hours and 45 minutes after entering the water at Rhoscolyn. For the final half hour I had been aware of my increasing cold and tiredness, but was nevertheless startled to discover the extent of my condition once I reached the beach. Standing was difficult, my sense of balance had almost entirely gone, I was shaking uncontrollably and was struggling to speak in proper sentences. Greer rushed to clothe me in my down jacket and waterproofs, while Matt filmed the scene with obvious satisfaction.

I sat on the beach, hands shaking so much that I couldn’t keep the hot tea in its mug, and watched with detached interest as John’s arrival also revealed his obvious distress. He appeared colder than me, had to be helped from the water by Chris, and could barely speak. Somewhere in the last 30km of water we had lost a great deal of energy – energy we would need to find again before the next swim session, later in the day.

As our warming bodies slowly returned to life a bunch of friends and well wishers arrived, including Megan who showed up with an enormous saucepan full of high-carb pasta in a spicy sauce. I’ve never been so pleased to see her!

Out of our wetsuits and wrapped in warm clothing, eating food and drinking tea, I was surprised by how quickly we seemed to recover from the previous five hours of hard work. There was none of the muscular exhaustion I would expect from a comparable run, and as we ate I felt energy returning to my body. We had work to do, however, and as we prepared to make the journey back to Rhoscolyn by road, I noticed an underlying fatigue. It was hard to focus on tasks and decisions and as the afternoon wore on, I began to feel a little unwell, rather cold and very anxious about the evening swim session. By the time we had arranged vehicles on the north coast, there was only about 90 minutes remaining before we had to immerse ourselves once more in the Irish Sea. I lay in the back of John’s van trying to sleep, cursing the energy lost during the previous day and the mere four hours’ sleep that had preceded our first big swim.

Thankfully, the arrival of Nigel and Eila – our support kayakers for the evening session – brought Eila’s beaming smile and Nigel’s wry amusement at our idiotic adventure. Bailing out was not an option, and the grim task of climbing back into wetsuits was further lightened by Matt’s banter. We took fewer chances with the cold water, switching to our warmer surfing wetsuits.

The weather had deteriorated during the afternoon, the SW Force 3 bringing poor visibility and rain. We waded back into the water from the same spot we had arrived at seven hours earlier and began to swim. Our plan was to use the flood tide to swim the rest of the north coast to Point Lynas, a distance of about 15km and – we estimated – a swim time of about two and a half hours. We began at 1840, about one hour after LW slack on the north coast. Once again John set off like a train, as if the efforts of the morning had never occurred. I chased after him, quickly warming up and forgetting my fatigue for a while. Nigel and Eila did a great job of flanking us, ensuring we stayed on a good course past Wylfa Head and towards Middle Mouse. Pausing on the 1-hour mark just past Llanlleiana Head, we reviewed our position, agreed that we were making fine progress and hoped to reach Point Lynas before darkness arrived.

The pace had been pretty fast since leaving the beach and I suggested to John that we swim alongside each other for the remainder of the evening swim. His reply, that he had been ‘stopping and waiting’ for me, was of course much appreciated and helped me to rediscover my enthusiasm for the challenge! As Nigel paddled off, laughing, I decided to remember the moment and save it for later in the trip.

We swam on along the north coast past Cemaes Bay, Bull Bay, and Amlwch. We were much closer to the shore on this leg than during the morning swim from Rhoscolyn and I found it satisfying to tick off familiar landmarks as the flood tide swept us east along the coast. As we neared Anglesey’s north east corner, Nigel and Eila began to shape a course to bring us to the entrance of Porth Eilan, the small bay just under the headland of Point Lynas. They gauged it perfectly and, as darkness fell, we made landfall at 2050 – 2 hours 10 minutes after getting in the water.

Although extremely tired, we felt an elation and euphoria at having reached this point. Seven hours of constant swimming, across two sessions, had brought us to our hoped-for finish point for day one, 45km from Rhoscolyn. We had rounded five major headlands, completed the first big open water crossing, dealt with the biggest tide races and had got the project off to a flying start.

Set against this, it was now after 9pm, we had a vehicle to collect before driving home, food to eat and recovery was needed for the next day. The journey home took us back to Cemlyn then finally across the island to my home in Felinheli. By the time we were lying in our beds it was midnight, over twenty hours since the day had started. Our alarms were set for 5am, as we needed to be back in the water for the start of the next flood tide. I immediately fell asleep, the excitement of our first day’s success already replaced by the anxiety of tomorrow’s challenges.