a swim around anglesey: part 2

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

The Swim Day 2: Point Lynas to Penmon Point
Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: calm morning conditions, becoming SW, increasing to Force 4-5 in the afternoon 

The 5am alarm woke me from a too-brief sleep. Slumped over a mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen, as the toaster fired a barrage of bagels onto my plate, I simply could not believe that we were going to swim again today. The few hours rest had scarcely refreshed me. I felt exhausted and anxious about my capacity to complete the challenge we had set for ourselves this day. Our late night planning had produced the decision to make the committing move of swimming offshore directly to our next target of Puffin Sound, at the north east entrance to the Menai Strait. I wondered if I really could do it.

The east coast of Anglesey, from Point Lynas to Puffin Sound, is 11 nautical miles (20km) as the crow flies – or as the seal swims. However, the coastline falls away to the south in a great scoop past Moelfre, before heading east again past Red Wharf Bay and Table Head. The inshore route would add another 5km to our swim and, worse, markedly reduce the tidal assistance we could expect if we stayed offshore. This ‘safe’ option guaranteed to double our swim time for the east coast to around nine hours. We didn’t fancy this at all.

By taking the ‘outside’ route, however, we had to commit to a 20km open water swim that would take us over three nautical miles offshore at the halfway point. There would be nowhere to stop en route and we would simply have to maintain a good pace to carry the tide all the way to our destination. The forecast tempted us with a weather window of light winds in the morning and a possibly flat sea state that would assist our speed. We had debated it, considered the options and had finally committed to the hopefully winning move of taking the offshore route.

Now, driving up the east coast of the island back to Point Lynas, I was fearful of getting in the water. Our view to the right revealed the expanse of open water we planned to cross, an intimidating sight at this early hour. John seemed tired, but also appeared determined and pretty upbeat. I felt he had taken confidence from the success of the first day. On arriving at Porth Eilan, I fell asleep again. John woke me and instructed me to put my wetsuit on, which was dripping in the bucket where I had dumped it the previous night. My low mood was compounded by the temporary loss of my ear plugs, a vital piece of kit for my water- sensitive ear drums. Realising Matt had last had them in his possession, I stomped off along the footpath to the previous night’s rocky landing, muttering darkly about my ‘support’. It was inexcusable and unappreciative behaviour, but an accurate reflection of my state of mind and sense of fatigue immediately prior to the start of our second day. Thankfully, Matt found them in his pocket, saving my – and his – morning.

Our support kayakers had changed for this day. Chris was replaced by Sid, whose cheerful encouragement would be much needed in the hours ahead. Greer, after a marathon first day, gave up the rear seat of the double to Marcus, whose non-stop verbal entertainment would keep Matt awake throughout the swim session. Again, we were privileged to have another high quality team to assist us.

John and I scrambled down the rocks on the west side of Porth Eilan, ready to take the plunge at the exact spot that we had exited the water ten hours earlier. Without delay John dived in and began swimming across the bay towards the small tide race that had formed off Point Lynas at the start of the flood. It was 0715, fifteen minutes later than our intended start time and we needed to get on with it. I dived in after him and instantly all my reluctance was washed away by the cold water. It was transforming, the grim prospect of the day ahead was replaced by an exciting reality. As we bounced through the waves of Point Lynas I felt inspired to swim as far as I possibly could. John was looking steady, briefly swept into the eddy under the headland but soon directed back on track by Sid.

During the first day I had received a message of encouragement from my friend Richard. He knew I was feeling anxious about the days ahead and sent me some important technique advice: ‘keep telling yourself, “I’m a dolphin”’ said the text. I remembered his words as we plunged through the waves and into the calmer waters of the east coast.

We had planned to swim east, well away from the coastline as the flood tide began to take us south. A few kilometres down the coast, the stone tower on the rocky island of Ynys Dulas made a useful reference point and a waypoint for our first big decision of the day. We aimed to reach a point about a kilometre due east of the island and then either commit to the open crossing or to begin heading south for the inshore waters near Moelfre.

We flew down to our target, my turn to lead the way, and it was an easy decision to continue with Plan A. Conditions were good, we were moving well and were well placed in the tide to make best use of the flood towards Puffin Sound. We went for it.

The first three hours of the swim passed without incident. With no nearby landmarks and a relatively calm sea, only the distant North Wales mountains caught the eye, with the occasional distant smudge of Puffin Island to spur us on. I fell into a trance-like state, complete immersion in the water broken only by a turn of the head to catch a breath every few strokes. I seemed to disappear into a near-meditative state, the hours passing without any real sense of their duration. When Sid or Marcus called the breaks, I was surprised to find it was time already to take food and drink. The only distraction during this spell was our ‘swim-by’ of an anchored tanker, waiting for the tide into Liverpool. I wondered what its crew thought as we passed within a hundred metres of their ship.

After three hours, our serene aquatic journey became a bumpy road once more. It was now after 1015 and the SW wind had begun to fill in. As we crossed the outer limit of Red Wharf Bay a choppy sea kicked up, disturbing our rhythm and slowing the pace a little. The tide also began to weaken and it became clear that the final kilometres to Puffin Sound would be hard won. Both John and I were also weakening; the effects of our huge first day, lack of sleep and loss of energy resources were beginning to take their toll. We had to dig deep and make the best possible speed however, as we were now racing the arrival of slack water. As the island crawled by and the lighthouse at Penmon Point gradually became more distinct, we were spurred on by the fear of still being offshore when the ebb began. The prospect of being swept back towards Red Wharf Bay was too awful to consider.

As Penmon drew near, the green buoy of the Ten Foot Bank passed on our starboard side. We still had a gentle flood stream towards Puffin Island, but now had to swim across the current towards Anglesey itself. Our final destination, the beach next to the lighthouse, seemed to be permanently beyond our reach and it was hard to predict just how long it would take to finish the swim. I suddenly stopped swimming and floated upright in the water – though I had not told my body to do this. I set off again, puzzled, and within a minute I stopped again. Frustrated, I ploughed on and for a third time my body stopped swimming. What was happening to me? I wasn’t sure, but thought that my subconscious mind was maybe acting as some kind of protective mechanism for the body. Well I wasn’t having that, and anyway this wasn’t getting me to the beach in any kind of style.

Seeking a solution, I came up with the classic goal setting ploy – noticing that the huge limestone headland Great Orme far away to my left was beginning to disappear behind the much nearer Puffin Island, I told myself to watch for the moment when the Orme was lost from view and ordered my body to keep on swimming. Every eighth stroke I checked my progress as I took a breath on my left. The Orme disappeared! I quickly chose a new goal to my left and watched for the moment when my selected headland reappeared. It worked, I kept swimming, and eventually arrived within the final 200 metres of the beach.

John was now a couple of hundred metres behind, Sid alongside him. I needed desperately to reach the beach and put on a final burst to finally feel limestone pebbles under my feet. I crawled out the water, shivering uncontrollably, and collapsed on the rocks as Marcus began to bury me under a mountain of fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs.

John soon arrived, equally incapacitated, and wandered around in a daze until Sid helped him into warm clothing. We had reached Penmon at 1145, fifteen minutes before high water slack. After four and a half hours in the water, we were just in time.

Sat on the beach with Sid and Marcus, the first day’s post-swim euphoria returned with even greater intensity. We had completed our 20km open crossing, the longest and most committing section of the entire Anglesey coastline, further offshore than at any other point in the journey. We had nailed the east coast, a potential nine-hour slog slashed in half. We had swum it in style, had struggled for the last hour, but had completed the crossing in close to our target time. We had now ticked off 65km of our 120km journey and were over half way home. Best of all, we did not have to swim again today and could look forward to an evening of rest and recovery in preparation for the final two or three days. We needed the break: after four hours sleep on the eve of the challenge, we had swum for eleven and a half hours in three sessions, with only five hours sleep between day one and day two – all within a total elapsed time of only thirty hours. No wonder we were wrecked.

Our paramedic friend Sam suddenly appeared on the beach. It was time to go home and he was here to drive us back to our vehicles at Point Lynas – and not, thankfully, to provide his professional services. While John and Matt waited with the kayaks, Sam and I sorted the shuttle before all heading home to recover. I knew this would be no easy task and had begun to grow concerned about a problem that was affecting both John and me. During our first swim session, the thinner swimming wetsuits had begun to chafe at the backs of our necks, the constant rubbing of neoprene against bare skin, leaving an inflamed, painful area. Despite switching to more familiar warmer wetsuits, and despite protecting the area with creams, oils and rash vests, the damage had intensified during the second day. Not especially uncomfortable during the swim, our necks became extremely tender once we stripped out of our wetsuits and had deteriorated visibly. They looked a mess and felt worse.

Of equal concern was a nagging pain in John’s left shoulder. A slight training injury sustained earlier in the year had become aggravated towards the end of the the east coast crossing and had begun to give John discomfort. Thankfully, we had access to the best sports massage and physiotherapy services in North Wales, the cavalry arriving in the form of Andy and Zac (Snowdonia Sports Medicine). Together they massaged us into better shape and applied rolls of ‘magic tape’ to John’s shoulder, fixing it in a stable position and – hopefully – setting him up for a successful third day.

We also ate industrial quantities of food and poured gallons of rehydrating fluids into our bodies. I felt that we had not adequately refuelled at the end of our first day and could clearly feel the hollow sensation of calorie depletion. I was determined to put the fuel back in my body and settled down to an evening of binge eating.

We also needed to plan our next day carefully. We had arrived at the entrance to the Menai Straits and its complex tidal streams – while we had the chance to capitalise on these swift currents, it was equally possible to make a complete mess of it and lose hours through poor timing and route choice. We had studied the tidal stream atlas for the Menai Strait carefully, calculating our likely swim speed and timings for key waypoints through the entire length of the Straits. We had also elected to put ourselves under pressure – again – by aiming to swim the full 36km from Penmon to Llanddwyn Island, at the start of the south west coast of Anglesey and 6km beyond the entrance to the Straits. We felt it necessary to try for this target, as it would be impossible to swim out of the SW end of the Straits unless we had a favourable ebbing tide. If we did not achieve this goal on day three, we would have to wait until the afternoon of the fourth day for the next daylight ebb tide, scuppering our plans to complete the circumnavigation in our best possible time. We discussed John’s shoulder injury and agreed that it would be acceptable, if necessary, to take an extra day to reach Rhoscolyn. We selected decision points at which we would review his condition.

I also had a serious word with myself about my psychological frame of mind. I had found the start of the first two days very difficult, the prospect of the journey ahead rather overwhelming to me. It was a stress-inducing experience and I was determined to change my attributions for the better, especially after an anxiety-filled night that had sapped my energy before the second day. I resolved to wake up in a positive frame of mind, to bring new energy to the group and to look forward to the day ahead. I knew it would all be good once I was in the water, so I only had pull myself together for the first two hours. And anyway, it was our backyard – familiar waters, fast tides and a swim past our home village. Bring it on!