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 3: Penmon Point to Llanddwyn Island
Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light NW winds throughout the day
The 6.30am alarm call arrived all too soon, en route to a 9am arrival at Penmon. After eight hours sleep, I was relieved that the feeling of illness had left me and that my positive mantra had taken effect. I woke in good spirits, ready to roll. John looked good too and was psyched to get in the water. Greer had rejoined us for kayak support and we had arranged to meet John Willacy at Penmon. John W, fresh from a 72-day sea kayak odyssey around the UK, is ‘Mr. Menai Strait’, years of training having produced an encyclopaedic knowledge of the shifting tides of this complex channel. If we needed guidance on this day, John was ‘the man’.
We were swimming again by 9.15am, the flood tide carrying us swiftly into the Straits as we left Puffin Island behind. John & John immediately formed a partnership, with JW expertly guiding JJ through the swirling currents of the approach to Beaumaris. I took too wide a line at the start, imagining I knew better, and spent a good thirty minutes working hard to catch ‘The Johns’ as they powered south west. I also felt a little pressured to make good time during the early part of this day. The tidal movements in the Straits are fascinating, with the flood tide pouring in through both entrances at roughly the same time. Towards the end of the rising tide, the meeting point migrates around the NE end of the Straits between Bangor and Penmon. Start at the wrong time, swim at the wrong speed and we could waste precious energy ‘pushing tide’ – or worse, get the wrong side of the ‘hump’ as the ebb began and be unable to continue. We had precise target locations for each of our first three hours, and were determined to meet them. So I swam on after John and trusted that we’d got our sums right.
In the end, it all went swimmingly – we worked hard for an hour to reach Beaumaris and suddenly we were zooming past Gallows Point on the flood’s last gasp. Another hour of honest effort in slack water took us to Bangor Pier, and a third 60-minute shift saw us swimming into the tiny bay just north of Menai Bridge as the ebb built in speed through the pillars of Telford’s famous suspension bridge. It had taken us 3 hours of steady swimming to cover 15km.
There was a small reception committee waiting for us – a physio friend of John’s from the hospital (whose lunch I ate), and a team of nurses from the local hospital waving a Welsh flag from the bridge. We felt quite the celebrities. After half an hour of faffing around, it was time to get back in and cover some more ground. John and I had been looking forward to this section – our regular training ground, the exciting white water of the Swellies and our ‘home crowd’ on the wall outside the local pub as we swam past Felinheli. Matt filmed us through the most exciting sections of white water, then we settled down for the long haul to the end of the Straits.
We had timed the tides to perfection and carried a strong ebb stream south west past Felinheli and on towards Caernarfon. Our mate Wayne suddenly appeared in a power boat, cruising around as we made our way past the National Water Sports Centre. Barry also unexpectedly arrived to join the team of support kayakers and we began to take on the appearance of a flotilla. In fact, we had expected John W to bid farewell as we passed Menai Bridge, but he seemed settled in for the duration, pacing John J as we headed on toward the end of the Straits at Abermenai Point. The various waypoints came and went, John assuring us that his shoulder was holding up without too much pain.
It was clear, however, that fatigue was setting in for both of us as our total swim time for the day passed five and a half hours. We swam past Foryd Bay south of Caernarfon, our last realistic stopping point before the final slog to Llannddwyn Island. If we fell short of our target now, we faced either an awkward hike to the road across the extensive sand dunes of Anglesey’s south coast, or an equally tedious swim into the beach at Newborough. As we swam out through the entrance to the Menai Strait and rejoined the open sea, we were struck by the sudden and noticeable increase in water temperature – not exactly a hot tub, but welcome nonetheless. We abandoned the plan to land in the narrows, John declaring his intention to keep swimming for the day’s finish line without a break. I suspected that his shoulder was in fact causing him pain, his technique beginning to falter a little as each stroke was begun with less arm extension. JW stuck faithfully with him however, clearly unwilling to abandon his responsibility, and shaped a course to make best use of the now-weak tide as we swam across the waves of Newborough Bay towards the old lighthouses of Llanddwyn’s rocky SW tip. 6km after leaving the Menai Strait, at 1645 and after seven hours total swim time, we waded ashore together.
The light winds, sunshine and welcoming faces were a blessing and we changed into our ‘land clothes’ on the warm sand with a contented feeling of achievement. We had covered a total distance of 36km, swimming the entire length of the Menai Strait – and more – in one day. Fantastic!
Removing our wetsuits, however, forced us to confront the worrying reality of our worsening injuries. In addition to John’s shoulder, both our necks were now inflamed masses of angry broken skin, despite all our attempts to protect them from further damage. Exposure to the air brought an intense discomfort and as we rinsed the angry red burns in fresh water, we gritted our teeth with the pain. The prospect of another day inside our wetsuits was an uncomfortable thought.
Nevertheless, our spirits were lifted by the clearly visible outline of the islands of Rhoscolyn, 18km away the the north west. We had now completed over 100km of the Anglesey coastline and felt absolutely certain that we would succeed in our challenge. The support kayakers headed home, Greer dashing back to Scotland after a sterling effort in keeping us company for over 80km of our journey. Barry gave me a lift back to Penmon to collect my van and when I remembered it was his birthday, I phoned the rest of the team to arrange a pub meal in Menai Bridge.
We arrived to find John embroiled in a fractious debate with the waitress over the exact specification of his ordered burger and chips. In my weakened condition, his demands made no sense at all to me and when his ‘food of champions’ finally arrived it seemed to bear no resemblance to his stated requirements. He ate it without complaint. Everything was becoming a little surreal to me, the combined effects of three days intense work and immersion beginning to play games with my mind. We headed home for more food, treatment for our injuries and rest. I finally fell into a deep sleep, convinced we had the final prize in our grasp.