Monday 31 August 2009
Germany to Denmark, across the Baltic
“All schwimmers, which feel fit, can announce themselves for the Open Beltquering, one of the world’s greatest schwim challenges.”
Or so the clumsy translation on a dated website states. Well I thought when I was told about this little known challenge, why not announce myself and give it a go.
I confirmed with Naomi, my German speaking Baltic loving friend, that I was interested in doing a solo swim. At the time she was talking about getting some lido regulars together for a relay. So I envisaged a fun weekend away going head to head with a group of cold water fanatics.
As time passed, the numbers dwindle and it seemed like that it would be just me. Naomi tried manfully to contact the pilot that does the crossings, but he didn’t seem to respond too readily and as the weekend approached I was getting nervous if the wonderfully named Herr Schlosser actually existed.
The day before lift off we finally made contact with Herr Schlosser, via a colleague’s brother who lives in Munich, and were told to head for Puttgarden and give Schlosser a call, he would meet us there. He also mentioned that conditions weren’t good and that I might not get to swim. All in all this was not the most encouraging news, but the flight was booked so I thought if the worst comes to worst we would at least have a nice road trip to Germany and maybe find a lake to swim across.
So Saturday morning we braved Ryan Air, who now do charge you for using more than your allocated amount of oxygen on board, from Stansted to Aarhus in Denmark. Miraculously it was on time and we were through the small airport quickly, got the hire car and started to make our way to the island of Fehmarn and Puttgarden.
Four and a half hours later and only two wrong turnings we arrived, I had expected a town of some sort, but Puttgarden turned out to be 200 metres long and consisted of a Post Office, a Gasthof (pub) and some houses. Being so small we thought someone in the pub would know Herr Schlosser so headed in to ask. No, came the very Germanic response. So we were going to have to call him and test out our (well Katie’s GSCE German).
Having got the national code from Puttgarden’s favourite barmaid who couldn’t quite understand what our dilemma was and was not too keen to find out or help, she just seemed to want us out of her establishment so we didn’t distracting her from her two dinners. Katie finally got through to Schlosser and he seemed to be asking us to find somewhere with an even stranger name than Puttgarden. Katie kept repeating “We are in Puttgarden at the Gastof, come and get us.” So we waited and waited and went up to anyone that was driving into the pub car park to ask if they were Herr Schlosser. After an hour of this our thoughts were starting to turn to other options, a large Mercedes van then flew past and came to a sudden halt. Out popped someone who looked like he had spent most of his life at sea, accompanied by what looked like one of the Bee Gees.
“Herr Schlosser?” I asked. ”You Schwimmer,” he replied doing an imitation of the breaststroke. “Yes, schwimmer,” I said pointing to myself.
He then laughed and talked in German for some time and pointed to the car. I pointed to our car and implied, I think, that we would follow him. 15 minutes later we arrived at our loggings, a really nice apartment with all mod cons. Having expected a caravan, this was progress. We then followed him to where to where he lived. It turned out that he ran a large youth hostel that was packed with Germany’s youth playing table tennis. Schlosser then got his wife to translate for him. This was somewhat odd as her English was worse than his. Schlosser soon realised this and went off in search of an English speaker. He soon returned with a young lad, maybe fifteen, who had obviously been concentrating in his English lessons. His first question to us was “why are you doing this?” So young yet so wise.
We soon learnt that Sunday was no go, the wind was too strong, Monday, however, was possible so long as the wind calmed down. Katie would be picked up at 6.30am and go with Schlosser on the boat round to the start as this would take two hours, I could rest “As I was the important one”, I understood that translation, and would get picked up at 9am and be taken to the start. He wanted to know what how often I would be stopping to feed and also which side of the boat I wanted to swim on, my answers were met with a “super”, which was encouraging. We arranged to have breakfast with them the next day to learn more.
At breakfast there was a contact of Schlosser’s who spoke good English and had accompanied the last attempt. He explained to us that the last swimmer was very good, but got very cold and sick and couldn’t carry on. I asked how many people had been successful, he said I would be the 10th, but he thought 60 people had tried.
He explained that it would be rough tomorrow but he was confident that it was possible. He said the area of sea was always rough and usually force six as it was so open to the elements. He also asked if I wanted the press on board, I said I wasn’t really fussed so we would give it a miss. He then wanted to know if I wanted it ratified, I said I did and he got some forms that we needed to fill in. Katie would then act as witness along with Schlosser, which in many ways seemed open to rigging, but hey as they say you are only cheating yourself.
They then took us back to Puttgarden to the starting point so I could get a feel for things. It looked bleak, grey and fairly nasty, it made the English Channel look positively charming. They then took us to get food supplies and to the bank, I presume so we could pay him. We then arranged to see them slightly later the next morning as they thought a 10am start would be better.
Monday morning and the swim was here, not sure what to expect. Katie headed off early with Herr Schlosser and I managed to stay asleep to a very civilised time. The Bee Gee then came to pick me up and we went off on a silent journey, me sitting in the back and him driving me to the starting point. We arrived and there was no sign of the boat. Although the wind was picking up the sea looked pretty calm and it seemed to be blowing in the right direction.
Over the sand dune, came a man with a camera. He came up to me and asked if I was the swimmer. He explained that he was from the local press, one of two local papers. As he said this another man appeared, the first journalist then said in a rather down cast voice that he was from the other one. I did a joint interview, with the questioning all around, “do you think you will make it?” The boat could then be seen coming over the horizon, so I stripped down, put some surgical gloves on to apply the vascaline and got ready. I asked the Bee Gee if I could start and he nodded. The journalist requested a shot of me heading into the water turning around and waving at them, I duly obliged.
The water remained shallow for some time so I continued to walk out towards the boat until it was deep enough to swim. I launched myself and the immediate thought was that it was pretty cold. My second thought was it tasted strange, I couldn’t work out if there was a high salt content or weather it was polluted, either way it tasted very metallic, along like lead, not good at all.
As I headed towards the boat I encountered the first batch of jelly fish. The jellies in the Baltic don’t sting which was a relief, however, they are particularly big and hard to avoid. Naomi in her original sales pitch had described it to like swimming through snot, and unfortunately I can’t come up with a better description.
The water started off nice and calm so my stroke felt good and I soon reached the boat and started swimming alongside it. After the initial protection of the coastland there started to be some chop and I was getting moved around a bit. I could tell though that the wind was coming from behind me and that I was getting pushed along and was travelling at a good rate.
The first hour was all about getting used to the unusual conditions, the chop, the strange taste and swimming alongside the boat. As always the first hour is the longest, it seemed to go on forever, I kept looking up expecting to see the feed being prepared, but no such joy. Finally I got a five minute signal, thank goodness I thought, I could do with a feed and to get a gage of how rough the sea was.
Soon enough Katie was hanging the water bottle over the edge with a large fishing net, I swam over to meet it and as I grabbed it to take a drink the string wasn’t long enough and it was grabbed out of my hand. The boat accelerated leaving me choking on diesel fumes and with no feed. Katie shouted at me to continue. “I didn’t get any” I shouted back, but they were off.
I thought of all those swims in Dover Harbour where you feed for the first time after two hours and convinced myself that I didn’t need any food for a good while and carried on swimming.
Within about fifteen minutes I started to feel pretty awful, the water was making me feel sick and the sea was getting rougher which didn’t help. I decided to try to be sick as it may make me feel better. I swallowed some more sea water and managed to gag sufficiently to make me feel a little better. This did give me a little shiver and made me feel cold. Only an hour and fifteen in and I really wasn’t sure if I could do the swim in this water. My speed was still good however and I thought that physically I was fine it was just a case of having to put up with the water. I couldn’t get out, especially so soon, as I had come all the way to Germany for this and was only just getting into the swim.
I continued and eventually made it to the two hour mark, this time the feed went well and it gave me a bit of a boost. Herr Schlosser kept saying “super” with his thumbs up and Katie said I was making really quick progress. I said that the water taste awful and remembered that this was what did for the last aspirant. I could not see how I could last seven hours in these conditions.
The next hour it was a case of head down, sick, head down. The only saving grace was that I could still feel myself being pushed from behind by the force five winds, surely this was meaning that I was making quick progress. I was determined to hang in there until three hours and ask that question that you are not meant to “how long do we have to go”.
The three hour feed took a good while to come around and the taste of the water seemed to be really building up and was now giving me stomach cramps. I took the feed and asked how I was doing. Herr Schlosser seemed beside himself with excitement, “super” “super” he laughed with his thumbs up. Katie said I was well over half way and looking both ways this certainly seemed to be the case, maybe I could continue a little longer. While I felt bad, physically I was still going the same pace so just had to tell myself that it couldn’t be that bad.
For the next half hour or so, my mind was taken off things by hoards of jelly fish, while they didn’t sting you are so conditioned to miss them that I was weaving quite a funny path through them and was intermittently being hit and having to shake the goo off, which was a bit unpleasant.
I was now on to thirty minute feeds, so after the jelly invasion I was given the signal to come in again. The sea was now really rough and even feeding was difficult. Schlosser suggested that it could be only one hour in from here. I couldn’t quite believe it, but thought if it was I could make this.
I was sick shortly after the feed but kept ploughing on with the occasional look up to see if the coast was getting any clearer. As we neared the other side while the foul taste continued the sea did get calmer, but I continued to get pushed by the wind, I did seem to be flying along and at times felt that I could glide with the odd stroke.
The four hour feed came and as instructed a painkiller was added, this was actually left in the bottom of the bottle but I thought I had taken it so half the job was done and it gave me a psychological boost. I was told this should be the last feed. I was sure that I had only been in for four hours so I couldn’t quite believe this. Then I figured that with a 14mph wind behind me anything was possible. I thought this could be a record time, but promptly forgot about this and carried on swimming.
The boat started to go towards the left which seemed to be against the tide. I was later told that this was due to the fact that I had to land near the tower on the shore otherwise the swim couldn’t be ratified. I didn’t know what they were doing so carried on. Soon I saw Katie getting unchanged into her swimming gear and getting in. “Where is he going, it’s easier over there” I pointed to the wind turbines straight ahead of me. “You need to finish over there follow me” I reluctantly did as I was instructed and battled away for another twenty minutes, then finally we were leaving the boat behind and making our way in to the inner shore. We arrived at the rocks fairly quickly and I crawled out and turned to wave at Herr Schlosser. I had made it to Denmark and in a super quick time.
After some comical crawling along the shore we swam back to the boat and Herr Schlosser said it was a record for the swim. While this might have been down to the tail wind, hey I would take it. The guy that had the record did hold the English Channel record of 7 hours and 3 minutes. This basically meant that if I beat his time by 20 minutes it would be pretty hard for someone to wrestle it off me. Looks like all those rough conditions were in my favour after all.
We started to head back to Germany, a four hour journey that was interrupted every hour or so with a call from journalists keen to talk to me. “How do you feel?” “Very happy” was the best I could muster. There seemed to be people from both Germany and Denmark on the phone, but not sure where the story will end up, but Schlosser will be sending the cuttings.
As we arrived home we were met by a lot of people from the village all cheering and wanting to take pictures. It all felt a bit bizarre and I was a reluctant hero. After a quick photo with the press (get me) we went to the apartment to shower and then had a b-b-q with Herr Schlosser and his family.
We finally said goodbye to them all and headed back for some sleep as we had to be up at 4am to drive back to Aarhus and catch our flight. Generally felt fine and due to the shorter swim the recovery time was pretty swift. By the time I was back in London I was alright to do a swim down in the lido and stretch off.
All in all a great trip, a world record, found out that you can generally communicate with people by using hand gestures, that German’s are really helpful and that not all jelly fish are evil.
So two challenges down, 2-way Lake Windermere (21 miles over night) and Germany to Denmark, now just to complete the 1000km challenge. I am now up to 650km so heading in the right direction, but no letting up.
Thanks to so many of you for your support, you have been very generous and it does make such a difference. For those that are yet to master Just Giving, don’t be shy, the details are http://original.justgiving.com/gilesmeyer and hopefully the rest is self-explanatory.
Many thanks once and again.