Basking Sharks

33-mile relay swim, Isle of Man

It’s not every day you get to be part of a headline like this one but that’s how we made the news on Manx Basking Shark Watch’s website on 16 June. Listen carefully and I will explain.

Channel Swimmers, and open water swimmers in general, tend to be a fairly closed community but it was a pleasant surprise to be suggested as a possible participant in a proposed relay swim 33 miles down the west coast of Isle of Man. It hadn’t been done before, but the delightful (and French) Carole was assembling a team to do the job, a bit like the first half hour of ‘The Magnificent Seven’. Except we were six: Carole and her IoM sea-swimming partner Mark, Richard (from Northern Ireland but isn’t Irish), me (from Guildford but Irish), Rory (schooled in NI, SLSC member) and Nic (married to a NI lad).

The key to this relay was to go early in the season thus avoiding the jellies. Unfortunately, in June, this also avoids warm water, and we were initially concerned about the lack of real water temperature data. Ultimately Carole confessed that that several, hardy, Irish swimmers had turned it down as it was ‘ow you zay, fecking cold?’

Having sorted airfares there wasn’t any turning back, despite some passing reference to a RIB support boat. We assembled in Port Erin for the night before for a refreshing 11C swim to get acclimatised. That removed any notion that the temperature would be above 14C for the swim.

Saturday morning saw the RIB eventually arrive, with one of its chambers already punctured. This was going to be some swim. Apart from being totally unsuitable as a support boat the swim proved largely uneventful for the first seven hours or so. The water was 12-13C but the sun came out as Rory fought a reversing eddy current and we made our way from Pt of Ayre towards Peel.

Then it all got very interesting. Two things to remember: we were using kayak escorts as we stayed quite close to the shore (100m or so) and secondly, the IoM is Basking Shark heaven in June and July. Err what? Yes, they regard the sea off IoM much as the kids of today view an out of town leisure park. A chance to meet the girls, show off to them, fight with your mates and have a McPlankton meal. Nice to know in advance. So we expected to maybe see the odd fin, but this is Jess’s (a kayker) recollection:

“…at one point, my friend Carole was swimming, and she wanted a kayak on either side of her… until suddenly Ian, who was at the back diagonally opposite me yelled out. “I just hit something with my paddle!” I think we all kind of ignored him, to be honest. Until he called out again.”Something with a fin!” “A f*****g big fin!” At which point we started paying attention. We all turned around to look at Ian who was jabbing at the water in front of him with his paddle. “A big fish!”

As I looked, I saw a dark shadow in the water, and every ripple of the waves on the surface revealed it to be bigger and bigger, and moving faster and faster, or so it seemed. By the time I had really registered what Ian was saying, it looked to me like something about a metre and a half long, just below the surface, swimming between us towards Carole. Before I knew it, it was under me, just to my right and I looked down to see, very clearly in the murky water, sharks’ gills, a shark body, and shark fins just below the surface of the water. It was no metre and a half - it was at least 20 feet long!

In the course of the afternoon six or so sharks swam past us, some feet away, others up to 200yds or so. Clearly not man-eaters, but nevertheless with the tail being the business end of these wonderful creatures, it’s not good to be close to them. Regrettably I didn’t see any of the three that passed me on my second leg.

In the end we had to abort the relay after 11 legs having passed Peel Harbour (22 miles) before wind rising to force 5/6 and a sputtering RIB engine caused common sense to prevail. A fantastic day out ended with a feast of fish and chips, and memories of having shared a sunny day’s swimming with these great creatures.

We will surely go again next year, but as Captain Quint said in Jaws I, yep, yawh can do it, but yaw’re gonna need a bigger boat than that!’

Jim Boucher