Ferries are for wimps but lunch isn't!

Simon Murie was responsible for coining the phrase for his Swimtrek company logo “Ferries are for wimps, let’s swim!” so he has a certain reputation to maintain. Sometimes, by default, some of his mates do too.

The idea of swimming from the UK mainland to The Isle of Wight was proposed and I happily agreed to get involved, a quick glance on Google Maps indicating to me that it couldn’t be more than a couple of miles - barely worth getting wet really!

A few weeks later we had a date for the swim in the diary, Thursday 22nd July. It was only then I discovered that according to Simon it was “too easy” just to swim to the Isle of Wight and that we would be taking the more challenging “scenic” route from Hurst Castle lighthouse to the lighthouse at the tip of The Needles the Westernmost point of the Island (a distance of approximately 4 miles or 6.5Kms) .

We were to learn from our boat pilot that the currents and tides circulating The Isle of Wight and complicated by the flow from the Solent are both intricate and hazardous. It’s therefore highly advisable to only attempt the crossing on a small neap tide, leaving on high tide to take advantage of some Westerly flow which would help us reach The Needles.

The forecast was good but not great and we set out by car from Brighton at 4.30am. The ‘who’s idea was this?’ banter started immediately but Simon’s main concern was whether I had come equipped with Vaseline as he had clearly had a sleepless night worrying about the prospect of 2 blokes trying to buy a tub of Vaseline in Brighton at 4.30 in the morning! He needn’t have worried, I was correctly equipped.

It was an easy drive to The New Forest and we arrived at Hurst Castle in good time to meet our boat pilot at 7am. The less good news was the wind was howling and as we waited for the pilot, ill equipped in shorts and T-shirts, it began pouring with rain. Worst of all the wind was coming directly from the west so we’d be heading right into it. At that point I thought there was no chance of it being swim able on the day. Who’s idea was this?!

Our boat pilot, a local ‘salt’ Mr Mick Martin, duly arrived on his rib, correctly attired in his all weather gear. He was more positive about our prospects and assured us the current conditions were a local squall which would hopefully clear. We were wet and getting cold and worst case scenario we were confident we’d be able to swim to the Island itself even if we weren’t able to reach The Needles; so we got ourselves ready, applied the Vaseline and jumped in - it was certainly warmer in the water out of the wind (17 degrees C or thereabouts). We swam from the boat to the start point right in front of the white lighthouse at Hurst Castle and applying Channel swimming rules, stood clear of the water before starting out.

It was a very choppy start, the wind whipping through the channel between the two land masses but we soon got into the rhythm of it and the boat pilot guided us across to the Island side of the channel where we would be more protected from the wind and chop. We got across the channel quick enough but then made slow progress going into the wind in the direction of the Needles. Visibility was minimal and I just reverted to old Dover training tactics - head down, keep going, just daydream about something else and forget about the bigger picture. It seemed to take forever to round the headland which would then take us into a straight line of steep white chalk cliffs that eventually end at the rugged Needles, but once round things improved dramatically. Firstly we were suddenly sheltered from the wind by the high cliffs and secondly, as Mick had predicted, the weather started to cheer up. We’d done about 1hour 15 minutes so far and stopped for a quick feed. The Needles were now clearly in view and it was a magnificent awe inspiring sight, the sun just starting to peep through the clouds and illuminate the scenery. The water, which had been traditional Channel murky green at the start now had a much clearer, luminous, milky-blue colour to it.

We were now quite confident we would reach our destination and in the calmer sea we upped our pace and set our sights on the tall red lighthouse which sits precariously and isolated on the last rock of the peninsula. Mick warned us to be careful as we approached the Needles when we would suddenly be exposed to the strong winds again and hazardous rocks lying just below the surface. We were soon parallel with the teeth of the Needles and it was amazing to be in such close proximity to this iconic land mass. It took me back to O’Level Geography lessons! The huge red lighthouse loomed above us and we swam towards it wondering if it would be safe enough to touch it or even stand and complete the swim.

As we looked up at the lighthouse five heads wearing hard safety helmets suddenly peered over the iron safety railing. We may have been surprised to see them but these five workmen, in this isolated spot, on an 11 day shift doing lighthouse repairs, were incredulous seeing two blokes in Speedos suddenly appear from no-where! We managed to exit the water via the lighthouse steps and there was laughter all round when Simon, like a conjurer, produced a waterproof camera from his swimming trunks and asked the nearest workman if he’d be kind enough to take a photo!!

So job done in 1 hour 55 minutes, although that time could certainly be bettered without the headwind. We clambered back into the rib and Mick whipped us back to the mainland. There was only one thing left to do - lunch at the Mirabelles in The New Forest which has the best wine list in Wiltshire! Who was it that said “lunch is for wimps”? - it certainly wasn’t Simon or me!

by Tom Hudson