Monday 25 May 2015
I’ve been a member of South London Swimming Club for 20 odd years and swim religiously every day in Tooting Bec Lido from the end of May until around mid-September. A lightweight you might think but not when you hear of how I spent Easter Sunday this year, a day I’d normally be tucking in to roast lamb and feasting on Easter Eggs.
Instead I was challenging myself by swimming between the Caribbean Islands of St Kitts and Nevis, taking on the best open ocean swimmers in the world in The 13th Annual Bente Weber Memorial Swim. The swim distance is 2.5 miles (4 km) from Oualie (pronounced “Waalie”) Beach on Nevis across the ‘Narrows’ to finish at Cockleshell Beach on St Kitts.
The idea was always to complete rather than compete but as a novice open water swimmer, nothing had prepared me for quite how challenging the swim would be. I’ve never undertaken an open water swim of any distance and can barely manage more than 10 lengths of Tooting Bec Lido but I blame the cold water for that. However, that’s the glory of the swim, it can be done by anybody who is reasonably fit, enjoys testing themselves and there’s no need to worry about getting cold (even if like me you were in the water for nearly 3 hours).
There’s no need for wetsuits in the tropical Caribbean Sea. In fairness I had done some training, travelling out to Hurghada on the Red Sea in February. All very noble but practically useless. Swimming in the open sea is an altogether different game! Perhaps I should have enquired more of SLSC members. There were waves, not massive but enough to blind me. I’ve never even swum with goggles before and in hindsight a big mistake, especially when hearing tales of all the wonderful marine life (turtles, sting rays and silver barracuda) fellow swimmers spotted along the way. I was too busy keeping one of the more obvious triangular peaks on St Kitts always on my left. This being the only instruction I thought I needed (more fool me), “keep it on your left and you’ll hit Cockleshell Beach on St Kitts the finishing post, if it’s on your right and you can’t see land then you’re in trouble”. I had no idea that you were supposed to take a line and that there would be currents to contend with.
It all started positively, the weather glorious, early showers and sunshine had produced a symbolic rainbow, the end, the pot of gold so to speak at the finishing point. I loved being part of the pre swim camaraderie and any embarrassment that I would be the only one swimming breast stroke was quickly dispelled as thankfully there were a few, admittedly out of the 196 swimmers taking part literally only about 4 of us, swam breaststroke, but at least I wasn’t the only one. What I didn’t anticipate was losing the field so early on, as the triathletes, professional swimmers and what appeared to be everybody else forged ahead within minutes. Suddenly, I was all alone but the minutes passed quickly, I loved the peace and just as I was getting a little bored, one of the kayakers there to ensure safety and offer water and support would kayak over for a chat. My first question always being “please tell me I’m not the last”. I was reassured that there were in fact others behind me, but I think they may well have just been humouring me.
On and on I swam and after two hours the bay and finishing beach were in sight plus a smart yacht with its flag flying on its stern. I began to realise that things might be going slightly wrong when after half an hour I still wasn’t able to make out what country the flag was for, I’d been going nowhere, the current in fact taking me along the coast and further away from the finishing beach. All rather heart-breaking for a very novice swimmer and also for the support boats who I knew were anxious to hit the beach, the bbq and rum punches on offer at Reggae’s Beach bar. The early finishers would have already been celebrating for an hour and I’m never one to miss a party. Safety within the swim was always paramount and although by now I was so of course, a kayak still remained with me.
After nearly 3 hours in the water, I decided that I would still swim from Nevis to St Kitts and did it really matter where I landed? It was a 20 minute swim to some rocks on a headland when I finally landed on St Kitts, happily waved at one of the support boats who motored over, picked me up and then dropped me of a few hundred yards from the finishing beach, so that I could at least swim in to proudly get my medal and guess what, I wasn’t even last! There were in fact others behind me who did persevere against the current, one gentleman from China bravely swimming in 5 hours after the start of the race.
All in all a massive adventure for us plucky and perhaps a little fool hardy novices. However, it’s the sort of race that any SLSC member could do easily and with so much also on offer in St Kitts and Nevis (two islands, one paradise as the tag line goes) it comes highly recommended. The serious swimmers were competing for one of the coveted stone turtle trophies with 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in various age group categories. The oldest swimmer Mark Krakower, an energetic 72 year old from California, completed the race in under 2 hours whilst the overall winner was a local Valerie Gregoire completing the crossing in just over an hour. Swimtrek sent over a group from the UK, who did us proud winning a least a couple of trophies, so successful was the trip to Nevis that they hope to run several holidays a year in the future. As for me, I’ve got the bug but before I take on any more open water challenges, I think I’ll start with our annual Thames River swim in July, no chance of getting lost there!
To find out more about Nevis and the date for next years swim visit http://www.nevisisland.com/island-of-sport/nevis-to-st-kitts-swim The swim normally takes place on the last Sunday in March or first Sunday in April.
By Petra Shepherd