For the last 3 years I’ve occasionally got some raised eyebrows about the name I chose for our website and various video channels. Indeed considering they have been notably devoid of any reference to distance swimming until recently and have instead been focused more on other aquatic activities, particularly cave diving and freediving. I will admit that to those who don’t know my past it must seem like a bit of an anomaly. But that’s set to change now as I return to my roots in order to undertake a series of open water swimming challenges. Open water distance swimming was quite a consuming passion for me both as a youth and at various times through my life subsequently. It’s been a constant feature in my life; even if there have been some dormant periods where I’ve gone away and focused on something else for a while. Consequently you could say that it’s the activity that most defines me.
Open Water swimming is defined as swimming that takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as open oceans, lakes and rivers but when discussed in a competitive sense it is more often than not also associated with distance swimming. By way of a brief history lesson, the beginning of the modern age of open water swimming is often considered to be May 3rd 1810 when Lord Byron swam several miles to cross the Dardanelles from Europe to Asia. Another benchmark of note took place In 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel between England and France. Despite the notoriety of being the first to cross that famous body of water, of far greater relevance to the modern era was the achievement of 19 year old Gertrude Ederle in 1926 when she became the first person to swim the English Channel using front crawl and as a result dramatically reducing the record, the technique that’s been used most of the time ever since.
I became involved in the sport in 1992. At the time I was competing regularly in the pool but felt that the nature of racing in that environment was not really to my liking. Being separated by lane ropes seemed somewhat sterile compared to what I felt during my other hobby at the time – go kart racing, which was wheel to wheel and quite dynamic. I had a few swimming team mates who had done some open water competitions with varying degrees of success and so gave it a go. My first couple of attempts were nothing to write home about (in fact the first one was a complete disaster) but I learnt fast and over the next few years became one of those regularly contending for decent results in South Australia. I enjoyed the strategy that was a big part of the sport and found I was more suited to the physical challenge of the longer races in excess of 5 km rather than the mad dash around the buoys in the shorter ones. Eventually youth gave way to demands for work and when I joined the Navy I found I wasn’t able to train enough to compete at my previous level and eventually I stopped altogether. When I left the Navy in 2000 I found I had a bit more of an opportunity to do some swimming and from time to time I’ve trained and competed in some of the Masters events to a reasonable level. But by the time 2013 came around the passion was no longer there and my interest had diminished to the point where I was ready to give it away for good. After a few particularly humbling results I felt the time was right to move on to other things.
While I hadn’t totally shut the door to future involvement I knew it would take fresh motivation to put on a swimming cap and goggles again. After all distance swimming is arguably one of the most physically and mentally challenging activities there is and takes a significant amount of preparation to be even moderately successful. I was more focused on the idea of eventually working towards underwater exploration through cave diving and felt my endurance background might serve me well. Progress was fast initially, but cave diving isn’t a cheap sport and early in 2016 I had a few setbacks (including a bout of decompression sickness). With the demands of work and the lack of opportunities to dive new sites, progress stalled to the point that now it was diving that I was getting a bit frustrated with.
The flip side of this is that even though my own diving ambitions haven’t been progressed much during the last year, I’d been doing more activities with my long suffering partner, who one generally refers to as SJ (an abbreviation) or ‘Wookie’ (a Star Wars reference that I’ll elaborate on another day)! I don’t even recall the exact occasion but as is often the case for us, we were having coffee somewhere and the subject of my previous pre-occupation with distance open water swimming came up. Both of us were looking at doing some regular exercise together and we recognised that we weren’t quite the unbreakable spring chickens we once were. With a combination of the normal knee, back and soft tissue issues that come with being 40 something, it didn’t take a genius to see that regular impact based training was less than ideal. I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t find the idea of distance swimming nearly as appealing as I did but we had both enjoyed a day kayaking on the Coorong together and she did enjoy that. I don’t think the possibilities as to how we could combine the two activities was lost on her. I don’t recall who suggested it first (or if either of us was entirely serious at the time) but the idea of me swimming in an open water environment with her paddling along beside me in a kayak (and hence also being physically active) was eventually raised. The more we discussed it, the more sense it made and it seemed like an activity that both of us might actually enjoy.
SJ and I were to discuss this a number of times over coming weeks and it also didn’t escape my attention that an opportunity to feature videos and articles on this subject would likely be a good fit for our various social media pages (given their name) and one I can speak with some experience on. The more we discussed it, the more the idea gathered momentum and before I knew it I was dragging myself out of bed early in the morning again to start doing some early morning swimming training – something I hadn’t done for some time and didn’t exactly relish but I needed to know whether I still had the desire to do the necessary training before we started investing in the equipment we needed. If you’re serious about following through on these things there is no getting away from the fact that you have to put in the time. To my relief, despite some suspect shoulders (probably partly due to lugging scuba tanks in and out of dives sites) most of the issues appeared to be muscle related and manageable. If anything swimming and the associated stretching I do, pre and post training, seemed to be rather therapeutic.
At about this time we also started wondering through outdoor shops looking for a suitable support craft. This was both a necessity for SJ and a safety consideration. Memories of being nearly run over by a single sculls race boat, who didn’t see me whilst I was swimming in a lake a few years before, were still pretty fresh (I had literally passed under the oars and was lucky not to have been struck by the hull) and I was not keen for a repeat of that. SJ needed something comfortable with solid back support for what was going to be long periods on the water. It needed to be practical and as streamlined under the water as possible for efficiency whilst being very stable. As luck would have it I came across an advert on social media placed by a shop called ‘Adelaide Canoe Works’ for a second hand ride on top kayak. The Wilderness Tarpon 120 was in essence designed for fishing but unlike many other fishing kayaks was longer which spread out the water displacement more across the length than the width. On top of the water it had all the carrying features we needed but below its streamlined profile was more reminiscent of an ocean kayak. It took me little time to realise it ticked all of the boxes and I quickly put down a deposit to secure it.
Now that we were actually starting to invest in this project it made sense to start considering some goals to work towards. It’s easier to keep focused if you have something tangible to aim for and in the past that would always have been some kind of open water competition. While I’m not ruling out the occasional race in the future I felt the framework may have changed a bit for me in recent years and am now more interested in personal challenges. I’ve always been interested in some of the epic solo achievements of English Channel Swimmers and the like, and was inspired in my youth by people like Des Renford (who interestingly only discovered his suitability to open water swimming in his 40’s). I discussed with SJ a series of solo efforts that we could do together by ourselves (me swimming and her paddling the kayak). I remembered I’d always wanted to swim a full 25 kilometre marathon in my youth and decided it was as good a medium term goal as any so the first incarnation of our series of challenges has us working up to this and beyond that we will re-evaluate if we can take it further (I’m interested, just need the body to cooperate). As for where we could do these ‘work up’ swims, there are a number of lakes within a short distance that are suitable and so I got to work mapping out the courses that we could do to achieve a series of distances at South Australian venues like West Lakes, Encounter Lakes and Lake Bonney. When we actually get to doing our first proper distance over 25 kilometres I suggested I’d like to try swimming on the River Murray between Blanchetown and Swan Reach (closer to 28 kilometres actually). It just so happened that I was familiar with this course as back in 2003 I was involved in supporting a charity swim at this very location which took place over 2 days between Blanchetown and Swan Reach. I thought maybe we could do something similar except swim it non-stop.
Next came a decision that wasn’t easy and is a bit of a contentious point within open water solo efforts particularly to those who consider themselves purists – whether or not to use a wetsuit. Triathletes have been using them for years and have been a large driving force for developing the technology so that proper swimming suits are actually faster to use than swimming without. Some open water competitions permit them under certain conditions (normally frigid water temperatures) in sanctioned events but in order to have a ‘solo unassisted swim’ officially recognised, they aren’t permitted. This is why to this day you see English Channel Swimmers swimming without them and covering themselves with grease instead. In the past I actually would have been pretty strongly against using them too in order to ensure parity but have recently changed my position on this.
The controversy of performance enhancing suits isn’t restricted to neoprene wetsuits. In fact you may recall that in the early 2000’s there was a bit of a trend that arose in international pool swimming surrounding full length ‘fast skin’ swimming suits which even to the uninitiated were completely unnecessary. Eventually they were banned but rather than returning to conventional material swimming suits, shorter versions still persist to this day which are still expensive and unnecessary. But at the same time that this circus was going on in pool swimming, nobody had considered the benefits full body covering could have for open water swimming.
To this day skin damage due to sun exposure is a very real risk in marathon swimming and that’s not all. Swimmers regularly have to contend with swimming through other nasties like poisonous jellyfish. Many of us have marvelled at the accomplishments of people like Diana Nyad, Chloe McCardel and Susie Maroney as they struggled through epic swims well over 100 kilometres in length. However the sobering reality is Nyad and McCardel have on occasion been stung so severely that it caused them to abandon swims and receive medical attention. Maroney has also been subjected to the perils of swimming with jellyfish but perhaps more seriously recently had to have a malignant melanoma removed. Such instances are common in the sport and while we can all marvel at their mental strength in overcoming such adversities , one has to wonder whether it’s a good practice and whether the rules don’t need a bit of a shake up. After all it’s during these mammoth length solo swims where swimmers are subjected to the sun and the environment for the longest duration and where the most damage is done.
To use an analogy, in perfect conditions it’s possible to climb high on some of the highest mountains in the world in just a pair of shorts (it’s certainly been done). Sure it’s an impressive feat but it’s not the norm and you’d be hard pressed to find anybody that would argue it’s a smart practice. Conditions can (and do) turn very quickly and then it becomes a life threatening situation. Swimming in an open water environment exposes swimmers to more risks that in pools and it seems to me that some of those risks can be partially or totally mitigated. It is for these reasons that I decided to pursue full body protection on this occasion. I briefly considered full length neutrally buoyant suits similar to fast skin suits and also full body lycra suits but neither were practical options. With the former there is currently no existing non-performance enhancing design available and the later is like swimming with a loose fitting bag over you (it might be fine for diving in the tropics but for swimming it’s a different story).
Therefore after much consideration I purchased an Orca S5 wetsuit. Orca has been making competitive racing wetsuits (mainly for triathlon) for over 20 years and as such are world leaders in the area. I had previously owned an early model Orca suit which I got some good use out of for a number of years. The S5 is a descendent of it. It’s an entry level (and hence comparatively better priced) triathlon suit in the Orca range but gets good reviews. That is what I’ll wear for the majority of our swims although I’m interested in trying out some of their other designs too down the track. If we manage to accomplish anything of note then we can debate the legality of that then. While some open water ‘purists’ may thumb their nose at the idea of swimming in a suit, what I’m hoping is actually we might start a broader conversation on year round open water competition where swimmers’ health and safety is the biggest consideration.
So with all this in mind, on Sunday 11th November 2016 we packed the car for our first open water test of all our equipment, not to mention myself and SJ. First item on the agenda was to pick up our kayak from ‘Adelaide Canoe Works’ and pay off the remaining balance. We then headed down to the northern end of West Lakes which is a well known feature in South Australia that winds itself past a series of waterfront residences. The plan was to do a lap of Delphin Island which when added to the double crossing of the northern boating lake comes to approximately 6.8 kilometres. A modest achievement but first time out was plenty long enough to get an idea whether both swimmer and support paddler were sufficiently prepared for the longer efforts to come. By this stage I’d been doing regular training again for about a month and knew the steady pace to swim at that that I would be able to maintain for longer swims.
We set off and I settled into a comfortable rhythm. Approaching halfway I realised I was
actually doing it rather easy and was quite encouraged. Periodic checks with SJ informed me that she was equally comfortable and our newly purchased (albeit second hand) kayak was a pleasure to use. About the only thing of annoyance in West Lakes was that it’s also home to jellyfish, particularly on the eastern side of Delphin Island. I’ve never actually been stung in there but apparently when they are most common at the end of summer it’s not unknown. For the first half of the swim, there was nothing but as we came around the eastern side of the island that familiar (and not particularly pleasant) sensation of occasionally feeling soft slimy things during the stroke. When they were most common, SJ started seeing them too from the kayak. I’d hear her call out and a second later started seeing them go under me, occasionally bouncing into them. But there’s not a lot you can do other than grit your teeth and swim through them. It’s a totally different situation when diving as you’re generally covered and most of the time you are moving slowly enough to see them and avoid them but as a swimmer you’re more exposed, and even with a suit you don’t wear gloves, boots or a hood. I’ve never got used to swimming with them and probably never will but as an open water distance swimmer there is no getting away from the fact that at some stage you’re going to come into contact with them and have to develop a mindset to deal with it. We finished the swim, headed to a cafe for our routine debrief and coffee and attention quickly turned to extending the benchmark beyond 10 km.
The following weekend therefore we were back at West Lakes and this time the aim was to swim the perimeter of the entire lake including the rowing strip on the other side of the island. This was intentionally done much earlier in the morning to avoid the sun (a strategy that’s going to become central to future swims) and hopefully avoid as much of the rowers that train there as possible. This swim wasn’t quite as easy. The extra distance aside, when we cleared the island and entered the rowing strip we were hit with rather strong headwinds, choppy water and then heavy rain which made initial progress slow and a hard slog. We also weren’t even close to being early enough to avoid the rowers so had to be vigilant as we made our way to the far end but after the turn we benefitted from being in clear water and having a fair tail wind for the first time. The rest of the swim was basically a re-run of the previous weekend except for the additional satisfaction of being able to know that 10 kilometres was well within my comfort zone too.
This brings us up to Christmas of 2016 and we had a bit of a break, ate way too much junk food and spent a few days out of training. Now back in the pool in early 2017 I’m hoping we can make some real progress in the next few months. I’ve got no idea how far we can take this but that’s part of the challenge. Like the motto for our website and blog you could say that this latest adventure is ‘a journey in progress’. I want to find out just how far I can go. Stay tuned for further instalments…
Along with this article, which is a bit of an introduction to our latest adventure I have included a link to a presentation by veteran open water swimmer Diana Nyad which I found rather inspiring. I believe anyone out there who has ever wanted to achieve a difficult goal that requires perseverance will benefit from watching it. By way of introduction Nyad was a very accomplished marathon swimmer in the 1970’s but unable to achieve her dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida. After 30 years out of the sport she returned for another go. In 2013 after 4 further failed attempts and at the staggering age of 64, she became the first person to achieve the 180 kilometre feat without a shark cage. By anyone’s standards she should be considered a remarkable athlete.Share on Facebook