A Swim Challenge Born Out of Lockdown

About me:

My name is Nikki Gatland and I discovered my passion for open water over 10 years ago when I became a beach lifeguard. I never really knew what it meant to me until I took a step back and looked at it. Initially it was just something I did to keep me fit and healthy. But I have since come to realise how much it balances my every day life.  The beach, the salt, the movement of the water, the sense of freedom, being at the mercy of nature, and the challenges it can present. And now,  I’d much rather walk across the painful pebbly beaches of Sussex than smell chlorine and have to turn every 25metres in a pool! 

On Saturday 12th September 2020 I became the first person to swim to the Rampion Offshore Wind Farm and back.  I completed this challenge as part of a duo team from Worthing called A See Change. This was our first challenge of many as we train over the next 16 months towards our pinnacle event in Dec 2021 - the Talisker Whisky Challenge.  A 3000 mile row across the Atlantic. 

We are raising money and awareness for a project called OP Surfwell and campaigning for cleaner oceans.  Surfwell uses learning to surf to support and improve the mental health of those in the emergency services.  The programme aims to help staff return to work and to support those who are in work but struggling to cope.  You will be able to follow our salty progress right here with the support of Swim Secure.

The birth of the challenge:

But first, the Rampion Wind Farm Swim. As the crow flies, the wind farm is 8 miles out to sea off the coast of Sussex. But as I found out, the journey can be a lot longer in the unpredictable conditions of the English Channel.

The whole challenge was conjured up during lockdown.  Swimming open water kept us going as it seemed to be the only stable thing, whilst everything else was unknown.  Jon and I (my A See Change team mate) sat on the beach of Worthing and looked out to the wind farm and said “let’s swim to the wind farm”. In agreement, Jon then added “and back”.  And then the challenge was born.

Training for the big day took us across Sussex as we tried to fit in the kilometres to prepare. It was so much fun finding new places to swim, to shelter from the winds and to meet other like minded water lovers.

 

The day of the challenge:

On the morning of Saturday 12th September, we arrived at Worthing beach at 0500 in the pitch black.  Once we were near the water's edge we could hear the crashing of the shore dump, and the state of the sea. It was rougher than forecasted but in the early morning conditions, we were still safe to set off.  We attached lights to our Swim Secure tow floats and goggles so we could be easily seen and then set off.

During our pre event planning, Jon and I had agreed with the safety boat to refuel every hour.  This is incredibly important during an endurance event.  It’s crucial you keep your energy intake up. If you wait until you are tired or hungry, it is too late.  I generally find this hard to do but for this challenge I had to make myself take on more than I would have liked. Refuelling mainly consisted of energy and protein powders, bananas and peanut butter and jam sandwiches with a supply of jelly babies.  However, after the first fuel stop, I soon realised the nature of the sea doesn’t always lend itself to refuelling very easily.  Drinking wasn’t too bad but in the lumpy waves, bananas and sandwiches presented a different experience. Each time, I pretty much mushed each item in my hand, squashed some of it against my face and some in my mouth washed down with some salty sea  water.

We swam for approximately an hour and a half in darkness which was quite disorientating in the swell of the channel and it took me a while to get settled into some sort of rhythm.  As the sun was rising and the sky turned orange, we could see the turbines faintly in the distance, reminding us how far away they were.  By the second hour, we had made good progress and were on track to make the wind farm in good time, we were almost too fast!

After three hours, we were still swimming well with a strong pace.  The sea conditions were still lumpy coming from west to east as we swam, causing my left arm to get caught up in my tow float.  To avoid having to change my stroke, I moved my tow float to my ankle so it was further away and I was able to carry on.

The sea state had changed and winds picked up, pushing us east. My body started to feel it and so did Jon’s.  We pushed through to the fourth hour but it was hard and Jon’s body was slowing down.   Our safety boat circled back and Jon said he couldn't continue. Jon had already swum further and for longer than ever before, and he only started sea swimming 4 months ago!! I begged him to try the local delicacy of a peanut butter and jam sandwich, something solid to see him through, but he said he couldn't. Reluctantly, and with Jon’s body temperature dropping, the only option was for Jon to exit the water.  At this point, we ensured Jon was safe on the boat and I decided to continue, to reach those pesky wind turbines.

The remaining journey to the wind farm was a long one.  A lot longer than anticipated as we conditioned to be pushed further east we couldn’t aim for the intended turbine (F15). 

 

Eventually we made it to RM04 at just under 17km and 5.5 hours. 

In the 30 minutes leading up to the turbines, all I could think about was salt and vinegar crisps and a sausage roll.  As we stopped for a cheer and some food, to my delight our safety crew actually produced a sausage roll.  Unfortunately it did not bring me the pleasure I thought it would!

The dryness of my mouth from the salt and dehydration instantly turned the sausage roll into a massive lump of wall paper paste. To my disappointment the sausage roll let me down and I had to turn back to the trusty peanut butter and jam sandwich, flapjack and of course a salty banana.

 

 

I didn’t want to stop for long so we checked Jon was still well and set off to head back to shore.  I felt tired by this point and my body was in a state of plateau, pain and soreness but just bearable.  I knew it would be really hard and a case of chucking each arm over. 

As each hour and food stop went by, I realised actually how difficult the challenge was. I was struggling to admit it, but I was finding it hard.

I checked my watch regularly to look at my pace, it dropped away from 2min/100m which was disappointing to see but I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t catch the water harder, push at the end of my stroke any further or increase my stroke rate.  My triceps felt the size of a pea, my back was aching from the wetsuit. I had a headache from dehydration and the goggles.  I wasn’t aware at the time, but my face had doubled in size and was probably increasing the drag resistance!!

But, I was not going to let myself get so close and not complete. 

I then looked over and saw Jon getting ready to make a come back. Jon re wetsuited and amazingly joined me back in the water. Jon gave a mighty go at pushing through the conditions, but sadly he had to exit the water again through exhaustion and illness. 

 

As I continued, sighting became increasingly difficult in the over 4ft waves. My neck and shoulders were tired making it difficult to lift my head to see.  Swimming off track happened more frequently as I lost site of the boat and I kept on having to correct my path/ This was frustrating as it wasted valuable energy and time. My shoulders were gone and all I had left was some attempt at increasing my kick.

By this point we realised we were unable to aim for the exact landing location near Splashpoint, Worthing due to the conditions. I could see the local landmarks of the wheel and the large block of flats to the left of me, I knew we were drifting further away from our landing site.  But I could see a beach, quite clearly in front of me so we aimed for anywhere on the beach.

Head down, tired and in pain, my legs started kicking to get me to shore. The boat escorted me through a number of kiters , who were enjoying the very conditions I was hating.  Struggling to stand up I staggered around on the beach with a cheer from the boat and a whoop from me.  WE MADE IT.

It was amazing to see everyone scattered across the beach and to look back at the wind farm and realise what we had achieved.  The 16 mile estimated swim turned into over 19 miles, and took 10 hours and 54 minutes in winds of 18knts, currents travelling 1.1 knts, all giving us over 4 ft waves.

A little surreal but I think I believe we did it!!

So here’s to the next challenge.

 

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