It is a strange feeling to be floating on my back halfway across the Solent, 40 metres (131ft) of water below me – Southampton on the horizon in one direction, the Needles in the other.
I am ‘Swimming the Solent’ – the stretch of water that separates mainland England from the Isle of Wight. At its nearest point, it is around a mile but I am crossing from Hurst Castle to Colwell Bay, which would be closer to 1.5 miles.
Set at the end of a long shingle spit, Hurst castle was built by Henry VIII in 1544 as one of a chain of coastal fortresses. It’s an impressive location and a perfect site to guard the Solent.
Forty swimmers, including myself, set off early from Yarmouth harbour in the comfort of the sightseeing boat, the Yarmouth Rose.
As we sail towards the castle we see our flotilla of kayaks and safety boats as they battle against the tide from Colwell Bay to join us at the spit. Each swimmer has been paired with a swim buddy and a support kayak is allocated to each pair. Johnny is my kayak support. Annie is my swim buddy.
We wait on the pebbly beach for about an hour, nerves slightly jangling. I can just make out Colwell Bay in the distance across the water. It looks far. As the tide starts to turn we get our call – it’s time to go.
The sea is calm. The sun is shining. There is barely a breeze. The conditions couldn’t be better. I wade into the shallow water with Annie, stones painfully digging into the soles of my feet. It is a relief to plunge into the water and get going. Following weeks of hot weather in the UK, the water is the perfect temperature in my wetsuit.
I have been training for several months but living in Watford, near London, is not really ideal for sea swimming! Nevertheless, I managed to get across to Clacton, Mersea and down to Lulworth Cove on the south coast in the months running up to the swim. I also swam from the islands Kalymnos to Telendos in Greece with my ‘medal-winning swimming champ’ pal Charlie and Johnny.
I am not sure my swim buddy today has been in the sea much though as she struggles to get into a breathing rhythm. Still, this gave me the chance to stop, float for a bit and look around while she catches up.
After a while our head kayaker suggests I swim solo with Johnny and he would kayak with Annie. Johnny takes this as his sign to break for the shore. Before I know it he is a dot in the distance. In fairness, he soon realises that I haven’t actually got a jet pack in my wetsuit and he needs to slow down.
There is very little visibility in the sea until we approach Colwell Bay. Slowly I get glimpses of the sandy sea bed as the channel gets shallower. I look up – the beach still seems a way away but I can make out the crowd of proud parents, partners and friends. Soon I am wading up the beach to meet them, posing for the camera and getting a cup of tea thrust into my hand. Perfect.
The swim was such a wonderful thing to be part of – and fantastically organised by the West Wight Community & Sports Centre. There was an army of volunteers to kayak, man the safety craft including the Freshwater Lifeboat, look after and shuttle bags from Hurst Castle and hundreds of other jobs. I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this. This centre was set up and is run by a charity on the island. This year it has to fill a gap of £150,000 to keep running services for the community that make a difference to people’s lives.
For more information on the swim, the centre and donating visit: https://westwight.org.uk/legacy/