Sorry, did he just say the water temperature was 16°? Oh boy ...
I knew the water would be cold, but the obvious clue to exactly how cold was the number of people wearing full wetsuits as we waited in the "holding pen" at the start of the 18th annual Bournemouth Pier-to-Pier swim. The safety briefing was under way, telling us how not to drown, and I had a look around. There were over 1200 people taking part in this, the UK's longest offshore charity swim, aiming to raise over £80,000 for the British Heart Foundation. The distance between Bournemouth Pier and Boscombe Pier is 1.4 miles, and the weather looked good. I wouldn't call it sunny, the car said it was 19°C on our way in, but there was some blue sky, very little wind, and most importantly the sea was flat, which was a big relief. I had nightmares of trying to swim through breaking waves, and being washed ashore by line after line of white water, but thankfully all I had to do was get from A to B and not die from hypothermia on the way.
With the safety briefing finished, the countdown began and everyone charged for the water. Thankfully I was just a couple of rows from the front, so probably had 40 or 50 people in front of me. I was worried that I'd be stuck in the middle of a huge crowd and would spend the first 20 minutes being accidentally kicked to death, but when it came to it there was more than enough sea for us all. Some people headed straight out to the deeper water, the rest of us seemed to settle around 50m offshore. We all waded in to waist depth, then one by one dived in and started to swim.
In the build-up to the event, I'd decided that a full wetsuit would be too constricting and too warm, seeing as it was late July, so I settled on a neoprene rashvest and shorts. Not the smartest of moves, but all seemed well as I waded into the sea. When it was time to start swimming, I dived in. My chest constricted immediately, and my face went numb. I expected it to be cold, but not this cold. I hurriedly looked up to get a bearing, and started swimming.
I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to survive being this cold, so I counted two hundred strokes then had a quick think about how things were going. Hands and feet ... not painful yet, but properly cold. Arms and legs ... cold. Body ... cold, but OK. Right, another two hundred strokes. By then I'd probably swum 400m, and although I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers and toes, I was underway, and starting to concentrate on pace. Various people cruised past me, and there were a lot of people out in deeper water, but everything seemed pretty settled and I was swimming at the same speed as others around me. I counted another two hundred strokes then stopped and looked back, to see how far we'd come and how many people were behind me. I couldn't see Boscombe Pier yet, but we'd come a long way from Bournemouth, and the sea behind me was alive with flailing arms and splashing sea, so I plodded on.
I was breathing every 3 strokes, and in those brief glimpses above the water, groynes came and went, crowds appeared and disappeared, but with no markings along the shore it was difficult to gauge how far we'd come. Visibility was poor, I couldn't even see my fingers underwater, so I'd stop every two hundred strokes and do breaststroke so I could have a look around and get my breath back.
Eventually Boscombe Pier loomed into view, so I put my head down and did another two hundred strokes. This time when I looked around I could see people walking up the beach ... and two red flags ... it was the finish! With such low visibility, I never really felt like I was making progress, but as soon as the finish was in sight, I was off! My fingers and toes were completely numb, but seeing those flags was enough to give me a boost, so I dug deep and aimed for the finish.
Finally in waist-depth water, I stumbled to my feet and waded the last 10m to the beach. People were staggering out of the sea and lurching around like drunks, but there was a huge crowd on the beach and the sun was shining, so we made our way up the corridor of clapping spectators towards the finish line. Gill and Beth were right at the front so I stammered a frozen "h-h-hello" then collected my medal and headed up the beach to find the complimentary hot drink.
In all honesty, I wasn't expecting to be so cold. My hands weren't shivering, they were shaking and I couldn't get them to stop. Although entertaining, trying to hold a full cup of hot tea with shaking hands was a little painful, but I made it back to the beach and changed into warm clothes. Gill had taken photos of the start, and of me coming out of the sea at the finish, so once I'd changed we had a look at the times the photos were taken.
Start - 12:00pm
Finish - 12:39pm
39 minutes? Get in ... I was expecting nearer 60! Gill took a photo of the first person to finish at 12:26pm. Twenty-six minutes to swim 1.4 miles is just incredible, and I was properly pleased to only be 13 minutes behind the leader. It took me a good 30 minutes to warm up again, but we clapped the rest of the swimmers in, played on the beach for a while, then walked back to Bournemouth in the glorious sunshine.
The Weymouth Bay swim is only 3 weeks away, think I'll hire a triathlon wetsuit for that one!
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21st July 2008 at 22:40
What on earth are you doing even contemplating wearing a wet suit in water that warm. You should have been with us in the Brighton Pier to Pier on the same day - against the current, no wetsuits allowed - proper ASA rules, proper open water swimming. Come and do the SE Region 3km Champs Portsmouth September for a better experience, or the 5km ASA Champs maybe. Triathletes have it soft! (I speak as a veteran of 200 or more multi discipline events, many many triathlons and former Tri race director)
5th February 2010 at 01:33
I'd just like to say well done, as a former swimming teacher and lifeguard this is an event I'd like to do myself one day and your detailed account was really informative. Thank you for writing about it.
29th June 2010 at 16:06
I thought the water on the day was 14, I'm sure I saw it posted somewhere. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the difference between 14 and 16 is a big difference...
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