The point I’m making here is that practice is everything. I can swim relatively comfortably in low temperatures because I practice, and have practiced, for some years now. I can swim long distances of front crawl because I’ve practiced. Five years ago I could barely swim a length of front crawl; now I’m seriously contemplating the Henley Bridge to Bridge, which is fourteen kilometres. I have swum eleven in the past, one kilometre over the magic 10K distance which is accepted as the threshold for a marathon swim. (A short diversion here – it’s based on the fact that the Olympic distance swimming event is 10,000 metres. Donal Buckley, The Lone Swimmer, who is a bit of an authority on cold water, open water and marathon swimming, has commented that if you swim the Channel solo (or, I guess, one of the other great iconic swims such as the North Channel, the Catalina Strait and so forth – if you want to know what they are, Google Ocean’s Seven), you are entitled to call yourself a marathon swimmer for ever. Otherwise, you have to keep doing some distances to qualify. I entirely agree with this view.)
But, to slightly labour my point, I didn’t get there just by jumping into the water and doing it, I got there by practising. However, in the five years I’ve spent swimming, very few of my swims have been in the sea, and those that have have mostly been in calm seas. I’m just not used to swimming in sea which has, to quote my friend the lovely Alice Gartland, “a bit of personality” (check out her woman swimmers’ page on Facebook, A Lotus Rises).
And hence I found the swim round Burgh Island challenging. I won’t call it difficult, because it wasn’t really. The distance was very well within my capability, once I’d calmed down and got on with it, I was perfectly well able to swim in the conditions, and there was no point at all, bar the very first couple of hundred yards when I felt that I might not be able to complete the swim. The problems were mainly in my head, the whiney little voice that moans “I’m not enjoying this. This is no fun. Yuck! I keep swallowing salt water! I hate this. It’s really tiring! I wish it would stop.”
Fortunately I’m a decent swimmer and I’ve done a lot of open water practice, so I know how to sight, by popping my head up as one of my arms goes forwards and taking a quick look. It’s essential, by the way, that you don’t try and combine this with breathing, not just because you then have to get your mouth above water, which is unnecessarily effortful, but also because it’s inevitable that you’ll fail and suck in a big gulp of water rather than air, which is not nice. So I kept swimming and kept sighting. Sometimes I couldn’t see anything except the next wave, but usually I managed to get a glimpse of Olivia’s head over the top of the next billow, and was comforted that I was going in the right direction.