Despite the unpleasant chop, I kept my head down and tried to keep swimming. The waves kept hitting me from my right, rolling me around and slopping burning salt water into my mouth. My stomach roiled. A few hundred yards into the swim I gave up and stood up. The water was barely up to my thighs and I stood easily, panting in an effort to control the sickness. Ahead of me was another woman swimming skins who I’d shared a couple of words with while we were wallowing around in the shallows on the last corner. She was ploughing ahead as if totally untroubled by the chop. Why couldn’t I be like that? To my right, further out from the shore, a couple of kayakers were watching me.
Standing around wasn’t going to do it. I got back down and swam on. Almost at once a wave smacked into my face and I swallowed a huge mouthful of salt water which washed into my stomach like acid. I stood up again, hands on hips, gasping. I was aware that every time I stopped swimming and stood up my body temperature was dropping as the wind whipped against my wet skin. I was shivering steadily. On the other hand, I was so preoccupied with my sickness that the cold was suddenly relegated to a minor problem. I looked at the coast stretching ahead of me and for the first time the thought occurred to me “I can’t do this. What am I going to do? I can’t walk all the way….”
The kayakers were still watching me, and I put up an arm, the agreed distress signal. One of them powered straight over, a stocky man with blonde hair and a Devon accent, wearing a broad-brimmed cotton sun hat. “What’s up? Cold?” “Feeling very sick.” “Have some water. Don’t get dehydrated.” He offered me a bottle and I sucked greedily in the hope it would help. “How much further is it?” “Once you’re round that corner you’ll be able to see the finish.” He pointed to the far end of the coastline stretching away from me. “Think you can make it?” “I’m going to try.” “Good for you! Go for it!” He gave me a thumbs up.
I got my head back down and started swimming. I’d never swum far in chop like this, but I knew that you should try to breathe away from the waves, so I did so, breathing towards the shore only. Slowly, slowly, the trees and beaches inched past. I could see people watching, and once an orange-jacketed observer stationed on a flight of steps well above the waterline, and I imagined them gazing on me in pity. In reality they were probably gazing on me in admiration; fewer than 2% of people can swim even 400 metres continuously, so being able to complete Brownsea at all puts one in a fairly small percentile of people. (This is something one is apt to forget when one moves in circles where you can easily trip over three Channel soloists on the way to the shower; Tooting Lido is absolutely lousy with them.)
At one point we went past a kayak school, a line of about twenty kayaks manned by primary school age children in lifejackets and helmets, clutching their paddles and staring at us while their tutors stood in the water holding onto the bows to stop them floating out. The expressions on their faces exactly summed up my thoughts: “Why on earth would you even do that?”. At one point I looked at my watch, saw that I’d been in the water for two hours and thought ” Well, I’ve done my qualifier.” I felt so sick that it didn’t even seem to matter.
Closer to the corner I could see a big wooden post sticking up from the water, and I knew that once past it I’d be able to see the finish. I raised a hand and my friendly kayaker, who’d been keeping an eye on me, paddled straight over. “More water?” “Please. Nearly there.” “Nearly there! Go for it!”
Once round the corner I could indeed see the finish, the grey bulk of the castle on the left and the bobbing yellow arch of the finish funnel. There was a concrete breakwater along the shoreline with ladders set at intervals of about a hundred yards and I swam from ladder to ladder. There were more people visible on shore as I plugged along: “Right, swim to the next ladder. Right, swim to the next ladder.” And then, at last, at last, the finish funnel and my lovely kayaker drawn up next to it waiting for me. I shook him by the hand “Thank you so much! I couldn’t have done it without you.” “Don’t thank me – you did the swimming!” I have never felt that a medal was so hard-earned.