It’s a miracle! I remembered the fancy dress theme! Emma France is on holiday this week in the Caribbean (sounds rubbish) so the theme was the Caribbean. Around my neck I’ve got the lei flower garland I was presented with at the end of my Zurich marathon swim last August, but on the train down to Dover I remember that lei are actually Hawaiian not Caribbean so I shove it back in my bag, despondently. One of these weeks I’ll get it right.
Thanks to last week’s 5 hour epic, inevitably this week it’s time for The Big 6. The weather is breezy, cloudy and big clumps of fog from out at sea are getting blown across the harbour. The stench of the water is palpable. In previous weeks, I’ve only got a whiff of it from a damp costume or long hair, but today it smells like a cross between a fish mongers, getting stuck in a meeting next to a colleague with bad breath and the Central Line during a heatwave. Imagine the colour of that smell. That’s the colour of the water.
The first four hours pass by with steadily mounting aches in my arms and back, but the real fun and games begin with two hours to go. These waves are nuts! At times, I take my arm out of the water for the recovery stroke and the whole thing remains submerged underwater through a wave. Sighting where I’m going is completely pointless, all there is to see is tall, dark water. Instead, I stop sighting altogether, and decide that if the cliffs are still over one shoulder or the other, I’m probably not going actually out to sea.
It’s particularly bad in the corner of the harbour which has come to be called “The Washing Machine”. Here the waves get funnelled together – fuelled today by the wind – and they bounce back off the flat wall, interfering with those incoming. This makes the conditions for swimming totally chaotic – will it be air or saltwater in my mouth next breath? Toss a coin.
Weirdly, every now and again I keep feeling small, soft, jelly-like blobs in the water. On Thursday night I learnt from my friend Aimee that the Irish language word for jellyfish literally translates as ‘seal snot’. It is no more but certainly no less comforting to know – particularly during the low times of this swim – that my only friends to be found out here might be baby seal snots. I also learnt from Aimee that the Irish language word for sea anemone is ‘rock boob’. People often ask me what I’m thinking about when I’m swimming for 6 hours on end, and it’s rock boobs.
The end comes, as it always eventually does. Since the water is below 16 degrees (14.5 to be precise), this swim counts as a solo channel swim qualifier. I’ve actually already done one qualifying swim this year in Mallorca, but I never pass up the chance of a certificate.
I stagger across town to my B&B, shower, and collapse on the bed. I have the head-spinning feeling that the room’s rocking, exactly like being drunk but with none of the benefits of being drunk. The back of my hair is matted from where my neck has rubbed it into little balls of felt. I have ringing in my ears from the banging of the waves onto my head and the bubbles rushing past me from the impact of my hands. My tongue is rough and un-tasting from the salt-water – it feels like I’ve burnt it on hot chocolate but with none of the benefits of hot chocolate. I have tanned eyebrows but a pale forehead, my back aches all down my spine, my arms feel stiff, and I am hot. Oh god I am so hot I feel like I’m radioactive. Having been so cold, and now so hot, my internal thermostat is going haywire.
A sticky night’s sleep becomes Sunday which could not be more different. The water is as flat as an empty swimming pool, there isn’t a whisper of wind and the sun is strong and warming. I am given a 3 hour “recovery” swim. I appreciate that there something very wrong about feeling grateful for a “short” 3 hour swim but this is my life now, apparently.
It is everything that yesterday wasn’t – warm sun on my back, good visibility above and below the water, and not a single seal snot to be found. It is amazing how the same patch of water can have such different personality within the space of 24 hours. I suppose it all adds to the adventure.