On 23rd June 2016, the Open Water Ladies Relay Team completed a 2 way crossing of the North Channel – a stretch of water famed for its cold temperatures and challenging currents in 28 hours and 25 minutes.
The swim is a story of 5 ordinary women Caroline, Louise, Vicki, Sarah & Clare who decided to do something extraordinary setting a number of records in the process: Fastest 2 way crossing of the North Channel, Earliest crossing of the North Channel, First 5 person 2 way relay crossing of NC, First all female 2 way crossing of the North Channel and First all British 2 way crossing of the North Channel.
Prior to signing up for the swim Vicki Watson had swum only in a wetsuit in open water.
“I had previously completed two long distance triathlons (The Outlaw), however, I did not learn to swim until 2011, and I had never got my head down and only swum front crawl for an hour, without resorting to a bit of breaststroke!”
A Lotus Rises spoke to Vicki to find out more about her adventure and what it takes to make a record breaking relay team a reality.
Whose idea was it?!
Caroline aka “The Boss” first mentioned it to me in November 2013. She was thinking about swimming the North Channel as a solo, but thought it would be more fun as a team, and at that point no-one else had attempted it 2 ways, so we thought we could go for a world first.
Caroline spent many hours on the phone and via email to Quinton Nelson, our pilot, deciding on the tides to give us the best chance of completing the crossing. Caroline picked her team well, and also when we were all at our coldest. For me it was swimming at Hathersage (unheated) outdoor pool. Due to previous commitments 2014 was not doable, so we planned to attempt the swim in August 2015. However, before we got out there an international team of well known “ice swimmers” called The Fast & Frozen attempted and completed a 2 way crossing in 29 hours 59 minutes.
In August 2015 we went out to Ireland to attempt the swim, however, the weather gods were not on our side, and we couldn’t start. We spent lots of time on twitter chatting to Andy’s Channel Ladies who were waiting in Dover for their 3 way English Channel attempt, which also didn’t happen, so we were able to commiserate together
I was also messaging with one of the Fast & Frozen, who was very supportive of our challenge. Both teams were amongst the first to congratulate us on our success. The team has changed a bit over the past few years, due to family commitments and injuries, and we have gone from a 6 person team to a 5 person “special” relay team, and the dynamics between works.
Why did you do it?
It seemed like it would be fun, as well as a challenge. I am not a fast swimmer, but Caroline was aware that I am a stubborn person, and that I would not stop! When she asked me I was on my 2nd winter of cold water swimming. However, what I didn’t mention was that I hated swimming in the sea, it did then, and still does, frighten me. It is so big and strong! I only learnt to swim in 2011, as I started doing triathlons. But the feeling of camaraderie and lifelong friendships I have made through swimming has been amazing. It is a sport and in particular open water swimming, that embraces all, regardless of size, age or speed. We are all together in our love of swimming outside, and I find the community so welcoming.
What did your training involve?
Swimming, but not as much as it should of! Work, families and other commitments can get in the way. I do enjoy “social” swimming, so when with friends it can involve a bit of heads up breaststroke, and catching up. Water is like therapy, and we all lead stressful lives, so we need to be able to relax. I regularly swum in the pool over the winter, and used every opportunity I could to swim in lakes, rivers and the sea. What I didn’t do was practice jumping into the water off a boat. The first time I did that was on the swim!
What was it like? What were the highs? What were the lows?
It was like nothing else I had experienced before in my life, it feels surreal, and it still doesn’t feel real. When I got out of my first swim Caroline asked how it was, I said it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be, turned out it was 11 degrees. My 2nd hour was a jellyfish soup, getting stung on my arms, legs and face by Lions mane jellyfish.
So many highs…Quinton was the best pilot, he stood at the wheel for the whole time (apart from when he went to confirm that we had broken the toilet). The ‘Moon Jellyfish’ were so beautiful, the hours went quickly and swimming during the night was so peaceful, apart from the led light stuck to the side of the boat. Actually that freaked me out a few times, as I felt I was in a beautiful bubble, watching the jellyfish change colour, then I would turn to my right to breath, and “Aarrgghh” there is a blooming great big boat right next to me! A bit like a goldfish, I kept forgetting it was there!
On my 3rd swim Caroline told me to swim strong as we needed to get to Scotland asap, or we would miss the tide back. I swam hard, got out and just apologised, as I hadn’t reached Scotland. Then Caroline pointed out I had done exactly what was needed, and Scotland was right there. Apparently on my 1st hour there was a group of puffins swimming with me, although as they didn’t take any photos, I don’t know if I am being wound up or not!!
Lows…not too many. Before my 5th swim I knew I was tired, we had been on the boat for 22 hours at that point. I spoke to our observer Micheal Angus, I knew that I was experiencing effects of hypothermia. During the swim I was disorientated, and kept losing the boat, it was the only hour that couldn’t be over quickly enough. When I got back on the boat I said that I had lost my mojo, so I ate, wrapped myself up, and lay on the deck in the sunshine and slept. When I woke I was still low, but I knew I was warm, I knew I had to get back in the water to get my mind right. My 6th swim was a dream, we could see Ireland, and the end was in sight. I got my mojo back!
What kind of mental preparation did you do for the swim and, on the day, how did you deal with the challenge of having swum all the way across, having to turn around and swim back again?
Mentally we were already strong, that is why Caroline picked us! We are all stubborn! The challenge was always to get to Scotland quick enough to give us a chance to be able to swim back. So when we got there, we knew we had a really good chance of getting back, so it was a great feeling!
What makes a successful relay team?
Being able to talk to each other, or not, when needed. We have respect for each other as women, and know that we will always have each others back. We all knew that whatever happened, we would all do our best, for ourselves personally, and for each other. You have to spend a lot of time with your team, when you are tired, cold and potentially struggling physically and mentally. You do not need or want drama that you have to deal with as well.
We are booked to attempt the Catalina Channel 2 ways again on August 21st 2017, and we are hoping to be able to swim the Gibraltar Strait (2 ways) in 2018! Our aim is to complete 2 way crossings of the Oceans 7 challenge, as a relay team. It is going to take awhile, and I will be in my 50s by the time we finish, but it will be worth it!
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