I was surprisingly nervous.
Back in March a short paragraph in a newspaper had caught my eye. It was one of a list of ’50 things to do with your weekend’ featured in one of the Saturday newspapers, and promised a watery adventure swimming in the Cornish sea, guided by two surf lifesavers with local knowledge and expertise.
I was tempted – I’ve always loved swimming and prior to becoming an international modern pentathlete I’d shown great promise as a young swimmer. I didn’t progress as hoped and eventually turned to the multi sport to realise my competitive ambitions. One of the five events was swimming and it remains something I enjoy and am good at.
Having spent thousands of hours ploughing up and down chlorinated indoor pools in my youth, I now prefer to take my aquatic exercise outdoors. There’s a lido near my home which I enjoy but I get even more pleasure from finding a suitable spot in a lake, river or the sea to take a dip in when I’m on my travels with Olley. What you might call ‘wild’ swimming.
But would I be up to an organised weekend with others who could be accomplished triathletes or open water swimmers? I am okay with the ‘must be able to swim a mile’ requirement for booking with Sea Swim Cornwall, but how fast? And in the Atlantic on a weekend with a rather indifferent weather forecast?
I was certainly feeling nervous when, along with the three other women who were taking part, I met up with organisers Jo and Tom. It’s a sensation that I don’t often have nowadays, I suppose I don’t really challenge myself by taking on things that I’m not confident about. I’m lucky that life for me is generally good, safe and comfortable.
But I rather enjoyed the sensation of pushing myself into a slight unknown, and even more the feeling when I realised that I would be fine, I could definitely keep up with the others and I was going to enjoy a fabulous weekend. I suppose my competitive spirit is only ever suppressed, never eliminated!
The cold took my breath away as I ventured into the water, even though I was wearing a wetsuit. For the first few minutes of swimming my head felt that it would explode with ‘brain freeze’ and I had to keep stopping to lift it out of the water. Before long, though, my body adjusted and I was able to start appreciating the experience.
Who knew how clear British waters can be? Certainly not me!
There was a wonderland of rock formations, fish and coloured seaweed beneath me as we swam along the coast heading west from Falmouth. I settled into an even, regular stroke and watching the bubbles stream from my fingers as my hands pulled through the water became almost meditative. The sounds of my arms entering the water and my own rhythmic breathing were all I could hear, and I felt totally removed from the normal stresses of life – completely absorbed in what I was doing.
We stopped to re-group and catch our breath when we needed, with Jo and Tom herding us like sheep on their lifesaver paddle boards. They led us to an arch carved out of the rock by centuries of pounding waves and wind, we swam through it to find a pool of shallow water where we rested for a while. Then it was onwards to sandy Swanpool beach, completing our first swim and earning each of us a dip into Jo’s cake tin, an unexpected bonus!
After a couple of hours exploring the delightful town of Falmouth and tucking into a much needed (and deserved, I might add!) Cornish pasty, we set off again for a second swim, walking in our wetsuits to a little known beach for an off the beaten track location. That’s the beauty of having two locals to guide us – having swum the coastline themselves many times they know the best places and they also understand how the tides and weather will affect the sea conditions. With north and south coasts only half an hour’s drive apart, they can take us to the calmest and safest places to swim.
The following day we visited a favourite place of mine, Mousehole – but I’ve never before arrived by swimming in through the tiny harbour entrance. It was a tougher swim in slightly choppy water around the headland from Newlyn, past the now unused Penlee Lifeboat station where an entire crew perished while trying to save sailors on a stricken ship one treacherous night in 1981. We rested for a few moments on the barnacle covered launching ramp, and quietly contemplated the bravery of lifeboat crews around the UK.
Then it was onwards through the waves to Mousehole, and what an amazing feeling when we entered the harbour of this picturesque village. We definitely all deserved another pasty!
With the swimming miles behind us, the afternoon involved a walk along the stunning south west coastal path to a deserted little beach for an invigorating wetsuit-free swim, bodysurfing the waves. The combination of cold, clear water and sunshine in such beautiful surroundings (and more cake!) was invigorating – it made me feel happy to be alive and grateful for the simple things in life.
The final day was possibly the best. My arms and shoulders were a little tired by now, but our main swim was in the most incredibly clear blue sea that you’d think would belong in the Caribbean (except for the temperature…). We launched ourselves from Carbis Bay and swam west to St Ives where the sand is so beautifully white it seems to illuminate the water. To further lift our spirits, and the beautiful reflections from the seabed, the sun was shining. As I treaded water outside the harbour before swimming in towards the town artists love because of its unique light and beauty, I realised what a special moment it was.
So, I not only survived the weekend but thrived in it. I felt a great sense of achievement – rather proud of myself actually, which is a good feeling. Having covered around eight miles in three days I plan to keep the swimming going, but perhaps I should look for another challenge. Unicycling, maybe. Or white water kayaking? Any ideas, anyone?
I’d love to know whether you’ve stretched yourself out of your comfort zone recently. Do let me know.
Whatever challenges you face, I hope you rise to them. And do take care.