Swim around Anglesey: Part 3

The Swim Day 3: Penmon Point to Llanddwyn Island 

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light NW winds throughout the day 

The 6.30am alarm call arrived all too soon, en route to a 9am arrival at Penmon. After eight hours sleep, I was relieved that the feeling of illness had left me and that my positive mantra had taken effect. I woke in good spirits, ready to roll. John looked good too and was psyched to get in the water. Greer had rejoined us for kayak support and we had arranged to meet John Willacy at Penmon. John W, fresh from a 72-day sea kayak odyssey around the UK, is ‘Mr. Menai Strait’, years of training having produced an encyclopaedic knowledge of the shifting tides of this complex channel. If we needed guidance on this day, John was ‘the man’.

We were swimming again by 9.15am, the flood tide carrying us swiftly into the Straits as we left Puffin Island behind. John & John immediately formed a partnership, with JW expertly guiding JJ through the swirling currents of the approach to Beaumaris. I took too wide a line at the start, imagining I knew better, and spent a good thirty minutes working hard to catch ‘The Johns’ as they powered south west. I also felt a little pressured to make good time during the early part of this day. The tidal movements in the Straits are fascinating, with the flood tide pouring in through both entrances at roughly the same time. Towards the end of the rising tide, the meeting point migrates around the NE end of the Straits between Bangor and Penmon. Start at the wrong time, swim at the wrong speed and we could waste precious energy ‘pushing tide’ – or worse, get the wrong side of the ‘hump’ as the ebb began and be unable to continue. We had precise target locations for each of our first three hours, and were determined to meet them. So I swam on after John and trusted that we’d got our sums right.

In the end, it all went swimmingly – we worked hard for an hour to reach Beaumaris and suddenly we were zooming past Gallows Point on the flood’s last gasp. Another hour of honest effort in slack water took us to Bangor Pier, and a third 60-minute shift saw us swimming into the tiny bay just north of Menai Bridge as the ebb built in speed through the pillars of Telford’s famous suspension bridge. It had taken us 3 hours of steady swimming to cover 15km.

There was a small reception committee waiting for us – a physio friend of John’s from the hospital (whose lunch I ate), and a team of nurses from the local hospital waving a Welsh flag from the bridge. We felt quite the celebrities. After half an hour of faffing around, it was time to get back in and cover some more ground. John and I had been looking forward to this section – our regular training ground, the exciting white water of the Swellies and our ‘home crowd’ on the wall outside the local pub as we swam past Felinheli. Matt filmed us through the most exciting sections of white water, then we settled down for the long haul to the end of the Straits.

We had timed the tides to perfection and carried a strong ebb stream south west past Felinheli and on towards Caernarfon. Our mate Wayne suddenly appeared in a power boat, cruising around as we made our way past the National Water Sports Centre. Barry also unexpectedly arrived to join the team of support kayakers and we began to take on the appearance of a flotilla. In fact, we had expected John W to bid farewell as we passed Menai Bridge, but he seemed settled in for the duration, pacing John J as we headed on toward the end of the Straits at Abermenai Point. The various waypoints came and went, John assuring us that his shoulder was holding up without too much pain.

It was clear, however, that fatigue was setting in for both of us as our total swim time for the day passed five and a half hours. We swam past Foryd Bay south of Caernarfon, our last realistic stopping point before the final slog to Llannddwyn Island. If we fell short of our target now, we faced either an awkward hike to the road across the extensive sand dunes of Anglesey’s south coast, or an equally tedious swim into the beach at Newborough. As we swam out through the entrance to the Menai Strait and rejoined the open sea, we were struck by the sudden and noticeable increase in water temperature – not exactly a hot tub, but welcome nonetheless. We abandoned the plan to land in the narrows, John declaring his intention to keep swimming for the day’s finish line without a break. I suspected that his shoulder was in fact causing him pain, his technique beginning to falter a little as each stroke was begun with less arm extension. JW stuck faithfully with him however, clearly unwilling to abandon his responsibility, and shaped a course to make best use of the now-weak tide as we swam across the waves of Newborough Bay towards the old lighthouses of Llanddwyn’s rocky SW tip. 6km after leaving the Menai Strait, at 1645 and after seven hours total swim time, we waded ashore together.

The light winds, sunshine and welcoming faces were a blessing and we changed into our ‘land clothes’ on the warm sand with a contented feeling of achievement. We had covered a total distance of 36km, swimming the entire length of the Menai Strait – and more – in one day. Fantastic!

Removing our wetsuits, however, forced us to confront the worrying reality of our worsening injuries. In addition to John’s shoulder, both our necks were now inflamed masses of angry broken skin, despite all our attempts to protect them from further damage. Exposure to the air brought an intense discomfort and as we rinsed the angry red burns in fresh water, we gritted our teeth with the pain. The prospect of another day inside our wetsuits was an uncomfortable thought.

Nevertheless, our spirits were lifted by the clearly visible outline of the islands of Rhoscolyn, 18km away the the north west. We had now completed over 100km of the Anglesey coastline and felt absolutely certain that we would succeed in our challenge. The support kayakers headed home, Greer dashing back to Scotland after a sterling effort in keeping us company for over 80km of our journey. Barry gave me a lift back to Penmon to collect my van and when I remembered it was his birthday, I phoned the rest of the team to arrange a pub meal in Menai Bridge.

We arrived to find John embroiled in a fractious debate with the waitress over the exact specification of his ordered burger and chips. In my weakened condition, his demands made no sense at all to me and when his ‘food of champions’ finally arrived it seemed to bear no resemblance to his stated requirements. He ate it without complaint. Everything was becoming a little surreal to me, the combined effects of three days intense work and immersion beginning to play games with my mind. We headed home for more food, treatment for our injuries and rest. I finally fell into a deep sleep, convinced we had the final prize in our grasp.


Swim around Anglesey: Part 2

The Swim Day 2: Point Lynas to Penmon Point

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: calm morning conditions, becoming SW, increasing to Force 4-5 in the afternoon 

The 5am alarm woke me from a too-brief sleep. Slumped over a mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen, as the toaster fired a barrage of bagels onto my plate, I simply could not believe that we were going to swim again today. The few hours rest had scarcely refreshed me. I felt exhausted and anxious about my capacity to complete the challenge we had set for ourselves this day. Our late night planning had produced the decision to make the committing move of swimming offshore directly to our next target of Puffin Sound, at the north east entrance to the Menai Strait. I wondered if I really could do it.

The east coast of Anglesey, from Point Lynas to Puffin Sound, is 11 nautical miles (20km) as the crow flies – or as the seal swims. However, the coastline falls away to the south in a great scoop past Moelfre, before heading east again past Red Wharf Bay and Table Head. The inshore route would add another 5km to our swim and, worse, markedly reduce the tidal assistance we could expect if we stayed offshore. This ‘safe’ option guaranteed to double our swim time for the east coast to around nine hours. We didn’t fancy this at all.

By taking the ‘outside’ route, however, we had to commit to a 20km open water swim that would take us over three nautical miles offshore at the halfway point. There would be nowhere to stop en route and we would simply have to maintain a good pace to carry the tide all the way to our destination. The forecast tempted us with a weather window of light winds in the morning and a possibly flat sea state that would assist our speed. We had debated it, considered the options and had finally committed to the hopefully winning move of taking the offshore route.

Now, driving up the east coast of the island back to Point Lynas, I was fearful of getting in the water. Our view to the right revealed the expanse of open water we planned to cross, an intimidating sight at this early hour. John seemed tired, but also appeared determined and pretty upbeat. I felt he had taken confidence from the success of the first day. On arriving at Porth Eilan, I fell asleep again. John woke me and instructed me to put my wetsuit on, which was dripping in the bucket where I had dumped it the previous night. My low mood was compounded by the temporary loss of my ear plugs, a vital piece of kit for my water- sensitive ear drums. Realising Matt had last had them in his possession, I stomped off along the footpath to the previous night’s rocky landing, muttering darkly about my ‘support’. It was inexcusable and unappreciative behaviour, but an accurate reflection of my state of mind and sense of fatigue immediately prior to the start of our second day. Thankfully, Matt found them in his pocket, saving my – and his – morning.

Our support kayakers had changed for this day. Chris was replaced by Sid, whose cheerful encouragement would be much needed in the hours ahead. Greer, after a marathon first day, gave up the rear seat of the double to Marcus, whose non-stop verbal entertainment would keep Matt awake throughout the swim session. Again, we were privileged to have another high quality team to assist us.

John and I scrambled down the rocks on the west side of Porth Eilan, ready to take the plunge at the exact spot that we had exited the water ten hours earlier. Without delay John dived in and began swimming across the bay towards the small tide race that had formed off Point Lynas at the start of the flood. It was 0715, fifteen minutes later than our intended start time and we needed to get on with it. I dived in after him and instantly all my reluctance was washed away by the cold water. It was transforming, the grim prospect of the day ahead was replaced by an exciting reality. As we bounced through the waves of Point Lynas I felt inspired to swim as far as I possibly could. John was looking steady, briefly swept into the eddy under the headland but soon directed back on track by Sid.

During the first day I had received a message of encouragement from my friend Richard. He knew I was feeling anxious about the days ahead and sent me some important technique advice: ‘keep telling yourself, “I’m a dolphin”’ said the text. I remembered his words as we plunged through the waves and into the calmer waters of the east coast.

We had planned to swim east, well away from the coastline as the flood tide began to take us south. A few kilometres down the coast, the stone tower on the rocky island of Ynys Dulas made a useful reference point and a waypoint for our first big decision of the day. We aimed to reach a point about a kilometre due east of the island and then either commit to the open crossing or to begin heading south for the inshore waters near Moelfre.

We flew down to our target, my turn to lead the way, and it was an easy decision to continue with Plan A. Conditions were good, we were moving well and were well placed in the tide to make best use of the flood towards Puffin Sound. We went for it.

The first three hours of the swim passed without incident. With no nearby landmarks and a relatively calm sea, only the distant North Wales mountains caught the eye, with the occasional distant smudge of Puffin Island to spur us on. I fell into a trance-like state, complete immersion in the water broken only by a turn of the head to catch a breath every few strokes. I seemed to disappear into a near-meditative state, the hours passing without any real sense of their duration. When Sid or Marcus called the breaks, I was surprised to find it was time already to take food and drink. The only distraction during this spell was our ‘swim-by’ of an anchored tanker, waiting for the tide into Liverpool. I wondered what its crew thought as we passed within a hundred metres of their ship.

After three hours, our serene aquatic journey became a bumpy road once more. It was now after 1015 and the SW wind had begun to fill in. As we crossed the outer limit of Red Wharf Bay a choppy sea kicked up, disturbing our rhythm and slowing the pace a little. The tide also began to weaken and it became clear that the final kilometres to Puffin Sound would be hard won. Both John and I were also weakening; the effects of our huge first day, lack of sleep and loss of energy resources were beginning to take their toll. We had to dig deep and make the best possible speed however, as we were now racing the arrival of slack water. As the island crawled by and the lighthouse at Penmon Point gradually became more distinct, we were spurred on by the fear of still being offshore when the ebb began. The prospect of being swept back towards Red Wharf Bay was too awful to consider.

As Penmon drew near, the green buoy of the Ten Foot Bank passed on our starboard side. We still had a gentle flood stream towards Puffin Island, but now had to swim across the current towards Anglesey itself. Our final destination, the beach next to the lighthouse, seemed to be permanently beyond our reach and it was hard to predict just how long it would take to finish the swim. I suddenly stopped swimming and floated upright in the water – though I had not told my body to do this. I set off again, puzzled, and within a minute I stopped again. Frustrated, I ploughed on and for a third time my body stopped swimming. What was happening to me? I wasn’t sure, but thought that my subconscious mind was maybe acting as some kind of protective mechanism for the body. Well I wasn’t having that, and anyway this wasn’t getting me to the beach in any kind of style.

Seeking a solution, I came up with the classic goal setting ploy – noticing that the huge limestone headland Great Orme far away to my left was beginning to disappear behind the much nearer Puffin Island, I told myself to watch for the moment when the Orme was lost from view and ordered my body to keep on swimming. Every eighth stroke I checked my progress as I took a breath on my left. The Orme disappeared! I quickly chose a new goal to my left and watched for the moment when my selected headland reappeared. It worked, I kept swimming, and eventually arrived within the final 200 metres of the beach.

John was now a couple of hundred metres behind, Sid alongside him. I needed desperately to reach the beach and put on a final burst to finally feel limestone pebbles under my feet. I crawled out the water, shivering uncontrollably, and collapsed on the rocks as Marcus began to bury me under a mountain of fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs.

John soon arrived, equally incapacitated, and wandered around in a daze until Sid helped him into warm clothing. We had reached Penmon at 1145, fifteen minutes before high water slack. After four and a half hours in the water, we were just in time.

Sat on the beach with Sid and Marcus, the first day’s post-swim euphoria returned with even greater intensity. We had completed our 20km open crossing, the longest and most committing section of the entire Anglesey coastline, further offshore than at any other point in the journey. We had nailed the east coast, a potential nine-hour slog slashed in half. We had swum it in style, had struggled for the last hour, but had completed the crossing in close to our target time. We had now ticked off 65km of our 120km journey and were over half way home. Best of all, we did not have to swim again today and could look forward to an evening of rest and recovery in preparation for the final two or three days. We needed the break: after four hours sleep on the eve of the challenge, we had swum for eleven and a half hours in three sessions, with only five hours sleep between day one and day two – all within a total elapsed time of only thirty hours. No wonder we were wrecked.

Our paramedic friend Sam suddenly appeared on the beach. It was time to go home and he was here to drive us back to our vehicles at Point Lynas – and not, thankfully, to provide his professional services. While John and Matt waited with the kayaks, Sam and I sorted the shuttle before all heading home to recover. I knew this would be no easy task and had begun to grow concerned about a problem that was affecting both John and me. During our first swim session, the thinner swimming wetsuits had begun to chafe at the backs of our necks, the constant rubbing of neoprene against bare skin, leaving an inflamed, painful area. Despite switching to more familiar warmer wetsuits, and despite protecting the area with creams, oils and rash vests, the damage had intensified during the second day. Not especially uncomfortable during the swim, our necks became extremely tender once we stripped out of our wetsuits and had deteriorated visibly. They looked a mess and felt worse.

Of equal concern was a nagging pain in John’s left shoulder. A slight training injury sustained earlier in the year had become aggravated towards the end of the the east coast crossing and had begun to give John discomfort. Thankfully, we had access to the best sports massage and physiotherapy services in North Wales, the cavalry arriving in the form of Andy and Zac (Snowdonia Sports Medicine). Together they massaged us into better shape and applied rolls of ‘magic tape’ to John’s shoulder, fixing it in a stable position and – hopefully – setting him up for a successful third day.

We also ate industrial quantities of food and poured gallons of rehydrating fluids into our bodies. I felt that we had not adequately refuelled at the end of our first day and could clearly feel the hollow sensation of calorie depletion. I was determined to put the fuel back in my body and settled down to an evening of binge eating.

We also needed to plan our next day carefully. We had arrived at the entrance to the Menai Straits and its complex tidal streams – while we had the chance to capitalise on these swift currents, it was equally possible to make a complete mess of it and lose hours through poor timing and route choice. We had studied the tidal stream atlas for the Menai Strait carefully, calculating our likely swim speed and timings for key waypoints through the entire length of the Straits. We had also elected to put ourselves under pressure – again – by aiming to swim the full 36km from Penmon to Llanddwyn Island, at the start of the south west coast of Anglesey and 6km beyond the entrance to the Straits. We felt it necessary to try for this target, as it would be impossible to swim out of the SW end of the Straits unless we had a favourable ebbing tide. If we did not achieve this goal on day three, we would have to wait until the afternoon of the fourth day for the next daylight ebb tide, scuppering our plans to complete the circumnavigation in our best possible time. We discussed John’s shoulder injury and agreed that it would be acceptable, if necessary, to take an extra day to reach Rhoscolyn. We selected decision points at which we would review his condition.

I also had a serious word with myself about my psychological frame of mind. I had found the start of the first two days very difficult, the prospect of the journey ahead rather overwhelming to me. It was a stress-inducing experience and I was determined to change my attributions for the better, especially after an anxiety-filled night that had sapped my energy before the second day. I resolved to wake up in a positive frame of mind, to bring new energy to the group and to look forward to the day ahead. I knew it would all be good once I was in the water, so I only had pull myself together for the first two hours. And anyway, it was our backyard – familiar waters, fast tides and a swim past our home village. Bring it on!

Swim around Anglesey: Part 1

In early 2012, late one evening in our local pub, I agreed with my mate John Jackson that we would attempt to swim around the island of Anglesey. We had no business making this plan; our open water adventures had been limited to explorations of various bays and headlands of the island, never swimming for more than an hour’s duration. We were not trained swimmers with a competitive background, but simply enjoyed occasional open water swimming adventures. We certainly had no reason to assume that we could swim for 120km through the tidal waters of the Irish Sea!

Nevertheless, we committed to the plan, gave ourselves half a year to prepare – in which we swam endless laps of Llanberis’ Llyn Padarn – and found reasons to pursue our project. John and I each selected a charity for which we would seek to raise funds: McMillans Cancer Support and Sands Stillbirth & Neonatal Death charity. We also aimed to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute – just in case we needed a rescue! These commitments, and the public awareness they brought, kept us in training when distractions tried to dictate otherwise.

By late summer we felt as ready as we could be; thankfully, as our chosen departure date of 31 August was fast approaching. We had agreed to a set of principles that we would follow during the swim:

  • Each swim session would start / end on dry land
  • Each session would start at the exact place the previous session ended
  • We would be accompanied by safety kayakers, with no power craft assistance
  • We would accept support – navigation, food, water – from kayakers
  • We would not make physical contact with kayaks while in the water
  • We would wear wetsuits, for cold protection and flotation

We benefited from the support of numerous safety kayakers: Chris Wright, Greer Mackenzie, Eila Wilkinson, Nigel Dennis, Sid Sinfield, Marcus Demuth, John Willacy, Barry Shaw.

A special acknowledgement goes to Matt Giblin, who accompanied us for our entire 4-day journey – as a support kayaker, driver, film maker and constant source of good humour. Matt, you’re the hero of this tale…

The Swim Day 1: Rhoscolyn to Point Lynas

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light N wind in the morning with clear skies; moderate SW wind in the afternoon, rain and poor visibility 

We woke at 3.30am to find that Matt had arrived in the night and was now snoring on the sofa. Breakfast was a hurried affair as we focused on making our arrival at Rhoscolyn by 5am. Following a speedy drive up the A55, we busied ourselves with preparations in the pre-dawn gloom. Weather conditions felt calm. There was a slight delay preparing kayaks and camera gear, but we were in the water by 0540, within ten minutes of our target departure time. We swam through the narrow north entrance of the bay, into Rhoscolyn Sound and turned north west for Rhoscolyn Head. Dawn was breaking as we headed for the rocky islets off Rhoscolyn Head, with light in the sky to the east as Trearddur Bay opened up on our right hand side.

John led the way, about fifty metres ahead of me with Chris alongside him, as we began the first offshore leg towards the tide race at Penrhyn Mawr. Matt and Greer – in the double sea kayak – patrolled between us, filming and taking photos. John had clearly been impatient to get started, the months of training and anticipation now being channelled into a hard swimming pace. I knew we could swim at around 3km/h for long periods, but this felt faster and I found myself breathing hard with the exertion. Thankfully, Chris’ red paddling jacket was a bright target each time I sighted and I seemed to be maintaining my position behind John.

In the early gloom, navigation was not so easy and on a couple of occasions Matt and Greer signalled me to turn a little more west to avoid the slacker water inside the bay. We passed close to Maen Piscar, a little rocky half-tide spike that sits on the direct route between the headlands. As it loomed up in the grey dawn light, I realised I was directly up-tide of the obstruction and had to swim hard left to avoid surfing over its shallow reefs. Narrowly avoiding an ‘upstream pin’ for the team to deal with, I swam on – cursing my usual early morning lethargy. Still, it was good to see the flood tide already assisting our progress north west.

One hour into the swim, the kayak team stopped us for our first food & drink break. A swig of water, a munch on an energy bar and we were off again, Chris informing us that Penrhyn Mawr lay about ten minutes ahead. Once again, John powered away and I focused on keeping with him as we swam towards our first major headland. Chris stopped us after a short while to announce that we were directly upstream of the outer tide race and that, with a light north breeze after the previous day’s heavy winds, the approaching race looked choppy but manageable. Good job, we thought – there was no escaping it now! We agreed to stay closer together, as Chris shaped a course into the waves while Matt tried to film us as we swam through the occasionally breaking crests. Penrhyn Mawr ticked off, it was now 0645, 1 hour 15 minutes into the swim.

The next 45 minutes was a blur of wave trains, green water, frequent missed breaths and three-dimensional churning in a weightless environment. Afterwards, I recalled sighting the bay at Abraham’s Bosom, the cliffs of South Stack, its lighthouse as we passed about 500m offshore, and Chris’ red jacket – bouncing through the waves, always about fifty metres ahead of me. I didn’t remember much else, other than the constant effort of maintaining an effective stroke, and by the time Chris stopped us about 500m west of North Stack (2 hours elapsed swim time), I was feeling pretty sea sick. It was a struggle to down any water or food. As we set off again I focused on spotting the distant outline of Holyhead Breakwater to my right, now lit up by the early morning sun, to give me a reference point and to stave off the feelings of nausea.

Carmel Head, our next target at the north side of Holyhead Bay, was clearly visible with the Skerries islands also in view to the north west. This marked our first big open water crossing, a direct line 10km across the bay with the flood tide now taking us rapidly away from Holy Island. We were confident that our early arrival at North Stack would allow us to cross the Holyhead-Dublin ferry route before any morning traffic; even so, it was a relief to see the Irish ferry clear the breakwater ten minutes after we had passed the danger zone. Although the sea state had settled we now felt very committed, as our next realistic landing point would be Carmel Head itself – a remote sight from our sea-level perspective.

Three hours into the swim we stopped again for a feed and a review. Matt and Greer had done a good job of preventing me veering inshore and John and I were delighted at our excellent progress. My seasickness had abated, we were at well into our crossing of Holyhead Bay and, despite Chris’ concern that we were a little too far inshore, we felt well on track to reach the north coast of Anglesey in our first session. My remaining issue was that my body temperature was starting to dip, the combined effect of the thinner neoprene ‘swimming suits’ that we wore and the expenditure of energy from 3 hours’ hard work. At this point, Chris did an excellent job of maintaining momentum, cajoling us to get our heads down and swim for Carmel Head without any further delay.

We cracked on, as West Mouse came into view and became our next target. For a while we enjoyed sighting Carmel Head and The Skerries on alternate breaths as we swam through the Sound. We knew that this would be a critical decision point and my sea kayaking knowledge of the area told me that shaping an accurate course towards our next target would be vital. A large eddy forms on the north coast, east of Carmel Head on the flooding tide; swimming into this zone could prematurely end our first session. With this in mind, we passed just offshore of West Mouse to make best use of the now-decreasing flood tide.

Shortly after this waypoint, we passed the 4-hour mark and stopped to make a decision. It was clear that our original target of Cemaes Bay was out of reach; we would not have enough time to swim the remaining distance before the ebb tide began. It was vital that we were off the water before HW slack. We were also now in unfamiliar territory: the maximum training swim for John or me had been four hours; the remaining distance would be a new experience for us. We agreed to shape a course for Cemlyn Bay, a few kilometres away and close enough for us to feel confident of reaching our target. The only other realistic option was to swim due south for a kilometre to reach the nearest point of land. This would take us into the west-flowing eddy however, and possibly take us back to Carmel Head before we could make landfall.

I had been feeling cold for about an hour, had missed a proper feed due to my earlier nausea and knew that I had expended far more energy during the last four hours than in any previous training swim. The solution was obvious and urgent: knuckle down, focus on good technique and get to shore in the least time possible. We aimed for the enormous outline of the Wylfa nuclear power station for about twenty minutes, then headed further south for the now-visible low lying rocks of Cemlyn Bay. The green navigational mark of Harry Furlong’s buoy was a useful position line as we neared shore.

It was apparent that John had begun to suffer during the final period of the swim session; I started to pull away from him and was a couple of hundred metres ahead as we closed the coastline. Chris paddled alongside him, and as Greer and Matt reached shore to film the arrival, I made a beeline for their beached kayak.

I staggered ashore on the shingle beach about 100m west of Cemlyn Rocks at 1025, 4 hours and 45 minutes after entering the water at Rhoscolyn. For the final half hour I had been aware of my increasing cold and tiredness, but was nevertheless startled to discover the extent of my condition once I reached the beach. Standing was difficult, my sense of balance had almost entirely gone, I was shaking uncontrollably and was struggling to speak in proper sentences. Greer rushed to clothe me in my down jacket and waterproofs, while Matt filmed the scene with obvious satisfaction.

I sat on the beach, hands shaking so much that I couldn’t keep the hot tea in its mug, and watched with detached interest as John’s arrival also revealed his obvious distress. He appeared colder than me, had to be helped from the water by Chris, and could barely speak. Somewhere in the last 30km of water we had lost a great deal of energy – energy we would need to find again before the next swim session, later in the day.

As our warming bodies slowly returned to life a bunch of friends and well wishers arrived, including Megan who showed up with an enormous saucepan full of high-carb pasta in a spicy sauce. I’ve never been so pleased to see her!

Out of our wetsuits and wrapped in warm clothing, eating food and drinking tea, I was surprised by how quickly we seemed to recover from the previous five hours of hard work. There was none of the muscular exhaustion I would expect from a comparable run, and as we ate I felt energy returning to my body. We had work to do, however, and as we prepared to make the journey back to Rhoscolyn by road, I noticed an underlying fatigue. It was hard to focus on tasks and decisions and as the afternoon wore on, I began to feel a little unwell, rather cold and very anxious about the evening swim session. By the time we had arranged vehicles on the north coast, there was only about 90 minutes remaining before we had to immerse ourselves once more in the Irish Sea. I lay in the back of John’s van trying to sleep, cursing the energy lost during the previous day and the mere four hours’ sleep that had preceded our first big swim.

Thankfully, the arrival of Nigel and Eila – our support kayakers for the evening session – brought Eila’s beaming smile and Nigel’s wry amusement at our idiotic adventure. Bailing out was not an option, and the grim task of climbing back into wetsuits was further lightened by Matt’s banter. We took fewer chances with the cold water, switching to our warmer surfing wetsuits.

The weather had deteriorated during the afternoon, the SW Force 3 bringing poor visibility and rain. We waded back into the water from the same spot we had arrived at seven hours earlier and began to swim. Our plan was to use the flood tide to swim the rest of the north coast to Point Lynas, a distance of about 15km and – we estimated – a swim time of about two and a half hours. We began at 1840, about one hour after LW slack on the north coast. Once again John set off like a train, as if the efforts of the morning had never occurred. I chased after him, quickly warming up and forgetting my fatigue for a while. Nigel and Eila did a great job of flanking us, ensuring we stayed on a good course past Wylfa Head and towards Middle Mouse. Pausing on the 1-hour mark just past Llanlleiana Head, we reviewed our position, agreed that we were making fine progress and hoped to reach Point Lynas before darkness arrived.

The pace had been pretty fast since leaving the beach and I suggested to John that we swim alongside each other for the remainder of the evening swim. His reply, that he had been ‘stopping and waiting’ for me, was of course much appreciated and helped me to rediscover my enthusiasm for the challenge! As Nigel paddled off, laughing, I decided to remember the moment and save it for later in the trip.

We swam on along the north coast past Cemaes Bay, Bull Bay, and Amlwch. We were much closer to the shore on this leg than during the morning swim from Rhoscolyn and I found it satisfying to tick off familiar landmarks as the flood tide swept us east along the coast. As we neared Anglesey’s north east corner, Nigel and Eila began to shape a course to bring us to the entrance of Porth Eilan, the small bay just under the headland of Point Lynas. They gauged it perfectly and, as darkness fell, we made landfall at 2050 – 2 hours 10 minutes after getting in the water.

Although extremely tired, we felt an elation and euphoria at having reached this point. Seven hours of constant swimming, across two sessions, had brought us to our hoped-for finish point for day one, 45km from Rhoscolyn. We had rounded five major headlands, completed the first big open water crossing, dealt with the biggest tide races and had got the project off to a flying start.

Set against this, it was now after 9pm, we had a vehicle to collect before driving home, food to eat and recovery was needed for the next day. The journey home took us back to Cemlyn then finally across the island to my home in Felinheli. By the time we were lying in our beds it was midnight, over twenty hours since the day had started. Our alarms were set for 5am, as we needed to be back in the water for the start of the next flood tide. I immediately fell asleep, the excitement of our first day’s success already replaced by the anxiety of tomorrow’s challenges.

Alpine white water adventures

I may spend much of my time in sea boats these days, but I do enjoy my white water kayaking. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, I was a frequent visitor to the wonderful paddling environment of the Dauphiné region of the French Alps, for work and play.

It’s a fantastic white water playground, with a huge range of friendly rivers of different characters and a Mediterranean ambience. In 2009 I returned to the area with two mates, Chris Wright and John Jackson. Between us we had about 30 weeks guiding experience in the area – and on this occasion it was a rare chance to paddle together on our own terms.


On our arrival in early June, we discovered that the rapidly warming temperatures had begun to release the snow pack of the Ecrins mountains, creating high water levels on the rivers of the region. From a central base in Vallouise, we set out to explore the conditions and chanced across a dream paddling week – cloudless sunshine days and high water levels that just allowed us to tackle all the classics of the Durance Basin and beyond. Fantastic!

Sea kayakers interested in developing rough water skills could do far worse than to spend some time white water kayaking – it’s an excellent way to gain a range of boat handling skills, mental strategies and reactions that transfer very well to the sea environment. The French Alps are the place to go – warm days, reliable water and inspiring mountain scenery. Did I mention the red wine and local cuisine?