Write-up by Lisa Cummina
The first weekend in August of 2009 was a long one for me-yes, it was the bank holiday weekend, but it was also a really big weekend for my swimming training. I swam almost 25 hours over 3 days. It’s not the most I’ve swam in a short time (I did 21 hours over 2 days a few weeks before that, and I did 27 hours over 3 days a few times). But it included my longest swim so far, plus a very interesting swim at Sandycove…
On Friday night, I did my first night swim. Most Channel aspirants train for an hour or two at night in preparation in case they end up swimming in the dark on the day of their swim. In my case, I knew that I would definitely be swimming in the dark. Perhaps over two nights depending on what time of day I start. So it was REALLY important for me to see what it was like to swim in the dark and to make sure that it wouldn’t freak me out on the day!
Swimming at night can be difficult for a few different reasons. First of all, there is the obvious one: swimming in darkness. Not being able to see anything but whatever lights are around from the pilot boat and other ships. Another issue is the cold. The water of course does not change temperature at night. But the air does. And because the body is used to being asleep at night, it will feel colder anyway. There’s tiredness. I must admit that I’m a bit of a night owl-if I’m working towards a deadline I tend to get my best work done at 1 or 2am. But even so, once it comes to 3 or 4am, my body wants to sleep. Apparently the hour before dawn is the worst and the time at which people feel at their lowest.
So to experience all of this, it was decided that I would start swimming when it was starting to get dark, and finish swimming when it was fully bright again or an hour or two after. A great idea in theory. In practice I wasn’t so sure! I didn’t really like the thoughts of spending a whole night swimming in the waters of Sandycove as the lights in the houses went off and people went off to their cosy beds. In fact, I spent most of the week dreading it. But I knew it was important to do it-even more so because of the fact that I was dreading it. As I’ve so often said to myself this year, what’s life without a challenge?!
So on Friday evening at 8:45pm, I left for Sandycove, nervous and excited. And the strangest thing happened. On the radio came the song ‘Nightswimming’ by R.E.M. I hadn’t heard that song in a couple of years and then I hear it when I’m on my way to my first night swim. A very strange coincidence! A good omen hopefully 🙂
I arrived at Sandycove at 9:30pm, armed with my light-sticks, and enough food to feed an army (seriously-if anyone looked into my car they’d have thought I was going away for the whole weekend!). Imelda and Ossi had kindly offered to be in Sandycove all night to feed me hot food and drinks, and I had two kayakers-Niall was going to do the first 4 hours and then Padraig would take over until it got bright. So everything was in place for me to get started.
I was dreading how cold the water was going to be. I had been in Sandycove the day before for a couple of hours, and it was really cold-somewhere between 12 and 13 deg C. I was freezing, and that was by day with the sun shining. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to cope with that temperature in the colder air. But there was only one way to find out! So I started my swim at 10:20pm. And it actually didn’t feel too cold! I was plesantly surprised that my hands didn’t react badly to the temperature at all-I had been worried that the muscles in my right hand and forearm would seize up as they usually do in cold water and trigger my shoulder pain. But they didn’t, so all was good.
We couldn’t go around the island because it had been stormy all day and there was still a very big swell around the back. So out to the beach we headed and from there we swam up and down the front of the island. Darkness fell, which was actually quite nice-I enjoyed the peaceful feeling of being out there on my own, just swimming along next to the kayak with no distractions. By day there’s always something going on, something to watch or look for. But at night there’s nothing. So it’s much easier to zone out and just swim. It was time for the first feed and I hadn’t noticed an hour passing at all.
We had decided that I was going to use the swim to try out different foods since I had people there to prepare them for me. So during the night I tried different soups, banana, creamed rice, pot noodle, jaffa cake bars, mini rolls, hot chocolate, and of course, Maxim. Everything went down well and stayed down so all was good.
The first 3 hours passed quickly and then Padraig got in to get used to the dark while Niall was still there. So I had an hour with the two kayaks in the water…during which I managed to get a jellyfish sting, my first in Sandycove this year! Not being able to see anything in the water is actually a pretty good thing when it comes to me and jellyfish. When I can see them I spend my time watching for them and trying to swim around them when I do see them. Which isn’t good because it disrupts my stroke. And the sting really isn’t THAT bad, the one I got that night was gone within 10minutes. I just find it so hard to convince myself of that when I see them around me by day!
Niall left at the end of that hour, and Ossi got in to swim with me for a while. I hadn’t realised just how bright the lights I was using were until he got in and I could see his. I got electronic lights from Freda a while back that she advises all swimmers to use now rather than the previously-used glow sticks. They’re supposed to shine for a radius of 2 miles. And they really work! They must have looked so strange though for someone driving down the road-thankfully Imelda had the foresight to warn the neighbours what we were up to the day before!
It was fun having someone to swim with for a while, it broke the monotony of it all. By the time Ossi was getting out I knew that I only had a couple of hours left before it got bright again. I also knew, however, that those hours would probably be the hardest. And they were. I started getting very cold and just wanted to be out of there. I never really got tired, but I would have done anything to get out of that cold, dark water and into my warm, cosy bed. Everyone was great though, keeping me as warm as possible with the hot food, and making me push harder when I didn’t want to.
Eventually the sun’s rays started peeking through. It was very pretty watching the light grow brighter and brighter. Unfortunately though I think I was mentally expecting to feel warmer when sun came up. And of course it didn’t really, it would take a few hours for the heat of the sun to have any effect. So I started really noticing the cold at this stage. My muscles had started feeling it too-my shoulder and upper back muscles had gotten very tight, as had my right arm (but strangely not my hands where I normally feel it!) and my thighs were starting to cramp from the cold, to the point where I couldn’t really kick. And of course I was probably getting colder as a result. On my 6:45am feed I decided to look at the temperature on my watch. I had been avoiding looking at it because I was afraid that I was only imagining the cold and that it would tell me that it was actually 16deg or something. But no. The watch read at 12.4deg C. And if general opinion is to be believed that body temperature has an effect on the watch reading, the actual temperature could have been closer to 11.4deg. I had never swam so long in that temperature before. Let alone at night. I was actually quite happy to see that reading though because it meant that what I was feeling was reality, and not just my mind playing tricks on me.
I talked to the others and decided that since I couldn’t go for a shower in Kinsale until 8am, I’d do one more hour and then get out and head into Kinsale to get warmed up. But at 7:00am, the others called me out and decided that it was enough. And I wasn’t going to argue! So after 8hrs 44mins, my night swim was over.
All in all I quite enjoyed it, apart from the freezing cold. And I think it was probably good to experience that too, because it won’t be that cold in the Channel, so I’ll have that to remind myself of what I have done when I’m at a wimpish moment!! One of the big sayings in the Channel swimming world is “prepare for the worst, hope for the best”. And I think this night swim qualifies. Dover water temperatures are currently around 16deg and might even be a degree warmer by September if the weather is nice. So I’m not expecting 11 or 12deg at any point!
Thanks so much to the gang who helped me on the swim-Imelda, Ossi, Padraig, Niall. It can’t have been fun for them hanging around all night. But I really appreciate having the opportunity to do it and it has proved to be a big confidence-booster.