A wise man once told me that you should always write your blog posts within 48 hours of your swim, while all of the memories and thoughts and emotions are still fresh.
And so, true to form, here I am in a restaurant in Croatia, 92 hours later, writing up my round-Mersea swim!
This was definitely a swim of 3 distinct phases- 4 if you include the planning, which truly needs to be a blog post all of its own. So here are parts 2, 3, and 4 of my 2022 swim around Mersey Island.
Part 2: East Mersea Point to the Strood.
We started the swim at 1pm from just behind East Mersea point, at the base of the Cudmore Grove country park; on the same day as the Round the Island yachting race launched from the West Mersea yacht club. It was exactly 2 hours before high tide and we were able to launch the kayak from right at the base of the slipway there, laden high with energy gels, water and snacks. Although we had to fight against the tide a little bit to reach the point and round it, as soon as we did so the current started to whoosh us upstream.
We tucked ourselves into the left hand side of the channel- land side of Pyefleet- and we flew upstream. This was probably one of the highlights of the whole swim for me. The water started to clear as we left behind the mudflats of West Mersea, there we no jellyfish, I could see all of the moored boats around us which harked me back to days sailing the backwaters with my family, and with the current behind us we were pulling 5-6km/h. About halfway up the river, the first boats from the Round the Island Race (RtIR) started to pass us in both directions. They made a funny fleet, first a young boy in a topper, next a group of 4 veterans in an old fashioned row boat, next an RS100, swiftly followed by a lady in a laser who heralded me with a loud “you go girl!”, then a man hammering his windsurfer along- irreverently dangling one arm off the boom while trimming 80% of his board out of the water. Will got to watch and chat with all of these from the kayak, while I just watched them go past in stolen peeks as I breathed. Sometimes, I threw in a barrel roll in the water if Will’s facial expressions in the kayak suggested that the situation warranted one.
In what felt like no time at all (but was actually 1h50) we got to the Strood. We had timed it close to perfectly, arriving 10 minutes before high water. We could see and hear the carnival atmosphere taking over the road from a while out, and the hurried busting of volunteers and trailers hauling the RtIR boats over the not-yet-submerged causeway. Along the bank I spotted my mum who was heroically performing land based support for the day, and as I stuck my head back under and carried on, she directed Will towards the exit point.
This was one of the points where I wish I had done this swim differently; in no time at all Will and I were out of the water, carrying the kayak, along the causeway, back in the water and off. Only about 200m down the stream did it suddenly click in my head that this was a training swim and not a race. And I hadn’t needed to sprint over the way we did. The Strood crossing is debatably the heart and soul of the RtIR; it’s where the spectators gather, where everyone pitched a hand, where there are cheers and questions and celebrating and atmosphere to drink in. And even with my mum there and no time constraints to speak of, I had raced through it. A shame, but there we go.
Part 3- The Strood to West Mersea
Water-wise, this stretch was no more or less fun than the first leg of the swim. Glorious light and clear (for Mersea, meaning that I could almost see my elbows) water, the current was with us, no jellyfish (that stung me at least, there were a lot of moons floating around), and I still had that early-in-the-swim mental buoyancy.
The downsides of this section were the other water users. Many were lovely, courteous, polite, gave us a decent berth: those were mainly the RtIR sailors. And on the other end of the spectrum….. the motor boat users.
First, there were the men on jet skis. Who had all, apparently, signed declarations saying that as jet ski users they all confirmed that they did indeed only possess one single, solitary, brain cell. And in this contract, as far as I can tell, they hereby solemnly swore to use that lone brain cell to be as irritating as possible.
Some circled us, creating horrible sections of standing waves that crested underneath me and the kayak. One slowed down to come just in front of us, stopped, then accelerated directly away from us leaving us in a plume of wake and over-aerated water that allowed us to go nowhere. Some buzzed past us, uncomfortably close for the speed they were going. Some just seemed to ignore us completely which left me feeling incredibly vulnerable in the water.
The larger motor boats were no better, and it was during a particularly close drive-by that I held onto the kayak for safety- meaning that I could no longer state that this swim was under Channel (or Marathon Swim Federation) rules. A shame, but for a training swim I was more concerned about my safety and comfort than ratification.
Eventually we got around to the final beach spit on West Mersea where we stopped in the shallows to meet up with my Mum again (and spend a little longer this time!)
The final obstacle of this section was where the water of the relatively calm West Mersea harbour suddenly met the sea around the point, swooshing out at close to 3km an hour through a narrow gap in the Channel, and causing a very small section of very sudden 4-5ft high waves. In the water, I loved it. I just had to let the current take me and navigate the peaks and troughs of the waves. Will in the kayak had a bit of a more difficult crossing, but he managed to stay dry and keep me in eye sight!
And with that, almost exactly 3 hours in, we were 3/5s the way around and heading out into the coastal section.
Part 4- the Coastal Reach.
Very quickly, it all started going downhill. Not physically- Will assured me- we were apparently still making close to 4km an hour with the current, although I didn’t think I could see it from the shore passing us. But mentally, I was having what I affectionately called a “sense of humor failure”.
The water had got murkier as we got out over the mud flats and oyster beds, so much so that I couldn’t even see my shoulders in the water. And then, quite suddenly, I was being stung.
I still don’t really know now what type of jellyfish it was that was getting me for the entire 3 and a half hours along the coast, but good grief it hurt. Each one took me completely by surprise, and each time I stopped dead in the water to try and frantically brush off any tentacles still on me. I was so preoccupied by the jellyfish and the pain that even though the water was getting shallower and shallower (I was having to stop regularly to walk over sandbanks), I didn’t notice the trend until it was too late and we were in the middle of the mudflats, too shallow to swim.
Now, the Mersea mudflats are not just soft, squishy, Essex clay mudflats. Oh no. Mersea is an old (and still working) Oyster fishery. The mud is full of sharp, slicing oyster shells, all of which are covered in brittle barnacle remnants. So I was left with 3 options.
- Walk, and allow my feet to be sliced up.
- Try and swim, and have my hands sliced up.
- Doggy paddle, and not extend my arms.
Navigationally, we were in a pickle too. The tide was receding, so all of the shallow bits were only going to get shallower. Should we bite the bullet, go straight across and hope that the more direct route allows us to go quicker and get across the mudflats before the tide leaves us completely dry? Should we head out into the channel, adding on far more distance and time to our swim but allowing us to get to deeper water and swim freely? Or should we go diagonally out across the mud, trying to make forward progress while making our way towards deeper water?
There is unfortunately a correct answer in this scenario. The correct answer, in retrospect, was go straight out. We did not go straight out: we went diagonally.
What this meant in reality was that we made virtually no forward progress because I was going so slowly, and we didn’t really make any depth gains as the tide was going out at about the same rate I was!
What followed was over an hour and a half of crawling, doggy paddle, skulling, standing up in the water and throwing temper tantrums, and getting sliced up six ways from Sunday across my hands and legs.
Eventually, we made it back in line with where we started. 300m further out to sea, and separated by an impassable mud flat. We could see exactly where we launched from, but there was no way we could get to it.
Onwards we went.
In line with East Mersea point again, we made it out into the boating channel. Glorious for being able to swim again, less than ideal for now battling a 2km/hour current going out to sea and away from the beach where we wanted to land. It took us nearly 15 mins to battle the 200m back to the point, as the currents that had flown me down the river at the start of the swim worked horribly against me at the end.
But finally, we made it onto the point. It was 7:30pm, 6 and a half hours after we began. I became the first woman (as far as we can find any record of) to swim around the island, after two local men became the first to swim the route in 2012. But because of the way that we organised it (no independent observer) and the fact that I touched the kayak and stood up on the beaches, this will forever be a non-ratified swim under Marathon Swim Federation rules.
But who knows, maybe you reading this blog will get that first ever ratification accolade! Good luck to you if so, I can’t wait to see more people successfully complete this swim.
There were a lot of lessons to learn from this swim, virtually all of them organizational and navigational.
- We had made the prime directive of planning to get to the Strood at high tide, in the same way that you would plan it if you were sailing the route. In actuality, the limiting factor in this swim for a swimmer and kayak and not a boat, is to be able to reach shore where you started. We left Cudmore Grove at High Water – 2 hours, and reached it again at High Water + 4 hours. Would the outcome have been different if it was HW-3h and HW+3h? I don’t know, but I think so.
- If I was to do it again, I would take more time to enjoy the party at the Strood.
- I hate jellyfish.
- The mudflats along the long coastal face of the island are NOT TO BE UNDERESTIMATED or trifled with. I think we likely would have saved over an hour, if not closer to an hour and a half if we had gone deeper out into the current.
- I hate the sea and I hate jellyfish.
- I’m not sure if it really matters if you go anti-clockwise or clockwise?
- I find it very difficult to focus on threshold pace when I am in pain or distracted.
- I hate jellyfish