This August I was lucky enough to be part of a band of swimmers who were attempting to swim one of the busiest shipping lanes in British waters, starting from Gosport over to the Isle of Wight.  This epic Solent Swim is organised by Aspire, a charity that focusses on supporting people with spinal cord injuries.  A fantastic cause to swim and raise money for.

Swimmer with their kayaker behind and the Isle of Wight in the distance
The Solent Swim equates to around three miles of sea swimming, with it being hard to give a specific distance ahead of the event as the tide can influence the overall mileage.  For open water swimmers it is a unique experience and nothing quite like any other triathlon swim leg or dedicated swimming challenge.

With very unpredictable weather in the week leading up to the event, Aspire communicated that the conditions could result in a deferral if the wind speed remained high. This made for a nervous few days waiting to see if all the training would finally be coming to an end and the event would be happening.  Friday afternoon the safety pilot finally gave the green light and we were on.  With kit packed it was off to Gosport in readiness for a big day in the water.

At 6:45am the next day we met with our fellow swimmers at Gosport Marina where the safety team briefed us on the day ahead.  Dry bags issued with coloured swim hats, the 10 of us were grouped into waves of swimmers based on swim speed.  Only 10 people attempting this sounds crackers but, given the safety needs of this swim, it is necessary to limit numbers and restrict the waves to only two or three people.  As I picked up my orange swim hat I was informed I was in the fastest wave and would be setting off last with the slower swimmers setting off ahead of us.  Two other swimmers formed the orange hat gang and we compared notes on speed and experience.  This was no novice field with 14km swimmers and some with recent experience of swimming Loch Ness.  Gulp.  Time to put on the big boy pants!
The Solent swimmers holding up an Aspire banner before the swim
Heading round to the marina some banter cut through the nervous chatter and we prepared to head out to the waterfront at Gosport.  A speedboat took us out of the marina and then west heading along the coastline where there is a beachfront for the next phase of the swim prep.  The boat approached the coastline and in pairs we jumped into the sea to walk up the beachfront, where a dozen kayaks were beached awaiting our arrival with their respective owners who would be our bouncers for the crossing.  Each swimmer was to be paired with a kayak who would be both their guide and their cover for the crossing, ensuring they were visible in the water.  Coupled with this, each wave of swimmers would have a dedicated speedboat with the Daddy of speedboats, “Maverick”, policing the waters across all the swimmers and giving us plenty of cover.

Boat nearing Gilkicker with Aspire Solent Swimmers onboardThe slowest of the swimmers in their bright green swim hats got the all clear to hit the water at around 8:30am and they entered with the kayaks to head south and embark on this epic journey to the Isle of Wight.  Unfortunately, with a Force 4 wind the sea was choppy and for all of us waiting on the beach the signs were ominous. The tide pushed all those entering the water east at pace, so the direction of travel needed to work against this and had an impact on the amount of ground that could be covered.

After a couple more waves my time arrived, as the final group of swimmers were given the all clear.  Me and two fellow swimmers, sporting our orange hats, entered the water around 9:00am, eager, but somewhat concerned by the sea conditions.  The three of us and our kayaks headed south accompanied by our boat, making slow but real progress.

My plan had been to use the kayak as both a barrier and a guide, tasking them with staying on my right side slightly ahead so I wouldn’t have to bother with any land sighting and could just keep the kayak on my right.  A fine plan but given the conditions it was one destined to fail.  As I adapted my stroke it was necessary to abandon my usual form and increase my body rotation dramatically so that my head made it clear of the water.  I retained bilateral breathing throughout (one breath every three strokes) but sometimes I needed to take multiple breaths from either my right or left as the waves collapsed on me and left me with no chance for air. A mile into my swim and it was clear my kayak was struggling as she fought to keep enough distance between us and those out in front.

Progressively I found myself leading and eventually I was without a marshal. I had to come high in the water and attempt sighting to the distant Isle of Wight shoreline.  Around this time a giant container ship crossed my path and kicked up a huge swell, impacting me and those around me.  I was spun around and began heading north, back towards Gosport.  Disorientated and swimming in the wrong direction the support boat spotted me and headed to cut off my path and redirect me towards the Isle of Wight, allowing my kayak to regroup and get out in front.  We agreed an alternative approach for them to stay out in front and act as a guide.  No barrier, just keep going and stay ahead of me.

With one of the other swimmers struggling and having to abandon their attempt, a spare kayak became available and as I ploughed through the other swimmers I picked up a second kayak to help usher me ever nearer to the island and my destination.  Approaching the shoreline the south-westerly wind was blocked by the island and resulted in calmer waves, this in turn allowed for a more natural swim stroke to resume.

Billy swimming with a kayaker in front and another alongside

Passing more swimmers I was able to begin to enjoy the swim and gain confidence that this was a challenge I would complete.  Reaching the Isle of Wight after around 1 hour 25 minutes I rose from the water on Ryde beach somewhat relieved and exhilarated at the reality of making it under my own steam across the Solent.  Standing looking back over the channel with a huge grin on my face, proud of what I had been able to achieve.  There were then some quick photos before the support boats appeared ready to shuttle us at pace back to Gosport.

The swimmers on the beach on the Isle of Wight
It’s not the longest or furthest endurance event I have completed but having managed to raise over £2,000 for the charity it is certainly unique and memorable.  Something I would recommend to anyone who has the dedication to commit to the training and the challenge of crossing the Solent.

You can read Billy's other challenges on his blog.

Find out about Aspire's Solent Swims in 2019

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