by Stephen Bonner

“He really needs to be getting a move on”, the tone in the boat was getting a little tense as the minutes passed. I was still having to stop and catch my breath due to cold shock. My wife was almost enjoying it as little as I was. There was nothing she could do to speed my acclimatisation and no way to convince the support team that I would settle in rather than fail. She knows what to expect from me, having witnessed my first open water swim challenge in July, escaping from Alcatraz without a wetsuit.

Acclimatisation can be slow and unpleasant. In the water, I was suffering from swimmer’s remorse and was thinking back a few months to my search for noteworthy swims. I had this vague idea that perhaps doing all the great prison escapes would be a possible way to organise my swims – The Count of Monte Cristo swim, Napoleon’s Elba, Riker’s Island (short but deeply unpleasant water, I hear) and eventually the shark-infested pinnacle of Robben Island but first, somewhere a little closer to home - a plan to swim from the Isle of Wight to the mainland, as if escaping from Parkhurst. 

I expressed an interest in swimming the English Channel with Aspire in 2017 and they were organising Solent swims in 2016. It seemed like the perfect way for us to have a dry run (ha ha!) to see if I could fundraise and swim smoothly, and to see if Aspire could organise it safely and with good spirit. They certainly kept up their end of the bargain.

The organisation was very slick with plenty of information and an online group to share experiences with swimmers from previous years. I was set with a great team for the 24th September – a little late in the season but the sea holds the warmth more than the air so it should have been perfect. The Friday before we were set to swim was spot on – sunny, calm, bright and clear, but as the big day approached the wind shot up, gusting at 24 knots when the maximum safe level is 12. We were postponed.

Sadly the team couldn’t all make the same weekends and I was away for a few weeks, so my return date with two others was set for the last swim of the season on the 22nd October. The changing tides meant that a swim from the island wouldn’t be possible so I’d be inverting my prison escape plan and breaking into the Isle of Wight.

The day started before dawn, driving to the Marina where we would meet the boat and be taken to our start point. Colin from Aspire was there to meet and look after me and the family. His calm and clear guidance was a superb way to take away the pre-event jitters and prep for the challenge. Jonathan, from Solent Swim, had all the logistics slick and reassuringly safe – even putting up with my 12 and 15 year old boys and their playful antics.

The boat took me out of the marina and around to the beach, a quick splash to the shore, stepping out onto surprisingly painful stones and then we were off – about 4km ahead of us with just seaweed, hovercraft and the cold between us and our target.

Just five weeks before I’d been luxuriating in 18oC waters of Dover Harbour and all my ice baths at home had trained my body for 15oC.

However the air temperature was 6oC and, according to my watch, the temperature of my skin at my wrist was 13oC. This means that it’s likely the water temperature was only 12oC and it hit me hard! I just couldn’t catch my breath. In the pool I can do 5 or 6 strokes per breath but I was needing to breathe every other stroke, and even with that I was having to stop to breaststroke and pant. It felt bad, very bad. I was swearing at myself for having signed up and promising never to do anything this stupid again. I think elite athletes or even mediocre ones have mantras of success and power. Not so for me, I found swimming up to the boat and giving them an earful about lying about how warm it was meant to be was my mantra. Having got that off my chest it actually became a little easier and after 15 mins I was able to get into my rhythm and settle in.

Stephen Bonner and his kayaker Rachel

The sun raised a little higher and Rachel, my kayak support, seemed to relax as it became clear I wasn’t giving up and she was an able guide to point me onwards. The family report that my arm was lifting a little lower each time after an hour but I remember feeling like I could go all day. It felt great, when out of the gloom, the seabed rose beneath me and I could see the bottom – I was nearly done! Not so nearly, the sands from Ryde extend quite far out. Even though we were landing at low tide to reduce the distance, we still had another ten minutes of swimming.

When I stood up and stepped out of the waves it felt like I had really overcome something. I felt exhilarated and nowhere near as exhausted as I expected. Wrapping up in my DryRobe and relaxing in the RIB while it raced back across the Solent was a great prize for finishing. I did have pretty cold toes during the trip back, I’m told bed socks are the fix and perhaps it was only in contrast to how snug the rest of me was. The lovely grub at a celebratory lunch afterward tasted extra good.

Thanks to all my sponsors and to the support team – I highly recommend the swim. It’s a decent chunky challenge (particularly early or late when it is colder!) but a real sense of support and safety from the team.

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