Conquering Windermere: 15th August 2014
12 months ago myself and Tony Mellett uttered the words 'Let's swim Windermere'. We got a team together and began plotting......Early on we approached Ben Jaques with a ‘selfish little proposal’. We wanted to reccy the lake by row boat to find out just how in the heck these things are accomplished. It didn’t take too much arm twisting for him to agree to being a guinea pig, swimming the 10.5 mile length solo while we supported him and sized up exactly what we were letting ourselves in for.
Next we needed a team and the concept of ‘rowers and throwers’ was born. The former to man our support craft and the latter to look after our nutritional needs and monitor our condition in the water. Meetings were held. And by meetings I mean banter-filled barbeques to discuss logistics and resources (hic). Ben’s reccy swim was scheduled for 28th June and myself and Tony’s attempts for the weekend of 16th August. The Lake Wardens were consulted who, by all accounts, proved to be very approachable and accommodating, highlighting the necessary hazards of the lake. Rowboats were secured for both weekends and soon enough our support teams held their hands up and committed to escorting the swims. Myself and Tony had a training plan which involved notching up to the distance by taking part in the BLDSA 9-mile Champion of Champions series in Dover Harbour in mid-June, followed by a 2-way crossing of Lake Bala in mid-July. Surely that would do it??
But in the early hours of 2nd May my mobile phone woke me from sleep and I took the devastating news that Tony had passed away very suddenly at 10pm the previous evening. Incomprehensible as he had dropped me home less than an hour and a half earlier, after our usual pool session with the Thursday Night Garons Crew. The world and our plans ground to a halt while we mourned his loss with his and our extended Redcaps families.
But we all agreed that Tony’s swim plans must go ahead. And indeed they did. Lesley Cook stepped in to swim Champions with me. Shaun Hales, Wouter Van Staaden and Ben Jaques provided kayak support and Vicki McFarlane pitched up land-side to warm us up and gee us along for the gruelling affair. Tony’s wife Sarah, her daughter Sally, grand daughter Emily and Sal’s boyfriend Stu accompanied myself and John Willis to Wales to support our Bala swims. Ben’s Windermere reccy was axed in favour of him taking Tony’s place for the August assault on England’s longest lake.When we finally arrived in the Lake District she seemed to be meeting all of her stereotypes, with Hurricane Bertha doing her worst for the weather. Light showers interspersed with torrential downpours and high winds. But a window of opportunity seemed to be emerging for Friday 15th August and, with the wind blowing from the North, we decided on an early departure from Waterhead, at the top end of Windermere. Considering how abysmal the weather was in the days leading up to the swim, and indeed those that followed, somebody was definitely looking out for us from above.
Our proposed route was to swim towards 10 o’clock aiming for a tiny buoy-marked island named Green Tuft. There we would hang a left, swimming headland-to-headland down the Western aspect and behind the islands. Just before the halfway point at Jemmy Crag we would have to exercise caution as we crossed the chain-link car ferry. If at all possible the Lake Wardens had advised us to go behind the ferry. Judgement on margins of safety would be required for any attempt to dodge it! From Jemmy Crag lake traffic would be quieter and it would be essentially down-hill to the steamer pier at Lakeside and a sharp left to the yellow buoys at Fell Foot which mark the end of the lake and start of the River Leven.At 09:01 on Friday 15th August we took to the balmy 18.2 degree waters in memory of Tony. John Willis manned the oars for Ben while Helen Wildin threw food at him and played coxswain. Shaun Hales and Vicki McFarlane supported my swim and Family Mellett (plus Harry the dog) waved us off for what was to be a full day of swimming.
I took a cheeky little head start while Ben did his usual slow entry but it wasn’t long before he streaked past me. HEADING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!!!! Everyone was shouting and it seemed ages before somebody got through to him. A few minutes later, back on the correct bearing, he thundered past again and his team edged away into the distance. Bye bye Ben & Co., see you on the other side!!Our teams were under instruction to feed us on the hour, every hour and we had a selection of sweet and savoury foods to snack on, a tiny morsel at a time. For me fruit pots were an absolute winner. Glugging down the sugar water before scooping little chunks of peach and pineapple into my mouth while floating on my back. And, as filthy as it may sound, the odd handful of chicken & mushroom pot noodle was delightful, no chewing required. Ben opted for Helen’s homemade flapjacks and the co-op’s very own Scotch Eggs. Scotch Eggs with a twist that is, because they weren’t actually Scotch Eggs at all but mini Chicken Kievs. An easy mistake to make but apparently the garlic butter in the middle was deliciously molten to make swallowing them much easier so I guess they were a success.
Behind the islands the wind picked up and was against us for a while, the Western valleys funnelling the prevailing Northerly back up-lake towards our start point. Fuel-stops were necessarily kept short and sweet in this section. But just long enough to take a phone call from Lesley Cook, enquiring as to our progress. Nice touch Lesley and much appreciated!! Another lovely moment behind the islands was a surprise visit from Sarah and her family who had hired a motor boat to come and pay a visit. In the days leading up to the swim I had repeated a silent mantra: Get In, Switch Off, Swim, and it took quite an effort from Team Mellett, Vicki and Shaun to rouse my attention for a quick and surprised ‘Ahoy There!!’.Stroking in excess of 70 per minute, Ben put in a stupendous effort and reached the chain-link crossing in just two-and-a-half hours, timing it just right to get behind the ferry without having to hang around. When I approached the same point, an hour and a quarter later, the ferry was being loaded and was nearly ready to leave. Spurred on by Vicki, however, I got my head down and sprinted straight in front of it, shaking with fear in the water but trusting her judgement nonetheless. I turned around to thank the captain with a thumbs up and was greeted with the honking of the ship’s horn and an applause by passengers and crew as they set sail for Bowness. Again, just the kind of encouragement needed for a swim of these proportions. In fact most vessels out on the lake that day took the time to wave at us and cheer us on. And Ben had an encounter with a lady on a rock (Mermaid? Fantasy? Delirious hallucination??), who encouraged him with the words ‘Only four miles to go!’. Hmmmm, thanks…..
At my six hour feed I was eager to hear if Ben had landed yet and Vicki put in a call to Sarah to receive the news that he was into the home straights. Half an hour later he touched the yellow buoy at Fell Foot to become ‘first man home’. Helen was so overwhelmed at the blinding effort he had put in that she jumped off the boat to join him in the water and pass on her congratulations. Erm…. FULLY CLOTHED!!!!!A little under two hours later, 8 hours 25 minutes after taking to the waters, it was my turn. Catching sight of that yellow buoy for the first time I shouted into the water ‘We’ve only gone and bloody well done it!!’, then made the final push for home with the team shouting and waving from the shore J
So that’s Windermere for you. 10.5 miles, England’s longest lake. If anybody fancies a shot at it then it comes highly recommended and we have all the contact details and know-how to impart. Enormous gratitude once again to our teams, on land and on the water. We really could not have done it without you and any time you need support for a swim or any other stupid challenge then please do cash in your chips!
For Tony xx