Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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This is the account of my solo swim across the length of Windermere – as it happened in July 2019. If you enjoy reading accounts of other people’s adventures frolicking in the cold and in the rain while you are nicely warm and dry, you’re in luck. Grab yourself a drink, choose a comfortable chair and read on.
July 27, 2019. 6am. Time to wake up. Early morning light seeps through the white canvas of the bell tent at the YHA Windermere and I’m surprised that I’ve slept well. I usually don’t, before big swims. Today in two hours, I will be jumping in the water and attempting a one-way Windermere solo swim with 3 other swimmers – our longest open water swim to date. Windermere is the largest lake of England and at 17 km (10.6 miles), this is going to be a proper swim and a long day.
I put my swimming costume on, then clothes. I’ve picked my Serpentine Swimming Club swimsuit as it will keep me warm – both physically (it’s lined) and mentally (thinking about my friends at the club). Well, the lining is what it is – a lining. It’s not exactly a 3mm neoprene layer but it’ll do. The fuzzy juju factor better keep me very warm.
In the kitchen building, I find James, the other swimmer who’ll be swimming with me today. He’s eating porridge, a very sensible breakfast option to fuel the body before a cold swim. The other two swimmers, Elina and Ann, are already on their way to the marina. Our master plan is as follows. We are four swimmers and have two support boats. Each boat will support two swimmers, which means that support crew on the boat will be piloting the boat, dealing with incoming lake traffic and feeding both swimmers at regular intervals. It’s a logistical challenge that I’ve illustrated in my journal.
My husband Cedric arrives in the kitchen with our 13-year-old daughter. They will be part of our support crew with Rob, an experienced open water swimmer. Rob and his wife Sarah have a lot more experience crewing for long swims than anybody else in our group, which is why each boat gets either Sarah or Rob. They’re both amazing people so we’re thrilled to have them onboard.
After a quick and uninspired breakfast (not hungry), it’s time to leave. We pack the car with too many hot water flasks, food for the day, dryrobes, tow floats and other miscellanae. At 6.50am, we reach the Bowness-on-Windermere marina. The sky is overcast, it rained buckets all night (I heard it on the canvas roof of the tent) and the weather promises to be dreary all day. In a way, it’s a relief. I did pack sunscreen but I’d rather swim in the rain and not risk a major sunny back-side up sunburn.
From the marina, we look at the lake. Surrounded by mountain peaks and villages, Windermere is the jewel in the crown of the Lake District, a long finger-shaped lake that’s the port of entry to this UNESCO World Heritage Site for many visitors. Beatrix Potter’s country house is across the lake and steamers take tourists from shore to shore all day. Of course at 7am, the lake is pretty much asleep save for a few ducks, gulls and geese who never rest in their quest for aquatic food.
We board the boat at 7.30am. It’s an electric boat and literally drives like a bumper car with a single wheel — only with a forward/backward lever. On the boat, I write a few notes in my journal. We marvel at how silent the engine is. It’s really slow too, a reassuring factor as we’ll never swim faster than the maximum 10-mph speed limit. After wondering whether we set out due north or south (iPhone helping, Google Maps full on), we confirm that we are indeed headed north which is where we want to go. A gull follows us in the sky.
“Anybody think it’s a long way, this lake?”
That’s Rob, teasing us.
Indeed, it takes us 30 minutes to reach the starting point from the marina. Just past 8am, we wave to Elina and Ann who are already in the water and smile at us. Wrapped in our dryrobes, James and I are eager to get in. Tension always builds up in anticipation of a long swim and this one has so many factors that could go wrong that we just want to get it done. We reach Waterhead, its pier and can see sleepy Ambleside in the distance. Where’s the “official” entry spot? How do you know where to start in a 17 km-long lake? It’s not like there’s a stretch of water with a yellow line waiting for us. We’ve protected the boat with the plastic rain cover because yes, it’s raining. “The water’s wet,” observes Rob.
Wet is going to be the main theme, today.
We stop after what looks like the last pier and Cedric lifts open a corner of the rain cover. That’s our clue to get in. James and I get ready.
We’re bending English Channel rules as we are both using an orange tow-float for visibility (good idea too on a dark rainy day) but otherwise, we’re mostly swimming by the EC book – no wetsuit, no touching the boat until the end. I sit on the edge of the boat, adjust my goggles and ear plugs one last time, and slide in.
James follows within seconds. 8.30am. The swim is on!
Now’s the time to quickly describe the itinerary. It will be divided into roughly four sections
I’ve more or less memorized the course in my head and that’ll play mind tricks on me later as I’ve underestimated some distances.
The water temperature, which we thought was going to be 21C (70F), is in fact 19C (66F) but that, we don’t know it yet. We’ll learn it after the swim, as measured by Cedric’s smartwatch. Most Windermere old-timer soloists would qualify 19C as warm, borderline boiling or “as warm as it gets.” Say what you will, but warm it is not. I find it comfortable, at least for the first 4 hours.
James and I settle into a rhythm. He takes the lead, I’m only slightly behind at the beginning. We’ve planned feeds at every half hour, so they will be at 0h30, 1h, 1h30, 2h, etc until we touch land again. Adrenaline kicks in and I put my head down, reminding myself to swim wide to avoid aggravating my shoulder injury. I fell down my home stairs six weeks prior to the swim and tore my right rotator cuff. It hasn’t been the best training I could hope for, with many interruptions and physio-therapy sessions, but I’ve got meds to get me trough the swim.
The water is pea-soup green with green freckles floating around. Rob, who’s swam Windermere before, had described the water as pitch dark but he probably did it earlier in the season. By the end of July, the lake has been exposed to the summer sun and water plants have had time to grow and disperse. I can’t see the bottom and visibility is actually quite limited – a meter at most. The water tastes slightly sweet which is nice. I wouldn’t drink it all day but it’s quite pleasant.
First feed is 2 cups of tea with CNP, a carbohydrate-loaded energy powder. It’s white, sticky as icing sugar and tasteless. Thank God for that. I ask for warmer tea next time as this is too lukewarm to warm up my cockles. All day long, I’m only going to drink CNP diluted in tea with the occasional energy gel, jelly babies, bananas and miso soup (turns out to be a horrible idea). James, who’s got a stronger stomach, will feed on warm tea with CNP, flapjacks, tinned peaches, bananas, jelly babies, liquorice and energy gels. Warm tea is bliss – love warm tea in a cold lake.
As per English Channel swimming rules, James and I tread water to eat our feeds from cups handed to us without touching the boat or the crew. Cups have strings tied to them and when we’re done drinking, we simply let go of the cup in the lake. The crew pulls it back in with the string. Easy.
Two hours later, we’re swimming along the western lake shore and pass Victorian Gothic Wray Castle (though impossible to see from the water, I recognize the stone boathouse from afar) and a white jetty jutting out onto the lake. It looks forlorn in the grim low light of this summer day. First signs of human habitation this morning. We’re still alternating CNP tea and CNP tea on our feeds. So far so good.
Half an hour later, we swim along a lovely stretch of the lake, a moss-floored woodland whose birch, oak and alder trees are interspersed with dark conifers. The latter, Douglas firs and spruce mainly, are planted exotic species but with this dreary weather, they are extremely picturesque. Each time I breathe to the right, I catch a glimpse of mist-shrouded mountains above us and dark green trees by the water. It’s the perfect setting for a Wordsworth poem, truth be told. I also get a whiff of cow dung every time I breathe, a more down to Earth reminder of civilization. Still as a mirror, the water surface is only broken by the rhythmic entry of our arms and all I hear is splosh-splosh through my earplugs.
Rob jumps in to swim with us for 30 minutes. It’s nice to have company, it really makes the swim seem less lonely. We’re averaging 2.3 km/hour which is good, Rob tells us, pleased at our pace. Rob alternates swimming with James and I. When Rob gets back on the boat, I see that it’s quite tricky as there’s no easy way to climb back without ladder. Later when Cedric jumps in to do the same and returns to the boat, I am witness to his heroic efforts to worm his way back onto the boat and burst out laughing underwater. Pity I can’t take pictures, it’s really funny and laughing underwater makes me swallow a mouthful or two.
Two swans appear – a mother and her teenage cygnet. They start following us and as they keep up with James and I, my mind turns to Thoreau-worthy thoughts. Have we been adopted as creatures of the lake by these graceful birds? Are we boldly bonding with nature like no swimmers before?
As Steve Tyler would sing, Dream on, Dream until your dreams come true.
We learn later that our crew has been feeding them flapjacks from the pilot window (without telling James that his stash is going down). Who knew swans had such a sweet tooth? No wonder they are keeping up with us so well.
All of a sudden – land! I mean, dirt bottom, flooded roots and pebbles! After not seeing the bottom of the lake for so long, we are swimming in shallow waters and I can almost touch the bottom. It takes me by surprise but it’s kind of reassuring in a way. We’re close to civilization. Very close. I can smell fried bacon every time I breathe, the grease and the salt of it. It’s almost palpable in the air.
It’s almost 11am and kayakers appear out of nowhere. That’s it, we are reaching the archipelago of islands dotting the northern part of the lake. In my head, I start singing The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction/Double Feature” song and lose the plot at Tarantula took to the hills. Start again. Michael Rennie was ill the day the Earth stood still. It’s very distracting to swim and sing, turns out. Sod it. It’s too much of an effort to concentrate on any lyrics.
Internally, I feel a surge of relief. We must be half-way. For some reason, I am convinced that the islands are half-way when they are in fact one third of the way. From here on, I slow down and start getting cold. James keeps an even pace and it takes longer at each feed to catch up with him. Every time I reach the boat for a feed, James is cool as a cucumber, eating a gazillion flapjacks and downing jelly babies, ready to go. I guzzle my CNP tea as fast as I can and throw the cup in the lake. While liquid, the CNP tea sits halfway in my throat and refuses to go down to my stomach. I’d say it’s a constantly unpleasant feeling but that’s the law of physics too. You can’t expect food or drinks to go down if you’re not vertical yourself.
We are ready to cross to the eastern shore of Windermere. A slight chop has picked up, it’s raining hard and steamers and recreational boats are now crossing our path. Rob decides to purposely slow down James so that we can cross this section together. It’s the most dangerous section of the swim because of heavy boat traffic. It’s a short and exciting survival drill – don’t get squashed by a big boat. We fly our blue and alpha flag, the flag that signals swimmers in the water, but with the rain it’s glued like limp spaghetti to the rain cover.
We wait for a steamer boat and off we go. Quick, quick, quick – as quick as you can. The boat’s wake spices up our swim as we are lifted up and down like rag puppets.
My arms hurt. I’ve already taken Naproxen pills two feeds ago for my shoulder but now I’m asking for Ibuprofen for my forearms. The combo of stress, cold and chop makes my forearms feel like lead. Stroke by stroke, we reach the other side. It takes about 40 minutes, maybe more and then we continue our course along the eastern shore.
Elated, Rob bends over the side of the boat at the next feed, “You’re half-way, well done on your progress!” I’m crushed. Weren’t we half-way an hour ago? Are we only half-way now? Mind games, mind games. I may have replied “Only half way?” and if I didn’t, I think it very loud. I’ve lost track of time but it feels like I’ve been in for a long time.
Our crew exchanges maps and messages with the other boat. They’re having a grand old time! This screenshot from Cedric says: “Still 1K ahead of us! Well done.”
Keep calm and carry on.
I’ve never swam so long at this temperature and honestly, I didn’t think I could so doubt is now worming its way inside my head. I am cold. I feel cold. What can I do? Adam Walker to the rescue! I follow Adam “Ocean” Walker’s technique to repeat a warm mantra inside my head to avoid thinking that I am cold. I read his book on the Ocean Seven the week before and gleaned useful bits on marathon swimming, motivation and fighting off your demons.
In the book, he writes: “I thought I’d put my new mental focus to the test and fake myself into thinking the cold wasn’t a problem.” His technique only works in French for me. Chaud-chaud-chaud-chocolat. It means warm-warm-warm-chocolate and as chaud and cho are pronounced the same, it’s a convenient mantra. Each chaud counts for a stroke, chocolat counts for three. That’s six strokes. Every six strokes, I start again. You’d think it would get tiring to repeat the same thing over and over but it’s surprisingly distracting. Chaud-chaud-chaud-chocolat.
The eastern shore is a big blur dominated by a headland that never gets any closer. When I mention it to James later, he says he had the same impression. This elusive headland must be walking away from us as we swim. The only notable feed is the one when I drink my miso soup – I regret it for the next 2 hours.
We’re three quarters done. That means only one quarter to go.
James is now decidedly ahead of me, more than 100 meters. Perhaps 200m. It’s hard to tell distances when you’re in the water. The boat keeps up with him to show him the way and bringing up the rear, I feel slightly miserable and lonely. Without tow-float, I would feel frankly vulnerable. Fine, nobody said swimming Windermere would be easy. Chin up. Chaud-chaud-chaud-chocolat.
As we round the headland (yes!), we reach the final stretch of the swim. When I say final, it’s probably the last 2 miles or so. Rob jumps in to lift my spirits and swim with me but in the distance, we see James take a wrong turn. He’s swimming to the right towards the opposite shore instead of keeping to the left. What’s he doing, there’s a big steamer coming his way! Quickly, the boat reaches him and gets him back on the right path. No swimmer squashed by a big boat today.
What with the cold and sore shoulder, I’ve slowed down to 1.5K/hour and Rob is getting cold keeping up (i.e. not swimming much) at my pace. Wisely he decides to swim up to James and takes off, reaching James in minutes to lead him in to the finish. The boat stays with me, which is a relief. My daughter prepares a hot porridge for me – it’s wonderful. She blows kisses through the pilot window and tells me she’s proud. We are 2k from the finish, announces Cedric who just checked on Google Maps. That’s a huge booster to my morale. I now know that I will finish. I can swim another 90 minutes even though my teeth are chattering non-stop.
The next feed approaches and we can’t see James anymore! Cedric jumps in to swim with me while my daughter single-handedly drives the boat away, almost squashes James upon arrival (she misses), prepares his feed and gives it to him, then drives back to us. What a star! Cedric gets cold and needs to get back on the boat.
A little while later, we see the other boat coming our way – they’re cheering me on! I can see Elina, Ann and James standing and waving. James is still in his speedos – oops, we’ve got his dry clothes. He climbs aboard our boat, gets changed and I finally see the finish. Fell Foot. About time, I was becoming whiny and impatient!
Fell Foot has a big marina and our boat takes me across the marina to a hotel pier. Fun fact: right before the hotel pier, a bad taste comes from the water. It’s frankly disgusting, there must be a sewage pipe nearby. Needless to say, I don’t linger.
And that’s it, I’m out! I stumble and fall back in the water, pick myself up again and at Cedric’s request, manage to raise my arms.
My daughter is waiting for me with my dryrobe while Cedric takes pictures. She kisses me on the cheek, it feels great.
I’ve swam the length of Windermere in 8 hours and 20 minutes. James finished in 7 hours and 40 minutes and roared when he got out. Elina and Ann finished in 9 hours in very good spirits. I get big hugs from everyone, my dryrobe and I get back onboard to get changed.
What a day!
This is the itinerary of the other boat. Ours has been roughly similar.
As we all raise a glass in the evening, we are all thankful to have had the opportunity to swim this beautiful lake with the best support crew ever. All along our training, we received incredible selfless support from friends at the Serpentine Swimming Club.
In no particular, I would like to thank for their help: Rosemary Lewis, Kevin Blick, Nick Adams, Peter Larrad, Katie Berlyn Holmes, Boris Mavra, Vanessa Impey, Emily Chong, Charlie Frith, John Tierney, the Windermere Lake Wardens, Jacques Tuset and last but not least, my wonderful family – Cedric and my two daughters. Let’s not forget my fellow swimmers, James Lythe, Elina and Ann, as well as our amazing support crew, Rob, Sarah, Kylie and Enora.
Couldn’t ask for more. It does take a village to complete a marathon swim, it’s never an individual effort.
A toast to Windermere!