Residents of the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall and much of the south west of England know the 26mile stretch of water from Cornwall to the isles and treacherous, rough and cold. It’s a sea kayaker’s rite of passage to make it from the scilly isles to Cornwall with the current. So when Somerset single mum,Beth french, starting talking about her bid to become the first to swim solo across from lands end to the low lying isles she was met with incredulity, lots of teeth sucking and foreboding head shakes.
Undeterred, she found a Penzance pilot willing to assist, even making the trip a priority, foregoing other bookings to get the best of the weather on a couple of neap tides in the summer. It would take an awful lot of luck to get the right conditions.
But luck was with the team as the mild winter and warm spring into summer meant warmer than usual water; high pressure bringing settled weather. Training through the winter without a wetsuit, in water as cold as 6′ meant even Cornish waters felt pleasant, although the jelly fish thought so too. Unprecedented numbers of harmless barrel jellyfish made the news, but common blues and compass were also in attendance and were not so benign.
Tuesday, 22nd July dawned fair, with partial high cloud and the faintest of breezes. Beth and her team had elected to start open the midday high tide to ensure landing in daylight the next day- the pilot Mark Johns thought the trip would be a 24hr swim, while Beth hoped for 20hrs. With curious seal alongside, the 36yr old swam to shore not far from lands end, climbed above high water and struck out to the horizon.
Within minutes it became apparent that there was a technical issue with the boats stabilising bags as the strength of side current pulled the boat off course. Martin James, Beth’s lead support, hopped into his kayak and paddled alongside to keep momentum, but it was not the best start. 3hrs later, the boat seemed to be sorted and the long paddle could begin.
With nightfall came the jellies. After the first few stings, Beth no longer felt able to avoid them and stopped alerting her crew to the countless zaps she received over every inch of her body- even through her costume. She said’ after a while, my body just seemed to shutdown. To that particular pain and I could feel them sting but didn’t bother to react.’
As the sun dipped low, the best news came- on an gentle easterly breeze. Rare and perfect for a trip to the scilly isles. However, for over an hour, Beth was in the direct path of carbon rich diesel fumes. Ingesting them over time meant a pit of nausea became a nag, then a real problem. Swimming further from the boat, Beth experienced disorientation, sudden fatigue and stomach cramps even when out of range of the toxic fumes. Once again joined by support in the kayak it quickly became obvious that things were pretty serous. Wracked with spasms that jerked her knees to her chest, retching uncontrollably yet unable to bring anything up for almost an hour meant a moment by moment assessment of her well being.
Finally able to massage her guts enough to bring up the toxic cocktail hindering her bid, she started once again to piece together a few strokes at a time. The cramping and spasms never fully left, but sheer determination meant she doggedly persisted. On her darkest hour she said ‘I knew I was in serious trouble when I started to lose where the surface of the water was and stopped caring if I drowned. Luckily that’s the exact moment that martin came alongside in the kayak. All that kept going through my head was – it’s not finished, I’m not there yet!’
Miraculously hitting her regular stride of 66 strokes per minute, she once again ploughed forwards, at a rate of 1.3mph against the tide. As dawn broke, the fog descended so the welcome sight of the Islands was not given until she was less than 500m from shore. Clambering onto Great Britain rock on St Mary’s her relief was evident. An epic swim through roiling waters that took 17hrs 28mins, she tweeted- ‘I have an awesome body, mission accomplished!’ Or rather, her crew tweeted for her….