Last September a friend asked me to go sea swimming, so we swam each week through the winter and spring (cue lots of Twitter pics of me looking wet). We dropped in, yelled a bit from the cold, and chatted our way past a few buoys before heading home for hot showers and tea. Other friends joined in and we ended up swimming every week through the whole winter, and then spring and summer as well.
This week we decided to celebrate our year of swimming by doing an event. We chose the Swim for Logan in Penzance, an annual charity swim in aid of Cystic Fibrosis Trust. CF is a genetic disorder that affects over 10,000 young people in the UK, but active research is making significant and continuing improvements. It’s something that I like to support because one of my children was once tested for CF. We were lucky to not have it, but I’ll never forget waiting for the call.
The swim’s a 1-mile fun-swim around the Gear Pole which marks Gear Rock, a submerged granite lump about half a mile SSE of Penzance prom.
I’d never done anything like this before, but I knew that a friendly crowd swim every year and I was expecting to enjoy it. However, I’d had an operation a couple of weeks before the swim, that had gone completely wrong and left me needing another – so on the day, instead of feeling confident and excited, I was sore, weak and nervous. I tried not to listen to the super-fit athletes talking about their swim times, and hoped to keep up with the slower swimmers who just do it for fun.
The swim was at high tide, in sunshine and calm seas. An RNLI boat and a fleet of local kayaks, manned by familiar faces, lay dotted around the bay. Swimmers lined up for brightly coloured swim caps and to have their hands stamped with a number, while friends and family set up cake stalls and raffles in the sunshine and children played.
Then it all got exciting. The loudspeaker called us to the slip and Logan counted us in, “3-2-1-go!” The faster swimmers launched in unison, a wall of black neoprene plunging into freestyle, while we followed, tumbling into a foam of thrashing limbs and spray. Fifty-one swimmers all headed south.
I managed a fairly brisk freestyle for about 200m, before post-op-pre-op body said no. I doubled up with abdominal pain, tried not to panic, and let all the others swim away while I paused to sort myself out. A kayak glided up and asked if I was OK – “Yes, thanks” (oh-god-just-let-me-sink) then slid away. There are very few people in this world that I feel comfortable sharing my pain with. I ducked my face underwater, partly to hide and partly because there’s something soothing about being in the sea; so cold and green and magical.
Once I was OK to move again, I chose a lazy, long breaststroke for the rest of the swim — I used to swim a mile a day like this and it’s a rhythm that I can still fall into without having to think. I cut across the wind and let the sea carry me to the pole, where I caught up with some of the other swimmers.
The Gear Pole is a lovely swim. If I’d been well, I’d have really enjoyed it. As it was, I just felt relieved to be halfway through. It felt great to grab the solid, metal ladder, to stand on a rung and peer out over the long line of swimmers heading back to the town, because wahay, what an amazing place to be, and what an amazing group of people! I did consider climbing up the pole, but I didn’t want to push my luck. (Was I the only one who wanted to touch the balls on top?) I dropped back into the sea.
The half-mile back was an exercise in ignoring my body and just carrying on — I was grateful that the sea was in a gentle mood, carrying us with small, lapping waves and warm water. I let myself remember a decade ago, queuing to have my child tested, doing deals with destiny. My bellyache stopped mattering. I thought about my son standing on the slip today, peering out to sea, waiting for his mum. For my kid’s sake, I didn’t want to come in behind everyone else, so I forced myself to overtake a handful of the other swimmers before landing on the slip where everyone was waiting, all smiles. My boy hugged me, “That was cool.”
My swimming buddy was there beaming, “That was fantastic, shall we do it again next year?”
“Yes,” I croaked, in my best terrified sheep voice, and collapsed in a heap.
Yes, of course.
Because yes to all of it. Yes to everything. Yes to children, yes to medical research. Yes to life. Just yes.
You’ll swim freestyle next time, won’t you?
Yeah. Yeah, I really will.
I’ll come with you.
If you’d like to donate to Cystic Fibrosis Trust: