The swim that wasn't. A lesson in the unexpected.

Cinque Terre, Italy. I had booked the swim a year in advance. 20km (12.5mi) along the Mediterranean coast from Portovenere to Monterosso. I had been watching the weather forecast the whole week and it was looking good for the weekend of 19 September. The plan was to do the 3h drive from Nyon, Switzerland to Santhia, Italy – meet Thomas who would crew for me and drive the remaining 3.5h down to the coast together. On arrival the weather was hot and the sea a Ligurian blue.

We met with Cinque Terre Swimming, the organisers, who provided boat support and confirmed a start for the following morning at 9am. As usual for me the night was short and I was up at 5am with regular trips to the bathroom. On arrival at the meeting point, we took the zodiac for a quick recce out of the harbour mouth to measure the water temperature and look at conditions outside of the protected bay. The temperature was tropical at 23.7C but a big swell was running. On returning to the harbour, the organisers decided to take another jerry can of petrol on board. I only realised afterwards why they took this extra precaution – they expected the swim to be long.

At 9h30 I slid off the boat and swam to land, tripping over the rope that demarcated the beach area. Good start. The swim out of the harbour was effortless and smooth. Rounding the promontory that forms the mouth of the harbour was another story. The swell was big and I was swimming into a strong current which kept the castle which was hanging onto a rocky outcrop on my right in the same position for a very long time. At this point I could still find a reasonable rhythm as the swell was big but not choppy. I put my head down and swam. Feeding was planned on the hour for the first two then half hourly thereafter. At the first feed I looked at Thomas and said F***. He said, you’re doing fine. Second hour, cramps in my calves kept my mind off the sea which was deteriorating. At the second feed I said F*** x3. Thomas was happy that I was swearing at him, he said he preferred that to silence. Swimming into the third hour I was stung by a jelly fish on my thigh, a first, but another welcome distraction. I was now getting tossed about in the sea which was coming at me from all directions. My arms were constantly being smacked out of sync by waves and breathing became swallowing. At times I couldn’t even see the boat as they struggled to keep course.

The half hourly feeds were silent and I was making stupid errors like taking in half my feed and emptying out the rest or dunking my piece of banana into the sea before eating it. I decided though that I would swim as long as possible and only stop if the decision came from the boat. I was not going to quit even though my progress was pitiful, reduced from 3 to 2k/hr. Just after 10km and 3h58, the boat called the swim. They had received a storm warning from the harbour who were concerned that the boat may not make it back to port if we did not abort the swim at that point. I was dragged onto the zodiac, bundled up and we motored slowly back. I was given tea but after hitting the first wave with the bow it evaporated. The call was a no-brainer and I respected it but was naturally disappointed. I was left wondering whether in those conditions I could’ve swum another 10km. I doubt it although the crew thought differently.

The plan was to leave the following morning for the long drive back home. However Cinque Terre Swimming made the generous offer of either completing the swim i.e. dropping me in where we left off or if the weather was still bad, doing a 7km swim around the island of Palmaria. My initial reaction was no way. I was still rolling with the waves while on land and feeling completely shattered. However, I had a very persuasive sweet talking crewman and while re-hashing the swim for the thousandth time with him over Italian pasta, I agreed. After dinner we put in the call to the organisers who had checked weather reports and we had to settle for the island swim. Start time was 7h30 the next morning.

I was slightly less stressed about this swim knowing that I only had to put in 7km of effort so I could blast what was left in the tank. This was a water start and after the first 500m of stiff arms and shoulders I loosened up nicely and for a second time, swam out of the harbour but in the opposite direction. The sea outside of the harbour mouth was not as big as yesterday although it remained challenging. At 1.8k, after 34min the boat stalled. I was instructed to circle the boat while they puzzled over the engine. Eventually they had to haul me onto the boat as it seemed a tow back to the harbour to change boats would be necessary. When the rescue boat arrived and we had connected the tow ropes, someone discovered that the safety key which cuts the engine had been knocked out. He sheepishly put it back in and the engine roared to life. Back into the water.

The island is more or less triangular and as I rounded the tip after the first leg, I was expecting calmer waters. This was not the case. In fact halfway down the second leg it became decidedly worse with a strong headwind. I had a face off with a jelly who was directly in my path and who gave me a sneaky side swipe over my foot as I made a scrambled detour. Rounding the last corner, we ran directly into the storm, the waves were now coming from behind which I find far worse than swimming into the wind. A few strokes forward then you are slurped backwards, stall and shoot forwards. Luckily the last leg was not too long and soon I got the signal from the boat that we were done. Again I was unceremoniously hauled aboard and we boated back to the harbour. The wind was up and the rain started and my dry robe was nice and dry and neatly folded in my room at the B&B. So I was dressed in an array of whatever was going on the boat. Big lesson. Always come prepared for the worst.

So I didn’t get the event-free 20k swim up the beautiful Italian coast that I thought I had signed up for. What I did get was actually far more valuable. Experience, lessons in dealing with the unexpected and an even greater respect for the sea



  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member

    I visited that area about 8 years ago, before I was really doing marathon swimming- I think I'd done one 10k at that point. Even then, I found myself day dreaming about doing that swim. Thanks for sharing- now I want to go back even more!

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