Robert Howlett and Steven Riches - The Wash

Skegness to Old Hunstanton

19.2 km (11.9 miles)

6 hours, 19 minutes on 22 July 2018

Observed and documented by Stuart Munday and Max Cumming

Contents

Swimmers

  • Robert Howlett (male, 43, UK citizen)
  • Steven Riches (male, 55, UK citizen)

Support Personnel

  • James Coman - pilot
  • Henry Archer - feeder / 2nd pilot
  • Stuart Munday - observer for Howlett
  • Max Cumming - observer for Riches

Escort Vessel: Sea Shell (Blakeney, Holt)


Swim Parameters

Category: Tandem solo, nonstop, unassisted.

Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, with exception of Garmin watch worn by Howlett.

Route Definition

History

Previous Wash swims by Mercedes Gleitze (1929), Kevin Murphy (1973), Tina Spry (1974), and Michael Read (1974, 1975 and 1976).

Howlett’s swim (6:19) is the fastest known crossing in the Skegness-Hunstanton direction.


Swim Data

  • Start: 22 July 2018, 08:00 (Europe/London)
  • Finish:
    • Howlett: 14:19
    • Riches: 14:20
  • Elapsed:
    • Howlett: 6 hours, 19 minutes, 20 seconds
    • Riches: 6 hours, 20 minutes, 53 seconds

Summary of Conditions

Feature Min Max
Water Temp (C) 18 18
Air Temp (C) 17 19
Wind (kt) 5 8

Nutrition: Gels and energy drinks every 45 minutes

GPS Track

Trackpoint frequency: 30 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).

Speed Plot


Observer Logs

Howlett

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Riches

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Narrative

by Robert Howlett

More than just a swim

Strong currents, shifting sand banks and unpredictable seas was the response we had received when we first enquired about swimming the wash in 2016. The general response was that the Wash had only been formally swam under Channel swimming rules by 4 people and hasn’t been swam for 40 years for a reason, too risky and logistically difficult to pilot a swim across.

With further investigation and hours of scouring the internet we could only find evidence of 4 recorded solo swimmers.

  • Mercedes Gleitze – 1929, 13 hrs 17 mins. (The famous long-distance swimmer)
  • Kevin Murphy – 1973, 13 hrs 54 mins
  • Tina Spry - 1974, 8 Hrs. 36 Mins
  • Michael Read - 1974, 7 Hrs. 52 Mins. (Skegness side to Hunstanton record)
  • Michael Read - 1975, 8 Hrs. 30 Mins.
  • Michael Read - 1976, 5 Hrs. 57 Mins. (Hunstanton side to Skegness record)

Above: An autographed photograph of Mercedes Gleitze (b. 1900 - d. 1981) the first person to swim The Wash and the first British Lady to swim The English Channel.

As well as the above solo swims, we believe there has been a couple of group relays that had also gone across.

The documented swims had been part of the Butlin Challenge Trophy international swim in the 1970’s, which we have managed to track down to Skegness Council.

With the research information found the gauntlet had been thrown down and the challenge set. I decide to try and find a pilot with local knowledge who could plan and plot a structured coordinated course on the most suitable tide and time for a swimmer, who would then be prepared to carry out the entire piloting task. To find the right pilot was essential but turned out to be an impossible task as the Wash is not a widely used sailing ground with the main seafarers being local fisherman, who on the most suitable tides need to have their boats working, not supporting swimmers.

With more people having had walked on the moon than swam the Wash I decided that a different approach was needed, I enrolled on the RYA shore based chart training course, starting with the RYA Essential Navigation and Seamanship and worked through, over a 2 year period, to Coastal Yachtmaster, while also carrying out the practical training to support the shore-based courses. This journey then allowed me to meet several extremely experienced sailors and instructors who all offered years of experience and advice. This also gave me ability to plot numerous courses on different tides ranges at different times until I discovered what I believed to be the most suitable route, tide and start time.

Above: The final plot used for the swim. Click to enlarge.

In 2017 the training, both in the class room and in the water, was going well when an old back injury resurfaced resulted in me being unable to walk for 3 months and in November 2017 I had a spinal fusion operation. At this point I had resigned myself to the fact that this swim was not going to happen until one of my training partners, Steven Riches, who was still in recovery from a major hernia operated came to see me. He said I will be fine, and to take this time to get all the planning finalised and gradually build up the swim training. He agreed that he would do the same and join me on the Wash swim. Steve had some experience of the Wash from being a local fisherman for a few years and had local knowledge and family who still worked the Wash currently. With this support the planning was back on.

Along with the planning we had to find a suitable shallow draft boat to get over the sand banks that could also deal with possible rough seas along with someone to pilot the boat on the day. I decided the best option was to purchase a Class B offshore Rib boat suitable for rough seas as we had heard stories of seas changing from calm to extremely rough in a very short time, this would allow us to head for one of the suitable planned safe havens if the weather should turn on us.

So by spring 2018 we had a boat, a plan and the training was going well, but still no crew. Then I had the good fortune to meet the owner of a sailing school at Blakeney, James Cowan who owns Norfolketc sailing school while doing a boating course there. After telling him my plans he was extremely keen to join in on the adventure and with years of sailing experience and extremely qualified for the task of skippering the boat he was the ideal candidate. To compound this good luck he then gave me the contact information of another local, Henry Archer, who was at a similarly high level of qualification with a history of being a chartered skipper and has his own marine engineering company in Wiveton near Blakeney. Again, after a discussion with Henry he was extremely keen to join in and help. With two experienced skippers we sat down to review my plotted course and passage plan. With a bit of trepidation, I gave my charts to Henry and James to review and after a couple of coffees and some discussion they both agreed that it should be doable.

At this point we now had a boat, a plan, two skippers and the training was going well. Before the swim could proceed we then had to register the swim with a governing body and ensure that it was observed and documented correctly in line with channel swimming rules which consist of no wet suits, no buoyancy aids, no touching the boat or any assistance other that being passed feeds on a feed line. We asked for the help of two experienced open water swimmers, Stuart Munday and Max Cumming, who were registered as observers with the Marathon Swimming Federation (MSF), who happily agreed to assist.

The next step was to find a suitable day and pray to the weather gods. We picked an appropriate neap tide that had a suitable start time to allow us to get the boat over to the start position and hoped for the best. The 22nd of July 2018 was the day and as we got closer the weather was excellent.

The day of the swim had arrived, the weather forecast was good. The plan was for the swimmers and the observers to go to the start point on the beach via car. The support boat was to meet at the first waypoint on the other side of the big sand bank around 1km offshore and to start swimming at 8am. 7.55am and no support boat, which would mean no swim. If the boat was late then we would miss the tidal flows required at the end so as you can imagine, two very anxious swimmers waiting on the beach. Suddenly a high-speed rib appears on the horizon and the phone call comes to say we are in position. Excellent, it’s happening with 2 minutes to spare. As we walk into the water two large seals pop their heads up 10ft in front and although they are most likely more afraid of us it certainly added to the tension and nerves as we cautiously entered the water.

Above – Pre-swim photo. Swimmers in the middle, Observers either side.

The sea conditions were good, and the kayaks tracked us towards the support boat waiting on the other side of the sandbanks. The water depth seemed to go from approximately 3ft deep to dropping off into the abyss and then back up to only a few feet deep. This continued for around an hour of swimming with shallow seas then deeper drop offs which created some interesting swells and currents and certainly lived up to what the locals had described regarding the changing depths. After around an 2 hours the sea swell changed from a short small chop into a longer swell as we entered into the deeper water of the Lynn Well. With a continuous flow of jelly fish about 1m below us and the odd one coming to say hello with a little sting we ploughed on. The swim progressed as planned with feeds every 45 minutes and at a nice steady pace and stroke rate.

For the first 3 hours the wind farm seemed to be continuously looming over us, never seeming to get smaller which was creating a feeling of “have I got this wrong” and “are we actually getting anywhere”. But then it seemed to happen suddenly as the tide began to pull us south, the cliffs of Old Hunstanton grew in size and the wind farm seemed to disappear behind us. The feeling of being on the homeward straight kicked in. Two hours later the homeward straight feeling had entirely disappeared and the feeling of “will the coast ever get any closer” had firmly taken hold, but then, as with the wind farm, suddenly we could clearly see the beach along with the shapes of people. The swells dropped off to a beautifully calm sea in clear waters and suddenly the bottom became clear gradually becoming shallower until finally the beach.

Swim finished in a time of 6hrs 19mins, beating the previous record in the Skegness to Hunstanton direction. Two years of planning and a feeling of job done.

On reviewing the planning charts and the actual swim data we finished around 10 minutes ahead of schedule and around 330m further up the beach that predicted. The skippers had nailed the plan perfectly and professionally.

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Photos

Click to enlarge.


Video

Robert Howlett and Steven Riches - The Wash from MSF on Vimeo.

Raw stroke footage:


Media