The Hurrell Chronicles: My First Open Water Swim
Triathlon Plus production assistant Adam Hurrell finds he’s not all at sea when plunging into the open water.
Last week marked two firsts for me. Number one being my first visit to the Salisbury Playhouse to see a rather excellent production of “Stepping Out” and number two being my first 1500m open-water swim – in a quarry. The show in Salisbury was fantastic and a thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all. The interval conversations, held over ices with wooden spoons, along the lines of “could’ve sworn I’ve seen her in Doctors/Midsomer Murders/Casualty/background part in the Queen Vic/random rambler in Emmerdale” being a particular highlight. If you’re in the area I thoroughly recommend you go and see it, as it’s a great show with heartfelt acting and wicked ending!
My 1500m swim however was an occasion of more mixed emotions. By nature I am a fairly risk averse individual. Skydiving does not appeal and it’s highly unlikely I will ever put a million on black. So the prospect of spending my Thursday evening swimming round a flooded quarry, to be totally honest, filled me with a healthy dose of trepidation. I woke up on Thursday morning feeling nervous so you can imagine the summersaults the old Hurrell stomach was doing by the time Tom “the power” Ballard – yes as in the songs for those readers amongst you haven’t got the joke yet – Adrian “The Body” Miles – and what a body too, seven foot of pure chiselled muscle, and James “JamHam” Hamilton piled into Adrian’s un-air-conditioned Fiesta for the brief drive to Vobster Quay. Vobster Quay for the uninitiated is a flooded quarry that is now a scuba diving and open-water swimming lake.
I had borrowed and tried on at home a few potential wetsuits the week before, and after much rolling around on the floor squealing like a skewered pig trying to slither in and out of them I had found one that fitted correctly. The next hurdle to overcome, now that I was as sleek and warm as a seal in my new skin, was my myopia. I am dramatically, cripplingly shortsighted. My vision problems were laid to rest however, with the gift of a pair of Speedo prescription goggles from Triathlon Plus’ esteemed editor Elizabeth Hufton.
So complete with race hat, goggles and wetsuit I felt reasonably prepared as we stood on the bank listening carefully to the pre-race briefing surrounded by many other overly enthusiastic adults clad in skin-tight neoprene awaiting to leap into freezing water all in the name of a deluded perception of “fun”. A casual passer by could have been forgiven for thinking we were auditioning for the roles in the new B-movie horror “Giant Tadpole Attacks” as we stood around waiting to get in. (Although according to my pal Simon, “Newt Apocalypse” was a better film – “nothing like the smell of burning frogspawn in the morning”.)
The pre-race briefing, from Triathlon Plus contributor and Hot Chilli Triathlon Club Head Coach, Richard Smith, was a stroke of genius. No need to describe the conditions, as we already knew it would be wet, but the route outline was essential info. “Now then ladies and gents, all assembled, here’s the plan. You get in and swim to the buoy over there. Then you punt out to the buoy down the other end and then you come back via the blue buoy. Got it? Good. If you think you’re gonna drown bung your hand up and someone will come and pick you up. If you’re doing 1500m it’s two laps.” Once CPO Pertwee had finished giving us instructions we studied the course map trying desperately to remember that we were meant to be swimming round the yellow buoys. And so with a rather unflattering resemblance to Able Seaman Fatso I tottered over to the water’s edge feeling far from confident. Once in the water, however, I was all at sea, or should I say all at lake? It was bloody cold, and spotting a yellow buoy the size of a saggy football from 700 yards away is easier said than done.
We were given a few minutes “warm-up”; warm-up I thought, yeah with a large glass of single malt, in front of coal fire with a Border Terrier snoring at my feet, that’s warming-up but in this lake sonny? No chance. And all of the sudden the air-horn sounded, or was it the person in front – there were a few suspicious bubbles erupting – either way we were off.
Luckily, Ballard had given me some additional advice “as it’s your first time, stay at the back to avoid the melee”. Sound advice indeed as it looked a little choppy up front with arms flaying around all over the place. Something else that was becoming quickly apparent was the enormous distance between each marker buoy. They seemed to be miles a part, obviously the distances quadruple once you’re in the water. I hit upon a wizard idea though to help my navigation. Rely on all the other people around you and just follow them. At least if they go wrong you’re all in the same boat – or not as the case may be. This tactic worked exceptionally well for the first 300m or so until they all found their stroke and accelerated away from me. It was at that point that I realised that I had absolutely no idea where I was meant to be going. It’s all very well aiming for the yellow marker but there were about 500 other markers floating around to confuse me.
Each stroke seemed to be an effort and it took ages to get into a rhythm, exacerbated by my need to look up and check the bow was pointed in the right direction. There were many a moment when I thought, “I’ve definitely swum this bit before. This patch of water looks really familiar. I recognise that bit of weed drifting in front of me”. But it wasn’t long before I adopted the advice of Sub-Lieutenant Phillips, and after a bit of “slow-ahead both and left hand down a bit,” progress was most certainly being made.
And so despite my head feeling increasingly like it had been stuck in a chest freezer and sharp blasts of Arctic water breaching my suit, and my shonky navigation (reckon the charts I’d been given were either upside down or hopelessly out of date), the Hurrell battle cruiser made it round the course in a time of 37 minutes and 34 seconds. I was stone dead last and by a margin of many minutes. Still at least I didn’t sink and I was pretty chuffed at having actually got round not only in one piece but also before it got dark.
Adrian and JamHam flew round in under 27 minutes and speedy Ballard completed the course in a rather impressive 25 minutes and 27 seconds (although, he did have an outboard motor on his back – a rather unfair advantage in my opinion). But the best part of the swim was the knowledge that yes I can do it. I will be able to swim the distance in nine days time. I’ll be in the dock at the Virgin Active London Triathlon on 22nd September knowing that I’ve done it before and I can do it again but next time I will go round faster. Roll on race day!
A huge thanks to Liz for the goggles, to Richard and the excellent staff at Vobster Quay for the swim, to Ballard for his invaluable advice and to Adrian for driving us all up there last week. And, of course, thank you to Julian for taking me to see “Stepping Out” at the Salisbury Playhouse.
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