Two years ago I remember seeing a friends Facebook post about a new swimming challenge which was being held in the Isle of Scilly, it looked amazing and I added it to my ever expanding swimming bucket list. I was reminded again about it last year when another friend did it and the photo’s again looked simply divine. So when the Scilly Swim Challenge opened their entries for this year I emailed a few friends to see if anyone wanted to join me.
The swim had become so popular already that Kerry and I found ourselves on the waiting list within only twenty minutes of it opening. Luckily for us just a few days later we were both offered places.
The challenge is made up of 6 swims and 6 walks over one day, this year they also ran an alternative option which was for people to do the challenge over two days instead of the one.
What we hadn’t added into the equation was the challenge of actually getting to the Isle of Scilly in the first place, for those of you that don’t know it is off the coast of Cornwall about 28 miles out from Lands End.
Just a month before we were frantically trying to find somewhere to stay and work out our easiest and most time efficient way of getting there. It wasn’t easy as ferries are only once a day and although planes fly from Newquay, Exeter and Lands End they aren’t cheap. We opted to drive down to Lands End and then take the 15 minute flight from there to St Mary’s.
We needed to register on Friday before 4.30pm at Portmellon beach and then the briefing and acclimatisation swim would be at 5.30pm. There were about 130 taking on the challenge with about 15-20 of us swimming without wetsuits, although I believe some did put them on as each of the swims progressed on the actual day. The water temp was about 14.5 degrees so we were hoping for a bit of sun so that we could warm up on the walks between swims.
7am on Saturday morning we met at the meeting point on Portmellon beach ready for the walk to Bar point on St Mary’s Island to the start of the first swim. Swimmers had been divided up by speed into Red, Amber and Green hats and the idea is that each pod goes off together and then kayakers support each group as they make their way across to each island. Throughout the day there would be approximately 15km of swimming and 10km of walking.
Once we arrived at Bar point, St Mary’s we arranged into our groups and got our bags onto the boat so that they would meet us on our arrival at St Martins. For the skins swimmers such as myself they had an extra facility which was bags which you could put your dryrobe or towel into that would be there as soon as you got out of the water to help prevent too much cold shivering. As we started the 2.8km swim to St Martins it was really overcast but the water was lovely flat and we soon arrived at Higher Town Quay – St Martins to the supporters/volunteers and our bags. We had a short walk up to what appeared to be a village hall where we were greeted with soups, bacon/sausage sandwiches and warm drinks… I wasn’t sure we deserved it just yet but it was a lovely welcome!
Another little walk down to Lower Town Quay where we would start our swim to Tresco, this was about a 2.3km swim but seemed to take us longer than the longer first swim. The water was still flat and the sky overcast but the water was still feeling warm and the shivers hadn’t started yet. We weaved in between some smaller rocky islands at the beginning and it was difficult to know where we were heading to other than follow the kayaks. As we got closer to our landing point on Old Grimsby Beach in Tresco and started swimming parallel to the shoreline I could see that I wasn’t swimming anywhere very fast and there seemed to be a current heading not with me but against. Eventually we landed on the beach to the big smiley face of our pod leader Dawn who was ready to mark us in. The group who left after us came flying in from a different angle and had obviously enjoyed the current in their favour.
After another short walk up to the community centre we were treated to lunch – a variety of pasta’s (including Gluten Free for the annoying people like me with difficult eating requirements), cakes, chocolate, banana’s, hot and cold drinks. We had an hour here and to my delight the sun had come out so an opportunity to work on my summer open water suntan!
With our tummy’s full we headed down to New Grimsby Quay, passed over our bags to the boat to meet us after a quick 600m sprint over to Bryher by Church Quay. As we waited for the swim someone remarked to Kerry and I that we looked like we were on our summer holidays standing there in our costumes enjoying the sunshine. This time all pods were going off together for the short swim so there was a little argy bargy as some of the swimmers raced off wanting to be the first on the beach.
After arriving we walked up to the church and were treated to more cakes (including delicious homemade gluten free brownies – thank you to whomever made those), there was time again to enjoy some sunshine until we started the walk over to Rushy Bay. We were treated to amazing views, as we had for all of the walks, but as we came around the corner we all looked a little worried as we saw the waves crashing fiercely upon the rocks in the distance. We turned another corner and arrived at Rushy Bay, like all the others a beautiful white sandy beach. The water was definitely looking rougher than the calm waters we had been swimming in previously.
This was the start of the long swim which would end in St Agnes Quay, with a little stopover to walk across a sandbank on Samson about 1km away. We had to swim around two large rock formations, one had attracted a host of cormorants. Our pod all gathered again on the sandbank before the short walk across and then the start of the longer swim of a further 5km. Between the islands we had experienced patches of long weeds which enjoyed wrapping themselves around your arms, torso and legs… without a wetsuit it felt very slimy but luckily made it easier to swim through although at times I would put my head up and pull myself through them. This was no different, a large area of weeds until we headed out to the open sea to swim over to St Agnes. During this swim you could only sight off the kayaker in front as the swells were reasonably big and you couldn’t see St Agnes, when we could it didn’t seem to be getting closer for quite some time. Eventually I could see 4 bright orange t-shirts standing at the end of the quay ready to welcome us in… for you got it… more warm drinks and cake!! There was definitely no going hungry on this challenge. For the first time during the day I had started to feel a little cold towards the end of this swim and the shivers definitely started when I got out.. it made me feel a little better when the wetsuit swimmers couldn’t keep their warms drinks in their cups due to the cold shakes either.
A few swimmers were pulled out before the end of this swim as it had been taking them too long, were tired or just didn’t fancy it anymore. We just had one more swim to go and all swimmers were given the opportunity to board a boat back to St Mary’s (the Island where we had started our day). A few swimmers took up that offer as the swells according to one of the kayakers were above their heads – in fact at one point during the swim I heard a large ‘wooohoooo’ as one of the kayakers next to me started surfing them. The last swim was about 3km but again you couldn’t see the finish due to it being around the corner and then another into Porthcressa beach. Not being able to see your final destination or know where to sight to I found difficult at times but luckily the kayaker I was following had a large wide brimmed hat that I could always see. The last swim was tough as the swells were coming in from the side but as I turned the corner to the last part of the swim into the beach the water was incredibly calm and I flew into the beach (over more weed). As I came out onto the beach many supporters were there cheering us in, a mixture of people who were there supporting friends and family but also locals and those on holiday (who were bemused as to why anyone would want to do all that swimming in one day). I arrived onto the beach to a big hug from Dawn our pod leader – a lovely welcome after what had been 12.5 hours since we had left earlier that day.
A quick change and then we headed to the pub for a celebratory drink and steak dinner!
The next evening (Sunday) Scilly Swim Challenge organised a ferry over to St Martins to Karma Hotel where drinks and BBQ awaited and was a great opportunity to catch up with new swimming friends and chat about the swim the day before. A really lovely evening enjoying burgers, Pimms, talks of swims around the world and listening to live music.
I cannot praise this swim enough, for many reasons. It is in a beautiful location and the local people on the Isles couldn’t have been more friendly, supportive and a complete pleasure to talk to. At times you could have been mistaken to think you were in the Caribbean. The event was run incredibly well and had obviously learnt from the two years before. Every time we landed on the beach our bags were there and there was drinks and food galore (even for a gluten free pain like me!) – I am sure I put on rather than lost weight on this swim. Lastly all those helping on the day always had a smile on their face and were incredibly supportive, that includes the kayakers, pod leaders, those providing food/drink etc – so thank you to everyone. Another swim ticked off my bucket list.
It is also a challenge that both skins and wetsuit swimmers are able to join in and is promoted as a challenge rather than a race. So if you are looking for a timing chip and a winners medal then perhaps this isn’t the swim for you (you do get a t-shirt though :)). Swimmers are able to wear fins for this swim too – I am not sure I personally agree with this and having been kicked in the face on a few occasions by some it made me disagree more, however, it is an option if you aren’t keen on swimming without them and want an extra boost.
Throughout the swim I was asked by many wetsuit swimmers was I not cold? I don’t think that I was any colder than any wetsuit swimmer, and in fact was probably warmer than some. Most of the skins swimmers had big swimming pedigrees including solo Channel, Catalina, Manhattan (to name a few) swims under their belts and therefore had been training without wetsuits for years so wasn’t really a problem.
My only advice before booking this swim would be to look into the accommodation and transport to get there. The flights aren’t cheap and only fly from Newquay, Exeter and Lands End (and are often cancelled – our homeward flight to St Ives was cancelled in the morning and we had to get the ferry late afternoon meaning we got home at 1am instead of 4.30pm and people had had flights cancelled on the Friday night meaning they missed the first swim in the morning) and the ferry only leaves once a day from Penzance. The restaurants also get booked up very quickly, we tried to get into all the restaurants and pubs for dinner on the Friday night for an hour until we managed to find a space so ensure you book up in advance.
Next years event is currently planned for the 2nd September with the two day event planned for the 5th & 6th September. Make sure you sign up for the newsletter so you can enter as soon as it opens (around October/November) – as I mentioned before it sold out in twenty minutes for this years event. You can find out more information on their website here.