In the summer the Oxford Channel swim team will be facing Cambridge in a relay race across the channel and as part of preparation for this the team spent 5 days training in the sea in Torbay, South Devon. Training in March was never going to be easy but with much determination and a really strong team spirit it was possible to overcome all the different difficulties the weather presented.
Monday 25th March – The day of the first swim
Once people had arrived and settled in a little, the promise of a little sun motivated the team to head down to Paignton beach and brave a first swim. Most of us were quite nervous and no one knew quite what to expect: the only thing we knew was that without wet suits the sea was going to be cold. With a sea temperature of around 10°C we made it our aim to swim around the pier, around 600m. Entering the water was so very cold it took our breath away. When we finally clambered out of the sea six minutes later, some swimmers feeling dizzy and disorientated and extreme shivering set in (a taste of the week to come), the swim was dubbed by several of the team as ‘their worst experience ever’.
Tuesday 26th March – The day of the very cold swim
Despite being presented with very grey weather it was decided to keep open the possibility of doing two swims in one day and so we set off to the beach in the morning. It was only once on the beach that we realised quite how cold it was: both the water and the air temperature. After the previous day’s experiences we were unsure whether we should brave the sea at all, but in the end everyone got in (already a great achievement) and managed to swim around the pier and some way parallel to the shore. For some of the team the 2nd day marked the breaking of the 10 minute mark, which in 7°C water (as we later found out) is painful. Back at the house the fire was put on and heating turned up to full, even so it took us till the evening to get properly warm again and so a second swim would not have been a wise idea.
Wednesday 27th March – The day of the long swims
The day greeted us sunny and (fairly) warm, fitting for the occasion of it being on Tom’s (one of the team) birthday. After a cake fuelled breakfast we made our way to Goodrington Beach for a change of scene. After being declared ‘mad’ and ‘very brave’ by a local interested in what we were doing, we set off for our swims. Managing to stay in longer than before, several of the team experienced the difficulties of orientating oneself in the water. They would start off in a group of 3 swimmers and after only a few strokes each would accidently head off in a different direction until they looked up and saw that they were no longer close to one of the others. Several of the team managed to stay in the water for over half an hour and although one of the team finished the day with tan lines, staying in water at 10°C for that long is very impressive. Although swimming had finished for the day after such achievement, the afternoon continued with ‘exercise’ in the form of playing Frisbee. This became the activity of choice for the rest of the camp with the Frisbee being a constant companion wherever we went: beach, park, garden…
Thursday 28th March – The day of the big waves
The 4th day was miserable, even from the house we could see the waves crashing over the sea wall at high tide. However we were not to be the only ones in the sea. There were sufficiently large waves for surfers in winter wetsuits to be on the water, who were very surprised to see anyone swimming, without any sort of wetsuit, in those conditions. The large waves also made it difficult to distinguish any splash made by a swimmer from white water, leading to a concerning 5 minutes when two of our swimmers disappeared from view (luckily we knew they were sticking together) and some passersby told us to consider calling the coast guard. Thankfully this wasn’t necessary and what started with worry ended in a lot of fun as we body boarded into shore, without a board.
Friday 29th March – The day of the fog
This was the last day of training and as some of the team had to head home that afternoon we went to the beach in the morning. The first thing we noticed was that we couldn’t see the sea, firstly the tide was so far out that swimming around the pier would have been only about 30m and secondly it was incredibly foggy – we hadn’t been able to see the sea from the house and even now we could only see 25m or so. In order to be able to keep the swimmers in view (we always swam in two lots, one after the other) they had to keep parallel to the shore, but this was made difficult by the shallow water. After some proper training it was decided that playing Frisbee in the water was much more fun. After the previous day we had also brought a skim board with us to use as a body board in case there were waves, but the sea was very flat. So the board was put to its intended use and some of the group attempted the balancing act of skim boarding.
The week was great. On most days the thought of going in the sea (at most 10°C) was less than appealing, particularly in conditions in which we would not even be allowed to swim in for the race in the summer; but everyone not only did it, but really challenged themselves to stay in as long as they could and there were some fantastic achievements. The benefits of the training were quickly noticeable, after the first day the dizziness stopped, after a couple of days we no longer had to catch our breath as much when getting in the water and by the end of the week even the violent shivering was subsiding. It was also lovely to meet the team better; it is surprising how little one can know people who on an almost daily basis swim just one or two lanes away. Being together for a week changed us, we started as individuals, nervous about going in the sea and now, by the end, we are a team ready to face the challenges the sea presents: cold, waves, sea weed, the lot.