Alice, Alex, Kim-Marie, Paula, Ruth and Tina are an inspiring group of women who in 2021 swam the 50km from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly to raise money for Surfers Against Sewage. In the wake of their epic swim, we talk to one of the group’s swimmers, Alice Bane, about their courage, strength and determination to fight for the health and future of our oceans.
Who came up with the idea for the Scilly Swim Challenge?
The idea evolved over a few months. We were hugely inspired by Mark Richards, who swam to Scilly solo in September 2019. We decided a long-distance relay sea swim would be brilliant, as it required us all to learn something new and face our fears of swimming offshore. Although we were all fit, none of us had done any long-distance sea swimming before. We initially thought about swimming the Channel, but the stretch of water between Scilly and Land’s End felt more like home.
There were so many exciting things about this challenge other than the swimming. Land’s End to Scilly is a stretch of water that brings with it great mystery and interest. Legend tells of the ‘The Lost Land of Lyonnesse’ a wondrous land destroyed by great inundation from the sea. It’s believed that, at times, the tolling of bells from lost churches can be heard under the water. We listened out for these.
Interestingly this crossing passes a volcanic plug called Wolf Rock, named after the howling sound it makes during gales. The lighthouse that stands here was the first in the world to feature a helipad. Also on our journey, as we approached the islands, we could see Severn Stones lightship in the distance, a stark reminder of the hundreds of ships wrecked on the reef.
How did you prepare for the physical challenge? And how did you find it on the day?
It was without a doubt the hardest thing any of us have done. It was also one of the most epic experiences of our lives. I swam with dolphins for 20 minutes which was extraordinary, and we saw sunfish too. Leaving Nanjizal was just wonderful as the sea was glassy and the sunrise breath-taking. It was also so exciting leaving land, knowing that now it was just us and the ocean for 50km. We knew that the weather was changing and the wind picking up, so we were under pressure to reach Scilly by early evening.
It was much harder than we could have imagined, and we had to swim much faster than we had been training for. As we had left a couple of days earlier to meet the weather parameters, the tidal difference made it much harder to keep the speed up. We were ‘nearly halfway’ for 3 hours and at this point we started to wonder if we would make it. We kept plugging away, moving at 0.3knots when against the strongest tides, and eventually the tide turned in our favour and we seemed to start making good progress towards Scilly. Longships lighthouse finally appeared distant, and the islands started to look bigger. Overall, we swam 50km and it took 16 hours and 7 minutes.
We trained for about one year, building up distance and speed. As the pools were closed due to the pandemic, we trained in the sea all winter which certainly toughened us up. We were happy with pretty much all conditions – freezing cold, choppy, windy, big surf. We also became very good at reading the weather and knowing where best to train. We would swim between two and five times per week depending on life’s commitments. Only twice did we get our gear on, walk down the beach and decide on the water’s edge that the conditions were too perilous to train. A very sensible call on both occasions.
How did you prepare for the mental challenge? Did you feel nervous?
None of us felt nervous just excited, and on the day, there was no fear. We had prepared mentally for the challenge from day one and the more exposure to the ocean we had, the more confidence we built. We weren’t keen on swimming in deep water before we started our training, wondering what might be underneath, but by the day of the challenge we literally didn’t give it a second thought. Even when the dolphins joined me and I saw them swim under me, not knowing where they were, I wasn’t worried.
We also had great faith in each other. Working as a team we always had that amazing support. We helped each other through all the training days, the highs and the lows, and on the day did the same. The worst thing on the journey was that Tina became largely incapacitated by sea sickness but still stoically swam her legs.
How did you keep safe along the way? What risks did you encounter along the way?
A few of us had already rowed a surfboat from Scilly to Sennen so we knew what kind of distance and conditions we were getting ourselves into. This passage is notorious for its strong currents, so we relied on calm conditions and timing the tides to achieve this swim.
We wore wetsuits and had lots of warm clothes and blankets so had prepared well for cold. Also, we had acclimatised throughout our winter training. We had two kayaks and a safety boat, ‘the Celtic Fox’, with us, who navigated the journey. One of our support kayakers is an Emergency Consultant and she also acted as medical support, so we had lots of gear aboard for safety and medical purpose. This meant we could just concentrate on swimming.
We did get pretty close to some huge ships. Before one of my legs, I was glad to hear the skipper of the safety boat communicate with a huge ship which then changed its course to starboard which enabled us to continue on our way safely. Sea sickness was a big risk too, so several swimmers wore anti-sickness patches. Poor Tina, who suffered terribly on the journey, required some extra anti-emetics (anti-nausea drugs) and lots of encouragement to keep fluid levels up.
Why have you chosen to support Surfers Against Sewage?
Swimming to Scilly wasn’t just about us enjoying times in the ocean, it was about the connection us humans have with the sea. Given that protecting the planet and changing our ways is fundamental for survival of life on earth, we wanted to support a local charity dedicated to the two major issues: plastic pollution and climate change. We chose Surfers Against Sewage, not just because they used to throw the best parties, but because they show huge commitment to fundamental environmental issues.
Why is the fight to protect our natural environment, in particular ocean health, especially close to your hearts?
We are mostly Cornish in origin and thalassophiles by nature. Seeing the damage to our oceans and environment first-hand is devastating. The oceans are literally our lungs and if we don’t protect our environment, planet earth will become uninhabitable for much of life.
What messages do you hope to promote through the Scilly Swim Challenge?
That sea swimming is for everyone, and anyone can conquer fears of swimming in the ocean. It’s an amazing way to exercise and to explore. It gives you an overwhelming sensation of being enveloped by nature. The ocean is the best place to be. Above all, it’s important that everyone recognises that we all have a part to play in the fight for environmental health and we can all support charities like Surfers Against Sewage who are at the forefront of these campaigns.
How can other people get involved in the fight against climate change and plastic pollution?
Everyone can support environmental charities like Surfers Against Sewage, both directly and through challenges like ours that raise money and awareness. We can all make lifestyle choices that are environmentally friendly too, whether that’s through shopping locally, reducing single-use plastic, thinking about how you travel and so on. It’s not always easy as unfortunately a huge amount of input is yet required through government policies and commercial business, but step by step, we can all do what we can individually to lead to great collective change.
How did you celebrate after your swim?
A nice warm blanket was no doubt the best way to celebrate, especially after spending 16 hours at sea. We spent a couple of nights on Scilly and had a beer or two. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Wally the Walrus as well, before he went off on his journey North.
Are there other challenges on the horizon?
Absolutely. There is nothing like a challenge to keep us focused. Also, it’s a great way to spend time together. I am not sure what the challenge will be yet, but it will no doubt be ocean-based.
How can people find out more and how to donate?
We have kept a diary of our progress on social media: Scilly Swim Challenge 2021.