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As I sat on the plane, the magnitude of what we were about to do sank in…  I knew I had ‘trained’ hard in the time that I had had…  Being a 1. Clare 12 hour swim
late addition, I had not spent as much time in the cold water as I would have liked.  I also knew that some of that training had been tough and had seen me the closest to hypothermia that I would ever want to be, but I was part of a team…  part of a team that had the chance to make history and I didn’t want to let anybody down.  I had to give this my all… there was no other option.  I had to prove to myself that I was worthy of this invite and show the others that they had made a good choice…  Ever since getting that call to say you are on the team, my goal as well as everyone else’s was simply to get the job done whilst having some fun along the way.

I landed at about 1pm on Friday 10th June at Belfast International.  Sarah had arrived by ferry and had kindly agreed to pick me up from the airport.  The drive to Donaghadee, (the little town that we were staying in and the place that the swim was due to start) was a lovely way to get to know her a little better as we had met only briefly prior to the swim.  We explored each other’s lives and motivations and just generally got to know each other.  When we arrived at the house in Donaghadee, I met Louise… again another member of the team that I knew least and we just had a giggle and a little ‘pootle swim’ as I call them, in the harbour to try to acclimatise to the temperatures that would be with us across the North Channel.  It was great to spend a little time with these lovely ladies and right from the start we just clicked.

Working as a team has been an integral part of my life and I must say that this team is solid… we appreciate each other’s moods, feelings, fears and the need for space…  We just work well together. Our ‘leader’ Caroline and Vicki arrived later that evening and the banter began…  We had heard that we may go as early as 4am on the 11th so nerves were there but we used humour to keep a level and face the enormity of what we were about to undertake.  We unpacked and repacked, unpacked and repacked (well I did anyway) and waited for Quinton Nelson the pilot to arrive and tell us whether it was a goer’ or not.  The doorbell rang and a little bead of sweat crossed my brow and we waited with baited breath as to what our fate for that next 24hrs would be…  Sadly, the weather was to get a little worse so it was decided to hold fire and wait 24hrs to re-evaluate.  We needed the best window to ensure that we had the best chance of success.

Whilst we were disappointed, we chatted and decided that this was a good thing as we could all get a good night’s sleep following our travels.  Saturday came and we went for another acclimatisation dip in the harbour.  The locals were ‘amused’ to see this bunch of middle aged women wandering the street in flip-flops, costumes and goggles but warmly welcomed our bonkersness!  Such a friendly little town.  I took the go-pro to get some footage of our second little pootle as well as to try to work out what I was doing with the thing!.  We stayed in for a good half hour laughing, giggling, pootleing and just having a good time in the chilly water…  Later that evening we met Quinton again…  He said that there was a band of weather coming that he wanted to avoid but said that he was as sure as he could be that we would go at 4pm on Sunday 12th June.  We packed and repacked again and went out to eat.  We had a lovely meal at the Moat Inn and just got to know each other a little more.  I love this team…  We are all on the same page and have the same outlook on life in many ways.  Not one of us is too serious and we all accept that what will be will be.  I have complete belief in each and every one of them…  They are like family now…  We sat in that pub as one team with one goal and that was to try our hardest to be the first all ladies team to do a 2 way of the North Channel and we were going to give it our best and work the hardest that we could to reach that goal.

Again, we tried to get a good night’s sleep and await Quinton’s expert opinion on whether the 12th was a goer’ or not.  He came late morning and again we all gathered to hear the verdict…  Nothing had changed!  Barring a hurricane, we were told to be at the boat for 3pm ready to start swimming at 4.  We all found our own coping mechanisms, packed and repacked again and got our shizzle together for the off.  The banter was still light hearted and we were ready.  I had worked hard physically and mentally for this chance and I was not going to blow it…

We got our kit down to the Marina at the allotted time and we were as ready for the off as we were ever going to be…  It was now or never…

We organised ourselves on the boat ‘The John and Frances MacFarlane’, an old RNLI Lifeboat and got prepared for the biggest swim of our lives.  The order had been set…  First up was Caroline, then Louise, then Vicki, Sarah and I would bring up the rear.  Ideally we needed to push on at 2 miles an hour so we had a goal, something to try to achieve and boy, I was going to do my damdest to earn my place on this amazing team (OW Ladies Relay).

2. Clares blog leaving marinaThe weather was in our favour.  We knew that the water was going to be cold…  It delivered.  The water temperature fluctuated between 11 and 13 degrees… Cold but doable.  There was very little wind and the sea was dead calm…  Ideal!  We got ourselves mentally prepared and off we went.  Caroline was in and swam to the shore, touched the rocks and we were off… I attempted to get some footage using the Go Pro and Mount! (Quinton raised his eyebrows at the first sighting of my Go Pro mount and I think is now scared for life!) and we just stood watch giving each other hand signals or just a simple smile to reassure and encourage those in the water that everything was going swimmingly.  Having set of at 4pm, I worked out when my times were going to be…  8pm, 1am, 6am, 11am, 4pm, 9pm, 2am and so on…  I had psychologically prepared for 7 swims.  I was in at 8pm and ‘slid’ into the water overtaking Sarah who had swum really well.  I knew it was going to be cold but the mental preparation and my previous near hypothermic session had prepared me well.  I was in, I was swimming and strangely I was loving it.  I was in my element just thinking in an emotional way how had I been so lucky to end up here.  I kept myself busy counting jellyfish (28) which thankfully were away down out of reach.  The water was clear and the boat was easy to follow although there is always one swimmer in a team that has to be awkward preferring to swim on the opposite side of the boat that the others swim due to my unilateral breathing style.  This made for interesting changeovers but nothing was too much trouble for either the swimmers, the crew or our lovely observer Michael Angus.  At 8:55pm, I caught site of the 5 minute board and swam round to the other side of the boat, getting spat out the back by the boat and having to swim faster to get back in again, but the thoughts of warm porridge and hot Vimto made me dig deep and find that little extra push.  I waited for Caroline to pass me, grabbed the ladder and went down below to get dried and don a new dry costume, loads of layers, down jackets and my wonderful dry-robe and the infamous snowman bobble hat with the fleecy lining….  Re-warming was key to the success of this swim and so jogging on the deck was my way to warm up before getting some warm porridge into me.  Everyone was going great guns and just got in and swam…  It was now starting to get dark so staying warm was harder during these times but again our planning and knowing what to put on, eat and drink kept our re-warming practices on track.  The bonus of having somewhere below deck that was out of sight to just get stripped off and dried as quickly as possible was a real bonus and allowed that re-warming process to begin really quickly.

Every swim was uneventful; swimmer in, swimmer out, hot drink, something to eat and keep warm until the next one.  My 1am slot came up.  I watched Vicki’s swim which had been a bit of Jelly fish soup…  the lights of the boat brought them all up to the surface and she had a fair few, they eased off a little for Sarah to begin with but then reappeared so I knew that I was probably going to have to give up counting them on this swim…  I got in 3. Clare swimmingopting to jump rather than slide off the side this time and although lights had been set up on ‘my side’ of the boat I quickly opted to swim on the same side as the others.  I love swimming at night and that still stands however this one was like I imagine ‘death’ to look like…  I was following the light underwater the whole time watching clouds of Jelly fish float by.  It was quite surreal…  Every now and again, my manicured nails would ‘poke’ a jelly fish causing a brief flinch but I soon came back to ‘one team’ and I was not going to be the one to let them down… no way, so I carried on.  I took a few stings but having taken a few in the English Channel I knew what to expect so this did not phase me…  My hour was done.  As predicted I lost count of ‘jellies’ quickly as there were so many and it was time for my change over with Caroline…  The re-warming routine took place and I got toasty ready to throw myself back in again.  The swimming is really the easy bit…  It is the ability to get warm and know that you are going to get cold again that is the difficult bit to cope with but (pardon the pun), everybody was in the same boat and it was a case of just taking it in our stride.  The crew (Jordan and Ross) kept coming with the hot drinks and banter and it was beginning to feel like a bunch of middle aged women on a posh picnic, having a ‘little’ swim from time to time…  Humour was rife and everyone was just having a great time…  There were no lows yet we were living that one life that we all get to the full and enjoying every moment…  We made Scotland in a little over 13 hrs with Sarah making the touch.  I remember thinking that if we can do it one way, we had a good chance of getting back, appreciating that as always our fate was to be decided by forces greater that the bunch of us on that boat.  Scotland is full of fond memories for me as my daughter is half Scottish (I divorced from her father some time ago) and as such we have spent lots of time there over the years.  Her Gran and Grandpa are sadly no longer with us but I felt that they were with me in that water, keeping it calm and bringing all the luck that we needed to ensure that we were successful…  Whilst I am not particularly religious, I do believe in these things and feel that there are powers there that will keep an eye over us when we ask them too…

My 6am slot came, there was no beautiful sunrise unfortunately.  The fog was thick.  The occasional sound of a fog horn could be heard and the scene reminded me of a scene from ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ and ‘Curdle Cove’!  The water remained calm and the jelly fish had started to sink a little further down which was a nice feeling.  We knew that the way back would take longer than the way there so getting a shuffle on was key.  My third stint was unremarkable, I got in and in good Dory terms, just kept swimming…  Quentin was still stood at his post, some of the girls had managed to get a power nap in and all was right with the world… Jordan and Ross continued the sterling work with getting folk on and off the boat, taking air and water temperatures, making the drinks and having a bit of banter.  Michael continued to take the stroke rate details and keep an eye on our welfare.  All was going well.

It was my 4th rotation that was my toughest.  We needed to get a shuffle on and Quinton played a game with me (in my mind) called chase the God damn boat…  The problem was that I never seemed to be able to catch it…  I felt alone in the sea…  I didn’t have the thumbs up or a catch of smiley laughing faces from the boat…  It felt a long hour of just me and my thoughts.  I thought a lot about my daughter and the struggles that she has had for the last year and I tried physically to take some of those struggles away from her and leave them in that Channel… I thought about the team lots and knew that I could and would not let them down and I had a silly tune in my head to ensure that I tried to keep my stroke rate consistent…  I eventually saw the 5 minute board and started the manoeuvre to get me to the right side of the boat and Quinton again played that game and it seemed to take forever for me to catch it…  I came out huffing and puffing knowing that I had given my all but the mix of the mind games and the current saw me complete the least distance on that rotation…  I hope it was the current and not my mind getting the better of me…  Perhaps I will never know…

Everyone, as always just got on with their swim, out, rewarm, fuel routine and Pablo made an appearance (AKA Sarah)…  She is an absolute Nutter, but she brought the banter back to full pelt with her dressing up skills.  (You will need to watch the video to get the whole story on that one!).  My 5th ‘immersion’ came round really quickly…  Quinton said that it was a 50/50 chance as to if we would make it due to timing and currents so I knew I had to give it absolutely everything…  I got in absolutely determined to swim the best hour that I could muster…  The sun had made a brief appearance and I had put some sun cream on which was an epic fail…. sadly, I had got some on my face and goggles causing a ‘GOGGLE MALFUNCTION’.  I got in and within a minute, my goggles filled with water.  I did my best 4. Clare swimming 2to sort and this happened a further 2 times.  The girls on the boat frantically tried to find my other goggles but I decided to just tighten them as best as I could and just swim.  My eyes were almost suctioned out of my head but it worked of a fashion and the inlet of water was minimal…  I felt that as I had had to stop, I had let the team down so I was determined to make up for those lost seconds and I swam like I had a boat to catch… I gave it my all for the team on that swim and when the 5 minute board came up, the lighthouse that had seemed miles away when I got in, seemed so close.  I covered some good mileage that leg so that frustration turned a negative into a big positive for me…  I got out and we all knew that we were now able to get the job done…  Quinton used his skills and knowledge of the sea to navigate us through the islands and at that point we were starting to get a real sense of the challenge that we were possibly about to achieve…

I changed once more into my dry costume ready to go again but it soon became apparent that this was unlikely as we were getting closer to shore.  Caroline and Louise swam like the fish they are and Vicki had the islands to her left most of the way until the caught a side current that swept her across…  At the end of Vicki’s hour we were able to make out cars and windows…  The end was in sight… We were also approaching the 28hour point 5. Clare harbourwhich meant that we had a distinct possibility of breaking the existing record…  The mood was euphoric.  The sun made a further appearance and the mist lifted, leaving a thin band across the skyline…  We could potentially be record breakers…  Sarah got it and swam to take us in…  She found a rock…  Stood up and then tucked in even closer to the shore…  We did not want any technicality to scupper our mission…  We were screaming at her to touch the rock whilst Vicki recorded every moment for a Facebook live link…  We had done it…  I was crying as were some of us…  Some of us are more outwardly emotional than others but I know that inside, we all felt the most amazing sense of pride.  We as a team are strong…  Every one of us had worked our goggles off to achieve that one goal and together with the fantastic support of the Pilot Quint0n, Observer Michael and Ross and Jordan, we had achieved what many may have doubted was possible.

We are now the 1st All Ladies Relay team to have successfully completed a 2 way North Channel Crossing.  We broke the existing record by 90 minutes and touched down within a couple of miles from where we set off…  Remarkable achievement for all involved.

I am bursting with pride as I know my fellow teammates are.  Thanks for asking me to come out to play on our ‘Middle Aged Women’s Posh Picnic Adventure’.  I loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to discover where our next posh picnic adventure takes us……

One Life, One Team, One Goal.

Clare Wookey – Swimmer Number 5 and the last addition to the team…

6. The Chart

7. Clare

8. The whole team