The Grand swim was an event that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Even now, a few months on, it is impossible to put into words how incredible the experience was. I get overwhelmed when I think about the support we had, the people cheering us on every stroke of the way. It still gives me chills. Humbling doesn’t even cut it. I’m over humbled and full of deep, deep gratitude!
I know I’m not the only one on the team who had the best and worst times of their life within that 37 hours. When I said I wanted the ocean to swallow me up, I was serious. The elation of completing the task overpowers any darkness that was met out at sea.
The finish line
There was no better moment for me, than feeling the sand beneath my feet, and realising that my legs did in fact still work. I wasn’t sure they would be able to carry me to the high water mark, so when I put my full weight down and my saturated legs carried my weight, the relief was immense. Most of us will never forget the ‘dance moves’ I pulled off in that most majestic of moments. I wanted to show everyone that I was of sound mind and body. I knew how much my friends and family were worrying about me and, yeah, I was showing off!
One thing I wasn’t ready for was the noise. So many people had come to West Bay Dock to welcome us home. I had been alone with my thoughts for much of the journey, being surrounded by people shouting and cheering my name was unbelievably intense. I kept my ear plugs firmly in place but the wall of noise was still so loud. I had my medical crew there waiting in an ambulance with fluids and pain relief. All I kept thinking was, soon I can sleep!!
Throughout this article I refer to “us”, not “I”. I did not swim around Grand Cayman on my own. Yes, I was in the water putting one arm in front of the other as an individual but there is no way I would have made it to the end without the entire crew. From project manager, kayak support and all round legend Jen Wardman, Chance Eaton, the ground crew, boat crew, entire kayak support team, the school kids I met along the way, radio presenters cheering us on, everyone who donated, and all the sponsors. Every single person had such a huge part to play. Each puzzle piece was integral to the success of the swim.
There is something magical about having a support crew of people who have only known you for a short time, coming together and working towards a common goal.
Swimming through the night, in the dark abyss, feeling cold from exposure and the depth of the water was draining in so many ways. When the sun started to rise on the morning of day 2 I was filled with energy and relief. We were over half way and my spirits lifted at the same pace as the sun coming over the horizon. The whole crew were happy to be out of the darkness.
At the beginning of my trip, school visits would have appeared on my list of 5 lows! I was not a public speaker and not a big fan of being put on the spot. I was given the opportunity to talk to the young people of Cayman about my previous swims and the cause that we are raising awareness for. I was lucky that most of the students were engaged and listened well, with other students it took a lot more work to hold their attention. They wanted to know about the animal encounters (sharks) that I had while swimming! They looked at me with eyes wide as we talked about the route we were planning on taking. It’s all very well and good to be talking proudly about previous achievements, however, I felt something of an imposter talking about something that I hadn’t even attempted yet.
It was the memories of these school visits that really kept me on track when things got tough. When my brain was telling me to pull the plug I recalled the faces of the children who were in awe and it kept me strong and it kept me swimming. I wanted to make sure I could be the hero they already thought I was.
The whole Island of Grand Cayman was talking about the swim. We made quite the ruckus, as was our initial intention. The build up included radio interviews, fundraisers, and gathering raffle prizes. We were lucky to have so many local businesses on our side. This was all before I even got in the water!! On the day, the buzz was unreal. We had a small party of people waving us off at the start line (at 5am) but as the miles were clocked, and the hours went by, more and more people became interested in this crazy, ginger dude who was achieving unimaginable feats at sea.
The Grand Swim captured the attention and the hearts of the entire nation. Not only due to the world record attempt, but because Plastic Free Cayman has been working so hard to keep the beaches of the island free of trash. Everyone who lives here is aware of how bad the issue is. You can’t take yourself to a secluded beach without being confronted by tons of ocean plastic. It hurts to know that in our lifetime we will do well to see a pristine beach again. Even if single use plastic was banned tomorrow it would take hundreds of years to rid the oceans of this suffocating substance.
This was my first downfall and it probably led to others down the road. I created my own feed plan based on my Isle of Wight swim which was an error. I wanted to make the whole thing as easy as possible for the crew but it’s something I should have spent more time on. It was all a little last minute and I should have tested certain combinations before heading out onto the water. An amateur mistake. I also failed to use the coconut oil as planned to offer some protection from the salt exposure. When the swelling started to get bad it was almost impossible to get any solid food down. Bananas, energy balls and peanut butter were all difficult to consume at this point.
I am so lucky that the crew on the boat were able to improvise with what they had. On top of this I was battling a shoulder injury and I had been given a high dose of anti-inflammatories. A Slight mistake to my medication plan caused me to have a pretty upset stomach from early on in the swim. My body simply wasn’t absorbing the nutrients I needed. We were only 4 or 5 hours in at this point and the scale of this swim was already starting to sink in!
I learnt alot from these mistakes and would say this…. Get used to eating while you’re swimming, and eat what you’re used to eating!
Listening to music is something I don’t normally do when I’m swimming. I love the sensory deprivation, the quiet and calmness it brings me. I bought some waterproof headphones for my Isle of Wight swim but never got to a point where I felt I needed them on that swim. However, on this swim as the hours rolled on the voices and sleep deprivation made staying relaxed and focused all that much harder. I can channel out the pain, discomfort and exhaustion to a point… but I was beyond that! The music would prove a much needed distraction, by singing along to my favourite tunes could push further than I’d ever gone before.
However, there was a slight problem! I will let Jen tell the story from her perspective here:
As a support kayaker, I had some very important jobs to do, steer the swimmer, feed the swimmer and provide entertainment for the swimmer. A special bag had been packed full of necessary items such as vaseline, coconut oil, first aid kit and the all important music device, this bag was supposed to stay on the kayaks at all times, it was not. When Oly requested his headphones, I got on the radio and asked the boat crew to locate said bag. At this moment, I knew the bag wasn’t on the support boat. It had been left behind on the Ocean Frontiers craft when we were emerging from the south channel at night.
The ground crew had the bag in place and were waiting for us to get to Spots Dock where we needed to make a personnel switch as well. It had already taken us 2 hours longer than anticipated and the pace wasn’t about to improve. I was contacted on the radio by Chance who let me know that the bag was not available. He instructed me to inform Oly, this was not an option. I could see how much mental and physical pain he was in and there was no way I could break the news to him. A new kayak support crew was ready to complete a shift change, however, I insisted that I stay out on the water until the headphone situation was resolved.
When Oly asked me again where the headphones were I let him know that they were on their way. I pleaded with the boat crew to send the coast guard ahead to meet the ground crew, make the personnel switch and return with the bag.
My luck was in! The coastguard sped off into the distance and I was finally able to breathe. Oly was becoming concerned and said that if he had to continue to listen to the voices in his head he was going to swim up the beach and get out the water. Little did he know that there was no beach, just cliff faces at this point. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
When the coast guard came into view, the relief was astounding. They pulled in tight and handed me the bag. We also had supplies from the ground crew that made it a heck of a lot easier to get food into Oly too. And there they were, the almighty music device. Once I was able to provide Oly with his entertainment I was absolutely thrilled. It definitely provided him with a much needed boost at this late stage in the swim.
There is being tired, and there is the kind of exhaustion I was feeling at hour 30 something. Due to the poor food plan and upset stomach, I was totally depleted. I had barely anything left in the tank. The new food supplies did give me some light relief but I was so tired, all I wanted to do was sleep. I am pretty sure that I kept swimming while having micro naps in the final stretch. One eye was closed for a fair amount of time in the last leg, causing a stye to appear in the days after the swim.
All I kept thinking in this state was how naive I had been and how much bigger this swim was than me. Who do I think I am, doubling my longest ever swim time and having a restricted training schedule? But…there was no way I wasn’t getting to the finish line. If my heart was still beating, the swim was getting finished. The faces of everyone who supported us kept flashing through my mind, the school children, the sponsors, my family and all the support crew. I wasn’t going to put them through all of this then not to finish. I had to do it, for them and for the state of the oceans. My mission remained strong even when my body started to crumble.
Seeing the finish line
This sounds like it should be in amongst the high points of the swim but it was the most difficult. We were still around 7 or 8 miles from the finish line when it first came into view. There was a reasonable headwind that led the kayak support to waft into my path a few times. This led to me being constantly shocked by the shark shields which is not ideal when you’re dealing with full body pain and a brain that is losing the plot.
In these moments I was so exhausted that I was able to fabricate hallucinations. I was able to put my head under water with each stroke and decide what my support kayaker was wearing. He had a guitar, a mexican hat, a big moustache and a trumpet, all created through the power of exhaustion. I was so ready to sleep, I had enough, it was all just too much, yet we still had another couple of hours to go. When we finally got to the finish line, the relief wasn’t just felt by me. Every member of that team was so ready for it to be over.
When I say afterdrop, I’m not referring to the drop in temperature open water swimmers can experience after getting out of the water, (although I did experience this to a certain degree) this type of afterdrop lasted far longer. The elation after the swim was one of the most powerful feelings I have personally ever experienced, but it was also relatively short lived. I experienced a similar drop in mood and general sense that I lacked purpose after the last big swims so I knew it was coming, I guess I hoped it wouldn’t but it arrived and with vengeance!
I’ve always been pretty open about my feelings and mental health (although I’m sometimes not great at expressing it) and I’m not ashamed to admit I struggle at times. Swimming for me, as I’ve previously mentioned, is my medicine, it calms my mind and gives me focus. The problem is as with all medicines, if you over use them they can have side effects. I guess really what I’m referring to when I say afterdrop is depression. The weeks after the swim, I dropped into a slump, riding a high for so long and having such a purpose and in the blink of an eye it was done. Once the initial elevation subsided, I struggled, like really struggled. I was in the most beautiful country, being treated like a hero, surrounded by the most incredible people you could possibly want to be with and doing some amazing things, learning to scuba dive and experiencing what was or should have been the time of my life. In many ways it was but looking back I’m not sure I was present, I was somehow distant and empty. I think it was in part exhaustion from putting my ill prepared body through the trauma of a 37hr swim and part a lack of purpose. For around 6 months everything was Grand Swim, I ate, slept and breathed it. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy and I was giving this everything, then suddenly it was completed, what now?
Flying back to the Uk didn’t change my mood and I spent many weeks struggling with a feeling of lethargy and slept an awful lot, I actually put on 10kgs in the 2 months after the swim, my shoulder injury meant I wasn’t training nearly as much and I think food was a form of comfort. If I’m honest I think I used my shoulder as an excuse not to train…
I’m pleased to say I’m feeling much much better, stronger and once again have the drive and passion I had going into the swim. I’ve even got my sights set on next year’s challenge!
I want to say a massive thank you to my ever supportive fiance Tess, who fully supports me and knows that with these highs comes the lows. Love you TESS and I’m sorry I put you through it all.