When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Home / Blog / Shooting star

Shooting star

Lou Walker reflects on the news about a Channel swimmer’s death as she prepares for her own Channel swim

I don’t know where to start; so much has been happening in my open-water swimming world in the last month – some wondrous… some tragic.

The tragic first. I want to pay my respects to Susan Taylor who died while swimming the Channel. Obviously this news hit the open-water swimming world particularly hard. I’m sure that every solo Channel swimmer will have her on their mind as they hit the near-impenetrable currents near the French coast.

At this point in a Channel swim a strong head is crucial. You’re exhausted from swimming over 20 miles yet this is the hardest part and you have to believe you will punch through and reach France. You’ve got to be very strong mentally to block out thoughts of whether what happened to Susan will happen to you.

Onto my own Channel relay swim and I wonder if I’ve peaked too early? Everyone keeps asking if I’ve done it yet… but there are still almost six weeks until our window opens in September. The taxing stuff was building up to the two-hour qualifier in cold water. Now that’s out of the way, the water temperature has shot up and the sun’s out, it’s been hard to focus.

I’ve swum a lot, still doing at least one 90 minute sea swim a week and a pool session (like swimming in bath water – yuk), and wow does summer sea swimming feel wonderful after the winter! But actually I feel ready and would happily embark on our relay tomorrow. I’ve been keeping the interest up by spending a fortune on petrol to get to the sea to swim in different places and times of day.

Sand, seals and shallow water

Last weekend we visited Northumberland. What a glorious swimming coastline! Huge, white sandy beaches with shallow, crystal water and no one on them in the middle of summer! On one beach I was accompanied by a huge seal who swam along parallel to me about 30m away, popping his huge slick head up to check on me every few seconds. What a privilege. (I’m quite glad he kept his distance though – he was enormous.)

Obviously the beaches around Bournemouth have been packed in recent weeks so it’s been worth losing sleep to swim at first light or at night to feel the sea’s magic. A 5am swim saw three of us swimming as the sun rose over the cliffs. The solitude of this kind of swim isn’t new because for plenty of winter swims there were only a handful of us with the sea and beach to ourselves. But it all has an extra sparkle when you can relax and luxuriate in warm, clear water and know you’re not going to have a hypothermic experience when you get out. And, it was bizarre to be drinking coffee after a 1hr 15min swim and it was only 6.30am.

But best of all was our ‘Triple Dipple’ night swim. Swimming the Channel there’s a high chance we’ll have to swim at night so it’s worth being used to getting into dark water when you’re a bit chilly and tired. We aimed to replicate this with hour-long swims at 8pm, 10pm and midnight. In the end we did 40mins, 60mins and 45mins but the training effect was there. Each swim was so different – a reminder of how conditions at sea can change rapidly so we have to be ready for anything.

Lit up like Christmas trees

The first swim was a choppy one at dusk that replicated Channel conditions nicely. For the 10pm swim we attached flashing green lights to our hats and glo sticks to the backs of our swimsuits. Lit up like Christmas trees we waded into water that felt reassuringly warm against the cooling air. This swim was wavy with a feisty current. To be safe we swam up and down between two groynes, stopping to count each other in at each end.

The treat for this swim was bioluminescence – plankton that produce light as they swirl in the eddies created by our bodies moving through the water. Someone called them sea fairies. The final flourish was that Bournemouth put on its annual firework display for us to enjoy as we swam heads up breaststroke to watch.

The last swim was magical in so many ways. We now had a slack high tide so the current had gone and the water felt velvet smooth as it wrapped round us, so different to the burning daggers of four months ago. Gemma said it was like swimming through hot chocolate. The bioluminescence was still there and as the moon rose I could see every detail of my hands as its light penetrated the top metre of water. We had a few minutes of duck diving down and twirling underwater just to see as many sea fairies as possible.

The last 15 minutes saw two of us swimming quietly together by ourselves. It was still so warm. I backstroked trying to steer a straight line using the stars… not very successfully but what a wonderful way to stargaze. In fact I even saw a shooting star… and thought of Susan Taylor.

Lou is training for a Channel relay attempt in September 2013, raising money for three charities. You can donate via her fundraising site (http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker) and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.

Susan Taylor’s fund-raising pages are: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=createaripple

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.