Swimming Lake Windermere

(Notes from a swimmer accompanying a pair attempting to canoe the length of the lake.)

July 2004.

Roger and I had discussed the possibility of lake Windermere last year. It amounts to a 10.5 mile swim through picturesque mountain scenery in water with a summer temperature of 14 to 15 degrees. Last weekend everything finally came together. An unusual event featuring a musical concert led by Suswara in a vast candle lit cave in one of the hills overlooking the lake brought together about 15 disciples. Roger had brought up his canoe and together with Jim who would act as paddler we set about making a few modifications. As things stood the canoe was liable to capsize drowning the crew and more worryingly sending swimming gear, phones and cameras to the bottom of the lake. This was cunningly solved by the the addition of a spar and two empty plastic containers attached to the ends. The addition of a copper pole with an orange flag fluttering on top completed the safety requirements set down by the lake warden. I had contacted them about the swim expecting to find all sorts of red tape about being allowed to swim in the lake. They were actually extremely supportive and went as far as suggesting the best route and direction. This would be to hug the shoreline and keep to the east of the islands in the middle close to where the steamers ran. The prevailing wind is normally from the south but the weather forecast was predicting a north westerly breeze so we elected to start from the north. In order to bring the canoe back afterwards this meant leaving one car at the other end.

I spent a restless night in the Youth Hostel the night before as one often does before these events. It was hard to sleep and this was not helped by the springs in youth hostel beds that creak madly each time you so much as breathe. Poor Jim in the bed below was probably cursing me. With regard to the swim I was fairly confident that I could complete the distance and the water temperature was quite pleasant compared to the freezing north sea that I had been training in over the previous two weeks. I had completed longer and more arduous swims but that knowledge does nothing to dispel the butterflies and anxious moments.

On the morning I think my helpers were so inspired and enthusiastic about getting going that there was no time for any doubts or delays. By 8.30 the canoe was in the water and loaded up with hot thermos flasks, warm clothing and snacks for those in and out of the water. It was a beautiful sunny day and as expected there was a nice breeze coming down behind us making our makeshift flag look quite regal against the lush green hills. Five minutes later I jumped into the lake clad in swimming trunks and my yellow cap. Peering through my misty goggles I made for a castle about 1 mile distant on the other side. From that point on Roger had decided that the best route would be to follow the shoreline down to the islands at the half way point.

As I brought my head round to each side to breathe there would be that wonderful pure smell of fresh water tinged with cold vegetation and then I would look down into the dark green water and see the tiny specks of plant matter looming up toward me. When the sun shone the surface of the water went a light green colour against the dark green of the depths and the little specks in the water seemed to stream past my goggles. The water had a curious faint sweetness I could taste when the drops sometimes entered my mouth as I breathed to each side.

The experience of swimming in fresh water is markedly different from the sea. On the lake you are surrounded by beautiful scenery and a whole array of things of interest. There are woodlands and large houses at the end of immaculate lawns stretching down to the water. The tree lined pathways with private landing jetties and little islands lend a magical quality to it. In the sea on the other hand a lot of the time there is no view and you spend your time looking down into a cold grey murk. In addition to that you can be made nauseous and sea sick by the movement of the waves. Then there is the salt which causes chafing and your tongue and mouth to swell from the drops of sea water that you inevitably swallow. Of course this is not the only side to the sea, there is the sheer exhilaration of swimming in the waves and the feeling of being at one with the elements. Sometimes if swimming near the coast there can be beautiful views of cliffs and the deep blue skies against the shimmering sun drenched surf. The salt water also makes you more buoyant which is easier on the muscles over a longer distance. Whatever the case you enter into a very different environment as a swimmer. You may be only metres away from friends and support but you feel in another world emotionally. Water has always been associated with the feelings and deeper intuitive urges of our nature. Your view is restricted to looking out of goggles that are often misted up and distort the vision at the best of times. As you twist your head to one side to breathe you only have a split second to interpret what you see. A few seconds later you have another chance to build up a better idea as you twist your head back again but this time you may be lower or higher down due to the waves and the object of your attention may have disappeared. What may have looked like an elephant just behind you turns out to be an island in the distance and what appeared to be something like the decorated ceiling of a church just to one side of you turns out to be some poles on the boat with some light reflected off a window. The feeling of confusion caused by goggles and movement of water is further exacerbated by the fact that you are in an almost soundless environment under your swimming cap. In fact I’ve found that low flying military jets overhead are about the only thing that can break into that space. What you do hear is your own breathing as you lift your head up to inhale and then a soothing surging sound as you exhale sending a stream of bubbles into the murkiness of it all.

On the emotional and psychological level there is a similar stirring up of feelings. There is the sense of isolation as well as the feeling of being burdened and having a task to fulfil that others around you seem to be free from. You wish you could be the man strolling along the beach or the tourist hanging over the rails of the small ferry in the distance. All the time you know that there is no escape and that you cannot stop and pack it all in.It is cold and uncomfortable and the times and distances seem too much. Inevitably you ask yourself if there is any point in the whole thing. You are not in extreme discomfort but enough not to want to continue for another 5 hours or 10 hours or however long it is likely to take. Feelings towards family, friends and loved ones are thrown into sharp relief as you realise just how important they are to you and how painful it would be to lose them or cause them any suffering. These worries, fears and anxieties seem to revolve about as your mind moves from one thought to another but they slowly give way as you get bursts of energy and moments of intense joy and well being. As the event progresses and you have some mileage and time under your belt the goal comes into a clearer focus. Physical tiredness and muscle ache start to set in but you know deep down that you will complete the distance. Time starts to pass by much more quickly and the tricky feelings and emotions seem to fade away leaving you in touch with a core of inner strength.

There is a curious relationship between helper and swimmer in the early stages. As soon as you start and especially at the beginning you feel very dependent on the helpers who are with you. They are your lifeline to normality and to you they are in a safe zone away from this battleground of fears, isolation and physical discomfort. You really want them to take control of looking after you, telling you when it it is time for your drinks and deciding on the route and everything to do with the outer body of the event. However as a helper you feel quite beholden to the swimmer as if they are the ones in charge and you are just secondary. You fear doing something wrong or disturbing them in some way. This couldn’t be further from the truth as all you want is their feeling of oneness and support for you. You don’t want them to feel any anxiety towards you. I’ve noticed on the channel swims that the best thing is when they are very visible and are looking at you. If they disappear from sight it is quite distressing and best is also if they appear happy and not concerned. In your slightly confused state if you see them standing up and pointing at something you immediately start to think there must be something dangerous up ahead like a submerged live electricity cable that has surfaced just in front of you or some unusual and dangerous sea creature. We made it across to the shore with the castle quite quickly. This was a relief as we had to pass across the route taken by the steamers carrying hundreds of people up and down the lake. By chance over that half hour period we had obviously managed to go in between the sailings. Much was going through my mind but I felt reasonably strong as we went in close to the densely wooded shore. After about an hour I signalled that it was time for a hot carbohydrate drink and for them to decide when each hour had passed and to inform me the drinks were ready. Jim smiled and handed me the white drinking bottle which was full to the brim. It was too much liquid but was probably good to take on plenty at this early stage. I told Jim that it could be much less and could be a wee bit warmer too next time. Luckily it was a calm and beautiful day which meant they were having a good time. By the time the next hour came along Roger was looking relaxed and was consulting the map to check our position and the best route. We were amongst some yachts and islands on the western side of the like next to the town of Windermere and Bowness. A welcome drink appeared and as I took it I noted that at that particular point I could touch the bottom with my toes. A few minutes earlier as I had been swimming I noticed long spindly weeds growing up from the bottom and gently scraping along my arms implying it was quite shallow. In a lake that is not an unpleasant feeling whereas at sea if it is not seaweed then it is usually the tendrils of a jelly fish which will result in a slight sting, something similar to walking through stinging nettles.

Having completed 2 hours I knew that the halfway point couldn’t be far away and of course in my mind I imagined that it was possible that we had already crossed it. My energies seemed to go through a slight low but then I started to think that I had completed 7 or 8 swims of 9 miles in the pool and this was only 1.5 miles longer so it should be possible. My speed picked up quite well as we left the islands and headed out into the middle of the lake. There seemed to be quite a few of the smaller steamers crusing by on either side of us. They were giving us a wide berth so the orange flag on the copper pole was standing us in good stead. When I gave it to Roger I realised it was a wonderful lightning conductor so we agreed that at the first clap of thunder we would ditch it. In fact the night before, the forecast had mentioned thunder but there was certainly no sign of it. The canoe went through a small area in the middle of the lake bounded by 4 red buoys and a danger marker in the middle. I was suddenly scared to swim through this and was sure that it was some kind of submerged wreck full of explosives from the war but it turned out just to be a very shallow area as I looked down and saw brown sand underneath me. At the third hour I asked for some banana as I was starting to feel a bit hungry and was going through a slightly slow patch. We rounded another headland and I noticed that the flag was flying in the other direction showing that the wind had changed to the south meaning that we were going into it. The water was certainly more choppy and they told me later that it was hard to paddle at this stage. A small motor boat appeared and a man watched us for a while before saying a few things to Roger. I thought he was complaining about something but decided not to stop and just to plough on. Later I heard it had been the lake warden coming to check everything was alright and if we needed help. He had said we were making good progress and had completed about 7 miles. I didn’t hear any of this of course as I prefer not to know the distances - that way I can invent things in my mind and don’t have to deal with the reality of it.

At the 4th hour we were nestling in close to the eastern shore near some jetties and canoeists. The wind was rustling in the trees near by as I took a longer break and a good long drink. I started to feel quite a muscle ache now and was definitely starting to slow down. In my head I had decided it was probably about another 3 miles or 1.5 hours swimming. After 20 minutes Roger informed me there was only another 2km left. I calculated that it was only 8 lengths more than a mile in the swimming pool and it would only take me 40 minutes. Actually thinking about it now I realise I had miscalculated and in fact in the pool it would have taken me about 35 minutes at the most. My stroke rate went up quite considerably and I felt strong again. It’s amazing how the sense of joy and relief at hearing that kind of news can take away all your physical aches and pains. I saw a building in the distance in the sunlight and Roger informed me that it was on the other side of the lake from where we would finish but about the same distance. I know from experience that these things can seem close but the harder you swim the more they start to recede into the distance. It’s almost as if you have to get close enough to the object to see what it really is before you realise how far away it is.

After 5 hours and 18 minutes we reached the landing jetty at Fell Foot park which marks the end of the lake. Roger and Jim navigated the canoe onto the landing stage and gave me thunderous applause although it was really them that deserved it. There had been a great bonding as they canoed the length of the lake and I swam it. Each time they pulled on the paddles I watched and felt that we were making progress. It’s a great way to help in an event rather than being in a car or sitting down on the sidlines. At that point all that remained was to get dry, load up the canoe and jump into Roger’s car. Everything had gone so smoothly that the fact Roger had left his car key in his bag at the other end of the lake was passed off as being just ‘the nature of the beast’.