Swimming With The Tide

No wetsuit, no flippers, no stopping and resting... it's the amazing story of Dr.Nic's 44-mile open water Jersey challenge

Posted: 2 October 2007
by Catherine Lee

Nearing Gorey Castle to the east of the island

Few of us can comprehend the strength and stamina required to complete the swim leg of an Ironman (2.4 miles), let alone a 44-mile open water swim around Jersey. But for longstanding forumite Dr Nic Twinks (aka Nicola Joyce), circumnavigating Britain’s largest Channel Island was just the latest in a series of challenges she’s always hoped to do.

Having already undertaken both a solo Channel swim in 2004 and a two-way six-person Channel relay in 2005, Dr Nic is known on the forums as our resident swimming guru. So, fresh from completing the challenge on September 15, we caught up with her to talk training, tides and toe-tingling temperatures.

Against The Odds

Dr Nic’s determination to succeed was no doubt fuelled by an aborted first attempt back in mid-August, when she was pulled from the water five hours into the swim due to high winds (force 5, gusting 6).

"I couldn’t bear to wait until next year," she says. "You can only do this swim on a Spring tide and after this weekend, there was only one week left in the open water season. There was no guarantee that the conditions would have been right again so this was more or less my last chance."

Even contracting a stomach bug from her husband (fellow forumite and Pirate MMmmm Universal Twinkler) hours before didn’t discourage Dr Nic from attempting the challenge. "I was sick on Friday and felt faint on the way to the airport, but my flights were non-refundable so I had nothing to lose by going. I didn’t want to risk feeling better later and regret not having tried."

Alongside her support boat

And sure enough, at 6:49am the following morning, Dr Nic set off from Elizabeth Castle breakwater, accompanied by a kayaker to guide her through the rocky areas between Green Island and La Rocque. Once clear of the stony waters, she was joined by a small support boat carrying three local members of Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club, with whom she had arranged the challenge.

"The people from the club were so welcoming," she says. "They’re so passionate about the challenge, especially when someone from the mainland comes over to swim. They all came out to cheer me on – I could see them waving at me from high up on the coastline."

As well as being Dr Nic’s means of keeping in communication with the Jersey Coast Guard, the support vessel was also on hand to provide Dr Nic with fuel - warmed energy drinks, bananas and Jaffa Cakes – and boost morale when the going got tough.

Mind Games

Not that giving up was ever an option. Though her exploits were met with such comments as "nuts", "a mad woman" and "a crazy girl" from fellow forumites, it’s clear the chance to push her mental reserves to the limit proved just as attractive as the physical demands of the challenge.

A feed at Corbière

"Ability can be learned, stamina can be built up, but bottle is all in the mind," she says. "You just have to really want to do it, and after a while you learn that if you do keep plodding slowly you will get there. You have to trust yourself."

A 10.5-mile swim covering the length of Lake Windermere and a 12-hour split-session (six hours on Saturday and another six on Sunday) in training definitely helped her prepare both physically and psychologically, though Dr Nic is quick to downplay her accomplishments, perhaps because she genuinely feels so comfortable in the water.

"People tend not to believe that I even like jellyfish," she laughs. "I think it’s because you don’t see much in the water other than blue. Yes, they sting, but it’s never worse than stinging nettles. It’s not their fault either – they’re not seeking you out, they’re just lying there minding their own business!"

Pressed for strategies she uses to distract herself while underwater, she admits to singing motivational songs and focussing on other people. "Knowing that people were thinking of me and waiting to hear how I’d got on meant I really couldn’t get out," she says, referring to her dedicated forum support thread. "I just couldn’t bear to have to tell them all!"

Out In The Cold

An encounter with floating sea creatures wasn’t the only aspect of Dr Nic’s swim to garner admiration among those more at ease on dry land. Under triathlon rules, swimmers are permitted to wear wetsuits when the water drops below a certain temperature. Open water swimming regulations however, stipulate that swimmers can wear only a swimsuit, cap and goggles.

"People have a thing about being cold," she says, "but I think a lot of it’s mind over matter. At the beginning of the season (May) I was training for short 20-minute spells in water that was just 10°C. As the weeks went on, I gradually increased the time I spent in the sea and I simply got used to it. Plus, on days when I wasn’t training, I’d acclimatise in other ways - not wearing socks around the house, taking cold showers, or wearing fewer layers outside."

Replacing pool sessions with open water swims began in earnest from late-Spring onwards as Dr Nic trained with the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation in Dover at weekends. "At the most I trained for about 20 hours a week - no more than some would for an Ironman. In fact, I probably had to ‘find’ less time to train than most triathletes since the majority of my training was at the weekends."

Metres away from the finish

Running and cycling were also squeezed out of Dr Nic’s weekly regime as she focused on her second priority: boosting her fat reserves. "Body fat is actually an advantage in cold waters," she says, "and I find cross-training (other than weights sessions) simply melts away any excess. Some swimmers I know carry much more weight than me and they’re subsequently able to withstand the cold much longer."

In fact, despite the water measuring a toasty 18°C, Dr Nic felt very cold from about one hour into the swim, a clear sign that she was still feeling the effects of being ill just hours before. "I was quite surprised how tired I felt from about 10 hours onwards too," she admits. "It wasn’t that my muscles were exhausted - I just felt really sleepy. Thankfully I had just passed Corbière at this point, and a boat full of booze-cruisers cheered me on!"

Beaming and relieved: back on the boat

Coming full circle to touch Elizabeth Castle breakwater shortly before sunset earnt Dr Nic the prestige of being the 30th woman (and 51st person) to charter Britain’s largest Channel Island, after exactly 12 hours in the water. "I felt absolutely exhausted," she admits, "but I’m glad I did - otherwise I should have swum quicker..."

What The Future Holds

With the open water season now drawn to a close, Dr Nic is quick to express her relief at having finally completed the challenge. Not least because 2008 will see her temporarily hanging up the goggles and assuming a support role while MMmmm Universal Twinkler prepares for Norseman Xtreme Triathlon 2008.

And though she hasn’t ruled out donning her running kit again, it’s clear Dr Nic feels most confident in the water. "Swimming is definitely what I want to do," she says, "and there are plenty of other challenges I fancy trying my hand at. Crossing the Catalina Channel in California (22 miles) and swimming round Manhattan Island (28.5 miles) really appeal but I’ve no definite plans as yet. It can get quite expensive considering this is my hobby though!"

Want to try open water swimming? Here are Dr Nic's top tips...
Be Safe
"Don’t swim in open water by yourself, no matter how well you think you know the area. It just isn’t sensible."

Don't Push Yourself
"Hypothermia is a real risk so learn to recognise the signs, and be aware of your limits. There is a strict rule of no heroics even among the people I train with."

Buddy Up
"Try and find a club to train with. Do a little research and you’ll find there’s a whole underground network of open-water swimmers."

Have Fun
"You don’t need to have a challenge lined up – just go for it. Personally I find it much better than the pool, and it should be all about enjoyment really!"

Dr Nic is using the swim to raise funds for a local branch of Samaritans. Samaritans offer confidential emotional support to anybody in distress or despair. It's not too late to sponsor her - you can still make a donation on her Justgiving page.

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Discuss this article

*wahooooo*! :-D
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:12

I'm excited now that proper sea training has started! :-)
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:18

Pardon my ignorance, but how far is that ?
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:23

I think it's 44 miles but the it's tidal assisted (or rather the tides aren't ever against you!) So it doesn't take as long as you'd think! (10-12 hours barring unforeseen issues/acts of god/etc)
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:25

That should be a great swim Dr Nic! A friend of mine did that swim a few years ago. I think he was the first American to do it. But you crazy Brits have been doing it for years. :)
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:25

Yeah KK but warmer than what I'm used to so will be a nice treat in a way! Will be about 17*C by the time I swim :-)
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:26

and going well I understand from MMmm - nearly 2 hours in the sea on Sunday??

Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:27

I'm mighty impressed - good luck.
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:28

Oh cool Ultra KK! What's his name (if you can put it on a forum) I can probably look up his swim report.

Not many have done it - he must be one of very few Americans indeed!
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:28

Not quite FB, Mark is being very kind - it was more like 90 mins but I was still pleased with that, it's still only about 12*C and more relevant it was raining and overcast so very cold air temp!
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:29

jeeezus Nic - even 9 mins in that water temp without a wetie would see me off, let alone 90
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:41

His name is Timothy Lawrence. I'm sure he won't mind. :) He has swam the Channel too and I think he might be doing a relay across the Channel with a German friend of ours. I've never figured out how they can deal with that water temp. An hour and 54 minutes in 70 deg F water at IMDE darn near wiped me out. What a bunch of nutters! lol
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 16:59

Posted: 14/05/2007 at 17:14

Good on you Dr Nic Twinks,I am from Guernsey and swim in the waters around the Island all year round and it is very similar to Jersey waters. So I get some idea of what you are going to have to put up with.
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 17:22

Oh Ultra KK I know him yes! He's a great chap. :-) As for the water temp, a lot of it's in the mind I believe. You just have to get on with it (and acclimatise yourself, that helps too LOL!)

Kwilter - Why do it, you mean? Well I could just sit on the sofa my whole life but instead I think I'll challenge myself in a sport I enjoy. ;-) (Why does anyone do anything?)

Jus - ooh lovely! I am really looking forward to it. I've never been to the Channel islands, I hear it is a really beautiful swim. :-)
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 18:15

Oh yes PS: to KittenKat and anyone else with any spare pennies, yes I have set up the obligatory justgiving page for this (thought I might as well, if people are moved to donate anything!) All funds raised going to Samaritans. I'd be doing the swim anyway so I'm not raising any money to fund the actual swim - all money raised to Samaritans.


Thanks in advance!
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 18:33

Impressed, think you're nuts but hey ain't we all.

Good luck with it


James & Theresa
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 20:20

LOL yep we are all in our own way :-)


How are you anyway TL? Long time no 'see'.
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 20:31

Hiya Nic

We're both fine, just getting bogged down with work. Have to try and get to an event that everyone is doing to see you all again.

Take care
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 21:24

:-) You too!
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 21:27

You're mad. The coldest water I've ever experienced was off nearby Herm - really knocked the wind out of me. Best of luck.
Posted: 14/05/2007 at 22:24

DrNic - that sounds great... in fact you have nearly got me jealous!... maybe I need to get myself back to a lake soon to remind myself of how cold water can be (and what all this swimming marlarky is about!). Don't forget to keep us up to date with how the training is going.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 08:57

Is that how cold water can be without a wetsuit or with, though?

Training in 11/12*C water in Dover at the mo ;-)

Posted: 15/05/2007 at 10:33

Two words......, freakin' horrible, nasty, evil, vindictive JELLYFISH!!!

How do you cope with them, Nic? (as you obviously did from reading your channel swim).

I know I'm a big jessie when it comes to all sea creatures (except for eating them), but do they really not bother you?

Good luck though, I'll definitely be following your progress.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 10:44

I like them :-) (really)

Half of them dont sting and the ones that do, it's only like a stinging nettle or something. And to be honest with you they give you something else to look at - they're very pretty! I've only ever swum 'through' quite small (about the size of your palm) colourful ones and yes they did sting but not too badly (and anyway what are you going to do - get out? You can't go round them!) I did also see some VERY big ones with dangly bits - Compass jellyfish I think they're called - and I admit I would have been slightly more wary of swimming 'through' them but they were lower in the water and beneath me.

Thing is they're not going to actually attack you and swim 'at' you are they? they're just kind of floating blobs. :-D

Two weeks ago in DOver the water was very murky so we couldn't see anything but we could feel these 'fleshy lumps' (best way to describe them) in the water. Not big, and definitely not fish.

Anyway, I got home and unravelled my cossie to wash it and guess what was inside.

TWO JELLYFISH!!?!?! Honest! Very very very small ones, like slightly bigger than a pin head, but definitely jellyfish. I felt really bad. :-(
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 10:52

Just boining this for Ergo. I know she was interested in swimming the channel.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 11:17

I'm tightening my collar and cuffs just reading that, Nic - Eeeeeeuuuuuuggghhhhh!!

Although - it rather reminds me of when we convinced one of the fellas that we MtB with, that nettle stings actually got into your blood system and could dramatically improve your performance. In fact, we may have even tried to convince him that EPO was actually derived from a nettle-toxin.

Bet we could convince him to bath with Jellyfish before the season is out!

.....I'm guessing - as a doctor - you're not going to be quite so easy to persuade?
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 11:17

psst - wicks - she ain't a real doctor ya know.........

I have to say one of my best swimming experiences was in the Pacific off Mexico, swimming in crystal clear water with zillions of small jellyfish - it was just amazing to see them glisten and change colour in the sunlight.......fabulous...

we went to see dolphins but didn't see one but the jellyfish experience made up for it
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 11:31

Not a doctor? Pish - you'll be telling me next that you're not really an enlightened deity....

Jellyfish are nice to watch on the telly!! That's close enough for me.

Don't get me started on sticklebacks, the vicious b***ards.....

I'm very jealous, Nic - I wish I had the stamina/ability/bottle to do something like that.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 11:50

Dr Nic....what other long swims have you done? Have you met Allison Streeter? She's an amazing swimmer for sure.

(also just boinging this for Ergo)
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 16:13

Ultra KK yes - just a couple of times tee hee! (I know her very well indeed - I train with her in Dover and see her every week!) She's a great swimmer but also a great person. Just about the most approachable and down to earth superhuman you could hope to meet.

Wickett - ability can be learned, stamina can be built up and bottle is all in the mind! :-) You just have to want (really want ) to do it (and have the cash, I guess. And the support helps a lot, too)

I'd be happy to talk to Ergo if s/he thinks I can help at all!
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 16:24

I just want to know how you deal with the cold temperatures.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 17:43

Partly just getting on with it, partly putting on a bit of extra body fat (I think it helps, anyway - although it's not easy to put it on/keep it on!), partly acclimatisation, both in terms of swimming (we start with about 20 mins swim, 1 hour out, 30 mins swim on the first day of training, that's in about 10/11*C water) and in terms of little things like not wearing shoes and socks during winter, taking cool/cold showers, that kind of thing.

But really I think it's mainly in the mind. People have a thing about being cold. It's not really that bad - you warm up again afterwards! (Although it is wise to learn about hypothermia and its signs and what it means, and to know your limits. There is a strict rule of no heroics on Dover training beach).
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 18:00

30 mins of swimming in 10/11 C water sounds pretty rough. The 2.4 miles at IMDE in 20 C water was almost too much for me to handle.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 18:08

20C KK?? more like 25C - was like a swimming pool..........you just ain't got enough fat on you...
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 18:18

That was colder than any pool I've ever been in FB. 25C sounds a bit high to me.
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 18:24

Our local pool is 31*C - argh!

But the fat aspect is probably right - it is always very obvious, at Dover, who has crossed from tri/running/cycling into long distance swimming that season - they are the ones who really really suffer with the cold and often the ones who pull out because of the cold. Personally I don't run or cycle or cross train (apart from weights) at all when training for an OW swim as I need my body fat!
Posted: 15/05/2007 at 19:08

How's it going Dr Nic..?
Posted: 02/06/2007 at 13:39

Good thank you! :-)

Did 3:30 yesterday in very sunny weather and 4 hours today in fog (cleared to sun in the last....20 mins!?*!?!) Water about 56/57*F

Posted: 03/06/2007 at 18:05

Very well done! :)

Are you looking forward to it...?

Posted: 04/06/2007 at 07:02

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