Swimming With The Tide

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.