Hello, thank you for visiting this website. Well firstly, a bit about myself, I’m not one normally for self-promotion but by embarking on this personal challenge I thought it would wrong not to try and raise funds and awareness for a charity that do phenomenal work to support people with mental health, homelessness, and substance misuse issues. The Society of St. James www.ssj.org.uk
Swimming the English Channel has been a long-term ambition going back until I was a young teenager. I can’t even recall what it was that even made me aware of this most iconic of sea swims. I just remember getting the idea and thinking I’m going to do that one day. Now here I am talking to you.
I started swimming at the age of 5yrs with Ringwood Swimming Club (now Ringwood Seals http://www.ringwoodseals.org.uk/) and then with Seagulls Swimming Club (http://seagullsswimming.club/) in Christchurch at the age of 12yrs. I never achieved great heights with swimming but I was committed, trained hard and most importantly I loved every minute of it and would always push myself harder to do better in training and gala races with butterfly and backstroke being my events. I didn’t always win but if I’d given it my all and got a personal best time then I was chuffed.
Unfortunately as I got older in my later teens the draw of less healthy pursuits became too tempting and my swimming dropped off when I finally threw in the towel as I went off to Australia for 6 months. On my return I was too interested partying and having a good time. These proved to be some bad life choices at the time and consequently got me into a few scraps but it was great lesson for later life and gave me a determination and resilience that will push me on through this challenge.
After 20yrs out of the water and being more responsible with two beautiful children, I was finally tempted back when I booked my 4yr old in for swimming lessons at Shirley Pool, Southampton (www.shirleyswimmingpool.co.uk). Coupled with being put forward to support the Hampshire Probation Triathlon charity relay event 2011. This consisted of swimming to the Isle of Wight from Lepe Beach to Gurnard. Then a cycle and run around the island followed by a swim back to the mainland the following day. I obviously opted to do the swims.
Training for this event got me involved with Shirley Swimming Pool, Shirley Sea Dogs, where I sought their advice on open water swimming. So I got myself a wetsuit and with my brother-in-law Mark and his kayak we set off for Boscombe Beach.
Conditions on this first adventure where pretty good with a flat sea. The first curve ball thrown at me was the cold even with the wetsuit I wasn’t accustomed to the temperature change from the warm pool. When I finally overcame the shock of the cold water the next issue was being disoriented. In open water there’s no line on the bottom to indicate you’re swimming straight and then there’s no way of telling how far I’d swam. Being a confident strong swimmer in the pool these things took me by surprise and brought me back down to earth. I realised that ‘Open Water Swimming’ was a whole discipline but one that had the potential to satisfied my sense of adventure.
After successfully completing the Hampshire Probation Triathlon charity relay. I looked for new challenges and the following year I went down to St. Ives with the Shirley Sea Dogs, Dave, Steve, Deano and Kev (team manager) travelling in style in an Austin Healey 3000 and AC Cobra to compete in the St. Ives Biathlon starting with a 1.5 mile run mostly uphill followed by a 1.5 mile swim. Well conditions on this day didn’t favour the swim but did make better surfing conditions with 3 to 4 ft waves. Even the locals were surprised the event wasn’t cancelled. So at this point in my open water swimming experience I hadn’t come across 3 to 4ft waves before and I hated it. I was scared, anxious, I couldn’t catch my breath and just wanted to get out, but I forced myself to finish the event and it proved to be valuable lesson to respect the sea and not to be complacent.
So I thought ‘right Ashley, you can’t be caught out again by rough seas. With that I would go out in increasingly rougher sea conditions whenever I got the chance.
Because I was always wanting push myself and taken on a new challenges, when a swimming friend said he wanted to swim to the Isle Of Wight. I replied I’d already done that but would be like to have an attempt at swimming there and back in one go. So this predicted 2.5hrs ish swim ended up taking 3 ½ hrs whilst landing a few miles further down the coast from our ideal landing place eg where the cars and our clothes were. The upshot being we had to kayak against the tide for another hour before we could finish this adventure. At this point this was the longest swim I had completed.
What I liked about this challenge is the sense of adventure, the feeling of going on actual journey and not just going up and down like when you are training in the pool. This is what I also loved about the Brownsea Island Swim which I’ve been fortunate enough to do for the few years.
Shirley Swimming Pool Sea Dogs Brownsea Island swim 6.5k 2015
After completing River Dart 10km swim I was left with thinking what next, when I bumped into a work colleague Dan, who was often doing fundraising events for a charity that support his daughter’s genetic condition, myotonic dystrophy. I made a vow to myself that when I saw him next I’d offer to do Fundraising swim for the charity. I felt my next swimming challenge had to be a 10 miler and done on the cheap, thus the Poole bay swim was beginning to formulate in my head. I managed to convince one of the Shirley Sea Dog, Steve Hansford, to do it with me. So at the beginning of September 2014. We set off with a kayaker each from Shore Rd, Sandbanks and headed for Mudeford Quay. Just over 4hrs later we finished and raised over £1000.
In 2015 I was left with the same question what’s going to be this year’s personal challenge? Due to difficult circumstances I couldn’t increase the amount of training I was doing so what was the next option I thought? So I took the decision to go non-wetsuit, ‘skins’, leaving the luxury of my lovely tailored Snugg wetsuit in the wardrobe. To help me stay committed to ‘skins’ discipline, I signed up for Brownsea Island Swim 2015 as ‘Non-Wetsuit Full distance 6.5k’ and raise sponsorship for The Rose Road Association Charity. Signing up for this was tough psychological decision the thought of swimming in the cold sea didn’t fill me joy but the new challenge did.
So I now thought I best start planning and preparing for this. I needed to be match fit by the beginning of August and so I worked backwards. Starting with a dip in the April Easter Holidays. At the time I didn’t know what the temperature was (9c) and I my usual DIY fashion walked into sea repeating the words in my head ‘go in with commitment and determination’ which was something I’d read somewhere but it works and I still use it today for winter swims. I’m not sure how long I’d been in there but when my arms started to feel hot and I was getting a bit confused I thought I’d best get out. This approach is not recommend but I naively didn’t know any better and foolishly didn’t bother to findout.
I spent the next weeks and months increasing the time I spent swimming in the sea often on my own, which was bloody miserable and took all my will-power to get into the cold sea, time and time again. It was cold and all I’d think about was the cold, whilst clock watching on how long I’d been in, then on days when it was grey and overcast it felt even worse, I think I must have got mild hyperthermia most weeks. If I hadn’t committed to the Rose Road Association charity and my dogged determination not to be beaten I’d put the wetsuit back on.
This year there also seemed an awful lot of jellyfish about which was another mental challenge, I remember one evening’s sea swim when I encountered a whole battalion of them. I was really unnerved trying to dodge them. My heart was racing with anxiety and I wanted to get out of the sea but I knew unless I was willing to give up on something that I loved (swimming) then I’d just have to deal with it. Even though the sting from the jellyfish in the Solent is no more than a nettle sting I still have moments of ‘Sh#t, jellyfish bugger off’.
By the time of the Brownsea Island Swim, I’d achieved 1hr 30mins without the wetsuit. So was prepared enough. On finishing it in 1hr 47mins I was pleased with my efforts seeing as this was the longest cold water swim I had completed. The other significant thing about this day was meeting fellow ‘skins’ swimmers and chatting to them. It was a lady called ‘Dizz’ who then put me onto ‘Durley Sea Swims’ so after sending a Facebook friends request, I then got a call from Marcus who after questioning my credentials and swimming ambitions invited me down to Durley beach to join them.
On arriving at Durley beach I was welcomed by lovely group of people, who were either preparing for or had completed challenging open water swims like Channel and Lake Windermere etc. I then realised I was in great company to help me achieve my own ambitions. I was asked how long I was intending to swim, ‘2hrs’ I said by which came the reply ‘I’ll put you down for 3hrs then’. I mildly protested that I only swam less than 2hrs all summer due to a shoulder injury. This as met with ‘don’t worry we give you ibuprofen if it hurts’. This was when I realised the mindset of these swimmers…….
Swimming with others who are aspiring for great swimming challenges was motivational and the 2hr swim i started out doing ending up being 5hr 15mins just through the support and encouragement of the Durley Sea Swimmers and the support team. This was the longest swim I’d ever done, I was buzzing. The following few weeks I completed a 6hr 15mins and a few 4 and 5 hr swims. I learnt alot about Channel swimming: the rules, how to book, names of pilots, waiting times to get a swim slot (2 to 3yrs) and felt ready to book a date.
On the stroke of midnight 2015/16 I sent an email to Stuart Gleeson requesting a swim slot July 29th to August 6th 2017 on his boat the Sea Leopard. Thankfully I got the slot I wanted. www.channelswimmingassociation.com/pilots/sea-leopard
Since then I have been winter sea swimming every Sunday morning with ‘Just Swim’ at Fishermans Walk at Southbourne . With sea temperatures getting as low as 6c and waves as high as 10ft.
In May 2016 the Durley Sea Swims started up again and I was lucky enough to be able to train with Jon, Simon, Marc, and Stuart to name a few, who all had solo channel swims booked for 2016. My biggest swim this year was 7hrs. I also completed a 4,5,6hr swims.
The highlight of this summer, 2016, in terms of swimming was being asked to crew for Stewart Purcell’s solo Channel swim. What a valuable experience that was regarding all aspect of Channel swimming from feeding, stroke rate, tides etc. One of biggest and most valuable lessons came when we were just off the French coast and I asked Stuart Gleeson The pilot how far away from that coastline are we. His reply was ‘1.5miles but we won’t be landing there’. I then noticed we were getting further away from land as we were being carried around the headland of ‘Cap Nez Gris’ by the tidal current. As a any swimmer you want to be getting closer not further away with each stroke and what mental resilience you need to keep going, I thought ‘I’ve got that’. Stuart successfully complete the crossing in 13hrs 50mins, I was also fortunate enough to swim alongside him for three 1hr shifts, in the last 1hr we stood on the beach in France. What a privilege and emotional experience this was and with tears in both our eyes we gave each other man hug on the shore of France after a phenomenal swim by Stuart. On the beach I shouted ‘Bonjour’ to a French family, they replied ‘Bonjour, where have you swam from’? ‘England’ we said.
Stewart Channel Swim 2016
Stewart’s last hour as we head towards the shore of France
Swimming to the beach, nearly there. It’s in bag!!!
Stewart’s support crew on the Sea Leopard on our way back
Roll on 29th July 2017