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Swimming with the sea donkey

Squeezed into their wetsuits, our GYone photographers along with Susie, our editor and her sea swim buddies, took the plunge with Adrian Sarchet and dug deeper in a unique interview beneath the waves of Havelet Bay

After watching the Sea Donkey film at Castle Cornet, featuring intrepid sea swimmer, Adrian Sarchet, I just knew I had to meet him. The inspirational story of his attempt to swim from Northern Ireland to Scotland – probably the most brutal open water swimming challenge in the world, taking on sea temperatures right at the limit of human endurance and braving the sting of the formidable Lion’s Mane jellyfish, is a must-see for anyone inspired by the tenacity of the human spirit.

The documentary stalks the beautiful, funny and harrowing boundary between ambition and folly in extreme sport. As a regular sea swimmer myself, I see the benefits that my daily dip brings to my health but the challenges of sea swimming in sometimes hostile waters also breeds a resilience and humour that Adrian has in spades. He has taken on some incredible challenges including the Oceans Seven – the equivalent to the Seven Summits for mountaineers.

Call us crazy, but what better place to catch up with him, than the place we both seem to spend a lot of time…the water! Swimming in the sea all year around might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is becoming more and more popular worldwide.

We asked a local swim group to compile a series of questions to put to Adrian. So whether you like a long distance challenge or simply enjoy a quick dip, dive in and read on.

Why did you decide to take on your first challenge?

Was it a feeling of needing to achieve or a casual, 'I’ll give it a go’?

The truth is I got tricked into it. My brother weakened my resolve against exercise by using red wine over a Christmas dinner and then challenged me, in front of the whole family, to swim to Herm for the military charity Help for Heroes. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse!

When and why did you start swimming throughout the winter?

I swam through the winter in my first season as an open water swimmer, partly out of a boyish sense of adventure and partly out of a massive competitive streak which would not let me take the easy (and warm) path of staying in bed on cold, dark swim days.

Any tips for not freezing during winter swims?

Yes - start with a small duration in the water and build it up slowly. This will allow you to condition your body to the higher work rate you need in order to stay warm, whilst adapting to the cold water. As you gain more experience you will understand the difference between “chilly” and “cold”. “Chilly” means, “I recognise that my body temperature is dropping, but I know that I can pull it back before it goes too far by working harder”. “Cold” is “I am in the danger zone here, I need to get out of the water now and go through the re-warming process in the presence of friends who understand hypothermia. If you find yourself warm and comfortable on a winter swim - GET OUT! You are already in the danger zone.

What should you do if you see lots of jellyfish? Or see a seal pop up next to you when you’re swimming far from the shore?

The answer here depends a lot on context. If you are an experienced open water swimmer, you will most likely be able to identify the jellyfish and know whether they present a potential hazard to be avoided or a lovely sea creature to be studied up close. It should also be recognised that jellyfish stings affect different people in different ways. I swam through a bloom of jellyfish with a swim buddy of mine and we both got stung. However, when we got out I didn’t have a mark on me and felt fine and my swim buddy had livid scars on arms and legs which hurt for hours afterwards. If you are not able to identify and risk rate the jellyfish you encounter, then I would avoid them altogether as stings from some of them can be very serious, both in themselves and as a cause of panic in inexperienced swimmers.

If I did see a seal, I would count myself very lucky to have seen one! I am not an expert on marine wildlife so cannot comment on what you ‘should’ do, but as a rule of thumb I would approach the situation in the same was as encountering a large, unknown dog on land (I understand that seals and dogs have a comparable degree of intelligence). I would try to remain calm, quiet and assertive in the water, whilst avoiding fast movements. Finally, and again much the same as with a dog encounter, if the seal did (probably by accident) break my skin, I would consult my GP immediately in case I needed antibiotics.

Start with a small duration in the water and build it up slowly. This will allow you to condition your body to the higher work rate you need in order to stay warm, whilst adapting to the cold water.

Have you had any close encounters while swimming?

On my Strait of Gibraltar swim (from Spain to Morocco) , I was ‘buzzed’ by three adult dolphins who, with no warning at all, swept underneath me at full speed, so close I could have touched them. My immediate, unconscious reaction was, ‘shark’ but it wasn’t and the only tip I can think arising from this experience is to stay calm in the water … not everything is out to eat you!

On my Ka’iwi Channel swim (the 28.5 miles from Molokai to Oahu in Hawaii) I had an encounter with a juvenile Albatross (think twice the size of a black backed seagull) which paddled right behind me for ages and was eyeing my toes up for lunch. Following a couple of nips on my toes I shouted to my support kayaker, a crazy German guy called Dan, “Are you gonna shoo that thing away with your paddle, or what”? Dan replied, “Why, he is making you swim faster than you have all day”? The tip which very definitely arises from this experience is not to let crazy guys called Dan paddle for you.

What’s your favourite place in Gsy to swim for leisure, and why?

Havelet. I have spent so much time training in the Ladies Pool, in Havelet Bay and in the stretch from Castle Cornet to St Martin’s Point, that it has very much become my spiritual home.

Swimming in the rain - love it or hate it?

Absolutely love it - the heavier the better - truly life-affirming stuff.

What tips would you give for long distance endurance - both for your body and mind?

Technique, technique, technique: bad swim technique will make you slow, inefficient, prone to injury and slow to recover after marathon swims. I know; I received the nick-name “The Washing Machine” from the swim team I was training with in Barcelona before by Strait of Gibraltar swim because I created so much white water around me. Then I had to have surgical procedures on both shoulders and a whole lot of physiotherapy over a number of years and it could take me months to properly recover after a marathon swim. Finally, after completing three of the Oceans Seven, I invested time, money and effort in the best swim technique tuition I could find. It was the best money I have ever spent (and continue to spend). Shoulder injuries are a thing off the past, and I can recover from marathon swims in days/weeks instead of months.

How do you juggle your life with training?

The short answer is my wonderful wife, Andrea. She is the Manager of Team Sarchet and my crew and I call her ‘Flight’ in deference to Gene Kranz, the Chief Flight Director at NASA which brought Apollo 13 back to Earth. She is an incredible force multiplier, which enables the pair of us to be greater than the sum of our parts and enables me to compartmentalise my focus on family, work, charity commitments and swimming without losing track.

How do you prevent cramp?

Conditioning, good diet and good hydration.

"Technique, technique, technique: bad swim technique will make you slow, inefficient, prone to injury and slow to recover after marathon swims".

What happens when you need a poo when swimming in open water?

This is a great question because it illustrates the evolving intensity of the requirements of the sport. In one of my early swims I felt the need to use my bowels and at the next feeding stop I took off my bathers, assumed a socially improbable, but anatomically understandable position with my knees tucked under my arm-pits, pulled a silly face and allowed nature to take its course. I then put my bathers back on and continued the swim. Total time taken about 5 minutes. On my last swim, the Cook Strait from North Island and South Island in New Zealand, I had terrible gastric distress about half-way through the swim but could not afford the time to stop as every second wasted meant the tide might push us out to sea and away frown the South Island. I therefore had to use my bowels in small instalments as I swam, eventually creating something resembling a flattened fin in the back of the bathers which was visible to all. At the end of the swim I was so exhausted and my hands so clawed, that one of my crew had to assist with the removal of the fin before the skipper would let me back on the support boat!

If you don’t want to swim long distance and don’t fancy the deep ocean but just a paddle all year around what advice would you give?

The sea is exhilarating and I have never heard anyone feel bad after a dip in this amazing ocean we have on our doorstep. Just do it how you enjoy it and feel the benefits, even if it is for five minutes just enjoy it for what it is, being with a force of nature that when respected is the ultimate in therapy in my opinion and from the day I ventured into the water as a swimmer I have never looked back. It puts a bounce in your step.

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