As the propeller plane rises up from Lofoten you see the route of the swim through the window – speckled with the first rain in a week. It begins with the statue of the grim-faced sailor’s widow in the harbour and stretches past bay, quarry, cathedral, bay, mountain, and headland to the glimpse of a blue water lagoon that astonished us, as if finding a slice of the tropics in the freezer.
And the bridge at Henningsvaer at which I hoped to finish. That would have been 34 kilometres; however, quarter of an hour after we had reached the target of 30 kilometres I was whistled out of the water. For some time the wind had been blowing Force Five and soon the team would not have been able to reach down and hoik me out of the waves. (Or, after, get us home for dinner).
That sounds braver than it felt. Dropped out to sea in order to follow the run of waves towards that bridge, the first half an hour was fun.
And what happens in sea swimming is that the support boat becomes land, not the distant house, or the sharp rocks. Rolling and stretching, I try to remember the experiment in John Bowlby’s books ‘Attachment, Separation, and Loss’ (1969 – 90) in which the psychiatrist studied how far children in the playground will radiate from their mother. And how they reacted when their mother vanished. The inflatable has become – as it were (?) – my mother. And suddenly the boat is invisible, circling to find its own place in the rough sea. That’s when you become scared.
But after a panicked few seconds the familiar figure of John Coyningham-Rolls bounces into sight. Channel swimmer, cold water pioneer, and founder of Swimquest. ‘JCR’ ( as he’s known) is a broad, firm, brimmingly cheerful man who might be an officer in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ – and, if so, the officer you’d want in charge of you. As a swim leader he has changed the steer of dozens of lives, including mine. On my first trip in Greece in 2003 I swam an ungainly breast stroke, face screwed up as if still wincing with the memories of the chlorine and veruca plasters of 1980s municipal swimming pools. JCR taught me to swim freestyle but, also, not to be afraid of the bottomless sea. And what joy that has given. (In the sea and out: yesterday the surprise of ending on the steps of a private sauna jettied out into the bay).
A swim is preparation (cold water plunges since March), strength (a gift), and trust (in your team). And to be able to have such trust in someone is also a gift. It seems quite natural to swim in white-capped waves, and to know that however cold you might be you’ll be dressed and zipped up in a thermal suit within three minutes of being back on board.
When on Facebook I asked ‘what’s a swim in honour of Tradescant?’ it was JCR who replied ‘What about 30km in the Arctic Circle?’ I had no idea that it would raise over £50,000 for the Museum (thank you) or that it would be such an adventure. I only hope my neck does not stay, stuck, looking over my left shoulder towards the breaking waves, the gelid sun, and John and Alice on the boat.