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Hell on the Humber

by Boston Borough Council's IT manager Matt Clarke

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of swimming across the River Humber as part of Mark Padley's organised group swims. This occurred beneath the Humber Bridge, a venue I have something of an unhealthy obession with through the annual madness that is known as Hell on the Humber; running back and forth across the concrete and steel behemoth for anything up to 24 hours.

That swim inspired me to look into maybe taking on the swim across the mouth of the Humber from Spurn Point to Cleethorpes beach, an ambitious step up for an enthusiastic but average swimmer. Successful completion of the Thames Marathon last year gave me the necessary confidence to think I had it in me to take on the Humber estuary and everything tidal waters and a busy shipping channel might present to me. But where to start?

Fortunately the answer was right in front of my nose, in the form of "The Humber King", Pete Winchester MBE, who has completed the feat no less than 70 times. Once he did it 3 times in one week, I recently discovered. Pete and his boat Voortrekker have helped around 80 people to attempt the swim, with a phenomenal success rate and his guidance would be essential to arrange the swim and read the conditions for my attempt. Pete kindly took me for a swim in Grimsby Docks on a drizzly Wednesday night a few years ago before my first Open Water triathlon, and we've crossed paths since through his days as Chairman of the Grimsby Water Rats swimming section of the local yachting club.

Pete was only too willing to help, and his vast experience cannot be overstated.

We originally made arrangements to attempt the swim late last September before the season close on September 30th. However, Mother nature had other ideas and my swim would have to wait until 2017.

We kept in touch over the winter, and finally made arrangements for an attempt on Thursday 6th July, or the following day if mother nature threw a spanner in the works.

I went over to Pete's house on Monday 3rd for a no-nonsense discussion about what would be required, and what the timings would be on the day. Only then did I discover that he hasn't completed every one of his own attempts, and his longest successful swim was 5 hours 47 minutes. At that point it dawned on me that this was by no means a gimme, and my relatively short swimming CV hadn't been helped by little swim training over the winter months.

Nonetheless, I wasn't going to let this rare chance slip. I can only give it my all. Little did I know how much that was going to be....

We arrived at Grimsby & Cleethorpes Yacht Club at 07:30 under blue skies and sunshine. The dock was almost pan flat, and the reflections of the gargantuan car transport vessels only slightly disturbed by the surface movement.

Pete had put his pilot boat "Voortrekker" in the water on the Wednesday evening, and unsettled his bad leg in the process due to a missing winch at the dockside. Nonetheless, he's as tough as the oldest boots and wasn't going to let his dodgy leg stop our day.

The plan was to leave the dock at around 8am for the journey across the Humber, and Pete, Les, John, and I set off towards the lock to escape the shelter of the dock, and under the imposing structure that is the Grimsby Dock Tower.

Once the water level had adjusted, we moved out of the dock and past the huge concrete ramp used to unload cars from the transporters that can't get into the dock. I didn't even know that existed.

The swim was scheduled to start at just after 11am, at the point of low water, and so we had over two and a half hours to plod across the river to Spurn Point. The relatively calm river edge gained a bit of life towards the middle of the river, but nothing too big, and we had the pleasure of seeing one of the resident seals poke his head up for few minutes to watch our progress.

As we neared the Vessel Traffic Services and RNLI Humber Lifeboat station it was clear we'd have 30 minutes to kill before low water, so moored Voortrekker and tucked into the various food items we'd taken for the day.

Whilst eating mother nature decided to show who's boss and send in on of those sea mists that suddenly envelope everything and make all the navigation aids invisible in the space of 60 seconds. Whilst no-one actually said it, I had my first worry that I might not even get in the water. Again, however, it soon became clear that it was only temporary and cleared as soon as it arrived. Phew.

At 10:50 it was time to make my way over to the beach at Spurn Point and prepare for the off. With a 17 degree water temperature it was ideal for the purist to take on the swim, but that's not me and I have no shame in donning my wetsuit for open water swims. I've heard a few second-hand tales of Pete getting some stick for supporting my swim in a rubber suit and that it shouldn't be allowed. To his credit, and even after years of joking about the swimmers in suits, he understands that it's all about the swimming and not what's being worn, how cold it is, and how long it takes.

A great bloke and mentor. And another good reason to get across!

I'm not aware of any 'rules' or list of successful swims, and had there been any it wouldn't have changed my mind. I was doing this for me as a challenge. Not to join a 'club' or be added to a list.
And I was never going to threaten any speed records.

After making my way over to the beach, I waited for the GO signal, which came soon enough. We're off. Slack water for an hour, with just the river current pushing me out towards the North Sea.

Time to get some distance in before the tide start to head inwards and push me back up the estuary. Get it wrong here and I could get pushed back upstream when the tide turns and end up heading back to where I started, or Hull. It's happened to Pete himself, so I know when he tells me to swim hard I need to give it all I've got. But for now it was plain sailing; just keep the boat to my right and let Pete guide me to where I need to be.

For the first 40 minutes or so, it really was plain sailing, the noises from the boat and gesticulations were all celebratory. I was covering ground at a great rate of knots, and I was later informed the talk was of a sub 2 hour swim looking likely. My own thoughts were similarly self-congratulatory. This was a doddle. I'm flying over here. What was all the fuss about?

Mother nature had other ideas. The tide was about to turn. And boy, it almost scuppered my attempt with a vicious 5 knot beast that we'd expected to be nearer 2 knots. The team on the boat received notice of the unusually strong tide over the radio and I immediately got my instruction to head towards the blue boat at anchor as we'd pass in front of it by 500 yards. I could sense an urgency in Pete's voice when he said to me "You know I said you'd have to work hard for a quarter of a mile? Well this is it. Dig deep."

Oblivious to his knowledge of the tide, I did but I never got near to the blue boat. 

For the next 30 minutes I swam harder than I have ever swum in my life and barely moved. Despite claims from my crew that I was going backwards, my GPS plot proves otherwise! However, the blue boat wasn't getting any bigger over the increasing waves between sightings, and I was giving it 100%. I was red-lining and getting despondent that my earlier progress had decreased to nought.

I'm told the crew on the boat starting having their first discussions at this point about the potential for abandonment, given my lack of progress. However, there are always options in tides and a change of course resulted in a return to some progress, so long as I had the strength to swim across the tide and not to get pushed away from the distant shore back towards Spurn Point.

My mojo returned once I could feel myself actually moving through the water, and not like being in the endless pool I'd been fighting for the previous half an hour.

The distant Haile Sand Fort was now my target. Actually the trees to the left of it, but the shoreline isn't quite so visible from the surface of the water so the fort was at least visible every few strokes.

Progress towards the fort continued with regular gesticulations from the crew on the boat, sometimes just repeating what had been said before which started to annoy me as I had to stop to hear the same thing being said and I could feel the fatigue starting to build.

"I AM swimming towards the fort. STOP shouting at me unless it's something new" I spat at the boat. I later apologised, but could feel an ominous return of the struggle of getting to the blue boat earlier which didn't make sense as I should at least be getting some tide assistance.

Another 30 minutes of tough swimming ensued, and my left arm became notably weaker which was clearly spotted from the boat. The mental game really started now with the voices of doubt starting to flex their vocal chords. This was getting hard.

Eventually Pete intervened and asked me a question that will stand out in my memory banks for the rest of my life: "We can do this for the next 2 hours, or head for the shore. What do you want to do?"

Eh? "Have you really just asked me that? What do you think I want to do? Let's head for shore!"

Now what wasn't apparent to me at this time is that I needed to be further inshore before he allowed me to turn and swim with the tide. The risk being that the tide would push me back out into the channel and I'd never make it in. However, I guess he realised I was never going to get in anyway at this rate, so what's to lose? At the time I just thought, AT LAST, and cannot describe the feeling of suddenly swimming with the aid of the tide and the wind at my back. Both had the potential to push me the wrong way, but it suddenly felt like they were trying to help me and my pace must have tripled immediately. This was evidenced by Pete waving both his hands in the air as though he'd just seen his team score the winning goal in a cup final.

My confidence came flooding back. It was now a race for the sands, and the many potential landing points along Cleethorpes seafront. Pete had planned for the beach grass at the Leisure Centre, but my dream landing point would be Brighton Slipway, in front of the RNLI station in the middle of Cleethorpes beach, not that I could identify this from the water surface. Game on!

The final half mile passed in short order, with the sand bars becoming increasingly visible due to the numbers of gulls stood watching our progress towards the beach.

With such a shallow beach, Pete had to be very mindful of the water depth and so encouraged me to see if I could touch the bottom when it looked like I still had about 200 meters of shallow water between me and the sandy beach. At first I couldn't. And then I moved a foot to the left and stood up to complete my swim. I gratefully turned down the offer for the boat to wait whilst I walked the couple of hundred metres to stand on Brighton Slipway, and returned. I'd come to swim, not walk, and had touched down after 4 hours and 2 minutes to achieve something few others have ever done. 

Even wearing a rubber suit.

I can't thank Pete, Les and John enough for giving up their time to help me realise my goal. To do so under the watchful eye of a living legend made it even more special. Pete has raised thousands for Parkinsons UK, and so I tapped a few of my regular donors up (again) to put another £320 in their fighting funds. 

Next swim challenge? The Wash. Skegness to Hunstanton. 2018

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