The Queen and I, a swimming adventure

Atlanterra to Barbate 10,500m.

My original title for this site was ‘The loneliness of the long distance swimmer’, stolen of course from Alan Sillitoe’s famous story about a young lad whose prowess at running takes him on a mental escape from the reality of the institution he lives in. Loneliness in the water is an irrevocable part of swimming great distances where the activity becomes an entirely solitary pursuit, even when accompanied by others in the water. Head down, arms churning, the roll of hips, the turn of the head, the deep suck of breath, the slow exhalation under water and only very brief glimpses of sky relieve the monotony and loneliness of the challenge. Talk is impossible, contact pointless.

The challenge – Atlanterra to Barbate, 11,000m. of swimming

Yesterday I took my swimming adventures to a whole new level with a 10,5km. solo swim from Atlanterra to Barbate. It’s an almost arrow straight stretch of beach running south east to north west from the edge of the cork oak studded Sierra de la Plata, past the village of Zahara de los Atunes and then along an almost endless empty stretch of coast lined with golden sand and scrubby palmito bushes. I took a companion of course, just to have a conversation with. I find this is the easiest way to break up the heady wet loneliness. In the past I’ve swum with Ernest Hemingway (“this is man’s stuff, you’re not made for defeat, you can do it”), Winston Churchill (“If only I could keep my cigar alight I might become a tad proficient at this game”), Charlie Chaplin (who swam with great proficiency and inevitably we ended up talking about women and sex), Enid Blyton (I switched her off before she became too polemic – she started asking if we might meet gypsies on the beach in Barbate), Sean Connery (James? Look here young man, we can talk about anything but just not about you know who) and even on one memorable occasion a teacher from school whose name I couldn’t remember – I spent an hour trying to get an answer from him as to why he always wore a sharp ironed crease in his jeans. 

The Queen was very much in my mind as I slipped in to the morning stillness of the grey green water. She’d died the previous day, news about her was everywhere, I’d even been asked by a local newspaper wanting the reaction of the British community in the province to her death. What could I say that hadn’t been said by tens of thousands before me? Somewhat irreverently I said that I preferred licking stamps with the Queen on them than licking stamps with King Charles on them. Probably won’t be published. 

96 seems to be a very good age, I was happy she’d got that far and thought of my Dad, 90 next year and how much he’d love to be joining me on this swim. If the Queen can survive so long I would have a swim in her memory, 100 metres for every one of her years – 9,600 metres. I wasn’t so sure about topics of conversation with the Queen as I swam along, I know little about horses, even less about Corgis.

I looked down the coast, as the sun rose a sea harl descended. I couldn’t even see the Hotel Antonio 500m. away let alone Barbate at 10km., perhaps that was a blessing. I struck out just as the morning breeze dropped off turning the water into an oily slow swell. I headed off  aiming for a line of yellow buoys a hundred metres away. The shoreline completely disappeared as the visibility worsened. This was very disconcerting but I was sure though that things would improve as the sun burnt through the haze. Unfortunately it didn’t and I spent the next 3,5 hours swimming in a grey disorienting fug. 

Visibility 70m. I took this photo having arrived at the beach in Barbate

Happily my sense of direction in the water is pretty good, my common sense perhaps less so. I navigated from buoy to buoy. They were about 150m. apart, once I’d swum past one of them there was a good 75m. before the next would appear out of the gloom. I only realised I was opposite Zahara when I saw the dark rusty silhouette of the boiler from the wrecked ‘Vaporcito’ an old steam trawler sunk near the shore. I never saw the low town huddled below the shoulder of the Sierra Retín. As I left Zahara behind the buoys ended, the next 7km. was no-mans land.  This huge length of beach is controlled by Spain’s Ministry of Defence and a winter playground for Nato simulated beach landings. Utterly devoid of buildings the army happily lets locals use the beach in the summer. In the winter I’ve swum along with tank barrels peeking out of camouflage nets and soldiers patrolling the beach with machine guns.

I navigated knowing the vague halo of the sun should be on my back. Occasionally it disappeared altogether and I was forced to remove my ear plugs and listen for distant cars, my only navigational aid. To be honest Lizzie wasn’t much help, she was more worried about her Corgis inability to swim than my navigational predicament. She was quite happy to be ‘Lizzie’. I hadn’t been quite sure how to address her as we set off along the coast. However she put my ease, “James let me tell you, I really am going to enjoy this next chapter of my being. Out pomp and circumstance. In the new me. Call me ‘Lizzie’ and we’ll get on just fine”. “And Prince Philip?”, I ventured, “will he be errr… Phil?”.

Lizzie in the nicest possible way was keen to hurry me along, it would soon be elevenses and she couldn’t bear to miss it. “Despite my current predicament, I do like to follow the same routine” she told me. The Queen I learnt enjoys strong tea, more of an Assam than a Darjeeling brew apparently. I told her my favourite was Lapsang Soughing as it always reminded me of my grandfather’s house in Scotland where the smoky scent seemed to drift even in to the bedding upstairs. “I suppose you drink coffee now, living this far south?” she asked and I was happily able to reply that I followed the royal preferences for tea only. “You must though drink coffee if you’re offered it you know”, I was duly told. “I have delighted in many a drink all over the world, something I would never normally drink at home. Travel not only broadens the mind but also the palate”. I was about to launch in to a story about a wonderful couscous with a Berber family way up in the Atlas but she cut me off with her own reminiscences.  “The Tropics is the place, everything tastes so much better under the sun in the shade of a palm tree. My subjects in Tuvalu prepare an excellent long sunset drink with coconut milk. Philip prefers his with rum…”, she paused, her voice choking a little with emotion, “I am sooo looking forward to seeing him later”. The Queen seemed suddenly so much younger.

The sun “a vague halo”

At 8,000m. my mind was drifting, on two occasions I found myself swimming out to sea, I’d gone on auto pilot but completely lost my bearings. My heart rate shot up but with a short rest I could just feel the gradual swell taking me to the coast. Eventually I decided it would be safer to swim as close to the shore as possible, difficult in places as rocks would loom up quickly through the murky green depths. Today I’d had no luck, grey flat skies and no visibility in the water made it feel as though I was swimming in a sensory deprivation tank for much of the time. Thank god for Lizzie keeping me company. At 10,000m. I rounded the rocky breakwater of the Rio Barbate, waves rolling in over the shallow river bed. My landing point? The Playa del Carmen, the perfect curve of Barbate’s town beach, just another 1,000m. ahead. Sadly it was not to be, half way across the river a strong cramp squeezed my left calf muscle, paralysing me on the spot. I drifted along massaging my leg and decided I’d really done enough for the day and swam down the river with one leg trailing limply beside me. At 10,590m. I touched the shore and hobbled up to a big stone to take a well earned rest. A big smile crossed my face. I’d broken the 10km. barrier and survived to tell the tale.

Having crossed the river, cramp got the better of me. As good as it was ever ever going to get.

And as for Lizzie? She left me in the river, we both had other thoughts in our mind. She’d already forgotten about me. I could imagine her rushing along throwing off her tiara, her gowns, her overweight jewellery, her uncomfortable shoes, her years. Barefoot she was running across white sand looking for that palm tree in Tuvalu where Philip would be sitting with his rum and coconut patiently waiting. He knew she’d turn up sooner or later.

Photo credit – reprinted from Vanity Fair magazine 2012 – Getty Images, Digital colorization Lorna Clark