Will Bruton takes on the challenge of skippering a yacht shadowing a swimmer on a very slow cruise up the west coast of Britain
How I skippered a boat shadowing a long distance swimmer
There’s an adage that has kept me sailing safely for 10 years. It’s simple: “Keep the people in and the water out”.
So when Jasmine Harrison asked me to skipper her Bavaria 38 Crews Control while she swam alongside it, the idea immediately went against all my usual sailing instincts.
In 2020, 21-year-old Jasmine broke the record for the youngest woman to row solo across the Atlantic, competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Now she was planning to be the first woman to swim the length of the UK, from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
I was to skipper her support yacht for the first two weeks. If all went to plan, she’d be done in around 90 days.
But, as with all pioneering adventures, a lot about this challenge was only vaguely understood.
Previous successful attempts, both by men, had proved far from easy.
Sean Conway completed the swim in 2015, covering the 900 miles in four and a half months, while Ross Edgley swam entirely around the UK in 157 days, but only after a significant chunk of his tongue had fallen off – an affliction endurance swimmers call ‘salt mouth’.
When we met at Noss on Dart marina, there was a palpable sense of expectation.
None of us volunteer crew had met before, and we were drawn to this adventure for different reasons.
Anthony, who’d later be taking over from me as skipper, hoped to build his sailing experience in new waters, while James hoped to learn to sail with a view to one day swapping his van for a home afloat.
For me, it was a chance to sail the West Country in summer, and be a part of something quite unusual.
As is often the case on a sailing trip, we got to know each other quite quickly. James, within only a couple of hours, had accidentally rendered one of Dartmouth’s well-heeled restaurants silent by smashing a glass and spilling beer everywhere.
Anthony quickly proved he knew more about most of the places we were going than I did.
And Jasmine, Yorkshire born and bred, clarified that, despite the challenge she was about to undertake, her geography south of ‘God’s own county’ of Yorkshire was charmingly lacking.
Somehow though, I felt confident that between us we’d figure it out.
The right boat for supporting a long distance swimmer
Crews Control, a 2004 Bavaria 38, was to be home to various crewmembers over the next four months.
Sponsor stickers down the hull made us look vaguely plausible.
Above all, there was a lot of space for the length of the hull.
Belonging to a generous sponsor, Cruise Control was our responsibility and handing her back in the same order she was received was important.
An overnight sail to Falmouth provided a great opportunity to check Crews Control at sea and introduce the crew to a watchkeeping routine.
Jasmine was familiar with AIS and its potential failings, having nearly been run-down by an 800ft tanker mid-Atlantic on her rowing boat, while James, new to yachts, picked-up the tech quickly.
Despite his accident-prone nature, he proved a fast learner. James was one of several kayakers that would provide support to Jasmine in the water wherever possible.
Later in the challenge, a kayaker enabled Jasmine to swim at night as well to take even more advantage of the tide.
I’m always apprehensive when sailing with unknown crew, but felt at ease quickly, particularly as no-one hesitated to wake me up on the first night when ships inevitably appeared.
This was far preferable to a decision being made too late or second-guessed for fear of waking up the skipper.
The town quay at Falmouth is always a great place to stage an expedition west.
Having called in there quite a few times, I suggested a familiar ritual: the fish and chip shop, followed by The Front, a modest pub directly below it, to sip a Doom Bar bitter.
The stop also served a practical purpose: to refuel (something we did at every opportunity) and visit Trago Mills, something of a Falmouth institution that must be seen to be believed.
Everything from engine oil to books can be bought under one roof.
A tricky start for the swimmer and crew
Putting a swimmer in the water at Land’s End sounds easy enough, until you look at the chart.
Riddled with wrecks and rocks, it’s a treacherous spot by anyone’s reckoning.
Coupled with the importance of taking maximum advantage of a nine-hour tide for Jasmine to swim with, we had to get it right.
We got ready to leave at 4am, with one television cameraman turning up to film, and slipped lines in thankfully windless conditions.
Once we got out to sea, anything above a Force 4 would prove very challenging for kayaker or yacht, though, frustratingly for Jasmine, no barrier to her ability to swim.
While animated tidal arrows on phone apps were useful, we quickly learned that a tidal atlas was far better to gain a big picture of what the flow was going to do and how we were going to use it to best effect.
First and foremost was to ensure the tide has turned at least a little at the point where we dropped Jasmine at the official start.
We also spent some time working out where, technically, the Land’s End bit of Land’s End was!
Should anything go wrong, we’d be swept west of the rocks and would be out into open water.
To add additional pressure, we were assured ITV would be above with the biggest lens they could muster.
Predicting what might happen, I made a call to Falmouth Coastguard.
If a concerned tourist called them from the very popular Land’s End viewpoint saying someone mad was swimming off Land’s End, it was us and we (hopefully) didn’t need rescuing!
With more chop than we’d hoped for, but not too much to put us off, Jasmine donned a wetsuit and swim float as well as starting the GPS tracker that would measure the official record attempt.
Immediately to starboard, Shark’s Fin rock was awash. I might have been heard muttering ‘can we get on with it’, eager to get underway and into more open water as quickly as possible.
With the swimmer and kayak launched rather unceremoniously, we were off.
A few minutes after positioning the boat away from the rocks, and after only half an hour, we looked over to see James capsizing for the second time, then a third.
With no wetsuit, he’d quickly get cold. Having covered a couple of miles and officially started, we decided to wait for better conditions before continuing.
Recovering the kayak, James, Jasmine, but sadly not his mobile phone or the brand-new GoPro, we were off to an eventful start, but had learned a lot already.
Getting into the swimming groove
After a couple of days moored in Newlyn the weather calmed and we set off again, this time without a kayak in the water, learning how to keep Crews Control close, but not too close, to a swimmer for hours at a time.
From reading about the two previous length-of-Britain swims, I’d assumed we’d be stopping frequently to give Jasmine a drink or bring her out of the water for a rest. Not so.
We quickly learned that she swims for six hours at least and can, with encouragement, sometimes be persuaded to stop for a Snickers hurled over the transom before carrying on.
This was exhausting to watch, let alone do.
Due to the slow speed through the water the autopilot stood no chance of keeping us on track, so we experimented with different ways to keep alongside or slightly in front depending on the conditions.
With practice, this became easier, but someone paying full attention at the helm is crucial as the yacht sets the course for the swimmer to follow.
Fantasies of using the headsail to maintain a steady course and momentum were quickly dashed; slipping in and out of tickover under engine proving the only way to keep in line with Jasmine.
Sailing would have to wait for passages to and from stops on land.
A bright orange swim float made it surprisingly easy to keep track by day, but the prospect of keeping track of a swimmer at night was a little too much to contend with.
We soon realised that a long swim in the morning followed by a slightly shorter swim in the evening – before drifting overnight or heaved to – would become a workable routine for us all.
Each swim would start at a GPS mark left at the end of the last.
Night watches were held often some distance offshore, drifting with the tide, taking in the lit-up coastline of southernmost England.
We were peaceful and pleasingly detached from life ashore only a few miles away.
A call into Padstow
West of Land’s End there is very little in the way of safe havens, and certainly none you could call ‘all states of tide and any weather.’
We’d been keeping a careful eye on the synoptic charts and, with the first signs of a low developing, decided to head for Padstow having made several good days’ progress.
We had no pilot book for this part of the coastline, so charts and the Almanac demanded our extra attention.
Crossing the aptly named Doom Bar required low winds and the tide to be right.
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Once beyond the harbour wall we were at the centre of a bustling town, moored Mediterranean style, with a line running to a buoy from the bow, which we picked up using the harbour’s self-service electric dinghy, saving us putting our own in the water.
It’s a great set-up, with reasonable rates and good facilities.
Having spent two days in Padstow, taking the opportunity to repair an ever more dangerous looking holding tank pipe and with the weather looking good for a stretch across the Bristol Channel, we slipped lines and headed out to cross what would be one of the most challenging bits of water.
And for Jasmine it was one of the most unexciting; not being able to see land from her level would prove demoralising over the next few days.
Timing the tides
We covered up to 20 miles each day, learning fast how to get the tides right, having made a costly mistake at the start which proved frustrating for all of us.
A glance at the tidal stream atlas for the Bristol Channel, if you look at the bigger picture, looks like a loose whirlpool rather than a defined set of streams, with many confusing curves.
It’s here that we ran into our first miscalculation, resulting in a long swim of over six hours with little progress, achieving only two miles towards Milford Haven, the next planned stop.
It was frustrating for us on board, but even more so for Jasmine.
From this point on Anthony began to mark the paper chart, recording progress and drift religiously.
With an aim for the entrance to Milford Haven, we began to make real progress, good weather and flat seas raising everyone’s spirits.
In calmer water Jasmine attracted curious seagulls, seals, and plenty of dolphins.
Sadly, and we knew it was only a matter of time, jellyfish also appeared.
Stung on her feet, neck, face and mouth, they were something a previous swimmer, Sean Conway, had combatted successfully by growing a huge beard.
With that option not available, Jasmine took a knife to a spare swim hood, cutting it into a rather intimidating neoprene balaclava.
The stings she did sustain proved most troubling out of the water once her body had warmed up, itching terribly as she was trying to sleep between tides.
Lundy Island, around 11 miles offshore, presents a tempting prospect as a stop off when crossing the Bristol Channel.
Its anchorage, though only protected by the prevailing easterlies, would grant us a helpful pause to rest and regroup.
But, with the tide and weather in our favour, pressing on presented the only realistic option.
While it appeared we had months to play with, with every day that passed the average daily distance Jasmine needed to swim went slowly but steadily up; something she was more acutely aware of than all of us.
These balmy days would end, northern Scotland proving a serious obstacle to the previous two successful swims.
Having got most of the way across the channel, a problem presented itself in the form of our leisure batteries not charging.
I’d not realised we must have been gradually discharging for some time (I usually add battery level as an extra column in a logbook, but having seen the batteries were brand new, had omitted to do so).
By the time this became apparent, we couldn’t resolve the fault; we were bound to head to Milford Haven earlier than planned.
For Jasmine, in the water and blissfully unaware, emerging from the water to learn of the change of plan must have been frustrating.
Milford Haven is a huge natural harbour I’ve sought shelter in before.
Jasmine seemed to have friends everywhere and, helpfully for us, one with a boatyard who would be waiting for us on arrival to help fix our battery issues.
The wide entrance to Milford Haven is flanked by Victorian defences and, the more you look on the chart, the more you see intriguing anchorages, though they’d have to wait for another day.
My time aboard however had come to an end.
Handing the yacht over to Anthony, Jasmine and James, I was sad to be leaving my small part in this epic challenge, but promised to re-join the yacht further up the coast and to see the finish.
Swimming for the record
Jasmine completed the length of Britain swim in 110 days, making her the first and only woman to swim the length of the UK.
The north coast of Scotland proved an enormous challenge, ever worsening weather making windows to swim few and far between.
The final stretch of the challenge was completed using a combination of Crews Control, a RIB and the help of Pentland Canoe Club – the prevailing conditions and length of weather window dictating which support vessels were appropriate.
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