A Swim into the Deep Blue Sea – Bellbuoy Challenge!

21 January 2019
By: Michelle Mortimer (aka Morts)

Swimming is a marvelous sport. It’s a great way to keep fit and unwind, however the endless laps swimming up and down a line from wall to wall can get a little tedious over time. However, if you live at the coast and are blessed with a beautiful bay to swim in, you will find a way to pluck up the courage to venture into the ‘Big Blue Wobbly Thing’ aka the ocean.

Now, in Port Elizabeth (PE, South Africa), we have a little swim that happens once a year called the ‘Bellbuoy Challenge’. This challenge, as they put it, is a roughly 5km swim straight off shore to a buoy with a bell on it… hence the name ‘Bellbuoy’, that marks a shallow reef.  Upon reaching the buoy, you swim around it and head back to what you assume is land. I say assume, because from 2.5km off the coast there is remarkably little of it to see except for the tallest of buildings. PE being what it is, those tall buildings are very few and far between.

So, after a few months back in the swimming game after decades doing nothing, and some newly gained experience in open water swimming. A friend, Lynn, convinced me that it was time for us to take on the Challenge!  After a lot of convincing and arm twisting the inevitable happened. The decision was made to take part and we set about working on the logistics. First things first, we wanted a paddler. Swimmers are allowed to use paddlers to help guide them to and from the turnaround. Thankfully, Lynn had the perfect one lined up. Rob, and he was awesome! Never underestimate the value of an experienced paddler when the ability to see land may be somewhat non-existent.  Next, there was the steady increase in distance to make sure we were physically capable to take on the distance. Training went to plan, and come race day we were theoretically ready to Go!

Race Day: I had a partner in crime to conquer the race with and an experienced paddler to keep us on course. Yet the nerves were there. I had butterflies, plenty of them, and none of them were flying in formation. From the beach, the Bellbuoy could be seen peacefully sitting on the horizon. Conditions looked deceptively perfect. How wrong we were. We had a final word with Rob, before he headed out past the waves to wait for us. We nervously waited for our names to be called to enter the starting area. No turning back now. Then BANG! We were heading into the unknown. Completely uncharted territory for us.

The first half of the swim was fairly standard as swims go. In retrospect, I probably should have realised how fast we were moving. Then about 1km offshore the water changed a bit. It got deep, it got dark and a rather impressive rip started pushing us ever so slightly off course. But we were making great time, so we forged on with confidence.

Then carnage, it was time to get around the Bellbuoy. Seems simple right? However, in order to go the right way around the buoy, we had to power straight into a rather impressive  current pushing in the wrong direction. Possibly one of the hardest 50m swims I’ve ever done. On turning, a wave picked up the support jet-ski and unceremoniously dumped it on top of me. Luckily, no harm no foul. Yell my number to the boat keeping track of which swimmers had turned. Quick check to make sure my shoulder was still good to go. Glance across to Lynn and Rob who are now drifting off, to where I’m not quite sure. All I could tell was that it definitely was not in the direction we had just come from. Deep breath, accepting that the swim back was not going to be that easy, and we set about heading back to dry land.

The swim back started like a boxing match. The ocean was grumpy, lumpy and somewhat unhappy. We were drifting off course and using a lot of energy trying to get back to the siting buoys. Rob to the rescue. I cannot say it enough, the value of an experienced paddler is worth his weight in gold. Rob politely pointed out that we were fighting a loosing battle, and to just follow him. He was going to guide us with the current and then once we were out of it’s grip he redirect us back to the finish. So for the next very long while we just kept out heads down and followed the ski. Progress was slow… but at least we were moving in sort of the right direction.

There was a little cramping, but nothing that could not be dealt with. On the plus side, I wasn’t a big kicker anyway and I now had a rudder to steer me home. Other than that the swim was going as well as conditions would allow. We’d stop quickly  from time to time we’d stop for a little recovery. However, these breaks were kept to a minimum as the moment you stopped swimming you started heading back to the Bellbuoy at pace.

Then, after what felt like an eternity, the water just changed. Out of the clutches of the rip at last and heading in the right direction.  Oh happy days. The beach came into view and we were almost home. What was left of the swim was rather uneventful and before we knew it we had sand beneath our toes once more. Up the beach and under the finishing arch. We’d done it! Smiles, fist bumps and hugs all round. We had faced our fears and fought the odds to conquer the “Bellbuoy Challenge”.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! 🙂