Swimming without sharks
It took me years to recover from seeing the movie Jaws as a young teen. Nothing could persuade me that killer sharks weren't hovering off the shores of the Irish Sea, to the point where a brush with a piece of slimy seaweed was enough to start me screaming. So, I still can't believe that, 30-something years later, I was going on an open water swimming holiday. 'Swimming' and 'holiday' should have been an oxymoron in my case, but time had healed the Hollywood horrors and I had since rediscovered my love of swimming, albeit within the confines of a 25-metre pool.
I discovered this company Swimtrek's website not long after my 40th birthday. It was love at first sight. I was like a kid in a sweetshop, drooling over the very idea of swimming from one Greek island to another every day for a week, or along the Lycian Way in Turkey, and even out into Egypt's Red Sea. Craving an escape from the humdrum of motherhood, I desperately needed a challenge to catapult me out of my middle aged malaise. Of course I didn't actually rise to the challenge for another couple of years, until peer pressure finally got the better of me. Friends were running marathons, triathalons even and after a few years of watching them get fit and focussed, I finally dug out my togs in an optimistic New Year's way.
And so I found myself starting to train for my first ever week-long holiday alone: no kids, lots of sunshine and, most daring of all, the sea. The Swimtrek team was great for advice, and tried not to laugh when I mentioned the shark issue. Go for Croatia, they suggested. There are hardly any fish there now, sadly, never mind sharks and even jellyfish are few and far between. It is also one of their less ambitious holidays, with swims averaging just 2 to 3km. Oh well, that's all right then, I thought, looking at all the images of people on their website doing textbook crawl, and realising that my 500-metre breaststroke badge was not really going to be enough.
I studied people in the pool, read the superb swimming book Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin, and slowly managed to build up from one to five, and then to ten lengths of crawl, heading to the pool three times a week when I could. Soon I hit the kilometre mark, and before I knew it, after five months of swallowing chlorine, being pushed aside in the fast lane, dry skin, verrucas and endless bad hair days, I was as ready as I would ever be.
I was terrified, but totally exhilarated at having just got myself here, to this tiny island of Prvic, a 30-minute ferry ride from the medieval city of Sibenik. This is just one of 1,185 Croatian islands and base camp for the week, as a group of 15 of us took over a pretty, locally owned hotel overlooking the shore. We were a mixed bunch and, despite all my anxieties, not all swimming club types either. We ranged in age from late twenties to fifties, equally diverse in swimming experience, and were a good mixture of Swiss, Irish, American, English, Scottish, with swim guides from Finland, South Africa and Canada.
On the first morning we met on the beach, some proudly buck naked, bar Speedos, and others, like me, a little more reluctant to do the first big reveal. We dived in and the encouraging guides assessed our levels over a 200-metre swim, and then split us into three groups, giving us pink, orange or yellow swimming hats according to our level. I delighted at the fact that I was put in the bottom yellow hat group, feeling my chest get tight already just after our first try-out. Getting here was good enough, I didn't need any added pressure, thank you.
Jadran, our Croatian boat captain for the week, led us out to nearby Tijat island, where the calm water was about 24 degrees, and the air 32. We yellows took off first, getting a head start. Within minutes I felt an ominous presence behind me. Dum, dum, dum, dum, a shoal of orange and pink hats shot past, leaving us yellows trailing behind in their wake. My chest tightened again, but I just thought of how much I had wanted this, and started to look around as I swam. We were following the coastline of a deserted Adriatic island, its pine trees and white rocky shores disappearing past us as we swam. It was stunning; I was still breathing and, most definitely, swimming. The sun warmed my back and, at last, I started to go with the flow.
Throughout the week we were given tips to help us deal with whatever the waves threw at us, but generally it was pretty calm. On day two I swam smoothly between the islands of Zmajan and Kaprije, this time a 'crossing' swim as opposed to a coastline-hugging one. No more clear, shallow waters, this was the deep blue sea, with nothing but a pink cottage 3 kilometres away to aim for.
The feeling at the end of each swim was pure elation. I still don't get what runners mean when they talk about 'the zone' that they enter when running, but in water I definitely get it. I like that Swimtrek is not about racing, as our guides encouraged us to pause as they throw out drinks, laugh and joke and help us back on our way.
After the morning swims we collapsed on the boat, a maritime buffet greeting us every day for lunch. In addition to salads, cold meats, cheeses and fruit, Jadran often went exploring for goodies, emerging from the sea with a load of whitebait and mussels which he threw in a pan with butter and garlic, and handed out like sweets. I am sure that the day he found oysters I swam with an extra 'je ne sais quoi' afterwards.
We took on two swims a day, totalling about 5km. The land and seascapes varied greatly, from the Krka River and Krka National Park, to the wide expanses of Croatia's mind-blowing archipelago which make up the Kornati National Park. Here, cones of white rock, covered in sunbleached shrubs emerge from the water in their hundreds, creating endless reefs for us to swim around. Some swims were harder than others, but when the currents carried us in their arms and eased the flow for all of us, I could have been a young one again, free of fear, swimming like a fish and utterly buoyant. I have my eye on Swimtrek Sardinia next, as I fall down that slippery slope to 50. Because, if you can't beat it, then you might as well swim it.
Swimtrek, 00-44-1273-739713, www.swimtrek.com, organises open water swims in destinations as varied as Croatia, Greece, Egypt, The Lake District and The Scottish Inner Hebrides. The six-day Croatian trip is from £660 sterling, not including travel or evening meals.
Catherine specialises in responsible tourism, and is the author of ecoscape:Ireland. Follow her on Twitter.com/catherinemack or see her blog at www.ethicaltraveller.net.
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