It’s not often a swim can make you a hero and an inspiration in another country. But that is exactly what happened to me recently after I successfully completed the 16km Bangla Channel swim in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.
In earlier blogs I have detailed my visit to the country last summer. Around 50 children a day die in the water in the country, and an organisation called the CIPRB (Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh) there is running a swim programme teaching young children to swim, which I helped out with, being a fully trained swim teacher. On my return to the UK I wanted to continue my interest and promote the great work of the CIPRB, but wasn’t sure how exactly to do that. Then one day I stumbled across a Facebook page for something called the Bangla Channel sea swim in the country. A 16 km distance from Teknaf to St Martin’s Island. It looked amazing. I contacted the organisers for more details and found out that several Bangladeshis had done the swim, plus some Indian swimmers and a Dutchman but no British swimmers. The furthest I had swum at that point was around 7 to 8km in a river, but I felt with the right training I could do the distance. It seemed the perfect vehicle to raise awareness of drowning issues and the swim schemes. So I duly signed up.
That gave me around 5 months to train. I usually swim weekly with SwimForTri, so I got in touch with one of their coaches for advice on a training programme. For the following weeks I basically swam 4 times a week; once with the club and 3 sessions where I followed a training plan. No session was over 5km in distance but all involved various drills, endurance, speed and technique. My biggest drawback was the timing of my big swim – being the end of January. I had to do all my training in the pool as I live in central London, and I am not great swimming long distances in very cold water.
The months passed by and then finally the time came to go to Bangladesh. I flew out a week before the swim. I’m lucky I have wonderful friends in the capital Dhaka who looked after me so well the whole time I was there. We also held a news conference before I flew out to the coast and I was amazed to learn so many of the local journalists were unaware of the big issue of drowning in their own country. But they all also seemed keen to know more, and I felt so pleased that my message was getting across. Two days later I flew down to Cox’s Bazar on the coast, where I stayed the night before meeting early the next morning with my swim team. The trip was organised by Musa Ibrahim, and his company Everest Academy. We all took a bus down the coast to Teknaf, which took around 2 hours and then picked up a ferry to the island. On the 3 hour journey Musa showed me the route we would take when we swam. He and one other Bangladeshi were joining me in the water. It seemed quite strange looking across this vast expanse of water, thinking am I really going to make it across there?
The island was beautiful. White sand and coconut trees and blissful temperatures in the mid 20s. A far cry from cold, brutal London. We did a test swim on our arrival and the water seemed good. Around 20 degrees. However we had been warned the weather could turn, and when we all woke at 4.30am the following day the wind had really picked up. We travelled back to Teknaf to begin our swim in our support boats, which were open to the elements. We all got totally soaked and cold as the waves battered against the sides of the boat and then over us. I began to feel concerned as I knew if I started the swim cold there was no way I could complete it. I had my Selkie wetsuit on me and decided I had to wear it if I had any chance of completing the swim.
On arrival at the start point, I got quickly out the boat and changed into my suit. I was still shivering so ran up and down the jetty several times, desperately trying to warm up. My two fellow swimmers did the same. The heat of the rising sun did help as well and soon we were down at the water’s edge, ready to begin. A group of curious children – and adults! – looked on. Once the water was around waist high, we all said good luck and then began to swim.
The first hour seemed to take forever and the waves were swirling around me, as I battled hard through the water. A cold wind was blowing across the surface as well. I was bitten a couple of times by jellyfish – on my face and my ankle – but the pain didn’t last for long. I felt disorientated, but kept on following the boat ahead of me. I could see nothing but sea and sky. I’d agreed to take water breaks every 45 minutes. I felt big relief on the first break, as a bottle was thrown to me on the end of a rope. I drank what I could and then set off again.
I then got into a rhythm and the time seemed to fly. I had no idea what speed I was going or how far I had gone. I just got into a total meditative state and my mind was so full of thinking I did not have time to get bored. The water and food breaks flew by until I hit the 3 hour mark. I was amazed I was feeling so good after that amount of time. I then saw the other two swimmers on the boat and realised they had had to get out due to cold and injury – leaving just me in the water. At that point we reckoned I had about an hour left to go. But I found out after I soon got stuck in the changing tides and spent an hour swimming, but not moving. I could see the island ahead of me but it took an age for it to seem closer.
Finally finally though I could see the beach. And finally finally I could see sand beneath me, and I was able to stand. I walked up the beach, surrounded by an inquisitive crowd and posed by the Finish line for photos. I couldn’t quite believe I had done it, and besides a sore shoulder didn’t feel that bad at all. That evening we had a big celebration in our hotel, and I went to bed thinking well now I can really enjoy the rest of my holiday in Bangladesh.
Little did I realise however how my swim had really captured the hearts and minds of so many Bangladeshis. I work as a journalist for the Associated Press and I am very lucky to have great colleagues also in the Bangladeshi, capital. Dhaka. The bureau chief Julhas Alam started sending me newspaper links. I seemed to be a bit of a star – both English language and Bengali newspapers were running stories on me. The first British person to swim the Bangla Channel for the children of Bangladesh. As I made my way back to Dhaka people were stopping me and shaking my hand and saying thank you, you are an inspiration. You are a hero to us for doing this for our children. It was so overwhelming to hear people say things like that and something I could never have imagined would happen. Back in the capital I appeared on a TV chat show and did numerous newspaper and TV interviews. A truly memorable time. Not only had I completed my challenge but people were really becoming aware of the importance of learning to swim.
So what now? Well I plan to return very soon – hopefully the next couple of months. I feel I can use my popularity in Bangladesh to further promote swimming, on all levels. So I’m currently now working out the best course of action to make the most of my time on my next visit. I am also looking for a Bangladeshi girl who might do the swim with me next year, to inspire young women in the country. So much has happened, but so much more will happen, I hope and believe. I never every thought my decision to do that 16km swim would have such a big affect on my life and possibly my future.