Swimming from Old Harry Rocks to The Needles: A grand day out by Ali Budynkiewicz
I have a beach hut in Southbourne. It’s a little green shed filled with towels, costumes, goggles, surf boards and kayaks. We have had it for quite a few years and it sits on the promenade in the middle of the Poole bay.
When I sit at the hut, I can look across from Old Harry Rocks to the west, on the Isle of Purbeck, to the Needles lighthouse to the east, on the Isle of Wight. It’s a fabulous view. On a sunny day, with the water glistening and Old Harry and the Needles blindingly white, it is easy to understand how they were connected millennia ago.
Lots of my swim friends join me here to dip, train and have celebrations. We swim nearly every day, including New Year and Boxing day celebrations with the Just Swim group.
I have sat at the hut all these years and looked across the bay towards Old Harry and the needles and wondered whether I could swim across.
In September 2019, that dream came to fruition.
I had planned to swim around Jersey in July 2019 with one of my best swim friends, Ann Richardson. Sadly, after a year of training, I had an accident in Lanzarote in early May 2019, which meant that I had to cancel the swim.
I had swum over a lava rock and ended up with a rather nasty gash on my shin, which needed stitches and a night in hospital in Puerto del Carmen. Then on my return to the UK I developed cellulitis and ended up in Poole hospital, hooked up to antibiotics for another few nights. I was out of the water for about eight weeks.
Ann was stoical. If anything, she thought she might have been the one who may have had to cancel the swim, because she’d had a few broken bones from falls while out running.
But it meant we had done a lot of training for a swim that didn’t happen.
So, plan B.
Louis Medley is a pilot of a boat based in Poole Marina, Boney M. Over the last few years, he has been our go-to local skipper for training swims in Poole bay, for solo and relay swimmers. Louis has recently got his channel pilot’s certification. He and his wife, Sarah, have great skills in assisting our swimmers in practising swimming beside a boat, changeover practice and getting out into deep water.
I have known Louis for several years and have taken the East Dorset open water club relays, as well as other local swimming groups, out on his boat.
As far as Louis and myself were aware, no one else has attempted the Old Harry to the Needles swim, so it was an unknown adventure.
Louis gave me a date, 11 August. Since this was a “new” swim, Louis’ advice and expertise was invaluable. He wanted to go on a neap tide, about 8.30/9am to avoid the ferries in the shipping channel coming out of the harbour from Poole to France. I agreed, that was probably a good plan. He intended to start the swim at Old Harry and swim east towards the Needles.
I talked to Ann. It was all go.
Well, it would have been all go, except for the good old British weather. Force 5 gales, and a massive swell. If we had managed to get in, we would have been blown to the Needles in about 2 hours. We may not have lived though. So Louis gave us another date, 8 September.
This time the sun shone, and the breeze was gentle. We had food, thermals, dryrobes and crew. Ann did have to cancel a trip to Spain, but seemed happy enough to swim to the Needles instead. Did I tell you she was crazy?
We left Poole quay at 8am in good spirits. Ann had swallowed stugeron to the max, so what could possibly go wrong?
Our crew consisted of Karen Rees, an English Channel solo swimmer and who had recently completed the 20 Bridges Manhattan Swim. Karen has her eyes on the triple crown of swimming and has the Catalina Channel booked for 2020.
We also had Sam Tarling with us, who has an English Channel relay booked for next year and a solo in 2021. Sam has recently completed the Nevis to St Kitts swim in the Caribbean.
Because of the treacherous rocks around Old Harry, Louis took the boat parallel to the stack.
Old Harry Rocks are three chalk formations, including a stack and a stump, located at Handfast Point, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, southern England. They mark the most easterly point of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are various stories about the naming of the rocks. One legend says that the Devil (traditionally known euphemistically as “Old Harry”) slept on the rocks. Another local legend says that the rocks were named after Harry Paye, the infamous Poole pirate, whose ship hid behind the rocks awaiting passing merchantmen. Yet another tale has it that a ninth-century Viking raid was thwarted by a storm and that one of the drowned, Earl Harold, was turned into a pillar of chalk.
I took the first swim, jumping in from the back of the boat, into clear, fresh, deep water. It felt wonderful. The sea temperature was 18 degrees, slightly warmer than the air temperature at 9am.
There was quite a lot of stroke analysis going on from the boat. Karen is an open water swim coach. So, I have a dodgy right arm, with a hook hand entry that disappears into the water before the catch. Luckily no photos exist of that.
We swam a relay of 1 hour each, with Ann entering the water via the ladder at the back of the boat, and me jumping in. In hindsight, Ann’s method was the better option.
Karen was very impressed with Ann’s stroke. She has a fast turnover and is a metronome of swimming. Ann’s stroke rate was 70+, mine 56/58.
As we got closer to the Needles, the sea began to churn up, and the boat was rocking. The currents around the Needles lighthouse can be perilous.
Just beyond the Needles lies the Shingles, a 3-mile constantly shifting bank of pebbles which occasionally rises out of the sea, but which normally lies treacherously just below the surface.
Understandably, the relatively narrow channel between the Needles and the Shingles is treated with respect by sailors. It is a place for wrecks. The Assurance, a 44-gun frigate sailing from Jamaica to Portsmouth, was lost in 1753, and HMS Pomone, en route from Istanbul, struck the Needles in 1811.
The Needles lighthouse was built in 1859, replacing lights mounted on the nearby cliff tops. In 1918, two ships were sunk in the vicinity, not by hazardous seas and rocks, but by the deadly torpedoes of a German submarine, UB-35, commanded by Oberleutnant Karl Stöter.
On 20 January, UB-35 struck the SS Mechanican, which settled and was swallowed by the shifting stones of the Shingles; on 22 January, the U-boat hit SS Serrana, which broke her back on the Needles ledge. UB-35 was herself sunk by the Royal Navy off Calais on 26 January, with the loss of all hands (having accounted for 42 ships sunk and 4 captured during her career).
But perhaps the most famous wreck off the Needles, whose remains are still a danger to other vessels, is that of the Greek cargo ship, Varvassi. Varvassi ran aground with a cargo of Algerian wine and tangerines on 5 January 1947; fortunately, all the crew – not forgetting the ship’s cat – were rescued.
Ann was just finishing her fourth swim and approaching the Needles. We’d been swimming for almost 8 hours, and still on good form. The sun was still shining, although the wind was picking up and it was getting colder.
Louis, Sarah, Karen and Sam were doing a cracking job.
After a discussion with Louis, it was decided that the boat couldn’t get within 200m of the Needles. So a decision was made to take the boat and swim parallel to the Needles to make sure we swam the distance.
As it was almost the finish, I jumped in with Ann to complete the swim. And that’s when I found out jumping from the back of the boat in rolling seas wasn’t the best plan after all. I mistimed the jump and hit my backside on the edge of the boat. A resounding crash. Louis felt the vibration in the cabin. (I ended up with a bruise from my hip to my knee, and a dent in my backside which remains a month later, but obviously sucked it up and smiled in embarrassment on the day).
It was a grand day out. We are pleased to have been the first swimmers to complete the Old Harry to the Needles swim, and I know that we won’t be the last.
Massive thanks to Sam for the champagne, the laughs and the support, and to Karen for her wisdom, advice and dressing us when we finished our swims. Also, to Louis and Sarah for their excellent piloting and observing.