Beth Hamilton’s experience at this year’s Big Swim across the Northumberland Strait was different than in 2013, but was still “unbelievable and overwhelming.”
The Aylesford native, now living in Halifax, managed to finish the Aug. 17 swim, completing 16.25 kilometres in a time of five hours, 30 minutes.
She termed the accomplishment “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life
“I’m much prouder this year than last year," Hamilton said, "because it was so much harder.”
As “one of the few swimmers (four out of a field of 59) who was able to compare,” she found this year’s experience “wonderful and awful at the same time.”
A year ago, conditions in the Northumberland Strait were “beautiful and calm.” This year, “the swells were insane, from about the second to the tenth kilometre.”
As well, “the chop was terrible. A couple of times, I couldn’t touch the kayak."
Each swimmer was accompanied by a kayak as a pace and support craft.
In this kind of a swim, she pointed out, “everything depends on the tides and currents.” As a result, “they changed the course a bit.
“This year, we were on the other side of the bridge – the east side. We crossed under the bridge at the beginning, then weren’t supposed to cross over again.”
For most of the swim, “everything was going fine,” until about a kilometre from the P.E.I. side, “I got really close to the bridge – right next to it. The current was off-setting everything we were trying to do, and we weren’t moving.”
She said, “I could put my hand into the water and feel the current running through my fingers.” Eventually, she “got swept under the bridge.
“It was a really tough last kilometre - and I had already done 16.” When she finished, Hamilton was “absolutely exhausted,” but “super emotional, a lot more than last year.”
The current, she said, “was unreal, very difficult to deal with, and it came out of nowhere. It wasn‘t something we had anticipated.”
Up to the final kilometre, “our course had been exactly what we had been supposed to do.”
Other swimmers face challenges
Other swimmers in the Big Swim unfortunately didn’t fare as well.
“They ended up pulling six people out. Two were hospitalized, and a couple were borderline hypothermic.”
"(I) found it colder than last year."
Other swimmers, including Sarah O’Reilly, Hamilton's training partner, became seasick, from the swell and chop of the waves.
O’Reilly, a Kingston resident and Dalhousie student, said in an email, “the morning of the swim, I was ready. Physically, I knew I was prepared, and mentally, I was ready to embark on an amazing challenge.”
The first two kilometres “felt great. I was swimming at a steady pace and felt fine," she said. But, further out into the Strait, “the swells intensified and my body was just bobbing like a buoy. Then it hit me, severe seasickness. It got to the point where I couldn‘t keep anything down, not even water.”
O’Reilly and her kayaker Erin Tweedie “pushed for two more kilometres, but the relentless vomiting continued, and together we decided it was unsafe to continue.”
Although unable to realize her goal of completing the swim, O’Reilly said, “I know in my heart the real goal was accomplished.
“Raising over $3,500 personally for Camp Brigadoon, and venturing out into the chilly strait with full expectations I would complete the Big Swim, is rewarding in itself. I gave it my all, and I’m so happy I got to be a part of it," O'Reilly added.
“I couldn’t have done it without my kayaker, Andy Pattison," Hamilton said. "He kept me going, calmed me down at the seventh kilometre, and got me through the tough part at the end.”
She was also pleased to have “swum with three Brigadoon employees (Carrie Anne Hiller, Emily Mallard and Brent Platt), who were all able to finish,” and with Cali Bruce who, at age 14, became the youngest-ever person to swim the strait.
Hiller and Mallard, Hamilton pointed out, “are both non-swimmers, and had to learn to swim to even do this. They were a real inspiration.”
Asked if she would attempt Big Swim again, Hamilton said, “I had already decided before Sunday that I wasn’t going to do the swim in 2015. It’s a real lifestyle,” she said, “and requires six to eight months of total focus.
“I wouldn’t mind being part of the organization. I love the event, and I’m committed to the event and the cause, but, emotionally and physically, it took a toll.”
Hamilton said her swim coach (and 2013 training partner) Janice Beaver “tells me next summer, we’re doing a half Iron Man (a two-km swim and 90-km bike ride, followed by a 21-km half marathon).”
Hamilton was pleased that Big Swim managed to raise more than $300,000 and counting for Camp Brigadoon.
“Our goal was $150,000, which was what had been raised the previous three years combined. We’ve more than doubled that already.”
Personally, thanks to a large donation she received the day of the swim, Hamilton had, as of Aug. 20, raised $2,480.