This lake was to be the test. The longest, toughest swim of the 4 day tour. It's what I've trained for, and the swim I was most looking forward to. At 27km, in fresh water, it was to provide a great midpoint between Rotto and the English Channel.
Apache Lake is in the middle of nowhere. It took a good hour to drive from Canyon, which is also remote. We're talking dirt track, one lane, precipice off the side of the road. Forget petrol stations, mobile reception, convenience stores, or good hotels.
The travelling circus descended upon the motel (henceforth known as the Rat Motel). Any hotel that has an FAQ section on their website that includes questions such as "What are these stains on my carpet?" needs to take a good, hard look at their business operations. And advising customers to "tell the front desk you want a room that is nicer than the rest" isn't really cutting it. Experienced people brought their own linen. Those in the know may also have brought their own light bulbs.
With a long swim on the schedule, I was really worried. I don't need luxury, but I do need good food, a good sleep and with some luck, a hot shower. But there are no other options (literally nothing within 1.5 hrs drive), so Rat Motel it was.
Braced for the worst, I was actually relieved upon check-in. At least 50% of my light bulbs worked, I had hot water, and the sheets didn't have any fresh bodily fluids on them. Win. The towels were dirty, but you win some, you lose some. And to be honest, the food was really good. And the wait staff in the restaurant were super friendly. Mum ordered a pinot noir. Ha. Rookie. It didn't come, and eventually the guy came back and explained that the reason it hadn't arrived was because they didn't have any pinot noir. In fact, they didn't have any wine at all. But they were lovely, and you can imagine that it's difficult to attract and retain staff in the middle of freaking nowhere.
Hiccups like this paled in comparison to neglecting to book 10 rooms for the organiser of SCAR and the support volunteers. What a nightmare for Kent to deal with. He's a trooper.
Briefing was at 6.30am, with a short ceremony to recognise the incredible contributions made by the paddlers. I had a make-shift breakfast (no utensils, crockery or fridge), at 5.30 but then found out that the restaurant would serve food at 6.45. Or 7. Or whenever they were ready. We left the Motel after 8, and the trip up the lake took about an hour (slow boat, long way, long time to think about the challenge ahead).
My shoulders were sore and I was sure I'd need painkillers and "surprises" (hey, any treat is a surprise when you're swim-stupid). I was loaded up with 18 feeds plus 3-4 pre-swim feeds. I was running low on sports-drink powder, having used more than I expected in carbo-loading before the swims (I know, I know, what about the spreadsheet? Well, a model is only as good as its assumptions, and my assumptions were wrong. I'm ashamed of myself. Let's not talk about it anymore, OK?). But I was prepared and ready for the swim.
As a result of the late breakfast and slow boats, we didn't get into the water until around 10. There was a time cut-off of ~3pm at the marina, 17km from the start, which is a pretty mean feat. I usually assume 3km/hr in fresh water, so I'd have to put in some real effort to make the cut-off. But there was 10km after the marina, and the sun starts to set at 6.30, so it was necessary, without doubt.
Even though the marina was 17/27ths of the way to the finish, I told myself that it was my half way mark. It was a recognisable landmark - the view from the marina was one of my favourites from the whole event - and if I could reach that by 3pm, I knew I'd be ok for the rest.
Ha. No. Not to be.
The wind was insane. It's difficult to give stats because conditions change with each turn of the canyon. But we're talking up to 40km/hr wind gusts, and a consistently strong headwind. After the first couple of kilometres, I was head butting waves, scared that I'd burst an eardrum or break my wrist.
But I was having a ball. I changed my mantra of "1-2-3, 1-2-3" (which TBH really needs some creative work), to "so-much-fun, so-much-fun". I had read about the tough winds that can affect Apache and had been terrified of them, but it turns out I quite like chop. For anyone who did Coogee to Bondi in December '16, it was kind of like that. But for >5x the distance.
So I was doing great guns, but the kayakers were essentially acting as sails in the wind and were being blown backwards. Actually backwards. And getting spun around. I'd take a feed from Patty, do a few strokes, look back and see that she was 100 metres behind me. So for the next 6 hours we played catch up, where I swam, Patty battled against the wind, and then got towed up to me by a support boat. For a good while I was swimming by myself, which was a lovely feeling, but pretty irresponsible and dangerous. I met a guy called Joe in the water, in the same position, and we swam together for an hour or so. A support boat gave us a feed, in the absence of our usual supplies.
I passed the marina before 3, getting quite a shock to see the great big rock landmark while I was still feeling fresh. I felt strong, I had no pain, my nutrition was great, everything was going well. But I was out there on my own, with a couple of speed boats and sailing boats hooning around, and at 5pm, with about 4km to go, I was pulled out of the water by a support boat because they couldn't keep swimmers in the water without kayak support (or food). Hugely disappointing, but without doubt, the sensible thing to do.
Once on the support boat, we picked up marooned kayakers and mildly hypothermic swimmers, wrapped them up in emergency blankets, and made our way back to the dock.
From a field of 36 swimmers, four made it to the end. Kudos to them, and massive congratulations to their kayakers. I don't know how they did it. An incredible feat.
Arriving at the dock was a little bit sad. I had lost Patty miles back, and didn't know where Mum was. But I found her, and got back to my room to find this:
What you can do with toilet paper and a bit of lippy..
The swim was a great experience. An accomplished Channel swimmer at SCAR said that I'd be unlikely to encounter anything like that on my channel swim. The organiser said it was "hands down the toughest swim" he's seen in his years of organising SCAR.
You learn something new from every swim. This was the first time I haven't finished a swim, and I'm entirely comfortable with that. I swam strongly, I was well prepared, but the conditions were horrid. I'm content with where my training and ability is at. I didn't need reminding that this palaver is a team effort, but if there was ever any doubt, this put that to rest. It would have been totally irresponsible and selfish of me to swim the last 4-5km of a 27km swim in those conditions with no food, no kayak support, no navigational assistance. I would have been reliant on the motor boats, which were being used to pick up kayakers and swimmers that were tired and cold. No need for that.
There are very few photos of this swim. No surprises there. It was a slog. Patty was, once again, amazing. She loved it, laughed the whole way, and says it's a real SCaR experience. She's right.
I guess I'll just have to come back to earn my scAr.