In November 2018 Cameron Bellamy became the first person to complete the highly complex swim around the island of Barbados. His unprecedented swim began on a Sunday at about 11:20 am. Unbelievably, he swam continuously for almost 41 hours and completed the 96K swim two days later, at 4:06 am on a Tuesday. The seemingly impossible feat will be remembered forever by all who witnessed it. During the swim, Cameron faced challenges including huge waves that caused him to detour out to sea twice and painful “salt mouth” from the many hours in the sea. But he never faltered, remaining focused and maintaining his planned stroke rate. Thousands followed his progress across the globe via live tracking and on social media. A large and jubilant crowd welcomed him at the finish. He had done it. History had been created. Cameron Bellamy swam around Barbados!
In early 2017, I visited an old university friend, Adam Cripwell, who was living in Barbados at the time. I was training to swim the Molokai Channel in Hawaii and a quick training week in Barbados felt like a great opportunity to prepare myself for the long swim in warm conditions.
After doing numerous swims in the crystal-clear water, I chatted with Adam regarding swims, and the swimming community in general, on the island. When I brought up the question of whether anyone had ever swum around the island he said no, but that there had been several attempts. This really struck my interest, but it was not until a couple of months later when I was chatting to my London based swim coach, Ray Gibbs, who had a swim friend describe the around Barbados swim as the “Impossible Swim”, that my interest really spiked.
With help from Adam and a number of locals from the swim community, notably John Mike Peterkin, Geoff Farmer and Alison Pile, we started the planning process. The timing would be based around me completing the rest of my Oceans 7 swims (the Cook Strait and the Tsugaru Strait) and the best weather months for swimming in Barbados (especially on the notorious East Coast, which faces the Atlantic) of August/September.
With my Cook and Tsugaru Strait swims set for March and June respectively, I started training in December 2017. I never got into great shape for the Cook Strait. Steve Walker and I did it in tandem, and we eventually managed to battle some very adverse currents to get through in just under 13 hours.
I visited Barbados again in May for a solid 2 weeks of training, swimming up to 14 hours a day. When I arrived in Japan I was feeling great. We had to beg our pilot to give us a shot at the swim as the weather for our 3 day window wasn’t looking very good. He gave us a shot on the 2nd day and we managed to get across in just over 11 hours. I was the 11th person and 1st South African to swim the Oceans 7.
I did one more training camp in Barbados of 2 and a half weeks at the end of July. I decided to take a 1.5 week taper before the swim. When I arrived back on the island mid-August we were greeted by some adverse weather. We weren’t able to make an attempt for another 2.5 weeks, so by the time we eventually set off with a good weather window it had been just under a month since my last big training swim.
I wasn’t feeling good during this first attempt. Just 4 hours into the swim, I was in a bit of pain. However, I managed to stay in the water and complete 2/3 of the swim (about 66 km in 27 hours) before I pulled myself out around the North Point. My thinking at the time was based on my current condition and feeling like I couldn’t manage another English Channel, which was the distance I had left.
A couple of days later, while chatting to a few of the locals, I decided to give the swim another go when I made a return trip in November to attend the Barbados Open Water Swim Festival. The feedback I received was that it was unlikely I would get a weather window in November, but I wanted to give it a try none the less.
I went to Australia for 3 weeks in October. I was planning on going anyway to attend an awards evening at my alma mater, so I just added a couple of weeks on to the trip, which I spent on the Gold Coast swimming 9 hours a day 5 days week. This time around I tried to minimize my taper.
I arrived back in Barbados on Tuesday November 6th. The swim festival would run till Sunday and the window would start from Monday 12th so as not to interfere with the festival. However, getting closer to the weekend, suddenly a potential weather window opened up, starting on the Sunday. On chatting to Kristina Evelyn, who runs the festival, and also miraculously managed to run the logistics for my swim, we decided to give the swim a shot straight after the last of the 10k swimmers were finishing their swim.
I had an amazing send off from a large crowd of hundreds of people on the beach. We left at 11:20am.
Leg 1: Copacabana to Oistins
Weather was due to be poor for the first 12 hours of the swim. This was definitely the case. After swimming around and out of Carlisle Bay we were greeted by a stiff headwind and adverse current. There were a few big rain squalls in the first 5 hours, I recently heard that Bridgetown actually flooded during this time. Swimming through the squalls made me consider that we had made a big mistake leaving when we did, in the back of mind I told myself that the conditions would improve, especially into the next day, and that I simply needed to crunch out this difficult portion of the swim. I remember after 3 hours looking around to see how far we had gone, I saw the Hilton Hotel (close to where the start of the swim was) still very close.
I managed to get into a good rhythm very early on, breathing every 4th stroke at a rate of around 55 strokes per minute. Whereas after 4 hours in the previous attempt I was feeling poor, I now felt like I could swim forever. We got to Oistins for the 1st crew change after around 5 hours, an hour slower than expected.
Leg 2: Oistins to Consett Bay
Getting to the light house, just off the South Point, seemed to take forever, but we eventually rounded the corner and onto the notorious South East coast, where all 3 of the previous attempts before my first had failed. The current in the section is strongly adverse and with a big swell, as there was today, waves break on the numerous reefs and also against the coastal cliffs causing substantial backwash.
At various times in this section, I looked over to the support boats to see them tilting dangerously up to 60 degrees. I noted to myself how happy I was to be in the water and not in a boat. In light of the current, swell and backwash I was maintaining my rhythm really well, still at 55 strokes a minute and breathing every 4th stroke.
The sun went down, and I started enjoying the peacefulness of the stretch that runs along the airport where there were no lights on land. There were a few occasions where conditions got progressively worse. Eventually, moving around the East Point of the island, the most dangerous section caused by shallow reefs and steep cliffs, the kayaker stopped me and said we may need to abandon the swim. The pilot of the main support boat was deeming it too dangerous. Gutted, I told them that I was completely fine, but that it needed to be pilot’s decision. Luckily, we had Alan Bradshaw in the guide boat, who is exceptionally experienced in navigating these waters. He led us out, perpendicular to land, through a channel between the reefs, and we eventually made it out of the dangerous section. Rounding the East Point, we had successfully navigated the most difficult part of the swim. I could feel the current starting to move in our favor. We were about 14 hours in and about 2 hours slower than I expected.
It was about another hour to Consett Bay, where I thought we would have another crew change. However, the conditions were too dangerous to try attempt to get into Consett Bay at night for the 2nd support boat to pick up the new crew members. Thus, the tired members of leg 2 would need to stick it out a bit longer.
Leg 3: Consett Bay to Port St Charles
The East Coast of Barbados is an exceptionally beautiful part of the swim. The conditions were starting to get better and suddenly I saw the first ray of light come up across the Atlantic. I felt like I sailed up the East Coast, still maintaining a 55 stroke rate and breathing every 4th stroke. A couple of swimmers joined me along this section, an hour on/hour off.
Getting closer and closer to turning the corner to start going up the North East section I could see waves breaking against the cliffs and sending water spraying 20m up into the air. This was not a good sign as I knew our pilots would need to divert us around North Point’s 2nd or 3rd reefs, adding a great deal of distance (about 3km) on to the swim.
Getting closer to the North Point we started moving extremely slowly, clearly stuck in an eddy/adverse current of some kind. Eventually we got around the North Point and back in a slightly favorable current. With the big swell and backwash off the cliffs this was an incredibly difficult part of the swim. I was also starting to feel fatigued. For the first time I started having some negative thoughts made worse by the fact that this was the same section where I gave up the first time.
Reflecting on the amount of support I was receiving and the number of people who were actively helping me to get around the island, I plugged on through this difficult mental part of the swim. I asked for a couple of gels in my next feed to give me a boost. Sometimes I find that when you’re in a difficult mental battle within a swim the best thing to do is focus on other people who have helped you get to where you are and then decide on a short-term distance goal. I decided that goal would be to get to the cement factory before sunset.
Getting to the North Point had taken 27 hours, which is similar to what I had expected.
We eventually rounded the Cement Factory and I was officially on the West Coast and in the lea of the wind. The sun was setting, and I knew that the next 10 -12 hours were going to be the most difficult of the swim, and of my swimming life.
Leg 4: Port St Charles to Cocacabana
The crew change happened slightly earlier than planned, at the Cement Factory, rather than Port St Charles.
Gumby, my Aussie support crew, joined me for an hour and I felt like I got a great boost. I had done so much training on this part of the island that I knew how long each section should take. My half an hour feeds kept coming and going and I was miraculously keeping to my 55 stroke rate, breathing every 4th stroke. Having this amazing rhythm was a huge benefit especially considering I was reaching 30 – 40 hours of swimming with no sleep. I started feeling irritable and tired. Suddenly John Howard jumped in for a swim and pointed ahead to the distance saying the lights up ahead were the harbor wall, and just beyond Carlisle Bay, and the finish. I know from experience how lights in the darkness can be very misleading when trying to guess and measure distance, so I decided not to take too much stock of this.
It felt like it took us an age to eventually reach the harbor lights and I realized we were in a strong adverse current again. Unfortunately, the current was pushing extremely fast along the harbor wall. I felt like the island was giving me one last test. It took all my strength to get around the harbor wall. For the first time I increased my stroke rate significantly and started breathing every 2nd stroke. Once we got around the harbor wall, we still had about 40min – 1 hour to go, but I knew I was almost there. I kept my stroke rate high. At one point I realized I was wearing my comfortable Tsugaru Strait swim cap, and I preferred to swim in with my slightly too small SwimAroundBarbados cap. I asked to exchange and heard to few laughs from the crew.
Swimming into the beach was extremely emotional. It hard to find words to describe the mixed feelings of gratitude, pain and joy. Trying to stand while exiting the water resulted in me falling over numerous times. Once I was on land I managed to stand. I was amazed by the number of people on the beach. The sun wasn’t up yet so it must have been between 3 and 5am. The paramedics took me to the ambulance to run some tests. Very emotional, I wanted to get back to the hotel, but also wanted to stay and talk to the welcome crew. However, after over 40 hours of swimming my tongue was literally double its normal size and my lips the same. Its hard to describe the pain. As I couldn’t speak I walked around a bit and shook hands with every one I could before getting in a car and heading back to the hotel.
Looking back, the swim was harder than I ever could have imagined.
An island swim of this nature is extremely complex, where you have to battle so many more variables than a standard channel swim, including:
Strong and unpredictable currents
The fact that no matter which direction you swim around the island you will need to have a prolonged swim into the current. In this swim I calculate I swam against the current for 24 hours and had 17 hours with the current.
Swells breaking on reefs
Swells breaking on coastal cliffs and causing backwash and adverse temporary currents
Consistent and strong trade winds
However, some of the benefits include:
The ability to refresh the support crew
The moral support of having people following and cheering you on
The visual of the island always being in view, especially one as beautiful as Barbados
I have learnt many lessons regarding training:
For the initial attempt, I was very cavalier in my training, opting to not swim with a watch and doing swims up to 24 hours in length without any thought about my intensity or heart rate
My training up to the 2nd attempt was much more specific, where I focused almost solely on heart rate and trying to get my average heart rate for my target speed down to below 100 beats per minute. My longest swim was 9 hours, albeit I probably did about 15 of these.
Swimming at a slow heart rate allowed me to enjoy the swim so much more and get into a maintainable rhythm from the first minute
There isn’t much need for a taper and the preference should be for a shorter, rather than longer, taper.
I need to extend a big thank you to everyone that helped me in this endeavor. Everyone from the pilots, to support swimmers, kayakers, on land logistics and assistance, weather forecasters, the list is endless.
I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone, but in no particular order: the Farmer family, the Seale family, the Cripwell family, Angus Edghill, Kristina Evelyn, Zary Evelyn, Allan Banfield, Allan Birkett, Dick Stoute, Allan Bradshaw, Derek Edwards, Dustin Edwards, Chris Rogers, Jono Jones, Greg Ward, Andrew Clarke, Alison Pile, Samantha Clarke, Jimmy Clarke, Amanda Garcia, Chris Sikkens, Jonathan Pile, John Mike Peterkin, John Howard, Karen Turner, Cary Banfield, Michael Mclellan, Simon Wilkie, William Tomlin, Jamal Bennet, Mark Small, Cheryl Small, Peter Gibbs, Christine Richards, Chris O’Neil, Ian Milne, Stuart Bellamy, Janita Bellamy, Steve Walker, Lynton Mortensen, Patricia Dass, Jacqui McDermott, Rachel Pilgrim, Ray Gibbs, Valeriy Boreyko, the BTMI, and to all my swim buddies and support from the South End Rowing Club.