Lizard Point Swim

Lizard Point (Cornish: An Lysardh, Irish: An Lios Ard, “the High Fort”) is located on the at the end of the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall and is the southernmost point on the Great British mainland. One of my favourite swims ever was a 7.5 km swim around this infamous headland, starting at Kynance Cove and finishing in Cadgwith, in July 2008.

The Cornish coast is famous, or infamous, for the hundreds of shipwrecks that are scattered around it. It’s also well known for its smuggling, fishing, tin mining and even pirates! I’m very lucky to have an uncle, John Baker, living on the Lizard. Our last few family holidays have been to visit him and, for me, this has involved plenty of swimming…

Image – Google Earth

A Google Earth image of the swim route; Kynance Cove on the left, Lizard Point on the bottom and Cadgwith in the top right.

In November 2007, I booked my English Channel swim and decided that I should use the following summer to gain lots of experience of swimming in various conditions. When I found out that we’d be visiting John in Cornwall in July 2008, I decided to take up a big challenge, i.e. to become the first person to swim around Lizard Point. This would involve researching the location, planning a course, finding a local pilot and all of the other challenges in organising a big swim. At the time, this 7.5 km challenge was my longest swim to date!

Having decided on a date, starting locations, etc., I approached the Lizard Lifeboat (the local RNLI station) for information about tides and getting a pilot. The coxswain, Phil Burgess, was very helpful in all of these preparations and he said that there would be no problem getting one of the crew to take their own small boat to cover the swim. He was also very knowledgable about how the tides and the weather would affect the swim.

When we arrived in Cornwall, the weather was very pleasant but there was a southeasterly wind which was producing some groundswell which wouldn’t have been desirable for the swim. The Doveresque on-and-off possibility of swimming ensued – I hadn’t been expecting this but it did stand to me for the 10 days prior to my English Channel swim the following September. Eventually, we decided that the originally planned date for the swim of Saturday, 26 July would be suitable…

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Starting the swim at the very beautiful and quiet Kynance Cove on the western side of the Lizard peninsula.

It was to be an 07:40 start from the beach at Kynance Cove, an amazing place that deserves a post all of its own. The crew, which consisted of my father, my uncle and local RNLI crewman Nick Pryor, launched at Lizard Point while I went to the start by car, got changed there and gave my stuff to someone to bring to the finish (not the done thing on longer or colder swims when you need to have your stuff close at hand).

The conditions really couldn’t have been any better and I was feeling good – I had trained for the swim, planned it careful and sought local knowledge, made sure that I had gone through all of the proper channels to have the swim ratified by the British Long Distance Swimming Association and even raised some money for the local RNLI in return for their help – I was very satisfied that I’d done everything right and now I just had to swim, the weather was an added bonus!

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Another photograph from the start of the swim showing the serpentine rock which is a distinguishing feature of the Lizard and of Cornwall generally.

Once the boat came, my uncle started the clock and I ran into the clear blue water. The temperature was best described as “familiar”, i.e. it was 15ºC or thereabouts. I was able to relax straight away as the water was clean and clear so I was able to watch the white sand pass under me as it got deeper and deeper and there was barely a ripple on the surface, just a barely-noticeable rise and fall of the oceanic swell. The early morning sun added more to the atmosphere. This was all a far cry from what I had imagined that it would be like to swim along this coast which has claimed so many lives.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Kynance Cove (far left) where I started the swim and the serpentine cliffs above Pentreath beach. A glorious morning and perfect conditions for the swim!

When planning the route, we had to take into account a large rocky reef which lies just under the surface and extends for nearly 1 km out to see from Lizard Point. We had the choice of either swimming outside it, making the swim more exposed and much longer, or going through a narrow channel called Vellan Drang right under the cliff, making timing with the tide very important. As conditions were good and we had timed the tide perfectly, we decided to take the short cut through Vellan Drang. Nick, being a local, was able to navigate the many rocks and reefs off Lizard Point like nobody else could – it wouldn’t have been possible to do the swim without someone with his knowledge on board.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Approaching Vellan Drang channel about 20 minutes into the swim. A bank of sea fog started to roll in at this point but we also starting picking up some assistance from the current.

The flowing tide pushed us through the channel at about 3 knots, which was a great boost to my confidence. At this point, I was feeling great and could see that we were right off of Lizard Point – I had effectively completed the main objective of the swim, which nobody had done before, and knew that the last hour or so would be just putting one arm in front of the other until I came to Cadgwith.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Having shot through the channel with about 3 knots of tidal assistance, there was a brief reprieve from the fog.

Once we had rounded Lizard Point, a bank of sea fog rolled in and visibility was greatly reduced. Luckily, Nick knew that waters very well and was able to keep the base of the cliffs within view. There was no question of safety at any point, the thicker the fog the closer we stayed to the cliffs and once we followed them then we would arrive at our destination as planned.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Local RNLI Coxswain, Phil Burgess, who was a great help in organising the swim, takes a break from inspecting his lobster pots to follow the remainder of the swim.

After about an hour we met up with Phil Burgess, who was out inspecting his lobster pots for the morning. He had said that he would meet us along the way but seemed surprised to see us so soon – he was expecting a slower swimmer! I now had the luxury of two escort boats which was very nice. The water was still flat and the temperature was constant. This swim was working out even better than expected.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

The dorsal fin of a sunfish (Mola mola) spotted by the boat crew about 1 hour into the swim…

A while later, the crew (not me) noticed a large fin breaking the surface off to my left. My father and uncle immediately assumed that it was a shark but, on closer inspection, found it to be a sunfish or Mola mola. These very large circular fish are regular summer visitors to the Atlantic coasts of Ireland and Great Britain. The crew weren’t entirely off the mark to assume that it was a shark as Phil noted that he had seen a basking shark in the same spot only the day before…

Photograph – George O'Keefe

The fog beginning to thicken after passing the iconic Lizard Lighthouse. The lighthouse’s foghorn began signaling not long after we’d passed…

As the fog horn began blowing, it was time for me to practise a new skill – feeding. I had never taken a feed from a boat before so this was going to ba a new experience for me. It went without any issues and was the first of hundreds of such feeds over the coming two years. It was around this time that I also urinated for the first time during a swim, this is a skill in itself and one that does actually take a lot of practice to perfect – some people have to stop, which wastes time, some (like me) have to slow their kick while a few experts can urinate and continue to swim normally.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Feeding from the boat at around the 1 hour mark – my first time ever feeding from a boat! I believe that this was the first swim during which I peed also…

The swim carried on in the eerie fog. I passed the 5 km mark, my longest swim before that day. This last leg of the swim took us past Kilcobben Cove where the Lizard Lifeboat is currently based, having been previously based at Polpeor, right under Lizard Point and amongst the many rocks and reefs which we had to navigate earlier on in the swim. Through the swim, and with considerable help from my uncle’s colleagues, I raised a total of £1,200 for the Lizard Lifeboat. This money was used to completely renovate the lifeboat station and to buy a new lifeboat, which was well deserved for this very busy station.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Swimming past the new Lizard Lifeboat Station at Kilcobben Cove (the old station was located at Polpeor). The money raised through the swim helped to upgrade the station and buy a new lifeboat.

A rocky promontory jutting out from the cliff marks the entrance to Cadgwith Cove and the end of the swim. 1 hour 59 minutes 24 seconds after leaving Kynance Cove, I finished at the steep stony beach at Cadgwith. At the beach were my mother, grandfather and various others, including Chris Maunder of Bosahan who had brought some fresh crab sandwiches and warm towels!

Photograph – George O'Keefe

In Cadgwith Cove after the swim (left-right: Tom Baker, Owen O’Keefe, Nick Pryor, John Baker).

We had a time dissecting the various aspects of the swim on the beach. I was particularly pleased with my time, not having been expecting to break 2 hours. I was also very pleased that the distance wasn’t a huge deal and that the temperature didn’t affect me much either. English Channel training wasn’t seeming so daunting anymore. The swim also gave me peace of mind in that my family took my English Channel attempt a bit more seriously after I’d completed this swim and all of the logistics around it.

Photograph – George O'Keefe

Bidding farewell to Phil Burgess and his freshly-caught lobsters, the fog still quite thick.

This was one of my short but great swims and great thanks are due to the crew of the Lizard Lifeboat, Phil Burgess and Nick Pryor in particular, as well as my uncle and everyone who helped make the swim happen on the day. It’s not one that I’ll be forgetting any time soon!

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