Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Palm Island swim

Jetting from London for a weekend in the Caribbean seems madcap enough, but Tarquin Cooper then insists on a risky swim from Union to Palm Island – and back.

September 30 2010
Tarquin Cooper

In the Caribbean, life doesn’t move much faster than the mellow tempo of a reggae beat. The beaches, the fresh fish, the cold beer: they are fodder for our slothful fantasies. But what if you can’t bear the thought of lying on a beach? What if there always has to be an activity, a challenge?

Among the Grenadines – the islands at the southern end of the Caribbean chain (the best known being Mustique and Bequia) – are Union and Palm. The latter is a 135-acre private paradise that is home to a luxury resort, a few wealthy exiles and a French artist who doubles as the island’s doctor, and the distance between the two is just over a mile. So if one couldn’t countenance the idea of lying supine in the sun for a weekend, one could swim from Union to Palm, enjoy a night spent in luxury – and then swim back.

This is no ordinary dip. Forget the distance (although that is formidable to novices); the current and the isolation are what you have to worry about – that and the possibility, albeit most of the year unfounded, that something cruising below may mistake you for an amuse bouche. And you may imagine you’ll emerge from the water onto the sugary beach of Palm Island looking like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale – but, as I found, even the fittest may exit the sea not with the swagger of Bond, but the exhausted stagger of a late-night drunk.

FRIDAY 1600 I step off the plane in Barbados and pause for a moment to allow the heat to penetrate – but that’s as long as I have to linger; my connecting flight has been sitting on the Tarmac for the past hour, waiting for my delayed arrival. On the descent to Union Island, I get a glimpse of the open water between the two verdant land bodies, and the full, daunting scope of what I’ve set out to do sinks in. The swim is much longer than it looked on Google Earth; and the sun is lower than I’d like. Minuscule beads of sweat that have nothing to do with the heat form on my brow.

FRIDAY 1730 Madonna, Palm Island Resort’s guest service co-ordinator, greets me and the handful of other guests at the airport.

“So you’re aware I’m planning on swimming across?” I say, breaking the ice nervously.

“Oh, ha! Yes. I did hear something about that – but I thought it was a joke.”

“Deadly serious, I’m afraid.” There are nervous laughs all round. Then silence. “No, really, I am.”

The golf-buggy driver who’s taking us to the water taxi taps Madonna’s shoulder. “He is joking,” he says.

More forced laughter; now the other guests look keen to get on with the journey. At this point it would be easy to slap my thigh, roar like John Cleese and take a comfortable seat. The sun is close to setting. A strong wind is up. “Actually,” I say, summoning the courage from somewhere, “I really am serious.”

At the harbour, Philbert, the boat captain, has been better briefed. He silently prepares the 15hp rubber dinghy that will putter alongside me. I resist the temptation to ask whether anyone has done this before – I’m not sure I want to know. Conditions are far from ideal; there’s a 20mph head-wind, and the water is unsettlingly choppy, rising in sharp white peaks. For a moment I stand at the end of the jetty; it’s swaying so much in the swell it’s difficult to keep my balance. I focus for a few seconds on the island on my horizon, and then dive in.

FRIDAY 1800 The water snaps my brain out of its travel fugue in an instant. Suddenly, there’s a mission on. The harbour is a maze of yachts and Caribbean cruisers, which make for unusual and nerve-racking traffic to navigate. I make some powerful strokes past buoys and try not to think about the boats’ occupants enjoying sundowners. The harbour opens out and I enter open water; waves roll over my head. Time is determined by the flash of view I can grab each time I come up for air. At first it was dusk; now, between growing swells, I can see stars.

Out here, things are even more feisty, the waves bigger. Instead of air I keep getting mouthfuls of sea water. After half an hour, I’ve reached the two-thirds mark; but by now it’s almost pitch-dark and I’m struggling to see where I’m supposed to go.

Just as I’m genuinely beginning to wonder how sensible this all is, Philbert, as if reading my mind, putters up closer alongside and leans over. “The current is too strong.”

I’ve got the strength to do more; but Philbert needs light just as much as I do. And then there’s the matter of nocturnal feeders... I need no more persuasion and heave myself on board. The crossing that ensues convinces me it was the right choice: it’s now so windy that even the dinghy struggles in the chop. About 200m from shore, I ask Philbert to slow down, and I roll over the side; honour needs satisfying. But even this relatively brief final swim into shore, in such tumultuous water, is exhausting. By the time I emerge, I’m barely able to put one foot in front of the other.

On the beach, the resort’s general manager Chris Ghita and an assortment of staff are lined up; they clap and cheer enthusiastically. Chris welcomes me with a rum cocktail: “I made it extra-strong; thought you could do with it.”

SATURDAY 1000 I wake up in the splendour of a spacious beachside villa, one of several dotted alongside the shoreline. Palm Island Resort isn’t gunning for any boutique style awards; rather, it attracts the affable affluent – solid career men and their families. Grabbing a bike, I set off to explore the island. At the foot of the first hill I reach, I ditch the wheels and climb 50m to the top for an aerial view of the distance I’ll be swimming tomorrow morning. It’s sobering.

Back at the resort, lunch is a plate of fresh marlin and home-cooked chips. The afternoon is spent in idyllic surroundings, under one of the many palms that give the island its name. But I can’t relax – the prospect of my trip home puts paid to that.

SATURDAY 1700 On a sunset cruise to neighbouring island Petit St Vincent, I talk to the boat’s captain, a veteran of these islands, about the currents. He says he knows of a couple of people who’ve done the swim. Then he pauses and gives me a sidelong look: “But I still think you’re crazy.”

SUNDAY 0700 My day of reckoning begins with a discerning look at the sea – unlike on Friday evening, today it’s perfectly calm. With a spring in my step, I head off to have breakfast, fuelling up on a bowl of excellent coconut porridge and eggs Benedict. My local flight leaves Union Island at 11am. It’s going to be tight.

SUNDAY 0830 After saying my farewells to the staff and a handful of other guests who’ve risen early – the outward swim has lent me a certain celebrity – it’s time to slip on the trunks and goggles.

Just out from the beach I spot a stingray in the surf. It’s the first (and I fervently hope the last) major sea-creature sighting I’ve had; I try not to think of Steve Irwin. I enter deeper waters and start to settle into a rhythm. Staring into the blue abyss below, I feel a deep sense of isolation, even with Philbert puttering alongside. I stop to adjust my goggles and, taking in my surroundings, am momentarily overwhelmed by my vulnerability, treading water in the middle of the sea. It’s no place to hang around – and certainly no place to peer into the depths of the water too carefully. I press on, focusing on the Pinnacle, a 740ft jagged peak on Union Island, every time I turn my head up for air. After about 25 minutes, I come to a red reef marker: halfway across.

Several thoughts occur to me as I continue to swing one arm over the other. One is: it’s been 20 years since I last had a swimming lesson – I should really have some more. Another: this truly is one amazing challenge.

SUNDAY 0910 Around the last reef marker, I enter the harbour. The sight of boats and people lifts my spirits, but I’m seriously tiring now. My strokes are clumsy and my legs feel barely mobile, leaving my arms to do the work. The thought of missing my flight keeps me going; I plug away until, after just over 50 minutes in the water, my feet touch the sand below me. The relief that courses through me is so intense that I’m momentarily taken aback. Then: elation.

SUNDAY 1330 With a bit of time before my red-eye, I text my brother-in-law, a pilot. “Three hours to kill in Barbados. Ideas?” He dispatches me to a café 10 minutes away called Cutters Bajan Deli, run by Roger, a Barbadian descended from white slaves. The flying-fish sandwich is good enough; but it’s when he brings out the complimentary rum punch that I salute the tip and the hours roll by.

SUNDAY 1830 In the air, the movie programme begins, the flight attendants work the aisles and my eyelids slowly droop until I can stay awake no longer. We touch down in Gatwick shortly before 6am, after one of the deepest sleeps I have ever had on a plane.