Swimming the Caribbean Narrows

Island-to-island swimming in the Caribbean: open ocean, treacherous currents, sharks… a daunting prospect. James Henderson does it twice in one day

Nevis seen across the Narrows from Cockleshell Bay, St Kitts
Nevis seen across the Narrows from Cockleshell Bay, St Kitts | Image: George HH Huey/Alamy Stock Photo

You’ll have noticed how swimming has grown in popularity in recent years. Not just for fitness. Acquaintances suddenly decide, oh… to swim the Bosphorus… or the English Channel. There are whole swimming holidays out there. So I wondered – as a bloke who admittedly hasn’t swum much since the annual, enforced gathering at school – whether I was up to it.

And as a Caribbean hand, I have always wanted to swim between the islands. Most are too far apart, but the Narrows between Nevis and St Kitts is a good stretch of relatively protected water. It also encompasses one of the prettiest views in the whole region. In fact, an annual swimming event is held there organised by Winston Crooke, someone I have known for years and who is a former stage and television actor-turned-Nevis-based triathlon and cycling supremo. As many as 200 people enter the 4km Nevis to St Kitts Cross Channel Swim.

Friday 1030

As I take off for Antigua, I find I am more apprehensive than I’ve ever been on an assignment for this column. I have simply no idea how I’ll fare.

Readers might not understand the exigencies of From Desk Till Dawn: we writers are always trying to slip in something… well… adventurous and fun. But Control back in London keeps us honest. It’s got to be tough – brutally tough. And that’s exactly what swimming the Narrows turned out to be.

The project stuttered initially – a litany of crossed wires, sequential holidays and rammed email inboxes. Eventually a reply pinged back, its content basically saying: “We’re not entirely convinced that this is a man’s event, James. As you say, if 200 people do it each year…”

I responded before sense intervened. “Well, I suppose I could turn around and swim back again. That’s 8km of open ocean swimming…”

The author with St Kitts in the background
The author with St Kitts in the background | Image: James Henderson

“That’s more like it. Done.”

I relayed the plan to Winston.

“Not a chance, mate. Tried it on the 10th-anniversary swim. Chaos, people off in every direction, retiring in the middle of the channel…” Whoops. I had promised Control – and now there was less than two months to get swimming fit.

Friday 1700

From Antigua we hop across to Nevis by plane and drive up to Golden Rock Inn, a plantation hotel. Arriving after dark is one of the pleasures of tropical travel, and this is spectacular – all massive stonework amid rampant, backlit greenery. The chirping of tree frogs fills the valley to bursting. Golden Rock has recently been restored by American artist Brice Marden and his wife Helen. There’s a magical calm to the place, punctuated by shocks of colour or incongruous works of art.

I need to carbo-load – disappointingly, given the menu – but the pasta tastes good. I head off to bed with a specially made banana and mango smoothie, a suitably light breakfast before the off.

Saturday 0600

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With the time difference, I wake at dawn – to a sense of impending doom: 8km of open water! Who am I kidding? Still, Winston’s a man to have on side (he’s just completed his first Ironman – aged 58). He’ll shadow me in a kayak, with Black Fin, a motorboat, standing off.

Saturday 0815

I wade into the calm of Oualie Bay, still in shade. St Kitts, up ahead, shines green in the sunlight. The strait may be called the Narrows, but from zero feet in the brine it certainly doesn’t look narrow. It takes long enough just to emerge from the bay into open water…

I head slightly west of north, with the rolling swell of the Atlantic behind my right shoulder and the Caribbean on my left. And so begins the unremitting process of swimming, stroke after stroke after stroke. I take occasional breathers, so Winston indicates two round-topped rockfaces like elephant toenails – my target; the negligible current will then carry me across to the yacht masts in Cockleshell Bay.

Head down again and onward. It is reassuring to see the seafloor, which is no more than 8m to 9m deep the whole way across. The sea grass turns to coral heads clouded with tiny reef fish. There’s a lost lobster pot, a ray and turtles.

Saturday 0905

I pass the Cows, a small outcrop of rocks, chug an energy gel and check the left elephant toenail. It is right in front of me. I plough on, but it won’t get any closer. I bury my face again and push out the strokes: 100, 200, 300. It just won’t, won’t budge. Aargh! When will this come to an end?

The author leaves Cockleshell Bay on his return trip to Nevis
The author leaves Cockleshell Bay on his return trip to Nevis | Image: James Henderson

But after 500, 600, 700, eventually, eventually, it slides grudgingly by, and I enter Cockleshell Bay. Five more minutes and I am standing on sand. Leaden-limbed, I make my way up the beach – to the confusion of some cruise‑ship passengers just settling down to a day’s sunbathing – and dodder into Reggae Beach, a bar. (Well, this is the Caribbean.) One hour and 40 minutes.

Saturday 0955

Winston hands me an orange juice, with a: “Hey, if you had some technique, James, you could be quite good at this swimming thing…” Chuckling, he moves out of arm’s length. There follows a delirious hour of easy reggae, bananas and the remains of my smoothie.

Saturday 1045

In Winston’s annual event, entrants are permitted to wear training fins, so for the return swim I put some on. Blimey, it’s like being turbocharged. This is more like it. I can put up a proper fight.

In the open water I am angle-on into the swell. Oddly though, the current is behind me, sweeping me forward. I feel myself making good time, but after 30 minutes I realise it’s in the wrong direction. I swing right and fight it for another 40 minutes, the swell now threatening to roll me over. There are the Cows, but already I am 500m the wrong side of them. I am two-fifths of the way across the Narrows – and rapidly on my way to Antigua. The swell is merciless, like some slow-motion carwash: slap… slap… slap…

Saturday 1205

The author collapses like a starfish on the beach in Oualie Bay when he arrives
The author collapses like a starfish on the beach in Oualie Bay when he arrives | Image: James Henderson

In the end, Winston suggests that I “reposition”. Black Fin has a 1m transom, so I ride a wave, kick the fins as hard as I can and hook my arms onto the gunwale. Hoisted, I slither and slap onto the deck like a porpoise on a slab. We head up-current of the Cows, into the Caribbean. And Winston might have cut some distance too – just a teensy bit.

And good thing he did. Even from where I hop back into the water, it’s a monstrous haul making Oualie Bay. I plough on, and on, and on. Nevis is incredibly beautiful, looming green and forested above me, but as it shifts remorselessly to the right, it just makes me angry.

Saturday 1315

Close to, the current is running at two knots and eventually I find myself swung around swimming directly into it, parallel to the shore, trying to make the bay. Each time I change to breaststroke to rest, the seafloor moves beneath me like some sandy conveyor. Back in the crawl I fight and fight, but I am gaining only by the inch. Even in the bay the struggle doesn’t end, as the current swirls around the rocks. But finally, finally, I leave the stream, and glide the final, glass-flat 300m, propelled by the fins. I crawl, exhausted, onto the sand. Two hours and 30 minutes. Done.

But it wasn’t complete. And Control doesn’t brook failure. There’ll be a penance, I know, as I lie prostrate on the sand like a starfish, with jelly legs and arms, heaving on a salt-rasped throat.

In my horizontal distress – now transferred to a lounger – Winston offers a final word: “Well done, mate. Very few people have even attempted that.”

Sunday 0730

The upstairs dining room at Golden Rock Inn, Nevis
The upstairs dining room at Golden Rock Inn, Nevis | Image: Oberto Gili

The penance is to climb Nevis Peak, something I have always wanted to do. I meet my guide, Galey, at the trailhead in Stonyhill and we set off into the dappled light of the bush. Not long ago this was pasture and provision grounds – we pass ponds and old walls smothered in greenery. Then a plantation ruin, a windmill grappled by roots. Domestic fruit trees survive. Galey picks a handful of sour orange.

Then in the deeper green light of the forest, we ascend a ridge. We are climbing two-thirds of the peak’s 985m, which on an island just six miles by eight, translates into something extremely steep. It becomes a scramble over “ghauts”, flash-flood courses, ridgelines and then the forested face of the mountain.

It’s a suitably torturous penance. Having spent all the power in my arms yesterday, I discover that steep sections are broached by ropes – over 100. Breathing deep, I follow Galey and we meander over buttress roots, around boulders and up muddy, water-carved gullies overhung with ferns and stunted trees.

Sunday 0915

The summit, in bowling cloud. Just flashes of the view across to St Kitts.

Sunday 1600

After an afternoon spent poolside at Golden Rock, I take the hopper flight back to Antigua and the night flight to London, arms twitching from unaccustomed overuse. It’s good to know you can do it, but that’s enough of the swimming thing for a while. Control should be impressed though.

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