Swim Magazine

What is the Rampion wind farm swim challenge?

Nikki Gatland (AKA Salty Swims) is the creator of a unique new endurance challenge: the Rampion wind farm swim, on which she takes clients out to the mighty turbines to swim the 15km back to Shoreham or Brighton on the tide, which the fastest swimmer has completed in three-and-a-half hours and the slowest in just over six. We chatted to Nikki about her own swim to and from the windfarm and why the challenge has proven so popular.

CATEGORY: Features

WORDS: Patrick McLennan

Where did the idea for the Rampion wind farm swim come from?

Nikki, 31, is the OG, the first to do the swim, from Shoreham and back, and reveals it was an idea born in the first lockdown in 2020, when she and a friend, Jon, were looking for a challenge to help prepare them for their planned 2021 entry in the Talisker Whisky row-the-Atlantic event.

She explains: ‘We’d swum fairly regularly together and then one day we just sat on the beach and thought, “Well, there’s those turbines out there – could one of our challenges be that we swim to them?” and at that point it seemed they were very new. We didn’t really know how far it was. We knew it was far enough that it was worth the challenge. And so, once the idea was in our heads, it was a case of how do we achieve this? I think what really inspired me with the swim was figuring out how you do things when there’s no governing body, no association, there’s nothing like a Channel group that you can turn to.’

What challenges were involved in organising the first Rampion wind farm swim?

Despite talking to the RNLI about the feasibility of the swim and getting permission from Rampion to do it, Nikki admits naivety in that first attempt.

‘I hadn’t taken into account that we’ve obviously got to execute it on the day. So I’ve not only got to swim, but I’m also conscious that I’ve organised the boats, I’ve organised the timings and I’m working on how we should feed and the equipment we need. Not only did I have to think about my own training, I was working around all those other fundamentals as well, which was quite difficult.’

The brother of Nikki’s partner, Andy, is a yacht forecaster, which gave them the advantage of knowing the optimal time to set off from Shoreham with the tide – or so they thought – which was timed to catch the incoming tide on their return.

‘I had a number of conversations with Charlie about how to read the weather, what it was looking like in the run-up to the event. It’s quite overwhelming the amount of information we were gathering for the swim. But even as a world-class forecaster, he didn’t get it spot on and the conditions came in about two hours earlier than we thought. So, it just showed me that with all the planning and all the preparation, that you do have to surrender yourself to Mother Nature and if you can accept that, then you can achieve anything.’

How did Nikki successfully complete the Rampion wind farm swim?

The first crossing Jon and Nikki set off in the dark, a disorienting experience, and there were times when she lost track of the boat’s navigation lights. There was definite safety anxiety. ‘But it’s like, when you’re committed to something and you don’t know any different, you just go with the flow.’

After four hours of tougher than expected conditions, Jon couldn’t continue and got out of the water. Nikki, meanwhile, was still going strong, but the last 1,500m to their chosen turbine was torturous. Because the conditions had come in earlier and the tide had turned, she was battling through the sea and wind at less than half her usual speed. Eventually, though, she did make it.

‘The turbines are huge,’ says Nikki, recalling her shock looking up from the water. ‘And another thing is the sound they make, it’s bone-rattling when they’re going round fast. It’s such a deep, bassy sound, but often with my swimmers, we’re not out there when they’re going round like that because we’d have said conditions are too windy.’

The swim back to shore was a comparative pleasure, she recalls. ‘At that point I just knew I was going to finish it, and it got to a state where I was very in tune with my body, with my pace and with the water, and I started to challenge myself to look at my watch only after a kilometre.’ She was very happy to reach the end of her swim but felt empowered by the knowledge she could have carried on for another few hours. ‘My pace was getting quicker.’

Nikki wanted to swim it in skins but felt she hadn’t done enough cold-water preparation, so opted for a 3mm open-water wetsuit. It wasn’t all positive, however: alongside the high of finishing her swim there and back, she suffered phantom seasickness and mini hallucinations afterwards.

‘My heart rate was very high for probably a good 18 hours after. Also, I felt really unwell on land where obviously I had balanced myself in the water and suddenly I was vertical and on land and everything was off.’ She woke in the night after her swim and got up and saw in the hallway mirror the phantom red flashing lights of the wind turbines that she’d seen at 5am the day before. ‘It was almost like they were haunting me!’

Why does the Rampion wind farm swim appeal to so many people?

The experience has clearly been life-changing for the SwimTrek product developer who previously worked for Sussex Police as a use-of-force trainer and has also spent time developing open-water swimming programmes to help people’s mental health. Since her swim in 2020, she has taken an increasing number of people on wind farm swims each year, all of them word-of-mouth clients. Nikki was invited to give a talk about her swim to a local sea swimmers’ group which ignited people’s interest in the swim. Eventually, she took a first group of six out in 2021, some of them solo, some in a relay.

At £300 a pop, the wind farm swim is far from a money-making venture for Nikki and, we imagine, barely covers costs. She ensures an insured and certified dive boat and pilot with three crew on each swim and says safety is paramount. She advises clients how to train properly for the swim and prepare suitable nutrition.

Surprisingly, the wind farm swim has attracted a number of people who are new to open-water swimming. One relay group included a woman who was celebrating her 70th birthday, another swimmer was training for a Channel attempt and this coming summer she will take a group out swimming to honour a late friend, while another group are coming out with a flotilla of support boats with family and friends on board.

Nikki believes part of the appeal is that it is a relatable challenge, unlike the slightly intangible English Channel. ‘They know that that’s an impressive challenge, but there’s no reference point to the average person. Whereas if someone from Sussex points to those objects out at sea and says, “I swam back from them!”, that is quite impressive. And I think for the support of their family and friends, for them to be able to visually see where they’re swimming from, it brings a whole other element to it.’

Read more articles about swimming challenges and achievements in the latest issue of Swim magazine.