The mermaid of Bangla Channel

, Adventure

What better way to spread awareness about the importance to know swimming than to plunge into the Channel for a 16 km swim yourself

By: Becky Horsbrugh

Whenever I visit Bangladesh, it takes the country less than an hour to captivate me. The first time I came, it was a riot to the senses and I was enthralled. People thronged around, autos, rickshaws and the humble motorcar all scurried around as the oppressive heat bore down.

I was in Dhaka to help out with the SwimSafe swim teaching schemes run by the CIPRB (Centre for Injury and Prevention, Bangladesh). I spent a week at a place called Sreepur Village, north of the capital.
My first impression of the country was one of richness, colour, a young and vibrant history, and a people proud of their nation. I was intrigued and fascinated, most of all I wanted to do more to raise awareness of the dreadful statistic of drowning in Bangladesh every year.

Then one day I came across a page on Facebook called ‘Swim Bangla Channel.’ It gave details of a 16 km sea swim from Teknaf to St Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal. It seemed like the perfect vehicle to help spread the word on the horrible drowning statistics. I am a keen swimmer, but had never swum that far before. However, I felt confident that with the right kind of training I should be able to do it. I contacted the organisers and we set a date for January 2018. I swam four times a week for up to two hours each time, and kept myself as fit as possible.

I flew out to Bangladesh around a week before my swim and held a news conference for local journalists. They were very interested in my background and the fact that I was attempting to be the first British person to do this special swim. But a lot of them were also not aware of how big an issue drowning is. I was in the local papers and on TV and though I felt ready to tackle the swim.

First though, I needed to get to the coast. I flew to Cox’s Bazar and spent a glorious afternoon checking out the incredible beach there. Then early the next morning, I met my swim support team and we travelled by bus down to Teknaf, and then by ferry to St Martin’s. The weather was looking bleak, with strong winds predicted in the forecast, so we decided to bring the swim forward by one day.

We started early, waking at 4.30 am and then took to our small fishing boats for the journey to Teknaf and the starting point. It was cold and the sea was rough. We all got soaked and by the time we arrived on the mainland, most of us were freezing. Eventually it was time to begin. Two Bangladeshis also swam with me. I knew then there was no looking back as we all wished each other good luck and began swimming.

The first hour or two seemed to last forever. I could see the coasts of Bangladesh and Myanmar on either side as we made our way towards the mouth of the river, and then entered open sea. For most of my swim, all I could see was an endless sea and a blue sky, and my accompanying boat. Every 45 minutes I would take food and drink from the boat. They would attach a bottle to a rope and then throw it to me so I could take on some sustenance.

At no time did I ever contemplate stopping. After a while, I got into a rhythm and felt like I could go on forever. The waves were rough, but I was able to read the swell and wasn’t too bothered by the conditions. At the three hour mark, I stopped for water and shouted to ask my crew how far away were we? They pointed ahead, and there for the first time I could see the island. It was far away in the distance but a great incentive. I kept going and although my shoulders began to ache, finally after 4 hours and 45 minutes, my feet touched land. I was back at St Martin’s and had achieved my aim.

The ensuing media coverage of my swim in Bangladesh was just incredible. I was covered by most of the newspapers and on my return to Dhaka, I was interviewed by a number of television stations as well. I became known by the moniker ‘the Mermaid of the Bangla Channel’. Most important to me though, was knowing that people were more aware of the drowning statistics and were beginning to realise something had to be changed.

I hope as time passes they will continue to spread information on this. If the young are taught to swim, they are more likely to get their siblings to swim and then more likely to teach their own children. Plus, swimming is such a good activity to stay fit for men and women of any age, it has so many health benefits. Above all, it can be extremely fun.

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