Lake Geneva – an epic swim with literary credentials / by Crispin Thorold

One of the most notable marathon swims of this year’s season, was also one of the most evocative. It took accomplished American swimmer, Jaimie Monahan, close to 33 hours to swim Lake Geneva from tip-to-tip.  

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Starting from the historic Château de Chillon in the East, Monahan swam more than 69kms (43 miles) to the city of Geneva where she landed in the shadow of the world-famous Jet d'Eau fountain.  En route she passed through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, swimming in freshwater that is crystal clear, indeed it is so clean that Monahan says “you can drink it”.

She was only the third recorded person to swim the lake and the first American woman to do so.  This was also the inaugural solo swim for the newly formed Lake Geneva Swimming Association (LGSA), a governing body which intends to put Lake Geneva on the wish-list of all ultramarathon swimmers.  This may prove an easy sell. 

A CHALLENGE OF UNIQUE GLAMOUR & BEAUTY

There are few swims that combine the magic and majesty of the setting, with the sheer physical and mental toughness that is required to complete a crossing of Lake Geneva.

In part it is the history of the landmarks along the way that make this swim so special.  Take the starting point – Château de Chillon – a medieval fortress that was the summer home of the Counts of Savoy and a one-time prison. It also has a unique place in French and English literature.  

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

In the inclement summer of 1816 Lord Byron, the poet and grandfather of open water swimming, as well as the writer Mary Shelley, and several others, visited the château.  During their time by the lake Shelley started writing Frankenstein and Byron completed The Prisoner of Chillon. The château also inspired the writing of Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo.

In the shadow of Chillon is a small beach from which the swim begins. “We tried to split the swim up mentally into three parts”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “During the first part, the early days, […] the water was really blue and we kept passing these little towns and gorgeous houses.” 

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

On the Swiss side of the lake, to the right of the swimmer, are the 11th century UNESCO listed Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, which stretch for about 30 km. On either side the peaks of the Alps “rise up in varying inconsistencies”, said Ben Barham, the founder of the LGSA. “When the sun sets in the mountains it causes any cloud cover to light up in different shades, casting lights on the mountain as if there is a search for Frankenstein.”

For Jaimie Monahan’s swim most of the second chapter was overnight and was lit by “an enormous beautiful full moon”.  “The water was pretty comfortable all the way, about 22 degrees [Celsius]", said Jaimie Monahan, "but just being in the water for that length of time did feel pretty cold, especially in the night.”  In the final hours of the night, after the moon had set and before the sun started to rise, the sky filled with “zillions of stars and no light pollution”.  

By morning Jaimie Monahan was approaching the final part of the swim – along the pointed finger of the lake that stretches south west all the way to the city of Geneva.  However this final stretch is a cruel one with the mighty Jet d’Eau visible for miles on the horizon.

“It’s like the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca on Odysseus’ journey teasing you”, said Ben Barham continuing the literary theme.  “It doesn’t get any closer for another 10 hours.  It’s quite a remarkable thing to see.” Jaimie Monahan also had to battle through a headwind.  “It made the water a bit wavier”, she said.  “Not crazy waves compared to what I usually swim in but after thirty hours out it just felt like being in a washing machine.” 

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

After close to 70km the swim comes to an end at the Bains des Pâquis, a communal beach where hundreds gather in the summer months.  For Monahan the boat crew called ahead to prompt an announcement on the PA system, which ensured that she was given a rousing reception when she reached land.

ESTABLISHING THE LGSA

Before the establishment of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association only two swimmers had successfully swum the length of the lake – Alain Charmey in 1986 (in just 22 hrs 43 mins) and Vedika Bolliger (42 hrs 45 mins).  So when a friend said he wanted to swim the lake Ben Barham thought, “why not set-up the regulatory, official governing body of swimming it.”

Barham was only 21 at the time but he had been interested in channel swimming for several years, having completed an English Channel relay when he was at school and then through mentoring/overseeing other relay teams from his old school.

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

Over the past three years Barham has built the LGSA from scratch, modeling it on the hugely successful Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF).  The LGSA requires swimmers to complete the standard long-distance swim paperwork including an application form, a medical and certified qualifying swims.  The association also introduces swimmers to the two pilots who are currently operating on the lake.

In the 2015 season the fees for a solo swim were £3,300 ($5,000), but this will increase to £3,600 ($5,500) in 2016 to ensure that overheads are met – this year Ben Barham lived in a tent for weeks and had to ask his Mum to buy him a flight home.  Although the cost is high Barham argues that the fees represent value for money: “It is a huge amount of money but if you think about the resources that go into it and the time it takes - it’s actually a bit of a bargain if you compare it to other swims.”

After one solo and one 2-person relay in 2015, next season promises to be busy – it is already close to fully booked and the Association hopes to put out one swimmer a week.  This should allow for the sometimes unpredictable weather, and also give the pilots and observers recovery time.   If the swim’s popularity continues to grow the LGSA plans to add more pilots and observers in 2017.

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

For anyone who is lured by the romance, or sheer physicality of this challenge, then it’s well worth listening to the advice of this year’s successful soloist.  “I think you can always do twice as long as you have previously done”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “So I think having something around 20 miles under your belt in freshwater like a Windermere double would be perfect preparation for this swim.” Also critical, according to Monahan, is mastering your feeds which must include electrolytes, as well as cold water acclimatisation to cope with the water temperatures over such an extended period.

You can register your interest to swim Lake Geneva on the Lake Geneva Swimming Association website.

Lake Geneva key facts (courtesy of the LGSA):

Length (Swim Route) – 69 km (shortest possible distance)

Water Temperature – 19 - 25 °C

Air Temperature – 26 - 35 °C

Jurisdiction – 60% Swiss 40% French