As I swam out from Shakespeare Beach towards Sea Satin, I was by parts apprehensive of the challenge to come, joyful to be there and even contemplate it, and thoughtful of ‘The Plan’.
The Plan was to have a day to remember, to take it our relaxed and easy, to conserve my energy for the rigours that I kinda knew were going to come later in the day.
I certainly did that. I was super relaxed and easy, trailing the boat for a while, before coming alongside the port side of the boat and looking up at what was to become quite a familiar craft and set of faces!
My feed plan was to to stop every 30 minutes, Maxi only on the 1/2 hours, Maxi plus a solid treat on the hour. Soon enough the first feed came around.
I was enjoying the swim as the first few hours went on. It wasn’t flat by any means, but certainly not challenging. My one concern was peeing. After an hour and a half, and a three maxi feeds, I was struggling to pee. Normally I do not have an issue when in Dover Harbour. My legs will typically kick even less than they usually do due to my inability to multitask, but the activity normally happens after a short while. I think the combination of adrenaline caused by this being ‘no ordinary swim’, and an attentive audience on the boat were killing the moment. It did happen eventually, but the second one took another hour and a half, and I was starting to feel bloated and rather sick. I asked to stop electrolytes in the feeds, and kill the solids, and after another hour or two, began to feel a lot more easy. Lesson learned for the future.
One thing I had been told by wise folks like Freda, Ned and Helen, was to never look forward, and to never look back. Infact, one of the swims on Ned’s distance camp has a perfect example. Swimming from Speckled Door round the headland to see Sandycove in the distance, you can see the Red House as small square on a remote hill. You can sight off it which is useful, but don’t expect it to loom into view quickly.
It’s the same deal in the English Channel. As I pulled away from the shore past the harbour wall, I could see the White Cliffs as I breathed to the left. I said to myself ‘You are going to be my friends for many hours to come’, and so it would prove to be. On occasion I would be knocking back my 1/2 hourly carb drink and see the White Cliffs staring back at me, seemingly unchanged from an hour before. You can’t dwell on it though; it’ll do your head in.
After 4 hours I started farting. This was excellent news! I proudly announced it to my crew at the 4 1/2 hour feed, who dutifully noted it down. It’s a sign that your digestive system is doing what it should be doing and, well, digesting. That, coupled with a reduction in the feeling of bloating that I had before made me feel really great, and super-confident that everything was going to plan. Even the peeing was going better now. As the swim wore on I was even able to do a couple on the fly, rather than having to wait until feed time, and extending the time not making progress towards France.
The conditions for the first 5 hours or so were variable. None of it was flat, but certainly not so testing that I was having any doubts about spending a long time in there. At about 5 hours though, things changed abruptly, with white horse-topped waves smacking into me from the left hand side. I thought at first that this might just be some swell from a passing ship, but it continued! I wasn’t especially happy at the thought of swimming in these conditions for too many hours! As it turned out, the waves eased after 10 minutes; apparently I had been swimming over the north end of the Varne Bank, a 5 mile long sandbank running roughly North – South in the Channel. Basically the waves were being created by the very shallow water, like waves breaking on a beach.
The Shipping Lanes
As the swimmer creeps from England to France across the Channel, they have to cross 5 distinct zones:
English inshore waters – approx 5 nautical miles (9.5 km)
South West Shipping Lane – ships heading south – approx 4 nautical miles (7.6 km)
Separation zone – no shipping – approx 1 nautical mile (1.9 km)
North East Shipping Lane – ships heading north – approx 5 nautical miles (9.5 km)
French inshore waters – approx 3 nautical miles (5.7 km)
Total Distance – approximately 18 nautical miles, 21 statute miles, 34.2 km
As I got to about 4 hours in, I was in the first shipping lane, with ships passing from my left in front of to the right. There were some good ones!
My crew were awesome Let’s just get that out there. Helen Gibbs was crew chief. Highly capable, a Channel Swimmer herself in 2012, super-organised. She’s also my girlfriend, so it was lovely to have her smiling down at me. And that’s an important thing. It is SO important to have people looking at you the whole time. You never want to feel forgotten. You also want them to be happy and smiling, as that reassures you that you are actually still doing well, and that there is nothing to worry about. On no account should the crew, EVER, let on that there is anything wrong. There could be a massive hole in the hull on the other side of the boat that they are working hard to fix, and you should not know about it. One or more crew members could be half dead with seasickness, but you should not know about it. This actually happened to me. Both Helen Gibbs and Jeff were sick, Jeff majorly so, but I never knew about it. The swimmer doesn’t need to be set thinking: ‘They’ve been sick, that means it must be quite rough, that means I have a tough swim, what if that means I can’t finish???’ The swimmer never needs to know! Jeff wasn’t sick all of the crossing. Luckily he was able to take many of the great photos I have of the day, some of which are in this blog.
The third crew member was Helen Liddle, almost ever present watching over me, while the others were busy preparing feeds or taking photos. Thank you to all three of you for being there for me.
As I carried on through the first shipping lane, i started to be aware of the ships passing south, but BEHIND me now. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘I must be nearly out of this lane! Wow I’m doing well!’ And then I saw another whip pass south in front of me, a great big one. Damn!! That taught me to make assumptions and get all ahead of myself. The best thing to do about these sorts of things is to just not think them through. The Channel is a very confusing place to be when you are at water level. You are almost certainly going to get it wrong, so you might as well not bother. Just put your faith in the pilot and crew, and keep swimming.
The crew also wrote messages of support that had been coming in from family and friends. Though it probably slowed me down a little to read them, it was worth it for the laugh, or sometimes the cry, that I got out of them…..
I had seen lots of jellyfish in Ireland, and had been stung on quite a few occasions before, so I wasn’t scared of them. Just as well, as I got zapped quite a lot in the channel, especially in hour 8, ‘the hour of the jellyfish’. There was a nice variety of kinds: Compass, Purples, Lions Manes mainly. There were some fine specimens of Lions Manes that day, and a few of them got me pretty good. I can liken it to someone whipping you with a bunch of stinging nettles. It gives you a real shock, and the pain isn’t fun, but it wasn’t debilitating. It was enough for me to swear loudly while breathing, but I carried on. In some ways it was a welcome distraction. It got me thinking about the Gate Theory of Pain that I had learned about 25 years ago at college, where in my case the jelly stings swamped out the more minor niggles that were starting to appear elsewhere on my body, after 8 hours in the Channel.
The Business End
As I swam on to 9 and 10 hours, the swim started to change. The sun set lower in the sky, and behind the boat from where I was swimming. I could feel the change in the temperature with sunlight absent, and was also conscious that I was going to miss the only sunset I was going to see on my Channel Swim. After 9.5 hours, I asked to switch sides for the first time that day to watch the sun set. It was lovely out there. It was also rather windy so I could feel windchill, and choppier than on the other side, so after only 30 minutes, I went back to hide behind the boat. There were one or two photos of me on that side though:
It soon began to get dark. All I could see around me were ferries. Infact, it seemed like I was in amongst the ferries for hours and hours and hours. In truth I actually was. The tides meant that I spent a long time opposite Calais and its approaches. I knew that this is not where I wanted to be landing, and it was starting to play tricks with my mind. I even asked at my 12 hour feed ‘Are we ever going to turn south?’ I didn’t get a reply, but was just told I was doing well and to keep swimming. And that is what I did, swimming into the gathering darkness, mentally preparing myself for a 16-18 hour swim.
Can You Give Me 30 Minutes of Fast Swimming?
Only half an hour later, at my 12 1/2 hour feed, I was asked to sprint. It seems totally bonkers, but after 12.5 hours of swimming, 5.5 hours longer than I had ever swum before, I was asked to turn on the afterburners!! I didn’t question, but just got on with it. My stroke rate went up from 56 to 66 for the 30 minutes, I started breathing mostly to the left, which speeds my swimming up, and I dug deep. It felt awesome. I amazed myself that I could do it. I was glad now that I had taken it so easy earlier on in the swim. I was also glad of all of the sessions I had done mainly in the pool, where I had gone for sustained pace over 3, 4 or 5 km. It felt very much like ‘blind swimming’ though. It was now completely dark. Lance had a spotlight pointing into the water by the side of the boat. I was trying, almost by instinct it felt, to stay close to that, but there were a few times when I veered off course.
At the 13 hour feed, the crew asked me for ‘another 30 minutes like that please’. ‘Why?’, I asked naughtily. All they told me was that it might save me a lot of time. I pretty much knew what that meant. They were trying to get me through the current and onto land. Failure meant (probably) whizzing past Cap Gris Nez, and a substantially longer swim to get in on the back side. I dug deep again, stroke rate still up at 66, still grunting and pulling hard. At 13.5 hours, Lance opened his window, and pointed forward. ‘You see that green light there? That’s the Cap. It’s 0.7 nautical miles away. Give me 30 more minutes like that, and you’ll land it!’
I needed no further invitation, but bolted my maxi down and set off for what was to be my final leg of the day. As I got close, I heard screaming from the deck and stopped. ‘Swim, Swim!!!’ with lots of vigorous pointing. The Cap was just there, and the boat’s spotlight was trained on the rocks. I swam in, sighting the spotlight, with Helen popping up just behind me and to my left, with camera hoping to get the magic shot of the finish. As we hit the rocks, I set about trying to climb on a rock and ‘clear the water’. Eventually, after many wave-induced pratfalls, I finally got that done, and got some ‘Griz-Nez tattoos’ for my trouble, painful scratches mainly down my legs, and no pebble.
This photo is the only documentary evidence I have of landing on the Cap. Taken by Helen from the water, with spray from the waves in the foreground, you can sense the feeling of victory!
13 Hours, 59 Minutes, 40 Seconds – England to France.
After swimming back to the boat, we finally set off back to Calais. I felt OK all things considered. We all set about recounting the adventure that we had had that day. It was brilliant. As the 3 hour return leg continued, things got less brilliant as we bounced our way over a sea that got steadily cheekier. I was sick, Helen Liddle was sick, having managed to avoid that all day, and by the end we were pretty much all passed out on the deck. Only Rory the observer slept serenely for a while. The man has an awesome stomach!
The Consequences of Failure
The swim went very well on the whole, due in no small part to the hard work of my awesome crew, the observer, and the boat crew under Lance. There were times during the swim when the demons started to creep in, but not a lot. I had been trained to accept ambiguity and uncertainty. Just soldier on, and swim from feed to feed. A well-worn marathon swimming cliche but true nonetheless. When doubts did start to rear their heads, I had plenty of coping mechanisms, including the mantra that had been in my head all year through training ‘I was born to do this’. I have no idea why this kept on popping into my head, in Dover, In La Jolla, In Ireland, often at the toughest times. I had never mentioned to anyone until after this swim, as it sounds so corny and conceited, but there you are.
I also had the immensely powerful weapon in my arsenal of ‘I cannot possibly fail – how will I ever look people in the eye – family, friends, colleagues (somehow the latter seemed the worst)’. That, coupled with the fact that I always felt physically comfortable, meant that we won the day in the end.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me in achieving this dream. Family, friends, colleagues, fellow aspirants, beach crew, Ned and the Ireland gang, Dan in San Diego, pilots, and most of all my awesome, awesome crew.