Lessons Learned from a Long Swim – and Some ‘Thank You’s’

I learned quite a lot from the 2-Way Catalina experience.

  • 2-Ways are physically hard. Really hard, and harder than I had prepared for. While I was not a ‘spent force’ at the end of the first leg, I had just completed a 20-mile channel swim, so my body was at the very least ‘compromised’. I was actually physically OK till about 24 hours in, once I had got over the massive wobble at 15-16 hours, but then things got very hard indeed. I had never before been in the situation where my body actually refused to do what I wanted it to do. The pain from my left shoulder just ordered my brain to stop. Could I have gone longer and harder ‘if my life had depended on it’? Probably, but that isn’t the answer. If I were ever to contemplate a swim of this magnitude again, I would need to go and get my stroke corrected. Apparently the guys on the boat had some fun looking at my stroke (let’s face it – they had plenty of time to do so), and found it ‘not without opportunity for improvement’. Am I too old a dog to learn new tricks? Let us see…….
  • If you get common injuries and sore bits in training, they might show up when you do a 2-way, or they might not. My common places for trouble are triceps, lats, left ribcage, hip flexors, deltoids, lower back. The ribcage hurt between 20-24 hours then went away. The deltoids (tops of shoulders down the upper arm) were what slowed me in the end. Everything else was fine.  Didn’t even hurt the in the days following. All very surprising.
  • Salt mouth is an absolute pain in the a**e. it got steadily worse as the swim went on, and it took a week for me to be able to spit properly or eat without pain. It was the most troublesome thing by far in my recovery.
Asleep on deck going back to LA

Asleep on deck going back to LA

  • 2-Ways are mentally hard. My mind went way before my body did, possibly tipped over the edge by hitting a wall when my available glycogen ran out. It took me a good hour to get through it, and only with some tough words and messages from the boat. I thought I had the computer programmed properly before I started. I had prepared myself for a swim of 28 hours. That was my ‘par score’ and that was precisely what I ended up with. I think I got downhearted by the slow progress I was making back through the cross currents on the Catalina side. I allowed that to mess with my mind. Inappropriate extrapolations screwed me up. Which leads me neatly on to…..
  • Knowing where I was – probably a bad thing. My decision to be told how far I had gone after every hour was, in retrospect, not a great one. I had focused only on the good part of this knowledge, being able to do mental maths and tick off the swim, kilometre by kilometre, and to revel in the progress. I had not planned enough mentally on how to deal with the effect of ‘bad news’ on swim progression. I had concentrated on the positive effect knowledge about how far I had gone in the 12-hour Dover swim. This was temporal knowledge though, and very defined. 8 Hours was 2/3rds of the way to the finish, whatever changes remained in conditions, swim speed, state of mind etc. In a swim like this, time is elastic, and it was elastic (and unknowable) time that got me into trouble.
  • Catalina is a harder swim in some ways than I had given it credit for. The cross currents rubbed off a lot of my speed, and some of the least helpful currents came right at the end in the last 3-4 miles. It was also an easier swim in some ways than it might have been. The water was warm, conditions were on average much less challenging than my English Channel, and there was nothing too scary or painful.
  • I was not a very pleasant person to be around for large parts of the swim. I would have preferred to have been even-tempered, sunny and a joy to be around for the duration. This was sadly not the case. I was grumpy, sarcastic and moany for most of the second half, which I know wasn’t easy for those on the boat. While I know that this sort of behaviour is by no means uncommon, please accept my apologies.
  • I have a champion stomach. I chugged away on approximately 20 litres of feed, containing somewhere in the region of 1.5 kg of maltodextrin powder. Add in a few milkshakes, a couple of tins of peach slices, some jelly babies, and a couple of bananas, plus painkillers, and that was my diet. I wasn’t sick once, nor was I bloated apart from a little in the first few hours, while my nerves were settling down.
  • Taking myself to the point where I was ready to break, and to keep going, was a valuable life experience. Triumphing over some adversity was a useful affirmation of what I am capable of, physically and mentally. I am proud of finishing.
  • I can only imagine how hard an English Channel 2-Way would be, especially for swimmers who are not especially fast like me. I think it would be even harder than the Catalina 2-way, simply because you are likely to be in the water for even longer. Wendy Trehiou landed a 40 hour English Channel 2-way a couple of years back. Words almost fail me. And remember there are people out there who contemplate and take on 3-ways. Chloe McArdel became only the 4th person in history to achieve the EC 3-way, earlier this summer.
  • This is a reminder that there are always ‘greater and lesser persons than yourself’ – in everything in life. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. Do your best, and revel in your achievements. I am happy that I have learned quite well the limits of what I can do swimming-wise. If that swim had been much further, or colder, or windier – I would have been in deep trouble.
  • One pint plastic milk cartons make great feed containers.

And now to some thank you’s.

Firstly to my crew.  I have written before about how important it is to ‘feel the love’ from the boat. I certainly did feel that. Helen was there for damn near the whole swim, watching over me. It must have been super hard for her to see me struggling, her pulling out all the stops, turning all the dials, to improve things, but still helpless at the end of the day. A massive ask in retrospect, for which I owe you a huge debt of gratitude. Thank you Helen.

Bojan had never crewed on a Channel Boat before but was, by all reports, an absolute champ.

Dan and Kevin kayaked beautifully, and provided great words of encouragement at all times. They were also there with me throughout training in the last year, whenever I visited La Jolla.

I was incredibly lucky to have such an amazing and empathic crew, each with at least one Channel Crossing to their names, to help me over and back.

The Observers. Don, Bob, Sakina. Thank you for volunteering for the sport, and being there for me. Please accept my apologies for being so slow, especially when the end seemed so close.

The crew, especially John and Scott who piloted so expertly. They were also incredibly patient. It was hard enough in the water being a slowcoach at the end of the swim, without being made to feel like one, by feeling impatience from the boat. I really was doing my best 🙂

To Dylan, Emmeli and the boys who put Helen and I up in their rental apartment overlooking the ocean.  This was great in itself, but their warmth and interest in what we were doing was quite touching. Sitting in the hot tub drinking champagne the evening after the swim was really living the dream!

To everyone else back in the UK who has supported me in training. The beach crew, other swimmers with their words of encouragement and belief that I could do it.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part III – The Return to LA

The main thought going through my mind as I set off back to LA was some advice given to me by Phil Hodges. ‘Most 2-ways that fail, fail in the first couple of hours after the turn.’ This was ringing in my ears. 2 Hours after the turn would take me out of this perceived danger zone, where the finish is still a long way away, but you are already tired. 2 Hours would also take me past me longest swim to that point, the English Channel the previous year.

Starting the Return Journey

Starting the Return Journey

In truth though, I wasn’t feeling that great. I settled back into the same sort of rythmn as before the turn. The records show a steady 50 spm for the first 2.5 hours. At 14 hours I complained of light headedness, and was given electrolytes at the next feed. At this point we also had a near miss with a sailing boat: normally power gives way to sail, but clearly the sailing boat had not noticed me in the water, or the kayaker, so a loud hailer message from John was required to get them to move over.

Also in the first hour or so, I was accompanied by a friendly sea-lion, who swam behind me and under me for a while (see photo). That was nice, and a welcome distraction.

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

I had been hoping that I might make better progress back towards LA, after having battled the current for a while to get in to Catalina. This wasn’t the case, though, as the current was a cross current. and was slowing me down just as much heading back as heading in. The data show about the same speed either side of the turn, at about 1 km per 30 minutes.

I also had a strange feeling that we weren’t going back the same way as we had come, which didn’t make sense.  I had thought that John always went in a straight line, so why did it feel like we were crabbing across the coast?

Either Side of 'The Turn'

Either Side of ‘The Turn’

As it turned out, John had headed us off slightly to the east, better to set us up to take advantage of  the wind behind us later on in the day. Helen informed me of this, and that John was soon going to be turning me back towards home, but it was during this 16th hour that the wheels started to fall off my wagon. I started feeling wretched. Very tired, the onset of a headache, feeling shivery and cold. And with 13.3 nm to go to the finish, and 16 hours down, moving at only 1.2 knots, the finish seemed impossibly far away.

At about 15 h 45 mins, I threw my toys out of the pram. I stopped swimming, and shouted to Helen that I was calling the swim. I told her that I wasn’t asking for permission, but just wanted to get out. I stated that I didn’t feel like I had even 5 hours left in me, let alone the 10 or more that might be required. I was pretty strong about it. I don’t know what I was expecting to hear from Helen, but what I didn’t get was any form of agreement. Instead I was told to just swim to the next feed, and that we would talk then. This is what I had written in the swim plan: ‘If Jason asks to get out, tell him to get his finger out and get on with it….’

Soldiering On

Soldiering On

I grudgingly carried on, while Helen looked busy on board. I could see her fiddling around a lot, writing stuff down on the lids of the storage boxes. And then the lids got put up for me to read. A message each from my boys Tom and Finn, wiling me on to finish. And then, for the second time in 4 hours, I cried. Different tears this time, tears of frustrated rage, as I knew Helen had me. I knew that I couldn’t throw in the towel then. I knew I had to get over this bad patch and continue.

Photo 19-09-2015 17 13 04

In retrospect, I think I had just ‘hit the wall’ at around 15 hours. I had previously thought that through good training I was able to go through the conversion point between burning mostly carbs to mostly fat with ease. In retrospect, I am not sure I had ever been there before. This was the first time, and I was experiencing it 16 hours in to the longest swim of my life.

Another symptom of hitting the wall is typically a loss of mental ability. This rings true with what happened. I pretty much lost the plot. Certainly asking to get out was not my plan at all. I felt like a toddler, a petulant, horrid version of me. At the 16 hour feed, Helen threw Dan in to support swim for an hour. Another master stroke from Helen. This almost immediately perked me up. My mind was taken off feeling miserable and sorry for myself, to having a swimmer with me. I didn’t want Dan to have to swim extra slow just to match my pace, so I perceptibly upped my pace again (it had been down at 47 for the previous hour), and stroked at 50 spm once more.

Having the support swimmer in with me was enough to snap me out of my low. I was still being quiet, unsmiling and uncommunicative at feeds, but much better. At this point, I also got out of the worst of the cross current, and started making better forward progress again. At 17 hours, my pace, while maintaining a constant 48-50 spm, was back up at around 2.8 kph, with a freshening wind at my feet. And that is how it stayed for the next 5 hours, throughout the afternoon.

I started to feel much better, physically and mentally, as we headed towards sunset, and my second night in the water.

20.5 Hour Feed

There were still weird things going on in the water though. It was a complicated story, and my brain was a bit bemused by it all. I knew there was a wind coming over my left shoulder, some swell going in a slightly different direction, and current in yet another. It still felt like the boat was ‘pointing in the wrong direction’ due to some crabbing across current, and against the wind.

At around 23 hours, there was another wonderful display from the sun, this time as it set into the ocean.

Nearly 24 Hours In - Helen Holds Vigil

Nearly 24 Hours In – Helen Holds Vigil

Between 22 and 24 hours, I entered another phase of the swim. My stroke rate remained steady at 48-50 spm, and I was feeling fine, but my forward progress fell away markedly. The wind which had been helping me started to subside, and the current which had been in my favour during the first few hours of the swim now came back to slow me down. I was down to 2 kph once again, and because I was getting updates from the crew, I knew it. At 23.5 hours my disappointment showed, as I had only managed 0.4 of a nautical mile in the previous 30 minutes, and still had several nm to go.

I could feel my hopes of getting home around 26 hours being dashed by the adverse current, and I got angry. I thought that with only a few nm to go, this was where I was going to ‘own’ the swim. I cast my mind back to the last 90 minutes in the English Channel. After 12.5 hours I was asked to swim hard and fast to try and hit the Cap. That was what I did. I upped my stroke rate and landed it right on the nose. It had felt awesome.

But this situation was different. Instead of being swept along to the Cap on a 3 knot spring tide after only 12.5 hours, I was heading against a coastal current off Los Angeles, with 23.5 hours in the shoulders. I went for it though. Up went the stroke rate from 48 to 58. I pushed hard for 30 minutes, and really felt like I was making a difference. I was gutted then, when at the 24 hour feed, I was told I I had only covered only a further 0.4 of a nautical mile (about 750 m) in 30 minutes!

Helen was worried I was going to burn myself out, so encouraged me to ‘see if you can enjoy the rest of the swim’. ‘Easy for you to say’, I replied sardonically, and swam on, at a more sensible rate this time.

It was clear that I was battling a good current at this point though, and the effects of foolishly throwing in a ‘half hour of power’ after 23.5 hours in the water were starting to show themselves. Over the course of the next hour battling the current, I only swam 1.2 km. And my shoulders started to really hurt, especially the left one.

At 25 hours I was in so much pain with the left shoulder that I resorted to breaststroke (I have a very poor breaststroke), and one-armed front crawl. It was fully dark, and I could see the destination of Terranea Cove clearly, but I could sense how slowly we were going, and how the nose of the boat was pointing way up the coast, into the current.

Dan was in the kayak next to me, and encouraged me on. ‘You are making progress Jason. It’s not fast but if you can stay in the water long enough, you will get in’. But the guys on the boat knew just how slow it actually was, and continually encouraged me (much to my annoyance – I was doing my best!) to try front crawl again, as my breaststroke really wasn’t cutting it.

So at that point I tried to swim front crawl again, starting with 10 strokes, gritting my teeth against the horrible pain from my left shoulder. Then breaststroke. Then 15 of front crawl. Then breaststroke. And so on I laddered all the way up to 100 strokes.  Every time I swam front crawl, the crew shouted encouragement. Every time I stopped, they urged me to start again. I knew why they wanted me to carry on, because it was so much faster, but just couldn’t keep going endlessly through the pain.

Bojan got in and swam with me for a while, which was both nice, and frustrating, as it was a reminder, seeing him coast alongside me, of how slowly I was moving now.

At about 26 hours, the current lessened, and I could see the nose of  the boat turn in towards Terranea.  But at this point I still had more than 2 km to go.  It took me more than 2 further hours to get in from there. Towards the end, even the very little proper front front crawl I had been doing was finished. I made it in to the shore with a mixture of breaststroke, and one-armed Old-English backstroke.

Outrider - from the Water - Taken by Bojan

Outrider – from the Water – Taken by Bojan

In the end, after 28 hours 12 minutes 10 seconds, I crawled up the rocks where on the evening of the day before yesterday I had started the swim, and made it hesitantly to my feet. My shoulders were in agony, especially the left one.  It was all I could do to try to raise the lest arm past shoulder level and salute my wonderful crew who had all come in to the beach with me.  I could barely speak my mouth and tongue were so swollen.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

Helen joined me briefly for a photo. Thank you Helen. I know how hard it was for you to watch me struggle for so long, and how powerless you felt to help me. But help me you did, every stroke of the way. Thank you.

Me and Helen

Me and Helen

I collapsed back into the water at the shoreline, before Dan towed me off the back of his kayak back to Outrider. I was done. Now I could sleep. I never had to do that sort of swim again. In truth I probably never will……

There will be one more part to this blog, in which I will thank everyone on my team properly, for getting me across, and back again. I will also reflect on what we did well, and things we might do differently if we had the time again, with the benefit of retrospect. But for now I will stop, and continue to rest, and enjoy a glass of wine.  Cheers!

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers' Federation.

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers’ Federation.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part II

I stroked off into the night, sighting off Outrider, with Dan in the kayak at my side.  I spent maybe 5-10 minutes trying to regain my composure after the rougher than expected start to my swim.

The San Pedro Channel is 20.2 miles between the 2 closest points on Catalina and the mainland.  I had double that distance ahead of me.  40.4 Statute miles.  35.1 Nautical miles. 65.0 km.  Lots of numbers to conjure with there.

By now it was completely dark, and the thin sliver of a moon was setting fast into the ocean.  An excellent night for stargazing, especially for those on the boat!  I felt completely safe and ‘looked after’ though; Outrider is a big boat, well decorated with coloured glow sticks by the crew, and Dan in the kayak was well lit up too.

Swimming didn’t feel easy going at first.  There was some fairly persistent head-on swelly chop that I felt like I was continually having to climb over.  It seemed I was making fairly heavy weather of it too.  I continually told myself just to relax, not fight the water, just slip through it, preserve the shoulders for even tougher times that might lay ahead.

I had an hour before my first feed, which passed surprisingly quickly.  I saw the flashing glow-in-the-dark Viking helmet go on one of the crew (it was difficult to tell who from the water), which signaled 5 minutes till feed.  I knew that it would be switched off with 1 minute to go, which would be my signal to come in to the boat, to have my plastic milk carton of feed thrown to me on a long line.  Problem was I lost track of the horns at the back of the boat, where there were quite a few other lights.  I think also my goggles must have misted up a bit.  At the feed I didn’t say much, just chugged down my 350 mL of Summer Fruits-flavoured Maltodextrin, and asked for the horns to go up front in future.  Helen reassured me I was doing fine, with a stroke rate of 52 spm, and on I went.

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

Feeds from then until the end of the swim were to be every 1/2 an hour, mostly just the same liquid feed, with occasional solids thrown in as the choice of the crew, or requested by me if I had a particular yearning.  The second feed went better.  I could see the horns, and again I was told I was doing fine, with the stroke rate settled down to an even 50 spm.

Two hours promised something to look forward to. I had agreed with Helen that she would be telling me how far I had gone, on the hour, so I could mentally map my progress through the swim.  This was a marked departure from any previous swim I had done, where the approach was just to ‘swim from feed to feed, trust your crew, turn your arms over until you get there’.  While I knew this approach was slightly risky to be attempting on such a major swim, I was confident it would help me mentally, give me something to think about, do lots of mental maths, tick off the distance mile by mile, percentage point by percentage point.  This is how my mind works.  This is how I got through the Solstice overnighter in Dover, when I was chilled to the bone and miserable, by chunking the swim up into milestones.

While chugging on my drink and enjoying some banana at the 2 hour feed, Helen informed me that I had gone 1.75 nautical miles.  I think I asked her to repeat it as I was sure I had misheard.  ‘Oh that’s slow’ was all I said, before swimming on.  Seriously?  1.75 Nautical miles in 2 hours?  This was awful news.  I had felt that I had been making heavy weather of the swim with the conditions still annoyingly choppy, but I had still been hoping for something around 3 nautical miles.  At this rate my first crossing was going to take way longer than I had hoped.

At the 2.5 hour feed, Helen tried to clarify that she was using nautical miles, that the whole first leg was only 17.5 nautical miles, and that 1.75 nautical miles was not slow.  I was still confused as I swam towards the 3 hour feed.  I was frustrated wits the thought that maybe Helen was ‘just being nice’ and dressing a pace of less than 1 knot up as good to keep my spirits up, when I knew it was rubbish.  I was seriously unhappy.

At the third hour, Helen told me that I had covered 1.8 nautical miles.  What?!  ‘You mean I have only covered 0.05 of a nautical mile in the last hour?’ I pleaded. And that was when the penny dropped.  We had been talking at completely crossed purposes.  Helen had been giving me the distance covered in the previous hour, while I had been expecting information on total distance covered.  I can’t believe in retrospect that we didn’t nail this one.  I consulted my swim plan afterwards which stated simply, ‘I will be receiving information on my progress during the swim, at hourly intervals.’  I am supposed to be a scientist, yet had written something so gloriously open to interpretation.  I had probably even confused myself, as Helen was only doing what she had been told to by me.

I cursed myself, while at the same time internally whooped with joy.  I was making good pace after all!  This was confirmed at the 3.5 hour feed when Bojan told me I had done 6 nm (11 km).  This just got better and better.  At this rate I was heading for a first crossing time of somewhere around 11 hours, way faster than the ‘par score’ of 13 hours I had planned on.  At this time, somewhere around midnight, the ocean started to flatten out, and I started enjoying my swimming more and more.  The miles kept on tumbling, as I swam, super-relaxed, settling in to a consistent 48 spm between hours 4 and 8.  I was marveling at the very many small pairs of eyes that appeared out of the gloomy depths, before disappearing as quickly as they came.  I also started to get stung around this time, lots and lots, by small little ‘no-see-um’ jellyfish, that just sprinkled a little mildly-painful poison, which only hurt for a few minutes each time.  I congratulated myself that they were so mild, unlike the mauve stingers in Menorca, which packed a real punch.

At around 10 hours in to the swim, the sky started to lighten in the west, and dawn was on its way.

Dawn, near Catalina Island - Leg 1

Dawn, near Catalina Island – Leg 1

In the 10th hour, as well as getting light, my progress started to slow.  After 9 hours I only had 3.2 nm to go, but each 1/2 an hour only chipped off 0.5-0.6 miles off that.  At 10 hours I shouted ‘Is there a current or something?’  Indeed there was; the first leg which had been going so unexpectedly quickly had a sting in the tail.  A strong cross current was scrubbing chunks off my forward speed, and it took me nearly 3 hours to complete the final 3.2 nm.  But what swimming it was!  The approaches to Doctor’s Cove on the Island were incredibly beautiful, as some of the crew’s pictures show:

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At 11.5 hours, Helen asked me if there was anything else I wanted at the turnaround.  “A new pair of shoulders!’, I replied.  I was starting to feel the effects of a single channel swim.

Finally, after 11 hours and 53 minutes, I made it in to the beach.  Dan had already kayaked in with ‘supplies’ for the turnaround.  Helen jumped in off the boat and swam in after me.  I clambered up the beach, cleared the water, and raised my arms into the air, the first leg complete.

Ist Leg Complete!

Ist Leg Complete!

After raising my arms in the air, I promptly fell over.  Sitting down seemed like a reasonable place to be, so I stayed there, sat on the beach and looked around.  What a beautiful spot!

We then set about getting me ready for the second leg.  Dan had brought in a towel, a large tub of runny zinc cream, and an improvised back-scratcher / lotion-applyer that Helen had rigged up.  Under the rules, neither Dan nor Helen were allowed to touch me at the turnaround, so I dried my back and shoulders down, and daubed them with zinc, ready for a full day in the Californian sun. All this activity took a total of 7 minutes, at which point I stood up, raised my arms once again, and stepped back towards the water.

I could hear the cries of encouragement from Helen and Dan on the beach, and everyone on the boat, and set off once again, diving back into the crystal clear waters of Doctor’s Cove.  In mid dive, I was completely overcome emotionally with what was about to happen, the enormity of the task ahead, and the wonderful belief and support from the people who were supporting me.  For a dozen or so strokes I basically blubbed, crying into my goggles as I began the journey back to LA.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part I

In the autumn of 2014 I first enquired with John Pittman about doing a 2-way crossing to Catalina and back.  He was very supportive from the start, and soon enough I negotiated the CCSF forms, medical, and so on, and had a slot booked for my swim on the 19th/20th September.

But why did I choose to do this swim?

After completing the English Channel in August 2014, I felt (and had been told by those present) that I had plenty more in the tank.  I had not been put in the position where I was really challenged mentally or physically to complete the swim, so thought it would be interesting to go and find a swim that put me in that position.  I almost wanted to ‘stare into the abyss’, and learn something about myself when put in a very difficult place.

A number of possibilities were discussed with Helen and others:

  • North Channel – colder, more and nastier jellyfish, similar distance.  Regarded by many as the ‘Daddy’ of Channel crossings.
  • Double English – same challenges as a single, just more of it (42 miles) – tricky to book for the following year, as pilot’s slots get booked up a couple of years in advance.
  • Wales to Ireland – super hard – see North Channel but much longer (50 miles). Not a surprise this remains an unswum swim.
  • England to Belgium – also unswum (except by relays), an interesting navigation challenge (50 miles) – rather costly and difficult to book for 2015
  • Double Catalina – longer, probably easier conditions, possible to book for the following year.

So, Double Catalina it was.

I set about training over the winter and spring, which went reasonably well.  I tried a few things with my stroke to make it more efficient which was diverting, but didn’t really translate to any meaningful increase in OW pace.  Overall, I did slightly less training between November and April than I had for my English Channel the year before, but figured I had time to pick that up from May onwards.

In April I enjoyed an early season 6-hour with Kevin Smith in La Jolla Cove at about 16C, which felt surprisingly hard.  After the event, Helen pointed out that while I was reasonably pool fit, all of the extra little muscles required for open water swimming were out of shape, resulting in a harder than expected swim.  There was then relatively little in terms of open water swimming until late June, ‘just’ the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar with Helen in May, which was surprisingly short at 3 h 16 mins, and a 4 hour in Dover harbour outing in early June.  Late June was the 12 hour overnight Solstice Swim in Dover Harbour, at a bracing 14C.  This was a huge confidence builder, as it my first experience of losing a night of sleep on a swim, albeit without the requirement to carry on afterwards.  Despite not enjoying it one little bit, I did complete.

July and August comprised of two ‘7+6’ weekends in Dover Harbour, and a series of 5 early morning 3 hour swims while in Menorca for Helen’s victorious Menorca Channel Crossing.  A final, and surprisingly tough, 6 hour in Dover at the beginning of September led in to my taper.  Overall, I was underswum compared to the previous year, and had not had Distance Week to toughen me up either.  I was still confident about Catalina though, maybe foolishly so.

All of that said, I enjoyed tapering, and felt stronger and stronger as the 2 week period went by.

As the date of the swim got nearer, more discussions around the detail were had.  After consultation with the CCSF and John the pilot, we zeroed in on a start time of around 7-8 PM on Friday 18th.  The winds in the Catalina are fairly predictable, getting up around lunchtime,  and subsiding in the evening..  According to our plan, I was to leave the mainland around the time the wind was subsiding, and be on my way back, with the prevailing wind direction at my heels, the following day.

On the day of the swim, Helen and I were joined by the rest of my crew for pizza in San Pedro, before repairing back to our apartment to ‘relax’ for a couple of hours.  We all enjoyed the spectacular views over the San Pedro Channel, with Catalina in the distance, while getting the last bits of kit packing done.

View to Catalina from our Clifftop Loft Apartment

View to Catalina from our Clifftop Loft Apartment

Last Nervous Preparations

Last Nervous Preparations

The crew for the swim was as follows:

  • Helen Gibbs, Crew Chief, Girlfriend, all round awesome marathon swimmer (EC, Catalina, Rottnest, Gibraltar, Menorca)
  • Bojan Obradovic, recently emigrated to California, 1 day after landing his own EC (see Here)
  • Dan Simonelli, Lead kayaker, the man who took me out on my first ‘proper’ open water swim in La Jolla Cove in December 2012, and many times since.  Recent conqueror of his own Catalina Channel (August 2015).
  • Kevin Smith, training partner, crew on Helen’s Catalina, and recent swimmer of Catalina (August 2015).

What an awesome crew!

All too soon, the time came to drive down to the 22nd St Landing in San Pedro to meet the boat crew and the observers.

We found the boat easily and loaded up (as is traditional, my shoulders were not allowed to participate in this process), and found the time for a team photo.

Me and My Awesome Crew

Me and My Awesome Crew

We waited a while for the three observers to arrive, as the LA traffic allowed, first the legendary (and very lovely) Don van Cleve, followed by Sakina Zerrel (first time observing, on a 2-way!), and the excellent Bob Cohen.

Soon enough we were off.  We had an hour or so to motor up the coast to Terranea, heading first out of the harbour past the iconic Angel’s Gate (1913) lighthouse at the harbour exit.

San Pedro Harbour

San Pedro Harbour

Between leaving San Pedro and getting to Terranea cove, the sun set in the Pacific, while we were all busy on the boat, organising kit, applying a third and final coat of P20, and having the CCSF rules read to us by Don.

Don Reads Me My Rights

Don Reads Me My Rights

Last Minute Activity

Last Minute Activity

I felt surprisingly calm, now covered in P20, Bronzinc, in just my swimmers, ready to go, eager to go.

At last we arrived at Terranea Cove.  On went the goggles and hat, in went Dan in kayak, ready to escort me in to the start point.  I had instructions to make my way to the beach, exit the water, find dry land, and raise my arms to signal the start of the swim.

I jumped in.  I let myself go as deep as my momentum wanted to take me, savouring the moment.  When I resurfaced, I followed Dan into the beach.  The water was warm, a delicious 74F.  I felt fabulous.

Me and Dan Go In

Me and Dan Go In

After only a couple of minutes, Dan directed me in to the part of Terranea Cove where there was some sand between the stones.  I clambered slowly over the smooth rocks and made it to the dry part of the beach.  I turned around and slowly stood up, raising my arms into the air, signalling the start of the swim.

All I had to do now was retrace my steps over the rocks into the sea and start swimming.  The stones were slippery, so I took it very carefully and slowly.  Maybe too slowly.  As I was only half way back to swimable water, a big swell came in and knocked me off my feet, crashing me in to the rocks.  I tried to get up to move back towards open water, and another swell hit me.  There was a lot of swearing at this time.  This was not what I wanted at all before I had even swum one stroke towards Catalina.  I could hear Dan shouting instructions at me, but they weren’t registering.  All I could focus on was a growing sense of disbelief that I was not able to get started on the swim, and that I was getting increasingly battered on the rocks.  The only plus was that the rocks were smooth.  If they had been like the Cap Gris Nez rocks I would have been lacerated all over.

After what seemed like an eternity, but what I am told later was only about 2 minutes, I finally made it to deeper water and started swimming.

The biggest challenge of my life had begun……

Catalina and Back

Just after midnight on Sunday, I finally landed my Catalina double.  A proper write up and reflection will follow, but for now, here is the announcement from the CCSF.  Huge thanks to my crew led by Helen, the observers and John Pittman’s boat crew.

Feeding on the way back

Feeding on the way back

Something very special happened on the Channel yesterday…actually started Friday
night…and ended early Sunday morning!
Jason Betley (UK, English Channel 2014) became one of a very select group of
swimmers to do a “lap” of the Channel…swimming from Mainland to Catalina, exiting the water to finish one leg (time: 11:53:15), then reentering and swimming back across
to the Mainland where he started!
This awesome feat had only been done previously by 7 people, and only twice in the
last 37 years!
Jason’s total time of 28:12:10 included almost everything (except water temp; it was a balmy 74F!) the Catalina Channel and Mother Nature can throw at a swimmer to test human limits and spirit, physically and mentally. Surface conditions were choppy, going against the W-SW swell, and currents shifting and swirling both ways across. He fought a current getting in to finish the first leg only to find when starting out on the second leg that the current shifted, and he was then going against an adverse
current again! The choppy surface conditions and afternoon winds on Saturday were continuous and it didn’t lay down until after sunset. And around that time, Jason’s shoulders were spent (“a pair of new shoulders”, he replied to crew after being asked if
there was anything he needed), and especially his left shoulder which was causing him
excruciating pain on every stroke. He was determined to finish and relied upon doing
breast stroke and right arm freestyle drill to keep moving forward. But, because there
was a cross current and doing those two strokes were not making enough forward
progress in a timely manner, he dug deep and started a regimen of painful freestyle,
counting strokes and laddering up by 5’s to 100+ and back down again. Physically
Jason was “broken”, as he said. But, with the help of his crew and everyone on board,
his spirit and motivation were continually buoyed and pushed just enough to keep him
going…painfully for every tick off the nautical mile decimal points to go. Finally…in the Sunday early morning hour, he approached a dark Terranea Cove, where he had started in the dark two calendar dates before, and he negotiated the rocky landing and surf/surge like the champion that he is!
CCSF congratulates Jason Betley for his monumental feat and showing us that with grit, determination and perseverance one can achieve well beyond one’s perceived
Rest well, Jason, and enjoy your accomplishment with your family and friends.

CCSF Double Crossings:
Greta Anderson, 1958
Penny Lee Dean, 1977
Cindy Cleveland, 1977
Dan Slosberg, 1978
John York, 1978
Tina Neill, 2008
Forrest Nelson, 2010
Jason Betley, 2015

Jason’s crew:
Helen Gibbs, Crew Chief (exemplary job organizing and executing). (English Channel 2012; Catalina Channel 2014)
Bojan Obradovic, Deck Crew; Support Swimmer. (English Channel, 2015)
Dan Simonelli, Lead Kayaker; support swimmer. (Catalina Channel 2015)
Kevin Smith, Kayaker. (Catalina Channel 2015)

CCSF Observers:
Don Van Cleve
Sakina Zerrel
Bob Cohen

Outrider crew:
John Pittman, Captain
Scott, 2nd pilot
Steve, deck crew
Mike, deck crew
Cami, galley service (keeping everyone well fed!)

Swim track

Swim track

To Catalina and Back – Tracker Link

At some point tomorrow evening, I will strike out from the LA shoreline, and swim to Catalina Island, 20.2 miles across the San Pedro Channel.

Once I get there, and clear the water, I will get back in again and swim to LA again.

I have only the vaguest idea how long it will take, but it will be longer than a day.

So long as it is working, and someone remembers to turn it on, here is where you can track my progress!


Obsessive Weather Watching

A common activity for people awaiting a Channel Swim is obsessive weather watching.  Weather conditions can make or break a swim.  These days, there are many sources of information for the anxious Channel-Swimmer-To-Be to obsess over.

Earlier this year, Helen and I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar (Link) on an excellent day.  The days before the crossing were windy, and from the wrong direction, which would have created a very nasty ‘wind over current’ chop situation.  The day after we got there, the wind was blowing at 43 miles per hour out of the east.  The days after the swim were similarly bad, as the wind once more swung round to come out of the east.

Tarifa Weather the Week of Our Crossing

Tarifa Weather the Week of Our Crossing

But we did get to swim, in the short period of calm as the winds switched from easterly to westerly. We even got a slight push from the north, helping to propel us over to Morocco in an unexpectedly fast time (3 h 16 minutes).

Typically swimmers will try and avoid wind if possible.  Some years in the English Channel there are long periods of settled weather, with light winds, normally associated with an extended period of high pressure.  This year there has been very little of this sort of weather.  Swim ‘windows’ have been short, resulting in an unusually small number of swims, and an unusually large number of unsuccessful crossings.  People look on Windfinder, and yearn for the Beaufort F1/F2 winds which herald ideal conditions for solo crossings.  There have not been many of these this year.  Here is the Windfinder forecast for the next 3 days.

Dover Forecast for the Next 3 Days - A Little Windy

Dover Forecast for the Next 3 Days – A Little Windy

Lots of F3/F4/F5 here.  Not what you want to see.  Also note that the wind and wave directions are also not favouring the crossing direction from England to France, which is NW to SE.

Yesterday was an interesting case in point.  On paper, it didn’t look like an auspicious day, other than being on the bottom of a neap tide.  Winds were forecast at F3/F4 all day, yet 12 Channel Boats were out, nearly all of which escorted their swimmers successfully to France.  While it was windy, the wind and swell were both at the swimmers’ feet, helping them to whizz over to France in fantastic times.  One of these was Jim Clifford, who became the Oldest Triple Crown Swimmer (Triple Crown is the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and MIMS), who bolted over in a magnificent 10 hours 3 minutes!

Jim's Track

Jim’s Track

In terms of weather, Helen didn’t have it easy on her recent crossing of the Menorca Channel Swim (Link).  The first half of the swim there was some persistent and annoying chop/swell coming at her over her right shoulder, disrupting her natural rythmn.  Only after 5 hours or so did the wind settle down, and she could relax more in her stroke.

Pressure to Swim

For some swims, the swimmer can find themselves under pressure to go under less than optimal conditions.  If you are a Brit who has a 1 week slot booked for Gibraltar, and arrive to find a week of adverse winds, you either agree to go under adverse weather conditions, or you get weathered out, shrug your shoulders and go home.  Similar dilemnas face non-UK nationals over to swim the English Channel, who can find themselves sitting in Dover looking over at France, as the wind blows day after day.  As your tide ‘ends’, you then lose your position in the pecking order of swimmers, and throw yourself on the mercy of your pilot and the weather.  Under these circumstances you might accept the opportunity to go on a marginal weather day, and take your chances.

I was in that position last year, having lost my pilot due to ill health.  I chose to go on a day when only a few boats out of the possible 12 went out (the sure sign of an iffy day), and on a spring tide, which some people try and avoid.  As it happened, I had a nice day, not flat by any means, but perfectly swimmable with the training I had done.  That’s the maxim, hope for the best, train for the worst!

The Catalina Channel

….or more correctly the San Pedro Channel between LA and Catalina is generally a different story.  The weather patterns are generally predictable.  You book a certain day many months ahead, and you nearly always get to go on that very day. There is generally very little wind during the night and morning, before the Santa Anna wind gets up in the afternoon, nearly always blowing onto the mainland between F3 and F4 for a few hours, before dropping away in the early evening.

Taking account of this, swims generally start around midnight, so most swimmers can get done before lunch the following day.  Here is the forecast for that part of the world for today.  Textbook stuff.

Classic Catalina Wind Pattern

Classic Catalina Wind Pattern

On top of the wind, the other factor that the swimmer has to contend with is the current.  In the English Channel this manifests itself in the form of a periodic tide change.  The swimmer gets washed up and down the Straits of Dover, the direction changing every 6 hours or so.  They will always be facing in the same direction (France), which is where the pilot hopes to land them after a certain number of hours based on an estimate of their swimming speed.  This is why nearly all English Channel swim tracks describe a serpentine path from England to France.  The speed of the swimmer, and the precise timings and magnitudes of the tides can only be estimated at however, which is why most swims don’t land up at Cap Gris Nez, the closest point of France to Dover.

There are tides in Catalina, but they are of smaller magnitude.  On a neap tide, they are so small that they can be effectively ignored; one of the pilots John Pittman, steers an arrow straight path between the Island and the Mainland, asking the swimmer to swim against any side currents or tides that might occur.  In the English Channel this approach just doesn’t work; even the fastest swimmer will have some curve on their path to France.

There is another opportunity for the weather-obsessive Catalina aspirant to scare themselves.  There is another resource at sccoos.org which allows you to observe surface currents in Southern California.  Here is a screenshot taken just now, with the swim path superimposed, showing cross currents of about 1 kph in the middle of the Channel.

San Pedro Channel currents on September 8th

San Pedro Channel currents on September 8th

Some elementary maths tells you that a cross current of 1 kph will reduce an unaffected swim speed of 3 kph (about my pace) down to about 2.8 kph.  As the current get stronger, and/or the swimmer gets slower, it gets worse, much worse.  A tiring swimmer travelling at 2.4 kph with a cross current of 1.5 kph (just under 1 knot), will have their forward progress cut down to a paltry 1.9 kph.

So can currents be actually useful?  Well certainly they can if they are from behind, more precisely in the quadrant centred on the swimmer’s axis, the closer to that axis the better.  The pilots take currents into account, and try to choose a swim direction where the currents are from behind, more often than not Catalina to Mainland.

However, if you are doing a 2-way crossing, there is even more reason to be obsessive about the currents, because there are even fewer ways to be a winner.

Let us imagine a 3 kph swimmer swimming a 33 km channel.  For simplicity of maths, let’s imagine he doesn’t slow down or feed.  It takes 11 hours to complete the crossing in still water, and 22 hours for a 2-way.

With a 1 kph cross current, the 2-way takes 23.3 hours.

With a 1 kph current directly from behind in one direction, and on the nose in the other, the 2-way now takes 24.75 hours.

Our strategy will be to make the first leg the harder one, while I will be relatively fresh.  I will aim to swim against any head current that might exist, making it easier on the way back, because currents become more and more of a hindrance the slower you swim, as many a swimmer trying to get in to France will tell you!

Helen’s Menorca Channel Swim – 20th August 2015

Another guest blog!  Only three weeks after crewing on Bojan’s EC swim, I had the pleasure of crewing for Helen’s awesome crossing of the Menorca Channel.  Here is her account!

As I become older and wiser, I have come to learn that challenges involving long distances in cold water do not play to my strengths. I do not carry a large amount of bioprene and gaining weight is never easy with coeliac disease and intensive training! So when training for Catalina last October I decided that for future swims I should primarily focus on warmer waters. With a list of prerequisites I looked into various swims and came up with a little gem. A little longer than anything I’d done before (but not dauntingly so), yet relatively inexpensive compared to the Ocean’s Seven. I had stumbled across the Menorca Channel.

One of the major attractions of the Menorca Channel was that it had been done so few times before (only 9 swimmers under channel rules), yet there is the newly established Menorca Channel Swimming Association which would assist me greatly in organising the swim.

Preparations for the Menorca Channel went very well, unlike training for the English Channel which was hampered by undiagnosed coeliac disease or Catalina which was hampered by an overuse injury in my left shoulder. I have a habit of overtraining and not allowing my body to recover, so I was very careful to ensure I factored in recovery weeks this year and it paid off!

Every channel has been a big learning experience – I am always meticulous in writing up a full debrief after each swim to ensure I take the learnings into my next swim. So for each swim I am more confident in my feed pattern, my training, my taper, my kit etc which meant in the lead up to this swim I was more relaxed.

…well when I say relaxed, there was one thing playing on my mind. The fastest crossing to date was 11hrs 57mins, and the fastest female was 12hrs 18mins. By my calculations, I believed I was in with a chance of beating the record, or at least the women’s record. This time I was more honest with Jason about my aspirations so he knew how I would respond to any information he provided. Previously, to avoid sounding arrogant, I had not been open about what I’d hoped to achieve which left the crew baffled when I responded poorly to what they thought was a good crossing!!

However I did keep reminding myself that my swim time may be affected by many factors and not to get my hopes up too much. Being a swim I knew very little about, I didn’t know what impact the currents might have and there were also unfriendly jellyfish present as we discovered during training swims. Furthermore, there was always a chance I’d get digestive issues and in waters of 26-27C with air around 30C I could also suffer with dehydration.

We met with the Menorca Channel Swimming Association a couple of days after we arrived in Menorca. I felt honoured to meet Tita Llorens, president of the Menorca Channel Swimming Association, who had recently completed 85km swim from Ibiza to Mallorca, we also met Guiem who had been my sole contact until arriving in Menorca, Toni the observer, Francisco the secretary and Max(?) the pilot. I was very glad to have asked Guiem to try and find me an assistant crew member who spoke good English. This proved to be a wise move and Danny – a young welsh guy competent in Spanish – helped translate during our meetings and assisted Jason during my swim.

The meeting was very useful, primarily as it reassured me that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet and that they were a great bunch of people who were enthusiastic about my crossing and whom I trusted to work as a team and get me from A to B. At this point we also discussed weather and direction of swim, since it was all dependent on the wind and wave direction as to whether I swam from Menorca to Mallorca or vice versa. Having already studied various forecasts, it came as no surprise to me and Jason when they said the crossing was unlikely to happen before Thursday.

On Wednesday morning I received confirmation that the swim would go ahead on Thursday morning, we would meet at 5am at the Marina and I would be swimming from Menorca to Mallorca starting at the lighthouse at Cap D’Artrutx. I spent the rest of the day mixing feeds and making final preparations then applied the first layer of sunscreen before bed.

The morning came and everything was going to plan. I had a light breakfast, a moderate amount of fluids and some ibuprofen before setting off and I received another coat of sunscreen. The apartment was located so close to the marina that we could walk down to the boat with the kit.

This is the first time we’d seen the boat (except for some pictures), but it seemed ideal. A platform on the back to get on and off, a good sized sheltered area for crew and kit, and facilities inside including a fridge and toilet. We did some final prep, more sunscreen (zinc this time) was applied to my shoulders (it might sound like a lot of sunscreen, but I’m a redhead planning a fully day in the Mediterranean sun). Hat, goggles, lights, Vaseline …I was ready to go.

The boat made its way out of the Marina down the narrow channel and out into the Med – it was a mild morning, but still dark. The water was smooth (unlike previous days), but I wasn’t kidding myself about what I was about to face. The forecast was pretty reliable and stated I would have F3 for much of the morning until around 10-11am, I remained positive though, knowing that it would calm down nicely for the second half of the swim.

About to Take the Plunge!

About to Take the Plunge!

I entered the water at approximately 5.40 cheered on by Tita, Francisco and Guiem who stood on land up by the lighthouse. The rocks there were too steep to exit the water, so as instructed by Toni I approached land with caution and studied the rocks closely (or as close as you can in the dark, wearing tinted goggles!!) as I had been warned that sticking your hand inadvertently on a sea urchin might not be the best way to start a swim. I placed my hand on the rock, turned and raised my other arm shouting to the boat that I was ready. The horn sounded and I set off.

The first hour was beautiful, serene and gently illuminated by the rising sun. I try never to look forward or back during a swim, but made an exception on this occasion as the sun was rising behind me I even threw in a few barrel rolls to appreciate the full beauty of the moment.

Great Sunrise!

Great Sunrise!

I was told that the jellyfish came to the surface at night, so totally expected to be stung multiple times before the sun rose, but much to my delight I wasn’t stung at all early on. In fact, I only saw a few jellies on the whole crossing and was brushed by just a couple with mild tingles like that of a stinging nettle – nothing like the sting I had experienced a few days before. I had joked that I saw most when Jason jumped in at the end, accusing him of being a jelly-magnet, but the truth is more likely that the swell in the previous couple of days was heading away from Menorca and towards Mallorca taking the jellies with it.

After an hour or two the wind started to build and the conditions became lumpier. I didn’t mind to start, and it’s nothing that I haven’t dealt with before, but by 4-5 hours it was growing tiresome. I knew the conditions would improve, but I could start to feel a pain in my hip and my left shoulder – old injuries which don’t cope well with rougher conditions these days. The paracetamol didn’t seem to have any affect and I was starting to bloat quite considerably because it’s actually somewhat harder to pee when swimming in rougher conditions. My grump had started.

In addition to feeling a bit crappy, I started to notice boat fumes as the wind had swung around – it made me feel nauseous, so I switched to the starboard side. I was now on my less favoured side and couldn’t see Jason very well as I was looking into the sunlight each time I looked at the boat. I began to notice the boat’s position becoming flakier – I was either at the back getting occasional fumes and having to look up for direction, or I was up at the bow struggling to tell which direction the boat was pointing. I stopped for a moan. They explained that they were struggling with the boat positioning because of the wind, they needed to start the second engine. Great. More fumes. I swam off in a huff. The boat didn’t follow. I guessed they had issues with the engine and would catch up shortly. I was cross.

Then I noticed the sun was behind me, in fact it was almost to my right rather than my left. I still couldn’t see the boat.

I stopped and turned to see the boat chasing behind me with Jason shouting, ‘YOU’RE SWIMMING THE WRONG WAY!!’. I was swimming to Spain, not Mallorca. The thought of it made me even more cross, so I shouted. Obviously it was their fault.

I spent the next half hour having words with myself.

This was an inexperienced pilot compared to all 4 channel pilots I’d swum with before. The wind had changed and little did I realise at the time, that Jason and Danny were explaining to the pilot about positioning of the boat – they were aware there was an issue and were trying to sort it out. I feel ashamed for not trusting the team, but then maybe given how crappy I felt, I needed an excuse to vent some anger. The extra minutes added to my swim felt like my penance and had perhaps cost me the swim time I was hoping for.

At the next feed I apologised for my outburst. The crew did not seem phased and were even empathetic. I had managed to relieve the bloating too and was feeling a lot better.



The worst was over, the wind started to die down. I was still feeling surprisingly strong – I think the 6hour ibuprofen had helped along with the calmer seas. I have never used painkillers on a swim before, but after suffering with my shoulder in Catalina and ongoing hip pain, I resigned myself to the fact that I actually needed it – and it was worth it.

As time went on I felt good, I smiled and waved at the crew and they reciprocated with cheers of encouragement and some silly dancing to keep me entertained. I felt I was doing well, but reminded myself that first half wasn’t so great and not to get my hopes up.

This didn’t stop me from analysing every word that came out of Jason’s mouth. At about half way ‘I am very happy with your progress’ …okay, well I was honest about my aspirations, so I must be on target …but it’s a long way off, anything could change …I’ll probably slow up a lot …don’t read too much into it Helen. At 8 hours ‘I can’t wait to get in there with you’ … was I nearly there? no, that can’t be, that’s impossible, but maybe… just an hour or so…? I had 30 mins to mull it over and try to stop myself getting excited. At 9 hours came a blow ‘take it easy, nice long strokes’ …so I need to save myself …I must still be a long way off, the start wasn’t great …maybe there’s a current against me …but it all sounded so positive …I’m confused!!

At this point I had started to notice I wasn’t peeing much anymore. I was beginning to get dehydrated. I considered asking at my next feed that I wanted just water at 10 hours, but that would mean no ibuprofen, and I needed the ibuprofen. My left shoulder was feeling the consequence of a fast stroke rate (for me) and the confused seas earlier on. I should have communicated about the issue, but at the time it didn’t seem to be causing much of an issue.

At 9 hours 30 mins, I asked what Jason meant by take it easy …the response ‘You’re doing really well, I’ll be able to tell you more at your next feed’.

Jason had strict instructions to give me no progress updates until I was around 1 hour from finishing. So the fact that he said he could tell me more at 10 hours meant that at 10 hours I’d be around 1 hour from finishing! Yippeee! But still, I’m not going to look forward. I trust my crew. Looks can be deceiving.

Not the Toughest Day of Crewing!!

Not the Toughest Day of Crewing!!

I continued at my same pace – it turned out to be pretty consistent throughout the whole swim. As the breeze drifted around again (what little there was) I switched back to the port side to avoid fumes that were lingering due to the lack of wind. 10 hours soon came around. My spirits were high. I had my ibuprofen feed as Jason enthusiastically called out to me that if I skipped my next feed I could finish in under 11hours!!! Woohoo! I had as good as broken the record! But it was a tough decision – I explained to Jason I was showing signs of dehydration, I’d let him know in a while if I could carry on without the next feed. About later Jason asked if I’d stop for a feed. I declined.

It was at some point after 10 hours that I first looked up – I had been so disciplined. The land looked close, but then it would have looked close if I’d looked up 2 hours or maybe even 4 hours before. In fact, despite being further than the English Channel, Mallorca actually looks closer from Menorca than France does from Dover due to the mountainous terrain.

Pushing On

Pushing On

I thought that hour would last forever, in fact I was convinced that I’d gone over 11 hours. I had swum hard for 10 hours and even harder for the 11th hour. Finally Jason jumped in behind me and started swimming which meant I was about to land so I looked up again. This was it. The boat directed me to a part of rock that they hoped I might be able to climb out on but it was too steep. I touched the land and did my best to scramble up. The horn sounded, there were smiles and cheers all around. I was ecstatic. The swim was complete.

As Close as Was Possible to 'Exit the Water'

As Close as Was Possible to ‘Exit the Water’

I Did It!!!

I Did It!!!

Boys on the Boat Jubilant!

Boys on the Boat Jubilant!

My final time was 10 hours and 54 minutes which is over an hour off the previous record (although I know there are many swimmers out there who are capable of faster!). But even more important to me was that I felt good – surprisingly so. I swam butterfly back to the boat to celebrate. Once again I have learned a lot, but more importantly this swim restored my confidence in my swimming ability.

Happy With the Day!!

Happy With the Day!!

I would like to say a massive thank you to the Menorca Channel Swimming Association, to my pilot, to the observer, to Danny and most importantly to the one and only Jason Betley. We all know, it is a team sport and I couldn’t have done it without you.


The Local Press!

The Local Press!

Post Swim Meeting with the MCSA

Post Swim Meeting with the MCSA

Swim Track

Swim Track

Guest Blog – Bojan Obradovic – Swimming the English Channel – 30th July 2015

On the 30th July this year, I had the privilege of being a crew member on Bojan’s Channel Swim.  Here is a man who managed to pack in getting married, swimming the Channel, and emigrating to the US with his family into a few short weeks.  Here is his unedited recollection of his day in the Channel……..

(The following text contains several references to childbirth and in particular it compares several aspects of swimming the channel to childbirth.   Any such comparison is intended to be metaphorical and is informed by my “crewing” on two childbirths, and swimming the channel.  Only those ladies who have given birth and swum the channel can make the actual comparison)

I should start with a little introduction to this text, as swimming the English Channel was not an ambition of mine nor an aspiration, therefore it is reasonable to begin with an explanation.  Indeed, I was often asked the “Why?”  question in the six months or so before my swim and I generally struggled to give a straightforward answer.  I would always answer honestly, but it would never be the same:

  • It’s a midlife crisis, certainly cheaper than a fast car
  • Because the Channel is there and it can be swum
  • To get that pebble from the beach
  • To find more about myself

The seed was planted by Jason, one evening of late 2013 over a curry in Buntingford. He was merely a ‘channel aspirant’ back then and the evening was spent by talking about life and other things, as two blokes in their early forties might do over a curry and a beer.  Jason suggested that I should give it a go as I coped well with cold and was the perfect build for a channel swimmer.  I didn’t take him seriously.  Really, the channel swim was stuff of legends, something that a few amazing people (like his girlfriend Helen, the first channel swimmer I met) could do.  I remember reading as a child the recollection of Atina Bojadži, the first Yugoslav woman to swim it.  She was a professional swimmer and I remember her story of jellyfish, cold grey sea and feeding from a plastic cup for thirteen heroic hours.  It was never something I would be able to do.

Without aspirations to do more after, I swam the length of Windermere in August of 2014 and was encouraged by the sense of achievement it gave me.  However, I was utterly spent after that distance (10.5 miles) and I worked out that swimming the Channel was not for me.  I didn’t tell anyone that my ambitions really ended there.  Then, one evening in September that year over a course of a romantic dinner, Bettina, my life partner told me that she had worked out that I had Channel aspirations and that if I wanted to do that, it should be this year.  Swimming the channel requires a lot of home support and I knew that if something like that was readily offered, I should take it up.  But the truth is I did not have any aspirations or ideas at the time!  Bettina often knows my mind better than I do, so I thought, this could be my time for something special.

I will not go into months of training and preparations as this is very similar to what everyone else does in preparing for this kind of swim.  Perhaps, if anything, I could have spent more time working on my stroke as that would have made my swim less painful.

I will take the story from the weeks before the swim, and from when I started thinking about how it would go on the day.  I started imagining my swim, the things I looked forward to the most, and things that frightened me.   I was not looking forward to swimming in the dark and that was one of the reasons why I chose an early season swim.  Jellyfish just frightened me and I didn’t even want to think about them.   I also knew that I wasn’t the strongest of characters when it came to the endurance for the sake of it and I knew that I would always re-evaluate my motivation and look for an exit opportunity if it presented itself.  I had to have a plan to deal with this. Even though this was totally new experience for me, and part of the excitement was that it was new, I had to make a mental plan in order to feel confident I would achieve it.  I decided to make a few rules that I would abide by.

  1. Never to think of how big the distance was. This was just another swim.  As I would enter the water, I would not look up and think about France.  Just get in and swim.
  2. Never look back and never look forward. I was warned by many experienced people that you can always see both shores and that it can play dangerous tricks with your mind.  Therefore, I will stop myself from looking back.  And looking forward…
  3. I will not ask how long I have to go, or where I am.
  4. My crew will have the ultimate responsibility over what happens to me. It will be their call to pull me out.

My plan was not to think about the distance.  I worked out that it would take me about 15 hours to complete the swim, maybe an hour over this.  I knew I could do 8 hours as I swam this long in Windermere last year and I completed one training session in Dover that was 7 hours followed by 6 the next day.  I was to get to 8 hours and only think about those 8 hours and count every half hour between the feeds and tick them off mentally.  Once I had done 8 hours, I would then set myself a goal to do another 4, then 2 etc, halving the time each time.  This way I could distract myself to 15 maybe 16 hours and by then I would either be there or that I would be asked to sprint in which case the goal would be apparent.

The week before the swim actually happened, I was convinced that the swim was on.

Thursday midnight start looked fantastic on Wind Finder and other web based tools so I prepared the feeds, and the boxes and had a few hours rest.  It was at 6pm that Mike Oram called and questioned my sanity.  He obviously had different sources of information and was proved correct.  I don’t think any boats went that night.  The disappointment of a cancelled swim combined with excess of sugars from carb loading and a total lack of activity of the week before to give me an awful deflated feeling.  I froze my feeds and went to bed.  The whole next week looked unswimmable and my imminent move to California loomed over the horizon.  My swim was not going to happen and I started to think of what to do with my booking.  The prospect of training for it next season was just something I did not want to consider.  I had given up hope.

On Wednesday 29 July things started to look up but the best weather was coming for the weekend and perhaps I was going to go on Friday.  I was having a relaxed dinner of curry, washed down with three large glasses of red wine when the tranquility of the evening was broken by the phone ringing.  It was Mike.  This time he said we could try at 7 AM, the next day, Thursday 30th July.  We could just look and see and if it wasn’t looking good, we could try again at 11 AM.  That was the best he could offer before I emigrated on Sunday.  Not perfect, but swimmable.  I was totally unprepared for this!  The week of dashed hopes has completely robbed me of any excitement I should have felt.

I rang Jason and consulted with him.  He immediately got excited as the 30th July was his “channelversary”, having completed his swim on the same day one year before.  He was in, so were Helens Gibbs and Liddle, and Andrew Maisey.

Jason came for me before dawn the following morning and we drove to Dover, talking about random things, occasionally Jason giving me some last minute tips.  We passed miles and miles of parked lorries as the operation ‘Stack’ was at its height.  The others were already waiting for us at the marina.  I was not getting ahead with any excitement as there was still a chance of my swim getting canceled or postponed till the afternoon.  I knew I couldn’t afford too many disappointments if the Channel chose not to let me swim that morning.

Sea Satin in the Marina

Sea Satin in the Marina

We walked down the steps to the marina where three boats were waiting.  I asked a chubby guy on board of Sea Satin if he was waiting for me, and he was.  It was Lance Oram, the same pilot that took Jason across, exactly a year earlier, on the same boat.

Now the excitement was building.  I stripped down to my speedos, I was greased up and we started to pull away.  Then, the pilot asked for the rest of the money.  One thing I was meant to remember – I had forgotten!    We turned back, sprinted to Andrew’s car and the three of us blokes rushed to the nearest cash machine to withdraw a large sum of money still due to the pilot.  A very embarrassing start and a potential show stopper even before the swim even started.


Once back on board Sea Satin, I enjoyed the atmosphere around me.  This really was the beginning of my swim and the sea looked amazing.  As we pulled away from the marina and were near the wall I could see the imposing white cliffs painted pink by the rising sun.  The sea looked pinkish grey and was slightly roughed by the north easterly breeze but still inviting.  Over last few months I agonized over the actual moment of the start of my swim.  I wanted to start in the dark to avoid night swimming towards the end.  I imagined it in so many ways, but not like that.  I did not imagine that I would ever have that inner peace in me that had the ability to calm the sea and the sky.  I felt quiet.  Not excited, not nervous, I felt great.

Foxy, the ginger bearded crew member on board gave me a few tips and instructed me how to enter.  I was to jump, not dive, on the starboard side of the vessel, then swim to the shore and clear water.  Once I was out, the ship’s horn would blow on the nearest full minute and I was to swim to France.

He said:  “All you have to do is put one arm in front of the other and soon you will be there”.  This sentence resonated in my head in the hours that would come.

I repeated to myself again, “It is just another swim”.  Not to France, but just aswim.

As I jumped in, I was pleasantly surprised how warm the water was.  It was what I imagined 18 degrees would feel (I now know it was more like 16.5) and I was encouraged by this.  It took me less than a minute to get to Shakespeare beach where few people were sitting, one guy fishing.  I wondered at how different our worlds were.  Three people on the same beach, sharing the same space and moment yet one was about to do something out of the ordinary, to go where he has never been and the other two fishing, as they probably do every day.  Maybe this is wasn’t that special to them.  Maybe they see this every day, just another guy about to swim the channel.  I will never know.

I did not hear the boat’s siren but I heard the cheers of my crew and saw them waving me on.  I went forward.  To my mind I ran as if I was going to shave precious seconds of my swim, although it must have been an awkward waddle, for I cannot run since my car accident.  As I started my swim, I felt excited. Everything was right.  The water felt good, my shoulders were feeling fine and finally I had the boat with my crew next to me.  I never really swam next to a boat before and was not sure what to do and how to keep the distance, but Sea Satin had that calmness about her, as her name would suggest.  She proved to be such a trusted companion in the times of crisis that would come.  But I wasn’t thinking about that then.  I was just swimming, looking to calm my nerves and get to the first feed that I arranged for one hour in.  I loved it, yet I was eager to get to that first feed.  It was such a big milestone.  No hour that was to follow felt that long or was wished away so quickly, yet this was the hour when I was truly happy.  I did not think about what I was doing, no glance back or forward to remind me of the task ahead.  I just swam, next to her, like a dolphin playing in her bow wave, next to my crew who looked happy and excited and I smiled to them.  I smiled with nearly every breath I took.

Just Getting Going

Just Getting Going

I was swimming The Channel!  “Stop that thought!  This was just another swim”, I had to remind myself not to think of the challenge ahead.  Then, finally I saw the 5 minute board, I gave the thumb up that was to signal that I understood the message and soon enough came the feed.  I downed it and started swimming again to the cheer of Helen.  I truly settled into my swim.  I was thinking about my plan, getting to those 8 hours.  The messages of support written on the large whiteboard helped with this.  After every feed, my crew would write something on the board.  I couldn’t read it all at once and later on I learned to savour this.  If I read it too soon, it would take longer to the feed.  So I would glance with one eye and read a few words.  Sometimes I would make a mistake and totally get the wrong message which would make me chuckle.  But the time would pass and this early on, it was so important.  I loved reading the messages from my closest, from Bettina and the children but also from people I hadn’t heard from in a while.

I will not be able to recollect my swim in a minute by minute account as it was far too long for this and my mind does not work in straight lines like that.  I will try to give a few impressions that have left an imprint in my mind.

The first eight hours went slowly, but those hours were surprisingly smooth and beautiful.  The water was blue and clear which I didn’t expect in the sea renowned for its flotsam and jetsam.  I only saw one tanker, and only when I saw my crew pointing directly ahead.  Swimming next to Sea Satin was so quiet and tranquil.  I was also worried about what was to come and was thinking about my fears.  I knew there were jellyfish ahead and I was hoping that I would miss them.  I was also worried about night swimming.  I remember repeating to myself the famous quote from the British wartime leader: “This is not the end, not even the beginning of the end … etc..”.  At some point Jason jumped in with me, and we swam together for an hour.  There was banter on the boat, I could see the crew goofing about and laughing and even I made a few jokes while swimming and they understood them.  I felt part of a team.



At some point around the eight hour mark, I saw the first jellyfish.  It was deep, far too deep to give me a sting, yet it was disconcerting.  Then I saw a few more, and soon enough swam right past a couple.  Each time I would twitch and jerk in order to avoid them and each time I reassured myself how lucky I was to have missed them.  I really was worried about jellyfish!  Then I swam through a first pod(?) of jellies and remember protesting out loud how disgusting they were.  I even complained to Andrew about them as I was taking my feed, almost wanting to get out because of them.  Andrew’s reply woke me up a little.  His words were:  “The jellies are least of your problems, keep swimming!”  Yes, I thought, everyone goes through them.  The stings were unpleasant. Someone described it to me that they were just like stinging nettles, and that is exactly what they were.  The texture of their tentacles was like a worn out old rope, rough and hard, and they stung not more than a stinging nettle would.


As I swam though “swarms” of jellies, I would scoop them by my hands and they would sting my face and neck and mostly my feet.  The first few would not hurt much but by the time I was stung more than certain number, say twenty or more times, the pain threshold would be reached and they would hurt more.  But the stings would wear off in minutes, if not seconds.  They were such a big worry on my mind before the swim and turned out not to be a big deal in the end, but my real problems were just about to start.

After about eleven hours of swimming, my right, usually healthy shoulder began to tire and I cried out in pain as I stopped to feed.  I asked for painkillers and I got some sympathy from the boat as I think they saw it in my stroke.  My mind started to play up after that.  I knew I still had a fair way to swim but what I didn’t know was how much I had left in this shoulder.  It was increasingly more difficult to ‘zone out’ and just swim.  All I thought about was my shoulder and how much longer I had.  I began thinking about the distance ahead and that was not a good place to be.  I saw the land in front of me.  It looked close and far at the same time and I was trying to count the hours that remain and work out if my shoulder would last that long.  Occasional jellyfish would sting me and focus me on my swimming but these were rare now.  I prayed for them to return!

I started to throw tantrums.  I am talking, toddler, two-year-old-lost-my-dummy types.  I threw everything but the tears which for some reason did not come.  The croaky voice of a grotty three year old child was there though.  By looking ahead I had worked out that I had at least another five hours to go and I was in such a pain that I could not face swimming for that long.  I wanted it over.  I begged my crew to pull me out and all I got was four of them waving me on with a smile.  They stood together on the prow of the boat and waved me on with a smile.  Yes, with a smile.  I loathed them.  The smugness of their smile just insulted me.  What did they know about the pain I was in?  They didn’t even know that this swim did not matter to me anymore.  I hated my crew!

The Crew, Helen, Andrew, Helen, Jason

The Crew, Helen, Andrew, Helen, Jason

The trouble for me and for my tantrums was that I could only communicate to them at feeding times.  So when I stopped to feed, I would say whatever I could say in those 10 maybe 20 seconds in between swallowing the waves.   I would then be told to down my feed, which I would, and then my tantrum was over and I would swim on.  At the following feed I would forget about the last time I had a tantrum and it would carry on like that.  I wasn’t happy but I kept turning my arms over and sometimes even forgetting about the pain.  I didn’t know it but I was making progress.  (Editor’s note:  it wasn’t that bad – he didn’t tantrum that much)

Eventually, I saw something unusual at feeding time.  Normally I would get the signal at 5 minutes and would see one person with my feed bottle.  This time Helen was waiting by the little hatch where the pilot was sitting and others were busy doing something else.  I knew this was different and I paid attention.  They told me what I wanted to hear.  If I gave it all for half an hour, and she meant I give all I had, I could just make it to the Cap.  Wow, I thought!  This was it.  Jason jumped in with me and I sprinted.  My shoulder did not hurt!  An old cliché came to my mind: “channel swim is 90% mental”.  It was.  I was flying to the Cap.  Jason was swimming on my left side and I could not really see him but I felt his presence.  It makes a huge difference having a buddy to jog along at times like this.  We sprinted together.  I know he had to work hard to stay behind me as I could not have been fast, but I felt like I was moving again.  After the first half an hour, we did another sprint and then Jason had to get out.  But my spirits were high and I did another sprint, and then another.  By this time those physical 10% were not there and even my mental strength and optimism could not move my dead arm any more.  I was sinking into that mental low again and soon any drive I had was crushed when Jason told me that we had just missed the Cap.  Another tantrum from me and more misery with the realization that I would have to find another 3, maybe even 5 hours of swimming.  This must have been the lowest point.  I felt alone.  The crew were resting as they were probably bracing themselves for another 5-6 hours.  I gave up, wanting to get out.  My shoulder hurt every time my hand touched the water.  It then hurt as I was pulling it through the water and it hurt as I tried lifting it out.  It was dark and before I started I really didn’t want to swim in the dark.  Yet, I found consolation in the darkness.  I felt that nobody could see my pain, and I wanted to be alone.  I saw the moon, that big yellow moon, just one night from being full.  My throat was burning from the salt water I swallowed and I could no longer control swallowing more.  I didn’t want to feed when the feeding time came.  I was about to beg them again to let me out and then I realized something.  I asked myself, “why do I need them to pull me out?”  Surely, if I wanted to get out that bad, all I had to do was grab hold of that ladder and get out, or get into the safety dingy.   That would be game over.  Yet I didn’t do that.  I didn’t dare.  I guess I didn’t really want to get out.  I wanted someone else to make that call for me so I could go on and say I did so well and I got pulled out.  It was cowardly to expect the crew to make this decision for me and I was now ashamed of it.  I never thought I would get that low and that surprised me.  I knew the channel would put my character under test, and this was it.  The lowest place I could fall to I had just found.  Bizarrely, I was comforted in the knowledge that this was it.

Another thought started to play on my mind during this time. I was beginning to test the logic I used to convince myself that giving up is an option.  The logic was simple:  I had done enough, over 15, 16 etc. hours and the pain was unbearable.  Get out now, and I will still have done a gutsy swim.  I would say to myself and others that I did so well and that I just couldn’t get that last bit out.  But there was a flaw in that thinking.  I realized that in a few months the pain would go, and I would look at the map and see how close I got to France.  Then there will be “what if?”  It would be unfinished business that would get me to do this all over again.  So giving up now, is just making the whole thing longer as it will have to be done all over again.

There was no getting out, so I kept swimming.  I realised that I had behaved like a coward for asking my crew to get me out when I could have gotten out myself and I realized that I didn’t want to swim this water again.  Those two thoughts pushed me on.  I realized that no matter how badly I hurt and how bad I felt, I would just have to swim on and metaphorically ‘give birth’ to this swim as, like with childbirth, there was no turning back.  I swam like I was in a trance.  I would momentarily fall asleep as my head would submerge in the darkness of the Channel and would open one eye when I turned to breathe.  I didn’t think about the pain.  I didn’t think about time.  I didn’t think about my crew or the Channel or the feeds.  I was at peace with myself, with the Channel and the world.  I remember thinking that it was strange that I had to do all that to get to that tranquil state, as if all the pain and tiredness only had a purpose of getting me there and I was grateful for that.

And then it all ended.  I was given a stern message from home that “Bettina said, you are not to give up now” and I was told by the crew  “you are not getting any more painkillers as we are all getting ready to swim with you to the shore”.  I was happy for the message from home as in my weaker moments I fantasized of the warm bed and a hug from my wife and I needed that reminder that she sacrificed a lot and wanted me to go on and get to France.  I was suddenly alert and awake.  This swim was ending!  I wanted it to end and I was happy, overjoyed to see my crew jumping in.  We swam in with them in tow; I gave it all to get there as there wasn’t much left.

A Sting in the Tail

A Sting in the Tail

The Channel worked her magic and created something spectacular for me to see and to remember.  I could see the beach and the forest that framed it beyond, illuminated by the silvery glow of the moon.  The shadows played on the sand, formed by the ships intense reflectors moving with the waves and the strong moonlight giving it a silvery colour.  I was lifted by a breaking wave and I stumbled on to the sand.  I had another twenty, maybe even fifty metres to walk in order to completely clear the water.

I didn’t feel any sense of achievement at that time or even the intense emotion that I anticipated.  But I did walk slowly, slower than I could have done, enjoying the cheers and clapping from my mates who walked behind me.  I loved it.  Like in the hours before, I didn’t dare say to myself that I swam the Channel.  This was just a swim, even at that special moment.  However, my eyes well up whenever I think about it now.  It was truly a beautiful moment, one of those moments that will be savoured often and on demand, whenever in future I need to pull myself together and remind myself of what I’m truly capable of.  I remember thinking how I would never ever want to swim that water again, and yet, as I am writing this, I would give anything to stumble out of that water on to the soft sand of Wissant Bay.  I had made it! I got to the other side and picked up that pebble.  That was special.

Throughout my swimming training I struggled with my own company.  I reaffirmed what I always knew, that I am a team person.  That aspect of Channel swimming worried me a little.  I barely survived seven hours of Dover training and I was bored senseless, not talking to myself by the end having fallen out with that voice in my head several times.  You see, I need people to bounce ideas off all the time.  I need someone to challenge me and I need to challenge.  I have this need to pull the weight for another person, I need to give, and to take.  I am not a loner and never have been.

I could never fathom how I would cope with fifteen hours of my own company, let alone over nineteen.  Swimming the Channel gave me that answer.  Channel swimming is a team sport and I was so proud to be part of this team.  Throughout this swim, even when nobody was there to be seen, I felt the presence of my crew and I felt their encouragement. They looked after me in physical sense, by giving me feeds and support swims but belonging to this team pushed me further.  I had them in my darkest moments to be my enemies so that I could loathe them, so I didn’t turn on myself, and I had them in the moments of glory to love them when they jumped in with me and let me take those few steps together on the beach.  I had chosen my team well and we all pulled it together.

All I had to do was turn my arms over …