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.
- 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.
- 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…
- I will not ask how long I have to go, or where I am.
- 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.
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.
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 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.
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 …