Ed: Pics and Videos at the end of this post!
Through all the hours of training in lakes, rivers, seas and pools, I hadn’t ever really thought about what it would feel like after swimming the Channel.
As much as possible, I had tried to make the preparation and planning cause as little impact as possible on my family, friends, colleagues and workplace but that didn’t really happen. It is something that consumes you, manifests in your brain and becomes a defining point in your life at that time.
But I couldn’t have possibly prepared for the elation I am experiencing now. I feel I have slayed the dragon. I doubt I will ever do it again but I have loved the journey and I think have benefited enormously from the experience.
I am 51 years old, have the world’s most loving family and am blessed with a wife who accepted the decision, supported the preparation and ended up being my inspiration and soul mate. I haven’t seen Didi yet and don’t get back home for another couple of days but she knows she was with me all the way across the waves. I can’t wait to see her. My three children must wonder what ever got into me. Their support has been extraordinary. They all have busy academic lives and face their own challenges as the rest of the year progresses but their acceptance and understanding was core to my training regime.
So – what of the swim?
Well it turned out being as much of a mind game as it was a test of physical endurance. I left from Perth for England on 22 August and ended up swimming on 15 September. Our window was from 5 – 11 September but we received an early call to be at the boat midnight 1 September which ended up being called off for mounting seas and winds.
Paul Newsome, our brilliant coach for the campaign and Mr Swim Smooth extraordinaire, received a call from his skipper to have a crack on 11 September, which he nailed in amazing fashion against very tough conditions. My skipper did not want to go that day, for which I am now eternally grateful but I must admit caused me frustration at the time. Will I ever get to swim? That left Andrew Hunt and me being the last of our group of seven who had trained together for the past many months to hope for a clear day against the rising tides of the coming week. Swim windows are planned around the spring and neap tides of the lunar month and we were heading towards the week of a spring tide – the biggest which also historically delivers the least successful crossings.
On about 12 September, a good weather opportunity opened for 15 September but it was the day of the highest tide. My skipper provided three options: swim on a high tide (which he didn’t like), wait another week and hope for better weather, or come back in 2012. It was a no brainer for me – I had been waiting in foggy, wet and windy weather for nearly three weeks and I wasn’t going to let a good weather day go by without a swim. We set out sights on the 15th.
My team was pivotal to the success. Shelley Taylor-Smith was my mental coach and channel crossing trainer and was with me every step of the way at Dover as well as having provided me counselling in the six months leading up to the swim (“treat the cold water as your friend” is one of her more memorable instructions). She lifted me through the many ups and downs and set a training regime in Dover that allowed me to remain fit without straining myself. Shelley was made for these challenges. Being a seven times world open water marathon champion and holding more records than you can imagine, she knows what goes through a swimmer’s mind and has a unique ability to point you in the right direction. She is brilliant at what she does. As part of getting me ready, she arranged a skype discussion a few nights before the swim with Philip Rush, who has a triple crossing of the channel under his belt and is recognised as one the world’s master marathon swimmers. That half hour I spent with him was invaluable. Don’t panic; trust your team; a good brain is a dead brain when swimming; all you do is think strokes – one / two / three / breathe – over and over again; swim / drink break / swim / drink break / on and on.
Our 20-year-old son Patrick came over to support on the boat and be with me in the UK. Knowing me as well as he does and having been my support for my previous Rottnest Channel crossings, he knows my swim style and changing moods in the water. He is a great guy and I can’t thank him enough for what he has done. I know our daughters Issy and Anna were desperate to have come over but their studies prevented them leaving Perth.
And then I had ever-reliable Giles Everist who has been a rock of support while we’ve been over here. With his wife Sally, their hospitality has been tremendous. Giles was my third boat crewmember. His friendship, sea experience, boating skills and positive good nature were a constant through the swim.
Unfortunately my beautiful sister Ali wasn’t able to be with us on the boat after spending the previous week in Dover and London with us waiting for a good weather day. She only had a week free and had to get back to Perth on the 12th. While she wasn’t on the boat her spirit was bouncing around everywhere. They don’t make whirlwind people like Ali anymore with boundless amounts of energy.
Back to the swim!
With 15 September agreed, we ate a hearty meal of pasta on 14th, went to bed about 6.00pm and got up at 11.30 and after a big bowl of porridge, headed to the marina to meet Ray Cooper, owner and skipper of Sea Venture II. He’s a gem.
He said the first few hours would be quite rough but then it would settle down about dawn. After getting around to Samphire Hoe, I dived into the sea and set off from the beach at 2.08am, 15 September (my Dad’s birthday).
The first few hours in the dark were tough with a steady swell making it difficult to get a stroke rhythm. I took in a fair amount of water and had some dark moments; why did I do this, what was I thinking? That’s when I thought back to Philip Rush and went into dead brain place – stroke / stroke / stroke / breathe / stroke / stroke / stroke / breathe. All the Neil Young and Van Morrison songs I had on my mind were shoved to the backburner. I’d been listening to Mike Scott and the Waterboys song “Whole of the Moon” all the way down to the marina as a get-into-the-zone type song (it was a full moon night) and that was the only tune that regularly kept popping into my mind throughout the whole swim.
With the approaching dawn came calmer seas and everything started to improve. The sun’s glow on the horizon and the shine off the side of the boat’s hull generated a positive hit. I could finally properly see the crew and what they were up to on the boat. They started writing messages on the white boards from the texts that were coming through on the phones and I thought, well I might be able to do this.
The middle part of the swim was glorious. While I had absolutely no idea about where I was or where the tide was pushing me, I had a millpond sea and no wind although a few jellyfish to keep me company. Open water swimming heaven. Ships were cruising past and Shelley had stepped up her normally unabated exuberance and encouragement to a new plateau. Where does she get that energy? Clapping, dancing, jigging around the boat, throwing the Aussie flag around the place. It certainly kept me amused just to watch.
All the drinks breaks were going well and I never felt cold during the whole swim. The 14 degrees swimming training at lake Leschenaultia and pre-dawn swims during winter in the Swan River were certainly paying off.
I first sighted France about 9 hours into the swim and for me that’s when the challenge started. While my stroke rate remained pretty constant at 65 – 70 / minute throughout the whole swim, I asked at that time how much further and hit another mental black spot. Shelley just yelled back that it’ll take as long as necessary to get to France. I think without her on board I might have seriously had a discussion about whether to carry on although my body was feeling great. It was the brain playing tricks.
The last three hours was a nail biter. While the seas remained calm, I had to swim very hard at times to beat the tide and swam diagonal with the French coast for a long way while being swept along by the current. I could see buildings, cars on roads and easily see the rocky beaches but it ended up taking over an hour before I hit the beach. I landed only a few hundred metres from Cap Gris Nez and only learned yesterday from Ray that it was touch and go for a while whether I would be able to make it through the tide and hit the beach. If I hadn’t made the rocks I would have been swept around the cape and forced to swim another 3 – 5 hours before the tide would turn again and allow me to get back to another beach.
The moment I hit the shore will stay with me forever. A very inglorious exit from the water trying to scramble up rough boulders covered in barnacles, I exited the Channel at 2.47pm having covered about 55kms in 12 hours 39 minutes at an average swim speed of 4.4kms / hour (nothing like swimming with a tide!).
Patrick accompanied me to shore and our bear hug on the rocks was such a relief and surge of pure joy that I will never forget it. I’m so glad he was there. When Shelley swam in and cried with delight, I knew it was all over.
Getting back to the boat and the journey back to Dover was idyllic. I wasn’t cold, the sun was shining, I sat in a chair at the back of the boat and took it all in. I nodded off for much of the journey in my own world.
Job done, everyone safe and well, my swimming buddy Andrew Hunt had also made it across in his boat, it felt as though there was peace in the world.
There are lots and lots of people to thank. Everyone who donated to Breast Cancer Care WA, my extended family, my mates (Jonny Bahen who in his normal straight talking way said in 2003 I had better do something to lose weight otherwise I will have a heart attack!), my work and client buddies and especially business partner Johnny McGlue (who has shared with me some equally challenging moments in our lives over the past few years), friends, fellow Swim Smooth squad members, Baxter our dog, the list goes on.
Along with my own family though, the people I have trained with are the most dynamic bunch of people I have been honoured to meet. We have all achieved something very personal and satisfying.
I can’t thank Andrew, Paul N, Ceinwen, Wayne, Geoff and Lisa enough along with the fantastic support from Adam Young of Swim Smooth. Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with each other for the rest of our lives. We have shared some extraordinary swimming moments over the past couple of years that will never be forgotten. They are very special people who have provided support and assistance every step of the way. I can’t wait for us all to get together again.
Thanks to everyone for your support. The flood of good wishes from people has been unbelievable. I didn’t set out to achieve anything special but the responses I have been receiving have proven that inside everyone there is a thrill for adventure and respect daring do.
Life’s all about making the most of what you’ve got. And if you’ve read this far then I reckon you’re one of that mob!