I was lucky with my English Channel swim to be able to share it with a lot of very special people. From reading and hearing about other peoples experience, it is often a very lonely one. But in my case I had a great group of swimmers (Wayne, Ceinwen, Geoff, Lisa, Paul Downie, and Paul Newsome) not only to spend many long hours training with, but also with which to share the whole emotional roller coaster ride that such a huge undertaking as an English Channel swim turned out to be. And I was also particularly fortunate to have my wife Tory and youngest son, Bede with me in Dover, and as crew on the boat for my swim. Unfortunately my other two children, Mariko and Jasper couldn’t join us in Dover, because Jasper had important exams to sit and Mariko had a busy time in her first year at University in Perth.
Paul Downie, Paul Newsome and I arrived in Dover a week before our tide to get over the inevitable jet-lag that results from flying half way around the world, and to get used to swimming in the waters around Dover as final preparation for our channel swims. All three of us had booked number 1 priority slots with different pilots for the neap tide running from 5th to 11th September. What this should have meant was that we had a very good chance of getting a swim sometime during this tide.
We settled into life in a caravan park on top of the cliff between Dover and Folkestone called Varne Ridge. The proprietors of Varne Ridge, David and Evelyn, have been paying host to hundreds of channel swimmers and their crew over the last 15 years. Every summer the park fills up with all kinds of of people that have an interest in channel swimming. I met a Spanish lady in here 80s called Montserrat Tesserras, who swam the channel before I was born, in 1958 and then again in 1961. She was in Dover to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her second channel swim. And throughout the summer swimmers and their crews from Germany, South Africa, Italy, Australia, Ireland and many other countries stay at the the park. Its a very interesting and vibrant place.
We quickly fell into a daily routine revolving around doing an hour or two swimming at various spots around Dover and Folkestone, with the rest of the time spent organising the gear required for our swims, picking up family and crew (who arrived at various times in the first week) from stations and airports, meeting our pilots, and checking the weather forecast about 10 times each day. Varne Ridge became a hive of activity around preparing for all of our prospective swims.
Apart from all of the interesting swimmers staying at Varne Ridge, there were some other things about the area between Dover and Folkestone that surprised and amaized me. When most people think of Dover, they think of roads clogged up with trucks queuing for the cross channel ferries, down at heal bungalow houses, and oil slicks. Most mornings during my stay at Varne Ridge (to keep fit without hammering my shoulders) I went on long walks and jogs along the cliff top paths and in particular down the steep path to the bottom of the cliff to an area called The Warren. Protected by the steep cliffs, this area is a kind of coastal wilderness paradise, with long sandy beaches hardly anyone ever visits, and believe it or not there is a hermit who lives at the bottom of the cliff in a house that he’s built out things washed up on the beach.
The channel skippers that we met in the time before the swim were another very special group of people. These guys come from various backgrounds, some are semi retired businessmen who do it as a hobby, others (like my skipper Eric Hartley and his backup skipper Gary) are charter boat fisherman who take channel swimmers during the 3 month swimming season and take out parties of amateur line fisherman for the rest of the year. These skippers all have slightly different approaches about the best way to get a swimmer across the channel. Some of them have boats full of computer programs and other technology, and others rely more on intuition and experience about how the complex set of factors that make a up a successful channel swim will pan out. Whatever their different backgrounds and approaches, these guys all exude competence and professionalism and all have a high rate of success getting swimmers across the channel.
One of the things that makes swimming the channel hard is the strong winds that blow for many days each year. The picture below (from a windsurfing website called windguru) shows the wind forecast as it panned out for Dover over the two weeks of our tidal window. While it is possible to swim the channel in winds stronger than 10 knots, there is a much greater chance of success if the wind is less than 10 knots, and ideally it should have a bit of north and west in it, blowing towards France, rather than away. What we were waiting for was a 10 to 20 hour period where the wind speed color on the picture below was white or blue. These conditions were very scarce during this period. There was half a window on the 9th September, which was when Paul Newsome successfully completed his swim. But neither Paul Downie or my skippers wanted to go out on this half window, because they thought that the half window was too narrow for normal (as apposed to super fast swimmers like Paul Newsome). Gradually through our time in Dover, a promising break in the weather started to emerge for the 15th of September.
Besides the wind, the other big factor for a successful swim is the tides. The largest (called spring) tides happen at 2 times during the luna cycle, when there is no moon and around the the time of the full moon. The graph below shows how many successful English channel swims there have been on each day in the luna cycle. The emerging window of the 15th September was day 17 in the luna cycle (3 days after the full moon). Playing on my mind as we contemplated swimming in this window was the disturbing statistic that historically there had been less than 20 successful swims on this day in the luna cycle, compared with up to 140 successful swims on some of the neap tide days.
Tempering this apprehension was the knowledge that 70 year old Roger Allsop (who I met while training in Dover Harbor) had successfully swum the channel on day 2 in the luna cycle (an even scarier day than day 17) just 2 weeks earlier. Surely if a 70 year old can swim on this tide, then it shouldn’t be any problem for a couple of spring chickens in their early 50s?
Its hard to put into words the emotional ups and downs that those 3 weeks in Dover, waiting for the weather to be right, delivered to all of the swimmers. We had all trained so hard for so many months, and traveled so far. Were we going to have to return home with tails between our legs, without so much as getting our feet wet? One of the toughest times was in the first week when we all got the call from our skippers that the weather was looking good for a swim on Saturday September 3rd. We all got ready to swim in the early hours of Saturday morning, and then the weather forecast gradually started to deteriorate. In the end all 3 skippers decided not to go on this day, because of the thick fog and strong wind forecast. That day 3 swimmers made it across the channel in thick fog but light winds. I was perfectly comfortable with the decision not to swim on this day, as from the forecast it was more of a 20% than the 80% day that we wanted (the story that we heard was that these swimmers insisted on giving it a punt because it was their last chance before the end of the tide). But it was still very tough emotionally to think that we might have blown our only chance to swim the channel for this year.
On Wednesday afternoon after checking all of the gear one last time (plus one last look at the weather forecast), had a brief phone call with my skipper Eric to confirm that we were still on, and then bedded down for a few hours sleep ready for a 2 am swim start the next morning. I got up just before midnight to have some breakfast and mix my drinks to the news that my third crew member (in addition to Tory and Bede) Lars had got caught up in congestion getting across London and had missed the express train from Liverpool Street to Dover. The next train wouldn’t have got him there until too late to meet the boat, so unfortunately Lars had to turn around and head for home, and we were down to 2 crew. I was also pleased to find out that my friend and training pal Paul Downie was also swimming the same day, and leaving around the same time.
I started the swim at 2:30 am from the beach to the west of Samphire Hoe. As I jumped into the water and swam into the beach to start the swim, it was hard to believe that it was actually happening. All these months of training and weeks of waiting in Dover, and it was finally actually happening. On board my channel pilot boat Pathfinder, were skippers Eric and Gary, Channel Swimming Association observer Sabine, my wife Tory and youngest son Bede.
For the first couple of hours it was very dark and the conditions were a bit sloppy. There is something unusual about the English channel water that makes it hard to swim in, even when the winds are very light. There seems to be waves coming from every direction all of the time, making it very hard to get a rhythm going. And in the first couple of hours of my swim, this was exactly what it was like. The water wasn’t overly cold, probably between 16C and 17C, but the air was pretty cold, especially for the crew on the boat. I gradually settled in to a rhythm in the dark water. Every 20 minutes, Tory and Bede would pass me a warm drink in a cup on the end of a feeding stick, which I would quickly gulp down and get back to swimming.
At one point in the dark I had a few problems with my goggles. Just before jumping into the water to start the swim, my goggles had got some wool fat on them. After adjusting my goggles a couple of times this wool fat somehow got on the insides of the goggles and gradually I couldn’t see the boat properly. So I got Tory and Eric to pass me another pair of goggles with a light on them. This second pair of goggles quickly fogged up so that I couldn’t see the boat again. So I asked them to clean up the original pair and swap them over again. I don’t know what they did, but the original set of goggles, cleaned up worked like a dream for the rest of the swim.
Gradually the most beautiful glow appeared on the horizon and and the wind continued to drop, conditions becoming flatter and flatter as it got light. The sunrise was simply fantastic, and by the time the sun came up we were well and truley into the first shipping lane and were surrounded by huge ships. During the next few hours I felt terrific, got a great rythm going and seemed to be making good progress. Every time I looked at the boat, Tory and Bede were there watching me, and Eric and Gary were at the wheel. I never felt alone.
I cruised along most of the morning feeling really good and having quick feeds every 20 minutes from my trusty crew. At one point the wind changed so it was behind us, and the diesel fumes started to bother me. I switched sides, and kept further away from the boat, and they didn’t bother me for the rest of the swim. Remarkably I didn’t get any chafe and never really had any sore shoulders, cramps or other aches or pains. On the boat I had a bag full of prescription sea sick tablets and liquid form painkillers, but fortunately I didn’t need any of them during the swim.
At one point near the middle there as lots of seaweed and big schools of jelly fish about 2 meters down. I just got one small sting which was more like a stinging nettle than some of the jellyfish I’ve been stung by in Perth in the last couple of years. Apart from that I didn’t see much wildlife on the whole swim, except for a few lumninous plankton and a couple of small prawns or fish that bumped into my arms.
Around the 9.5 hour mark, Eric came out onto the deck during one of my drink stops and told me that it was best if I swam as fast as I could for the next 40 minutes. He said that the tide was turning soon and every bit of progress that I made now could save hours later. So I dutifully went as hard as I could for the next 40 minutes.
After this first sprint there was a period were I started to feel cold in the extremities. I don’t think this was so much from the water being cold, as this was still around the 16C to 17C mark, but think it was from exaustion from the long day swimming topped off by the sprinting. I told Tory that I was starting to feel a bit cold and asked for my next drink to be a bit hotter. Having the next couple of drinks a bit hotter fixed the problem, and I started to feel fine again.
Around the 12 hour mark, by which time I could see the cliffs on the French coast really clearly even from water level, Eric told me that I needed to swim really hard again to try and beat the current. So I put in a huge sprint for the next 20 minutes. This second sprint made me really tierd and around this time I could see that we were getting further and further from the French coast.
I had visited Cap Griz Nez a few weeks earlier and knew the lay of the land around the lighthouse and cliffs. At the closest point I could see all of the features that I had seen on my visit and think I could also see cars and people. This was a bit of a low point in the swim, although I always thought I would make it, at this point it seemed like I was in for a very very long day.
When Eric asked me if I had a third sprint in me, I told him I was exausted and would prefer just to swim normally. He said this was fine, and that I was going to make it now, I had made it through the strong current, through to slack water. Now it was just a matter of swimming a whatever pace I could and I would make it into the beach.
So I kept swimming and gradually the beach got closer and closer. When Gary hopped into the tender (that Pathfinder had been towing from Dover) I knew I was nearly there. At this point I really perked up and actually put in a respectable sprint for the last 500 meters into the beach. In the shallows, I couldn’t resist the habit developed as a kid in surf club swimming races of running through the shallows and sprinting up the beach.
The feeling of elation and relief that I felt after putting my feet firmly on French soil is hard to describe, I’m sure that I’m still going to be on a high for weeks to come. And I felt even better when I got back to the boat and learn’t that Paul Downie had also made it. In the picture below, if you look closely, you can see a small stick figure on the shore, and the orange tender nearby to the right.
My official time for the swim was 13 hours 54 minutes, which is about average for channel swim. I might have expected to get across there a bit faster, but at the end of the day I think it is a miracle that I made it at all. The wind had dropped for the day, the tidal currents had been tough but not impossible, my body had survived swimming for nearly 14 hours without packing in, my diminished crew of Tory and Bede had toiled for endless hours feeding and keeping me motivated, Sabine had observed the swim to make it official, and skippers Eric and Gary had kept us all safe, and steered me through the treacherous currents off Cap Gris Nez. It is nothing short of a miracle that all of these things lined up perfectly for a day.
There are a lot of people to thank. The most special thanks to my family Tory, Mariko, Jasper and Bede who all have endlessly supported me in this time consuming and sometimes obsessive endeavour. To my Channel Dare swimming buddies, Paul Downie, Paul Newsome, Ceinwen, Wayne, Geoff and Lisa, looking forward to many an ocean swim with you at Cottesloe or for old time’s sake Claremont Jetty. To Paul, Shelly and Adam, thanks for all the great swimming programs, tips and endless injections of enthusiasm. Thanks to David and Evelyn for being such great hosts at Varne Ridge. Thanks to everyone from the SwimSmooth squad in Perth, especially all of you that have kept us company swimming with us and paddling on long training swims.
Something that has really blown me away is the number of twitter messages, text messages, calls, hugs, emails, Facebook messages, blog comments and www.channeldare.com donations that people have sent before, during and after the swims. A huge thank you to everyone who has taken an interest in our slightly crazy endeavour. Tory told me about some of the messages during my swim, and it definitly helped raise my spirits knowing that that I was not alone out there.
Below is a small film with some images from my swim. I think it captures some of the loneliness and seemingly never ending duration of an English channel swim, so its worth taking a look at.