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Andy Jones Channel Blog #9

Channel Blog #9

YNS Sharks 2, English Channel 0

Coach Andy - August 8th, 2017

Tommy Gainer - August 14th, 2017

There’s much I’m sure you want to know about our swims, I’ll share this soon.  In the meantime here’s an interesting fact:  We started from within 25 yards of each other from Samphire Hoe and finished within 100 yards of each other at the cliffs just to the south of Cap Gris Nez.

First of all a bone to pick with all y’all

How many yards in a mile?  You need to know this if you are going to swim open water!

I had my group do endless bobs at the end of a practice last year, yelling out what they thought was the answer as they broke the surface.  A correct answer allowed the swimmer to get out.  After 20 or so bobs and not much progress they were rescued by a German swimmer who calculated the correct answer by converting a mile into kilometers and then converting meters into yards.

No!  It is not 1,650.  It is, it always has, and always will be 1,760. Period.  I’m a little perturbed no one knew, not even the Masters swimmers (who generally know everything since we’re really old).  Over 30 miles that adds up to doing a 2 x 1,650 you hadn’t planned on

Next practice I shall ask how many chains are in a furlong.  Non-stop bobbing until someone gets it right!

Why has it taken so long to write this?

It’s all been a bit of a blur.  By the time I’d recovered from my swim, enjoyed some time with family and then crewed for Tommy on his swim it was time to fly home after nearly 6 weeks away.  We touched down in Boston and then 36 hours of frantic laundry and repacking later, we were off to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia on a quick trip to see the solar eclipse (wow!), family and friends, before taking vacation in Vermont.

What was the swim like?

Not so fast.  Let’s deal with the buildup and final preparations first.

What preparations?

In blog #8 I spoke about joining the DCT (Dover Channel Training) group, with whom I’d ploughed up and down Dover Harbour and Hythe beach for multiple hours at a time.  It really came home to me that my swim was coming up as I started to taper, dropping to back to back 5 and 4 hour swims, then 2 x 3 hour swims and then the weekend prior (August 5th and 6th) just 2 x 1 hour swims.  It felt weird getting out after such a short swim and knowing that others were staying in to do 7 or 10 hour swims.  The weather (wind) had been bad for 3 weeks with no swimmers going due to the constant strong wind and I think this helped to make the swim still feel like it was still a distant event.

The last training swim

The DCT group make all the swims entertaining and the Sunday prior to my swim it was “Swiss Day” (I’m at the back with my arms in the air in the photo below).  Which meant really nice chocolates!

Since I was only going to swim a gentle hour or so I invited my niece and wife to join me.  The water in the harbour was a balmy 66F and I swam with my niece for 20 mins before escorting her back to shore then I went to find my wife, Jacqui.  Jacqui is no stranger to open water swimming herself (though she is a runner first and foremost) and wanted to swim a lap of Dover Harbour (1.25 miles) to see if she felt up to swimming me in to France.  This she duly did, though when I found her about 2/3 of the way through a full lap there were no smiles.  She briskly announced she was freezing so we swam back to shore where the DCT beach crew passed her her crocs (the pebbles on the beach are awful to walk on).  I asked if she wanted any help as walking would be difficult now she was cold and about to stand up.  She told me in no uncertain terms to clear off and swim, so I did.  She told me later that night that she face planted twice while trying to walk up the beach, and it had taken 2 hours to feel warm again, but the whole experience had given her a lot of insight into what Tommy and I had been putting ourselves through.

Equipment Check

We had both brought most of our swim kit and equipment from the US, and supplemented it with bulky equipment (storage bins, whiteboard, etc.) that we obtained in the UK.  After re-packing to be swim ready we just had the feeds to make up on the day.  My equipment list was:

PASSPORT! Crew too!  You’re swimming into another country. No Passport = no swim.

£1,000 ($1,300) - balance of payment for the Pilot.  Total Pilot fee was £3,000

Swimsuits x3

Goggles (day and night) x3

Swim caps x3

Whistle x3 (crew use)

Vaseline x2 pots to prevent chafing and gloves (lots) for application

Gloves for Vaseline application etc

Head light (white) x2 – to be attached to goggle strap

Tail light (green) x2 – to be attached to back of swimsuit

Glowsticks (crew tie them to the side of the boat at night to mark where they will feed me from, and to my feed bottle so I can find it in the water at night)

Head torches and hand torches (crew use)

Feeding bottles x3

Reel of line (plus carabiners for feed bottles) x2

1/3 of a swim noodle (tied to the line so my feed bottle doesn’t act like a depth charge and sink 10ft underwater when thrown to me)

Swimmer treats (jellybabies, fudge, cake etc)

Medications (anti-histamine, anti-nausea, anti-emetic, pain relief (ibuprofen, acetaminophen))

First aid kit

Whiteboards and markers

Scissors, knife, safety pins

Hot water thermos (to cut the pre-mix with to make the feed warm. Premix is double strength)

Water. 18L or 5 gallons in 1.5L bottles

Pre-mixed feed (enough to last ~20 hours of swimming)

Plastic bags to separate and keep stuff clean (feed prep can be messy)

Raw feed in case pre-mix is spilt or lost overboard and more needs to be made up

Clothing and emergency clothing (dry robe, toweling suit, hat, socks, gloves, t-shirts, shorts emergency blanket, towels, water shoes, water proofs)

Waterproof containers for the equipment x3

Stowable waterproof kit bags for clothing x 3 plus each crew member brings their own bag

Bungees to strap everything down with on deck

Trash sacks (great for keeping stuff dry, not just for trash)

Crew food (bags and bags of snacks, sandwiches and fruit – enough to feed 4.5 tired people for 24 hours)

Crew extra clothing (it’s cold at night on the boat in the wind, and when it rains it is miserable)

Crew drinks and drink containers (tea, coffee, milk (don’t you dare use the pilot’s milk!), water).

Megaphone (a friend insisted on this – though I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear it while swimming, I could hear the alarm on it.  Besides, it would entertain my crew).

Duct tape.  Of course!

It’s a lot but you don’t want to have to abort your swim because you didn’t bring enough goggles.  A Channel swimmer friend of mine likened it to being ready to give birth with a bag packed ready to go, and not being sure when the “go” is going to happen.  Except, as she pointed out, it’s not an overnight bag in the hallway, the kit occupies the entire dining room table and much of the floor as well.

I’d also written 6 pages of extensive crew notes explaining what I wanted and needed during my swim (feed schedules, tell me when I cross the major marker points etc), what the pilot wanted from them and also a lot of answers to ‘What if?’ questions so they would know how to respond if I was nauseous or struggling for some reason.

‘Weather’ we can swim?

I’ve already said the weather can be fickle in the UK.  From mid-July the weather turned from sunshine, no wind and temperatures in the 80’s, with parched vegetation, to non-stop wind, rain showers and temperatures in the 60’s.  For 2 weeks no one got to swim, then in the first week of August there was a small window of half a day and a few people made attempts then.  My own window was another week away so there was time for the weather to clear, but the waiting game was hard on Tommy and his wife.  They’d used up all their vacation to be there, and probably wouldn’t be able to come out again if a window opened after they’d returned to the USA.  Both of us had trained for over two years and our families had had to manage around our training (and my surgeries in 2016).  Particularly the long swims in 2017.  We were desperate to get to swim.  Days became a ritual based around 4 websites: windguru, NOAA, CS&PF, UK Met office.  A typical day was:

Wake up

Check weather (UK Met Office)

Track who is swimming (is anyone?) (CS&PF)

Make coffee

Look at wind forecast (wind guru)

Look at Sandettie Lightship (mid Channel) water temperature and wind measurements (NOAA)

Eat breakfast

Check wind guru again

Look at Atlantic pressure and weather systems and how they are expected to track

Discuss potential windows

Go for a short swim (a short swim is an hour at this point)

Check swim tracker

Head out for activities the rest of the day (Canterbury  Cathedral, Dover Castle, London, meet pilot etc)

Reconvene in the evening – checking and rechecking weather, swims, temperatures etc.

Repeat

Looking ahead more than a few days was almost impossible as the Atlantic pressure systems were no longer stable and winds were high.  Windguru was probably the app I used most:

The chart above is in the middle of Tommy’s window (July 29 to Aug 6).  The black line represents sustained wind speed out in the Channel, the shading behind is gust speed.  All in mph.  The colours (and horizontal lines) in this windguru screen shot correspond to the Beaufort scale which is an empirical measurement of the effect of wind on the surface of large expanses of water.  White = 0 to 2, Blue = 2-3, Green = 3-4 Yellow = 5.

Thereafter it is just red! Generally speaking 0-2 is good for solo swims, relays are good 0-3.  An exceptionally talented swimmer or team may go an integer higher.  For reference a hurricane is Beaufort 12.  As you can see from the chart below, the wave height in a Beaufort 4 is 3.5-6ft – not pleasant to swim in unless the waves are going in the same direction as you and even then you are going to get rolled.  Obviously sea conditions also depend on preceding weather (it takes time for the waves to die down), and the direction of the wind is the other major factor.  No, it doesn’t matter if it is raining!

Tommy’s window expired with only the first two swimmers in his tide window getting to swim on August 1st and 6th respectively .  Both Tommy (#4) and swim position #3 from his window joined the waitlist.  Happily our Pilot was clear that Tommy would get to swim before he left since he (the Pilot) got to decide who went when from the waitlist.

As my window approached (August 7-14) windguru was showing possibilities on the 7th and the 8th

But 24 hours later the window tightened to just the 8th

 

The forecast was for improving weather thereafter so Tommy could get his swim during my tide.

With the swims imminent nerves were building all around.  My boys were worried. They had seen the Channel, the wind, the waves and the strong, along shore currents (at times these currents flowed as fast as I can sprint).  To put their minds at rest on Friday August 4th I took them to meet Eddie my Pilot, and to see Mighty Mo to understand how their Daddy would be kept safe.

Eddie was fabulous.  He has 6 grandkids and was a natural with my boys.  He told them that their Dad was the engine and Mighty Mo would only go as fast as me, but that he and the ‘Mo would set the course and their Dad would swim next to ‘Mo to get the direction right.  All the big ships would be warned off and ‘Mo also had nautical priority since there was a swimmer in the water.  This was really helpful to them.  Plus he also answered all the important questions such as:

"What's that?"

"How fast is Mighty Mo?"

"How much did you buy her for?"

"Why do the little fish all swim one way around the harbour wall?"

Critical question that last one.

In virtually every photo since my boys now do bunny ears behind people’s heads.  Thanks for that Eddie.

I asked about Tommy’s waitlist prospects and the prognosis for me getting to swim Monday or Tuesday.  Eddie explained that he prefers his swimmers to finish in daylight for safety reasons and he said “maybe Tuesday”.  When I queried “why not Monday?” he replied that he wanted me to get “Tommy Conditions” (so he’d been reading this blog!).  I was to contact him just after 7.30 am and pm over the next couple of days as that’s when he’d have the latest weather forecasts.

The weekend was a blur of final preparations, making sure my crew was in place and welcoming multiple family members from all over the UK who’d come to stay in the area for a week.  My crew would be:

Jacqui.  My wife.

Jack Haggett.  My father in law.

Robbie King.  My best man and friend since university days

Anita Goyos.  A swimming friend from this year’s Swimtrek LDT, and who’d I’d crewed for a month earlier

A lot of thought had gone into choosing this crew.  Jacqui knew me best – and wouldn’t take any nonsense.  Robbie is an awesome motivator, plus he and Jacqui are great with logistics.  Jack used to sail a lot and was the person I could rely on not to be seasick – plus I wouldn’t want to disappoint my father in-law!  Anita had swum the Channel (great motivation, and swimmer knowledge), she is also a doctor.

On Sunday morning I contacted Eddie (add 5 hours to the time stamps) and it looked good but on Sunday evening with 24 hours to go he said “Delayed”.  I wasn’t sure what this meant so I called him and he explained there was a weather front not behaving the way the models predicted. It might not be possible to swim and we should speak in the morning.  A bit disheartened I had a stiff whisky on my wife’s advice regarding Murphy’s Law (if you have a drink you’ll swim, if you don’t you won’t), and went to bed for another night of non-stop Channel anxiety dreaming.

We are on!

That Ardbeg single malt duly scared the weather front off.  Eddie’s reply in the morning was that we were on, and to meet at the Marina around 11pm that evening.

Jacqui took charge of crew food logistics while Robbie and Anita wrapped up work and travelled to Dover, with Anita also taking charge of communicating with Eddie while I rested. I rechecked all my equipment, measured out and labelled my feeds so that when water was added to fill the bottle my feeds would be at about 5x strength, and when cut with hot water in the feed bottle I would have 2.5x strength (I wouldn’t need to replace a lot of sweat but I would need the calories).  I made a genuine “wishful thinking” typo labelling my feeds:

Tommy and Lindsay headed out for the day taking their girls with them so I could get some sleep in peace and quiet – and this is where the Jones side of the plan fell apart.  My extended family each assumed somebody else was entertaining our boys and departed for a day of sightseeing.  I found myself trying desperately to sleep after lunch while my 7 and 9 year ensured that the games they played were loud and occasionally ended in tears. Total sleep fail.

I tried again in the evening only now the house was full, people were gathering and the departure time was fast approaching.  Even earplugs and a small beer (recommended by two Channel swimming Doctor friends of mine) failed to help.  Still, I got to rest if not sleep, and that was almost as good.

Outside my parents goofed around with my boys and niece – acting nervous for pictures to take away their own nerves:

At 9pm it was time to get ready.  I got up, shaved my chin down to the bone, put on my swimmers, went downstairs to meet my family and crew, and had the slightly surreal experience of having sunscreen applied in the middle of the night.

We loaded the two vehicles with all the kit and headed for the Marina, listening to a Channel playlist I’d created (the bpm of which was approximately my intended stroke rate of 52).  At this point Eddie messaged that Mighty Mo had an intermittent electrical problem, so out of an abundance of caution we would be going on his other boat, Anastasia, instead.  I was happy I’d booked Eddie at that point – as far as I know he’s the only pilot with two boats – and very safety conscious.  I’ll admit part of me just wanted to get some sleep and go a day or two later – I was tired.

Whilst I paid for parking my crew humped all the kit down to the berth.  I didn’t carry anything.  This was not me being a princess - it is a real Channel thing!  As we got down there Mighty Mo came in having just escorted a wetsuit swimmer on a 12ish hour crossing.  Everything got very busy as Eddie’s crew shut down Mighty Mo and prepared Anastasia.  My crew got busy loading and stowing stuff while I paid Eddie the balance of the booking, logged everyone’s passport details and answered all the questions from the Observer (full name, DOB, nationality, medications, feed plan etc).  At that point I suddenly realized Anastasia had slipped from her berth and was heading out of the Marina.  As we rounded the harbour wall I remembered other swimmers saying that seeing the lights at the end of the wall rammed it home that this was it, it was time…. so at my crew’s behest I put my best “Michael Phelps Death Stare” for the harbour lights.  Next minute we were out into the open Channel and heading for Samphire Hoe…