November 8, 2017
Channel Blog #10 – The Swim
Every Channel swimmer wants a picture with a cross Channel ferry!
What was the best pre-swim advice?
“Use hairspray. It stops your cap coming off” – anon. It really, really works!
“Remember, it’s your day. Make sure you enjoy it” – Nick Murch (Channel swimmer 2016)
“The boat engines firing up and seeing the harbour mouth lights. It triggers my nerves” – Emma France (Dover Channel Training. Channel Swimmer 2009 and 2014). My crew distracted me by getting me to do the “Michael Phelps Death Stare” as we exited the harbour.
“You’ve got this. You’ve trained for it and you are ready”. Marcia Cleveland’s crew said this to her before her swim. I said this constantly in my head on the 30min journey to the start to assuage nerves. My crew may have said it to me too, they probably did, but I was in my psych up routine - focused how I would swim. I had the Republica Song “Ready to go” going around me head – boy was I psyched!
What was your swim plan?
I had both a swim strategy and a plan. Being mindful of the following quotes I was ready to improvise:
“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” – Winston Churchill
“In preparing for battle I’ve found that plans are useless, but planning is essential.” – Dwight Eisenhower
What was your strategy?
Negative split the Channel. Seriously. I joked about it in training and observed that my fastest and strongest swimming was at the end of long swims and/or on the 2nd day of back to back long swims. I’d pushed the envelope repeatedly to see what happened and my body had felt comfortable. I’d evaluate my pace when I reached the SZ (Separation Zone) and I planned to pick it up. It gave me a psychological boost to think I would be stronger in the second half, and it would prevent me going too fast early on.
Be swift. Set a good time. Tommy was swimming after me, and he had been fast in our recent training swims, so I needed to crush it. We may be best friends but we both swim to win! It is highly condition dependent, but Nick and Anita had both gone under 12 hours so I knew that was possible for me.
What was your plan?
Start at and maintain the pace I swam at on all my longer swims (4 hours and up). Stroke rate about 50 per minute (25 each arm). No surprise here.
Relentless focus on efficiency and rhythm. DPS (distance per stroke) throughout. Early quick bilateral breathing, reaching for France before each catch, high elbows, early vertical forearm, roll from the hips with a 2 beat kick. Efficiency was going to matter a lot; Anita had taken ~50,000 strokes with a stroke rate of 71 so +/- 10% of efficiency is a lot of strokes saved or added. My crew were to show me a whiteboard with “DPS” and “Long and Strong” every 30mins to refocus me.
Maintain my body and mind:
Take all the feed at every feed (water, amino acids, carbohydrate and electrolytes). My feed was 20 fl oz of GU Roctane at 2.5x strength after 2 hours and thereafter hourly.
Protect the shoulders by making sure I was retracting my scapular at the catch on each stroke.
Minimize salt water in the mouth (continuous exhale). Otherwise by hour 5 your tongue is going to double in size and become raw. Not a show stopper but not pleasant either.
Monitor my hydration, or more simply put, check I am peeing. If not I need more water at the feeds.
Monitor my breathing. Switch up to breathing every 5, 7 or 9 strokes periodically to check my lung capacity. I’d always worried about salt water inhalation and/or Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE). SIPE is where fluid from your body diffuses into your lungs, drowning you from within – it’s insidious and very dangerous. Compression of the body is the major factor (i.e. being submerged for a long time). The most at risk people are scuba divers and wetsuit swimmers (it is common in triathletes) because the neoprene compresses the body in addition to the water. Channel swimmers are at an elevated risk simply because of the shear length of time they are submerged in the water. I’d been OK on my 7 and 6 hour training swims even though I had been struggling with a persistent chest infection.
Take prophylactics. Anti-seasickness medication because the night swim would be disorienting. Anti-emetic medication since I’d struggled with nausea in training from the chest infection. Anti-histamine to minimize the localized reaction to jelly fish stings. All of these are on WADA’s approved list and were recommended by doctors who had swum the Channel. I did not take any pain killers beforehand, but they were available to me on the boat.
Positive thoughts. I confess I had an armoury of stick and carrot thoughts. For example I wouldn’t be able to look any of my swimmers in the eye if I quit (stick!) and finishing will inspire people to do things they might not otherwise (carrot!) plus I could enjoy a beer and not training in cold water for a while after I finished (double carrot!)
It felt like a long way to Samphire Hoe beach, but looking back at the swim tracker the distance is tiny compared with the Channel. As the black bulk of Samphire Hoe seawall loomed ahead, one of the Pilot’s crew stuck his head out and said “10 minutes”.
I was already wearing my swim gear under my Dryrobe so all I had to do was shed the warm clothing, attach lights (green tail light on a line from my jammers, white head light to the back of my goggle strap) and get greased with thick layers of Vaseline under my arms, around my neck and on my chin. By the time I’d done this, with the help of my crew, we were there alongside the far end of Samphire Hoe.
You don’t start from the Hoe itself as this is man-made, instead you start from the pebble beach just to its west. Swims used to start from Shakespeare Beach but a recent cliff fall has left some underwater obstructions so the pilots now all use Samphire Hoe Beach. (A “Hoe” is a bit of land that sticks out, “Samphire” since the edible plant “Rock Samphire” grows there. It was formed initially when they blew up the cliff in the 1840s to build a railway line to Dover, more recently it received 4.9 million cubic metres of Chalk Marl spoil from when the Channel Tunnel was built. It is now a nature reserve and park)
The previous swim my Pilot had piloted had taken longer than expected - I gathered some of this other swimmer’s crew had delayed the return by nearly an hour. I didn’t know if this was why all but one of the other Pilot boats heading out had left already, or if this was the right time for me to start anyway. I couldn’t ask my Pilot as he was extremely busy – it was pitch black and we were close to a rocky shore with strong currents (when I crewed for Nick the year before, one of other the Pilots hit a rock at this point and had to be towed back to Dover by another Pilot. Scuppering two swims before they started). As the beach came into view we could see there was a boat dropping a swimmer off and for safety reasons we waited until their swimmer had swum clear.
Samphire Hoe beach by day and by night:
At this point I made my first mistake by standing in swimwear for 20 mins. The wind was blowing and it was cold. When I was told to get into the water and swim to the beach I suddenly realized I was chilled, not what you want at the start of a long, cold swim. I was worried I would not be able to warm up. What if this became a 15 hour shivering swim from hell? I remember shouts of encouragement and Robbie yelling “catch that other swimmer up” as I stepped off the boat and the blackness swallowed me. WARM! The water was warmer than the air! I was relieved and then annoyed at myself for allowing a negative thought in my mind. As I took my first strokes toward the shore each hand and arm created a shower of brilliant, green sparks. Bioluminescent plankton! The sparks ran along my arm as I my hand entered and I reached for the catch, then I could just see a green cloud of sparks erupting around my hand and forearm as the power phase of the stroke started. Fabulously entertaining.
Swimming into the beach to start
The distant, underwater whump and rasp of the waves on the pebble beach got louder and I could just make out the pebbles before I crashed into the shore. Weirdly this was the bit I was dreading. I hate walking barefoot on pebble beaches – it hurts, and the waves throw them into a steep pile of scree that collapse as you try to walk on them. Eventually I staggered clear and turned around. I took a few seconds for myself, looking around and recording all I could see – the dark mass of the cliffs behind me, some moonlight leaking around the edge of a cloud in front of me, Anastasia lying underneath the moon a couple of hundred yards offshore with her running lights on, the glow in the sky to my left above the bulk of Samphire Hoe was Dover, Folkestone’s lights were to my right and in the distance at my 11 o’clock I could see a cloud glow in the sky that must be Calais. Within the Channel I could see red blinking lights marking the boundary of the South West shipping lane and warning of Varne Ridge, and by golly there were a lot of ships out there. The swimmer that had left ahead of me was now being swept to left by the inshore current judging by where his Pilot’s boat was.
I remember saying to myself “This is it. This is really it Jonesy. This is what you’ve been training for. Now go do it” and with that I raised my arm above my head staggered down the pebbles and fell “splat” into the water with precisely zero grace. From that moment forward, and no matter what I tried to dislodge it, the tune that was stuck in my head was “Broken Stones” by Paul Weller. All because of the first verse:
Like pebbles on a beach
Kicked around, displaced by feet
Oh, like broken stones
They're all trying to get home
I did manage to displace it briefly with Dory’s:
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
ad infinitum ad nauseam]
But quickly decided Paul Weller (grumpy musician and singer, songwriter that he is) was preferable. None of the tunes on my Channel playlist accompanied me on my swim.
Back on Anastasia the Observer, my Pilot and my crew all logged the time at which I raised my arm. It was 00:02 on August 8th– right at the top of the tide – and the clock was now ticking.
I swam out towards the pre-agreed left side of my boat and once I got there Anastasia kept pace with me while I maintained a constant distance off her port side matching her direction.
The swim beside the boat
The Channel is split into these shipping zones:
British In-shore Waters (BIW)
After marveling at the bioluminescence for a bit I concentrated on finding a smooth rhythm and not going too fast. I was worried my stroke rate was too high and I focused internally on the information coming from my body.
Sight. No lights except for the boat’s running lights and the Port of Dover to my left. Ahead and down the water was dark and though I still had the bioluminescence effect it wasn’t as powerful anymore.
Breathing. I switched to breathing every 5 instead of every 3. Less comfortable, but perfectly possible, so my stroke rate was probably OK and I switched back to breathing every 3. Sometimes I wasn’t able to find air to breathe when I turned my head – I could either see the water, or feel it on my face – so I just skipped that breath.
Muscles. They felt loose except for where the PT had been working on my right shoulder and back. Here they were surprisingly sore, but it wasn’t an injury and they’d settle down as they warmed up (or be masked by new pain later) so I ignored them.
Stroke. Big Problem. I couldn’t roll properly and my stroke felt flat and short. I refocused… but still it was awful. I mean really awful. The waves seemed to be at just the wrong frequency and coming from multiple directions. What had felt OK ish swimming in was difficult swimming out. The seawall of Samphire Hoe would be reflecting waves across and in my direction and this probably accounted for the confused feel of the waves and it was disconcerting. I couldn’t swim for 12 hours like this. It was severely impacting my progress and I felt like I was swimming uphill. Give me big waves and rough conditions anytime. Although it is tiring I love blatting through rough water and taking on big waves. This was annoying chop – waves just big enough to slap you in the face when you try to breathe, and tip you when you try to roll….
A searing pain erupted on the right of my chest and extended down to my waist and my side. It felt like I’d been ripped open and since the worst a shark in the Channel will do is “lick you” (to quote Eddie), it really meant only meant one thing…a jellyfish.
The pain gave me something new to think about, it faded from seriously painful to a constant burning pain within a few minutes but didn’t diminish further. I wasn’t to know this at this point but this particular jellyfish sting would hurt for 9 hours. I swam on. I couldn’t see them to avoid them so there was no point worrying about it. I didn’t want one in the face, and there was no point looking forward so I kept my head low and hoped that as I extended my arms underwater that would protect my face. A few minutes passed and then I felt something half solid, but of significant mass bump off my elbow. I’ve mused since that different nerves signal at different speeds, plus there’s interpretation time in the brain, and of course the length of time it takes the stinging cells of a jellyfish to fire their toxin into your skin….I distinctly remember thinking “oh no” and then “maybe it was a piece of drift wood….?” And then pain in my elbow and arm erupted into my brain.
Again, sting was also to be painful as hell for 9 hours. This really wasn’t fun. I was swimming rubbish – deriving zero pleasure from the feel of it. I was tired from lack of sleep. My chest, right side and right arm and elbow were in agony from jellyfish stings. Jellyfish that I had no chance of avoiding. The sun wasn’t going to come up for 5.5 hours (and when it did it was supposed to be cloudy and raining). I was less than 15 mins into the swim that I knew would be physically more painful towards the end. In fact is the water starting to feel cold? And… And… And... I didn’t think I could take 12 hours of this.
Whoosh! Demons entered my head. ”You could just get out. Swim to the boat and touch it. Game over. Thank everyone for coming. It’s been a good experience. You’ve learnt from it. It was too tough. People will understand. You’ve been through a lot. Or make up an excuse – your hip flexors were agony where you had the hip surgery, your shoulder gave out, the chest infection you have been battling for months was making breathing too hard…”
Most Channel swimmers will say they had difficult patches on their successful crossing.
The others are lying.
The oft spoken adage is that swimming the Channel is 80% mental and 20% ‘the rest’. Given that that 20% is a lot of physical training and acclimatization, you get a sense of the size of the mental challenge. A large chunk of the training is mental toughness – how else do you keep plugging on for 6 or 7 hours? Varying training locations and swimming with groups like the DCT helps to minimize boredom but you still have to motivate yourself to get in and then keep on swimming for hour after hour.
I’d played with letting the demons in on the qualifying swim back in April, and a few times in Dover, and it was scary how quickly you find yourself losing the will to keep going. If you let your guard down and one negative thought enters your brain, it takes an order of magnitude (or more) of positive thoughts to quash that thought, pull out of the mental dive and climb up out of that dark place.
How did you recover?
The power of positive thought. You need to train mentally too. I’d made my goal of swimming the Channel public and shared it with all of you, and I’d had the experience of digging myself out of mental lows following the physical problems and surgeries I’d encountered and endured in the previous 10 months. Pick whatever works for you, but these worked for me:
You lot! I can’t let you down and I can’t quit because then I wouldn’t be able to look you in the eye. There’s a lot of you out there – swimmers, masters swimmers, coaches, friends, colleagues, my boys, extended family, charities. I cycled through names and faces in my head.
I’m not letting some gelatinous lumps of venomous snot stop me. I can blow stuff out of my nose that’s more appealing and intelligent.
Tommy will swim after me. He’ll crush it. I can’t quit.
I’ve swum for 7 hours. Just do the same and I’ll be over halfway and in daylight.
Swim to the next crew message (or feed). This chunking technique is great – a 12 hour swim is just 12 x 1 hour swims or 24 x 30min swims. Focus on just that hour or 30 mins. Then do another one.
Break the Channel into geographical chunks and focus on the bit you are in.
Nick swam it in 11 hours 40mins, Nicki (Nick’s wife) swam it in 13:13. Anita swam it in 11:58. You can swim this in around that time – you’ve swum with all of them and they managed it.
You’ve trained for this. Channel the pain and anger into forward momentum.
Lots of visualization exercises about how it is going to feel to reach France
Quitting isn’t going to inspire anyone
There’s a lot of money I’m raising for the Y and Cancer Research riding on this – I can’t stop
I had just recovered my mindset when my crew held up the whiteboard and shone a flashlight on it. The fact that someone was communicating with me was an additional huge boost. I couldn’t see who was who on the boat (except my father in law who was in a neon yellow cycling jacket) but they were wearing all sorts of glowing necklaces and flashing lights which was amusing.
It took me ages to read the board as I hadn’t anticipated they would be high up ahead on the prow of Anastasia, instead of level with me and low down on Mighty Mo. They were holding it over their heads like a boxing match “round X” sign and the flashlight was so close to the board that it just made a skidmark of light across it. After nearly breaking my neck trying to read it I realized it said “DPS 5”. So in 5 mins I will have done a 30 min chunk, only 30 mins until the next message. Only 23 to go in total and in another 3 of these I’ll get a feed and more detailed human contact.
To give me something to think about I broke the swim into geographic and time based bits:
Swim until the 1st feed (2 hours in)
Get the “SWL” sign (South West Lane – aka “the British Shipping Lane”) just before my 2nd feed
2nd feed (3 hours in)
3rd feed (4 hours in)
Get the “SZ” sign (separation zone)
Get the “NEL” sign (North East Lane – aka “the French Shipping Lane”)
6th, 7th, 8th feed
Get the “FIW” sign (French inshore waters)
10th feed (at 11 hours in and my last if I was going to swim at or under 12 hours)
Then I did the same exercise assuming a 14 hour swim. This gave me a score card to compare myself with and lots to think about. I was sure I’d make good progress for 7 hours since I’d swum that long already, and if things started to go wrong thereafter - well I’d deal with that when I got there but since I’d be over halfway that would boost me anyway, and if I was close enough to France then I’d keep swimming even if I had to do 1 arm butterfly for the last few miles. I wasn’t going to stop.
There were more dark moments during the first 2 hours but by the time it came to my first feed the water no longer felt confused, I had a rhythm going and the other couple of jellyfish stings I picked up were annoyances that weren’t anywhere near as painful, nor did their sting pain last long.
I could see ships crossing left to right ahead of me in the English Lane, ferries entering and leaving Dover off to my left and I wondered whether the tide would push me over the cross Channel ferry lanes before or after I reached the first shipping lane.
Then time just passed. It happens when I’m on a long swim – I get absorbed into listening to my breathing, the feel of the water flowing around me, and fine tuning my stroke. I enter a trance, a deeply relaxing, meditative state. I’d get kicked out of my trance every 25 mins for a “DPS 5” and every other of these had a feed at the end. But I’d soon drop back into it.
It was easy to tell it was feeding time. I had a 5 min warning with the DPS sign, I could see activity in my crew on deck and then someone held the feed bottle up and shone a torch on it. I swam in to about 6ft away from Anastasia, instead of my more usual 20ft, and my crew tossed the feed bottle (with glowstick and float attached) into the water about 10ft in front of me. Perfect! I grabbed the bottle, rolled onto my back, continued kicking my legs and went straight for the solid treat in the screw-off base. Never have jellybabies tasted so good! At that point we realized that Anastasia didn’t have a sea anchor or drogue out the back like Mighty Mo does and she kept going with her momentum. I couldn’t kick hard enough to stay with the boat and to my exasperation drifted off the stern. My crew were up in the bow. I couldn’t hear them due to the distance and my ear plugs, and I couldn’t see them as I was on my back kicking. I was also discovering that eating and drinking 20+ fl oz rapidly, while kicking and trying breathe isn’t easy. Plus I didn’t have much breath left after chugging the liquid. I remember yelling to my crew and trying to get as much information over as possible before immediately resuming swimming, not waiting for acknowledgement:
“I can’t hear you [breath] Come to the stern [breath] Please hold the sign low by the water [breath] I can’t read it [breath] Stroke rate?”
The point of a feed is to feed, and if you are swimming hard you are breathing hard. It’s not supposed to be a pleasant chat. It took a lot of effort to use the extra word “please” but since I was very dependent on them I needed to be nice!
A little while later the whiteboard appeared closer to the water with “SR 49”. I gave them a thumbs up to acknowledge I’d read it. This was a pleasant surprise. I’m normally about 52 for stroke rate but I thought I was nearer 60 and was worried I was going to burn out. Anita had a stroke rate of 71 all the way across but I can’t swim like that! The whole world felt a lot better at that point. The last of my worries had been removed.
I got the “SWL” sign about 35 mins after my first feed (2:33 into the swim). This was good. I was at or under 12 hour pace at this point by my reckoning.
South West Lane (SWL)
The SWL section of the swim passed without incident (shipping incident, there were some jellyfish incidents). I swam from feed to feed and very occasionally I would get stung but these subsequent stings were only painful for a few minutes. My crew worked out that a sudden hard and prolonged kicking of the legs meant I’d been stung and was trying to distract myself. I also wanted to kick the gelatinous little buggers. Sometimes I’d yell “OW” during a breath so my crew would know this wasn’t plain sailing. I’m afraid bad words came out on the worst stings, some of them above the surface. The worse the sting the worse the word L
I noticed that now I only had 2 or 3 crew instead of 4. This meant they were taking advantage of Anastasia’s luxury to get some sleep. One figure remained on deck with her eyes on me throughout the whole swim. Jacqui. I love my wife!
After my fourth feed I could sense it was beginning to get lighter – black became deep blue. Sunrise was still over an hour away but it gave me something to look forward to. It meant I could now see the venomous, snot blobs and occasionally one would suddenly appear right in front of me causing me to rear out of the water and pitch to the side.
Separation Zone (SZ)
I wasn’t sure when I left the SWL and entered the SZ. I found out later it was 4:45 into the swim. My crew used a megaphone, instead of the whiteboard, to tell me. There was a lot of comedy value in the megaphone, it certainly kept my crew entertained, but I couldn’t hear anything coherent. Still, a happy crew is a good crew.
I realized I must be close to it when I noticed the mats of seaweed appearing – I got freaked out by one I swam straight into thinking it was a huge jellyfish (everything else of substance I’d encountered so far had stung me). Some of these mats were quite big – I remember swimming across/through one that must have been over 8ft in diameter.
The problem with these mats is what is trapped under them. Jellyfish! Fortunately there was enough pre-dawn light, and the water was crystal clear, so by looking ahead underwater I could scan for them and avoid them. Jellyfish don’t have a nervous system so it pointless to hope they were suffering - but I still did. You would have too! From above this small part of my swim probably resembled an elongated aquatic game of Pac-man as I kept changing direction abruptly to go around, and thread myself between, the jellyfish encrusted mats.
At my 4th feed I had it confirmed we were in the SZ and some mental math told me that I was on sub 11 hour pace (depending on where I was in the SZ) which was really positive news.
North East Lane
I got the “NEL” sign 5:16 into the swim and gave my crew two thumbs up. My body felt good so I decided to push for that negative split and get as a good a time as possible. I don’t think my crew noticed anything different (except perhaps Anita). I still had 5 hours to swim so I kept my stroke rate at 49 but under the water I was reaching for every last millimeter of catch, getting every last degree of early vertical forearm and driving harder through the power section and finish of the stroke. My crew took a short video of the sunrise about an hour later and I can see I was getting huge coverage from each stroke.
The sun finally rose at 5:29. It was a stunning sunrise, and such a welcome sight.
But I had barely enough time to yell “SUN!” before it promptly disappeared behind clouds which just got thicker and thicker, ultimately turning into rain.
This bit of the Channel feels like it takes forever. The lane is over 6 miles wide at that point, getting wider if you haven’t made FIW by the Cap. The tide at that point in the Channel had turned as you can see from my swim track. The fact that it wasn’t low tide back at Dover for another 2 hours seemed bizarre to me as I was less than 20 miles away. My body moved over 10 miles in this section as I was swept quickly to the South East.
There was also a new worry. When I crewed for Nick in 2016 I got to listen to the radio communications with the two coastguards (you have to radio in when you enter and leave each shipping lane, and each swim has to have been pre-approved by the British Coastguard). The British Coastguard was all very chipper, with a proper accent, and it was possible to hear shipping being alerted and re-routed to different sides of the SWL. The British Coastguard also wished our swimmer good luck (as did several of the ships). On the French side it was the complete opposite. I assume it’s because France has banned Channel swimming rather than it being simply due to being typically, annoyingly unhelpful (a view the British have long held about the French). The pilot kept radioing in to the French Coastguard to report they had entered the NEL and that they had a swimmer in the water, but there was no reply until about the 5th attempt when over the radio came the reply:
“’Yes I [h]ear you, but I don’t care”
I swear I could hear a typically huge Gallic shrug in the background.
Subsequently we were nearly run over by a tanker that only altered course at the last minute, just as the pilot was just about to pull our swimmer.
Fortunately there were no big ships passing near us, which also meant there weren’t any to goggle at either. They passed miles away which is a bit depressing when you see them so far ahead of you and you get a sense of how much further there is to swim.
There were some good Channel ferry shots here too!
The daylight made it abundantly clear to me how many jellyfish there were and though I was now seeing more of them (they were deeper down or off to my side) the number in my direct path hadn’t changed.
Smarting from jellyfish stings and feeling some muscle pain I stuck my head out of the water and asked for painkillers at my 5th feed. My crew dissolved some soluble acetaminophen into my feed, but it hadn’t quite de-fizzed and the internal pressure popped the lid off the bottle causing me to lose half of my feed and the painkillers. My crew gave me another feed 30 mins later – but no acetaminophen since they weren’t sure how much I’d had. This time they’d poked ibuprofen liquid gels into pieces of banana in my treat container. I worried they would feed me again in 30mins but I needn’t have, the next feed was another hour away. The painkillers made a big difference in my comfort, though I found out later the Observer got concerned that this was “the beginning of the end” as it can be a sign of trouble.
About this time my boys and the UK had woken up and the messages of support being relayed to me switched across the Atlantic. I was, still am, and will continue to be, hugely appreciative of all of these messages. Thank you!
French In-shore Waters (FIW)
As I got close to this transition France was clearly visible. I could see the white chalk cliffs of Cap Blanc Nez in front of me and I knew that Cap Gris Nez was to my right but hidden behind the pilot boat. I received my 8th feed and some more ibuprofen after 8:30 of swimming time and 4 minutes later “FIW” was displayed on the whiteboard.
I celebrated with a stroke of butterfly (not a good idea with tired arms at that point) and kept on pushing. At its closest point the NEL is only 3 miles from Cap Gris Nez – and now I could see the Cap in front and to my right. In my head I was thinking that maybe I only had another 80 or 90 mins of swimming and that just getting under 10 hours could be on the cards, I was certainly going to make it. It got emotional from this point forward. I cried into my goggles a couple of times.
I had stuck my right hand into and through a nasty jellyfish. Got to keep pushing on! I had my 9th feed at 9:30 of swimming and I took it fast. The Cap appeared to be slightly to my left now which was a bad thing. I could see the rocks at the foot of the cliff and people on the top at this point – surely it wouldn’t take much longer? I swam as hard as I could but it wasn’t to be. The Cap slid past to my left and then seemed to get stuck there – not getting closer and not getting further away. The water was feeling confused and I was being buffeted but it didn’t seem to be waves. Each stroke was hurting a lot now and my crew were urging me to pick up the pace. Still the Cap wouldn’t move. I was swimming like I was racing a mile – I started to worry about sudden exhaustion. A friend from the long distance training camp in April had swum the week prior. He got within a mile of the Cap only to suddenly implode and have to stop his swim.
So frustrating! If we’d been right on the nose that would have been just under 10 hours – potentially! The last point on both these plots is 9:55.
I know now from crewing for Tommy, when he ended up in this position, that the velocity of the water flowing over the reefs of rock on the bottom cause roils of water to erupt on the surface and it was these that were creating the buffeting. I also know now that there was a large eddy of water spinning away behind the Cap – ripping around at 6+ knots. I was battling against this, not making headway until I slipped further to the South West and the current was no longer in my face. Once I entered it I had to be quick enough to get through it and to the coast before I was swept back out past the Cap. Worse – if the tide changed I could end up on the other side with a 3 mile swim into Wissant.
After what felt like an eternity I saw the Pilot’s crew readying the tender to accompany me into the water – but then they went back into the cabin for several minutes. Finally they re-emerged and one of them put out in the tender. I became aware Anita had entered the water and was just behind me. This meant there were only a few hundred metres left! The tears were really flowing now. Relief. Exhaustion. Pain. Happiness. Pride (especially at having overcome my physical difficulties). Tiredness
It still seemed to take forever – and I was really
sprinting now. Something black and white on the surface shot
past from left to right, right in front, scaring me almost to a
standstill. For some reason I thought it was a wakeboarder
but another longer look revealed it was a buoy and it dawned on me
just how fast the current was ripping along the shore.
Suddenly I could see a boulder below me, then another, then another
closer to the surface, then bloody enormous boulders rearing out of
the water in front of me. Each the size of a vehicle.
No sandy beach fairytale landing here. There was no emotion
at this point – I was 100% focused on trying to land.
But where to land? I swam in to a sloping slab in front of me and
I think the clock stopped then but I was determined to clear the water, so ignoring the warnings about leaving my DNA smeared all over the rocks, I climbed out, fell over, slid back down the rock and into the water - leaving my DNA smeared on it
My second attempt was better and I managed to clear the water and pump my fist in the air - though I had to maintain 3 points of contact throughout since I wasn’t used to being upright.
My time was 10 hours 28 mins. I’d said I would be happy if made it across, and I would be ecstatic if I swam under 12 hours, but I had not envisioned going under 11 hours. I was super happy.
There wasn’t much to see where I landed – certainly nothing to collect. The swim was done and there was no point hanging around – back to the boat seemed a really great idea at that point. I really wanted a big mug of tea.
Back in the water I got a hug from Anita and declined a ride back to Anastasia in the tender. I really enjoyed the swim Anastasia – EZ Free (with some EZ backstroke that felt wonderful to the arms).
Back at the boat and climbing the ladder I finally realized it was raining hard. I wanted to stand in it and feel it in my mouth – I was all done with salt water. On board I got a huge hug from Jacqui, Robbie and my father-in-law and we were underway back to Dover before I managed to get clothes on. I had the mug of tea I had been dreaming of, and then a beer that Jacqui had brought, I don’t remember much else about the ride back to Dover. The observer and half my crew caught up on sleep and I just sat there, warm and cozy with a big goofy smile on my face.
As we got into Dover Marina and around to Anastasia’s berth I heard a big cheer, looked up and was surprised to see all my family and friends had turned out – almost all of them in Shark Shirts. I confess I was fighting back tears while my crew gathered everything up and decanted themselves and all the kit from the boat.
It was hugs all around on the dock, big thanks to Eddie and his crew, then prosecco (not champagne!?) then back to the house. I grabbed a swift warm shower and then joined everyone at the pub next door where I practically inhaled 2 pints of beer and demolished the best tasting curry I’ve ever had.
I was still wired after the swim so while the rest of my crew slept after lunch I took care of something I’d wanted to do for months. I went to the village barber and had all the fluff on my shaved off. Back at the house I stayed awake until 7pm before finally retiring and sleeping for 12 hours straight – enjoying my first sleep in over a year without some kind of Channel anxiety.
How did your swim time rank?
Surprisingly well. If I might permit myself a quick toot on my own trumpet: on that evening of 8th August, with the CS&PF and a time of 11:58, Anita was the fastest female solo swimmer and my time of 10:28 meant I was the fastest male solo swimmer. Overall (CS&PF and CSA) at that point I had the 3rd fastest swim of 2017 (including relays).
To say I was happy would be putting it mildly. All the more so considering the state I was in 10 months earlier - crippled and in hospital. Thank you to all of you who were cheering me on!
Tommy contacted Eddie next day to arrange his swim. When Eddie asked what his pace would be Tommy didn’t miss a beat and answered “10:27”
The season ended in early October so there were more swims to come. Where we finished, the overall statistics, Tommy’s swim, and the aftermath of our adventure…. …all in the next and final issue.