An account of my Channel swim.
At 1.21PM on the 8th August I jumped into the waters off Samphire Hoe. It had been a long build up to the swim, having been blown out of the 26th July-31st July tide. I had felt surprisingly calm as we motored out of the harbour. I listened to music and looked out to sea trying to judge what the sea state would be like to swim in. I expected to feel overwhelmed as I swam into the beach to start my swim, but that feeling never came; I swam onto the pebbles, walked slowly out adjusting my hat and goggles and then turned and waved to the receptive crew onboard. This is it.
I waded in and jumped into the water, it felt cool at first but then my body adjusted and I swam comfortably to the boat. My feeding plan was to feed every 45 minutes on Maxim and a choice of banana, jelly babies and crunchies. At the 6 hour point I would drop my feeds to every half hour. This feeding plan went really well and I was only sick once along the way, aided by a gulp of seawater.
I had the words of Jim Boucher in my head, “go slowly, the doubts will creep in at 2-3 hours, go slowly and build.” Did I? Hell no! I went for it, using the power in my arms to move through the water. The sea was fairly flat, not a millpond but ‘nice’ waves that did not really disrupt my stroke and breathing. I got to the 3hr hour feed full of beans, happy to be swimming and happy that Dover was looking further away than I thought it would.
I had a bit of a down period at this point, I think I was very conscious of where I was (I asked my crew, a big no,no but I did it throughout to keep my mind working) and I was aware of how much further I had yet to swim. I started counting my strokes as a way to stop thinking about the boat and to stop looking for the feeds. I gave myself a target of 4500 to count to, alas I never got that far before my mind wandered, but it did help! I think part of what bought me down was the weather, the clouds came down after a few hours and I started feeling a chill creeping in. It was raining hard and so watching the crew dive for cover was also hard.
By my 6th feed at 4 and a half hours I had perked back up, the clouded level had lifted slightly and I could now see the horizon with the odd bit of sunshine poking out. This was the warmest part of the swim for me.
My 8th feed at 6 hours was a good landmark but also a dangerous point for me mentally. I allowed myself to consider that I could do the swim in 12 hours or under and so from 6 hours I could count down. I think I underestimated how long 6 more hours would feel and, as the sun disappeared, I realised what lay ahead of me. To add to this I asked for my second painkiller, my left rotator cuff had niggled since hour 3 and I was not afraid to ask for painkillers, I could deal with the injury after the swim. Mark had given me a painkiller tucked into a jelly baby and as I bit into it, the neurofen left a horrid medicinal taste in my mouth. Match this with my stomach feeling a bit full with maxim and you get sick, lots of it. I tried swimming and being sick at the same time which was Ok but then I later realised I had probably strained my tummy by being sick in that position. I stopped, got it all out and felt in much better shape to plod on. I guess at this point I realised that the next 6 hours might not be plain sailing.
8 hours in and I knew I was in the French shipping lane, this was excellent news and I powered on, my shoulders were feeling heavy but I kept my stroke count up. I thought I could get out of the shipping lane in just a few hours, as I had done on the English side but what I didn’t realise was how far up towards Calais I had been taken on my path and so, with the tide having just turned, I had a long and very steep diagonal route to take.
At hour 9 is was pitch black and I was cold. My shoulders were hurting and mentally I knew that I was not where I wanted to be. I had to work with what was already in my head. I told myself that the first time I did Lake Zurich it took me 9.5 hours so I knew I could do it. Then I told myself just to get to the next half hour.
What I hadn’t realised (although in hindsight I think I knew) was that my crew had only given me 2 half hours feeds before reverting back to 45 minute feeds. They knew I was counting and they also knew that I had a suspicion this could take me longer than 12 hours, something which I had protested about in an earlier feed. This is the one big mistake I made coming into this swim. I knew I could swim the Channel in 12 hours and I stubbornly told myself that taking 15 hours was NOT going to happen. Of course it didn’t mean I would give up at 12, but it put my head in the wrong place from the start.
From this point on all I can remember is that the swim was hard and cold. At some point as I reached the edge of the shipping lane (10+ hours in) ,the fog came in. This tropical 18 degree water I had been looking so forward to didn’t seem any warmer at night…I was cold through and ready to get this swim finished.
I knew the coastline was somewhere on my left and saw some lights but I knew I was a way off and swimming parallel to it. Then in the space of a few minutes, all landmarks disappeared. I was asking the crew too many questions and I didn’t like their answers. All I could think was ‘am I going to miss the Cap’? I was told to swim for 2 more feeds and would get some exciting news at that point. I put my heart into those 30 min( ahem, 45min) stints. When I reached the second feed I was told that this was my last swim and that I needed to swim for another 45 minutes. Brilliant, I felt elated at this point that I could get this damn swim over with and get back onto the boat where my sleeping bag was waiting for a body to fill it!
What I didn’t know was that I was headed straight for the Cap but that the tide was pushing us in towards Wissant. Eddie made the decision to head straight in but this was the slightly longer route. I saw Mark lean down to me after what felt like an age of swimming, he had a bottle in his hand. “Quickly take a drink, we are drifting and you need to keep moving, you’ve got another 45 minutes”. I could have cried, I was so ready to finish but I put my head down and went for it. I fell apart slightly in these 45 minutes, twice putting my head up to ask how much further there was. I kept hearing the fog horn of the boat go off and was feeling worried, something didn’t feel right. I didn’t get any definitive answers until suddenly one of the crew shouted, “you’ve got one mile, less than a lap of the harbour.”
I couldn’t see anything to my left and the possibility of being unable to land crept into my head but I dismissed it along with the other negative thoughts and cracked on. I knew Mark was going to come with me to swim the final stretch but it was heart breaking to see that he was still sitting in the same spot on the boat, not getting ready. I poked my head up to ask why he couldn’t swim with me and he replied that he couldn’t swim in with me because of the fog. Being the person I know best in this world I knew something was wrong, if it had been Ok he would have waved me on with a little smile and told me not to worry, he’d be in. I have to admit I felt a little frightened at this point as I was scared about leaving the safety of the boat and swimming to shore with such bad visibility. Nevertheless I powered on, imagining doing 16 x100m in the pool. I swam for what felt like forever and then heard someone whistle to me on the boat.
I looked up and heard Mark’s voice come out from one of the many silhouettes on the boat. “You can’t land.”
“What?” I replied
“You can’t land, there should be the town of Wissant less than 300m in front of us and we can’t see even one light”
I didn’t really know how to react except ask for Eddie. I knew the decision had been made as the whole boat was just looking at me in silence but I trod water beside the boat as I wanted to hear the final call from my pilot. He came out of the cabin and onto deck.
“Eddie, is this my only option, to get out of these steps right now?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, but that would be my advice.”
And so, a few moments later I did something that I had never mentally prepared myself for; I touched the boat, disqualifying myself from the swim, and climbed up the ladder to the deck of the boat. I was greeted by sad smiles and helpful hands getting me dressed as I shivered and shook.
I didn’t cry at that point, and not until I got home did the emotion get to me. I just accepted people’s condolences as I moved slowly through the boat into one the downstairs cabins that contained a bed. There was no one to feel angry at, no one to blame and everyone on the boat looked so shocked and gutted for me. The crew showed me on the chart I had brought for them to plot that I was just 150m from standing on shore. I said thank you to everyone as I passed them and slowly curled up into bed for the journey home.
I need to reflect more on what happened today but I know that I don’t have anything to prove and that I can walk away with my pride intact. The people that know, know that my feet would have touched sand had I been allowed, and that if I could have I would have fought through any conditions to get me there.
Today is just a small part of the journey, an evolutionary series of events that have built on the previous to get to this point. Am I gutted I can’t call it an official swim? Yes, of course I am but that is just my boastful side playing out. The most important thing that I can take away from this is that I can swim for 14 hours in 16-17 degree water, and I can swim strongly for that length of time. This swim has got me to the strongest I have ever been and the mental journey from the first weekend in Dover to the end of the swim is not to be underestimated and at times of self-doubt I will call on my experiences today.