It would take far too long to give a stroke by stroke account of swimming the English channel, but there are things I want to remember for sure.
Starting in pitch black may seem daunting, but swimming at night is oddly relaxing and very peaceful. This time, though, it was unnerving as I was beside a fishing boat. I was trying to work out the water- as in what the current was doing, in order to pick a line through the water, without being able to guage my distance from the pilot boat. It had lights on it, as did I so I wasn’t concerned about getting lost, but my comfort distance was too far for the pilot’s and his felt worryingly close, so I tended to veer away and then towards the boat to begin with. This would have added miles onto the swim- as well as being soul destroying so I was so glad nto to have too long blind.
Way before sunrise, the boat’s shape began to be distinct and I could settle much better (and hold a staight line) and this was a glorious time to be swimming. The water hadn’t felt cold getting in- and I was amazed at how fast the first hour was up, and I was called over for my first feed. A chunk of chilli chocolate, some warm elderflower cordial with maltodextrin powder in and a fructose maltodextrin gel. I felt great. I continued to feel great for the next 12 hours. Really, honestly I did. It is probably the most surprising thing about the swim for me is just how much I genuinely enjoyed myself.
Apparently I had a couple of porpoises swimming with me at dawn, which I was sadly unaware of, and it was too dark to see them on camera, but they were there nonetheless. It was theatrically gorgeous to see the sun rise from the waterline- which I could as the water was not just still but glassy. And the sunrise brought with it the promise of warmth. After 4 hours (ish) I was in full stride, comfortable, relaxed and freely stroking through the water, the colour was bleeding into the day, the water taking on a soft grey-aqua and I could see a myriad motes of algae in it. I saw some jellyfish- iridescent purple- below me, not far, but they seemed small enough. I was within arms distance (again apparently) of a surface level bigger one at this point but blissfully ignorant and remained unscathed for the duration of my water-time. There was a poor chap at the site where we stayed (Varne Ridge- highly recommend it to those wanting to swim the channel) that swam as part of a relay the next day and got stung across face in his first hour in the water! Good on him for carrying on!
The sun rose in a cloudless sky. Much of the next 8hrs is already so opaque a memory, so indistinct that it is hard to recall anything in particular. The shipping lanes need a mention. Entering the first shipping lane- the South West lane, with tankers and ferries appearing then disappearing at alarming rates was surreal. I felt bizarrely relaxed throughout- apart from the boat in the photo. There was one behind me as well- apparently they had had to alter course…force of my personality, naturally…… ummmm. It was a humbling experience to realise these behemoths had gone around littel old me. And let me tell you, those things are huge! It is indescribable how much bigger they are when you are in the middle of the ocean (well, channel) and only 3inches tall! Awesome feed looking at the tanker steam past.
Oh, yes, feeds. I really showed my ignorance when I used to jibe that I never swim uphill….. It is uphill all the way to France (and I’m told it’s no better the other way either). The current for the entirety of the Channel meant that in order to feed, I had to lie on my back and kick as much as I could just to stay abreast of the boat in idle, or I would be swept backwards! Without a rest, relentless, interminable, ceaseless. Perpetual motion. And without the boat, it would be impossible- not for the fuel intake, but for being swept away. At one point, for interest’s sake, I started the feed near the front of the boat- right around the middle of the channel- and treaded water so the boat (in idle) moved forwards compared to me. When I reached the stern of the boat it was like it had done 0-60 instantly. I was spat out behind and had to dig deep to catch up! It was phenomenal how powerful the current was.
Byron was amazed by this when, nearing the French coast, the Pilot dashed out shouting Buoy buoy and his second, Ray spotted a submerged buoy just in time to pole it under the keel. This was actually a crab pot buoy that was supposed to be surfaced, but due to the stronger than normal current that day, the buoy was swept aside and held under water! That’s some water movement!
After about 9hours, I was still feeling great- really strong and relaxed, like I could do this all day. I knew I was over half way as I’d entered the North East shipping lane and things were going swimmingly….ahem Foolishly I had not asked Byron and Julie to tie the Lucozade bottles – I didn’t use it every feed so had just been tossing the bottle back on board; but with trying to keep abreast of the boat whilst feeding, and then lobbing the damn thing up, my arms were not wanting the extra work. I used my left arm to swim with the boat and chucked the lucozade up, but I felt something ping in my bicep of my right arm. It wasn’t agony, so I figured I would keep an eye on it, use pilates and meditative awareness to stretch through the injury whilst swimming.
I realised after an hour that this was not a tired strain but a slight tear. It wasn’t going to go away. Pain management started- namely seeing how many Ibuprofen 400mg we could slip passed my observer. I had taken 2 already after about 4hrs as my period had started, very inconveniently the day before and cramps were not going to help anyone at this stage! My arm continued to tighten and I knew that if this was a training session that I would have got out after 10mins with the injury. The pain had spread to my shoulder joint, burning pain and I was starting to compensate with my ribs, throwing my arm over my head using my waist.
I could see the coast clearly- I had the Cap within my sights. Not everyone gets to make an assault on the cap, but I was given the go ahead. It meant sprinting through a band of viscious current (as if the entire channel wasn’t viscious enough)where the water turned into the slop you see when your washing machine is sloshing away merrily. We had timed it perfectly- there should have been 2hrs of slack water between tides that i could use to give me the chance to break through this band and I was bang on course for a 12hr crossing! I could feel myself surging forwards- my kick came into play and I started to through caution to the wind. Then my shoulder spasmed. Involuntarily I lifted my head and gasped in pain. This put me behind the boat- a position I could not afford to be in, so I had to use all my training in body mechanics to instantly find a way of moving through the water whilst staying away from the range of motion that caused my arm to hit nerve threshold. I knew it was damaging to compensate so much at the same time as asking more form my body, but I wasn;t goign to crap out now. I dug deep and fought my way forward into the chop.
Something was wrong, though. The water didn’t make sense.It’s hard to explain, but you get a feel for the water movement, swimming in rivers and the sea. Even when you don;t like it, you can feel what the water is doing to your body, turning you into the current or facing the waves. But this was different. There was no sense to be made of this sloppy, choppy water. It was pulling and pushing me all over the place. I felt disoriented and got a tiny bit wary- disorientation being a hypothermic sign, although I had not felt in the least bit cold all day.
And then Paul came out. He didn’t tell me the whole truth and for once Byron bent his unswerving sense of propriety and witheld information. What had happened was a fickle tide- so much water had gone up the channel the day before due to wind that what goes up must come down and there was about 10mins of slack water instead of 2 hours. I wasn’t going to make the Cap. All I knew was that Paul told me to give a little more, but not burn myself out.
This was the time I broke my solid and comfortable 5 strokes to the breath pattern that had taken me 12hours acorss the channel.I began to punch 3strokes to the breath to force extra oxygen into my tired muscles and ‘sprint,’ flooding my body with endorphins (if they could produce any more) then stretch out a littel with 5 strokes per breath to relax and catch breath. This worked really well as I could stay within range of motion with the 3 pattern doing shortened choppy strokes and then use as much movement as I could on the longer cycle. I was keeping between 64- 66 strokes per minute so I knew I was ok. The Cap disappeared and I knew it was going to take longer. Paul came out on a more frequent basis to clap and offer support, and pointed out a town across this bloody big bay we were on the edge of and said not to look at it, but that was where we were heading- and to get my head down and swim to France….
My arm was pure fire by now, and I was digging with my left arm down the centre of my body, letting my right one tick over ineffectually, so that was starting to feel tired around the elbow. The guys on the boat could see it- Byron was perched on the low side of the boat, close to me more often than not by this stage. I have to admit, that swimming with all I had to see a town NOT get closer for nearly 2 hrs was so tough that I really wanted a hug at this point. The look of compassion in his face almost broke me. Was I floundering that badly? Was I not going to make it? I had a moment of doubt, but realised that swearing helped! There is a registered moment in things like this- as in labour- when swearing (or anger) begins. I never swore at the boat or crew, I was swearing in agony. I wasnt angry at my body, but knew I had to push still further. Dig still deeper.
So Byron got in to pace me (offer moral support with his body.) I could see he was itching to get in- I was not sure I wanted him in- but there came a moment when he couldn’t take it any more and Paul said go for it that he donned his goggles and in he hopped. Dozy muppet, in his haste, he forgot his hat which meant with his new long hair, he couldn’t see where he was going and swam into me which didn’t help much, but he dapped back to the boat and donned missing titfer and was at my side…….effortlessly. Actually, he was struggling to swim slow enough. On the video (which I hope to have uploaded soon) you can hear Paul yelling at him to make it look like he’s swimming at all times but I could see he was gliding. Paul was more honest with me and said I had to hang in there for the next tide to get in to the town. It was hard news to hear, but I knew that I was swimming to tread water and that with the next tide, I would make land.
So that was twice the Pilot had shown me he reckoned I could make it- once when he gave the nod for the sowm to the cap, the after the tide turned on us, here he was saying I would make it again. Having placed my trust in the boat, giding me across, and the fact that paul has piloted many crossings, I suddenly felt calm again. Whislt Byron had been in the water with me- a little over an hour, I had been trying to drum up that something extra. I had tried anger at all the doubters and lack of support in some areas, the detractors and deprecators. I am not an angry person it seems as it didn;t come to much, so I switched to all the encouragement and support I HAD got- all the sponsors and kind words. I really did feel so lucky to have had people invest in my dream; my clients who have offered kind words and gestures…. but even this didn’t provide the oomph. Byron? in the water, swimming beside me- not long recovered from pneumonia and swimming the channel alongside me. No, not even that. Although I did feel so privileged to have him there.
And then I started to sing a silly little song I made up for Dylan. I gasped and gulped and I nearly choked on tears that didn’t come. And there it was. Not memories of birth, nor cuddles or kisses; not doing it so he’s proud; just mother love. Unconditional, powerful. Not to be detrimental to anyone in anyway, but just knowing that regardless of this swim (which was important only to me that I finish), Dylan was there, my son, popped a troubled bubble in me. I asked Byron to get out the water, to swim in to the beach with me and I stopped whining.
The beach in this little town didn’t seem to get much closer still, but it was. I knew this illusion from training- swimming back to shore, the differences are so small it’s best not to look. And yet I could tell it was getting closer. Whilst Byron was in the water, I had swum through the other side of the band. He really did help. I knew I was limping in the water a little, my right arm felt useless, but my left arm was still pulling me. Every stroke taking me closer to France.And then I was told no more feeds- the boat couldn’t go any closer as it was a shallow shelf into the beach. I couldn;t believe it! A little sailing dinghy was circling us and I could see people on the town wall skirting the beach. Byron was getting in the water again. This really was it!
We swam for what seemed like ages and then I looked across at Byron- he was standing head and shoulders above the water…..I dared myself to reach down with my leg. My foot touched the bottom!!! I would like to say that I then butterflied in to the beach, or sprinted at full stroke, but in reality, I made a wise crack about walking being faster at this stage and enjoyed the wade throught the water. Byron kept his distance although we were both excited to get to the beach and hug.
I walked out of the water after 15hrs and 16mins. We signalled the boat, the watch stopped. We hugged. I felt good again. My arm was sore, tired but my legs felt fine, no other aches. I started back into the water to get onto the boat. Byron called to me and I turned to see a crowd gathering- people had scurried down off the wall and down the beach and I was the centre of this attention. Byron had been asked something and I responded for him- in French. I managed to hold some form of conversation in French ( i am uber-proud of my brain being able to speak french and stand upright at the same time….)The time was 6,30ish in the evening. My secondary objective was possible- to have swum the English channel and be back to put Dylan to bed…. The race was really on now!
We waded into the water, and my exhaustion showed in that the water felt cold for the first time. My arm had seized so I asked Byron to tow me while he was still able to touch bottom. I made some comment about Paul being cruel and keeping the boat so bloody far away, but swam out to it nonetheless. I climbed the ladder unaided,guided my indescribably awesome but overexcited friend Julie through dressing me then sat down to try and take it in. A process I think I have not yet completed 10days later. Maybe I never will. It’s not so much that I feel flat, but I have achieved this so it seems small enough to fit into my life; but then, to swim the English Channel- to swim from England to France is HUGE so how can little old me have done it? But I can tell you this: on that day, I became my own hero. And that wells me up. I hope I never lose that.
And I got home in time to put Dyl to bed.