BUILD UP TO CHANNEL SWIM
It is funny how events sometimes pan out. Back in 2015 I decided that I wanted to have a tattoo removed via Laser surgery. The process requires multiple visits and such you get to know a little about the person removing the tattoo.
I had just completed my 1st season of open water swimming and had fallen in love with the sport in a big way. 7am on a Saturday Morning had become hands down my most favourite time of the week and when the season finished in the September, I took the opportunity to join the Chalkwell Redcaps as soon as humanly possible.
It just so happened that my laser surgery was being conducted by a member of the Redcaps. He had also been conscripted into a 2016 Channel Relay attempt. Hearing about the lead up and the training for the event had a profound effect and by the time the 2016 summer open water season started up again I knew that I wanted to give a channel relay a go. It was just a case of thinking of whom to ask to make up the team. By this juncture I was a member of JBR having completed the David Lloyd beginner tri earlier in 2016, and had met Karen Saltwell at this event. Knowing her love for the sport Karen said yes immediately. My original open water buddy Steph Milligan, now also a member of JBR, signed up then and there. I had also started to get to know Phil Young a little, and on a mid-summer return from a JBR Weds evening bike ride, Phil and I discussed the idea as favourable. I therefore knew I had another immediate shoe in for the team. I had met Jo Good a few times at Harry’s bench and knew she had done some 5k swims, so again Jo seemed an obvious choice. The final member was originally an old friend, but when he had to turn it down, Karen immediately had a replacement in an open water swim buddy called Alistair who was training for an ice mile, but jumped at the chance, and from then on, the team was complete.
We made the decision that as 5 out of the 6 were from JBR that we would like to swim under the JBR banner, and once Jon had given his blessing to use the JBR name so the JBR Run & Tri Club Channel Swim team was born. Pretty shortly afterwards with the paperwork sign sealed and delivered, we were confirmed as Havens Hospices 2017 Charity place entry. It was just a case of training for the event, completing the assessment swim, raising the money and passing the doctors medical. That was straight forward for most, although the 2 Phil’s endured a worrying wait to be signed off. As an Asthmatic, I had to undergo 2 ECG’s, an X-Ray and 2 appointments with the doctor before he finally signed me off. Phil Y had even more of a tough time, but eventually we both were signed off and ready to train.
We continued to swim skins from Harrys bench into late October; but pretty much after that the water was too cold and training went into the pool. By now I had a training guide from our boat pilot whom had given a nice benchmark test suggestion. Essentially a 3k swim as close to an hour as possible, and from January I was topping up Wednesday morning club swims with these distance swims on top.
During March four of the team spent 4 days in Loch Ness at an open water acclimatisation camp with the Channel Swimming Academy. This turned out to be the best training camp we could have wished for. The process enabled us to not only learn to endure 6-7-degree skins swimming but for the 1st time we had the opportunity to attempt a team relay covering 8 miles from loch end to Urquhart castle. The positive physiological benefits from this camp were massive.
Acutely aware that we had to undergo a mandatory 2 hours sub-16-degree assessment swim to meet the requirements of a relay channel crossing, we also accepted an invitation from the Happy Wild Caps based in Torquay, and spent a long weekend in April with them, where for the 1st time we began hitting the 1-hour + mark for skins swimming in temperatures around 10 -12 degrees. We were also swimming out from as opposed to along the coast line. Invaluable experience.
With the UK witnessing an early summer and aware the sea was starting to warm up, we decided to book our assessment swim for May where we converged on Deal beach in Kent with an official observer from the Channel Swim and Pilot Federation (CS&PF). Despite the horrendous current and RNLI sea search going on around us; we all survived the 2-hour assessment, and whilst the euphoria of watching our official observer sign off each individual form meant that we had cleared the final hurdle, so Jo was starting to really suffer with a long-term injury and it was becoming touch and go as to whether she would be able to continue with the training. By now most of us were regularly swimming 3k+ pool sessions and meeting at Harrys bench at various times of the day and night with many of the JBR club as most welcome swim companions.
The final piece of the training puzzle was in the form of the Jubilee Swim in early June. Signed up with 4 of the team in 2016; this is a 10K river swim from Taplow to Eton, and for me represented a massive jump both physically and psychologically. I had just about tipped the 4k+ mark in terms of distance but still had not spent much time in the water over 1.5 hours. However, with days to go before this swim; both Jo and Steph pulled out of this final training swim. Steph had sliced her hand open and unfortunately Jo had taken the massive decision to pull out of the channel attempt altogether due to her ongoing and very painful and persistent injury. It meant we had become a team of 5 but with the Jubilee swim successfully navigated, any self-doubt in my own abilities to distance swim had been firmly placed at the back of my mind as we began to make plans for the big day.
Leading into the swim we were given Slot 2 on the neap tide 30/06 – 08/07. It meant that in theory with a solo going before us we would be off around Sunday 1st July. In the couple weeks leading up to the swim the UK went through some stunning weather only for the weather to turn quite nasty as we moved towards the end of June. With all 5 of us beginning to feel a little nervous about the state of the channel; I made my 1st phone call to our pilot on Wednesday 28th. He believed that we would be off on the Monday 3rd July. No need to panic as I went to bed that night. The following morning on the 29th June at around 10:30am I received a text from our pilot asking if we could go at 10pm that night. A quick phone call confirmed I had read the text right. We had been moved to slot 1 and our Pilot believed he had found a window long enough to get us across and back before the bad weather kicked in again.
Could I get the team together and down to Dover ready to go in under 12 hours? Luckily Alistair was already making his way down to visit parents in Kent so he was fine. Karen was on her way to Heathrow but assured me she could make the drop off, get back to Chelmsford, pack and get down to Dover for around 8pm. Phil was at work in London and although he swore a little assured he was good to go, as was Steph whom was supposed to be sitting a police exam, but was given the green light to leave early. A quick scramble home via the supermarket to buy food and then home to make sandwiches and drinks, pack my bag, don’t forget the passport, re-pack my bag, check my passport, and pack my bag again, call the wife, update fb with my charity page, re-check googles, swim trunks, bag balm, dry robe etc meant that the next few hours passed in a haze. A reassuring ‘don’t be shit’ form Jon settled the nerves and by 6pm Phil, Steph and I were in the car heading down to Dover ready to swim the channel in 4 hours’ time.
Arriving at Dover Marina we had to sign in with the Harbour master, 100% no going back now. A quick ‘carb heavy’ bite to eat, final time to get some hot food in us, before we met up with Jo, whom made the wonderful effort to be there to see us off and back in for that matter.
With the whole team now together at Dover Marina, the nerves were abundant. Aside from us, there was 1 other team going off the same time, and another team whom had arrived a few days early to get some final swim practise in. Together with well-wishers, the marina was full of nervous channel swimmers and entourage; despite our start time now being delayed by 2 hours.
As our boat Sea Satin pulled out from its berth and alongside its sister boat on the harbour pontoon we were finally able to board. After a safety brief and a general ‘it’ll be alright’ from our crew, in no time we were cast off from the harbour to make the very short journey to the legendry Shakespeare beach around the corner.
Our swim orders were as follows: Karen – Alistair – Phil C – Phil Y – Stephanie. We would swim 1-hour rotations stopping and starting on the sound of a Klaxon on board our boat. We would rotate in this order until one of us hit French soil x number of hours later. At least 1 person would watch the swimmer and the others would rest. For me I spent most my time keeping an eye on Phil, as I was always getting out as he was getting in.
Along with the crew we had an official observer from the CS&PF on board as official time keeper, recording the whole journey in order to validate our crossing attempt. As we neared Shakespeare beach so Karen got herself ready, applied the bag balm, popped in her ear plugs, hat and googles before our observer gave her the green light to jump in and swim the short distance to the beach to start the attempt.
In the pitch black, and with barely a moment to steady herself, so the Klaxon sounded at 18 minutes passed midnight and as Karen slipped into the waves of the English Channel to the cheers from Jo and the guys on the beach and from us on the boat, so the JBR Run & Tri Club Channel attempt was officially on.
Most of our gear was out in the open on top of the boat, and was where we all moreorless elected to remain throughout the entire crossing. Although we had use of a forward bunk down below, the problem we found was that the moment you went downstairs so the need to be sick followed. I soon discovered that if I stayed out on deck I was good. This seemed good practise for 3 out of the 5 of us anyway. At this juncture, the thoughts of Jellyfish and cold were not part of my rationale, almost immediately as the boat got into deeper water so Alistair (swimmer number 2) began to get sea sickness. As it turned out, he would be sea sick for almost the entirety of the challenge.
It is amazing how quick an hour goes. Before long, our observer gave us the ’10 minutes to go’ signal which meant that Alistair needed to be ready. Almost immediately we could hear the sound of Karen being ill in the water. I knew from loch ness she was not good on boats and realised that it was going to be a long night for her. With about 2 minutes left on the clock he climbed down off the back of the boat waiting for the Klaxon to sound. As soon as he went in, we helped Karen into the boat. Almost immediately Karen disappeared into her Dry robe and hunkered under her duvet she had bought, hugging her new friend, a plastic bucket, which would stay with her through thick and thin during the crossing attempt.
The frustration on my part was the inability to be able to make a hot cup of tea. Our crew as lovely as they were all smoked heavily. Attempting to put the kettle on downstairs fighting through thick clouds of tobacco smoke whilst bobbing about like a cork on the channel was too much. Amid apologies from us all and offering up water and sandwiches as substitutes we left Karen alone to her own issues.
I swear time moves much faster when it’s your turn to do something. It seemed barely 5 mins had passed when Alistair hit the water, that I was being told to get ready. By now it was coming up to 18 minutes past 2 in the morning, it was pitch black save for the boat lights and the green flashing coming from the safety lights we each had on our googles.
As I climbed off the back of the boat the channel was sweeping over my feet up to my ankles and it was feeling cold. It was the first and only time I had to have a word with myself to hang on in. I had a momentary panic attack and had to fight hard to keep it down. I had suddenly realised that I was about to voluntarily jump into extremely deep-sea water about 10km off shore in the pitch black and cold. It seemed insane.
The Klaxon went and that meant I had no choice. I remember the initial hit as I just jumped in and felt the channel envelope me. All I could think off was to get away from the ropes into some clean water and give off some positive vibes to Alistair as he clambered back into the boat.
As Alistair passed me so I was given my queue to start swimming. I had been momentarily treading water attempting to bring my breathing down into a slow, steady controlled breath, and then I just started my front crawl. Nice and easy, just put one hand in front of the other.
The boat isn’t going that fast, its attempting to match your speed, but you need to follow the boat. There is a light that shines down from the boat creating an arc in the water, but this blinded me and so I found that focusing on a small red light on the side of the boat was better. It meant I was swimming further away from the boat than I was comfortable with, but it also meant I could see people on board and keep the boat in my sight constantly. I won’t lie I was pretty scared in those initial few moments. Another reason not to go too near the boat was jellyfish. As I got into my stride I found that from time to time I would naturally gravitate towards the boat, and as I did I found that I kept hitting jelly globule like substances with my right hand which occasionally would lead to a sting or 2. I decided that the bow waves from the boat was pushing them out into my swim line, so I made the decision to swim a little further away out of the arc light at all times. I had also set up a time alert on my Garmin for every 30 minutes. It was a small victory each time I felt my Garmin buzz, knowing I was over half way, and before too long so the Klaxon went and Phil Young was in.
By now we could see in the distance the red flashing light that demarked the shipping lane. Phil however had decided that he would prefer swimming to Holland than France on his 1st rotation in the water. He would insist on swimming off away from the boat. We spent some time shouting for Phil to turn around and head back towards the boat, but eventually Phil straightened out and we were cracking on. By the time Steph hit the water we could tell that morning was attempting to invade the night, and as it was getting lighter we could see just how busy the Shipping lane is. With rotation 1 successfully completed; jellyfish at a minimum, and Karen back in for rotation 2 we were now firmly in the shipping lane and generally in great spirits.
The first rotation round had taught us a few things. Firstly, don’t get disheartened every time you looked back on England. No matter how many hours went past, the White cliffs of dover were always ever present. It seemed like we were getting nowhere, when in reality we had probably covered 20+ or so Km. What we did not realise at the time was that the current had swung us out left and so for a large part of the swim we were effectively travelling SE as opposed to South. The price we paid for a beautiful weather window was a strong current that pushed us out east quite a way before we could turn west again. Secondly the sea had been calm, not too cold and it was neither too windy. It meant that as daylight began to dawn we were treated to a wonderful spectacle of the English Channel.
We also realised that the right thing to do nutrition wise was to eat little and often. Phil had packed the treat bag full of thousands of calories and between the rest of us we had a variation of rolls, crisps, water, biscuits and home-made energy bars. I had bought some liquid breakfast drinks and my wife had also had also provided flat coke, and much of the time between swims was spent coaxing Karen and Alistair to take small sips of both to keep their energy levels up due to the consistent levels of sea sickness.
By now life on board seemed firmly established. Dry Robes were the currency of choice as were jogging bottoms and warm jumpers and hats. I had decided to keep my trunks on at all time and dry naturally. With the boat swaying and no-one really prepared to go below to change, it seemed the popular choice.
Steph had made a home perched up top and had convinced Phil Y this was the place to be during the crossing. Both Alistair and Karen were spending their time on the deck of the boat under duvet and/or towels, dry robes occasionally swapping their position for the side of the boat. I passed the time tidying up, standing, sitting, tidying as I felt I need to be doing something consistently. There was still another 11-12 hours left on the boat so the key was to settle in for the long haul and wait for your swim.
It was 18 minutes past 6 when the klaxon went off again for my 2nd rotation in the water, and one that would prove to be a fairly difficult hour. The first thing to note is that the English Channel seems relatively clean. I could see several metres down and around my immediate swimming area; and this is where the problem started. We had been warned about the separation zone, an area that sat between the French and English Currents. This area would be the area where we would more than like come across flotsam and jetsam and Jellyfish. I had drawn the short straw and spent my second hour mostly extremely unhappy. The English Channel attracts a lot of very varied Jellyfish, and it is true many of them are pretty. However, when one is in the same water space as them, swimming in clear water, it was an uncomfortable place to be. I found that I would swim clear for 5 or so minutes before the odd couple of Jellyfish would appear, followed by a couple more and then you would be on top of a lot of them. The main jellyfish in the channel are lion’s mane and barrel jellyfish both of which have extremely long tentacles. As a result, my hour in the water was spent swearing, taking on very rapid course changes and being stung. Whilst only very few of the stings were pretty painful, the sight of these things coming into view ahead and below was quite off-putting. Indeed, one instance caused me to swear loud and hard as the pain crept across from my left hip across my stomach, chest and around the top of my right arm. I must have got wrapped in the Jelly Fish tentacle.
We all suffered from stings especially on that second rotation, however I had seemed to have got the worse of it. Jellyfish aside, our spirits had started to raise. Not only was it turning out to be a beautiful and hot day, but on Steph’s 2nd rotation we had finally passed the half way marker. There is a yellow marker in the channel denoting the mid way point. We had seen it on the horizon for sometime over the course of the daylight hours. We never seemed to get near the buoy yet in that 1-hour push, not only had Steph passed the marker but by the time she was on the boat and Karen in for her 3rd rotation, the yellow marker was a mere dot in the distance. By now the current was channelling us properly south and we could stop looking back at England and start focusing on the distant coastline that was France.
Our 3rd rotations passed pretty much event free. We had hit the doldrums, there was simply no wind, and the crew had to put an anchor into the water to stop the boat from turning around on its own due to the current. The anchor was effectively a massive green parachute on rope which acted as a drag and kept the boat straight. The problem was that if we as swimmers were slowing down, the pilot had no choice to put the boat into neutral and wait for the swimmer to catch up. From time to time the boat would ‘cut up’ the swimmer by swinging round in front of you. This particularly effected Alistair for example who was starting to feel the effects of not being able to keep down any nutrition long enough. His 3rd rotation would become a stop / start process lingering behind the boat. During my 3rd hour stint I finally fell in love with channel swimming. The water was clear and save for the odd sighting, the Jellyfish had all gone. We were out of the shipping lane, had the sun on our backs and had the current behind us. The odd cups of tea were now being made as we felt good enough to venture through the cigarette smoke down below and even Karen had started to feel a touch better and had emerged from under her duvet and had begun to eat. Alistair on the other hand was still cocooned under his blanket. Phil and Steph had also managed to get some sleep, something that alluded me for the entire journey.
I felt strong going into my swim and I had the mantra ‘This is what I do’ playing round and round in my head. I decided to push myself hard much to the enjoyment of our pilot who I would catch smiling and giving me the thumbs up whilst bouncing up and down in his seat. I got out of the water a bit of wreck, I had powered on as much as I could for the entire hour and had noticed my Garmin had recorded a swim in excess of 5Km within the hour posting a 1:11/100m ave, some 50 seconds or so faster than a normal pool swim. I wish I could attribute this all down to my technique and will power alone but it was the lovely French current that had finally got behind us which had given us all a boost as we were all beginning to post some amazing times.
Our 3rd rotation also gave rise to the French shoreline as the English coast finally and reassuringly disappeared. we were however now suffering from the same issue in reverse. No matter how long we swam for, the French coast line never seemed to appear closer.
As Karen took over from Steph for the beginning of her 4th swim, the skills of our pilot became evident. We knew that getting onto the beach in France was not an easy task. There is a sideways current near to the beach which if not attacked at the right place will simply pick the boat up and push you left or right but not forwards. Our original landing was supposed to have been Cap Gris Nez on the Pas-de-Calais, but it became obvious that the current was not going to allow us to get there. For all our effort, we were swimming west but not very far forward yet again. Our Pilot made the decision to abandon Cap Gris Nez in favour of a point around the coastline of Escalles, some 15km east of Cap Griz Nez.
Our observer believed that we would all have to undergo a 4th rotation, but as Karen’s hour was coming up, she had pulled us very close to the shoreline. It was then estimated that I would get us onto the beach in France, so I prepped myself for a final short swim. As Alistair got in the water for the 4th time we were still over 4Km from shore for what would be the final swim of the challenge. The currents had begun to play a massive part in this final hour of the crossing and somehow our pilot had navigated us through the sideways current near to a sandbank off the coastline of Escalles and as we passed near it, the current picked the boat up and more or less threw us past the sideways current into clear water. I don’t know how the pilot knows these things, but from being what seemed to be still a way out, we were suddenly within minutes and several metres from the shoreline. It was just about coming up to my rotation, but as we were so close there was no point in bringing Alistair in. As I was stripped and ready to go in for my 4th time I was asked to jump in as a safety swimmer for Alistair in case he needed any help. It turned out he didn’t as we watched him clamber out of the waves and stand on the very rocky shoreline near to a public beach at Escalles. As I too started to clamber up the rocks to join him so Phil, Steph and Karen were right behind me doing the same. The channel in a straight line is 18 miles across, but in spite of covering over 30+ miles, the JBR Run & Tri Club Channel Swim team had done it in 16 hours 57 minutes.
Time for all of us to pick up a French rock as is tradition and take the plunge one last time for the very short swim back to the boat. The journey back was a quick 2.5hr wizz across the channel. A bottle of champagne was duly opened as the 5 of us reflected on what we had just achieved. Arriving back at Dover Harbour we were met by the amazing Jo who had stayed in Dover the whole time. It must have been equally hard and frustrating for her. I decided to give Jo my stone as a small way of saying thank you, before several big hugs and goodbyes preceded the drive back home with the thought of a long hot shower foremost in my mind. Following up on the challenge we found out that we had managed to raise over £12k for Little Havens Hospice which is a massive achievement and testimony to the huge generosity and support from all those around us.
An amazing team event, the perfect event to bond with some amazing people but has the challenge tempted any of us to do it again?? A relay probably, a solo crossing. Err No...