Channel Relay Swim Race Report
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