So was the channel crossing plain sailing? This final blog entry is about how the swim panned out.
The build up
Channel swimmers don’t actually know when they’ll be swimming the channel. You get a one week slot, and you could be called up at any time that week at about 12 to 24 hours notice. That’s because so much depends on the weather and the tides. So on Friday 19th I set off from Oxford to Dover harbour for a practice swim with the rest of the team knowing I could be setting off any time in the following week, night or day.
Now I haven’t been to Dover since school days. A couple of things have changed. One: the ferries look a lot smaller. That’s probably all to do with the size of the sea they’re in, which doesn’t half look big. Two: God’s clearly taken it upon himself to move France further away than it used to be. I distinctly remember seeing it from Dover with all its brooding menace when I was a child. Now, alas, it’s nowhere to be seen.
First thing’s first though, and having met up with the team it’s into the water for a practice swim in the harbour. It’s pretty darned wavy, in spite of the protection of the sea wall. And sure enough we hear later that day that no boats will be leaving until at least Monday because the wind’s too strong.
Come Sunday lunchtime though things are calming down and the call comes through. We set sail at 07:00 from Dover on Monday. That means getting to Dover Marina for 06:00 with all the food and supplies for the journey. And that means setting off from Putney (where I’m staying with the rest of the team) at 03:00. Now being neither a burglar, nor an habitual party animal, nor the father of a newborn, I haven’t seen 03:00 in the morning for quite some time. It turns out the hour has little indeed to recommend it.
But by the time we get to Dover it’s about six and I’m perking up a bit. Which is just as well because it turns out we’ve hired the Ibiza-non-stop-party boat to guide us across. Even at this ungodly hour there are a number of natty ‘choons’ to rave along to. Though given that even I can name over half the tracks, I suspect this musical fare might not be what the cool kids are cranking up to the max on their portable cassette players in Faliraki. Still, it gets the blood pumping more than Five Live.
My first swim
So having loaded the boat with supplies, we set sail. Our official observer explains the rules to us. Basically the first swimmer has to jump out of the boat, swim back to the beach and completely leave the water. The boat then sounds its horn, and we’re off. Each swimmer swims for an hour in a set order. To take over from the current swimmer, the next person jumps in behind them, and then must overtake before the swimmer in the water can get out. Only once overtaken can someone in the water touch the boat and get out. Any contact with the boat or another person at all during the swim results in disqualification. To complete the crossing, the swimmer in the water when we reach France must completely leave the water without any help at all. When they’re out, everyone in the boat can then swim to make landfall in France.
I’m going in second. So after an hour it’s my turn to walk the plank. The first challenge is to contain myself so as not to high-five our lead swimmer Paul and get us all disqualified. I manage this. The next challenge is to swim for an hour as fast as I can (we’re racing another team). It’s pretty cold, but not too wavy and I’m managing fine. The main problem at first is that thanks to the party boat’s dance tracks and a chat with a team mate about earworm tunes I have Eiffel 65’s Blue going round in my head. After a while though I notice white things going past underneath me. Circular things. Being a little slow on the uptake – Swim Forrest, Swim! – it takes me about five minutes to realise these are jellyfish. From the boat they look genuinely beautiful. Up close they’re downright un-nerving. It’s as though a vengeful god has fashioned water-borne nemeses from happy childhood memories – jelly and icecream become jellyfish and icy salt water.Luckily I don’t get stung (though later a team mate will cop one full in the face). After a while though things get tough. Unlike pool swimming, or even open water swimming in a lake or river, you have nothing to measure how long/far you’ve been swimming for. You don’t have lengths or laps or a clock to count and measure with. All you can see from water level is your boat and waves up to a few dozen metres away. You can’t work out how much longer you have to go until the boat gives you a signal. It really is mentally draining to keep concentrating with no sense at all of direction or progress.After what seems like an age my first swim’s done. It’s time to warm up and feed to get ready for my next leg. What with it being a fairly calm day and having taken enough sea-sickness tablets to knock out a baby rhino I’m feeling OK. But it’s a balancing act to eat enough to be able to complete my next leg and not having so much I’ll risk sea sickness.My second swimBy lunchtime we’re making good progress. Everyone completes their first legs in fantastic style, and we’re at around the halfway point. This means we can now see the White Cliffs of France (Doesn’t have the same ring does it?). It also means we’re slap bang in the middle of the shipping lanes by the time I next jump in.It’s really amazing to be able to pop your head up and see France getting gradually closer. It’s really less amazing to see a ferry getting rapidly closer. Which is what’s happening now. At points in my second swim the boat crew have been letting me get ahead of the boat. No doubt it’s to let me savour the joy of the open water. What it really does though is give me the feeling of being alone and having no way of avoiding, say, a big old ferry. Making matters worse, all I can think about when the escort boat gets behind me and out of sight is the film Open Water. If you haven’t seen it, suffice to say it involves people being lost by their guide boat but found by lots of toothy sharks. It’s easily the most terrifying thing I’ve ever watched in my entire life. Apart from The Moomins as a child. But that’s probably one for my therapist not this blog.Anyway. The ferry’s getting closer and I’m starting to get worried. Thankfully the guys on the party boat are busy being incredibly good at their jobs as well as getting on down to some kicking dance anthems. They zip to the front of me and we end up no closer than a few hundred metres away from said ferry.Arriving in FranceBy the time we finish my second hour I’ve swum another 2.5 miles or so and the cliffs look much closer. It gives a real sense of achievement. In fact we’re now only a couple of hours from the coast, so there’s just time to warm up again and get ready for a final swim of a few hundred metres to the French shore once the swim’s done. As we get closer to the beach, our captain starts pointing out landmarks. The big white building at the back of the beach, for example, is a restaurant. They have a tradition of bringing a glass of champagne down to swimmers emerging onto the beach from a channel swim. It’s just what we want to hear at this stage and a lovely gesture. Something to put the icing on a truly memorable day.We’re not going there though. It’d be much more fun, apparently, to land on the aptly named ‘Dragon’s teeth’ rocks at Cap Gris Nez (Cape Grey Nose – knew that A-Level in French would come in handy). They’re every bit as inviting as they sound. As you swim in, basically there are a load of submerged boulders covered with razor-sharp barnacles and sea weed that you have to swim around as the waves do their best to smash you into them. Next, you have to clamber out of the water over these god-forsaken rocks without either slipping on the weed or getting nipped by a French crab (evil vicious blighters that can clearly smell the blood of an Englishman). Several grazes and one nasty nip later we’re all out of the water on French soil taking a well-earned group hug. It’s pretty much perfect. The day’s ending in a luxurious golden haze across a sun-dappled seascape. There’s gentle rippling laughter from children playing in the rock pools. And the melodious harmony of Non-stop-Rave-Anthems-to-Make-Your-Ears-Bleed drifts softly across the bay from our boat.We. Did. It!The endSo, after eleven-and-a-half hours at sea the challenge is over. My final thoughts? It’s been one of the toughest bits of swimming I’ve done in terms of the preparation and the learning curve that goes with covering distance in sea conditions and temperatures. But it’s a challenge that’s left me wanting to do more of the same. The relay team members were a great group to share the challenge with. All the guys at the City of Oxford club have been incredibly supportive (even the chap in my lane who pretends he’s outraged I didn’t do a solo swim – you know who you are!). The crew who got us across were friendly, supportive and really good at their work and I couldn’t recommend them enough. Most of all though I’ve been blown away by the support of friends and family and the folks at Clowns in the Sky, who I’ve been fundraising for.So that’s it from me. I hope you’ve enjoyed following my preparations and finding out a bit more about what’s involved in channel swimming.Thank you all, and next time you’re in the sea – watch out for those jelly fish!