Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Swimming is probably the slowest and least comfortable way to cross the English Channel. Yet in the wee hours of a Thursday morning, four swimmers and I met up on a parking lot in Dover. We were going to attempt swimming 21 miles of the busiest strait on the planet, slower than a man can walk, with just our swimsuits, a swim cap and goggles. The good? We were swimming to raise money for charity. The bad? Cold water, rough seas, busy shipping lanes, strong tides, seasickness, flotsam and possibly jellyfish. The ugly? After 15 hours and 30 minutes of swimming, we turned back to England without touching France. We didn’t do it. Initially, I saw the whole day as a failure. I wanted to hibernate in June. I felt like I’d let down people who supported me. Now looking back, I see things differently. We did raise money for Doctors Without Borders. It was an incredible water adventure. I did learn things about myself and I have epic memories in my head. Just because you don’t get what you want doesn’t mean it’s bad. Here is my story.
Last March, I decided to embark on this aquatic journey. I’d never done any long-distance swimming and my biggest open water feat was Alcatraz with a wetsuit. After months of training and cold-water acclimation, our 5-day “tide” arrived. The call could come day, as late as 12 hours before our swim. Or it could not come – weather depending. Talk about nerve-wracking. Restless, I spent hours on the first day packing my stuff with my friend Ashley, who had come all the way from San Francisco to act as support crew and official photographer. One by one, we checked the items on the relay swimmer list sent by Sakura Adams, our master organizer.
At 7.07 pm that night, my computer screen lit up. Titled “MSF2 are GO GO GO!!!”, the message from Nick Adams (our other master organizer) started so: “06:00 Dover Marina dump head, 07:00 Swim start.” My stomach dropped to my feet. I set my out-of-office message to “I’m swimming the Channel”, kissed my family goodbye mid-dinner and off we were. Ashley and I drove down to Dover and slept (Ashley didn’t, I snored) at the Best Western. At 5am, a cup of hot tea woke me up and at 5.30am, I was paying my dues for a 24-hour parking permit at the Dover Marina Office. The marine weather forecast was proudly displayed on the walls but I didn’t understand an inch of it.
Finally, I met with my team on the parking lot. Some of us had never met before. They were Mike Latham (team captain), Stephanie Chapman-Sheath, Clare Robinson, Danielle Ruymaker (from San Francisco) and I. You can find all our bios on the fundraising page. After a last safety brief by Mike, we all headed towards The Optimist, our boat, and our pilot, Paul Foreman.
We were cracking jokes, helping each other, and just relieved that our time had come. In fact, we were so nervously upbeat that it could have looked like we were leaving for a cocktail cruise. Except the rules of our swim under the hospices of the CS&PF were nothing like The Love Boat.
Clare, who has a Channel solo swim planned for next year, was the first to swim. We left the harbour, turned around the corner of the outside walls, and made for Shakespeare Beach. She applied vaseline on her back and with a smile, confidently swam to the shore. The swim would officially begin after she was out of the water, waving her arm, and about to get in. A CS&PF observer wrote down the start time. 7.30am.
Clare was in! Leaving the White Cliffs of Dover behind, she swam with a constant stroke. Despite the clear skies, the blue color of the sea didn’t fool us. The thermometer read 13.7C/56.6F in the water. Half an hour before my turn (I was second in line), I changed and waited on the deck. It felt like an excruciating eternity until I went down the ladder and ungraciously splashed in the water. Oooh, that felt cold! According to the rules, I overtook Clare from behind and started swimming.
It took me a while to find my rhythm, a rhythm that I could stick to. To the cold, I added an unconscious hurdle. I kept veering right without realizing it. In the water, I only noticed that the boat kept navigating away from me. It happened several times. Then, I would speed up and catch up with the boat, wondering why on earth they kept changing course. Little did I realize that I was the problem, not them. My naughty left arm was crossing over. At the end of my first hour, I received a one minute notice and felt very relieved. I was cold!
Also, I just spotted my first jellyfish, an elegant barrel or root mouth jellyfish a few yards below me. Since I (regrettably) wasn’t carrying a camera, you can refer to this Jellyfish ID Guide by the Marine Conservation Society to visualize the geezer. Also if you swim the Channel and spot jellyfish, I suggest that you take note of the color, shape and size (if you can) and fill in a Wildlife Sighting Report like I did. Anyway, back to business.
Danielle was ready and she jumped in. Stephanie came next. And then Mike. One by one, we all jumped in like good soldiers. Desperately, I wished for the white cliffs of Dover to go away and leave us alone. Though they seemed farther than before, they were tantalizingly close. Then I noticed something. Clare was having chicken cup noodles for breakfast and it made me hungry. Our perception of time had morphed. It could have been 11pm or 7am, it was all the same to us in terms of drinking, eating, or faffing around. The only time that mattered, was how much more time until our next swim. The day stretched in slices of 5-hour countdowns until going down the ladder.
In the interval, I tweeted our progress on Twitter. Ashley took care of each swimmer like a mother. And other swimmers were exchanging phone calls with excited family members. This is Ashley.
Something else changed progressively, the sea. It had been milky green with very little visibility near the coast. As we entered the shipping channels, the water became rough and it turned to a lovely translucent teal underwater. I’ve seen other swimmers refer to this part of the Channel as the washing machine (sometimes on a spinning cycle). In the south-west shipping channel, Mike met the first cargo boats. It made for dramatic photo opps.
Though our sea was nowhere fierce (0.5 m waves), it felt like a constant struggle swimming in it. I entered the water for the second time around the Separation Zone (that’s a virtual corridor whose outside lines are not meant to be crossed by north-south traffic). Left and right, I was being washed over by waves. Lifted by the rising and sliding swell, I kept a close eye on the boat and made myself swim straight by sighting more often.
Underwater, the dark bottom of the boat was the only definite object I saw, the ocean being a uniform green slate as far as I could see. I guessed that visibility was roughly in the 10-meter range. Not being able to see anything beyond, not being able to tell how far the bottom was, well that made me anxious. When left to your own devices in the water, your imagination really runs wild. I wasn’t afraid of a monster from the deep per se, but I was suffering from vertigo. Ah, the cruel irony of being afraid of heights when you’re floating on top! Ten minutes before the end of my leg, I saw two moon jellyfish contracting their bell-shaped bodies to zoom by below me. Or perhaps they were pushed by currents, I wasn’t sure. Either way, my hour was up.
Back on the boat, I didn’t feel like eating at all and shivered uncontrollably in my DryRobe, drinking tea, during 20 minutes. The truth is, I was slowly feeling the effects of seasickness and I wasn’t the only one. Only Mike moved about like a seasoned sailor and we soon learned why. He had worked on a boat before. Clare was and Stephanie were doing ok too but we were all getting tired. We were probably at the half-way point in the Channel and the boat tossed left and right with each bigger wave. I just wanted to lie down and wait it out so I took a nap during Danielle’s swim.
That probably did me some good but until my next leg, I was so queasy that I couldn’t take a bite. As the afternoon progressed, more of us went down in the cabin with a bunk bed to take a rest in a sleeping bag. I couldn’t. I tried to go to the restroom but the motion sickness came in so bad inside the boat that I had to rush out onto the deck. Outside was the only place I could be.
Stephanie went back in, and then Mike, and then Clare again, and then the observer tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re next in 8 minutes.” Next to me, Danielle was resting after having thrown up a few times. She really didn’t look well. Hastily, I got changed and didn’t even bother with sunscreen. I swallowed the last mouthful of my energy gel and jumped in. Of the three hours I swam, it was the most exhilarating.
First, the water visibility was finally getting bad. No more vertigo! Then the sun was gone. No more weird shadows in the sea! But best of all, we were getting close to the French coast and I got caught in a strong current. I felt like I was flying, my stroke felt good. About half an hour in, I saw Paul Foreman outside his pilot window. Was he clapping or was he drawing my attention to something? I slowed down but he just raised two thumbs up and told me to keep going. We were doing well! Oh, how elated I was. The clapping really warmed my cockles and kept me pushing stronger and harder in the waves. When my hour was up, I was spent and a graceful Lion’s Mane jellyfish floated by below me. What a variety of jellyfish in just a few hours!
Danielle didn’t jump in after me. Stephanie did. That’s how I knew that our swim wouldn’t be ratified if we succeeded. I didn’t need to ask why, seasickness can affect people very badly. Slightly stunned, I drank my cup of tea and wondered what this meant. On paper, it meant something. For us out at sea, it didn’t mean anything except less motivation. Was it that or the evening drawing near, we sort of retreated within ourselves. The excitement and efforts of the day were taking their toll.
As night loomed close, we searched in the kit boxes to find the green lights needed for night swimming. Mike attached a blinking green light to the back of his goggle strap and one to the back his swim trunks. Paul Foreman looked at the coast and told Mike that if he could swim 2 miles during his hour, we might be close enough for Clare to land when her turn came. We couldn’t believe it. Were we that close to making it?
As it turns out, the tide turned sooner than predicted. In the last hour of light, Mike swam like the devil. He didn’t see the seagull who thought he was a new kind of fish and who flew dangerously close, beak ready to peck. When Clare’s turn came, it was already dark. Cool as a cucumber, she jumped in and swam tirelessly. Mike came back shivering. For the first time that day, he was feeling really cold and went straight to a sleeping bag to warm up.
Sitting around the table in the cabin, Stephanie, Ashley and I waited to hear from the pilot and what he told us was not good news. We weren’t close enough and we were now looking at another 4 hours of swimming (maybe more). Crushed, we looked at each other. What should we do? When Mike came out of the cabin, we told him the situation. On the boat’s radar screen, our course was now inverted. We were pushed west toward England. What?
We couldn’t believe it but we had to. The uncertainty was killing us. There are horror stories of 28-hour relays out there. We did’t have that much in us. After heart-wrenching discussions, we decided to stop the swim after 15 hours and 30 minutes. It was 11.30am UK time and I called my husband, asking him to relay the decision to my parents. My mother must have felt very relieved, she hadn’t slept in two days because of me.
At 2.30am we were back of Dover and I drove back to London. Tuckered out, I plonked into my bed at 4.30am without a shower. It had been a long day and like Scarlett O’Hara rightly said, tomorrow would be another day.
This was the end of our relay swim but not the end of our Doctors Without Borders effort. A second MSF team left three days later and they were pulled by the pilot after 12 hours of swimming. Bad weather conditions.
As far as I’m concerned, the Channel season is not over yet. I know now what I knew not before. Namely:
Also, it’s time for me to wrap up, I’ve gone on for too long and your eyes are tired.
Thank you if you read this far and however insurmountable a challenge seems, I want you to know that your mind is stronger than your body. It’s just that sometimes, mother nature has her way and there’s nothing that can be done.