Swimming the English Channel 2023: My Swimming Journey from Nouméa to London
In 2022, I took the plunge and signed up for the challenge of a lifetime. In August 2023, I will attempt to swim the English Channel in my swimming costume, hat and swimming goggles––no other accessories. Some people say that I am crazy, that it is too far to swim, and that it is dangerous for my health. Yes, it is slightly nuts, yes it is a very long distance to swim on my own, and yes, there is an element of danger, but that’s partly why I want to give it a try. It’s difficult on many, many levels and I’ve never pushed myself so hard. Few people ever get to push themselves to the limit. I have an opportunity to try and I’ll give it my all.
My decision did not come out of thin air overnight, mind you. It had been a long time brewing, though my childhood in the South Pacific was not an obvious cold water building block.
Nouméa, New Caledonia: My Snorkeling Happy Place
Growing up in New Caledonia, a tropical island in the South Pacific, nothing prepared me for the trials and tribulations of cold water swimming. Most days after school, my mother drove my brothers and I to the beach in Nouméa. From the Anse Vata or Baie des Citrons, depending on the presence of dangerous stone fish or how fine the sand was, my mother dropped us off and watched as we swam out to floating pontoons, diving to the bottom of the sea to play with colorful sea stars.
On weekends, we boated out to the surrounding islands and snorkeled over coral reefs, dodging (not always successfully) toxic sea anemones, sea snakes, and jellyfish. We played tag with the most colorful fish and thanks to long fins, were as comfortable in the sea as we were on land.
Most of the coastline of New Caledonia and the surrounding islands is lined with coconut trees and mangroves.
These early days of my life taste of sea salt on the mouthpiece of a black plastic snorkel, the acrid smell of boat gasoline when the engine sputtered to life, and the sweetness of fresh coconut juice when we cracked the nuts open on the beach. I remember the pressure of clunky snorkeling masks on my face, masks whose glass panels always fogged up within minutes underwater, despite us spitting loads in them. It was awesome. My brothers and I swam like we breathed, as most island kids did.
Bangkok, Thailand: Why is it so Hard to be a Teenager?
At age 13, I moved with my family to Bangkok in Thailand for secondary school. For somebody who basically grew up in the water, you would have thought that I was an accomplished swimmer by then. Turned out, snorkeling and catching starfish didn’t prepare me for swimming laps in a pool. At the French Lycée in Bangkok, I started practicing swimming with my classmates for PE. The school was right behind the YMCA whose 25-m pool we used. It was a disaster. I had absolutely no technique, no muscle mass, and was embarrassed by my teenage body.
It didn’t help that I was bullied on my appearance by girls at school. They were part of the cool clique; I was not. “Wow, we thought you were a lot fatter,” said one of them to me at a pool party when seeing me in a swimming costume. She was commenting on my choice of oversize outfits at school and I was mortified. While I had been a very happy snorkeler, I was a miserable teen swimmer. I needed a miracle to get out of this swimming mess.
As luck would have it, I developed infected ingrown toenails that were bad enough that they resulted in eight surgeries over three years, and, wait for it, a total PE exemption for the French Baccalauréat. It was with no small relief that, pumped up on antibiotics that progressively lost their edge, I stayed fully dressed by the YMCA poolside in my sandals, toe nails bandaged up, while my classmates raced up and down the 25-m lane. The humid hot air of Bangkok, prone to making infections linger, was my unlikely ally.
Over time, joyful swimming joined the ranks of distant childhood memories, only rarely revived when out and about with friends at water theme parks or in hotel swimming pools.
San Francisco, California: Rekindling My Love for the Sea
Between Thailand and California, I lived 10 years in France, a long dry swimming spell for the urban lawyer I had become. Climbing in Fontainebleau was my outdoor thing, back then. I was 30 when I settled in San Francisco for the next 11 years. During the first five years or so, I went hiking almost every weekend, discovering the glorious nature of Northern California.
After my first daughter was born, I made new friends and over one too many a glass of Chardonnay with my friend Ashley, I signed up to swim from Alcatraz. Only the following day did reality hit me. I couldn’t swim 25 meters. How was I going to escape from Alcatraz?
Over the next few months, I bought a farmer John wetsuit, joined open water coaching and sessions with Swim Art, watched Youtube videos on swimming, and practiced at a community pool in Brisbane. My technique was terrible, but at least I could float. For Escape from the Rock, my first swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park in San Francisco, I came in second to last, exhausted and enthusiastic.
Coincidentally, Alcatraz rekindled my love for the sea––only with a wetsuit, in the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz, Aquatic Park, Treasure Island, Angel Island, St Francis Yacht Club, Santa Cruz became familiar locales in my swimming world, and when out in the Sierras, I eagerly jumped in mountain lakes. With my friend Christine, I swam the length of Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park, an amazing memory at high altitude in crystal clear waters. With my friend Becky, Aquatic Park was our Sunday morning ritual and we sometimes bumped into Greg, Zina, and other SERC swimmers.
London, UK: Serpentine Swimming Club
September 2012. New home, London. By then, I was hooked on open water swimming and asked a San Francisco friend where I could keep it up in London. She pointed me to the Serpentine Swimming Club, with a warning that, “they are eccentric, swim year-round and don’t wear wetsuits”. What on Earth, no wetsuits in the winter?
Brian Thomas, then-Honorary Secretary of the club, was most welcoming when I contacted him. About wearing wetsuits, he was tactful enough to say that I could wear one but that “some of the more hardened older (and younger) members may point and giggle.” Lucky for me, the club members were more civilized than Brian gave them credit for. I never swam in a wetsuit at the Serpentine, but I did join the club, and that was the best decision I ever took.
Shortly after, I found out that the Serpentine Swimming Club had the most English Channel swimmers in the world, which inevitably led to my first English Channel adventure.
2014: First English Channel Relay
The club was a busy hive of endurance swimmers, many of whom had swam the English Channel, some even multiple times. I soon got to know some of them, and over breakfast, listened in awe to their swimming feats. The club was only about 400 or 500 members strong, and everybody knew everybody. That’s probably why, without any long-distance swimming experience, I replied to an invitation to join an English Channel relay. Of course, I thought, this should be fun.
Like Jon Snow, I knew nothing, zilch, of what any of this meant, of the tides, the currents, varying weather conditions, and swimmers’ mental headspace. I was as ignorant as they come.
Sakura and Nick Adams organized this relay as a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. On September 28, 2014, after an unsuccessful attempt in June and a false start in August canceled due to sea fog, our team of six landed in France after 15 hours and 45 minutes of swimming. During this crossing, I swam three times, one hour at a time, and cried tears of happiness in my goggles when we landed on the beach. It was my first taste of the English Channel and I loved every minute of it.
2015-2018: Various Swims
From my first English Channel relay, I got bitten by the long distance swimming bug and I was taking it in stride. I still swam mostly in a wetsuit––Jubilee 10K (relay), Dart 10K––but I started shedding the neoprene in warmer waters––Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim (Istanbul, Turkey), Défi de Monte Cristo (Marseilles, France).
In the winter, I discovered winter swimming events––Big Chill Swim, SLSC Winter Swimming Championships, Puigcerda Ice Swimming Festival, Stockholm Vinterswim. These were very short events where wetsuits were strictly banned. The atmosphere was fantastic, all of us united by shivers and good laughs. If you are thinking, “Hold on, what about hypothermia?”, you’re right to be concerned. It took training to join these events and I’ll get to that in my next post.
Ironically, winter events were my entry point to summer cold water events. My rationale was, if I could swim 50m in 4C/39F water, I could swim longer and further in 16C/61F water. There was a form of logic to it. Just how much further and how much longer, was the question.
2019: Windermere Solo Swim
I put my logic to the test by undertaking the summer swim crossing of the longest lake in England, Windermere. It was an 11-mile swim from end to end, a lot longer than anything I’d done before, and a lot colder too. Windermere, the crown jewel of the Lake District, had a reputation for being cold even during the summer.
When I started my training in the spring, with a group of three other swimmers from the Serpentine Swimming Club, I wasn’t at all sure that I would be able to complete the crossing. I had suffered a shoulder injury from a bad fall and my right shoulder took a long time to recover. Plus, being on the skinny side, I knew that the low water temperature would be a struggle for me. On the day we swam in July 2019, the water temperature was hovering between 16C/60F and 18C/64F.
In the end, all of us swam the entire length of Windermere on a drizzly overcast summer day.
My right shoulder nagged at me all the way through and I was cold, teeth chattering, during the last three hours of my 8-hour long swim. However, I hung on and did it. At 8 hours and 20 minutes, my Windermere swim was a slow crossing by any swimming standard, but it was legit. What next? I
2022: Second English Channel Relay
Deep inside, I really wanted to swim the English Channel solo, but I was too terrified to commit. I didn’t think I had it in me, neither the muscular strength, nor the grit, nor the resistance to cold water. I didn’t see how I could ever be good enough to even consider it. However, the more I heard about friends crossing the English Channel solo, the stronger my resolve grew to maybe, just maybe, attempt it one day. I wanted to go through this rite of passage in my swimming life, but my personal life was challenging, and it was tough to know when the time would be right.
That’s why I was quite excited when an opportunity arose to swim a second English Channel relay with the Serpentine Swimming Club in 2022. I’d done it before, I knew the drill, and even if the qualifying rules with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation had changed, I was confident I could manage it. I was so confident that in my enthusiasm, I applied for one of two annual English Channel slots within the club for the following year, 2023.
Much to my surprise, I learned a few weeks before my relay that I got the slot. I got the slot! It was a shock, I won’t lie. Suddenly, I was facing the bottom of a gigantic mountain and hardly had the tools to start climbing it. I was also very excited. As Captain Matthew Webb, first person to swim the English Channel, famously said, “Nothing great is easy.” Well, I certainly had my work cut out for me.
In September 2022, my team of six swimmers from the Serpentine Swimming Club swam from Dover to Calais in 17 hours and 38 minutes. Our track looks like a crazy yoyo, courtesy of strong equinox tides, and the ride was rough but it was a great day. I was ecstatic to be the swimmer to “land” on the beach in France, a first for me and an experience I can only hope to replicate for my own attempt.
Which brings me to the heart of the matter.
English Channel Solo Swim: 2023 Attempt
In six months, I will attempt to swim the English Channel on my own. I am neither fast, nor a super athlete. If you looked at me, you’d just see a slender 51-year-old woman with big dreams. I’m a regular person who is going to attempt an irregularly big swim. Can I count on you to hang on for the ride?
Follow my journey this year, as I train to swim the English Channel in August 2023. I will tell you what I can expect when swimming the English Channel, the highlights and the low points of training for the swim, why gaining weight (and fat) is part of my training, why some people call it the Everest of swimming, the importance of nutrition, and the moral aspect of the challenge.
Last but not least, I’m raising funds for the environment with my English Channel swim! I set up two different fundraisers so that readers could get tax benefits in their own country. However, feel free to donate to your favorite and please, share this with your friends.