Swimming the English Channel
Swimming the English Channel is a great adventure, one I never thought I’d be able to witness, let alone complete but a few days ago, I did! Oh, it was an awfully big adventure. When was the last time you met up with people at 11 pm to swim almost 16 hours and get greeted on land with a clapping crowd and a glass of champagne? I dare say, we got lucky on the bubbly but hey, the journey to Cap Gris Nez was no cakewalk. Juggling family life, swim training and work sometimes felt like the Iron-goofball reality show.
Try swimming from 6.30 to 7.30am, coming back home smelling like a bucket of chlorine and getting your kids out the door ready for school (what, you haven’t had breakfast yet!?) at 7.45am. Then, there’s convincing your family that it’s a good idea to spend a Sunday outside on the Kentish Riviera (that’s Dover) when the forecast is rain and cold. The best part was that night when I left home at 1.45am to drive to Dover, only to return shortly after breakfast without having swum the Channel because “oops, it was too foggy and the boat couldn’t leave the marina.” Truth be told, the only part of the training that my girls wholeheartedly embraced was adding pasta dinners to our menu so that I could “carb up.” More, they said, more! But I’m not a big fan of pasta so I ate my 5-a-day. Sorry, girls.
However, those are details.
Once in the Channel, the plan was straight-forward. Put on your cossie (that’s swimsuit, in British English), remove all your warm layers, ignore the air temperature, jump in, revel in the extra water degree and swim! Never mind the unidentified floating items, the night swim, the wandering jellyfish, the I-can’t-believe-the-current or the washing machine treatment.
Just flippin’ swim!
I’m exaggerating, it wasn’t all Rambo does the Channel. In fact, the swim was really really cool but then, I was lucky to swim with a fantastic team, on a great boat and without seasickness. Man, without seasickness, that stretch of water is a lot more enjoyable. And so it happened that on September 28, 2014, my team MSF4 swam the English Channel in 15 hours and 45 minutes. As my husband said with relief, about time!
On the day of our crossing, I shortened a lovely weekend to celebrate my daughter’s 11th birthday in Devon and hopped on a taxi to the nearest train station. A train, a car ride and a (ghastly) hot chocolate later, I was with my team at the Dover Marina.
The coast was clear (literally, no fog), so we all boarded the boat Anastasia and left the harbor, headed for Samphire Hoe. It’s one of two English Channel swim starts, the other one being Shakespeare Beach. The lighthouse lit up the night sky and then it was dark as a tunnel.
Using a powerful floodlight, the boat crew found the perfect beach spot to start the swim and our swimmer #1, Boris, jumped in. It was pitch dark and my inexperienced eyes couldn’t see him but the boat crew could. “He’s there. Yup, he’s out of the water. He’s waving. Start the clock. Now he’s in. He’s swimming!” Our observer–the person who checks that we swim according to CSPF rules so that our swim can be ratified–started the clock. Start time: 11.42 pm. I knew Boris was in but I couldn’t see a damn thing. Bloody tough to find a swimmer in the dark.
It’s only when he reached the boat that I saw his glow-lights attached to his swim cap and swimsuit. Aha. When my turn to swim would come, I too would get glow lights attached to my head and my back.
I was swimmer #5 out of 6 which meant that I’d swim from 3.42 am to 4.42 am. What to do until then–take a nap, knit a hat, talk shop with like-minded swimmers? Eenie, meenie, miny, moe. I was way too psyched to go to sleep so I did what sensible bloggers do. I started tweeting and exchanged text messages with my friend Ashley in San Francisco.
It was surreal. I was in the middle of swimming the Channel and we were chatting in real time. At least, I knew that with the time difference, Ashley was wide awake, which is more than I can say about my family in other time zones. After 10 minutes, Ashley’s 10-year old son texted me an encouraging, “Good job!!!!!!!”. That’s Luc for you, quite the coach just like his mom. I felt like I was doing really well, even though I hadn’t started swimming yet.
Swimmer #2 Robert followed, then Swimmer #3 Andrew, and Swimmer #4 Stephanie. I came down to the cabin to grab my swim gear and changed outside on the deck. For sure, the night air was invigorating but my DryRobe kept my warm. Reassuringly, every swimmer before Stephanie had praised how warm the water was, mentioning floating bits of greenish bioluminescent plankton in the water. Would I see anything with my tinted goggles and without contact lenses? Part of me wanted to see absolutely nothing. The idea of swiming in the dark sounded freaky.
When my turn came to swim, I was a bit hesitant as I stepped down the ladder. The water lapped at my feet on the platform as I waited for the signal. Can’t say that dark water looked overly inviting but then, the observer’s voice came from above. “One minute, jump!” I jumped and caught up with swimmer #4 Stephanie.
There I was, swimming at night. It was eerie. During the first 10 minutes, I was waxing lyrical about the experience in my head. As in, “oh it’s so magical, I’m swimming under the stars even though I can’t see them because it’s overcast”, or “oh, the water is so much warmer than in June thank God for that”, or “oh, I’m reconnecting with my nocturnal self in Mother Sea, how mindful is that.” I may or may not have seen bioluminescent plankton, but there were definitely different floating creatures in the water. And the water, may I describe it? Outside of the boat’s light beam, it was so dark that I couldn’t even see the difference between the water and the air. Dark is dark. However whenever I swam within the range of the boat’s light beam, the water and everything that was in it reverberated the light. And so it looked like a room full of dust. Grey speckles, phytoplankton swirling around in the endless sea.
And then I swam past the boat and…oh shoot, BOAT! There was this big boat full of lights right ahead. When I say right ahead, it was quite far on the horizon but from where I was in my liquid element, it seemed awfully close and threatening. I took this photo later and I guess it was a bit closer than that but it gives you an idea.
It seems laughingly far, right? And believe me, I don’t swim at the speed of light so there was no danger of me hitting the cargo boats but my naughty night demons kept telling me that the ship was right on me and that I was in immediate danger. Meanwhile on the boat, I learned later that not one but four tankers were coming across our way at full speed! Big old tankers, cities of light with cranes on board, the Lars Van Trier-movie kind. Our captain contacted the coastguard who in turn, contacted the tankers and told their captains that there was a person that they couldn’t see swimming in the Channel next to a small boat. The coastguard asked the tankers to give us a wide berth and even allowed them to get out of the shipping lane to do so. I am happy to report that they obliged.
Oh such excitement! I would have loved to be a fly on the wall but as it were, I was only a small fish in the Channel and had no idea what was going on–only they better not run me over. When my hour ran out, I happily climbed back aboard and watched swimmer #6 Vanessa take over. Brr, what a silly idea to swim in a busy shipping lane at night.
After I was dressed in the ugliest fleece onesie you’ve ever seen, I ate a cup of hot porridge and stayed up another hour watching Vanessa. She wasn’t enjoying the night swim a bit and because of her tinted goggles (darker than mine), couldn’t see a thing—not our 15-minute signs, not the glow sticks on the side of the boat, not even the sides of the boat sometimes. Not fun. The night sky was amazing though. I hadn’t seen that many stars in a long while. Finally, the lack of sleep caught up with me and I went downstairs to conk out.
When I woke up, swimmer #2 Robert was in the water and the sun was already up. A few ferries crossed the horizon.
Rise and shine, English Channel! Tea seemed in order, so I explored the tiny kitchen of the Anastasia. Check out how cute and neat it is.
Darling, right? Eddie also has a killer collection of rubber ducks on his dashboards but believe it or not, not a single French rubber duck. I’ll have to remedy that.
I had tea but I didn’t dare eat much as my turn was due a couple hours later and I didn’t want to be digesting breakfast while absorbing sea water. Outside, swimmer #3 Andrew was hacking at the waves and Stephanie was not feeling so great, but she was getting ready anyway. We were leaving the Separation Zone behind and she was about to enter the North East Lane. Once in the water, I got ready.
Dry swim suit. Goggles. Swim cap. DryRobe. No thanks, no grease.
There’s an urban legend that all Channel swimmers swim the Channel completely covered in seal grease or something. What a slippery sight we would have been! If that ever was true, it ain’t so anymore. When you swim an hour, the chafing isn’t so bad. At least for me it wasn’t so bad, which is why I declined using grease around my swimsuit straps. Perhaps it was a mistake, as I still have a scab on my collarbone.
Before going in, I asked the boat pilot if he would take pics of me for my mother. Do you know what he did? Eddie is a completely social media maven and he updates his Facebook page during each swim leg. This is what he posted during mine.
What a rock star, this Eddie! I only wish that my mom was better acquainted with the ways of “the Facebook” or “Twist” but sadly, she still believes that she needs a full profile to be a bystander. Swimming by day was a lot easier and I swam parallel to the boat without difficulties. No drifting, this time! Once my hour was up, Vanessa followed and gave it her all. We were now at 12 hours and about to enter the French inshore zone. The experts on board (boat pilot, Boris, Robert, Andrew) started talking strategy. We were roughly 3 miles off the French coast and we were determined to make it this time. The only question was, how much longer would it take and who would land?
Enjoying the warming sun, I whiled the time away between watching the swimmer and the the ladder.
In fact, the morning was turning into a stunning sunny day and we quickly peeled off our layers to enjoy the front deck of the boat. I ditched the fleece onesie without regret. Now, we could pretend we were yachting!
Next thing we know, we were right on the Holy Grail–the famous Cap Gris Nez!
To all of us, the Cap Gris Nez had a strong smell of déjà-vu. It was so tantalizingly close that we could see white houses with red roofs on the bluffs, a WW2 concrete bunker and the lighthouse guarding the nose. In June, we’d come almost this close before aborting our first Channel attempt. Today, we were going for it and not giving up. Andrew was giving it his all, escorted by the boat’s dinghy, but it soon became apparent that the coastal current was very strong and that Stephanie would have to jump in.
Just as she was getting ready, we watched a lobster pot zoom by, uprooted from its buoy and carried away by the current. No pressure. “Your turn!” we cheerfully said to Stephanie. I wouldn’t have liked to be in her position, but she did what she had to do.
She jumped in.
I’ve never seen anyone fight so hard against the tide. One minute she was half a mile from the coast., the next she was pushed twice as far, and yet she swam with unparalleled tenacity. Since we were close to shore, a few fishing boats and recreation boats detoured to watch Stephanie swim and she got rounds of applause from bystanders who thought she was finishing a solo swim. Nevertheless, it was a struggle and the tide was now taking us past the Cap. Would Stephanie be able to finish? I was next in line. It was surreal that we had been so close and that once again, the tide was having such a good laugh.
Finally Eddie said, “She’ll touch land in 15 to 20 minutes.” Really? She was out of the fierce currents and on her way to calmer shore waters. I fought back tears. I swear, I did. She was headed right for the restaurant La Sirene, a fine dining establishment whose owner monitors Channel boats to come greet them with a glass of Champagne.
“Come on, get changed!” urged Vanessa. I was confused, changed for what? “Eddie says that we can all jump in after Stephanie and finish on the beach.” Yoohoo! In a few minutes, we were all in our swimming costumes and Vanessa, well prepared, was distributing MSF Relay pink swim caps to everybody. When Eddie deemed it was time, he gave the signal and we all went down the ladder. As I entered the water, I tried not to but I started crying inside my goggles. How convenient! However, I felt intensely relieved. This was it. We had done it. We had finally done it!
Official crossing time: 15 hours and 45 minutes.
At the landing, Stephanie was getting a round of applause from restaurant diners who had taken a break from their plate to support the swimmers. When I came out of the water, I noticed that Jean-Francois Bouloy, the restaurant owner, was present with a glass of Champagne – as according to the legend. Amazing! As I was the only French person on the team, I exchanged a few words with him and was handed the glass of Champagne for the photo.
I may like like the regular team wino on the pic, but I wasn’t the one who emptied the glass. Andrew was. Hey, why waste? Regarding that photo, one of the comments for this photo on Eddie’s Facebook page totally made my day: “Note to self, more champagne, more glasses.” It cracked me up! Jean-Philippe Bouloy explained to me that had he known there was 6 of us, he would have brought 6 glasses. Not that we wouldn’t have loved to, but it was high time for us to head back to the boat and go home.
We all swam back as a pod and dried up for the last time that day–pending a warm shower at home.
So long, Cap Gris Nez!
Hello again, Dover. Looking dapper tonight.
Good bye, team.
Good bye, clouds jumping over the moon.
Good bye, Dover and good bye, Eddie.
Good bye, English Channel and the fleece onesie.
And thank you to all the friends, family and readers who donated to the fundraiser this swim was connected to. Thanks to you, our English Channel raised more than 20,000 pounds ($32,000) for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Thanks to my team, for being an amazing bunch of supportive and strong swimmers with a good sense of humor for the slow frog that I am.
Thanks to my little girl, who let me skip her 11th birthday to swim all day.
Thanks to my family, for understanding who I am and not holding it against me.
A piece on the website of the Serpentine Swimming Club about our swim: The good, the fog and finally the bubbly for MSF relay