Race Reports

English Channel Swim: guts, glory, and goose fat

Swimming the English Channel wearing nothin’ but your swimming trunks and a layer of goose fat.

Not that I actually tried to swim to France myself, of course. Let me explain…

It all started with an email from Belinda Holdsworth, a fellow competitor from Racing the Planet Namibia. Belinda was looking for volunteers to help provide support for a friend of hers, Paul McQueeney, who was attempting to swim the English Channel. Paul and his girlfriend (who was attempting a DOUBLE crossing!) had flown out from Australia just to do this swim, but due to poor weather conditions they had been holed up in a hotel in Dover for a MONTH waiting for the right time to cross! They had finally gotten the green light to head out last weekend, but by this time their support crews had already flown back to Australia…

Belinda promised a long, cold night on a crappola fishing boat, yelling at a large Australian man and mixing up bottles of warm chicken broth. Naturally, I signed up immediately. COUNT ME IN!

The English channel is the Mount Everest of swimming. It is 150 miles at its widest and just 21 miles at narrowest in the Strait of Dover — which is where the swimmers attempt to cross of course. The first observed and unassisted channel swim occurred in 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb crossed the channel in 21 hours and 45 minutes. Less than 1000 people have crossed the channel since 1927, when the Channel Swimming Association began recording and authenticating the swims.

In order to be considered an “official” crossing, swimmers have to follow certain rules and compliance is verified by the presence of an observer on board. The rules include the following:

No artificial aids of any kind can be used…but swimmers are permitted to GREASE THE BODY before a swim, use goggles, use a nose clip, use ear plugs, wear one cap and one costume.

Now, why on earth, pray tell, would anyone wear more than one swimming costume? (Bathing suit for all you north Americans out there…)

Savvy readers will note that the rules do NOT allow for a wetsuit. The temperature of the English Channel is around 60F this time of year, which can get pretty darn cold over the 12+ hours it takes to cross. On top of that, the Channel is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, which can make the sea rather choppy (to say the least). Add in the current from the tides, unpredictable weather conditions….Well, you get the picture.

Belinda told me over email that we were supposed to take off at around 11 pm on Saturday night. Perfect. I headed out on Friday night with good friend and ultrarunner Mark Mosimann for a couple drinks. Cough. Five glasses of champagne later, I noticed a text on my phone from Belinda:

Hey steph! Just got word that the swim is a go for noon tomorrow. We would need to be in dover by 11 am….Let me know if you still fancy it!

Goodness. I would like to say I immediately texted back, put down my glass of champagne, and headed home with a clear head and only slightly damaged liver. In reality, I pretended for the next hour and a half that I hadn’t picked up my phone and continued drinking the bubbles 🙂 What can I say, it was a hard week?

I dragged myself out of bed the next morning at 730 and crawled to the train station to make the trip down to Dover. I was about to meet two incredibly fit people and there I was with champagne bags under my eyes and bubbles in my blood. Arg. As soon as I actually met Paul and Chloe (Mccardel) though, I started to feel better. The two were in such good spirits and just so excited to get going. I was excited to be a part of it.

In preparation for the swim, both Chloe and Paul had put on about 15-20 kgs in extra weight. They called it their “Hypothermic Prevention Kit”. Even as we were loading the boat with supplies, Chloe still managed to keep a mars bar in one hand at all times. Now that’s my kind of training!

At 1 pm, we boarded the boat and left Chloe behind on the dock as she had to prepare for her own swim the following day. There was no turning back for Paul…

Very excited about having the power of the whistle…

Paul had left us brilliant instructions on our crewing duties: every half hour I would blow the whistle, which would signal to Paul that it was feeding time. The rules dictated that we couldn’t touch the swimmer and he couldn’t touch the boat, so we had to be careful. We filled up water bottles with pre-mixed carb drinks, mouthwash, and warm chicken noodles soup (er, not in the same bottle) and threw it overboard to Paul in the water. The bottles were handily tied to a long rope so we could easily retrieve the empties when Paul had had enough. Every so often he would ask for some food, such as a banana or mars bar, which we placed into a plastic cup (also tied to a rope) and lowered down to him.

After the first few hours Belinda and I really started to worry that Paul wasn’t taking enough in. He was barely drinking half of the amounts that we were giving him, and hadn’t eaten a thing. I know that for me when I’m running, loss of appetite is simply not an issue. The more food, the better (okay, within reason) otherwise I will simply lose steam. But swimming IS different. As Belinda explained to me, taking in solids while swimming is a lot tougher on the stomach than running…and there is a much higher chance you’ll get cramps! It didn’t stop me worrying about Paul though…

At one point I got suited up in Belinda’s wetsuit and decided to give Paul a little moral support by swimming alongside him. The rules allow one swimmer to enter the water at a time for a period of one hour on, one hour off. After spending hours stuffing my face on the boat, I couldn’t wait to get in the water and start moving! I thought it would be a nice gentle dip in the sea. Paul was barely moving his legs, so how hard could it be?

Answer? VERY HARD! I don’t know how he was doing it, but I seriously couldn’t keep up. Not even for two minutes. The dark swells, the salt, the knowledge that the boat would not be able to stop for me…Not sure what it was, but I choked! Big time! Within 90 seconds (okay, Belinda tells me it was 30) I was grabbing on to one of the ropes on the side of the boat for dear life, begging for them to pull me back in! What a hack. I couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, I had to wait another whole hour before I was allowed to re-enter….

This time I made it about 2 minutes. I was quite pleased with myself for not choking under the pressure this time… I was simply out-swum! Y’know, it is not often that I’ll admit defeat, but in this case I was properly smacked down in the first round. Good going Paul! What an impressive guy! At least I think I provided him a bit of amusement during the swim???

From that moment on, it was nothing but complete awe… Paul was simply incredible. Once night fell, we put a flashing green light on the back of his goggles and had him shove a glow stick down his swim trunks so we could spot him in the dark. It seriously looked horrible to be out there. It was cold, dark, and miserable… I just wanted to reach down and pull Paul out of the water. His skin looked like it had turned a whole different colour. How on earth was he still moving??? The fog was so thick that we couldn’t even see how far ahead the shore was. At one point we saw a lighthouse on the French shore, but it only seemed to get further away. We shortened our feeding times down to 20 minutes and then just 10 minutes…

Paul remained resilient throughout. Sure, he said he was “stuffed” (Australian lingo for done like dinner?) and was cursing at the non-existent French shore, but I didn’t believe for one minute that he would try getting into the boat before he had touched land.

The final few minutes were incredible. I had just met this man, but already felt such a kinship that his success truly felt personal. Watching someone complete his dream of TWENTY YEARS was unbelievably moving. After 15 hours in the water, Paul completed his swim!!!! AWESOME!!!!

And like any good support crew would do, as soon as Paul dried off I doused him in champagne. Ha.

Would I ever consider swimming the channel?

Not a chance. I’d rather run 1000 miles with sandpaper shoved down my pants while running through vinegar sprinklers.

….But I am considering an Ironman. If it wasn’t for the swimming and biking part, I would have done one already….

1 comment on “English Channel Swim: guts, glory, and goose fat

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