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