Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Channel Relay - we did it!

Well...we did it. We swam the Channel.
Both of our relay teams (made up of Coventry and Brighton tri club members) set off at just gone midnight last Thursday night. The team of three - me, Steve McMenamin and Jamie Goodhead - were on Mike Oram's boat, Gallivant, and the team of four - Martyn Brunt, Steve Howes, Robin Corder and Andy Heath - were with Lance Oram on Sea Satin. We loaded our stuff onto the boats, and chugged out of the harbour. I was nominated to do the first leg, and so when Mike pulled in close to the beach and gave the signal, I jumped into the dark water and swam to the spotlit point on the beach. Mike gave me a countdown, and off we went.

It was all incredibly exciting, but it took me a while to adjust to swimming with the boat and especially as we got out of the shelter of the beach and into the wind and lumpier water, I struggled to keep a steady distance from the boat. And then suddenly, the boat turned away from me at a right angle and seemed to be motoring away! A spotlight on the back of the was shone on me, but in a somewhat paranoid irrational panic, I decided that he must have lost patience with me and decided to go somewhere else! A more rational explanation, though... the wind was blowing the boat off course, requiring him to adjust our path occasionally. After the third or fourth time this had happened, I finally started to relax and begin to enjoy the swim. It was fairly choppy, but the wind was behind us pushing us forwards, which was reassuring; at times it felt like body surfing.

The first hour flew by, and before I knew it, I could see the flashing green headlight of Steve, perched on the side of the boat, ready to jump in and take over. He jumped in behind me and swam past me, and I made my way to the ladder and clambered out, relieved to have my first swim under my belt. I got changed as quickly as I could (not easy on a rocking boat), but almost immediately encountered the problem that was going to dog me for most of the swim - seasickness. It wasn't long before I had my head in a bucket, and all I could do between waves of nausea was to sit as still as possible, staring at the lights on the horizon.

Soon it was my turn again, and I was feeling pretty dreadful by the time I jumped in. A combination of dehydration and nausea meant that I was having real trouble orienting myself to the boat; at one point, I even swam under the prow, forcing the pilot to stop and wait while I swam back ahead of him so that he could get back on my right side. I was starting get really worried - I'd read about several relay swims where sickness had made it unsafe for someone to continue, and was mortified by the thought that our swim might fail because of me. So I tried to press on. Happily, I didn't have any problems with motion sickness in the water, so the swims actually became recovery time for me and I was always counting the minutes until it was my turn to get back in. So thankfully, by the time I got out at the end of that second swim, I was feeling much better again. Not for long though...

In the mean time, Jamie and Steve were feeling rough but swimming really well and we were making good progress (although poor Dave, who had come on as crew, was horribly ill too and had to spend large parts of the journey curled up on a bench). And then things started to improve for me. Firstly, the sun came up, which really lifts your mood; secondly, as we turned with the tide, the weather began to settle a little; and thirdly, Marcy (our official observer, and very accomplished Channel swimmer) dug out some different seasick pills for me and gave me some dry bread and ginger jam to nibble on, which really helped (although I continued to be unable to close my eyes or go down below into the warmer part of the boat pretty much throughout the swim).

After about 10 hours, we passed through both of the shipping lanes and entered French waters. The conditions had completely changed, and the water was beautifully flat and calm:

And now I understand why they say tell solo swimmers not to look for the French coast - you see it quite clearly hours before you get anywhere near it. But the swimming got much easier because of the calm, even though we had to linger off the coast for a while, waiting for the tide to turn and take us in to the shore. We could see the other team's boat further in towards the coast, and it looked like they were definitely going to reach the beach before us; it was great to know that we were all going to make it to the beach.

It was already clear that we were going to miss the Cap (the ideal landing point), and as I prepared to jump in for what turned out to be my final swim (hour 13), the pilot told me that for every yard I could make forwards in this swim, it would save us 10 yards at the other side of the Cap. So, in I jumped and started swimming as hard as I could. I was soon in the Overfalls - an area of disturbed water about 500 metres wide, just north of Cap Gris Nez. This is where the tide from Wissant Bay meets the tide travelling up the Channel past Cap Gris Nez - two bodies of water hitting each other at 90 degrees. For me, this was the most fun part of the whole swim - it was really exciting to swim in, although challenging. Knowing that it was probably my last swim of the day, I was able to give it everything I had and it was completely exhilerating to be thrown about like that. And then suddenly, I popped out the other side of it and the water became completely flat, as if someone had flicked a switch - it was just beautiful to swim in. I got a big thumbs up from Mike, and I knew that we had made it. Steve jumped in at the end of the hour, and covered the final stretch at a blistering pace, and Jamie and I jumped in again behind him so that we could all walk up onto the beach. It was an amazing feeling.

We swam the Channel in 13 hours and 18 minutes, and the team of four on Sea Satin completed it in an impressive 12 hours and 58 minutes. Well done to everyone!!!

Many thanks to our pilot, Mike Oram, and his crew, James and Del for getting us safely where we wanted to be; to our observer, Marcy Macdonald; and to Dave for acting as crew for us.

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