Sunday, 12 September 2010

Channel swim - Part I

The last 10 days have been insane - I swam the Channel, then flew to Australia, gave a seminar paper and a conference keynote, and attended two days of conference. The whole thing has been a complete whirlwind and I've got only the faintest grasp of what time of day it is, or what day it is, but I've had a great time....although it certainly would have been a bit easier if my swim hadn't been so close to the flight. But at least I got to do it before the trip...and it all came out good in the end.

But now that my work commitments have ended for a while, I've been able to take some time to start writing the experience up. There's a video too, but at the moment, I can't get it to go up on YouTube - I'll keep working on that. But for now.... here's Part I.

Channel swim – Part I
It was nearly 3am on Thursday 2 September, and I was standing on the rocking deck of Pace Arrow, under the watchful eye of pilot Paul Foreman and his crew, Jack, as well as my A-team crew of Peter and Sam. It was time to go. The shore was faintly illuminated by the lights of the several boats out that morning, but the water looked inky black. I did a quick last check to make sure I’d not forgotten anything that I might regret later – suncream, Vaseline, a few dobs of Channel grease on some particularly nasty chafing spots, clear goggles, head and tail lights on. I perched on the edge of the boat for a brief moment, and jumped in. It didn’t feel at all cold, and I swam in to the shore and hobbled out onto the stones, took a deep breath and raised my arm to signal that I was ready. I heard a shout to start, strode in, and dived forwards, taking several long strokes before sighting forwards, looking for the boat. And here came problem number one…which boat? There were two quite close together in front of me, and I wasn’t sure which was mine! I started to go for the one on my left, but then heard some shouting and headed for the other one. As I approached, I had to ask if it was the right boat! Not quite the calm, dignified start I’d been hoping for!

But once we’d established that I was actually swimming alongside my boat, things got better, and we quickly settled into a steady rhythm. I found it much easier to keep a steady distance from the boat than I had during the relay the year before, even though it was probably just as choppy – mostly because Paul has a spotlight pointing into the water, rather than directly at the swimmer, which makes it easier to maintain a sense of perspective. Mentally, though, I was bouncing all over the place for the first hour. I couldn’t stop thinking about how long it might take, whether I would make it, what the conditions would be like, whether the feeds etc would go okay, whether Peter and Sam would get seasick, or whether I would… on and on. I’m always very unsettled during the first bit of any swim, so just tried to calm down and try to find a quieter head space, waiting for it to pass. Peter and Sam were both wearing glow sticks on lanyards round their necks, and it was lovely to see the two vertical strips when I breathed; very reassuring. We were passed to our left by another boat, which dazzled me with its lights, and then left me sitting in a fog of its diesel fumes for a while, which I didn’t appreciate, but it soon passed.

After an hour, Paul flashed a spotlight at the back of the boat to signal feed time, and I swam in to grab my bottle, which I had tied rope wound around a spool from a gardening store (thanks for the tip, Cliff). It all worked perfectly, and to words of encouragement from Peter and Sam, I guzzled down my drink, threw the bottle to one side and paddled off as they reeled it back it. Clockwork – and one less thing to feel anxious about now we’d all seen how that was going to work.

Sometime during the second hour, I noticed that there was only one glow stick at the side of the boat, but couldn’t tell who it was (I should have bought different coloured ones). I started to worry that either Sam or Peter had got really sea sick, and I felt a bit guilty for inflicting this on them. During that hour, the sun started to come up, and I realized that it was Peter who was standing on deck, but no sign of Sam. On the other side of the boat, I could see a solid shape with a flapping jacket and two legs coming down from it; it looked like someone leaning over the railing to be sick. And the shape didn’t move from its spot. Poor Sam, I thought – he’s so ill that he can’t move (I’m like this when I’m very sea sick… talk about projecting). So then I felt really guilty…and also started to feel quite sick myself – I’m very suggestible where seasickness is concerned. However, about an hour later, Sam suddenly appeared, throwing his arms in the air in a gesture of triumph and cheering. I looked again at what I had thought was Sam, and it was still there – in what was now the full light of day, I could see that it was a life buoy in a cover, supported by a frame….Sam had just been catching up on some much-needed sleep. Time for me to stop flapping about everything and calm down.

By hour three, all was well. I felt really strong and increasingly confident; I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. And here I was – swimming the Channel. How exciting is that – really the first time that day that I’d started to enjoy the crazy novelty of what I was doing. This was starting to be fun.

Hours three to six were uneventful. The feeds shifted to half hourly, and were slipping down with no problems. I was having the occasional bit of banana or a couple of jelly babies, but I didn’t feel much like food and generally stuck with the maxim. At hour six, I switched goggles from my clear ones, which I don’t really like, to my super-comfortable, utterly leak-proof mirrored Blue Seventy goggles. In my mind, I put the previous six hours behind me, and started afresh – but with none of the anxiety that I’d had at the start. I enjoyed this period of the swim enormously. I felt really good, and was having no physical problems in terms of injury or trouble keeping the feeds down. Peter and Sam had become impressively slick with the feeds, holding the bottle and spool up in the air, the rope taut between them, as a signal that it was feed time; both of them doing it if they also had a cup with a snack in it – it made me laugh every time. As I fed, they would call out the names of people who had sent text messages, and it was a huge boost to know that people were following me and encouraging me to keep going. As I was swimming, I could see them tucking into the food from their supplies, and chatting and laughing…and always keeping an eye on me. In all this time, I never really had a serious dip, or a painful patch; I was quite happy not knowing where I was and just trusting that we were inching towards where we needed to be. When we passed 9 hours, I noted that this was the longest time I had swum this year (passing my Jersey – France time), and was pleased that I still felt pretty good…although I was starting to notice some general aches and pains and asked for some ibuprofen at my 10 hour feed, just dampen that down. By my 11 hour feed, I was getting tired, but was excited that this was now my longest swim ever and I still felt strong and focused.

It felt like it was all going to plan….


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