Sunday, 12 September 2010

Channel swim - Part II

At around the 11-12 hour mark, I was still feeling okay, and I felt pretty confident that I had plenty of plodding left in me; Sam and Peter had reassured me that my stroke count was still hovering steadily between 57-62, as it had from the start. But the fatigue was also starting to bite, and I found my mind increasingly wandering into speculations about how much longer it would be. I started to really want to know where I was; in my mind, I thought of all the swim charts that I’d poured over, trying to imagine my position and how far I still had to go. I had always accepted the oft-repeated rule that you shouldn’t ask where you are or how much longer you have to go; after all, you’re rarely going to get the answer that you want in that moment, and if it takes longer than you’ve been told, that’s going to be pretty devastating. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the absolute, burning desire to know, and I had to fight the (undoubtedly misleading) conviction that knowing would somehow make everything better, easier, more manageable. I didn’t ask, but instead, I began to focus increasing amounts of attention on what was happening on the boat, searching for signs especially the interaction between Paul, Peter and Sam.

Around that time, Paul came out of the wheelhouse to talk to Peter and Sam. They were in earnest conversation for several minutes. At one point, they all pointed towards the French coast, talking animatedly; then, confusingly, they all turned to face the opposite direction, pointing again. In my over-interpreting, slightly paranoid mind, I thought they were saying “well France is over there, but she’s not going to make it, so we’re going to have to go back that way”. At 12 hours, I asked if there was anything that I needed to know, and Paul told me to just get on with swimming, so I did…but I was starting to worry, as there was obvious some concern on board, although I didn’t know what it was, or whether it was serious.

Then at 12.5 hours, Paul came out to tell me that I needed to start sprinting in order to push as far in as possible before the tide turned, in order to maximize my chances of hitting Cap Griz Nez (a rocky promontory that is the ideal end point for a swim), rather than getting swept past it – an outcome which could extend the swim by several hours. I was grateful for the information, but also quickly realized why the tantalizing promise of information (that it will somehow make what’s left to be done more manageable) is a trap for the unwary, because it just generates more questions – how long will I have to sprint for? How likely am I to hit the Cap? I told myself that the tide would turn soon, hence the urgency from Paul, so I should just knuckle down to the task of full effort swimming for now. I lifted my stroke rate, tried to lengthen my stroke and increase my pull; I even started kicking – a bit of a shock to my usually lazy legs. Everything started to hurt – my arms, shoulders, back and groin muscles were burning; I felt nauseous; my lungs felt ready to burst. Peter and Sam were amazing – they were rooted to the spot on deck, clapping and cheering, punctuated by the occasional spontaneous, gloriously non-sensical YMCA arm gestures from Sam – a welcome burst of light relief.

At the next feed, they left me no space for doubt or questions, and as I forced down the maxim, I was showered with encouragement – that my stroke looked great, that I was flying, that I looked really strong. These were, I suspect, very generous assessments of my situation, but I took heart from them and pressed on….Surely the tide would turn soon… But no…and 2.5 hours after the original instruction to sprint, there was no sign of a change of direction, or permission to let up. By this time, I was running almost on empty, and a new doubt started to rise – what if, after all this effort, we got swept up past the Cap, but I’d used up all my energy and couldn’t manage the last few hours. Part of me wanted to just pull back and accept the fate of not hitting the Cap in order to give myself the chance to recover a bit; I also knew that after pushing so hard for so long, sailing past the Cap was going to be pretty crushing, and I wondered how I would cope with that. I was feeling pretty miserable by then; everything hurt, I didn’t know what was happening, and it felt to me like the swim was hanging in the balance. I tried to just stay in the moment, and concentrate on swimming as strongly as I could possibly manage; I thought that if I wasn’t going to make it, I wanted to have given it everything.

I found out later that, anomalously, the tide just never turned and we never got pushed back up towards the Cap. Instead, I was forcing my way across the tide, into a strong headwind, and we were now aiming for the coast below Cap Griz Nez. Paul came out at the next feed and told me that I was progressing at 1 mile an hour across the tide, and that I would be on the beach in an hour if I really pushed hard; he said that the further in we got, the weaker the tide’s effect would be. I drank down what I now know was an industrial strength maxim, courtesy of Sam, who was now super-charging my drinks to give me the much-needed energy to push through. I asked if they really thought that I could do it….meaning, whether it was really possible, or whether this was just a last ditch hope. I was rewarded for this with a stern “talking to” from Paul (see the video for this). I heard Peter say that I could definitely do it, that I was going to make it. I was sure he would never have said that if he didn’t believe it, and this gave me the resolve to commit everything I had left and strike out for the beach. Sam yelled “The Hour of Power” (a reference to when he and some of the other swimmers would pick up the pace during the 6 hour beach swims in order to push through the difficult fifth hour – something he’d told me about before the swim). Everyone laughed, giving me a much-needed boost in mood and confidence.

By this time, the sun was starting to set, and I could see the cliffs of Cap Griz Nez when I breathed to the left, starting to glow red. When I stopped for a feed half an hour later, I could see the beach we were aiming for, and individual houses. This was the first time since the sprinting had begun that I realized that I was going to make it; I wanted to cry, with relief, with exhaustion…but there was no time for that yet. By the next feed, I was feeling extremely sick from the hard effort and asked how far it was…the only time I ever asked, knowing that I was very close, and hoping that I was close enough to be able to skip the feed and just swim in. Sam said it was a length of the harbor, so I declinee the feed and started the final stretch. I’d done so many harbor laps that I knew I could knock one of those out, no matter how exhausted I was. Soon, I saw Sam and Peter getting changed, and then the boat stopped while I kept on swimming. Peter and Sam soon appeared to one side of me – I couldn’t believe it was nearly over.

I soon began to see rocks in the clear water below me, and then my hands started hitting the stones. I pulled myself in over them, until I was in very shallow water. Unlike Jersey to France, when I got to walk triumphantly up a gentle sandy beach, the rocks were too uneven to walk over easily, and I had to crawl up on my hands and knees until I found a patch flat enough to get to my feet. (This makes for some very elegant video footage of the finish!). I hauled myself upright, and lurched for a big, flat rock that was clear of the waterline. I could hear Peter and Sam shouting and cheering; I stood on the rock and raised my hands in the air. I’d finished. Then everything started to spin and I had to lower myself onto the rock, head in hands, unable to quite believe that it was over, and I’d done it. I heard the boat’s horn blow. We’d made it.

We hugged and celebrated; we collected pebbles and took pictures. I was starting to shiver now, and longed to get back in the water where it felt warmer, so crawled back in and swam out towards the boat with Peter and Sam in the gentle evening sunlight. Standing on deck, I looked at the beach in amazement; I’d swum to France!


  1. Dear Karen, Your account of the great swim is absolutely riveting! Perhaps you should turn it into a novel as well as an academic work - you describe it so well. I'd been trying to imagine what it might feel like to swim the channel and now you have explained it - or at least most of it. Perhaps you could just tell us how you eat the jelly babies from the bottle? Congratulations again, Rebecca and Richard

  2. Easy - two jelly babies in a cup on a rope; from cup to hand, then from hand to mouth. Not very elegant...but there are few problems a jelly baby can't solve. K x


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