On a trip to England in July (2011), I finally came to know the Channel. Instantly I lost my fallback response to the question, “Do you want to swim the English Channel?” Before, I could just say, “Swim it? I’ve never even seen it!” Now, I’d have to start considering it, or at least come up with a more considered response to the question. (Which I have since done. See THIS POST)
Truth be told, that first experience with the Channel did not inspire me to start the long, complicated, expensive planning and rigorous training that goes into a Channel crossing attempt. I have such vivid memories of that night/day in July: perched on the edge of a small boat being pitched about on a rough sea, supporting a friend –at times single-handedly –who swam through the lonely, inky-black night for hours on end, sick as a dog. I am so proud of Scott, and glad to have been there. But if I was not sure before, I am now: crossing the Channel is not for the faint-hearted swimmer, nor landlubbing crew.
Once the swim is finally underway, everything gets real quiet on the support boat, which came as a surprise after all of the frenzied coordinating, packing, loading, waiting, calling, driving, unloading and unpacking, checking and re-checking, organizing and re-organizing, shuffling, fumbling, greasing, encouraging, buzzing and cheering. In the anticlimactic stillness that settles on the boat once the swimmer has slipped into the dark water, listening to the soft, rhythmic slapping of the water as the swimmer turns over his arms, one cannot help but be struck with the feeling that swimming is an agonizingly slow way to get from England to France.
Scott’s swim began at 11pm, and for many hours of the night, I was the only crewmember with a functional set of sea legs. I didn’t see it coming, but I found myself in a strange, sleep-deprived and quietly-focused world, where my moderate discomfort (queasy, cold, time-sensitive juggling of feeds, notes, meds, wipe-board messages) was displaced by an overwhelming feeling of duty to do right by Scott, whose moment was happening: planning and training behind him, France straight ahead.
A little background
Remember Scott? The optimist from this other “Darkness and Light” post? I had been added to his crew only a few days prior to the swim. At his London flat, he walked us through his plan, introduced us to his perfect, fastidiously organized kit, and fed us a lovely meal. Nick Adams and Sakura Hingley were there for moral support, and to help answer any last-minute questions. Scott’s crew included his wife Tash, who was in charge of feeds and meds, our friend Ian, who would do some support swimming and stroke counting, along with Scott’s friend Ben, who would also do stroke counting and note-taking. I was asked along last minute and would be helping Tash with feeds and meds.
Scott’s swim was meticulously planned. He had cut no corners. His kit was perfect, and he had logged ridiculous hours in the cold, grim waters of Dover. He had also gained a lot of weight. When I first met Scott, back in April, he had already put on most of it, so it wasn’t until I saw a “before” picture that I understood the work that had gone into creating this “Channel-ready” body. A life-long athlete, Scott was used to a low-percentage of body fat, and the ability to sculpt the muscles of his chest and stomach. Now, with days to go before he entered the cold waters of the Channel, he had a belly he could grab with both hands and toss around a bit. Thanks to this hard work, of all the struggles that accompanied his swim, coldwas not one of them.
It was Sunday afternoon, July 24th, and I was about to jump into the sea for a chilly swim of my own with my friend and travel companion Ian. We were at a beach near Swanage—a small seaside town in the southern county of Dorset—when we finally got the call: the weather was right and Scott would swim at 11pm. We had been camping and swimming along the coast while we waited for word from Scott, who had been waiting for word from his boat pilot, Lance Oram, that the tides, currents, wind and weather were right for the swim.
Excited to finally get the call, we abandoned our own swim, broke down our campsite, and started east towards Dover. Like always, as Ian drove I slept. It was about a four-hour trip across the south of England, and although I’d been falling asleep in the car for the past week whenever we drove someplace new, this time, the sleep would prove to be very useful.
Dover: First impressions
Arriving in Dover, I was surprised by the sheer size of it. Having heard so much about the Channel swimming training that goes on in the harbor, I had constructed a very detailed mental image of the place, which was not surprisingly wildly inaccurate. Dover Harbor feels huge, almost tangled with towering sea walls, jetties, piers, breakwaters and looping roads. It is a very active port with both cargo ships and passenger ferries traveling across the Channel to Calais and Dunkirk in France. In fact, the English Channel, which is narrowest at Dover, is the busiest shipping lane in the world. Arriving there, I was struck by what a different experience it is from swimming at Brighton Beach and Coney Island in New York where the only annoyances or hazards are an alarming numbers of sunbathers and the occasional annoying jet-ski. The section of Dover Harbor in which open water swimmers train is somewhat less intimidating, with it’s sliver of sandy beach along a pedestrian-friendly street. But the active port is all around it; in the few minutes I spent gazing out, I saw a massive Sea France ferry crossing just a few hundred yards away. I had not envisioned the busy, industrial feel of Dover Harbor, and I certainly had the proportions wrong; in Dover, a lone swimmer is tiny. Add to that the icy temperature of the Channel water (~15° C, ~60° F), and you have yourself some dedicated, hearty swimmers who train for hours on end in this place.
Everyone, meet boat
With just a few hours before Scott’s swim –which might last anywhere from 12 to 15 hours—we thought it best to try to rest. We did our best, with seats rolled back, parked in the lot of the Harbormaster. Scott arrived before ten with Tash and Ben. In the dark, we carried the various boxes and bags of gear onto the boat, which included carefully planned feeds for Scott, and a gigantic bag of food for the crew.
On the deck of the boat, there in the dark, was a period of awkward bustling—the five of us bumping into each other as we tried to organize the space. With every detail so well planned, this moment of improvisation felt awkward. Once organized, the deck had: hot water in a large pump dispenser bungeed to the railing in the corner, a box of feeding paraphernalia, which included many bottles of double-strength, pre-mixed Maxim (carbohydrate drink), cups and bottles attached to mason line reels, a funnel, and a Tupperware box of fruit-sugar. Next to that was bungeed the box of solid feeds, including Jelly Babies (the real thing!), Cadbury’s Chocolate mini-rolls, Milkyway bars, and mini-Jaffa cakes. Near by was a small Stanley tool-box which held all meds (ibuprofen, paracetamol, anti-histamine) and Scott’s back-up goggles and caps. At about 10:30pm, the boat left the dock and started motoring out of the marina. The swim itself would start from Shakespeare beach, due West of Dover Harbor. Scott was looking at the black water below, noting that the conditions, although wavy, were better than when he swam his relay (relays generally go out in much worse conditions than solo swims). I could see him mentally readying himself. He was focused, and (probably unwittingly) becoming distant as he went inside himself and did whatever mental work he needed to in order to make himself jump in and swim for half a day. Minutes before he was to jump in, the pilot came to discuss the conditions. He explained that they were likely to get steadily better throughout the night, and he gave Scott the option of waiting for a 6am start.
It took a minute for everyone to register what he was saying. Was he actually suggesting that we turn back? Was he saying it was a bad time to go? Why was he being so cryptic about it? We came to understand that he was making sure Scott knew that if he went right now, the conditions would be challenging. There was a lot of chop, with fat waves bouncing off the harbor walls. If he waited, they would likely be better—but of course there was always the chance that they would get worse. The conversation shook Scott’s confidence, introducing doubt where there had been none. Scott looked to the rest of us for guidance. We mostly put it back on him. We discussed the benefits of waiting, the benefits of going now, and the drawbacks of each. He clearly wanted to swim, and felt stress and frustration at having this indecision resurface again just moments before he was supposed to begin. He decided to swim and we supported his choice. We resumed the encouraging banter and general fussing. The pilot was happy with the decision, and reiterated that he wanted Scott to have a great swim, and just wanted him to have all of the information.
Grease up and go
As we made the final preparations, those fat waves tossed us all around the deck of the boat. We scrambled to catch items that had come loose and were headed towards the sea. Tash, a wonderfully enthusiastic supporter of her husband, was already feeling a bit seasick. Too sick to do it herself, Ian volunteered to layer nearly all of the contents of a large tub of Vaseline onto Scott’s body: armpits, upper chest, neck. The salt in the water would be brutal, and without the Vaseline, it would cut into his skin as he turned his arms over thousands of times. Even with the Vaseline, he was likely to experience painful chaffing. I used two safety pins to attach a long glo-stick shaped, solid, green electric light to the back of Scott’s swim costume, and attached a smaller dome-shaped, flashing one to his goggle strap. (Flashing at the head and solid at the butt, so there was never a question to anyone on the boat which direction he was swimming.) He was ready for his swim to Shakespeare beach, which would be his starting point for his swim to France. He held tight to the railing as the boat rocked and he looked back towards us all with a bit of a “here goes nothing” look on his face.
He jumped in and the bustle on the boat quieted with his splash as we watched him swim towards shore, following the bright spotlight provided by one of the pilot’s crew. It was exciting, albeit a bit anti-climactic, as we stood there watching him go. The boat continued to rock horribly and threw us all about. Keeping an eye on Scott’s progress, I tried to organize the sprawl of gear, and was tossed around as I did. And then, only moments later, he stopped swimming. Looking back at the boat he yelled: “I forgot my earplugs! Can I come back for them?” He was concerned about following Channel swimming guidelines, which prohibit touching the boat once the swim has begun, but since his swim hadn’t technically started yet, it was fine for him to come back to the boat. At the same moment, his wife Tash was scrambling for a bucket. As Scott pulled himself back up on the ladder and hurriedly worked his earplugs into his ears—clearly frustrated with himself, and a bit disoriented by the false start—Tash sat only feet away bent over a bucket at the beginning of what would be a long night of seasickness for her. I watched them both, only just out of sight of each other, and was relieved that he had the earplugs in when she heaved. Oblivious to her situation, he jumped back in and resumed his swim to the English shore.
The swim begins
On shore, he waited for the boat to signal the swim start with a horn, and then he was off. We cheered excitedly when the swim began, and as our cheering died off, it got really, really quiet. We watched as he made his way back to us, illuminated by the spotlight. As I watched him I had two thoughts. First, that he had a beautiful stroke. He looked smooth and strong in the water. Second, that swimming is a very slow way to get somewhere. He made his way to the side of the boat, and we began to move forward with him, slowly, towards France. The waves looked much larger now that we could see Scott’s small body being tossed around by them. His first feed wouldn’t be for an hour, so we rested our arms on the side of the boat and settled in to watch him as he plodded along. I thought back to Nick Adams in Malta explaining how lonely it can feel to swim in the dark, and how he always outfits his crew with different colored glo-sticks so that he doesn’t feel so alone. I checked with Tash, but Scott hadn’t put any glow-sticks in the kit. I was worried that Scott couldn’t see us, so I made an effort to stand under the light on deck, and hoped that at least our silhouettes would be comforting.
When the first hour was approaching, Tash was only getting sicker, and was concerned about being unable to help with the feeding. It would have been silly for her to try. She looked positively green. She had felt ill non-stop since stepping on the boat, and had already thrown up a number of times. She looked exhausted and miserable. I had never been as seasick as Tash was, but I did remember being horribly seasick as a kid. I remembered how completely awful a sensation it was, and the upsetting thought that it might never end. I did not envy her. Feeding Scott by myself was a much more tolerable fate than suffering as she was. With a touch of humor and a touch of hopefulness in her voice she asked, “Pretty soon I won’t have anything more left in my stomach to throw up, right?” I smiled warily and said, “that’s right.” As I made my way to the other side of the boat I continued, inaudibly, “then you’ll just start dry-heaving.” She didn’t need to know. At least not yet. Ian and Ben counted Scott’s strokes before his first feed. Just as he had said, he had a stroke rate of 53 strokes per minute.
Feeding the lonely
I set to work preparing the first feed: just Maxim. Following Scott’s instructions, I filled a cup to a designated mark with double-strength Maxim, and pumped in hot water to the next line. I spooned in a single spoonful of fruit sugar, and stirred. I tasted it to make sure it wasn’t too hot and then climbed down to the side of the boat where I could get closest to the water. I shined the light onto a wipe-board that said “5 min” and then waited. I wasn’t feeling great myself, but for me, looking at the horizon and breathing deeply through my mouth seemed to keep the sickness at bay. The mixing of the feed had made me feel worse, but sitting on the narrow steps on the side of the boat with the breeze right off of the water blowing on my face felt good. I signaled for Scott to come in for his first feed and was surprised when I saw his face. He looked absolutely miserable. His stroke was so strong and consistent that I had assumed he was feeling good. He wasn’t. Before he started swimming again he said, “can you guys communicate more? More wipe-board messages and flashlights on your faces. It’s really lonely.”
Just a face
I felt stupid. Of course it’s lonely! I knew it was lonely. Of course our silhouettes were not enough. I decided at that moment that my primary job on this crew was to make sure Scott did not feel lonely. After putting away the feeding cup and marking everything down on the clipboard, I grabbed the flashlight and a ginger biscuit to gnaw on, went back to down the steps and sat as close to the water level as I could. I felt silly doing it, but I took the flashlight and pointed it straight at my face, and I smiled. Sometimes I waved, and always I was careful not to hold the light below my face for that creepy Halloween effect, but mostly I just smiled. It felt ridiculous at first, shining a light on my face and just smiling, but Scott gave me the “OK” signal with his hand, so I knew it was what he needed: Just a face.
Wipe board obscenity
Certain that my smiling face would get boring fast, I passed the wipe-board and flashlight to Ben so he could write messages. First, cleverly, he wrote “hi,” and drew a big smiley face. Really? I thought. That’s what you come up with? But he was just warming up. Tash had revealed over dinner a few nights before that Scott thinks primarily about food and sex while he swims. So, it was fitting that Ben’s messages deteriorated quickly. The apex of his creative masterpieces: a big cartoon penis aside a curvy naked lady. It took Scott several breaths to the right to make out the picture. When Ben’s inspiration for messages waned, he handed me the flashlight and I went back to the smiling.
For the first 5 hours of the swim, Scott felt really sick. He complained of a stomach ache which he later attributed it to having eaten way too much before the swim began. In the moment, and during each of the scheduled feeds, he was certain that he had mis-marked the cup we were using, as he thought he was getting too much Maxim. He refused the solid foods on his plan, like banana and jelly babies, and wanted only water. Ben and I discussed what to do, but were confronted with conflicting ideas and desires. Scott wanted water. His plan was to drink black tea for one feed and then return to the Maxim. A member of the boat’s crew felt very strongly about what to feed and what not to feed, and it didn’t necessarily match what Scott had planned out with his coach, or what he was demanding. This was not my favorite part of this experience. At first I was determined to stick to the plan, but the conflicting opinions were being voiced vehemently, and things got tense. It was a battle to get Scott to continue to take in nutrition until hour 5, when he finally threw up and started feeling so much better.
By the two hour feed Tash was still throwing up, and Ian felt quite seasick too. Tired, he decided to head under to try to grab some sleep. Ben, who had not been showing any signs of seasickness, had puked aggressively during Scott’s first feed, but was feeling better.
By the 2 ½ hour feed Scott asked where everyone was. Concerned with how the fate of his crew would affect his already shaken state, I said, “sleeping.” He asked if Tash was sick. I admitted that she had been sick, but now she was sleeping. She heard him and peaked up from where she was hunkered down and gave a little cheer. Meanwhile, Ben rushed to the back of the boat for a second round of stomach emptying. Scott saw him and laughed. Since he was feeling quite sick himself, he asked for more frequent informational wipe board messages. In addition to his 5 minute alerts, he now wanted 15 minute messages as well. “Of course,” I said as I flinched at the thought, knowing it just added more details to juggle, and even more constant watching of the clock.
At about hour 3, Ian came back up on deck, having had minimal luck sleeping. Ben took this opportunity to get some rest himself. Of course it only took a few minutes before Ian started feeling quite ill again. He went below to try to use the head and didn’t come back up. And at that point I found myself all alone.
It was a strange feeling when I first realized I was alone in watching Scott. He was suffering, and attempting something huge, and I was there to make sure he was successful. I really don’t think I’ve ever been so focused in my life (and I’m a somewhat intense, focused person). And although it was the middle of the night, I felt as awake and alert as I possibly could. It was a sobering feeling.
Scott swam hour after hour in the cold, dark water feeling sick to his stomach. I sat on the steps down at water-level with a flashlight pointed at my face, and smiled at him through the hours of the night. I fought off sea-sickness with deep breathing and ginger biscuits. I thought about how stupid it was to swim across the English Channel. Obviously, I thought, it is a horrible, miserable endeavor—for everyone involved.
I had a watch on my wrist, and my down vest pockets filled with important tools. My camera was in one pocket, Scott’s phone in the other (for Tweeting updates to his followers). And the wipe board marker and a few loose ginger cookies got shoved in as well. Whenever it was time to flash a sign, I’d pocket the flashlight and write out a 15 minute or 5 minute message, then switch pen with flashlight and present it to Scott. After flashing Scott the 5 minute board, I’d pocket everything, leave Scott alone, and head up on deck to mix the feed. After each feed I went back up to record everything onto the clipboard, replace feeding paraphernalia, and then head back down the stairs to do more sitting, Tweeting, message writing, time-alerting, stroke-counting and flashlight-face smiling. It felt like it went on like that for hours. It was all consuming, but somehow also peaceful. Eventually Ian resurfaced looking much worse off and went immediately to the back of the boat to throw up. He helped hold on to feeds and handed them down to me, but mostly he felt too sick to do much.
Sun up, me down
As the sun began to show up on the horizon, a good 6+ hours into the swim, the seas calmed down a bit, and Scott’s crew began to reappear. I realized at some point that I no longer needed the flashlight, and was relieved to stick it in my pocket for good. Tash woke up and seemed to be doing a bit better. Ben came back up and Ian got ready to go in for his support swim, which he did even though he wasn’t feeling great. At some point I realized that as I went about my business of mixing feeds and writing messages, there were other voices with ideas and opinions about how each thing should be done. My initial thought of, “I got this,” was overpowered instantly with “Yes! Here is the board, the pen, the phone, the list, the watch, the details…” I left the newly awakened crew to themselves (~8 hours into the swim) and headed down below. I went to the berth at the bow of the boat, pulled a sleeping bag over myself, and was asleep in seconds.
Home stretch: party time
I woke up a few hours later as Ian came down to get ready for his second support swim (~10.5 hours). I was so comfortable and happy where I was, that I was tempted to continue sleeping. It occurred to me that I could easily sleep through the rest of the swim, and as that seemed like a bad idea, I roused myself and ventured back on deck. Tash greeted me with a smile. A smile! “Check this out!” she exclaimed as she gestured South, to the now quite visible French coastline. The sun was shining, and the water was still as glass. It was as beautiful and inviting as the night had been harsh and foreboding. Tash was beaming, clearly so relieved to be herself again, so proud of her husband, and so enjoying a lovely boat ride on a gorgeous day. I waved to Scott who smiled and waved back. He was clearly also in a much better place. Tash and the boat crew put on music and danced on the deck. It was another day, a different dimension altogether than the one I had left only a few hours before. The only thing that was the same was that Scott was still turning over his arms, 53 strokes per minute, swimming towards France.
I helped with feeding and messaging, but things were running smoothly without me. Ben was pretty much running the feeding show, with help from Ian. Tash had become photographer, Tweeter, and cheerleader extraordinaire. It was obvious that her overwhelming ebullience was boosting Scott’s spirits significantly. I noticed that for all of the fun and cheeriness that abounded on the boat, there were times when no one was looking at Scott. And although he was okay, not sick nor isolated in lonely darkness, I decided it was important to continue what I had started the night before. When he breathed right, I thought, he should see someone looking at him. So I stood by the railing, or sat down on the stairs at water level, and I continued to smile for the last 3 hours of his swim.
I’ll let Scott tell the end of this story:
The last couple of hours seemed to take an age! The whole time I knew I was home and dry, but it seemed to really drag on. All of the crews estimations seemed to take me longer than I thought as I continually worked out the maths in my head and counted strokes as if in my local pool!
However, eventually the end was in sight, an occasion clearly marked by my pilot, Lance Oram. As I’m sure he has done many times before, on numerous success stories, he donned a ‘French Beret’ and muttered something to me in a poor French accent! I’m still not sure what it was he said, but I got the gist of it and made my way to the rocks as he stopped the boat in the shallow waters.
As I made my last fifty or so remaining strokes towards France I went through a wave of emotions (excuse the pun) and my body again became full of adrenalin. I remember a few tears inside my goggles and of course a huge sense of relief in knowing that after 7 months of pure hard work I was actually going to make it!
It was lovely cruising in to the rocks, safe in the knowledge that I had made it and the feeling was made all the more sweet as Caitlin, Ben and Ian jumped into the water and swam in behind to enjoy the moment with me.
At 13 hrs 45 mins I clambered onto the rocks almost directly under the lighthouse at the ‘Cap Gris Nez’!
It was a real treat to share the final moment with Scott, aside from the unforgiving waves that bashed us all into the rocks on shore. Despite bloody calves, I took great pleasure in “swimming to France” for those final 100 yards or so. I smiled to myself as I swam, thinking, “I have a totally awesome life, full of amazing people, doing crazy-amazing things.” (Thanks in no small part to my Swimtrek adventure in April). I dove down and grabbed myself a French rock. It was my first time to France and I needed a souvenir.
On our way back to England, we stopped to show Nick Adams some love on his first leg of a 3-way attempt.
After a night spent in a very comfortable Dover hotel room, we saw our friend Peter off on his successful Channel crossing.