Four years ago I was a member of a Channel relay team that failed because I was not strong enough to continue. I was stopped whilst swimming for my own safety fifteen minutes into my second rotation. Swimming through an oil slick and some sewerage was a factor, but there was no one to blame but myself for not being fully prepared for the circumstances that can stop you from completing a Channel crossing. It has taken me a long time to put right the things that I felt were wrong and to organise a return trip. I have had to learn to breathe left, though still not entirely comfortable at it I can do it if I have to. I have learned to cope with the salt water taste, implemented controlled vomiting and to do it on the out breath without stopping. My stroke has become deeper and more powerful and my tolerance to the cold year on year has improved and is still improving.
The idea for the relay was Matthew King's, and it was to have an international flavour with him being Australian, Tejesh being Indian and Marey El Bejou being Libyan. Queensland floods and the war in Libya prevented Matthew and Bejou attending, but I thought about them both a lot during the swim and hope in future to be with them again on a similar adventure. Tamsin was to be in the team also, but the arrival of Lex prevented the essential winter conditioning that was needed to be dones.
The team I built around me was the strongest I could find:
Caroline Thorn - swimming at number one - is fast and thoughtful. Having trained diligently all winter whilst still maintaining a slim physique, Caroline is my best advert for the benefits of the Coldwater Culture programme. By conditioning her body to be resistant to the cold and maintaining proper distance training indoors, Caroline is very tough and still improving ready for her solo attempt in September. The beach start and the night swimming were things that Caroline wanted to practice and the relay was the ideal opportunity.
Tejesh Parsekar - Swimming at number two - is the World Record Holder for swimming the Arabian Sea and Gibraltar Strait backstroke. Tejesh has an ambition to gain the Channel record too, so his inclusion in the team was to give him some insight into night swimming and also the conditions on the French side that he will have to conquer in the final stages. Tejesh is in my opinion among the toughest men in the World, having swam to unconsciousness last year in a valiant solo attempt in very challenging conditions. I believe that he will be considered as one of the all time greats of open water swimming in years to come.
Steve Haywood - Swimming at number three - is Enduroman Four, one of only seven to complete the Arch to Arc London to Paris Triathlon. I know from being close friends that Steve is exceptionally gifted and tough and his prescence in the team was a massive bonus in experience and calm stoicism that he exhudes in everything he does.
Julie Ryan - Swimming at number four - has had exceptionally bad luck in 2009 with worsening weather halting her solo attempt. Her relay team of 2010 lost all it's members and a last minute addition to make it a two person attempt ended when her team mate could not continue due to being cold. Julie is very determined and tough and I wanted her experience and cheerful manner to be on the boat.
Paul Watson - Swimming at number five - trains with me all year round and despite being considerably smaller and less insulated against the cold will never back down from a challenge. We joke over who is the laziest, but it is definitely me. Paul, Tamsin and I have trained a number of years over the winter, the dark mornings and the ice all etched into our experience.
Dan Earthquake - swimming at number six - definitely the laziest of the team but I have put some effort into preparing for the worst of circumstances.
After my failure in 2007 I became friends with Stuart Gleeson and hired him and the Folkestone Angler for many training swims - at least a dozen, perhaps more. His good sense and honest appraisal along with his physical strength and dive rescue experience gave me great confidence that should I get into any difficulty he would be able to recover me onto the boat. This is an important consideration when you weigh over 100kilos. He has always hired excellent crewman, safety and experience always the priority. The crewman for this trip was also called Stuart - his day job is with the RNLI station on the Thames, and he has worked this stretch of coast with the RNLI as well, so is familiar with the conditions and more importantly the traffic.
Our team assembled on Monday 20th and we had a few training sessions between a lot of meals as is my habit. Tejesh did 2 six hour swims, a 7, a 4 and two 3's with Caroline doing a 5, 4 and a few 3s. Paul got caught up in the melee and tore up and down with them, Julie swam a few single hour swims whilst I stood in the water without a swimming cap and watched them for an hour at a time. My strategy was to eat as much food and rest as much as possible until the trip went, happy that the mileage and exposure I had done would be enough to cope with the conditions come what may. Lex joined me for a few minutes twice in the week gaining her first sea experience a fortnight before I did all those years ago. I kept in contact with Steve, who would join us at the weekend or the evening before the off whichever came first. We also had the pleasure of the company of Paul Ingenthron and Coldwater Culturists Sara Dodsworth, Charlie Forrest and Duncan Phillips over the week, welcome additions to the sessions and more importantly the dinners.
Staying as ever at my second home (The Grand Burstin Hotel) and eating at the Lifeboat Inn in North Street I was as comfortable as could be whilst waiting for the off.
The wind remained too strong all week, our hopes of Friday diminished with Sunday 26th always looking like our day. Stuart arranged to meet us at 430am on the Sunday, wind forecast looking promising. I awoke at four and looked out the window. Fog. Our drive to Dover Marina was cautious and on meeting our visibility was about 20 metres. Two other pilots instantly sent their swimmers and observers home whilst we decided to wait for the 6am shipping forecast in the hope of improvement. Amazingly two pilots ventured out into the fog, followed by another a few hours later, but the forecast was unfavourable. There were moments of silence, the team eager to go looked to me for a decision. Should we press to venture out in the hope that it would clear?
I kept silent and waited for Stuart. I have learned over the years that it is better not to get emotional or try to make important decisions without the right information. Stuart did not think it safe to venture out into the fog. The team talked briefly, agreeing that with work and travel commitments the afternoon evening would be our last chance. We went back to our respective lodgings. I ate and slept, then ate and slept again. The fog cleared a bit, got thicker and then disappeared. We met Stuart at 420pm in bright sunshine, loaded up and made our way to Shakespear beach. I threw a £2 coin over the side for King Neptune and benefit of future archaeologists.
Our observer was originally to be Steve Franks, but he was diverted to another boat to cover a two way swim that in the event never went. Arti Pradhan was then appointed, a good friend of mine and Tejesh and an experienced Channel swimmer and observer. Having been the person who trained and managed the CSA Observers for three years any of them would have been a friendly face so I always knew that whoever we got would be good support for the team.
Caroline started as planned at 5pm, powering us out of the way of Dover harbour entrance with a smooth and powerful stroke that we would be glad of each of her turns. We saw a few porpoises or dolpins here and there in the first hour, but didn't get any photos. Handing over to Tejesh, we watched again that amazing backstroke that has gained him the records and will gain him more. His smile and alternating closure of his nose passage by extending his jaw and lips are not easy to replicate. Some of the team had a go at backstroke earlier in the week finding it difficult in the waves and even worse to breathe. Tejesh smiles when we tell him, it is a technique that is as important to him as the turning of his arms. Caroline put on a large wetsuit and then climbed into a foil sleeping back which gave her the look of a NASA test pilot who had been recovered from a successful spaceflight ditch in the sea. Had someone told her it was fancy dress?
Steve ate lots of food at various times, slept for short periods when it suited him and swam strongly as we all knew that he would. He has not had anytime to train for this swim, having had one forty five minute session the day before after a six week lay off to run the Enduroman Deca. He told me he had to work hard to keep up with Tejesh on the Saturday, my estimation that the speeds of Steve, Caroline and Tejesh being about the same proving to be reasonably correct.
Whilst Steve was swimming we had a look to see if any of his food was more attractive than ours, his complaint of me not feeding him in 2007 on his Arch to Arc crossing was a constant source of amusement with everything offered to him being identified as something that was kept back from that trip.
Julie entered the water next and found the going a little tough. On exiting her mood was a bit glum and some doubts were apparent as the light started to fade and the reality of night swimming came to the fore. I reminded Julie that I had every confidence in her and the words of our mutual friend Karen Throsby "There is nothing so urgent in open water swimmming that cannot wait half hour or more" were later repeated.
Paul got in just before sunset and attacked his hour with usual ferocity. A hard act for me to follow these five, but that is why I asked them to accompany me. The two Stuarts considered issuing a warning to shipping that a large wave would likely eminate out once I jumped in, and in doing so I was surprised at the coolness before the eleven second thermostat kicked in and I made my way into the darkness. Sea Leopard was lit up beautifully and I smiled a lot to myself during my hour. I loosed off my wristwatch and let it fall into the depths, another gift for Neptune and a commitment to myself to swim without worrying how long I had to go. I sang "Wont get fooled again" by the Who and "I wish" by Stevie Wonder alternately. I watched seagulls circling above and saw Venus in the sky a few times. A few big waves gave me some surprises from large ships, though it was only occasionally I saw lights in the near distance. No point in trying to look ahead in the dark in the ocean. My earlier meal of noodles with some sort of spicy sauce repeated on me several times and Tom Beavers advice to vomit on the outbreath was again useful meaning that I could have the odd retch without breaking stroke or worrying unduly. I have got used to vomitting occasionally, dogs and babies do it easily enough so it was only a case of relearning what I had done in my very early years as a youngster.
All too quickly it was time to get out, Caroline taking over again with that smooth sleek stroke. The South west lane had been relatively quiet, but traffic in the North East Lane looked to be busy and it proved to be so. Tejesh leaped into the void, two lights attached to his trunks as one on the back of his head would be useless, and one on the front would be impractical. Caroline had been stung by Jellyfish on the calf, we put white vinegar onto the area and it seemed to give relief straight away. Tejesh caught a few on his back and legs, smiling that his face had not been immersed. Steve told us early in that he was getting some bad stings, but vigilence did not identify any. By the time he got out the effects were gone, so he didn't want the vinegar, prefering to snuggle into his sleeping bag without smelling like a pickled onion. Sleeping bags (army style and waterproof) are definitely usefull additions to the kit list of relay swims.
Julie followed Steve in with some apprehension having had some horrid stings in her past adventures,
but they left her alone. With the tide now pushing from behind Julie had an incredible hours progress, later telling us that looking at the beautiful red crescent moon was inspiring and telling herself "I can flounder for an hour" worked well. In the wheelhouse, the big ships were being sighted and their speed and course calculated in relation to us, with a diversion having to be made to avoid a tug with a phenomenally long cable pulling a barge the particular hazard. Stuart calmly altered our course to run parallel with it in the opposite direction so we went round the back without having to get close or stop and Julie did not notice. I think this might have cost us twenty minutes as the position we was hoping for was slightly negated by the diversion. Julie's 2 miles gave us a fighting chance. "I'm retiring from sea swimming now," Julie smiled, "It was much better than I thought it would be. No stings either."
I talked to Stuart about where we were heading and what we needed to do to achieve our goal. We were hoping to land on the Cape, but our position and progress suggested that we might miss it, and our strongest three would likely have to push hard to get back round for Julie, Paul and I to have a chance at landing. I then talked to Paul, who was next to go in. "If we can give a might push in this next two hours there's a chance that Caroline or Tejesh will land us on the Cape - but if not we'll get pushed round the corner" I told him. Paul nodded thoughtfully and from the moment he hit the water he sprinted, getting 4mph during his stage with the tide now flowing fast.
Caroline had been feeling sick for a while now, and cocooned in my German Army waterproof sleeping bag resembled a Moth pupa. I told her how we were doing and that she would likely feel better when swimming, and that we needed her speed to get us in. Either her or Tejesh would land if we could push to our capabilities. Conscious of the unpleasant taste left in my mouth from regurgitating the noodles, I had some fig rolls, dates and chocolate wafer biscuits with plenty of water. I had a plan.
Paul climbed back onboard shortly after I began my leg and I got into a strong pull rhythm, strangely thinking of my 500 lengths at Tiviton baths a few weeks ago when I was imagining doing this very swim. Still singing "I Wish," I noticed that the light was getting brighter and I watched as Steve clapped and everyone smiled and waved. Occasionally I felt a push from behind of the current and I let myself look up a few times and saw land ahead. I smiled to myself and felt hot. I had a few prickly sensations that lasted only a few seconds. Jellyfish? I am generally very thick skinned and laughed to myself about that. I took a mouthful of sea when a stray wave hit me on the breath so implemented my vomit plan. A little retch, breath in, vomit up on the out breath and a sweet combination of the earlier treats easily came up and took away the salt taste instantly without any unpleasantness. Controlled vomiting, without breaking stroke. I smiled again at my own cleverness and remembered the horrid half day nausea that I had experienced in the past. I noticed Caroline had climbed out of the sleeping bag and had her swimming hat on, but thought that only a few minutes had passed and that she was getting ready far too early. Steve waved frantically at me and I stopped to ask him what was wrong. "Times up," he said simply.
I climbed on board. Someone asked if I felt cold. I got them to put their hands on me, all of them were colder than I and on taking off my swimming cap my head was sweating. I smiled. Not many get out of the Channel sweating. I let the air dry me off and watched Caroline put in another amazing performance, all the more exceptional for how she had felt for the preceeding hours.
I checked on our progress. Our combined efforts were paying off and we had a good chance of getting in on Caroline or Tejesh's leg. Stuart felt that it might take Steve to land us, and Tejesh joked that he might just get in and treadwater so Steve could finish it off. "I've had my moneys worth," he said, "and if you do that, you won't be getting back on this boat."
Tejesh prepared himself for a third rotation, looking fresh and excited. Gris Nez tower was looking larger now and little Stuart began to get the punt ready. Tejesh gave him a carrier bag for pebbles and the flags in case it would be his job to finish.
Caroline gave it her all and with five minutes of her hour to go we had just half a mile to the Cap. Tejesh was ready and he leaped over the side and began that machine of a stroke, powering hard again. It now looked like we might get him in on the slipway below the cafe to the left of the rocks, safer than having to clamber out. There is always that fear that a tired swimmer will slip and hit their head. Tejesh had other ideas and with great strength powered across the current to towards the sandy beach. Little Stuart followed, landing a little in front in time to take a photo of him exiting.
On Sea Leopard, we had looked at the clock. Steve said "I hope I haven't got to swim half a mile to then just walk up the last two yards," but we knew that Tejesh had broken the current by this time.
Tejesh collected pebbles for us all - and one for Matthew King who had given him one last year from Shakespear beach with the instruction to get one to go with it from the French side.
Back on board, all smiles. Sea Leopard was made ready for the journey back - I can remember a good many trips that seemed to last forever. Stuart put the lever forward and we sped back to Dover at 18 knots. The deck was dry throughout the trip there and back, the design of the boat and the weather being the main reasons. I have had wet feet in many instances in lesser swells than we experienced on this trip.
The sunshine at this early hour was to get hotter as the day progressed and I was thankful that we were not leaving now to have a day in the heat, something I have no tolerance for. I would have had to act as the drogue in such circumstances. Stuart Gleeson and I talked on the way home a lot, he asked if I liked the new boat. "I have a great nostalgia for Folkestone Angler," I told him, "as I have had such great enjoyment these last few years swimming alongside." Stuart smiled and replied "Folkestone Angler served it's purpose. I'll be sad to see it go, but Sea Leopard is the natural progression." I agreed, and looked back at my happy dry friends sitting comfortably as we ploughed back across the Channel.
Back on shore John Ryan gave us all medals and we posed for a thousand photographs with happy smiles and warm hearts. First trip on the Sea Leopard. First CSA success of the year. Thirteen hours and fifty one minutes. Our average speed was 2mph, our fastest was 4mph.
My gratitude to this team is beyond what I can articulate, and to have such good friends is a wonderful thing. I came this week intending to have fun. I knew that luck would be the determining factor to success and resolved that no matter what happened I would have had a great week in the best of company,whether this was on the boat, beach or in the Lifeboat Inn eating large meals (thanks Laura and Annette) with the team and my friends from Folkestone Rescue.