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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Gerhard Stiglmayr Solo swim, 11th July 2011

Observer Report for CSA 247 – Gerhard Stiglmayr 11th July 2011, by Dan Earthquake.

0130hrs. Leaving Birmingham, I made my way along an empty set of motorways to arrive at Dover Marina for 0415, plenty early enough to meet the boat as appointed at 0600.

0600. Pilot Stuart Gleeson arrives with the swimmer, Gerhard Stiglmayr. It was a meeting of hats and facial hair – my beard and bowler to Gerhard’s fedora and handlebar moustache. Also introduced is Stuart Adams, crewman for this voyage.

We board Sea Leopard and each set about our respective tasks. I gain correct spelling of names and fill out the official papers accordingly whilst the two Stuarts get the boat underway.
Gerhard has bought no assistant to feed him – I take the job – and he explains what he wants and when.

Remarkably Gerhard had bought his carbohydrate powder in South Africa, and carried it in his case in clear unmarked freezer bags. Customs at Johannasburg, Munich and Gatwick had not checked his bag or questioned him about the contents which is remarkable given the appearance. I wondered what the coastguard would make of it should they board the boat, and the preparation of the feeds gave us constant amusement throughout the day. Gerhard had put each measure into a small sealed bag labelled 1 to 21 with the time between feeds so the first bag read 1 – 55m, and the time reduced gradually down to 35 mins by the 21st feed. I was to mix this powder with 3 teaspoons of chocolate flavoured protein powder, add a quarter bottle of asda isotonic drink and top up with warm water from the kettle. In some of the feeds Gerhard had mixed some anti inflammatory pills ground up. The carb powder was free from additives or flavouring but smelt of cat urine when mixed with water. It was not at all appealing to me, but Gerhard found it perfect and has used this mix many times before.

Gerhard is 55. A chain smoker until ten years ago, he took up open water swimming as a sport in 2004 as an activity to do with his daughter, who is now 16 and considering doing a relay next year. Gerhard found that although not fast, he could keep going for a long time and had extra feeds and other food in a separate bag in case he felt good on reaching France and decided to have a go at swimming back. He has swam the Rhode Island swim a few times and is a good friend and training partner with Richard Childs. Richard swam the Channel last year with Stuart and during the course of the day called up on Stuarts phone to offer encouragement and friendly insults. In each case I passed on the former but not the latter.

The day was already looking to be a good one for the swimmer – hot at this early hour with clear sky and little wind. I was glad many times of the overhang from the fly deck of Sea Leopard for its shade, not being a fan of the heat. We passed others on the way to Shakespeare beach en route to our starting point of Samphire Ho. Sea Leopard is a wonderful boat to observe or swim with – it has plenty of deck space, a proper bench to sit on and some comforts – a flush toilet with locking door, 24/7 kettle, double bunks below and indoor seating for crew and observer (and swimmer) on the way back. Additionally it travels at 18 knots to the starting position and home which is fantastic and heart warming to pass the rest of the fleet that plods at varying speeds but none as fast as us.

“Big Stuart” Adams – crewman today – works for the RNLI having served at Dungeness and remarkably lives next door to the other Sea Leopard crewman, “Golden Boy little Stuart” Richardson who works on the RNLI Thames station near Waterloo bridge. The joke is that to get a job on Sea Leopard you have to be involved with the RNLI and be called Stuart or else you fail the interview. All three Stuarts are good fun to hang about with and I knew that this trip, like others I have been on with them would be fun.

Gerhard, dressed in shorts, thin shirt and fedora looked happily at the white cliffs and I explained that Samphire Ho was an artificial piece of land created from the excavations of the Channel Tunnel. I reminded him that he had signed acceptance of the CSA rules with his application and that he would not be able to touch the boat once underway else be disqualified from the swim. I also advised him to resist the urge to run up the beach on the other shore and instead crawl up carefully to avoid fainting. He showed me his damaged toe, which has been subject to a number of objects dropping onto it over the past few weeks and told me he would not be running anywhere. I checked his costume to be legal within the rules and cap, which was the one issued in his registration pack. I told him the start procedure, and asked if he had any questions. “Yes, would you do the swim for me and I will watch?” was his reply.

With that he stripped off, applied suncream to face and neck and I sprayed it on his back. Then came a small amount of Vaseline under the arms, with a larger amount on the back of the neck. He gave me his ventolin pump and spare cartridges, asked if I would take some photographs with his camera and now in position leaped over the side in the manner that small children bomb into a swimming pool and swam off towards the beach. On the beach he stood and remained with his back to us until ready. Then, as arranged, he turned round, we blasted the horn and I started the stopwatch and noted the time to be 0654 confirming this with Stuart Gleeson as back up.

Gerhard started and within a minute stopped to remove his wristwatch which he did not want for the duration of the swim, also asking for a gasp of ventolin. The pole was extended and the watch deposited into the net bag for recovery, the ventolin was used and replaced in the net. Off we go again, first count showing his stroke to be 57 per minute. I count for the full minute, sometimes two to be sure of the timing, but this is often interrupted, so in itself takes up some time during the trip.

I organised my kit. My waterproof rucksack has multiple pockets with everything I could want contained within. A large Carrabina hooks onto one of the Sea Leopards u bolts and it is secure in the corner. Similarly I tie Gerhards Kit bag to one of the hooks so it cannot slide around and hang the rubbish bag, feed bag, my water flask and Gerhards fluid bucket to the rail. This few minutes of preparation is well worth the effort as later in the trip when big swells from passing ships rock the boat none of the equipment is sliding about and everything is easy to get to when needed. I put the official papers in the cabin on a clipboard for the hourly checks and make small notes along the way. Stuart Gleeson takes this opportunity also and gives the deck a bit of a scrub. There are no open scuppers on this boat, high sided and angled to the back any water drains backwards and exits via two holes protected by flaps above the waterline. A purpose built ladder allows easy access from the stern for returning swimmers/relay swap overs and my feet are never wet at all during the voyage – luxury for an observer on a cross channel swim.

At 740 we blast the horn and shout “Follow the boat” – the first time of many. Gerhard breathes predominately to the right and prefers to stay on the left of Sea Leopard, though he explained earlier that should we need him to move to the opposite side for wind protection he can do that. He occasionally breathes bilaterally, but does have a tendency to wander left which we have to correct a number of times during the trip.

750. it is time for the first feed, I attach the bottle to the rope of the feeding pole and extend, it is not as effective as for small items and the feed takes a minute. Gerhard has the whole bottle – 750ml. Stuart finds me a reel of rope which I attach the bottle to with a slipknot for the next and subsequent feeds.

827. I count his stroke as being 55spm.

845 feeding time again. This time I cast the bottle to him and get a direct hit on his head! We laugh. He later tells me that he could see that my lifesaving skills of throwing ropes could be effective. I threw everything past him after that. 

At 906 I take a photo of a P&O ferry passing us on the way to Dover in the background (about a mile away) for him on his camera. It has an 18x zoom and video clip mode, so during the course of the day I try and get the ships that pass and some good shots of him. Not easy when the swimmer is moving and the boat is rocking. Lots of useless shots of sky and sea. A dolphin or porpoise – I have never seen two together to know the difference -circles him twice. He does not see. I race for the camera and hold it for ten minutes but never see it again.

Among the many boats out today, I see Viking Princess ahead. Having spoke to Mikee Phillips earlier at Dover Marina, I know he is the observer for this trip, so I call him and tell him we are catching up. “I’m having bacon and eggs,” he tells me. If you come past us I’ll throw something over for you. We laugh and I curse myself for not bringing similar supplies for the stove. Next time. Gerhard’s handlebar moustache hangs down like tusks, thus giving him the name of the Walrus used by Richard Childs.

940. We feed again, 30 seconds and off.

959. I record his stroke as being 54spm.

1045. We enter the South West Lane, Stuart Gleeson informs Dover Coastguard over the VHF radio.

The straits of Dover are arranged like a motorway – Northbound traffic travels in the South West Lane closest to the the English Coast, and this is controlled by Dover Coastguard. Southbound traffic travels in the North East Lane and is controlled by Gris Nez Traffic. There is a separation zone between the two, the lanes are maintained for deepwater vessels of which there are numerous – Dover Strait is the busiest shipping lane in the world. There are strict regulations – and penalties – for crossing the lanes at anything other than right angles. Channel Swimming Escort Pilots have to demonstrate to the Marine Coastguard Agency that they are capable of navigation and operate vessels under a strict safety code in order to be allowed to cross that lanes at varying angles as per the swimmers speed, which can be less than 1mph. Some of the larger vessels are travelling at 18 knots and are on automatic GPS courses controlled from their company headquarters. Whilst all ships in the Channel carrying freight and passengers have to have AIS – Automatic Idenfication for Ships – the system is reliant on each ship keeping a sharp lookout for each other. Unfortunately it has been shown that some of the large ships negotiate this stretch of water without anyone on the bridge, thus making the information messages, radio contact and AIS useless as no one is watching or listening. Channel Swimming Escort Pilots certainly earn their money by getting the swimmers across these dangerous stretches.

1055. Feed. Gerhard reminds me of the favour he asked – to sort out his hire car and flight arrangements. We are now used to each other and everything is very easy and smooth. At 1105 the coastguard gives and traffic announcement informing shipping that there are 13 small boats with swimmers spread out across the South West Lane and requesting that all ships keep a sharp look out for them. Later the number is 14, Sea Venture 2 starting later after us. I look on the other side of the boat and notice that there are three large boats approaching us. Gerhard is swimming at 55 strokes per minute.

1135. 56 strokes per minute. I leave the feed a few extra minutes to help Stuart get out of the way of a few big ships that pass. I take some close photos of encounters behind and in front, but we have no such concerns. The two Stuarts make the calculations and adjust us accordingly without having any difficulties.

1205. I make arrangements to extend the hire of his car and to reschedule his flight for Wednesday instead of Tuesday. I joke with the two Stuarts that I more a butler than an observer. I make the calls and sort things out for him, his feed at 1225 is late but he does not notice. We are out of the way of shipping now, so no urgency.
1233. A small amount of weed appears, we see it for the next few hours. There is a clump of it about two feet in diameter and in this vast expanse of ocean Gerhard manages to swim straight towards it and through it, looking surprised at the encounter.

1249. Anastasia, escorting a relay swim that started before us is now 100m astern of us. Their course over the day is much the same as ours, it turns out.

1320 feed. Pathfinder is 1 mile to port side. Viking Princess is 300m to starboard. I’m guessing all the bacon has been eaten and it is too far to throw now anyway.

1350 Anastasia is now 200m to port. Viking Princess is 800m to starboard. Gerhard is swimming well at 54spm.

1405 feed. We tell him that he will need to keep a bit closer. Richard Child has sent a good luck message for Gerhard. We don’t relay the bit that says “Let the Kraut swim to Holland if he wants,” such things will be told afterwards. We enter the separation zone.

1427. 51strokes per minute. Sporadic weed. Anastasia has pulled in front, whilst Viking Princess has dropped back. At 1428 Gerhard asks “Why are we slowing down?” He is looking at Anastasia. I explain that they are a relay team and that the fastest members are likely back in now.

1450. Viking Princess has aborted. Over the course of the day most do, but I don’t always record it as other things are going on more important to us.

1452. 54 strokes per minute. Cool breeze now, nice after all the heat. I have been glad of having a sponge in my pocket to wash my face a few times. The sea has flattened off. Almost as good as the conditions I had for my relay swim a few weeks ago. Almost.

1500. Gallivant has aborted. We watch as it zooms off to converge with 2 other boats. Sharing out the remaining bacon sandwiches, I suppose.

1505. Feed. Good humour from Gerhard, happy and enjoying the conditions.

1509. We enter the North East Lane. 

1520. We blast the horn and have to shout a lot. Gerhard has got the Holland course logged in to his head again.

1526. Ferry passes. Water is clear and there is lots of plankton visible.

1550. Feed. I relay a well done message from Karen Gibson from his phone. Amazingly she asks also “how is the swimming going?” as if he is going to text back a reply whilst treading water. 54 strokes per minute as he starts back up again.

1617. 52 strokes per minute.

1630. Feed.

1710. Feed. Richard Childs has sent another well done message. We later find out that as close friendly rivals there is a certain amount of checking to see if Gerhard is getting close to beating his time. Gerhards intention to set out again on a return crossing is also a hope to tell Richard that he “swam further” so fuelling the competition.
1721. 54 strokes per minute.  1732 big ships wash rocks the boat.

1745. A red ship – Talisman - from the VFB line is approaching at speed. It is 240metres long. After calculating it’s course and ours, we decide to give him a feed and warn him about the wash it is likely to create.

1750. Feed and wave warning. He looks up a few minutes later as it passes and makes some comment in German – I am guessing it is an expletive. Amazingly despite the speed there is hardly any wash or big waves. I get some good photos on both his camera and mine.

1804. More weed. I’m yawning a lot now, already it feels like it has been a long day. I sort his feed bags out into order again and notice that bag 18 is missing. I check the rubbish bag, but I have not given it earlier. Later, after the swim is over Gerhard jokes that Stuart had eaten it. Anastasia ahead on the same course is about half a mile in front. Sea Satin which has been behind us on the same course for most of the way is now dropping back a little. It did appear at one point that we might be towing them as they had maintained the same speed and course for a few hours. Pace Arrow is on a parallel course to us a mile to port, earlier it was much further away.  We have a clear horizon for big ships, not much traffic at all now.
1830. Feed. Something solid and ventolin requested for next time.

1855. Tide is starting to turn. We are further out from the coast than is ideal.

1910. Feed. Half energy bar and ventolin.

1952. Feed. Attached lights ready for the darkness. Gerhard asks “How far?” An impossible question to answer as the tide is now pushing us parallel to the French coast. I know that Stuart and Gerhard talked a number of times prior to the swim, so when Stuart answers simply “Follow the boat,” Gerhard nods and carries on.
2035. Feed. Some shivering? The first time I have seen him do so. “I can’t keep up with the boat” he says. Stuart explains that we are mainly idling and drifting. Stuart explains now that the tide is running up the coast and we are trying to get across it. Gerhard wonders if we would be better to just swim in the same direction as it is going, but Stuart explains that this will take us further away faster as the coast cuts back towards Calais. Gerhard continues.

2049. “What are the chances?” Gerhard shouts. “We have to keep going. It’s possible.” Stuart replies.

2100. We exit the North East Lane – finally. We have been running up it and this movement out of the purple band on the electronic chart feels significant. Unfortunately there isn’t a purple band on the sea bed that Gerhard can see, so for him any forward sighting that he does will look much the same, worse now in fact as the light is receding.

2110. Feed. A good positive stop. Gerhard has been wondering off course to port up the lane a few times. This is because the tide is pulling him faster than the boat is drifting as the wind is now against tide. We explain this and ask him to change sides so that we can protect him a bit from the waves and have him closer now that darkness is setting in. We feed him a banana whilst explaining. The wind is picking up now and it’s cooler. We start again and almost instantly Gerhard veers left and almost crashes into the Sea Leopards Starboard side. Stuart blast the horn, and Gerhard gives a hearty laugh and changes direction again. We all laugh.

2122. Gerhard has upped his pace to 61spm. He is giving another big push, remarkable now given the time he has been swimming and a measure of his own calculations. How tired is he? How long can he keep the pace up for? Is he having one last push before he calls it a day? We do not know, but are all impressed by this effort.

2148. Banana feed. Gerhard is positive. He asks me to get a different feed mix for next time – in his case he has a bag of other mixes –for his return journey. They are marked “Start back,” “halfway” “three quarters.” They are bigger mixes with anti inflammatories mixed in, and this is what he wants next.

The moonlight is shining a path to Gris Nez. I have seen photos from observers before of this, and this has been especially heart warming for the swimmers who are aiming for that landing point. Tonight though, the tide is against us. I hope that Gerhard hasn’t noticed, but I know he will have done. Later, after the swim, he tells me and Stuart that we should have arranged for the moon to move into a more convenient position, perhaps with the help of NASA to light him a path in the direction that we were heading.
2153 Rough now. Big swells are rocking the boat and it is harder to move about and get things done. Even though I have secured everything, topping up feed bottles and pouring water from the kettle is a challenge, though none is spilt.

2201. Rough. I note it again because it is more noticeable. I change my kit now it is dark, having felt cool for the last hour. I know that it can be hard for the swimmer who is swimming in the sea and who is ignoring the feeling of the cold to see people on the boat wrapping up warm. I put on a fluorescent jacket over the top of my wetsuit so that I can be easily seen by Gerhard, hoping it will give him some confidence that I am watching him. On trips I take canoe clothes and wet gear as well as waterproofs. I come with the expectation of ending up soaked, so whatever I have will be comfortable at least. In minutes I am warm again and feel much happier and less tired. I ask Big Stuart to make sure the bunk is ready for the finish with my thick sleeping bag unrolled and we make warm plans for getting him back on board when the time comes so that we can protect him from the wind as soon as he is finished.

2220. Feed. The natural question of how far are we away from France is asked. We are two miles (ish) from Sandgatte which is now lit up in front of us.

2256. We are still 2 miles off Sandgatte, just further up towards Calais. Gerhard knows this because he can see the lights ahead and he is looking up a few more times now. It is frustrating. On the chart we have now moved into the blue section, but there is still over 30metres of water beneath us. From past trips the swimmer wont move forward significantly until there is less than 20. I ask Stuart how long this will be as Gerhard is certain to ask on the next feed in less than ten minutes. It will be two and a half hours if he can keep the pace going. We will cross Calais harbour. If the pace drops than it is likely that we will cross Calais harbour again and then get in as the tide turns again. This will be four and a half hours. To have to tell this to a swimmer who has already swam sixteen hours and increased his pace already is tough. His stroke rate has dropped below 50 for the first time now and I warn the Stuarts that we may need to make a recovery shortly. We are all ready. Gerhard is tough and strong, it is impossible to gauge how he is feeling now but the darkness and the swells make the situation potentially more dangerous.

2309. Feed. Information is asked for and given. “My right shoulder is fucked,” he says with some resignation, “One last try.”

2313. Gerhard aborts the swim, his shoulder unable to propel him further. We recover him onboard. He is warm to the touch and not cold at all. Towel dry and into the sleeping bag in the bunk. The drogue is recovered. The put is pulled on board. Everything is packed away and bought into the cabin and we make for Dover at 18 knots, Stuart giving his turbos a good workout. The journey back is uneventful. Gerhard and I talk and then we both have a sleep leaving the two Stuarts to their navigation.

Final position of the swim – 2miles off Sandgatte. Lat 5057008 Long 001404450

We leave the boat at 0230 hours. Stuart, Gerhard and I will meet for dinner tomorrow. It has been a long day, and I drive Gerhard back to the Burstin as I am staying there also. He is disappointed, frustrated but also realistic. There is humour and plans for the future.

Dan, Gerhard & Stu
A delightful man to be in the company of. Gerhard will be back!

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