Swimmers view

Swimmers view
Sea Leopard - swimmers eye view

Monday, 1 August 2011

ZRSDP Channel Relay 119R – 25th July 2011 - report by Dan Earthquake

“In Dover, decked out in ZRSDP team apparel. All the gear but no idea. surveyed the port, saw France, just 21 miles away”
I had this curious message forwarded to me a few days before being recruited to observe this swim, but didn’t know what ZRSDP stood for. I guessed my friend had found “All the gear but no idea” amusing, as I did. It was not until after the swim that I realised that the original message had been sent by the Captain of the very team I had been observing, but having been with them for the day they certainly were a happy and good humoured group.

I met the boat at 0430 as requested and tied my rucksack and paraphernalia to wall mountings on the rear of the cabin as is my habit on Channel Crossings. The team assembled on the public pontoon at 0445 with a crate of food, a box of utensils, pans and bottles and various rucksacks and bags. Waterproof sacks the size of bin bags with clip fastenings were labelled with each persons name. There were lots of people, all in blue hoodie tops and at this point it was hard to discern the swimmers from the supporters. At 0449 introductions were made between the team, me and the crew of the Sea Leopard – Stuart Gleeson (Pilot) and Stuart Adams (crewman). The luggage was passed aboard and at 0458 a team photograph was taken before the swimmers and one supporter came aboard and the rest left the pontoon via the steps to the dock above, keen to get to ShakespeareBeach in time for the start.
Leaving Dover Harbour behind

We were underway by 0500, safety briefing given before leaving the harbour walls and much movement on deck with people arranging their kit. I gained the names for the official forms, checking spellings and confirming the order in which the team would be swimming. Accompanying the team was “Uncle Peter” Dobson, who was indeed the uncle of one of the swimmers, and father in law to another. The team itself are close friends – a few went to school together – two are cousins, whilst the brother in law of one is a friend of another. I lost track of the connections, but suffice it to say that they were very comfortable in each others company, always good for a team.

Viking Princess carrying Chloe McCardle
The swells outside the harbour rocked the boat as we left the safety of the walls and we overtook Viking Princess carrying Chloe McCardle and Jolly Sailor carrying her film crew. Louis Jane followed them to Samphire Ho, whilst we made for Shakespeare beach, arriving behind Suva, Anastasia, Seafarer and Pathfinder. Sea Venture 2 had left earlier and Sea Satin, Masterpiece, Gallivant and Pace Arrow were also escorting swimmers today. Conversation on board was often directed towards the thought of what Chloe must be thinking prior to starting her three way attempt, and constant checks on how far away she was from us were made during the day.

I reminded the team of the pertinent rules regarding costumes and examined the first two swimmers who were wearing those, others I inspected later on, prior to getting in the water. Jamie was to be the first swimmer, so I briefed him on the start procedure. At 0510 Jamie began limbering up by swinging arms and stretching, and as we pulled in towards the pebbles of the beach we could see the blue tops of the supporters waving and cheering.

At 0527 Jamie Drysdale leaped over the side and swam to shore, greeted by his friends. We waited as Jamie made his preparations, back to us as instructed. He turned to us briefly, but then turned away again for a few seconds before raising an arm to give us the signal he was ready to start. Stuart sounded the horn, I started the stopwatch and noted the time as being 0528, giving this information to Stuart as a back up. Jamie entered the sea and began to swim.
Jamie swims away from the White Cliffs

Team Captain James Herbertson then gave me a rundown of what ZRSDP stands for – the Zimbabwe Rurul Schools Development Programme, of which the team are raising money for in the hope of £10,000 for building a new school. As the day progressed news via text, twitter, facebook and phone calls kept the totals coming in and it turned out that the team managed to gain £21,000 in sponsorship by the time they got off the boat.

At 0551 Stuart contacted Dover Coastguard to inform them of our intention to escort the swimmers across the Channel giving the relevant administrative information. Jamie swam strongly, and the two foot swells got less the further away from shore that we went. I put sun cream on, the early heat of the day giving me some indication of what was to come later.

0556 – Dark object sighted ahead, possibly a seal. The team are excited and get cameras ready. A few minutes later it is identified as a lobster pot marker buoy.

0610 – The first of many pots of homemade spaghetti bolognaise are emptied into the pan and heated. The team are fans of proper food on such trips and the “WAGS” (wives and girlfriends) are praised for providing copious amounts for the team to consume.

0622 – Angus Hodson gets ready for the first changeover.

0628 – Gus goes over the side. The team is eager to find out how far each has done, this involves a check with one of the Stuarts giving the previous latitude so the screen curser can be positioned on the line already travelled. I do this every time before they ask to save harassing the pilot/crew unnecessarily, especially when negotiating the shipping lanes. It transpires that Jamie covered 1.8 nautical miles in his first leg. Complicated calculations are then made to convert the information into statute miles and kilometres.


0705 I record Gus to be swimming at 64strokes per minute. I am asked a question for the third time, the others groan and I ask where the enquirer has been for the last hour or so. It is a trend that occurs many times during the day, and each time it is met with derision from the rest of team that asked – and listened to the answer – first.

Richard Stretching.
0728 – Richard Hogg enters the water, he has a straight arm stroke and a curious twist of the wrist in the recovery phase of his front crawl. Gus has swam 1.7 nautical miles. The calculations begin again. It is a time of filming and speeches, with voice overs and general speech resembling the continuity announcer of Channel four emphasising the drama of the event. They point the camera at me a few times.

Uncle Pete & Justin
0828 – James Herbertson enters the water. Richard has swam 2 nautical miles. James encounters some seaweed, the first clumps of many. James is swimming at 70 strokes per minute as he enters the South West shipping lane.

0852 – James is wearing an Aquasphere swim mask, and in common with everyone else who I have ever watched swimming with them stops to adjust them. I have also tried them and gave them away as I found them to leak. That's not to say Aquasphere make bad goggles - I wear their Eagle prescription goggles and they are the best I have ever tried.

James with Varne Lightship in the background
0908 – Varne Sands lightship is in the background, great for photographs a mile or more behind him. I’m asked what the Varne Sands lightship is and in explaining that it is there to mark a danger to shipping, someone asks if anything has ever run aground on the Varne Sands. This leads to Stuart Gleeson explaining about the accident in 1971 that led to the creation of the traffic separation scheme.

The Straits of Dover are arranged like a motorway, with two separate lanes for traffic – the South West Lane and the North East lane. This scheme is called the Dover Traffic Separation System which was introduced after a series of accidents which started on the 11th January, 1971. The disaster happened when the Peruvian freighter Paracus hit the tanker Texaco Caribbean in thick fog causing the Texaco Caribbean to explode and sink with the loss of many crew members. The explosion was heard and felt throughout the South Kent area. The wreckage was hit the following day by the West German cargo ship Brandenburg which also sunk with the loss of 24 of its 32 crew members. On the 27th Feb 1971, the wreckage was also hit by the Greek cargo ship Niki, which sank with the loss of its entire crew.

Following a government enquiry, the Dover Traffic Separation System (TSS), the world's first maritime radar controlled TSS was set up by the International Maritime Organization. The shore-based long range traffic control system was updated in 2003. Marinas along both coasts provide information on the Traffic scheme and Channel weather. The scheme allows vessels travelling north to use the North East Lane on the French side of the straits and south bound vessels to use the South West lane on the English side. Between these two channels is a separation zone. Coastal traffic and yachts passing between marinas can use the inshore zones and vessels crossing the scheme, such as ferries, must cross at 90 degrees. Channel Swimming escort pilots are allowed to cross the lanes but have to be certified as competent by the Marine Coastguard Agency with stringent safety rules for equipment carried on the boat including the AIS – Automatic Identification of Ships radar. This allows the coastguards and other shipping to see vessels on their radar giving information of where they are going, how fast and what size they are.

0926 – Suzanne Gibson makes a speech for the video camera. “I think that Channel Swimming is a very wholesome thing and that it is the duty of every citizen to have at least one go at it.” Suzi also explains that she will not swim straight away as she needs to urinate before starting, the threat of the video is mentioned but is soon forgotten.
0928 – Suzi enters the water, we discover that James has swam 1.8 nautical miles. The team have now got into a habit of holding up a white board with the numbers of 30, 45 and 55 at the corresponding minutes accompanied by a lot of cheering and waving. It is not too hot, surprisingly, and more pleasant on deck than I had thought it would be. Suzanne swims 1.5 nautical miles in her rotation.

1028 – Justin Hess enters the water.


1041 – We enter the Separation zone.

1049 – A few jellyfish are sighted and this leads to a discussion about them.

1115 – We leave the Separation zone.

1124 – Seafarer 2 aborts. During these first few hours of the swim it was initially in front of us. Then we drew level and for a while it was on our port side and then went in front of us, crossed our bow and ended up on our Starboard side before we overtook again to get in front. Of course, it is always how the swimmer is affected by the action of the tides, the pilots have to adjust their courses accordingly. Justin has achieved 2 miles in his hour.

1128 – Jamie enters the water for his second rotation. There is now some friendly competition between the team over who is getting the furthest on their hourly slots and the speeches for the video reflect this between bulletins from the mobile phones regarding money raised. Spirits are high and the weather and conditions are good.

1129 – Stuart blasts the horn at Jamie who is swimming away from the boat. He readjusts and comes back towards us.

1135 – Weed, varied clumps and blooms that always seem to catch the swimmer unawares.

Richard swimming on a sea of glass

1215 – Pace Arrow, which was just in sight for most of the day on our Port side aborts. The team asks who was swimming and why they did not continue, but this is not information that is generally available unless you know someone on the boat, and in this case I do not. Jamie finishes his hour having covered 2 nautical miles.

1228 – Gus gets in for his second swim.

1258 – I have been asked to comment upon a discussion regarding the distance swam and how much further there is to go. I tell the team that it is an impossible question, as the effects of wind and tide in the next few hours will affect their progress and that I am not familiar enough with their individual capabilities to calculate how far they have left to swim. It is better to follow the boat and not look ahead as the sight of France can be very beguiling. This discussion is interrupted by the Peter showing Gus the 30 minute sign which causes everyone to jump up and down, clap and cheer loudly.

This amazingly does not wake Suzi who has developed a good habit of catnapping between eating and swimming. The team has a good system of looking after the person who has just finished, and before each swimmer exits the water their towel and clothes are made ready and a hot drink that they asked for before getting in is heated. I feel that the care that they give each other is very effective and worth mentioning.

Gus waiting for Zara to pass
1304 – Zara is a 100metre long Cargo ship heading for Dordrecht travelling at 9.9knots up the North East Lane. The two Stuarts make their calculations and decide to make Gus treadwater in order for it to pass at a safe distance from us. Gus isn’t pleased but realises the importance of this when he looks up and sees it passing in front of us 400metres away. Gus takes the opportunity to have a few swigs of Lucozade and loses maybe two minutes due to the stop. He continues on purposefully.

1317 – Petkum is a 161metre long Cargo ship heading for Antwerp travelling at 15.3knots up the North East Lane. It passes 400metres astern of us with no issues.


1328 – Richard enters the water for his second rotation, Angus is pleased to hear that he has done the furthest distance so far of 2.5 nautical miles.

1348 – Uncle Pete peels the cellophane off what appears to be a large sausage which is some sort of cured raw beef. He offers me some, but it’s not appealing to me. Most of the team have a chunk, except for Richard who is the current swimmer.

1349 – We exit the North East lane and Stuart Gleeson informs the Gris Nez Traffic that we are entering the French inshore waters. Conversations between Pilot and Coastguard are beautiful sonnets exchanging information. It is interesting to listen as each of the pilots call up, everyone calls each other sir and the French chap on the other end of the radio has a musical voice which I have heard a few times over the past few years. He seems bored by it all, and we hear him call up each vessel and ask where they are headed, how many are on board, enquire after damage and defects and finally sign off with “Good watch sir.” Occasionally there are a few real gems – broad Kent accents sometimes confuse him and a ships captain with an accent I could not place gave a stream of information that had to be repeated several times. Finally the musical French voice came back with “Thank you sir, have a good watch,” and we wondered if he had just given up and resigned himself to the fact that the desired information was unintelligible.

1423 – Richard seems to be speeding up noticeably and I count his stroke – I am right, he has upped from his usual 53/54 to 59. I see fist sized jellyfish pass him within a few inches – it is a Pelagia Noctiluca which is purple in colour and can give a reasonable sting. The team are pleased it has missed him, but I point out that if there is one, there are likely a few (thousand) more in the vicinity. I ask if they have any white vinegar for him, they have normal stuff for putting on chips.

France seems close now, we are looking at the tide changing in a few hours and the team is upbeat and positive. I’m asked if it is likely that the team will finish before a third rotation. I can’t be sure, and Stuart Gleeson agrees that it is unlikely. I tell James that his leg is very important as we are now not far off the Cape and likely to be swept around it towards Boulogne. We are in about 40 metres of water, so the current and tide are greatly affecting our position and when it changes in the next few hours it will take us back round and up towards Calais. A good effort from James now could mean that one of his first two swimmers will have a good chance of landing, but he has some serious distance to cover. He is positive and happy to give it his best.

1428 – James leaps over the side and immediately gets himself into a strong rhythm which he keeps for the full hour. Richard has red marks like small cuts on his face – he has been stung. We tell him that he has covered 2.5 nautical miles. The Aloe Vera tube comes out again, it was used earlier with deep heat for James’ back and now it is being rubbed on his face. He doesn’t complain of the stings again, so I assume that it gave some relief.

1458 – I see a seal bottling 30m ahead, it watches us for long enough for all to see it but not long enough for cameras to be focused. Mine has run out of battery life hours ago, having been used all weekend without recharging.

1508 – The team think that James is close enough to get in, but Stuart and I are sure that Suzi will need to swim again and her short catnap is interrupted to get ready. I brief the team on landing – that the swimmer must continue onwards until there is no more water to swim in and to be completely clear of the water unless the land is too dangerous to climb out of, in which case it must be clearly touched. I make sure that everyone is clear about the rules, no one has any questions.

1516 – A yacht that was heading straight for us passes 20meters astern and waves happily at us, and we wave back.

1520 – We are half a mile off land. Suzi wonders if she could stay in France a while (jokingly) as a French passport holder. I tell her that it is more likely that she would be interned until they could ascertain why she had not entered the country via port control. I advise her to swim strongly but not to burn herself out in case she has to swim the full hour – others have been a similar distance off and not been able to land.

1528 – As has been the system all day, we count down from 20 seconds to the exact time of twenty eight minutes past the hour and Suzi leaps over the side. James climbs the ladder, clearly exhausted and unaware how well he has done. He has swam 2.1 nautical miles and got the team into 9 metres of water. I explain that at 5 meters depth Sea Leopard will stand off.

Nearby, Suva has a solo swimmer attempting a 2 - way swim. The pilots confer by telephone, both swimmers are heading for the small shingle beach between the groups of rocks. We need to tell Suzi not to touch the other swimmer if he lands at the same place. Tension is high but still positive, Suzi is swimming purposefully towards the shore. Two swimmers enter the water off Suva to escort the swimmer in, submerged rocks here mean that punts and motor craft are in danger of grounding or being smashed. The swells are slight today, but I know that a single person in the rear of a small boat cannot simultaneously sight the swimmer and look for obstacles.

I offer to swim in with Suzi to get the exact time and to ensure her safety after landing on the return to the boat – Stuart is happy with this and we agree that I will signal when she is clear of the water and that he will record the time and blast the horn when I do.

I jump over side and swim the last few hundred meters next to Suzi who is now heading for some round rocks about fifty metres away from the shingle beach. I touch a rock beneath my hand – a propeller breaker for sure and then there is nothing for another fifty metres. Suzi stands up, and carefully climbs out. The waves make it hard, it would – and has been – horrendous in worse conditions and as she completely clears the water I signal to Stuart who blasts the horn. Swim complete in 10 hours, 13 minutes.

I congratulate Suzi and tell her that we must not touch the other swimmer if he lands nearby as he is doing a two way. Suzi has a quick look for pebbles to take back for the team, but they are all over a tonne in weight so they are left where they are. I help her back down the slippery rock and we swim back to the boat. I get to the ladder first and help her up. She is greeted with great enthusiasm – we look back to see that the other swimmer has landed. We sound our horn and cheer and wave – he waves back.

Now it’s preparing for the return trip. The drogue is pulled in by Stuart Adams and the punt is tied closer to the stern of the boat. Champagne flows, followed by choices of Whisky, Rum, Beer and red wine. . Uncle Pete lights a cigar as fat as a sausage and passes it around those interested (not me or the two Stus) and everyone smiles. We see that Viking Princess has turned around, I call Mikee Phillips and discover that Chloe McCardle has landed in 9 hours and 2 minutes, a fantastic time especially given that she has had to save energy for the rest of her trip. Fred Mardle lands his relay team in 9 hours and 58 minutes also, he tells Stuart over the radio.

James updates the team on the fundraising – it seems that more money has pushed their total to over £21,000 which causes the second bottle of champagne to be shared around. The remaining portions of Spaghetti Bolognaise are eaten and as Suzi takes yet another nap the team unkindly position the cigar and wine glass in her hands and take photos for Facebook and webpages. She will have something to say about that I’m sure.

The trip back is uneventful and after unloading I leave the boat at 1830. The team kindly invite me to join them in the White Cliffs pub where they will be signing their names on the wall. I have to decline, as I have many things to do before I eventually return home to Birmingham – two days later than originally planned.

Another trip done, what adventure. Well done team, I’m sure we will see you back again.

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