We did it!!

The English Channel: Dover to Cap Gris Nez. 21 nautical miles. 16 hours and 16 minutes. 5 swimmers, 1hr rotational stints in 17-degree water.

This was a challenge like no other that I’ve undertaken. We set out shortly before 4am in the pitch black from Dover Marina, our first swimmer Burt swimming to the shore to start the official timing. The first three of us had to affix glow sticks to our shorts and caps and swim in the cold, cold water with zero visibility to the boat and only a side light for directional guidance. I did – however – have the fortune of seeing the sun rise whilst turning my stroke over 2.5 miles out into the sea; this is a memory I will never forget.

It took 30 mins to stop shivering, and – after grabbing 2hrs shut eye in the cabin – I could finally feel my feet again. The Gallivant had a small kitchen so I devoured a pot noodle and other high carb foods, before preparing mentally for stint two by shooting some footage of Burt and Ewan.

By 11am the 20-degree sun was high, and the swimming was far better. We all felt strong, comms with the boat was easier – although still hit and miss as you couldn’t hear anything, relying instead on pre-determined time boards held up by team mates. The pressure was on to keep swimming hard as currents and timings are vital; one missed tide and we could add hours on, or even risk failure.

Karen and Luke put in further sterling efforts and by 2pm we were looking good. Channel swimming is very different from other endurance events: knowing you’re on your own in cold conditions, out of comms with the team, and questioning everything constantly – the mind plays tricks and mental fortitude is paramount. Progress is key but – in stark contrast to marathons or triathlons – the time length is not finite and, indeed, completion is far from certain. The third swim was hard: physically and mentally draining, the sunlight almost gone, the temperature cooling, the boat a dark shadow and visibility back to virtually zero.

6pm and Cap Gris Nez was tantilisingly close, like Everest’s summit from the Hillary Step. But, one simple factor would determine our success or failure: could we push far enough with the current before turning in to the peninsula? If we couldn’t, then when it changed course the current would take us sailing past and into channel swimming oblivion. But if we could, the shore was in our grasp. Luke finished his third stint strongly, and Burt stepped up for his fourth – an epic final hour for our tired but impressive lead swimmer. His mind visited some dark places – to use his words – but he swam hard and got us to touching distance, before Ewan celebrated his birthday with 16 minutes and a struggle up the rocks to land.

After cheering a soloist who’d been behind us through the day – whose identity I’m trying to establish – we commenced the journey back to Dover. I could write many more words on this experience. In retrospect, I could have been a lot better prepared and I shall learn from this; but to swim in such challenging conditions gives me a tremendous confidence for the comparatively simple Ironman swimming to come. Moreover, we are proud to join an elite and very unique club and it’s something to cherish for years to come.

Incidentally, below is our exact route as charted by our crew; this is the first ‘V’ finish in 40 years.

Channel Route

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English Channel swimming

We got the call last night. Good weather is on it’s way to the south of England and our piloting team are ready to go whenever we are. So me and five others – Ewan, Ruth, Burt, Luke and Karren – could be starting out from Dover as early as Thursday this week for a minimum of 19 nautical miles in cold, choppy water (likely 15-19 degrees), navigating our way through flotsam, jetsam, and tanker shipping lanes all the way to Cap Gris Nez near Calais!

The team challenge involves 1hr stints in rotation for each swimmer in a pre-designated swim order. Depending on how we fare, each swimmer could do 2 or 3 stints. Our crew have been monitoring the tides; we’ll start either 1.30am or midday to swim with the current. Conditions look promising for success, but weather patterns can change very quickly in the Channel and a safe passage will rely on variables coming together in our favour. Fingers crossed!

Dover Straits_map

Sea swimming and the Forestman

The New Forest, 12th July

This weekend I was down in the New Forest supporting my friend and Channel Swim team mate Ruth, as she undertook her first ironman distance triathlon: The Forestman. Although not an official Ironman event, this course is arguably tougher and certainly longer than many long distance triathlons. Arriving bright and early at Ellingham lake for the 5.30am start, around 120 athletes set off on their 3.9k swim. Ruth nailed an impressive 1h17 time into T1. After seeing her onto the bike, Burt and I then headed off – swim gear at the ready – in search of the coast, on leg two of our own triathlon of sorts.

Southbourne is a sandy beach and well manned by the friendly life guards; the ideal place to practise sea swimming. With the team Channel swim just two months away, this was our first experience of English seas this year. Thanks to the warm weather the temperature was a comfortable 17 degrees and we quickly adapted – a relief! We swam for 40 minutes between two groins spaced 200m apart. The tough aspect was maintaining technique as the rough waves battered and buffeted us around. Occassionally a break would sneak up unannounced just as I turned to breath; after a while the horrible salty taste at the back of the throat almost burned. Next time we should probably swim further out from the coastline. All in all a valuable session both for swim strength and fitness, and psychologically in prep for September.

We made it back in time for leg three: a few beers supporting the athletes for most of the hilly marathon course. Hats off to all those that finished; it’s an amazing achievement. Ruth came home in 14h52. Next objective for her is the Channel Swim, and we’ll be hitting the beach again soon for more sea swimming. The weekend also proved a good reconnaissance mission for me for the New Forest 70.3!

Here’s a glimpse of what awaits us in the Channel.

Notes from the pool

In search of lost time, or Swim for Tri session three

I made a mistake: after session two with Swim for Tri, I didn’t get back in the pool for four weeks. Big mistake. Okay, I ran the London Marathon, I recovered from the London Marathon, I moved house, I was busy with work, I needed bike time ahead of a series of sportives…  Maybe – after the quick success found in sessions one and two, the rapid growth in confidence, the comfort in bilateral breathing, the lowered stroke count – maybe I was over-confident. Or maybe I just under-estimated the work to be done in the pool.

Session three was a refresher. Warm up, rotation and extension drills, then the introduction of some new ‘catch up’ drills for timing. But by the end I just didn’t feel good like before. Where had the confidence gone? And – more importantly – what was I going to do about it?

Enter Clissold Leisure Centre.

Clissold Leisure Centre

Lottery funded, and playing a supporting role in the London Olympics, it’s a cracking facility in Stoke Newington, North London. Pool membership is just £26 per month unlimited usage.

I’ve committed to 3 to 4 swim sessions a week now – no messing around – and this is where I’m going to practise. As Dan Bullock of Swim for Tri says: you have to practise regularly, do drills regularly, avoid time lost through re-learning the movements, regaining feel for the water. The muscles need to learn how to execute the stroke and get used to the additional workload. Dan recommends shorter but more frequent sessions to accomplish this; minimise the time between sessions to maximise muscle memory.

I swam 2k today in around 45 minutes – swimming easy, not pushing it, in a crowded pool – with a stroke count typically 18 per 25m length. I’ve got the feel back for the water. I’m breathing bilaterally all the time (something I wasn’t doing before).

The clock is ticking to 1.5k in the London Triathlon, 1.9k in the New Forest 70.3, and likely 2 x 1-hour stints in the English Channel Team Relay.

The question is: can I make up for those lost four weeks?