English channel solo

English Channel - 27th August

Three weeks after Lake Zurich, it was time to make another attempt of the English Channel.  This is my account of the swim.  Read more for the highs, the lows, through to the final outcome.

Sunrise

Sunrise

The pursuit of dreams

On a nice day, the English Channel is glassy and a welcoming oil painted stretch of water. On a nasty day it is rough and unwelcoming; one never knows what one is going to be welcomed with.

Generally by going under the radar for the start of a swim, I find there's less pressure and distraction whilst trying to rest just before.

Whilst a solo channel swim is swum by just one person, it is a team event.

There are those that you train with, and those that keep you fit and healthy, such as swim coaches.

On the day there were 6 people on the boat - all were incredible and all will have a different view of the same event. This is my view; Brutally honest, containing more insight than previous accounts.

Grab a cuppa, it was a long swim. This is a long report!

 

Boat and support crew

Suva - piloted by Neil Streeter

Suva - piloted by Neil Streeter

Watchful crew

Watchful crew

As usual, I swam with Neil Streeter as my pilot on board Suva.  Unlike usual, Suva is pink (YES PINK) this year as part of a cancer fundraising activity.  It was amazing to swim alongside a pink Suva!  

Suva, bright pink 37ft steel trawler motor cruiser, piloted by the one and only Neil Streeter alongside Toby as able crew. Observers were Carolyn Ellis and Jason. Why two? Read on and I will explain.

My crew were Paul and Sissy.

The atmosphere on the boat was fantastic. I was told this later and, to be fair, I could tell from in the water and it makes the world of difference to me.

 

An early start

About to dive in

About to dive in

I have learned that there are a few things that triggers nerves for me.  The first is hearing the engine start, which had already started when I got on board.  The next is the sight of the lights at the harbour entrance as we leave, of which I kept myself busy to avoid seeing them.  Then there is the sound and sensation as the boat engines cut as we approach the start, that I couldn't really avoid, but wearing headphones helped!  When I swam Lake Zurich I had a bad ear worm in my head the whole way, so I decided to listen to positive music before the start - it worked!

The water always looks cold to me when it's dark. It isn't. There is also that moment when you know that once you hit the water that's it, you're in there until the swim is over, successful or not. Quick moment of reflection and then take a leap into the dark.

Once in, it is a short swim to the beach, which is lit up by torch light, and then I clear the water. I really struggle to walk on pebbles, so I was very proud of myself being able to walk out, turn around and raise my arms above my head to signal that I was ready.

The sound of the horn disturbs the quiet night and at 02:56 I stride purposefully back in the water at the start of my swim.

Viking Princess started a little after me, but it was not long before they overtook me. However, whilst they got to approx 1km ahead, we seemed to maintain the same distance apart. That's always reassuring, it meant that I was maintaining my pace.

Swim to the start

Swim to the start

 

Swimming in the dark

And so it begins

And so it begins

It's something that many swimmers worry about.  Some find that they love the peace and tranquility.  I don't particularly like it, and I accept that there is nothing wrong with it at all.  I have the option of swimming with a spotlight on or off.  I've learned that it's nicer for me with the light off so that my eyes can adapt and I can see movement on the boat.

The really great thing about starting in the dark, particularly on a clear night, is knowing that dawn will be here soon and that can be stunning. It starts to get light a long time before sunrise; so you have the anticipation too. The darkness didn't last all that long.

My green lights are very visible in the dark

My green lights are very visible in the dark

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Sunrise and Conditions

There was some low level cloud, so I had to wait a bit longer to see the sun in its full glory, but well worth the wait.

The conditions were amazingly stunning.  The sort of water you dream of.  Like a swimming pool. There was virtually no wind until about 1-2pm.  After that it picked up a bit to a force 3 and stayed like that, it was choppier as a result, but still perfectly swimmable. 

For most of the day it was pretty misty and a restricted visibility. My crew described it as a 'bowl of nothingness'. All that could be seen was Viking Princess and Louise Jane, positioned ahead whilst sounds of the Varne, and ship fog horns broke the silence. I could hear the clarity of the fog horns, but from sea level, I could still see what seemed like endless of water!

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Progress

One of the golden rules, don't look forwards, don't look back, head down and swim.  England doesn't disappear and France doesn't get any closer.  It's good advice.  The challenge is, that I've been on far too many swims - solos, relays, crewing, observing - that I know far too much about this stretch of water.

Ever since my first attempt in 2007, where I did a coastal tour of England for 8 hours and didn't make much forward progress, I have a real hang up on whether I am swimming badly. As such I like to know that I've made a reasonable break from England in the first couple of hours and then that I'm in or close to the SW shipping lane at 4 hours.

Just before the 4 hour feed, I saw a ship up ahead. At this point, I didn't know whether I was in the shipping lane or just close to it. It did lift my spirits considerably. Not long after the feed I saw a ship go behind me and it was quite a distance behind me, so I knew that I had been in the lane for a while and that was a great relief.

One day I will learn to just trust the training and the fact that this is how I swim now.

From here on in it's section by section. Get across the SW lane, into the separation zone, through the NE lane, across inshore waters and TA DAH!

Because of the low visibility it was much more difficult than normal to know that I was in the NE lane. I can normally tell because the ships are going in the other direction (right to left as I look at it), but I didn't see many ships. I had to just trust that I was still swimming the same as I should and that I was making progress.

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Feeding

I decided to follow the same feeding regime as I had for Lake Zurich. Alternating black tea with UCAN. I fed hourly for about 15 hours at which point I switched to half hourly as I wasn't peeing as much (I refer to reason for aborting last year's attempt!).

This swim was different though. I lost the first feed to sickness (managed to do that without breaking my stroke - impressive I thought!). I felt nauseous most of the day. I felt like there was literally nowhere for the feed to go. Feeding became a chore. I partially ate, rejected or spat out a few treats and opted to go without for most of the time.

I did lose one other feed, actually at the feed and was stopped to have water 30 mins later.

None of this seemed to impact my energy levels or ability to swim, it just wasn't very pleasant. I normally look forward to feeds, but this time they became a chore or something to dread. Not nice.

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Things in and on the water

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The big question - were there any jellyfish?  I got a 'kiss' from a jellyfish fairly early on.  After that I saw one mahooosive jelly at a safe distance, but no others.  Three jellies were spotted from the boat.

There was quite a bit of floating debris - was it Viking Princess that lost the pizza box and what looked like bubble & squeak?

As for all the bubbles - where on earth did they come from?!!!!

Of the ships that were seen, there was a Russian spy ship in the NE lane and a 320,000 tonne fully laden tanker moving at 21kts!

There were patches where there were lots of seagulls, apparently I got buzzed by a few!

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Shenanigans 

There are always amusing shenanigans on Suva.  It's not unusual for me to be target practice for grapes, tomatoes, celery etc.  I have to say they were rubbish shots though!  I definitely got hit once, maybe twice.  I secretly love it though.

What was unusual was that I could smell the celery when they broke it into pieces, that's just plain wrong!  And taunting me with bacon sandwiches, on an ordinary day would be cruel, on a day of nausea it was simply not tempting!

Then there are the things that I didn't see, like Carolyn falling out of the bunk due to some swell.

The boat entered the land of Sissy.  At one point Neil was heard to say 'Get me off this boat, I've got two mad women behind me!'  He did get his own back, several times though, by drenching her with cold water as she sunbathed.

It was a lovely happy boat and I could sense that from in the water.

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Bigger dreams and nail varnish

You know me by now, I tend to keep my plans close to my chest.  Unlike me, I am now going to spill the beans.  I need to go waaaaay back though.  In 2009 I swam the channel, and made it by the skin of my teeth. If there had been odds on my success, I would have bet against me!

For a while I didn't want to do any other big swims, I was done. But then I did. What I wanted to do was Round Jersey, which I booked.

For one medical reason after another, that got pushed back year after year. Eventually 2014 was to be my year.

At the same time I re-learned to swim and I was pretty sure I was faster.  I became tempted to swim the channel again, so I booked it (and kept it under my hat).  I became curious as to whether I could do it faster.  It would be a challenge as I had perfect conditions on the first one.  That curiosity led to thinking 'I wonder how far I could get in my old time?' Well that would potentially mean turning and swimming part of the way back.  To do that in the eyes of the CS&PF would mean booking it as a 2 way with 2 observers and that's what I did.

Of course, once you do that you're into two way territory and whilst that had not been my plan, having booked a 2 way the lines get a little blurred.

My 2014 solo was simply amazing, I loved it.  It was faster than my wildest dreams.  I didn't turn, the weather window wasn't long enough.  I remained curious though.

I've had a few attempts at the channel since then, each with two observers.  

A lot has changed in the last couple of years, not least taking over running Dover training.  Without realising, a lot about me has changed, including my motivation.  During this swim I realised that I don't have a desire to do a two way swim, it was never really about that.  This is something that I shared with my crew at a feed.  Now, you could say this was demons, I can assure you it wasn't.  I was in a very happy place at the time this decision was made.

I did want to complete the one way, I desperately wanted to do that.  I toyed with the idea of turning and doing an hour, just to say I turned.  A two way was no longer important.  That decision felt great.

So nail varnish - what did I go for..... 'up the ante' and 'what's the double scoop'.

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ZC2

ZC2

Back to the plot & ZC2

Much, much later on when I should be able to see the French coast in the distance, all I could see was a massive expanse of water.  Self doubt crept back in.  However, it was not much longer until the cap came into sight and the ZC2 buoy went whizzing past (and I mean whizzing past) and I knew exactly where I was and what that meant.  It meant that the tide had turned and I was heading back towards Cap Blanc Nez.  I was going to be following the same track as Julian and Suzanne had yesterday.  Deep breath, lets do this.

What I didn't know is that the tide had turned fractionally earlier for me and I was a little further out.  You'd expect to get a little slack water at the point the tide turns, there was none, just an about turn.  Try as I might I wasn't able to break the tide and make sufficient progress into the bay.  The tide turned again (I wasn't aware of this) and I was heading back towards the cap, but making very little forward progress.

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Demons, Cold and Issues

Apart from the usual self doubt about my speed, there were no demons on this swim, and it was wonderful.  I didn't experience any dark places.  I didn't particularly enjoy the hours of darkness and found myself in a much happier place after sunrise.

The tough bits were tough, absolutely, but there were no dark moods.  When asked a question I would answer it factually, but didn't give reason for the crew end my swim. I took full responsibility for my outcome and it felt great.

So what were the challenges?  I've already mentioned the feeding.  On a positive I had no injuries.  At no point did I feel the need for pain killers.  Yes, I had the odd ache or pain, but nothing stayed in one place for long.

What was a challenge was the cold.  I think I referred to it as feeling chilly.  I was probably colder that I realised.  Neil pointed out just how white my hands were at one point 'they're like bright white beacons'.  I looked at them, both sides, and couldn't see what he was getting at, shrugged my shoulders and carried on.  It was not until a couple of days later that I realised that I had been wearing tinted goggles, no wonder they didn't look white!

Then there was the shaking.  Apparently towards the end of the swim I was shivering a lot at feeds, so much so that I was throwing my feed over myself.  I was completely unaware of this.  When asked if I was cold, I just said 'a little chilly'.

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The final score

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The whole way through the swim I was committed to, and convinced that I would finish the swim.  The thought of failure just wasn't there.  That is until the moment when I knew I couldn't.

I never stop between feeds, I pride myself on that.  Just before 17 hours I stopped, just briefly and then carried on.  A few minutes later I stopped again and said 'I don't think I can do this'.  It must have been about 1.5 nanoseconds later that I saw Toby letting the ladder down.  That actually made me laugh, so no fight then?!

Neil told me what was happening, where we were going and that I was looking at another 4 hours or so.  I didn't have that in me.  He was at the back of the boat and helping me on before I knew it.

For the first time ever I had people helping me to get dressed.  I could almost certainly have done it for myself, but I went with the flow.  They were helping out of concern.  

Despite lots of layers including a Swimzi, I found myself shivering pretty much all the way back to Dover.  I really was cold.

It was later, much later, that I found that they had been discussing me on the boat during the swim and whether I should be allowed to continue.  It wasn't about how long as they would be happy to stick, they were happy to stick with it for as long as it took.  It was about whether I was safe to continue.  Fortunately, I remained coherent which kept me in the water.  The shivering and the very white hands were a big concern.  This is something that Neil had not seen in me before (the joy of swimming pretty much all your swims with the same pilot).

So it was over, I didn't make it.  I'm getting used to this!  Sometimes I find it really hard to take and sometimes there's easy acceptance.  This time I'm at peace with the outcome.

Being the analytical sort, of course I started to analyse what happened and what I could do differently to get a different outcome.

 

Lessons learned

There's always something new to learn on a channel swim.  Sometimes it's about swimming, sometimes you learn about yourself, sometimes you learn more about the challenge itself.

What did I learn?  In no particular order:

  • I suspect not wearing earplugs at least contributed to my perception of the cold and could be the cause of the nausea

  • KFC with a VERY sore throat is a VERY bad idea!

  • The tide can be vicious and not behave as forecast.

Regrets? Not really. OK so maybe the decision to not wear earplugs, but now I know. Neil tells me that I was swimming great (until I wasn't, clearly).

Whilst no pebble on this swim, I live to misbehave another day.

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Reflections and what next?

I can't answer this one just yet.  I had intended this swim to be my last solo and to re-focus on pool events.  Of course that was based on success.

I will need to ponder some more before I finally decide, so watch this space!