The Lion, The New Witch, and the Same Old Dryrobe
As I mentioned in my Windermere blog, I didn’t have any BIG swim plans this year. By that I mean, I didn’t plan to do an English Channel solo. However, I did have some plans, none of my making (I just don’t have the ability to say ‘no’!):
4 person English Channel relay planned for the end of June and weathered out - maybe this will happen in October?
A 6 person English Channel relay planned for July to commemorate Margot’s 50th anniversary of her channel relay. Also weathered out and maybe this will happen in October?
A 3 person two-way English Channel relay planned for September - hoorah - this one actually went on time!
Somehow, when I look back at my swimming history, I had amased 11 relay crossings going into 2019:
2005: 6 person relay ‘Lido Legends’ 9 hours 40 minutes on 29th August
2007: 6 person relay ‘The Shingle Stompers’ 14 hours 55 minutes on 14th September
2008: 3 person relay ‘Three Birds & a Boat’ 11 hours 30 minutes on 9th October (NB this was a second attempt, the first was aborted)
2009: 6 person relay ‘SEALAGS’ 14 hours 28 minutes on 14th August
2012: 3 person relay ‘Repeat Offenders’ 14 hours 39 minutes on 1st September (NB turned and started return leg but aborted due to the weather)
2014: 3 person relay ‘Castaways’ 17 hours 45 minutes on 16th September (NB this was due to return, but weather was challenging and just finishing one way was a challenge)
2016: 6 person relay ‘Cancer Survivors Channel Relay’ 13 hours 10 minutes on 9th August
2016: 4 person relay ‘The Bubbles Made Me Do it’ 13 hours 6 minutes on 7th September
2016: 6 person relay ‘Intersplashional Relay’ 19 hours 32 minutes on 8th October
2017: 5 person relay ‘#Fudgegate Fugitives’ 16 hours 32 minutes on 23rd September
2018: 5 person relay ‘Return of the Fudgegate Fugitives’ 13 hours 28 minutes on 20th October
Each one of these has been special and each one has been different. You’ll notice from the list above that two of the 3 person relays had been intended to be two-way relays. The idea for this was planted during the relay in 2008 and I’ve wanted to do it ever since. So when Dirk invited me to be part of his team and that it would be a 3 person two way, the answer was simple ‘YES!!’
The team name came from a relay that Dirk & Peter did with another swimmer along the length of Lake Geneva. The team was called ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Dryrobe’. So this time it was the Lion, the New Witch, and the Same Old Dryrobe’
The Lion is Peter Whitehead who I met for the first time on a SwimQuest training camp
The New Witch is me
The Same Old Dryrobe is Dirk Gewert
Dirk also completed a successful solo this year and Peter is hoping to do a solo in the future. Our swim order was set to be Dirk (he’s done the most training), followed by me and then Peter.
Those of you who have followed my previous adventures will know that I normally apply a nail varnish to my toe nails that has an appropriate name for any significant swims that I do. I completely forgot to do this for Windermere, but for this event I chose one called ‘To be continued….’. Well it was a two-way after all!
With a channel crossing, given the opportunity, I prefer to swim dark to light, so that you not only make the most of daylight, hopefully land during daylight hours and get the confusing / tiring hours of darkness out of the way whilst you’re still fresh. However, it’s a bit different with a two-way. Consideration needs to be given to the second landing - i.e. the landing time in England and therefore the start time can be different. As the start time is set in relation to high water time, there are two potential start times each day.
This swim started at 11.35am meaning a night time finish in France and then a daytime finish in England.
This was a very sociable start time and enabled me to do the briefing for training on the beach before heading to the marina with the team and Paul as support crew.
We loaded all our belongings onto the boat - plenty of swimming costumes and warm clothes, food to last a day and half, water, hot water, sleeping bags, etc. We loaded all this onto the upper deck, deliberately leaving the bunks inside available for sleeping - something that we would need over the duration of our adventure!
A few of the Dover swimmers came along to wish us well as we left the marina and headed to the start.
Dirk was first up and swam the very short distance to the beach at Samphire Hoe, cleared the water, raised his arms to signal his readiness at which point the horn sounded and we were off!!
A few minutes later a soloist also started their swim from the same beach. All the other swimmers were waiting until the night time tide to start.
Getting into a routine
We had opted to do 2 hour rotations. We have to keep the same team order and maintain 2 hours each in order for the swim to be a valid attempt. So my swims would be at 13:35, 19:35; 01:35; 07:35 etc. In the sections below you’ll see a chart with my swim section on it for each stint. It is an approximate as I could only select times on the exact hour or half hour, so they are wrong by five minutes in each instance (but that’s really not significant over a 2 hour swim!).
My two fears are the cold and swimming in the dark. I really don’t know why these are still ‘things’. I have plenty of experience of both now and surely if I can do a solo, I can do repeats of 2 hour swims. Surely if I can swim Windermere in cooler water then I can do this?
I wasn’t worried about the daylight swims, it was only the dark swims. However, I managed to convince myself that I actually had the best slots:
19:35 would be just after sunset but starting when it wasn’t completely dark - so getting in the water when there was still some light left
01:35 would be my only properly dark start
by 07:35 it would already be light again.
Logic doesn’t always win out over emotion, though.
13:35-15:35: Sunday 14th September 2019
Whilst the boat wasn’t rocking around too much, the water felt quite confused. It was difficult to get into a good swim stroke and pattern. I was very well aware that I haven’t done the training that perhaps I should have, and certainly not done the training that would have made me feel comfortable.
With such a big swim it is easy to become overwhelmed with the whole swim rather than just focus on the bit right in front of you. In that first swim I was worried that my injured shoulder from 9 days ago would flare up again - it didn’t. I was aware that there were many hours of swimming ahead, which I had not trained sufficiently for - would I be able to do it?
As a result my mood was not all that positive. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in a dark place, I just wasn’t able to enjoy the moment.
I felt myself falling behind the boat from time to time and assumed that it was my swimming that was the cause of that.
I also got cramp, I’ve no idea why. First this was in my calves, then my ankles. It was sore but I was able to swim through it - flexing my ankles as required.
We had agreed to a sign (a picture of cake) to be shown at an hour and then a big ‘5’ to indicate when there was 5 minutes to go. The 2 hours seemed to last more than 2 hours, but did eventually come to an end.
As I grabbed the ladder and put my foot onto the ladder I got cramp in my left quad - oh my - that was so very painful. My natural reaction would be to stop the thing that caused the cramp - but I had to get on the boat quickly so that the pilot could go back into gear and catch up with Peter. So I climbed the ladder with this cramp ouch!
Once out, we didn’t look like we’d made much progress and I chatted with our pilot and said I thought I’d been swimming crap. His response surprised me as he challenged as to why I have a misconception of my swimming ability. That was an incredibly interesting conversation. Something that I have reflected on a lot since then. It’s not the only area in my life where I don’t see things necessarily as they actually are. My weight is another example of that. With both weight & swimming ability I am terrified of going back to where I came from - a very overweight, very poor swimmer. I wonder if I’ll ever have the self assurance that says that my identify has shifted to a new me?
Another piece of evidence that I found interesting was that the soloist that went out so fast and overtook us was now aligned with us - we had caught him up. I guess he would lose time for feeding and we had a fresh swimmer every couple of hours.
I did feel a little chilly once out but warmed up fairly quickly.
19:35-21:35: Sunday 14th September 2019
I had thought that sunset was 20:10, and it was, but that was in French time, not English time. So that means sunset was actually 19:10. However, there was still a bit of light at 19:35 when I got in. I had my lights on - flashing one on the head, static one on the back of my costume.
I have had real issues with swimming in the dark and my last Jersey to France swim was aborted because of a fear that came up to do with swimming into the dark. Could this be the start of healing those issues?
I normally swim without the spotlight on. The reason for this is that I find that I can see more on the boat without the light shining in my eyes. But on this occasion I decided to not be a ‘princess’ and to just go with however it is when I got into the water, so that meant swimming with the light on.
It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. What has all the fuss been all these years!
Again, I had the odd niggle here and there, but nothing seemed to last very long.
Cramp did featured again, this time with discomfort in my groin too after about an hour - something that normally only affects me in the cold.
My mood remained low. I figured that it would probably start to improve when we were on our way back and the number of swims left felt manageable and less than those already done.
What I would say is the first hour took a while to pass and it was hard to see the cake sign, but the second hour seemed to go on forever! No one seemed to be moving to get ready but eventually time did pass and I saw Peter ready to get into the water. Once again I got cramp in my quad and inner thigh as I got back onto the boat.
The mood appeared to be pretty good. The pilot was ‘almost impressed’. The observers really didn’t have much to report on. There was no drama, just focused swimming.
I decided not to use my base layers after this swim, instead I decided to save them until the next swim as a treat for after the proper night swim. What a numpty! I don’t know why I did that as I was really cold after this one and shivered for what seemed like about an hour. I even got into my new sleeping bag to try and sleep for a while and it felt like the most pathetically thin sleeping bag ever! I did get a couple of hours sleep though. I did warm up.
01:35 - 03:35: Sunday 15th September
So this was the proper dark swim. I did have a nice distraction though. France was pretty close when I got in. It was clear that I would land our first leg during my stint. As we approached France I saw Toby launch the rib to accompany me into the beach to land. From the water it looked like there might not be a beach to get out on. It looked like I may be finishing at a sheer rock face - so a touch turn only.
As we approached Cap Blanc Nez the water temperature suddenly plummeted - brrrrr!! I wasn’t expecting that! I also felt (but couldn’t see) loads of very large jellyfish. The reason I knew they were large is based on how solid they felt. Luckily despite feeling quite a few of them I only actually got stung once (and it wasn’t that bad).
On a positive note, the water was glassy calm, it was more like swimming in a pool than the sea.
As I got closer I realised that there was a small beach, probably not much larger than a metre wide. Enough for me to walk out onto - turn and raise my arms and hear the familiar horn signalling a successful crossing. I believe that crossing was 14 hours 24 minutes (I’d mentally guessed 14 hours 22 minutes, not a bad guess).
I realised that we hadn’t actually had a conversation as a team as to how we’d decide whether to turn and swim back so I assumed that the decision had been made and started the swim back to the boat and then onwards with the rest of my leg. You’d think that the distraction of landing the first leg would make the 2 hours go by fast. I didn’t. The second hour in particular seemed to go on forever - that hour felt more like 1.5 hours.
The cramp repeated after an hour and was painful again getting onto the boat.
This time I treated myself to all my layers. Why didn’t I do that before?! I warmed up far quicker as a result.
TIme for a warm drink, a bite to eat and try and get another hour of sleep.
Speaking to Neil after this swim he hoped that we’d pick up a kick from the French shore. When he’d taken another swimmer on a 2 way attempt they had landed nearer to Calais and had benefited from a push from the tide. We weren’t that far north so would probably not feel that push until a bit further out. It appears that we didn’t get the kick he’d hoped for.
07:35-09:35 Sunday 15th September
Dirk had sunrise. I was now confident that the rest of the swim would be in daylight. At this point I expected my mood to lift as there was less to be done than had already been done. Cramp remained a feature of each swim, though it mostly stayed away until the second hour. I’d got into a pattern of zoning out for the first hour and just waiting for the cake picture to appear and then counting down the second hour. I cautiously counted in what seemed like 5 minute chunks - how could that second hour just get longer and longer?!! Eventually I saw Peter get ready and I crept closer to the boat, ready to allow Peter to overtake me and then for me to get back on the boat.
As I got on the boat, the elbow injury that I previously had came back with a vengeance. Using the ladder was excruciatingly painful. Getting a new costume on was almost impossible. I had to choose my baggiest one possible as there was no way I could use my arm to get a more fitted one on.
The wind was now increasing a bit and the boat started rocking a lot. Having to hang on was not ideal with an elbow that was incredibly painful. I just had to hope that it would calm down during the 4 hour break. I also reminded myself that when it was previously painful that the act of swimming did not trigger pain. Fingers crossed.
The air temperature was now rising and after this swim the layers needed to come off and suncream needed to be reapplied. It looked like it was going to be a glorious day.
It’s a long day….
It’s now been a long time since anyone has had a proper night’s sleep. Other swimmers had started around midnight. By the end of this rest period the other swimmers were approaching French inshore waters as we were approaching the separation zone. One of the swimmers was Sarah Thomas on the first leg of her 4 way swim. What an incredible swim and swimmer!
Our pilot was concerned that as we approached the Varne sandbank that with only 15m of water beneath us that we would be forced to go around the bank rather than over it which is something that happened on a previous 2 way swim that he piloted. He said that at this point (26 hours in) that it would be at least another 8 hours - at least! That would mean finishing in the dark.
I told told the pilot about my elbow injury and he did question whether it was worth the risk of permanent injury. I did reassure him that I tend to heal quickly and that I thought it would be ok.
We had a discussion about where we were at. Peter, ever the gentleman, said that if I needed to stop because of my elbow that it would be ok. I expected that I’d want to stop and whilst the thought of more swims was not a delightful thought, I actually really did want this to be successful.
13:35-15:35 Sunday 15th September
So how would the elbow hold out. I started swimming gingerly, but it was ok - phew. I wanted to shout out that it was ok, as I knew they would all be updating Dirk on the current situation, but they seemed to have worked out that I was ok.
Part way into the swim I saw Toby & Paul waving frantically. When I stopped to see what was up they pointed to a very large buoy that we were hurtling towards - they gestured for me to swim round it whilst they whizzed ahead. So I did as I was told and swam sideways and then turned as soon as I passed it - and it was almost immediately quite a way away - it just showed how fast the tide was running!
This also meant that we had managed to cross the Varne sand bank. Phew!
After that excitement it was back to the job of swimming. The first hour passed and the cake picture appeared. This time I was super, super cautious with counting my minutes. I thought I’d got it right this time at what I calculated to be 1 hr 45 mins I saw Peter get up and go into the cabin - yes! He must be getting ready. That can’t have been in though as what should have been like 15 minutes felt like an awful long time. The time did eventually pass though and I was on the ladder again with the same old familiar quad cramp!
Strangely the elbow felt better, perhaps that was the painkillers being effective. I got changed into another costume, after all if it was going to be a 34 hour swim then I would need it as I may be landing the swim at the end of my next 2 hours or it may be Peter shortly after.
A German invasion on Battle of Britain Day?
Peter’s swim came to an end and Dirk was back in. He was wearing his German swim cap and swimming as hard as he could towards England on Battle of Britain day!!
I was watching on the tracker as well as looking at the approaching land. I’m used to tracking swims to France, I’m not used to what they look like going the other way. Land looked close but I didn’t dare believe it. I told those waiting that they should go home as it could still be a long way. Georgia (my daughter) had asked how long and I told her it would be a while yet.
As Dirk got towards the end of his two hours it was clear that I would be getting in again. My eyes told me it really wasn’t far, the tracker said a km or so. I jumped in and went into sprint mode. Straight ahead of us was Samphire Hoe - the part where the wall juts out so if we landed there it would be a touch finish. As the light faded the search light came out and lit up the wall for me to touch.
Perhaps I should have believed my eyes as it was only 7 minutes of swimming before I touched the wall and the siren was sounded on the boat.
How lucky am I, I got to finish in France and in England. That’s pretty special.
Total time was 32 hours 7 minutes. A German invasion was averted by me doing the last 7 minutes! It was also very comfortably inside the 34 hours (minimum) that had previously been forecast)
We did it! Mission accomplished. We carried on and finished what we had planned. We went out for a team meal afterwards which was lovely.
It’s taken until now, though, to really appreciate what we achieved, it definitely didn’t sink in on the day.
I think it’s an excellent challenge. I love the cheekiness of going the wrong way (France to England). I liked the fact that France to England is less familiar.
I like the fact that something that I set out to attempt for the first time in 2012 and had dreamt of since 2008 had finally been achieved. We are the third team to have completed this challenge.
My relay crossing count is now 13.
Will the other two swims go ahead before the final curtain call for the season? We’ll have to wait and see!