I have read many blogs and accounts of channel swims; some describe the excitement of finally tackling the ‘Everest’ of open water swimming. The joy of finally doing what has been months and years in the preparation. There’s no doubt I was excited and glad to have finally gotten my opportunity (at one stage I was worried that the weather might conspire against me and I would be left stranded on Dover harbour at the end of September), but once in the water all the excitement and positivity gives way to the reality of what you are doing.
My start time was to be approx 12.30am – an hour before high tide on the 8/9/09. After loading up the boat and filling in the appropriate paperwork we motored around to one of the beaches just south of Dover harbour. I stripped to my speedos and greased up as we watched another boat that had arrived just before us sound the starting siren for their swimmer. At 12.45am I found myself standing on the back of the boat, readying myself to launch into the water. I suppose at that moment it would have been appropriate to be reflecting momentarily on what I was finally about to embark upon but to be honest the only thought in mind was whether my goggle strap was tight enough. And so I jumped into the cold sea water and swam quickly to the rocky beach. You have to clear the water for the official start so I scrambled up the rocky beach and waved to the boat (they had a spotlight trailing on me to ensure I was completely clear), and then the siren blasted.
The cold had always been my concern; the sea temperature was reading 17.5 degrees mid channel. The last training swim in Dover (a few weeks earlier) had been very pleasant, but that was on a warm sunny day. Swimming in cold sea water in the middle of the night with no sun to warm you is a very different matter. I had expected to be cold in the first few hours and I knew it would be almost toughest at the start (with so much still ahead of me), but I knew I was in for a long night when within 30 minutes I could feel the cold eating away at me. So began the mental battle that continued for the next 11hrs, the little voice that willed me to swim over to the boat and get out, to the warmth, to end the misery. Every time the boat edged ahead of me I could see the steps on the back of the boat and they seemed to beckon me, tempt me to climb onboard. At those weak moments I would try breathing to the other side and not look at the boat and banish those thoughts. I tried all sort of tricks to distract myself. I would think of all the people that had supported me, my wife on the boat, her unwavering encouragement and pride in my swimming. Also on the boat my father-in-law Mike, whose battle with pancreatic cancer had been one of the motivating spurs to get me to commit to the channel swim. His presence on the stern of the boat in those early hours, watching me made me feel protected somehow. I tried to think of movies I enjoyed to get my head to think of something other than the pervasive cold but as the cold became more consuming my ability to think of anything else became more and more limited. It was all I could do to keep swimming, every time I thought of getting out I would say to myself ‘You can’t get out now, you’ve only been in for an hour, it’s pathetic, swim to your next feed’, then it was ‘You’ve only been in for 1 and a ½ hours, keep going, you aren’t that cold, your teeth aren’t even chattering”. At the 2 hour mark my teeth started chattering.
Every 30 minutes I was given a hot energy drink with some tinned fruit added. It was a formula we had used in the long Windermere swim and in the channel initially seemed to be fine but by the 3 hour mark I was violently sick. I kept the next feed down but then at the 4 hour feed again bad vomiting. My throat burned from the salty vomit. I took an anti sickness pill after that and my pilot Alison Streeter changed my feeding regime to a different energy drink and fortunately that seemed to settle the nausea. Every third feed became energy drink, plus sugar plus instant coffee. My support crew thought it was vile but for some reason I really liked it and began to look forward to that particular concoction.
After 5 hours of swimming the sky started to lighten and by 5.5 hrs dawn broke and I had reached the separation zone (the half way point in the channel). It was one of the few positive moments of the swim. For some reason the water temperature felt marginally warmer and the sight of the sun creeping up above the watery horizon was a mental warmer too. The separation zone is the 1 mile strip of water that separates the English and French shipping lanes – some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. I soon entered the French shipping lane and for the next few hours watched massive tankers and occasional ferry ships zipping passed me. I was amazed how quickly they moved up close. From the shore they seem to chug slowly across the distant seas but up close they zoomed into view and whizzed passed me leaving their choppy wake to unsettle my rhythm. I knew the shipping lane was about 5 miles across and had hoped to be clear of it in 2 hours or so but I made the mistake of not accounting for the strong spring tide which had turned by this point and was whisking me southwards diagonally across the shipping lane. Every time I saw a tanker passing behind me I thought I might be clearing the shipping lane only to then see another in the distance still ahead of me.
In the channel they tell you to swim from feed to feed. Don’t be distracted by the distant goal or it will become insurmountable. If you start looking for the French shore you will be looking for hours and it will not appear to get any closer. I found myself looking forward to each 30 minute feed. Despite the fact I still felt nauseous the feeds broke up the monotony and it was something tangible to concentrate on other than the cold and fatigue. Every feed the crew would shout encouragement and pass on well wishes. Text messages from Australian and English family and friends. My friend Rob on board would reach down and hand me my next feed and tell me how strong I looked and the observer Andy would yell words of support. I even heard Ali call out once from the boat (an honour to receive encouragement from the queen of the channel).
Time did start to pass quicker in the 2nd half on the swim, I would like to say it was because I was fighting the demons better but I had given up trying to push the negative thoughts out of my head, they were far too pervasive. I refused to allow myself to think of the end goal in case the distance of it became too much. I accepted the cold and the nausea and the aches in the muscles and just tried to push myself to the next feed.
Twice I complained of the cold. A pointless exercise if ever there was one. Vickie knew how cold I had got at Windermere and afterwards I told her I didn’t want to complain about it because it would make it a bigger issue than it already was. A part of me was thinking if I tell them how cold I am then it won’t be so much of a shock if I get out. After the channel Vickie told me how worried she was when I was sick and complained of the cold, it was certainly a sign of how fragile the mental situation had become.
At the eight hour mark my arms started to feel really heavy, like they were three times their size and made of lead. It was just like it had been at Windermere and had happened at exactly the same time stage. At Windermere I had had only an hour left to swim and could see the finish point in the distance. In the channel I was still in the French shipping lane a long way from the coast and I started to wonder if this was really it, had my body finally reached the limit. I kept trying to focus on the stroke, ‘long and strong’, ‘long and strong’. Trying not to let my technique and efficiency suffer, and then after about 30 minutes the feeling went away. I didn’t magically feel great but I didn’t feel quite as bad as I had been.
I finally passed the last tanker, it came storming up to us and passed about 100m behind the boat, it seemed to take up the whole of my view when I breathed to the right it was so large. For a moment I was worried it might just mow us down and then just as quickly it had disappeared behind me and I was in the French inshore waters.
At my next feed Rob cheerfully informed me I was 3 miles from Cap Griz Nez, in the next breath he said ‘but you’re going to miss it with the tide so you’ve got probably 5 miles still to swim’. I know he was being helpful but I could have punched him. I figured another 2 hours of swimming and so I started to think that was maybe only 3 or 4 more feeds. The French coast was visible but I forced myself not to look at it between feeds as I knew it would not get closer quickly. At one of my last feeds Vickie encouraged me by telling me we were so close she could see the rocks but Ali had told them not to get too carried away as the tide was sweeping me southwards so quickly it wasn’t clear how soon I would be able to get into the shore. Vickie kept asking me if I wanted her to get in but I wanted to save her for the final push to shore and so when I came to the 11 hour feed and she asked me again I said ‘Is this my last feed?’ the reply was ‘Just keep going, keep swimming’ and so again I told Vickie to wait on the boat and swam on. To be honest although the shore looked close I was struggling to focus and couldn’t tell if I had 100m to swim or 2km. And then suddenly the shore was there, the rocks and boulders were tangible they were only 50m away and I finally knew I had made it. There was a stage in the swim that I had wondered if I made it to France would I cry with joy but when I finally felt the rocks beneath my feet I felt only an overwhelming sense of relief, relief that it was over.
I swam up to a large boulder at the waters edge and hauled myself out of the water. To officially finish you need to be completely clear of the water. I gingerly stood up, turned around and waved to my boat where I could see everyone cheering and waving enthusiastically. I was so exhausted I sat down on the rock and stared at the boat thinking how little I wanted to get back into the water and swim the 50m or so back to the boat. I also knew that the boat was the real end to this swim and I would start to suffer from the cold very soon so I eased back into the water and swam somewhat erratically back to the boat.
On the boat I was cocooned in towels, blankets and old clothes but it took about an hour for the shivering to stop. I slept the rest of the way back to Dover.
Several days on I do feel an immense amount of pride and satisfaction in what I have achieved and still an enormous amount of relief that I didn’t succumb to the demons. I have said to Vickie that if I ever even mention swimming the channel again she can club me over the head with a shovel. The next swim will be shorter and warmer, 50m in a pool sounds good.
I swam 1300kms in the eight months up to swimming the channel. It became nothing short of an obsession. I thought about it daily and even dreamt about it on numerous occasions. It took over my life for much of this year and I am looking forward to being a little less selfish about my time and priorities. I know my mum is glad it’s over!
To everyone who helped me along the way thank you so much. I trained with the Yarra Roughies and Ice-bergers in Melbourne. With Cheltenham Swim Club, Gloucester Masters and Cheltenham Tri Club in Cheltenham. I swam in Dover harbour with all the other channel aspirants under the watchful gaze of Freda, Barrie and the gang. What they do every weekend from May to September is just amazing. My bosses and partners at work. My friends who encouraged and swam with me. Rob, Mike and Andy on the boat. The wonderful Alison Streeter and crew. And the most important person of all, the one who still inspires and made me feel warm when the cold and dark were at its worst, my wonderful wife Vickie.
(Observer Andy, Crewman Brian, me and the great Alison Streeter)