Friday, 22 July 2011

Andrew Vidler's Channel Swim

This was always going to be a novel experience for me, as a swimmer I've never been part of the support crew. I've always appreciated the importance of those around you, the invaluable assistance from those who feed you, advise you, navigate and encourage you but up till now I've always received this crucial support and never given it. The opportunity to be part of someone else's adventure seemed like a great opportunity and when I discovered Andrew's swim would take part at a time when I was back in the UK I offered to help and my offer was quickly accepted.

July came around and we moved back to England a few days before Andrew's tidal window was due to start but as is often the way, channel swims don't often stick to the schedule. Andrew was the second swimmer in his tide which started on the 7th of July, the first swimmers were getting away a few days into the window but the weather was closing in fast and Andrew's pilot only managed to get one swimmer away in the 11 days available. So Andrew's tide came and went and like many swimmer's before him Andrew was left high and dry in Dover. Getting frustrated and having exhausted the few diversions Dover had to offer, Andrew packed his family off to Paris and came up to Cheltenham to stay with us and clear his head. Andrew spent three days swimming in the local fresh water lake and outdoor lido and managed to relax and refocus. By the time he headed back to Dover the weather was improving and a swim date mid week on a low spring tide looked possible.

The call from the pilot came and finally the swim was locked in for an early start on the Wednesday morning. I headed off from Cheltenham late afternoon. For me it was like going back in time two years. When I swam the channel we also headed down the evening before the swim. With the car packed I set off on the long drive to Dover. This was a route I was very familiar with having done it so many times in the build up to my own swim. When I finally crested the hill above Dover I could see France as a distant speck on the horizon. It was all very reminiscent of 2009 and I felt a twinge of excitement as I saw the familiar buildings and harbour. I arrived at Andrew's B&B and met up with the rest of the crew; Caren, Andrew's wife and Fraser, Andrew's kiwi friend and swimming buddy from year's gone by. We managed a quick power nap before the alarms sounded at half past midnight and we jumped into action. A quick bite and then down to the marina. Pre-swim nerves were building slightly but Andrew seemed focused and ready to swim. We loaded up the boat and met Chris the pilot, his crew and the somewhat fresh looking observer Marcus. The boat chugged round to Samphire Hoe where Andrew would start his swim. We could see all the other boats ahead of us that had started in the last hour, we were the last to get going and I could see Andrew chomping at the bit to get into the water. Andrew's final preparations of greasing and attaching light sticks were done and he quickly launched himself into the cold channel water to swim to the beach. It was watching him ready himself that I felt the strongest flash back to the start of my own swim and I was so glad I was staying on the boat this time. Caren and I were struggling with the dreaded motion sickness and before Andrew had even reached the beach Caren lent over the side and revisited her dinner. I felt queasy but not quite as desperate and we both took another sea sickness tablet. Andrew cleared the water and then jumped back in and at 2.20am he officially started his English channel swim.

The first couple of hours were pretty steady with Andrew settling into a nice rhythm and the feeds of maxim going down well. By 4am the horizon was getting lighter and the sun eventually popped up just after 5am. As the first three hours drifted by Andrew could have a support swimmer but there was no way I could rally myself at this stage. The nausea was making moving around the boat an effort and the sea sickness tablets were leaving me wiped out. That along with the cool night air the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off and jumping into the water. The hours slowly ticked by and we encouraged Andrew at each feed. Marcus the observer and Caren took turns to feed the fish on the opposite side of the boat and we saw little else of Marcus as he retired below deck to try and sleep through the ordeal!

By 7.20am we were 5hours in and tried to feed Andrew some solid food along with his energy drinks. That feed was promptly followed by a spectacular projectile vomit. Knowing exactly how he felt and having discussed this scenario before the swim, I yelled out to him to keep going and get on with the swim as if nothing significant had happened. True to form he put his head down and kept swimming. To try and boost his spirits we unfurled the first of two banners Caren had brought. The first was of their two daughters cheering him on telling him to not give up. We could see his immediate pleasure at the sight and I started to contemplate getting wet!

I eventually dragged out my wetsuit and overcoming the medication induced lethargy and persistent nausea I readied myself for a swim. At about the 6 hour mark I jumped into the English channel, I remembered vividly telling my wife Vickie if I ever contemplated swimming the English Channel again she could hit me over the head with a shovel, but I rationalised this wasn't quite what I meant. The water was cold but in a wetsuit quite comfortable, I swam beside Andrew and took some good footage with the waterproof camera. Andrew is a tad slower than me and in a wetsuit I felt like I was only floating along. The crew warned me to not get ahead of Andrew (for fear of getting him disqualified) and after 30minutes I was ready to get out. It was one of the few moments when I didn't feel too unwell, climbing out of the water I felt refreshed and energised. I made the most by eating some pot noodles and we all felt boosted by the fact that the French coastline was slowly getting clearer.

We reached halfway and Andrew still looked strong if a little cold each time he fed. His stroke count had dropped slightly but he showed no real signs of flagging. In the night we had heard of one swimmer who had pulled out but all the other boats ahead of us were making steady progress. I dozed occasionally between feeds but tried to rouse myself as often as possible to encourage Andrew each time he came along side the boat. With Caren and I debilitated by the sea sickness Fraser had become the chief supporter, he mixed up nearly all the feeds and stayed awake and attentive the whole trip, a feat that was critical to Andrew's success. At ten hours Fraser decided to jump in and I found myself temporarily in charge of feeds which took a supreme effort to steady myself and focus on the mixing of maxim and tea without contributing to the mix myself. Finally Cap seemed to be directly ahead of us probably only a few miles away and we passed the C2 buoy which marked the end of the French shipping lane but at almost that exact time the tide turned and we started moving away from the closest bit of French coastline to England. Chris the pilot was looking concerned. He had plotted our course once the tide had shifted and he could see we were getting swept further away from the coast with each passing minute. He passed a gloomy forecast that Andrew might have another 6 hours to swim before the tide turned again and would bring us back to land. We were already 12 hours into the swim at that stage and the prospect of another 6 hours appealed to Caren and I about as much as it would have done to Andrew! Fraser, Caren and I debated as to whether we told Andrew to push harder to break through the tide. Knowing how I would have been feeling at the same stage and seeing how well Andrew was swimming I was reluctant to tell him anything. He was already swimming as hard as he could and if he pushed himself even harder for 30minutes and failed to make any progress it might be the nail in the coffin mentally for him. We decided to stretch out his feeds (to reduce time spent treading water) and encouraged him to feed quickly and he got the message anyway. Thirty minutes later Chris reappeared looking much more buoyant, he informed us Andrew had broken through to the shallower in-shore waters and was now making progress towards land. He only had maybe 2 more hours to swim if he could just make it! We all felt a surge of excitement on the boat and could see Cap Blanc away to our left where we were now heading towards on the tide. The feeds ticked over and Andrew kept making what seemed like slow but steady progress. Over the radio we heard one more swimmer had given up having hit the same tidal problem as Andrew but had failed to break though. Eventually we came to the time when Chris wanted to know if Andrew needed a last feed or not and I was keen to give him a final boost before his last push to shore so we called him in one last time for an energy gel. I yelled down to him that this was his last feed and he needed to give one last push. Fraser got back in to accompany Andrew to shore and we readied our cameras. The last 500 metres were interminable, Chris had taken his boat as close to the cliffs as he was game and we were left to watch Andrew from afar. We could finally see Fraser touching the rocks and trying to find a safe place for Andrew to clear the water and then the triumphant moment as Andrew stood up in the shallows, promptly fell over and then staggered slowly out to a shallow beach. Arms raised triumphantly we cheered from the boat and the horn sounded to signify the completion of an epic swim. Marcus appeared momentarily to record a finishing time of 14hours and 40minutes exactly.

It was a wonderful moment, surprisingly I felt much more elation watching Andrew finish than I had felt at the completion of my own swim, the swimmer feels relief and gratitude that the swim is over but the support crew really feel the elation of the achievement. When Andrew finally got back on board the boat he was exhausted. He hung on to the back of the boat as they moved out to deeper water and we unceremoniously dragged him onto the deck. Overcome with emotion he realised the enormity of his swim and sat down as a wave of realisation swept over him. I could't wipe the grin of my face as I welcomed him to the club.

The next morning we went to the White Horse pub in Dover. It is a tradition to sign the wall in the pub after you have successfully completed your channel swim. I never got the chance in 2009 as the pub was closed at the time so Andrew and I sized up a square of unblemished roof space and signed our names to add to the heavily tattooed walls and roofs. Along with his signature Andrew added a thanks to his family and friends and I noted a similar message under another friend's signature which said "No-one does it alone", how very true.