Saturday, 15 August 2015

Swimming the English Channel in a wetsuit

To some swimming the English Channel in a wetsuit is on a par with taking performance enhancing drugs to win the Tour De France, it's just not right. Swimming the English Channel properly means complying with certain long standing traditions - you start on dry land, you finish on dry land, you don't touch your support boat, any food or drink is handed to you whilst you tread water. You wear only a traditional swimming costume, one cap, a pair of goggles and you do it all under your own steam, no assistance whatsoever. In the words of Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, "Nothing great is easy". Let's face it, if you allow wetsuits, why not fins and a snorkel, why not get in the boat and row across, or better yet take the ferry. I know all these things, I swam it properly in 2009 and to put it bluntly, I hated it. I was bitterly cold, my teeth were chattering two hours in, my muscles were shivering and it took every ounce of my will power to not get out. I swore after that swim that I would never do it again, I made a Steve Redgrave-esque declaration that if I ever even talked about doing it again I should be hit over the head with a shovel and I was happy to stick with this plan. I did do other long swims, some longer but considerably warmer, some colder but much shorter. It wasn't my intention to ever dip my toe in the English Channel again………and then along came the Arch to Arc. The Arch to Arc is an ultra triathlon from London to Paris. Run 87 miles, swim the Channel, bike 180 miles to Paris. Normally done in teams of 6, my wife suggested we do it as a two person team, she does the run, I do the swim and we share the bike. The caveat being as it's a triathlon the swim is wetsuit permitted. Nearly every Arch to Arc has been done with a wetsuit swim leg, technically it's not about swimming the Channel in accordance with Channel swim rules, it's about completing a triathlon event in accordance with traditional triathlon rules and so against my better judgement I said "hmmm, maybe, OK, I guess".

Somewhere mid-channel
That's how I found myself standing on a small pebble beach in the very dark hours of Friday morning the 7th of August. Zipped into my wetsuit and with a generous amount of Channel grease around my neck to ward of the wetsuit rub effect. Staring out into the darkness I could see the lights of my support boat bobbing up and down and beyond that, deep dark, nothingness. From the boat a hooter sounded to signify the start of my swim and I waded into the breaking waves and started swimming. I caught up with the boat and started swimming next to it, every breath I took I looked at the side of the boat, and slowly but steadily it led me straight out to sea and away from the white cliffs of Dover. Through the small cabin windows I could just make out someone steering the boat, occasionally a shadowy outline of a person wandering on the deck let me know I wasn't completely alone. In some ways the hardest thing about any long swim is dealing with what goes on in your head. When you are alone in the deep black sea with no one to keep you company, no one to chat to, nothing but a small bobbing boat between you and miles and miles of open ocean it's easy to slip into a negative mind set. Every time the boat crept ahead of me I would look at the steps on the back and think about swimming over to climb out. When a cold splash of water slipped down the back of the wetsuit or a rising tide of nausea started to creep into my stomach it was very hard to stay positive and think about anything other than how much further it was to swim. The one positive however was that no matter how tired I got, no matter how sick I was, I wasn't really cold, certainly not like I had been before. The wetsuit did its job to keep me insulated from the chill of the sea. It didn't make it easy, but it did make it slightly less awful! Even with a wetsuit you still have to swim for many, many hours. You still need to deal with all those mental dark moments, it won't stop you from getting sick, it won't propel you forward when the tides work against you but it will greatly reduce the effect of the cold. The sky started to lighten after about an hour of swimming and by 2 hours in the sun was creeping above the horizon. This coincided with the start of the vomiting; considering it took me 4 hours to start vomiting last time I swam the Channel this wasn't exactly progress. For the rest of the swim I would keep one feed down then vomit after the next one. I had done enough long swims and struggled with nausea often enough that the vomiting itself didn't bother me greatly but I knew the importance of keeping some nutrition going in. If you stop feeding because you feel sick then very quickly you run out of energy and everything becomes seriously hard work. The hours came and went, the tankers and ferries drifted by and I made what felt like slow progress towards France. I avoided looking up as much as possible, trying not to think about how much I still had to swim until at the 7 & 1/2 hr mark I was through to the French inshore waters. It took me two hours to get in from here last time and I was hopeful I could make it in quite a bit less this time. At the 8hour mark the pilot came on deck, it was the first time I had seen him all swim. He said to me that at my current pace I had an hour and a half to go but if I picked it up I would be in in an hour. Exhausted as I was I threw myself into it and started counting strokes and ticking off laps in my head - 100 strokes is about 3 laps of a pool, 300 strokes somewhere close to 400m, do that 6 times and I've swum for 30minutes. One last feed and then off again, the shore was close now but still tantalisingly far enough away. I did another 30minutes of hard swimming, counting strokes and they waved me in again for another feed, "How much further?" I asked and the reply was "about 10 minutes", I decided to skip the feed and just put my head down and when I saw that the support boat had stopped moving forwards I allowed myself another look up and there were the rocks of Cap Griz Nez. That was the moment that I allowed myself to believe I had made it, the last two hundred metres were almost enjoyable, I scrambled out on to the rocks and enjoyed that feeling of accomplishment and considerable relief in finishing a very long swim.    
Relief and completion
Most swimmers will find a wetsuit makes them quicker in a pool. For me it is a consistent 6sec per hundred which equates to 1minute per km or roughly 30minutes over the course of a Channel swim. I was nearly 2hours quicker this year than last time (9hrs 8min vs  11hrs 6min). Certainly the wetsuit sped me up slightly but critically without the slowing effects of hypothermia I was able to maintain my speed and even put in an extra spurt of effort in the last hour to ensure I hit the Cap. 
The swim was still extremely tough, if you haven't trained hard enough or prepared yourself mentally then a wetsuit is not going to guarantee you success. For most purists swimming the Channel in a wetsuit will never be acknowledged as a successful crossing. If anything it dilutes the achievements of those who did it the hard way. In the records of channel swimming there is no wetsuit category, in fact if you swim it in a wetsuit it's like it didn't happen! For me I've swum the Channel twice, once with and once without a wetsuit. Without was certainly harder solely because of my struggle with the cold. It is an immensely difficult challenge and one I am happy to have conquered twice, if I hadn't have swum it non-wetsuit I think I may well feel like I had taken a short cut. On the other hand, perhaps it is only because I have swum it the hard way that I can acknowledge that my second swim was just a little bit easier than it might have been.    
Many sincere thanks to my support crew - Rob, Simon and Finn who fed and watered me and without whose help I couldn't have made it at all. 

For the write up of the Arch to Arc and what happened next see our Arch to Arc blog.