Swimming the channel and the perfect combination of wind and tide.
July 29th 1997
Swimming the channel is an arduous activity that involves crossing more than 20 miles of cold water and battling against strong tides clad in nothing more than trunks and cap. In the initial planning stages an aspirant must register with the CSA (Channel Swimming Association), book a pilot boat and pass a full medical examination. The swim can only be attempted on the neap tides when the pull of the moon on the water is at its weakest resulting in less tidal movement in the channel. The temperature of the sea water usually lags about a month behind the seasons and is only warm enough between early July and early September. The second and most unpredictable factor is the weather which on the day of the swim has to be extremely settled with winds of force 3 or less. It quite often happens that swimmers come from far off places and end up returning home having done no more than swim up and down Dover harbour in preparation. It is something like waiting around for a week to run a marathon (except in this case you will end up swimming it) but only having 12 hours notice before the start to prepare yourself. The effect of the tides means that when you are three quarters of the way through the swim, the distances might suddenly change. In marathon running terms it would be equivalent to running through the 18 mile point and then 1 hour later noticing that you were going through the 17 mile point. From the water it might appear that you are tantalizingly close to the other shore but the close in the tides move fast pulling you along parallel to the coast.
Training for this event involves swimming hundreds of miles in the pool during the winter and then doing long open water sea swims in the months preceeding the swim. To stand any chance of conquering the gruelling waters you need to be able to do a 6 or 7 hour sea swim followed by a repeat of the same thing the next day. This split channel swim you would do at least three times over three consecutive weekends interspersed with shorter swims of between 2 and 4 hours during the week. In the month before the swim you swim for a total of 20 to 24 hours per week which would equates to a distance of 40 to 50 miles per week depending on your speed.
Great challenges bring with them a thrill and a sense of exhilaration. The greatest inspiration for me to swim the channel comes from the Indian meditation master Sri Chinmoy. His philosophy of meditation helps us tap into deeper levels of energy within us. Through inner preparation and developing tremendous determination within we can overcome obstacles that would normally defeat us. On a personal level I am a reaonably competent swimmer and have always loved the sea.
At dawn on the 29th of July, accompanied by my brother and 2 helpers, I made my way down to Dover’s western dock to find our pilot boat. Wisps of mist curled down the edge of the cliffs and touched the glassy water below. There was hardly a breath of wind. It was one of those rare days when conditions are ideal. The shortest distance is from Shakespeare beach to Cap Gris Nez, however, the actions of wind and tide can force you to finish anywhere along a 30 mile stretch of coastline at any time of day or night. An official observer from the CSA monitored my first few tentative stokes. These were in the direction of England as the rules state that you must clear the water on the English side before you start the swim. As I waded into the water from the beach I tried to practice some of the concentration techniques I had started to learn in meditation. I wanted to put out of my mind the fear and nervous thoughts and to focus on arriving at the beach in France. For the first couple of hours I was able to swim fast and was amazed to find that I could keep the pace going for most of the swim. The water was a clear cool dark green and I could clearly see the whole of the underneath of the boat that accompanied me.
The Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and ferries and supertanker crossed our path at frequent internals. Now and then I would hear the roar of the hovercraft taking visitors across to France or see the huge rusty hull of a tanker out of the corner of my steamed up goggles. In my mind I tried to visualise the channel divided up into manageable chunks. Ships travelling south towards the Atlantic follow the English shipping lane located about 5 miles off the coast. Those bound for Holland and the North Sea follow the French shipping lane just off the other coast. The expanse of water in between is known as the ‘separation zone’. When the first large tanker loomed up ahead of me I knew that we were approximately a quarter of the way across. It was going to be a long hard slog until I saw the ships heading in the opposite direction. I wondered if I would still be thinking so rationally or maybe the cold and sheer physical effort would dim my perceptions and change appearances . In fact large tankers passing by within a few hundred yards when you are in the water appear daunting at the best of times.
The boat was shrouded in thick mist as I paused for a warm carbohydrate drink a the 6 hour point. The pilot appeared and informed me that we were almost at the halfway point but I ploughed onwards wanting to make the best of the calm conditions. As I swung my head to the side for air I could make out the dull moaning of foghorns in the distance. The idea of ‘halfway’ just seemed to clear cut and rational for me. One of the things that was helping me get through this thing was imagining the time and distances in a more fanciful way. Perhaps the boat was lost in fog and it was only another hour remaining, or perhaps some magic in the air or a lucky tide had whisked us to within striking distance of the shore. The fog soon lifted and the shimmering blue coastline of France came into view. Seeing the white cliffs standing out clearly in the distance made it easy to imagine I would be there in an hour but a more rational part of me tried to keep in mind that it would probably take at least another 5 hours. Over the course of these hours if anything the coast seemed to recede into the distance.
If you are not inside the bay of Cap Gris Nez within 12 hours the changing tide works against you by pushing you back out into the channel or along the coast. This can add hours onto a swim or end it there and then. People have had to give up swims 600 metres from the beach due to these tides. Suddenly my helpers were signalling me to increase the pace. I felt sure I was caught in the tide and having got this far we were not going to be able to make it, my arms felt dead and I had to try to swim faster. Moments later I felt soft sand under my hands. It had taken 11 hours and 57 minutes to swim the channel. It had been an amazing experience but never again I thought to myself.