Tejaswi's Big Swim

Tejaswi van der Walt swam the English Channel on July 19th 2000, in a time of 13 hours 22 minutes. Hopefully video footage will soon be available.

The story of my Channel adventure began in 1997 in London. Karteek Clark, a friend from Edinburgh, swam the English Channel that year in 11 hours and 57 minutes. I thought it was the most courageous (and insane) feat that an individual could willingly undergo, one of the most frightening things that I could imagine. Something deep within, however, was tickled by the idea and thought to itself “What if….?”.

In April 1998, I visited New York to spend time with my meditation teacher, Sri Chinmoy, and my whispering inner voice started up again. This time, however, it refused to be silenced. In fact, it grew into an inner clamour that I could not quell. The idea of swimming the English Channel filled my thoughts continuously, day and night, and though my terrified mind quailed at the thought of even contemplating such an arduous and uncomfortable ordeal, in the end, more for peace than anything else, I wrote a letter to Sri Chinmoy stating that I would like to attempt to swim the English Channel in his honour in 2000 as a Millennial dedication. I should add, as my mind did more than once, that I had never swum competitively and had had not had coaching since childhood. I did spend most of my childhood and teenage years in backyard pools and felt confident in the water, but it had been some time since had done any swimming at all.

When I got back to Australia, I started training and planned to attempt some open water races as a motivator and test of my capacities. After some shorter open water events, I fixed my sights on a 15km race swim in Canberra in February 1999 which is part of the annual Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Ultra Triathlon. My training in the lead up to the event was patchy at best and I was quite apprehensive before the start of the race, but I finished the race in a respectable time of 5 hours 9 minutes. More importantly, I had discovered the hidden reserves that can be tapped by focusing inwardly and trying to maintain a meditative consciousness while swimming. I found that I could enter into a state where I could exercise at a higher intensity for longer, minimize discomfort and fatigue and also quieten my mind so that it would not distract me or despair at the discomfort or boredom of what I was doing.

Encouraged, I promptly allowed my training to lapse for a whole year. I had planned to start my training in earnest in October or November of 1999, however various things conspired to thwart my good intentions until I moved to New York in February 2000. By this time I was beginning to feel The Fear, so I cast my eyes about for a suitable training facility in Jamaica, Queens where I was living and to my chagrin was only able to find the Jamaica YMCA which was a mere 20 yards long. This meant that every two miles equaled 176 laps of the pool but given my lack of a car and better facilities anywhere nearby, I gritted my teeth and began training there in the mornings. There I swam from February through April averaging around 2 miles a day until I the monotony of that tiny pool finally got to me and I left swearing never to darken the door of that subterranean hole again. A broken man, I searched for an alternative venue in vain.

Photo: The beautiful Mianus River in Connecticut where Adhiratha and I trained.

Despairing, with nary 3 months until my date with destiny, I cried out to God for some assistance. The following day, I met Adhiratha Keefe, one of the heroes of Channel swimming in the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (SCMT). Adhiratha was the first employee of the United Nations and the first male and second swimmer from the SCMT to swim the Channel. He has ploughed the murky waters of Dover harbour for many a moon since. To my great good fortune, we bumped into each other and started chatting about our respective Dover-Calais ambitions for the year. With customary enthusiasm, Adhiratha immediately suggested that we could train together as he had a car and was planning to train in Nassau county and Connecticut for the rest of the summer. Thereafter, every weekend, we trained together Saturday and Sunday, first indoors and then, when it started to warm up, in the Mianus River in Greenwich Connecticut. I felt that God had truly answered my prayers. Adhiratha is the perfect training partner. He is always enthusiastic, is generous to a fault and has a wealth of experience which he very liberally shared with me. From that point on, I started to feel more positive and enjoyed tremendously our summer weekends of long hours in the water, huge meals and conversations with David Inkey and other friends in beautiful Connecticut. In the beginning of July, feeling somewhat more confident with some 8 and 10 hour training swims under my belt, I set off for Dover.

Photo: Channel swimmers, from left: Karteek, Adhiratha, Tejaswi and Balarka in Dover the day after my swim.

I arrived in Dover feeling somewhat disoriented and missed my prearranged meeting with Balarka Robinson and Karteek who were both also training in Dover. The next morning I was very relieved to meet up with my fellow Channel swimmers at the Harbour side and we had our first plunge in the icy waters of the Channel. The sun was out and the water definitely felt cold, but I did not feel too fazed and we swam for an hour and a half. We got out of the water and my body celebrated the occasion with a migraine headache. It was only the following morning when I went back for another swim that I realized for the first time how fundamentally cold the Channel waters are. Upon entering the water very gingerly, I would immediately get an ice cream headache from the cold that would last 10 or 15 minutes in a phenomenon that occurred daily right up until the day of my actual swim.

Photo: Balarka and Amin on the bleak Dover beach

The weather during the following 2 weeks was consistently foul. It was cold, wet and windy. Most days Dover Harbour was choppy, grey and distinctly uninviting. With the weather so unpleasant, it was hard to be confident and Dave and I experienced a real roller coaster of emotions as the days of our swims started looming. We were afraid that we may not get the opportunity to swim at all and would have to return empty handed as the weather showed no signs of abating. A week before my tide, however, I started to feel a calmness from within. We heard a weather report stating that the weather would be good a couple of days before my neap tide on the spring tide. I was faced with a difficult decision. A spring tide would mean that the tidal forces would be stronger making my swim more difficult. However, given that weather had been so bad, it may prove to be easier to try a more difficult tide if the weather was good as another window of good weather may not occur again. I decided that good weather was more important than an ideal tide and opted to swim a couple of days earlier than I had anticipated.

As my day approached, the weather forecasts started to look more and more promising. Finally on the day before my swim, my two assistants for the swim, Rodney and Nabik, arrived in town and we finalized preparations.

At a half hour past midnight, we met our pilot, Dave White and the official observer from the Channel Swimming Association at his beautifully appointed yacht at the Dover Marina. We loaded up and set off from Dover Harbour for the appointed starting point at Bishop’s Cliff very close to the Channel Tunnel.

It was an outstandingly beautiful night. All year, I had been praying for good weather and God did not let me down. The Channel was amazingly still, not a breath of wind stirred the surface of the water and the moon was full and bright, marking out a quicksilver path across the ocean for me to follow. As I looked down at the bow-wake from the yacht, phosphorescent algae danced, glowing, away from the prow. I felt blessed. Blessed and really, really nervous.

My helpers covered me with Channel grease, a mixture of lanolin and petroleum jelly, and then I jumped out of the back of the yacht and swam to the beach for the official start. I meditated briefly, and then plunged back into the water and started swimming.