When your arms get tired, you can't take the Chunnel

By Joseph A. Harriss

That chilly sleeve of water between Dover and Calais still exercises a tidal pull on the imaginations of marathon swimmers.

Every time I raise my head to breathe, the cold blue-green chop slaps me in the face. Even for a veteran hotel pool swimmer like me that’s unsettling, especially with the water in Dover Harbor a bone-chilling 60 degrees. When I make out an eight-story building coming straight at me, throwing up a curling bow-wave, I head for the beach. By the time I reach it, the building, actually a Sealink ferry in from Calais, has turned into her berth. As I walk shivering but safe on the beach's painful egg-size pebbles, I discard any illusions about spending a day swimming across the English Channel. I'd been in the water just 25 minutes.

This brief experience stirs mixed feelings about the swimmers gathered here expressly to consign themselves for hours to the hazards of a private Channel crossing. First reaction: they must be crazy. Second reaction: crazy or not, they have plenty of guts. I find them at one end of the beach, far from the crowd of leather-skinned grannies and squealing kids that clutter the pebbles of Dover. Sheltered among them, removed from the racket of hovercraft and ferries coming and going, is Alison Streeter, known hereabouts as "Queen of the Channel." A rotund, compact dynamo with a disarming grin, she has swum the 21.5 miles from Dover to France an awe-inspiring 30 times by summer 1995.

She is the only woman to have done a "three-way swim"--Dover to Calais to Dover and back. The July day I meet her on the beach, Streeter has just completed the third two-way of her career. She is still wearing an elastic support from wrist to elbow on her left arm. "It got very choppy when the wind changed on the way back from France," she explains. "I was pulling so hard I strained the tendons in my left wrist by bending it down too far. You've got to get maximum pull with each stroke." With more than a million maximum-pull strokes in the Channel since her first crossing in 1982 at age 18, Streeter has been the women's champ since a 20th crossing in 1992, a year when she did a record seven in a row. "I started thinking, it's the English Channel after all, so a British girl should have the record," she says with the grin. I make a date to go along on the support boat for her next try, aimed at tying the world record.

At 10 a.m. other Channel swimming stars are donning swimsuits beneath beach towels and pulling on goggles and red or yellow silicone bathing caps--imprinted with the swaggering message, "When the going gets tough, sprinters get out." They grease themselves with a mix of lanolin and petrolatum bought for £7 a jar at the Boots drugstore in Biggin Street. Like elites everywhere, they kid around with insider jokes. The kidding is mainly things like who's put on the most body fat and what the crazy Channel weather will do. One of them borrows a ballpoint pen and sticks it in his suit so he can mark warm-up laps on his left hand. For Channel swimmers in training, a lap is 1,000 yards from one end of Dover's harbor to the other. They do that for four to eight hours, stopping each hour to chug carbohydrate drinks (mostly glucose) for quick energy. One of the women on a break stands at water's edge shivering so hard she sloshes the drink out. Finally she steadies the paper cup with both hands long enough to gulp it down before plunging in for another hour.

They all train with astonishing single-mindedness for their individual assaults on what is legitimately known as the Everest of swimming. As Edmund Acevedo, a professor of physical education research at the University of New Orleans who has made two unsuccessful tries, notes, "Because of the distance, the steady threat of hypothermia, the unpredictable weather, and the constant need for energy replacement, swimming the English Channel is arguably the ultimate endurance challenge." Thomas Hetzel, a former New York City police detective and a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, puts it another way. Among marathon swimmers, he makes clear, you're not considered great until you've done the English Channel.

What they win, besides this obscure greatness, is the right to pay $100 for a vellum certificate, having already paid $2,000 to register and be accompanied by a boat. Acevedo has delved into the psychology of the Channel swim and found that those who succeed feel "the triumph/euphoria typical of a peak experience." After his 1972 triumph Ted Keenan, from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, was so euphoric that he named his brand-new daughter Chanele.

Acevedo also reported "disappointment and loss of goal direction later on." Presumably the vellum certificate on the wall cushions disappointment. But one skipper who regularly accompanies the swimmers across shakes his head. "It's a strange sort of pleasure to endure hours in cold water knowing you've spent over a thousand pounds for the privilege," he says.

Whatever the pleasure, it comes, if it comes at all, after considerable pain. Yet lone swimmers from 42 countries have struggled across the Channel some 750 times, including 22 two-ways and three three-ways. Francophobes will be pleased to learn that only six French citizens have swum the Channel, perhaps because in France, British eccentricities are disdained. Besides, the sunny Mediterranean is considered much more civilized than La Manche. In all. some 4,400 people have made more than 6,300 attempts, amply demonstrating the kind of tidal pull these 21.5 watery miles exercise on human imagination.

People as young as Britain's Thomas Gregory (11 years 11 months) and as old as Australia's Clifford Batt (67 years 240 days) have made it. The fastest man and woman are both American: Chad Hundeby (7 hours 17 minutes in 1994) and Penny Lee Dean (7 hours 40 minutes in 1978). Besides the solo swimmers, hundreds of others do hour-long legs as part of six-member relay teams, including the American team.

Getting ready for her first crack at greatness--whatever it is--Karen Howard considers the swim's effects not on her body but on her home life, which, she admits, has disintegrated partly because of her swimming. "I started May 6 and haven't missed a weekend," she says. A suitably padded housewife from Gravesend, she didn't learn to swim until she was 40 and then fell in love with it. She wants to make it across for her son, Paul. "I'd love him to say, 'My mum swam the Channel.'"

Nearby, American John Selmer swings a scarlet towel down behind his back to exercise his shoulders. A friendly, graying, 6-foot-3-inch former naval officer who swam for the Naval Academy before being assigned to hunter-killer subs, he swims San Francisco Bay daily at 6 a.m. as a member of the Dolphin Club. "I turned 50 this year," Selmer says, "and this is how I'm celebrating it."

Channel swimmers take for granted things like sewage, oil slicks, patches of scratchy seaweed and dodging some of the 600 ships a day that pass through the Strait of Dover, one of the world's busiest shipping corridors. They know the salt water will make their tongues and throats swell, impeding their breathing; if enough gets into their stomachs, it will make them vomit. They also know they will fight the Channel's treacherous weather. The Strait's microclimate, encompassing two large landmasses, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is so capricious that Coast Guard forecasters often end official bulletins by saying "the actual conditions in Dover are..."

Complicating that are the tides that rip up and down the Channel, flooding into and out of the North Sea every six hours. The beach buzzes with stories of swimmers who have been tantalizingly close to the French coast after ten hours, only to struggle for another four hours with a flood tide carrying them sideways. Many have been pulled from the water dazed, exhausted and retching, done in with only a few hundred yards to go.

The main obstacle is the cold. With Channel water ranging from 55 to 63 degrees F, hypothermia accounts for about 80 percent of all failures. After a few hours in the water even the best swimmers can become confused and are unable to respond to simple questions from their escort pilot; lips turn blue, bodies shake uncontrollably. Adrien Moorhouse, a British Olympic swimming champ fresh from the 1992 Barcelona Games, lasted only two and a half hours due to the cold. In the 120 years that people have been doing this, two have died of hypothermia and exhaustion, notably the Brazilian champion Renata Agondi in 1988.

"The cold is what gives women a natural advantage," says Alison Streeter, preparing for the water. "It's our higher percentage of body fat. Men are stronger but that's no help against cold." In real life Streeter is a mild-mannered currency trader (South African rands, Thai bahts) with a London bank, but when she exchanges her business suit for a swimsuit, she turns into a 5-foot-3-inch, 161-pound, fluid-drive swimming machine. Her usual 68 strokes a minute isn't particularly fast, and she has an elbow-flailing high recovery stroke that makes swimming coaches wince. But beneath her easygoing exterior is an athlete who never gives in.

"About an hour out," she says, "I start getting muscle pain in my shoulders, lower back and neck, and it lasts all the way. You just have to punch through the pain barrier." She pushed through a lot on her three-way swim, a prodigious 34-hour, 40-minute effort in1990 that earned her a place on the Queen's Birthday List as a Member of the British Empire. In her spare time she's swum the 62 miles around the Isle of Wight, done two 28-mile swims around Manhattan Island and crawled down the Thames for 43 miles. Streeter, who sometimes listens to the latest exchange rates on the escort boat's radio to relieve the boredom of pulling water, has raised some $130,000 for leukaemia and epilepsy charities in the last decade through sponsored swims.

Finally it's time for her record-tying swim. "They're forecasting a seven-knot wind and calm seas," announces Mike Oram. Oram is the burly, bearded captain of the Aegean Blue, a 30-foot cruiser that will take us to Abbot's Cliff, Streeter's takeoff point, and then shepherd her across. When I ask Streeter what she had for dinner, she replies, "Scampi Provencal and pasta at Dino's." Breakfast was two pieces of toast.

On the way to Abbot's Cliff, she dons a black swimsuit, tucks here short sandy curls under a white cap and lets her trainer-mother, Freda, slather some cream-colored grease on her neck and armpits to prevent chafing. Oram, who uses a computer to chart his courses, is compensating for a big seven-meter tide ripping up from the Atlantic. "The route is different for each swimmer because their speed determines when and where they'll hit the changing tides," he says. Some swimmers actually travel as much as 40 miles.

Alison is now following in the wake of Captain Matthew Webb, a muscular, moustachioed shipmaster. A strong swimmer who once saved a seaman fallen overboard from a Cunard liner, he started the Channel swimming craze on August 25, 1875, when, on his second try, he made it across the Channel in a brisk 21 hours 45 minutes. Webb died in July 1883 while attempting to swim the rapids and whirlpools below Niagara Falls.

It was not until 1911 that one T.W. Burgess made it on his 12th try to become number two. Gertrude Ederle, one of America's best-known sports figures of the 1920s, astounded the world in August 1926, at age 19, by breaking the men's record by one hour and 54 minutes. Suddenly the thing caught on. The Channel Swimming Association was formed in 1927 to give the game rules: swims must start from natural shore and end on shore or at cliffs, with swimmers entitled to food on route but not to touch either boat or helping hand. The only equipment permitted: non-insulating swimsuit, bathing cap, goggles, nose clip, earplugs, grease and a light stick at night.

Alison gets the starting signal from Barrie Darling, today's official observer, at 11:54 a.m. She starts her metronomic stroke, hands driving forward smoothly into the water, wrists bent, legs flutter-kicking just enough to keep her balance, making 2.2 knots. "All I ask is that they keep moving their arms and legs," cracks Oram, who has escorted more than 145 swims, and calculates that in ideal conditions a swim could be done in 6.8 hours.

"Seven minutes to feed time," Darling shouts. In the heroic but gastronomically unscientific old days, swimmers used to snack on everything from beef sandwiches to rice pudding and whole roast chickens while treading water. Today, Freda Streeter simply mixes a cup of pure maltodextrin carbohydrate drink with black currant flavoring, the energy equivalent of a plate of pasta. Alison swims over, takes the paper cup, gulps it down, and flips the cup over her head.

The only locals who really pay attention to Channel swimmers are officers at the Dover Coast Guard station high above the cliffs. They keep a benevolent eye out for them, including giving position reports of swims-in-progress in their hourly shipping broadcast, adding prudently, "a wide berth is requested."

Two hours after our start, Dover Coast Guard crackles over the boat's radio: "Fog banks rolling in. Visibility reports of less than two miles requested on channel six-nine." White caps are forming and a three-foot chop slaps us from several directions, leaving the Aegean Blue wallowing uncomfortably. Hulking out of the summer haze comes Faride, a big red 60,000-ton bulk carrier out of Istanbul, cutting through the waves barely a hundred yards off our bow.

Before starting, Alison joked that she hoped the Channel wouldn't be too calm and boring. Now, as she comes over for her fifth-hour feed, she says, "Definitely not boring." "She's taking a beating out there," says Freda, starting to look worried. The wind is up to force six, 28 knots. "Looks like a cold front has come through," says Oram. "Ah well, we like a challenge."

Dover Coast Guard comes on the loudspeaker: "Strong wind warning for coastal waters up to five nautical miles offshore." Freda lies down on the deck. "Thirty crossings and this is the closest I've ever come to being seasick." Nine and a half hours out, seven miles from France, Alison is still plugging away, wearing a lime-green chemical light stick so she can be seen in the dark. At the next feeding, Oram leans over the port side and shouts, "Only you know how you feel. We can struggle on if you want, but the wind's at 30 knots and it'll be another three to five hours."

Alison hesitantly treads water in our spotlight. Oram makes the decision. "As skipper, I'm telling you this is bloody ridiculous and you should get out now." Reluctantly, she climbs on board and collapses in a dejected heap on deck with a blanket around her. We all try to cheer her up. Oram guns the motors and steers for the flickering lights of Calais on the swaying horizon. Bitterly disappointed, Alison manages a brave grin. "Sorry guys. I guess nobody beats the Channel every time."

(Epilogue: She found better conditions on September 4, 1995, crossing for the 32nd time, in 10 hours 58 minutes, to become the new all-time Channel champion.)