An amusing account of two crossings by veteran Channel crew member Devashishu Torpy. August 10, 2003
On Sunday 3rd August just after 3.00AM, Mate from Budapest jumped into the English Channel from Shakespeare Beach below the white cliffs of Dover. This was his second attempt to conquer the unruly waters that seperate England from France. It was a perfectly clear warm night ( very typical in the UK!!?! ) and within an hour the sky began to brighten up to reveal the battlefield stretching out before us. There was almost no wind and Mate had started out at a storming pace. Every 45 minutes he would stop for a feed, a mouth watering concoction of Cytomax and banana or a refreshing slurp of his 'special' hungarian protein potion ( when he was really good we gave him chocolate! ). Mate had designed his own feeding schedule in frightening detail (too much time in Dover Mate?) and had prepared an A4 writing pad with specific codes like TC and GF (Tyagambur Called and this is a good time to Go Faster). On his previous attempt the year before, too much time had been lost in miscommunication during the feeding breaks, seconds and minutes which the swimmer can pay dearly for in the latter stages of the crossing. You see, the Channel is not just a gap between two shorelines or a lane in a big swimming pool, its not a nice carpet of tarmac or a winding path through a flower garden, NO! Its alive I tell you! It never stops moving! For six hours the tide drags you this way then for six hours it drags you in the opposite direction and neither of these 'directions' is the way you want to go.
The wind blows from another direction and either speeds up the tide or clashes with it creating choppy waves. Not to mention that its the busiest shipping channel ( as opposed to the shopping channel ) in the world with massive German cargo ships transporting brand new cars to Japan and massive Japanese cargo ships sending brand new cars to Germany. The channel is alive and quite frankly I don't think it wants you to get to France. For centuries it was the battleground of the warring European Imperialist nations - its no Zurich lake thats for sure! Anyway, where was I, ah yes, Mate. Mate was extremely economic with his breaks ('breaks' is not really the right word for treading water in freezing temperatures, attempting to drink tea without swallowing two gallons of salt water ) and without a murmur he would be back into the swim, head down, smooth stroke. 5 hours into the swim we had crossed the halfway point although I have learned from bitter experience that the one thing you can be sure of at the 'halfway point' is that you are nowhere near halfway through the swim! At about 8 AM a thick fog descended on us. Visibility was about 40 metres and every now and then we could hear the bellow of a fog horn from the passing passenger ferries. Nevertheless the wind remained still and the water was pleasantly calm. Mate was swimming to plan and the fog began to clear around midday unveiling a blazing summer sun. It was around this time when the ever silent Mate asked the dreaded question, 'Where is France?' Channel swimming psychologists know that this translates to 'I am really tired!' 9 hours into the swim I had already received calls from Mate's extensive fan club, from Budapest, Zurich, London and New York. Now was the time to test Mate's metal. His stroke was becoming a little ragged his concentration a little less focused. It seemed that we were on course for a 10 and a half hour swim but that was before we stumbled into the infamous 'Washing Machine'. France was becoming more and more visible and soon we were in sight of Cap Grenez. It looked so close. But the tide was changing. I had brought out the GF signal and we could see that another swimmer who had started at the same time as Mate was about to reach shore just south of the Cape. The Ebb tide had been unpredictably strong and brought us further down the channel than intended and as the tide changed we were heading into the choppy waters off the Cape. As the tide picked up strength we could see the lighthouse on the Cape pass agonisingly out of reach ( we were probably just over a mile from it). North of the Cape the land recedes forming a large bay and as the tide pulls you up to Calais you are actually getting further from the shore even though you are swimming towards it. Mate looked up and asked 'We are getting further away?' Accustomed to lying in this situation but keen to keep Mate focused I said 'Well, we, you are doing great, keep swimming'. Fortunately the pilot, Dave White, and his wife Joan were optimistic and before sitting down to consume their bacon sandwhiches assured me that we would have to struggle through the Washing Machine for an hour or so but we were close enough to the shore to avoid the stronger tides further out. Mate battled heroically with the choppy water and after an hour and a half of seemingly moving no closer to the shore he broke into the calmer waters of the bay. An amicable contra current brought us right in to a packed beach where Mate received a triumphant welcome from the locals. Usually a swimmer arrives at some ungodly hour at a desolate point but Mate landed bang in the middle of 2 to 3 hundred holidaymakers! From the pilots boat we watched him walk out of the water and on to French soil. It had taken him 13 hours and 5 minutes!
He was so happy! After we retrieved him from the water, we dried him off and tried to warm him up. The 6 '2" shivering giant turned to me and said 'That is by far the most difficult thing I have ever done, right from the beginning to the end'. Well done Mate Micimacko!!!
We returned to Dover, showered, ate, slept for 2 hours and then I found myself on the same boat watching Karteek dive into the water. Prior to this attempt Karteek has crossed the channel 4 times sucsessfully but he will be the first to tell you that it does not get any easier. All I can say is that of all the channel crossings I have witnessed this was by far the bravest. The weather forecast was the same as the previous day but as we left Dover the wind began to pick up and the waves began to wake up. It was not too bad but enough to get Karteek well and truly sea sick by the third hour. It is hard as a helper to know exactly what the swimmer is going through. The swimmer ploughs through the water , head down, hearing nothing but the splash of the waves keeping an eye on the boat to set his or her course. There is little time for talking. The swimmer is wearing goggles and it is difficult to read their expressions as they bob up and down; are they just cold, are they in pain, were they stung by a jelly fish, or are they just completely spaced out? They are in their own world. The channel and them. Face to face. As it turned out Karteek was ready to stop after 3 hours (he told me after the swim). He was already wretching, trying to empty his stomach. We felt so helpless. The swimmer is not aloud to touch the boat. Sometimes swimmers recover from nausea but no such luck. We tried giving him different things but you know the ancient law 'What goes down must come up!' Often he would stop swimming and tread water 10 metres from the boat, look like he felt better and then suddenly empty his stomach into the Channel. It was frustrating to watch (its not much of a spectator sport). The only good sign was that when he did speak to us he was completely coherent and could even spare a laugh. Also, he had been swimming strongly and the first 5 hours were almost an exact replica of Mate's swim. As he forged on we noticed that there wasn't the same vigour in his stroke, and not surprising. He was not holding down any feeds. For the rest of his swim he managed to rely solely on water and dextrose sweets. We were worried that he would hit the wall, that he would get to a point and then crash. But on he went. I cannot begin to imagine undertaking any task while suffering such discomfort. For Karteek it must have been a challenge of extreme proportions. He lost a lot of power and was 3 miles short of the Cape when the tide changed. Fortunately he avoided the Washing Machine but again it looked like we were making no headway for almost three hours. People were calling up from New York, Edinburgh, Las Vegas and Augsburg and we really didn't know if he was going to make it. Ashrita called and wanted to know the situation and for the last 3 hours Karteek didn't stop for a feed. On, on he ploughed heartened by messages from Trishakash and Tyagambur. Then finally, late in the day he swam the final metres into the shore. Like Mate, Karteek landed right by a village and several people came to meet him. Karteek speaks French but he was so drained that he quickly returned to the boat. It had taken him 16 hours and 5 minutes (his previous swim had taken him 10 hours 50 minutes). The same Channel, a channel he had already crossed 4 times, but a new experience!
PS If you are planning to swim the channel please do not read the above