This article was originally contributed by Steve Walker
The two most important things you can do to prepare for the channel are swimming in cold water (less than 60 degrees) for long periods, and eating like a pig. While this may sound totally wrong (the eating like a pig part at least), it is really true. The more fat you have surrounding your body, the more likely you are to be able to survive in water that is 40 degrees colder than your body temperature. Most people should plan on gaining at least 25 pounds, likely more if you are not "stout" to begin with. Many people who only gained 25 pounds have failed because of hypothermia.
There is only one way to gain fat while training hard: Eat a diet high in both complex carbohydrates and unsaturated fat. Simple sugars will make you lethargic due to the insulin rush that generally follows ingestion, and will make training difficult. Simple sugars should be avoided at all costs during the day (at bedtime is ok, though). Similarly, while protein and vegetables should be a part of your diet to keep you healthy, neither are high enough in calories. (Also, protein takes longer to digest, and veggies are very filling).
I would seriously consider reading as much as you can on Carbo-Loading and High Carb Diets. That will give you half of what you need. Since there is nothing that I know of written describing gaining fat, it will be challenging to balance your needs as an athlete and overall healthy person (High Carb diet) with your needs as a cold water swimmer, especially given that you will be pretty much your only source for the fat side of the argument. (Don't listen to your wife or doctor, eat lots of olive oil soaked fried stuff--polyunsaturated fat will help you gain weight without raising your Cholesterol level. Being an athlete, one of the hardest things to do is gain non-muscle pounds. Figuring out just how much fat you can take in while still getting the proper nutrition and useful calories (and stay awake after eating) will be as big a challenge as the swimming itself.)
For long swims, I would use Gu or one of the other similar products on the market today. It is almost pure sugar in a gel form. I would not even taste it until you have been exercising for a while (it is only palatable when your body is craving it). It will not help you gain weight (it's only about 50-60 calories per packet), but it delivers sugar when your body needs it. Every swimmer is different, but for long swims (over 1 1/2 hours in cold water) you will need (1) warm water/sugar solution, and (2) solid or gel sugar every 30-60 minutes. You should get used to ingesting them in the water--it is hard to ingest sugar then go right back to swimming--insulin rush. Gu is expensive, and if you choose to use them, you'll need a few hundred over the course of your training. Also, figure out what tastes good warm (I disliked Gatorade least, many people like tea with lemon and lots of sugar).
On the training side, you'll also need to think about your long swims. The longest ones will need to be one to five weeks apart (depending on just how long the swim is and at what temperature) to give your body a chance to recover. I would seriously consider the following:
6 x 5 hour swims
5 x 6 hour swims
2 x 7 hour swims
1 x 8 hour swim
1 x 10-11 hour swim
I would do each of these in cold water (less than 60 degrees). Also, try to do them in the last two years before the swim. I would also do as many 4 hour swims as possible. Scheduling these longer swims along with regular training (2-5 miles, 4-6 days a week in cold water) will prepare you well.
Some people that I've known have also included quite a bit of pool swimming. It is up to individual taste. Pool swimming will help you swim faster, but because the water is warm, it may cause you body to resist the extra pounds. This can result in you getting sick, or simply not gaining the weight. If you give yourself a full 2 years, you can see what works well in the first year, and really focus in your second year. Either way it will take 2 years of vigorous training and a single-minded focus on gaining the needed weight.
Some Channel Swimmers advocate swimming upwards of 50 miles per week. While this would work (and would likely be a good idea if you are looking for a sub 9-hour swim, 50+ miles in cold water might make it hard for your body to properly recover each week. Doing long swims will help each person set his or her own training schedule. You'll know your body better than ever--just use good judgement.
You'll also need to arrange for a good pilot about a year in advance. Pilots require a 10 percent deposit for a reservation, and you must be registered also. Mike Oram was my pilot and (if you read my story) you know I wouldn't have made it were it not for him. Mike does have very strong opinions, he can be brusque, but he has the best record of getting swimmers across and he does not mince words.
If you have any doubt about the fat, you won't after a 5 hour cold water swim at 54 degrees. This is much easier than the Channel, hypothermia-wise. If you get even a little cold--you need more fat.
A quick note - always be safe. Swimming alone where there is any chance of hypothermia is stupid. While you'll likely need to do most of your training by yourself, know your limits. Make sure that all your "firsts" (first time in cold water, first two hour swim, first swim after being sick, etc.) are accompanied or supervised. Stay close to shore, and always have someone who can help you on all long swims.
Reading Material for the English Channel
The following books can sometimes be found, although most are either out of print or difficult to find. If anyone has difficulty getting copies of these, they can email Steve Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org). Steve has copied and mailed these and other interesting articles in the past for serious swimmers who like to read. Steve also has quite a few unpublished or barely published articles that are very good reading. It usually costs a bit for copying and postage (seems like it was $25 last time), and depends on how busy Steve is (so be nice to him).
Two Faces of the English Channel.
Paul Jagasich. Paul was 64 when he completed the Channel. He did more daily yardage than most in preparation for the Channel, and spent more time in England. Used his book to gauge my own training. This book also gives swimmers a mortal sense of the extreme effects of hypothermia in the Channel. Note map on back page. Apprx. 200 pages.
How to Swim a Marathon and Short Swims.
Penny Lee Dean. Penny held the record for the fastest Channel Swim at 7 hours, 40 minutes for quite a while. While many of the things here are "obvious," it is a useful review. Also very good for spouse coach to read. 28 pages.
Handbook of the Channel Swimming Association
English Channel Swimming Association. General rules and advice. Contact the Channel Swimming Association directly to get this year's handbook etc. It is well worth being a member for each year between now and an upcoming swim. Apprx. 100 pages, small type.
Wind, Waves, and Sunburn
Conrad Wennerberg. A history of marathon swimming to about 1972. Although not current, this book gives you a sense of the crowd to which you belong, at the same time instilling a little humility--the swims that are Chronicled here push the bounds of human endurance (I felt humbled after reading it). (Note: the science in this book is poor.) Apprx. 300 pages.
Another book that to consider if you are science minded: Exercise Physiology
by Brooks and Fahey. It is a college text that ranges from lay to highly technical. Great for looking up questions about diet, pain, illness, and muscle fatigue.
Steve Walker swimming The English Channel - a diary
July 17, 1996, Wednesday, 8:30pm
I just got off the phone with Mike. (Mike Oram is my pilot and the secretary of the Channel Swimming Association.) As expected, I won't be going tomorrow, although it is likely that I will go Friday or Saturday. Today was the day before my neap tide begins (the period between the full and new moon when the tides move the water less). It was also my mom's birthday. I tried to call, but I didn't get through.
I got in this morning for about an 45 minutes. Nice and easy. I saw Dieter. I felt very bad for him. Mike had told him that he would not make a Channel swim this summer--he was too skinny. Dieter is in his mid-forties, about 5'8", 150 pounds, and is about the same speed as I am. He came from Australia.
Even though today would have been a possible day to swim, the wind was still blowing at about 15-20 knots. It's better today—only a couple of days ago, it was blowing 25-35 knots. It's unpredictable. Mike said to hope for 10 knots.
I keep reminding myself of all the cold water miles I've swum to prepare: 90 miles in June, 350 miles in the last six months, 1,200 miles in the last two years. I put in well over 2 million yards in cold water for this swim. I am ready.
July 18, 1996, Thursday, 9:50pm
Sue (my wife) and I got up at 8am. We went down to the beach, and I walked cautiously down the rocky beach (no sand), and hopped in for a 13 minute warm-up. Just getting wet and loose. The wind has died down some today. It looks like tomorrow will be the day. I won't know until tonight, though, after the weather report. The weather comes on the BBC (TV1) at 6:30pm and 6:55pm.
After swimming, we got some food at a supermarket we discovered. Food in Dover is not ideal. Mostly fried or fast food. We also picked up a pole (the "feeding stick"), some clothespins, duct tape, the Channel grease I had ordered at Boots (kind of like Payless in the US), string, and an alarm clock to supplement my two watch alarms. We needed to get a feeding stick and string because I will be disqualified if I touch any person or the boat during my swim.
We did a little laundry (I couldn't believe that the matron of the launderette was smoking while we were doing our wash). I also picked up the cell phone for the gang to use in France to call the boat. After sleeping for an hour and a half and having some more carbs, we went back to the cell phone shop to get the cellular code for calling internationally.
The day seemed to go by quickly. There were so many things to do before 5pm (when shops close) and 6:30pm (weather report).
At 6:50pm, I called Mike on the cell phone, and he said the swim was a go for tomorrow at 3am. Robyn (my 13 year old cousin) and the rest of the family (7 more cousins, aunts, and uncles) got back at about 7:30pm, and everyone began getting ready for bed. Sue and I were down by about 9pm. Robyn and Sue will be my support crew. Everyone else is hoping to meet us in France.
As I visualized the next day, this is what I contemplated:
Get down to the boat at 2am. Start at around 3am. The tide will be washing me toward the North Sea from the start. Feed after the one hour, then every 45 minutes until 5 hours. After that every 35 minutes. Take in 1/2 bottle of warm Gatorade, and 1 Gu each feeding. Maintain 72 strokes per minute through the sugar rush, and the following insulin rush. Pee about every 20-25 minutes.
At about 5 hours, the tide should slacken for about 20 minutes. I should be done with 9.5 or 10 nautical miles--just under half way across. I should be able to see France if the weather is clear. After slack, the tide will begin carrying me toward the Atlantic. At around 10 1/2 hours the tide will shift again. By this point, I should be nearing the coast, just south-east of Cap Griz Nez. When the tide changes, the current should push me straight into the Cap Griz Nez. If I am not at the coast by the time the tide changes (or shortly after), I will be washed back into the Channel. I may still be able to fight my way back to the coast, but it will take at least 3-4 hours.
July 19, 1996, Friday, Pre-Swim
I didn't really get to sleep last night until about 10:00pm or 10:30pm, and I woke up slightly to look at the time 4 or 5 times in my 3 hours of real sleep.
At 1am, I heard Glenn (my uncle) stirring upstairs. I looked at the clock, and decided to wait for the alarms, set to 1:10, 1:10, and 1:11am. At 1:05, Glen came down and awoke us, afraid that we had turned off the alarms. He was as nervous as we were. By 1:40am, everybody was ready to go.
We drove down. It was ironic that so many people were still up at the time we were starting our day. We parked in the Hovercraft parking (24 hours for £3). Everyone else met up on the dock near the boat. We were right on time, but I joked that we didn't need to hurry, "What are they going to do, leave without me?" Mike was preparing the boat, the Aegean Blue. Sue, Robyn, and I talked to everybody for about 15 or 20 minutes while Mike was getting ready.
I had started feeling nervous about 7 or 8 weeks before arriving in England--shortly after my 10 hour training swim at the Dolphin Club in the San Francisco Bay. I went nearly 22 miles (20 nautical miles) that day, but toward the end, I started getting cold. After feeling cold in my longest practice swim, I worked hard to gain another 10 pounds on top of the 15 extra I already had. I was also thinking that the water would be three or four degrees warmer in the Channel than in the Bay at this time of year. Actually imagining swimming was inciting the butterflies to stir. In San Francisco, I was able to laugh it off as "still a ways off." Not now.
When I was buying the alarm clock, it hit me--"This is the last thing to do. No more practice; no more work; no more talking about it; no more diet; no more weight gain; no more plans; no more predicting, pacing, or timing; no more time." The day before the swim was calm. I knew I was going before seeing the weather, before talking to Mike. I was nervous. I snapped at Sue a couple of times. Was the weather going to be perfect?
It was too late. I was surprised by my alertness, my calm. I talked to everybody a little—I was even humorous, although a bit quiet for me. We pushed off for Shakespeare Beach (just west of Dover), and waved good-bye to everybody. I decided to wear my watch. I wanted to know how far I had come, even if Mike wouldn't tell me. The decision to wear my wedding ring was easy, I hadn't taken it off in two years. I couldn't have gotten it off anyway. Thinking about my extra pounds made me smile--added insurance. I decided to wear my small, lycra suit this morning. I chose it over my larger, new, nylon suit. I'm not sure whether the larger, nylon suit would keep me warmer by covering more of me, so I opted for less drag. I didn't think that either one would make any difference.
I took off my shirt. Sue put the Channel grease on me--the same as usual, but a little thicker. I didn't want a lot, just on my left shoulder (to protect my shoulder from the rub of my beard), on the back of my neck (cap rub), and on my underarms (lat rubbing). Sue also put on a ton of Bullfrog SPF 36--on my back, neck, ears, nose, cheeks, and forehead. When we got, close, Mike gave me a fluorescent green light stick (about two inches long), shaking it and saying that it would last 12 hours. Sue pinned it on my suit, through the string in back.
As we approached the shore (30-40 feet away), I put on my cap. I took 1-2 minutes (a bit of nervous procrastination), and dove in. I fixed my cap and goggles for the last time, and swam in to the shore. Mike yelled to go, and I started down the rocky shore and into the water. I realized after I had waded in, that I hadn't even felt the rocks on my feet. I left Dover at 2:50am.
Toward the North Sea
The pre-dawn colors were beautiful--lots of pink contrasted with the dark blue of the water and the grey sky in the west. Very serene. Unfortunately the first few hours of the swim were not serene.
After walking down the beach (the rocks, actually), I swam quickly to the starboard of the boat and it began following me. Within about 15 minutes I began to have three problems that I dealt with throughout the journey: (1) high waves, (2) exhaust from the boat, and (3) the lateral wash of the tides.
The waves were bad within the first nautical mile. (Each nautical mile is approximately 1.1 statute or land mile or slightly less than 2000 yards. All distances are in nautical miles.) There wasn't much wind in the first two hours. At least I didn't see any white horses (white caps) or feel any spray on my face. The tidal waves, however, were high--four to six feet. The waves themselves weren't the main problem--the difficulty was that I couldn't see them coming.
In addition, because I was on the starboard side of the boat, the waves coming down the Channel (with the tide) hit the boat first. This was supposed reduce the waves hitting me. As each wave hit the boat, though, the boat rocked to absorb the wave. In rocking, though, the boat created another wave (or waves), which were out of synch with the water underneath the surface and in front of and behind the boat. Result: Steve tossed around like a rag doll.
It was difficult to choose when to be stiff (to keep the best form and maximize my stroke) and when to be limp (to absorb the energy of the wave). With synchronized waves, it's possible to "snake" the waves to keep from losing ground. But with these waves, many strokes find no water, and many times a breath meant a big swallow of water. The Channel is very salty.
I swallowed a lot of water in the first couple of hours--I estimate about 4 oz. each time, probably 8 or 9 times an hour. The waves crashing on my head gave me a headache. The combination the waves and the exhaust left me feeling pretty crummy--no seasickness, but serious irritability, and swelling in my throat from the salt water.
Aside from the actual swimming speed and the time for stops, the next most important factor is precise navigation. Precise navigation is very difficult with the waves. Not only are the waves disorienting, but the tide pushes the boat laterally at a different rate making navigation hard for Mike.
Forty minutes into the swim, I yelled at each breath "Feed...Five...Minutes." Sue and Robyn weren't nearly ready. The feed lasted more than 2 minutes. That was 1 1/2 minutes longer than it should have lasted. The Gatorade was not warm, and the bottle wasn't on the string--I had to get it back into the boat wasting valuable time and energy. Also the boat didn't stop all the way. I was .
I learned after the swim that Sue had been sick five times in the first two hours. After the swim, I also found out that our other passenger, who was training to be a Channel Swimming Association official observer, had also gotten sick repeatedly. He is employed as Ferry Boat Captain.
After not being ready for the first unscheduled feed, both Sue and Robyn performed perfectly on every single feeding thereafter. My next feed was 35 minutes later. The Gu wasn't tasting right. I wasn't getting any boost in energy.
The waves continued to be very rough. I realized that the exhaust pipe had a leak at mid-ship on the starboard side, and that during the first 2 hours, I had sucked in a lot of fumes.
At about 2 hours, I yelled to the boat to have Mike stay behind me so that I could "lead" the boat. I wanted to be able to see the waves, and avoid the exhaust. At about 2 hours and 20 minutes, I yelled again for Mike to stay behind me. Mike stopped the boat. I yelled again for him to follow me. He shouted, almost enraged, "Are you swimming back to ing Dover?" as he pointed straight ahead to the lights of the Dover harbor. He continued, "How the can you follow me if you're in front of the boat? You're swimming in every direction but up your own ." He then asked me if I wanted to switch sides. I realized that he was right. Although I hadn't told anyone about the fumes, he knew. He said that the fumes would be blowing away from me on the other side.
Switching sides helped a lot. When I was swimming ahead of the boat, the tide was carrying me laterally away, and I was dragging us off course. I began swimming straight, looking right in a kind of water-polo semi-heads-up pattern. Every three strokes I would get a good look at the boat. I became quite used to the breathing pattern within just a few minutes, but I know that it was not as fast. Trying to avoid sailboats and buoys in the Bay had been really good practice. I was still swallowing water, but my head cleared up without the exhaust. I estimated that I probably only covered 3 miles in the first 2 1/2 hours.
Through the second two hours, I fed about every 25-30 minutes. I signaled feeding breaks, rather than waiting for Sue. This worked ok, though, because I got both dehydrated and hypoglycemic a lot sooner than I expected. At about 3 1/2 hours, I asked for a 1/2 a power bar at the next break. I don't think that my stomach handled the Gu very well in the first few hours. I'm not sure whether it was being caused by all the salt water that I had swallowed, or by the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in my blood from the exhaust. I needed to have something that wouldn't go into my bloodstream so fast.
I contemplated stopping and trying again in a few days. I reasoned that the waves would be smaller. But if I were to stop now in the hope of better weather, I would have to give myself at least five or six days to recover. At the end of the neap tide (shortly before the moon was full) the weather might be as bad as or worse than today. I decided to press on.
Shortly after 4 hours, Robyn clothespinned a half-Powerbar onto the end of the stick. I couldn't discern the flavor, but it didn't matter. I just needed to get more glucose to my muscles. It really felt good. This was the first of 4 half-Powerbar feedings. My half-Powerbar feedings lasted 2-6 minutes each (because of chewing, mostly), and my stroke count dropped from about 70 per minute (during the first four hours), to about 56 per minute. I figured that my overall speed probably took a hit, too, although I felt like I was pulling more water with each pull. The Powerbars are harder to digest, have more calories, and have less simple sugar (glucose). At the feeding shortly after 6 hours, Sue only offered me Gu, and told me to try to last longer, and that my feedings had been too close together and too long. At least I got in 8 oz. of full strength Gatorade at about 140 degrees (about 65-70 calories) at every feeding.
Toward the Atlantic
We saw the best conditions between 5 1/2 hours and 6 hours. I guessed that the tide went slack then. The tide began to carry me toward the Atlantic at about 6 hours. I struggled with the high waves for about 5 1/2 hours. But it seemed as though the worst was over. I knew that I had lost a lot of time, but the waves had been easier to handle (1-3 feet). I remember thinking that I might be able to make up some time.
At the feeding at 6 hours, I dared ask where I was. Sue would give me an indication at the next feeding. At about 6 1/2 hours, my 13th feeding, Sue told me where I was. I had only covered 8 or maybe 8 1/2 miles. I knew immediately that this was not a good thing.
Over the next 1/2 hour, I did some figuring. Sue told me that my pace had been about 1.3 knots over the first 5 1/2 hours, and that it had increased to about 1.5 between 5 1/2 and 6 1/2 hours. I knew that I should have been moving at 1.8 to 2.0 knots. I was almost 2 hours behind schedule. I had anticipated covering 12 miles by 6 1/2 hours, but I had only covered 8 1/2. Now, even if I had increased my speed, I would not be able to hit Cap Griz Nez on the ebb tide, and the tide would carry me back out into the Channel. Only a small percentage of swimmers who miss Cap Griz Nez make it to French soil.
I figured that I would be in the water for between two and four hours past Cap Griz Nez. Could I still make it? At my feeding at about 7 hours, Sue told me that Mike had set a new course to account for the trouble we had had in the first five hours. I realized that the new course would not help me make Cap Griz Nez. The tide would change without me in less than 4 hours, and I still needed to go another 11 more miles. At 1.5 knot pace, it would take me another 7 more hours.
I wouldn't make it. Could I handle 12-14 hours, another 5 to 7 more hours? I quit. I gave up. I stopped. I did some backstroke and breaststroke. My arms were wasted. My lombars and abdominal muscles were aching. My throat hurt. I swam breaststroke over to the boat. Sue knew that I had just fed. (The insulin rush might have contributed to my giving up.) Sue told Mike and Norman (Norman Trusty, the Channel Swimming Association official observer) to get outside because I was coming to the back of the boat.
I didn't grab the ladder. Partly because I was too tired to lift my arms; partly because I could not bear the thought of failure--even though my body had already reconciled itself to it. Norman was out first. He said, "Steve, if you do this now, you'll never, ever have to get into cold water again." He said some other things, but they blurred together as though Mike and he were one voice. I was kind of delirious from fatigue by this point.
Mike said, "Steve, this is just you're body beginning to convert it's fat to fuel. It's bloody well going to hurt. Every swimmer that finishes the Channel wants to get out at about 8 hours. If you can talk to me to say that you want to get out, you can still keep swimming. Now get back out there." Norman added, pointing, "You can see France. You're a little behind, but you'll make it." I couldn't see France over the waves, but it didn't make any difference. I realized that my body was not only burning fat as Mike had said, but it was also beginning to metabolize muscle as well.
I began swimming. Mike was right, it did hurt.
After Norman and Mike's lecture, my pace went to quickly to 1.6 knots. My next four feedings, I only drank Gatorade, and each stop was less than 30 seconds. I didn't realize it at the time, but Norman was not only the observer, but also had failed to cross three times, before making three successful crossings in his late 40s. He and Mike were now both in their early 50s.
At about 8 hours and 20 minutes, I began seeing jellyfish. Two swarms and one small patch. In the swarms I could see about 16 - 20 jellyfish each. The patch had about 5 or 6. Because visibility was so bad, I could only see about 8 -10 inches. (I couldn't see my hands as I was swimming.) But the "jellies" were "lit." They appeared to be about 2 feet below the surface, more or less. I estimated that the swarms consisted of 100-120 jellyfish, and the patch was about 20-30. Each group was about 250 yards apart, and my estimates were based on the density of the jellyfish that I would see, and the size of the patch. For every one that I could see, there were probably 4 or 5 that I couldn't see, because the water was so dark.
Most of the jellyfish were at least 2 feet below the surface, although I did sidestep 4 or 5 that were more shallow, perhaps overcautiously. I almost wanted to get stung, but only on my feet, not my arms, hands, or face. They were about 6-10 inches in diameter, 2-5 inches deep, and round (not spherical). The outside was clear; the middle was bright, fluorescent blue. Some had blue leaking out toward their edges (tentacles, maybe?). On those that the blue was leaking out, the middle blue was fainter. I doubt any one could have caused much pain; maybe a few stings would even warm me up. But I avoided them just the same. It would have been terrible to have stopped because of hundreds of jellyfish stings, after I had already decided at 7 hours and 10 minutes to finish no matter what.
At about 9 hours, I moved back onto the starboard side of the boat for about 1 1/2 hours to help ease the strain on my neck. I knew where the leak was, and I avoided being near it. My pace on the starboard was about 1.8 knots. From the time I stopped until 10 1/2 hours, my pace was steady, between 1.6 and 1.8 knots (mostly at 1.8). The lateral wash from the tide was still challenging on both sides of the boat. (The boat can't go slower than 2 knots and still maintain its course.) I worked out a pattern of leapfrogging the boat--swimming up alongside the boat to the front, letting the tide wash me away from the boat, letting the boat pass me, swimming back toward the boat, and up alongside it again. This way the boat could navigate, too. Each leapfrog took about 8 to 10 minutes.
I had noticed that Robyn had fallen asleep for a few feedings, but she was back up again. Sue did not miss a single feeding. They were great--always positive, totally even and level-headed, even when things were not so good. Starting at about 9 hours, my feedings got to be more regular. Each of these has lasted less than 1 minute, came every 40-45 minutes, and consisted of 1 Gu, and 8 oz. of Gatorade. I digested these without difficulty. These five feedings were the only "normal" feedings.
At about 9 1/2 hours, the tide went slack, but at the same time the wind picked up to force 5-6 (about 25 miles/hour). The waves had been about 1-3 feet since the tide shifted the first time (at 5 1/2 hours), but they rose to 6 to 10 feet at about 8 1/2 hours. It was easy to determine the size of the waves, especially, in the light. I swam 10-30 feet from the boat, and watched the boat being lifted as high as 12 feet over my head (twice my height). The later waves (after 8 1/2 hours) were much less predictable than the bad waves had been at the beginning, but I have a few advantages here, though:
I was going to finish, and I could faintly make out the French coast
It was light out
It was sunny--the sun broke through shortly after the wind started
I was able to see the waves coming, and was not breathing in exhaust fumes
The sun helped a lot, if not in reality, at least psychologically. Even with everything in my favor, I was still swimming through higher waves than I had ever experienced in my life. I paid for my decision to continue. At 7 1/2 hours, I was thinking, "OK, but I might need surgery on my shoulders." By 9 1/2 hours, I was pretty sure that I would need surgery. I felt like I had saved up $20,000, and now was writing one big check. A lot like buying the house. All of a sudden, the account balance is $79.54.
At 10 hours, I stopped for my feeding, and something was weird. Everything on the boat was normal, but I glanced around. France had white cliffs, too. Sue had told me before we left that the White Cliffs of Dover existed in France, too, but I had not believed her. My feeding was unremarkable other than. . . . I was looking at Cap Griz Nez!!! I was less than 1 mile from France. I couldn't understand why everyone on the boat was not as excited as I was. We were looking at 500 foot tall cliffs from less than 1 mile away. Had I increased my speed that much?
No one had to tell me, but Sue and Norman relayed to me what I was already realizing. I was within 1 mile of France, but the tide was turning. They told me to get on the other side of the boat so that it didn't run me down. Within 10 minutes, I lost sight of Cap Griz Nez. I never saw it again from that close.
The Changing Tide
The tide changed quickly and for the first time, I could really feel it moving me. I was on my way North and East up the Channel to Calais (pronounced "Cal-ee" by the British). I swam hard for about an hour, straight toward shore, but I realized later that I was only moving at about 400 yards per hour-- / of the pace I had been holding. My stroke rate was a nice, even 72. From 10 hours until 11 hours, my pull was pretty good, but I was swimming straight at shore, but moving at 2 knots up the coast. I thought that I was still going to land on the other side of Cap Griz Nez because I was just swimming as hard as I could.
During the first 7 hours, I peed about every ten minutes, mostly because of all the salt water I had swallowed. It was very hard to pee, not like in the Bay. It would take between 1-2 minutes to finish, and the first 3/4 of that time was spent in a dead man's float, not moving at all. (I think this scared Sue and Robyn the first time, until they realized what was going on.) In my training, I had it down to 15 seconds. After 7 hours, I was every 20-25 minutes, and only stopping for a little over a minute, although it was still hard. I think that the extra effort was a result of my muscles being much tighter from having to absorb the waves. All the probably added more than 40 minutes onto my time, almost 25 minutes more than I expected.
At my 10 1/2 hour feed, I asked for chocolate. Thinking that I was less than 2 hours from the end, I asked again. I asked again at 11 hours and 15 minutes. Sue said no again. I told her nicely to get it for me. She would not. She knew. I didn't. Had she given me the chocolate at this feeding and at each one after it, I would have bonked after 2 hours--1 hour from finishing. Even though my muscles and liver could have soaked up the excess sugar as it came in, by the fourth feed of nearly 200 calories of pure glucose, my body would have begun producing insulin to counteract the high level of sugar in my bloodstream. This would have resulted in a bonk much like what happened at 7 hours, only much worse.
What would have happened: After seeing an initial increase in my stroke rate as a result of the first sugar rush, my stroke rate would have diminished significantly, as would have my distance per stroke. By the fourth feed of candy the insulin rushes would have become much more pronounced. During intense exercise, the body might be caught off guard by the first high dose of glucose, but it will react more and more strongly, flooding the circulatory system with insulin, with even a small intake of glucose. My brain would have been left with little sugar (it can only use pure glucose), and as a result I would have become unfocused, probably even dizzy and disoriented. My body then would have begun breaking down fat, but by the time enough had been released, I would have been finished. As a result of the decrease in my energy output, I would have begun producing less heat. This heat, which had protected me from the cold all the way across would have given way to the 59 degree water, and within 5 to 10 minutes, I would have lost 3 degrees of body heat and shivering would have begun. Another 5 minutes in this extremely fatigued state, and I would have to have been pulled out of the water, shivering uncontrollably, unable to comprehend anything being said to me, or even where I was.
Cap Griz Nez had long since disappeared. I was close, within 1 mile of shore. Either Mike or Norman said that I could float in, but to keep going hard so that I could finish sooner. I preferred to float in, as he stipulated I could, but I accepted his advice. At about 11 hours, with no power left in my wet noodle arms (moving at about 76 strokes per minute), I began an eight beat kick. I continued this kick for 2 1/2 hours.
My feedings were still at about 45 minutes. Gu and drink, less than 50 seconds. Good.
During the weeks preceding the swim, Sue had read Paul Jagasich's "The Two Faces of the English Channel," and Penny Dean's "Long Distance Swimming." Both said to have some questions that swimmer could answer with little thought, but not from memory (e.g. "What airline did you fly to England on?", but not "What is your phone number?") This is to help determine the body temperature--but it is imperfect as the level of fatigue must also be taken into account.
I asked Sue to give me capitals. From the first break, I had given her state or country capitals before she could ask for them. At 3 hours, I stopped because the breaks were taking too long, and I was a little stressed. At 8 hours, after Mike told me he would not take me back on the boat, I began again with the capitals. It was a sign that I would be all right. I stopped after that because I wanted to have shorter breaks. At 12 hours, I gave them Sao Paulo, Managua, and Quito (KEE-TOW!!!). After I'd taken down my Gatorade, I told them that they had better take me out, because Brasilia is the capital of Brazil, not Sao Paulo.
At 12 hours and 45 minutes, I was at what was to be my last feeding. I could actually see some progress. A sailboat passed closely in front of us. Mike brought the boat very close to me and sounded his siren. I had heard the siren about 25 times during the course of the swim, mostly in the first 5 hours. It meant that I was too far from the boat. I hated hearing it more than hearing the sound of a dentists drill.
From the point that I lost Cap Griz Nez until about 13 hours and 5 minutes, all I was doing was spinning my arms and kicking my legs. At 13 hours and 5 minutes, I felt it. I stopped. I almost cried. I thought to yell, but I couldn't--my throat was too swollen to even talk. I peed quickly. The waves died down at that instant. I had felt the thermokine. I was at the coast. The bottom had just come up from 40 meters to 10 meters. The temperature had just jumped to about 70 degrees. It had been 59 degrees almost the entire way across.
I was really going to make it. I looked at France, and I was 300 yards out. I was being carried up the coast toward Calais. I put it into gear. My arms were spinning at about 80 strokes per minute, and I was kicking a kickboard sprint. I went for 20 minutes like this, until Mike came on the loud speaker saying, "I have to stop here, it's only 5 feet deep. Swim ashore, get out all the way, pick up your rock, and get back here. Don't stop on shore, you'll get cold."
Sure enough, 25 yards later, I hit bottom--about 3 1/2 feet deep. Another 25 yards and I began pushing off the bottom. Another 20 yards and it was only 2 feet deep. I started crawling. Finally, it was only one foot deep. I would have to stand up. I didn't fall, although I felt like I might.
A Frenchman, about 25 or 26, wearing a red shirt, had been watching me. While the surf was still at my feet, he said something and reached out to shake my hand. As best as I could, I raised one finger, and tried to say "moment," but nothing came out. I took three hasty steps toward the beach. On dry sand, I turned to him and extended my hand. Five seconds earlier, he had asked me in English, "Did you come all the way across?" It finally registered, and I answered him with a nod and a smile. Both raising my hand and smiling were very painful. He said, "Congratulations." His girlfriend walked up (she was wearing a white shirt). She said something that did not register. I shook her hand also, and whispered a very strained "thank you." I was glad that I had thought to not let him shake my hand, because it would have disqualified my swim. I gave them the international cold/shiver sign (actually it was real, the wind was very chilling on my wet, prune-like body). I began walking back to the water. I raised both arms (barely) back to the boat in victory, and when the water was back up to my knees, I crumpled into the water, and began letting the tide carry be back out to 5 feet deep, where the boat could pick me up.
I realized then, just what I had been up against. Clutching the small rock I had picked up, I was being carried at about 2 knots toward Calais, and back out toward the middle of the Channel almost as quickly. I did grab a rock, not a shell--I did exactly as I was told--in my dazed state, I didn't know if it was tradition or for some official purpose.
I had long since given up any thought that any of my family would be on the shore to meet me. I knew that I was not near Cap Griz Nez. (I found out later that I had been carried past the town of Wissant (pronounced "Wesson" by the British)--more than 6 miles up the coast from Cap Griz Nez.) Looking back at the beach one last time before going back to the boat, what did I see but Katie and Erika running furiously toward me along the beach. They told me that they had been chasing me for 6 miles, watching the boat being carried by the current. Barbara came up a minute or two later, followed by Kristopher and Betsy a few minutes later. They took some pictures, and we talked, me shouting barely audibly with the last of my voice. It was great to see them. I started to get very cold. About 10 minutes after I landed, I began making my way back to the boat, slowly.
Mike brought the boat in to 5 foot depth, not using sonar now, but by watching me on the bottom. I was about 100 yards from the shore now. I don't remember much about getting on the boat, but I do remember not being able grasp the rail on the ladder, and hooking my arms around the rails at my elbows. I remember Robyn putting towels on my head, shoulders, neck, and waist. I remember Norman putting a wool (scratchy) blanket on me, and Sue giving me some hot Gatorade (about 190 degrees). It was so good. I asked for a Powerbar and some chocolate, and she had them for me before I had taken a step.
The boat was already moving. Although I was stable, and not overly cold, I asked to sit down inside. Robyn started to bundle me up, and Sue wiped the grease off me. It came off easily. Sue had to go in and out because she didn't want to get sick. I ate and drank, and thanked Mike and Norman for talking me into staying in, near the middle. Robyn dried my hair. Sue put stuff away and took off the light stick. They got me into my sweats and put on my parka. I didn't have enough strength to dress myself. I also asked Robyn to put two pairs of socks on me. Sue gave me 2 Aleve, and a Cadbury Caramel.
The Way Back to Dover
I climbed tentatively down the stairs into the sleeping quarters on the boat, now completely unable to talk, and not able to stand upright without help. Sue put me into the sleeping bag. I am falling asleep. My mind is racing, but my body is in need of sleep.
My throat is so sore and swollen that it is difficult to breathe. The thing that hangs down on the back of my throat feels like it was the size of a porkchop, and I have mistakenly tried to swallow it, repeatedly. My nasal passages are swollen shut. Although I didn't get any water in my eyes (I only took off my goggles once, and only just to relieve the pressure), I am blind to anything farther than an arms-length away inside the boat (like snow blindness). My lips are severely swollen. I am breathing at 35/minute, fast but solid. My heartrate is 70-75 lying down, 90-95 standing up.
My fingers are extremely pruney and completely white, except places that had had blisters (even two months before)--those places show pink scar tissue. I can not touch any finger to any other, nor touch my thumb to any finger. My extendors and flexors in my forearms, as well as my metacarpal muscles and thumb muscles are extremely swollen, and are causing a great deal of pain, although I am sure they would recover.
My trapezius, lombars, and abdominals are sore to the point that it is difficult to keep my balance--they aren't holding my weight anymore. My biceps, triceps, lats, quads, and calfs are very sore, but only sore, not damaged. They will be fine. My deltoids are damaged. The next week or month will determine whether the damage has caused scarring in the ligaments and tendons around and connecting to the deltoid, or merely damage and/or scarring of the muscle which won't require surgery. There is a great deal of "bad" pain whenever I lift my arms.
I am not particularly sunburned, and except for one raspberry on each side of my suit on my upper-inner thigh (from rubbing my suit), I am pretty much free from any cuts, burns, or abrasions.
I slept for about 2 hours, waking with a brook of slobber running down my arm. My right arm is slightly cold, as I had been sleeping on it. My feet are like ice (dumb move Steve, putting two pairs of socks on to shunt all the warm blood away.
I went to the bathroom (very difficult). My throat is still so bad that it hurt to breathe. Mike said that I should have brought mouthwash. (Betsy, my aunt and a neuro-trauma nurse told me that alcohol aids evaporation and would reduce swelling.) Since I didn't bring any, Mike gave me Extra gum. (Again Betsy, Extra has manitol for that "cooool" feeling. Manitol is used to reduce the brain swelling in head trauma cases.) We got back shortly after I awoke, and we thanked Mike and Norman.
I realized that I hadn't gotten my passport stamped. ;-)
I woke the next morning at 7:30, but by 3:00, I began fading and needed to sleep. Each day after that I got a little stonger. It took about five days before I really felt ok. I rested my shoulders for two weeks before swimming again. They hurt a great deal but will not require surgery. My throat was sore for five days. The first three days after the swim, I could only eat ice cream without excruciating pain. During the swim, I lost 12 pounds. I estimate 6 of that to have been water loss. Three days later, I had gained all but two pounds back. As of today, August 7th, I have lost 10 of the 25 extra pounds I had gained for the swim.
I got back in water today. It was cold.
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The importance of speedwork in Channel swimming
By Nirbhasa Mageeauthor bio »
16 May, 2015
About the author:
Nirbhasa is originally from Ireland but currently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland. He is an enthusiastic multi-day runner, having twice completed the Self-Transcendence Ten Day Race, and recently completed the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race - the longest race in the world.
A talk by Sri Chinmoy in China, 2005, to his students who were preparing to cross the English Channel.
My request to the English Channel swimmers is to work on speed, speed, speed. I advise all my disciple swimmers to do speedwork. The less time you can remain in the water, the better.
Speedwork gives stamina. Stamina does not mean only to swim long distance. There is another type of stamina. When you do speedwork again and again, that speedwork itself gives you stamina.
Some people think that if you run ten miles you will get stamina. That is one theory. Another theory is that if you run 100 metres again and again and again, it is very good for stamina. Our famous champion Emil Zatopek ran 400 metres again and again and again. Then he performed miracles in long distance. With 400 metres he did speedwork.
So many people who attempted to cross the Channel gave me the message, “The tide changed.” Why did they allow the tide to change? Before the tide changed they could have gone across.
Speedwork is very, very necessary. If you can concentrate on speedwork — even if you do only six miles, not ten miles — that will help you tremendously.
A seventy-year-old man has swum the Channel. I lifted him on the 13th of November. He was very moved, and he stayed at our function for a long time, because he appreciated being in the company of such spiritual people. He said that was what he needed.
Sri Chinmoy lifted George Brunstad and his wife, Judy, during his 13 November 2004 weightlifting celebration, “The Body’s Fitness-Gong, the Soul’s Fulness-Song.” In August of that year, at age 70, Mr. Brunstad became the oldest person to swim the English Channel.
You MUST check things as you pack them in you bag, and you must be very methodical about it, plus you must explain to your feeder/helper, and the crew where everything is, it is important, to explain to the crew, as often your helpers will be on a first ever Channel experience, get very sea sick, or just being out to sea, if they are not used to it, can get very, very tired, and find at times they can play no part in the swim.
Mouthwash ( always dilute)
Anti Histamine Tablets
Light sticks at least three
Bottled Water (Plenty)
Strong String (lots)
Swimming Costume (don’t laugh they have been forgotten)
Old Sleeping bag or blanket
We have experimented hundreds of times with the size of cups, some people say it should only be very large cups, while other find them firstly, too big for their hands, particularly when they are cold, others find they cannot tip there heads back far enough to drain them, hopefully we will get a chance to practice feeding, and swimming beside a boat this year, but even that does not give a true reading of how you will cope when you are tired and the occasion overcomes you, out in the big wide ditch.
If it is choppy and it so often is, some people will need a feeding bottle, but this often takes too long, either to suck it out, or to take the top off and tip you head back far enough to drain the contents. It is a good idea to put on the boat, a varying size of cups, (preferably with simple lids) two feeding bottles, and leave the crew to work out which is best. NEVER take anyone else’s, preferences as your own, because it may be completely different, you have worked very hard for this swim, you have also paid a lot of money, do not let things go wrong, just to save a few pennies now, I have seen it all before.
If you are given a feed, and a wave swamps the cup, do not drink it, but swim on until another feed can be made for you, drinking a mixture of salt water, and maxim, is never a good idea if you want the swim to be successful.
Always take spare goggles with you, and varying types, i.e., you might start to swim in bright sunlight, in which case you will need some really dark goggles, if it is overcast, it can still be bright, but maybe you will need some lighter tinted goggles, but it is very important you remember to pack some clear goggles, when daylight turns to night, you need to change them, so you can at least see something.!!!
Use a mouthwash out there to take the salt taste away from your mouth, if only for a few minutes, but please remember, what you use on dry land, is too strong for the tender mouth. you will have out there, if you don’t want very painful ulcers afterwards, dilute it 50/50 and you will find it will do the trick.
Make anything you want to eat out there, simple, wasting time trading water and chewing, can mean the difference to your swim, five minute stops on a 10 hour swim, means another 50 minutes of swimming, maybe much, much more if you miss the tide over the other side, I know you need to chat, and the crew at time need to know how you are feeling, and very importantly check your responses, if you take things to eat, like Mars Bars, or Twix, the toffee in them will stick to the roof of your very cold mouth, and take a long time to dissolve, over the years our experience tells us Cadburys mini rolls, milky ways go down the best, if you are not a chocolate eater, take some soft fruit jellies. If you think you will get sick of sweet stuff, takes something savoury, but nothing with meat in, nothing springs to mind as being suitable at the moment of writing this, but someone will come up with a bright idea. One thing is handy to put on the boat are some cup of soups, they can be made quickly for you once the swim is over, and you will then know there is something savoury to look forward to once you climb back aboard. All you American swimmers, please note, Tim Lawrence could not swim without his Twinkies.!! We do not sell them in the UK
Paracetmemol are very good for a headache, or minor pain. Ibuprofen are very good for the painful groin/shoulder etc, it will help relieve inflammation etc., these tablets are always much easier if they are given to a swimmer in a small cup, they seldom feed the fish this way, the swimmer is able to throw the tablet to the back of his throat, and have a quick drink to wash it down.
You really need a lot of bottled water on board, the boats have plenty of tap water on the boat, you must remember, that this water has been stored in tanks, and although it does not affect many people, remember you are an athlete, a very finely tuned machine, you never want to run the risk of any bugs out there, ( don’t let the pilots see this bit, as they get fiercely upset and take offence if you say anything about there boats).
Always please remember your feeders and helpers, it is not easy for them to lift and pour, from those very large bottles, especially at sea, a two litre bottle, is the largest to manage easily.
These tablets are very useful, in case of jelly fish stings, Claratyn are very good as they do not make you drowsy, very few people need the out in the English Channel, but it is far better to have them and to be safe rather than sorry.
By all means turn up for your swim, in your nice sweatshirts, designer gear or whatever, but please make sure for after the swim, you have on board some old clothing, there is nothing worse, than seeing a swimmer, who still has grease all over them and plenty of dirt that has stuck to that grease, trying to put on this nice gear, make sure you have something old, loose and easy to put on, so you can get warm quickly. Make sure this gear is in a separate bag, and your trainer/helper knows where it is. Please make sure the warm hat is with this.
Make sure you have put food aboard for your supporters, trainers and helpers, they may not eat much out there, but it would be terrible if you left them hungry, again nibbles sweet and savoury, and plenty of fruit, and perhaps the odd sandwich, is usually enough.
String is useful, if you decide you need your feeding bottle, you can attach it to a long length of string, and your helper will be able to pull it back on the boat, also if all the light sticks work, (and some do fail), the spare ones at night can be hung from the boat, so you can see them clearly.
Swimmer differ in the way they want the boat lit, if the pilots run with all their light on, many swimmers find the bright light, and the reflection off their goggles make them feel very sick, usually the light sticks are enough, and the pilot can run with the minimum amount of lighting on the boat, which you would find far more comfortable.
I always make up the maxim before I go out with a swimmer, I usually have around 4 litres made up and almost ready to serve, if you do this, please remember, to put Maxim powder on the boat plus the flavouring, in case of accidents, or you may need more.
Maxim made up as stated on the packaging, is for normal sports people, please remember, you are not normal, I find most people need it double strength, you need energy to swim and you also need it to keep warm.
You must try the dosage before the swim, on Tim Lawrence’s swim at time he was having six times the amount, remembering he is one large guy, with a massive appetite, although he did not drink it that strength, throughout the swim, only when he needed a boost.
I found it very hard to mix it that strength, the only way I had success was dissolving it in hot water over the stove. Little Lee Williams for example, needs maxim at normal strength, other wise she feels very sick. Flavouring is very important, Maxim will not mix with pure fruit juice, but squashes come in many different flavours these days, see which one you like the best, or pick out two or three so you can have a change.
Always, when you are mixing Maxim, put the water in first, add the Maxim and leave it to stand for a few seconds, before trying to mix it, this way does not give you any lumps.
Maxim is by far the best product I have tried on swimmers so far, most other products have their little problems which are detrimental to the swimmer. Please do not dismiss it, some people try it once and say “I can’t get on with it” you have to experiment with it, also I have know several swimmers who would not even try it, only to find when their swim was going wrong out there, they have been fed Maxim, (unbeknown to them) and they have gone on to complete the swim.
People still run around looking for Channel Grease, firmly convinced they must have some, and the old pictures of people smothered in it always seem to spring to mind. It does not keep you warm, acclimatisation, swimming hard, feeding correctly will keep hypothermia away, I believe, (and this is only my thoughts) that a lot of grease is far more of a hindrance, grease in large quantities, firstly smells, and if you are covered in it, that is a long time to live with that smell, also if you have a large quantity of it, it rolls up and makes ridges, most people shave down for sprint swimming, and here is a person, swimming a very long distance, and they are making it harder to drag themselves through the water, I have also known swimmers to use as much as three pounds of grease, that is a lot of extra weight you do not need. I do not believe the body can “breathe” properly, if all your pores are clogged up with this foul smelling stuff. Grease must be used on the parts of the body prone to friction burns, this includes the back of the neck with the constant turning, under the arms, and perhaps the sides of the arms, and between the legs, Vaseline copes very well with this, although some swimmers may prefer to use Lanolin, it must be remembered for the male swimmer, to grease heavily around the neck, front and back, also on the front of the shoulders, remembering how long a male swimmer will be in the water for, his beard will grow, and cause some very bad marks, I have seen swimmers come out of the water, with holes in their shoulders, where a fresh growth of beard has rubbed, likewise a male swimmer should pay particular attention and have a very close shave before a swim.
If you think this is a load of unnecessary waffle, I am sorry, remember you always have a delete button, but if you think you would like any more information, you can always contact me, I am always on the beach Saturdays and Sundays from 9am or I can be contacted by email. I can sometimes be seen on the beach in the week, or even by arrangement, but please remember, I am getting old, I have been sitting on the beach in Dover for some 22 years, and my body is getting a little tired of it.
To many of you out there, this is teaching Grandma to suck eggs, but it may help because even the most experienced swimmers can forget things, a certain Alison Streeter, in the days of France/England swims, got all the way to France, before realizing she had left her swimming costume out of her kit, There were photographers aboard as well OOPS !!
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Swimming the channel and the perfect combination of wind and tide.
By Karteek Clarke
5 November, 2007
Karteek Clarke recalls his first channel swim in 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.
Nirbhasa is originally from Ireland but currently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland. He is an enthusiastic multi-day runner, having twice completed the Self-Transcendence Ten Day Race, and recently completed the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race - the longest race in the world.
A small collection of questions and aphorisms by Sri Chinmoy on the inner significance of swimming
"When we are inspired, we try to swim the English Channel. When we are inspired, we go from one country to another country to inspire people and to be inspired by them. I feel that when we inspire humanity, we automatically become good citizens of the world. This is my philosophy."
Let us swim and swim
Across the ignorance-sea
To reach the Golden Shore
Of the Beyond.
Question: Does swimming also help us to enter into a higher consciousness?
Sri Chinmoy: Yes. Swimming has its own symbolic value. I always say that we are sailing in the Golden Boat with the Golden Boatman towards the Golden Shore. The spiritual significance of water is consciousness. We are all eager to be in a good consciousness. As soon as we are in water, consciousness enters. So swimming has its own very special reality and divinity. While we are swimming, we can imagine that we are crossing from ignorance-sea into the sea of light and wisdom.
Every morning I swim in the river
Every evening I swim in the sea
Question: Does the triathlon have any spiritual or symbolic significance?
Sri Chinmoy: I have the deepest admiration for those who participate in triathlons. Swimming reminds us of our spiritual life. Right now we are swimming in the sea of ignorance, but we are praying to our Beloved Supreme and meditating on Him to be able to swim in the sea of Light and Delight. When we are running, we are reminded of our birthless and deathless journey along Eternity's Road. Then, while we are cycling, we are reminding ourselves of evolution, of how the world is evolving in cycles. When we think of our planet, we think of a wheel turning; our life also is evolving like a wheel. So cycling reminds us of the process of evolution and of how everything goes in cycles. Once upon a time, in the hoary past, we lived in an era of truth. Now we are living in an era of falsehood. There was a time when truth reigned supreme, but now we see at every moment and every place that falsehood is reigning supreme. Our goal is to bring back again the golden age in which truth will be our inner guide and will reign supreme. So cycling reminds us of evolution, inner and outer. I appreciate and admire the athletes who have tremendous capacity in these three major events: running, cycling and swimming. Each event is so significant.
In an adventure, if you do not meet with immediate success, you have to feel that eventually you will succeed. In the beginning, the idea of swimming the English Channel seemed impossible. Now a number of our girl disciples are doing it, and one older man is defying age and conquering the Channel. So if somebody else fails, you should not give up. Either you will do it, or there will be somebody else to come who will succeed. (source)
(The English Channel)
I am the ceaseless surge of unique delight.
Two are the flames that kiss the highest height
And the deepest deep no one beholds save I.
One is in Paris, the other in England's eye.
My breadth is the hyphen white between the twain.
Their union is hid in dull Time-brain.
The rapture flood of their diamond amity
In years thirty and five the world will see.
He and She my left and right, with them I shine.
He is the Supreme and She the Mother divine.
To lift the doleful earth to heaven's height
Their human birth and forms of endless Might.
Sri Chinmoy wrote this poem in his twenties, when he was still in India. (poem source)
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Useful Open Water Swimming Links
By Vasanti Niemz
11 March, 2008
(updated 2017) Since our team's first English Channel swims in 1985, channel swimming and marathon swimming around the world has grown tremendously. Here some relevant and helpful links to other websites: