Swimming the English Channel – the report

The track of our boat (courtesy: cspf.co.uk)

The crossing was amazing! All of the pent up adrenalin that had been building for weeks, the cold water training, and then, finally, after a delay of a day, we were told the evening of Wednesday July 29 that our team was slotted to start our swim at 830 the next morning. We were a group of swimmers that workout together at the local athletic club’s pool. One of our number thought it would be great to swim the Channel, though none of had thought about swimming in, let alone through – the Channel. We then found Aspire, a great charity that helps people paralysed by spinal injuries, would facilitate our crossing and we raised more than £10,000 for the cause.  Our international group had Frenchmen, Kiwis, one German, a Canadian, and me, the token American (and the only one with actual open water race experience).

We then got a call at 10pm on the 29th, all nicely tucked up in bed and packed for an early morning drive from London to Dover, the starting harbor, that winds were too high and the tide too strong. We were delayed 13 hours and were given a new start time of 9:30pm. NIGHT SWIM! Only two of us seriously thought there would be much night swimming given the earlier start time, but now we would have two little flashing green lights attached to us – one on our cap and the other on our bum, as they say here in London – so the boat, including the crew, can see us clearly.

The Channel is 22 miles – or 35 km – across at its narrowest. Depending on the conditions, one swims a sinus curve along that straight line that ultimately measures up to thirty-five miles.

The requirements of the swim are simple: do it much like Captain Mike Webb did it in 1875. This means only a speedo or jammers, cap, and googles (the last being a modern convenience). Nothing insulating (not even a bubble cap one of the guys wanted to wear) or providing any floatation. There are those that do the crossing doing breaststroke – as one of our Frenchmen did – but front crawl is more common (and of course much faster).

We motored out of Dover Harbor about 9p on the 30th. Our pilot boat, Suva, took us to a rocky beach about half a mile to the west of Dover. We had a white bearded, somewhat unlikely Channel champion as a judge on the boat, Kevin Murphy, with a record 34 successful Channel swims to his name, including two ‘two ways’ or ‘doubles’. Kevin checked our swim gear and made sure we did not break any of the many rules that the Channel Swimming & Piloting Association imposes on swimmers in their quest for glory, and then recorded every single detail of our swim.

Near the rocky beach, I jumped into the water and swam to shore as the lead off swimmer. The water was chilly and took away my breath. It was not the coldest – during training, the water was mid-/low-fifities – and I quickly settled in. The clock started when I got out of the water – not even toes in the surf – and waved my arms. Kevin tooted his horn and it was on at exactly 9:18pm.

The sun was setting as I started off. Then it was twilight, followed by a brilliant full moon lighting up a scattered clouds. The pilot boat stops and starts as it can’t go as slow as a swimmer, so it falls back and surges ahead. The times when I was ahead of the boat were the most peaceful. As I’d get in front of the boat, I was in front of the noise of the boat and beyond the small spotlight on the side of the boat. I often swam head up during those moments to soak in – so to speak – the scene.

The rules of the relay meant each one of us took one hour turns in the water. The switch was precisely on the hour with the succeeding swimming jumping in behind and passing the transitioning swimming. No touching – not even high fiving – was allowed. Once in the water, no aid or touching the boat was permitted. (If you’re doing it solo, support is literally at the end of a 10′ pole with a cup at the end for drink and food.)

Those not swimming ‘settled’ on the top of the boat in ‘lumpy’ seas made worse by a boat that was stopping and starting to keep pace with the swimmer. For the first several hours, much too anxious to sleep, we hollered and hooted at whoever was swimming and showed them large cards with the time left in their swim. However, the nighttime spotlight meant the cards were illegible from the water, but the cheering and shouting helped. Most thought time flew when they weren’t in the water, but for me, it dragged.

But the ‘lumps’ aside, the moonlight of the waves and the big ships were one of those wonderful sights that a camera just cannot capture. But it wasn’t so wonderful for all of us.

Our youngest swimmer, sixteen years old, swam the middle of the ‘separation zone’ between the shipping lanes. Here is where the jelly fish swarm – the propellers chop up those that get into the traffic zones. He swam head up to try to escape the jelly masses. He survived and should be proud.

My turn came again after his. Under a rising morning sun, sunrise began around 4:30a, I got into ‘lumpy’ water with waves coming at me from all directions. I love choppy water so time passed quickly as I swam. I naturally expected to see loads of jellies, but I saw only few. I did get stung on the legs, arms, and face (think stinging nettles). At one point, I found myself searching the depths when not breathing and looking straight down. And then I asked if I really wanted to see anything that might lurk deep down there, so I stopped trying to find something.

Near the end, we were within 2 miles of the cape, but the tide was so strong that we were swept north and around the cape (see the map). The boat’s pilot and Kevin both said if we had been 500m farther at that point we would have landed and shaved 45min off of our time.

We landed on France at precisely 15hrs and 15minutes.  Not a record, but we are all very proud, and we are now all ‘Channel Swimmers’.

I am tempted to swim it again. Possibly as a solo, but more likely with a four-person team to increase time in the water. The bug has bitten and I’m now looking at other open water crossings – Gibraltar? – or island swims.

The author swimming the English Channel in the early morning hours of July 30, 2015. The author swimming the English Channel in the early morning hours of July 30, 2015.

2 Replies to “Swimming the English Channel – the report”

  1. Good for you Matt! you must actually be an Englishman…only Mad Dogs and Englishmen…you know. I commend you and your fellow swimmers, more than I ever would want to do.

  2. Governor Armstrong – Congratulations! This is truly impressive! Suzie Carroll sent me this information and I will include something on this in the next issue of Voices. I can use this picture along with your official portrait. If you have a different photographic preference please let me know. You can reach me directly at ncoviello@voanews.com. Yours truly, Nancy Coviello, VOA Program Manager, Workplace Engagement

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