My first 30 minutes flies by, time for my pickup signal, my crew circle their arms meaning it is time for me to pick up my pace even further, I do and add in a 6 beat kick, ” weird, I don’t usually kick hard like this, I am more of a puller”, I think, as my feet flutter boiling the water behind me, my few minutes of pick up is soon over and I swim towards the boat, down comes a big long pole, duct taped on the end of this long white plastic pole are two cups, they look like something you would buy a pot plant in, my favourite feed cup is jammed inside one of them, I wrestle it out, pop the top and tip down the maxim, (my carbo loader drink), then I am off again. ” Darn I forgot to pee”, I think to myself, I know it is vital to pee regularly, firstly to make sure I am not swimming with a full bladder, in cold waters the priority of the body is to keep the vital organs warm, it shunts blood to the core of the body rather than to the extremities,” I don’t want to waste valuable energy heating up a full bladder”, the second reason, kidney failure, good to avoid.
I have taught myself to pee while swimming, now don’t laugh it is harder than it sounds, you have to be able to relax both your mind and the muscles from the waist down, no easy task when you are swimming in the water, I have trained myself to pee every 30 minutes open water swimming, along with taking in 300mls of liquid feeds. It has become automatic, but today I have missed my first 30 minutes already, ” come on relax”, I do…..success, I swim on.
The White Cliffs of Dover are starting to get smaller as stroke by stroke I move closer to France, I have a very simple list of instructions playing over in my head, ” don’t look back at the White Cliffs of Dover, they will never disappear, don’t look forwards to the shore of France they will never appear to get closer”, these wise words I have heard from many a Channel swimmer and read from Freda Streeter, ” The Channel General”, she has been training Channel swimmers in Dover Harbor for over 20 years….so I never look back, all I see is the boat, the water, I turn my attention to what is before me.
The water is calm, silky calm,” ideal conditions”, I think,” I feel the sun on my back, the crew are warm too, Jeff is in a T Shirt, Ned is shirtless, must be really warm out, that is good news”, I continue to evaluate my status, ” the water a cool 60 degrees is feeling very manageable, my hands are not clawing up, my feet are a bit achy, but the good news is that I can feel both of them, a very good sign, and the best is my midsection feels toasty warm, excellent”, I think, I swim on, I am pleased, I see the ” you’re doing great signal” and smile back at the crew, ” I wonder if they can see that I am happy?”, I think to myself.
On the boat I can see “Big Ned”, beside him is Jeff, Cynthia is up front and Deb is up top, the crew have a signal for when I am doing well, they lift there arms up to the sky and point their hands down to the crown of their heads, it looks like a heart made out of the shape of their arms. I am finding myself LOVING the ” You’re doing great” signal, every time I see it I smile and dig a little deeper, ” ohhh goodie, I think”, when I see it, I feel like a dog who is rewarded when he sits or rolls over, instead of a treat, I get the ” Good stuff” signal.
Feeds Come and Go
Feed, after feed comes and goes, ” I must drink all my feed”, I firmly tell myself as the feed cup gets lowered down, the crew have a new feed set up, they have somehow turned the pole into a fishing pole type contraption, this time they lower down my feed cup to me on a string, ” very innovative”, I think, the water is not as calm as it was when we started, it was getting increasingly difficult to get me my cup without a wave washing salt water over it. I reach up to grab my cup, it is a long reach up to the boat, we are feeding off the front of the boat to minimise the amount of boat fumes I breath while I swim and eat, I drop my cup and swim on, the boat chugs away beside me, I see the black fumes pump out the back, I am starting to notice more and more ships as I swim, we have reached the shipping lane on the English side, I am pleased, ” how lucky am I to be in the English Channel swimming amongst all these massive ships and ferries”, I feel grateful indeed.
Shipping Zone Traffic
Onwards I forge through the waters of the south west shipping lane, it is on the English side of the Channel and is for vessels travelling ” down channel” to the Atlantic, it is 4 nautical miles wide and starts 5 nautical miles from British shoreline, right now I am being navigated across this shipping zone, and also being pushed down it by the strong Channel tide. The ships are like big apartment buildings, the closer they get the more massive they appear from the waters surface, I feel tiny compared to them.
They get closer and more frequent in the shipping lane…
Where there is a boat there’s a wake, I am swimming along watching the SUVA, my pilot boat like a hawk for any sign of contact or communication from my crew, I know it is not quite time for a feed, but your never know they may throwme a bone and toss me a few jelly babies or some slippery peaches for good behaviour, I watch and watch, no sign of extra credit yum yums, then I see Ned doing a dolphin like action with his body, ” what the heck is that?”, I ponder, Ned continues to do a whale tail like movement, making his body move like a wave, I am so busy wondering what he is doing I barely notice the massive wave from the cargo ship pick me up like a cork in a barrel of water and toss me about, the boat tips way to the side and I surf up and down the wave, ” WAHOO, brilliant how fun was that?” I think and swim on. ” Note to self, that means big wave coming”, I giggle underwater.
Things Get Dark
I knew it would happen eventually the sun begins to lower in the sky, I hear word from the crew that we have reached the middle separation zone, this is the area between the English shipping zone and French shipping zone side, I am elated to be in this ship free area, also a bench mark that I am out of English Waters, I now have a new mantra and repeat it over and over:
” the water is warmer on the French side, every stroke you take gets you closer to warmer waters”
I have noticed that I am hungry, a while back I asked the crew for stronger feeds, they feel too weak, I need more juice, I look at the boat, it is getting harder to see, darkness closes in minute by minute, the crew add layers of clothing, the night air is cooling and so is my core body temperature.
Pain is Temporary
I can’t remember how long my legs have been in pain, one hour blends into another, ” forwards is the only option”, I command, my mind feels iron strong, my lower body is screaming at me, I swim anyway, I pull in for my next feed, ” your stroke count is down to 60 from 64, can you stay warm at 60?”, shouts Ned, I am determined not to speak, I don’t want to risk slurred speech spurting out of my mouth and me getting pulled form the water, I give the two thumbs up and swim on, ” Right, have to lift my stroke rate”, I think, I spin my arms faster, the crew gives me the , ” you’re doing great sign”, I feel relived, I am well aware that my head is ice block cold, it is the thing that hurts the most, ” check in on your hands”, I command my mind, I do and they feel great, no clawing up, when you get really crippled by the cold water your hands curl up like claws, right now mine are in good shape. Before I know it I am in to the boat for another feed, ” Are you peeing?”, shouts Ned, ” peeing…..not so good”, I think, I recall peeing 3 times, once in the first hour, once during hour two and one other time, in fact I have been trying to pee so hard, that I haven’t been able to pee and it has been frustrating and worrying me”, I look at Ned and give him the two thumbs up, then swim away trying to pee, I do not have success. The night air continues to close in around me, I find myself subconsciously pulling my face and chest out of the water, ” lean down, you have to press into the water and pull hard”, I firmly instruct my mind to snap my body back into gear.
The Night surrounds us
Pitch black darkness falls, I can no longer see where the crew are on SUVA , I am no longer sure where the boat is, I swim on, time slips through my fingers, the feeling of cold seems to have washed away completely, one arm strokes after the other, one stroke after the other, thoughts drift away in my head, my mind goes quiet, the lights go out, I no longer feel pain. I am aware of a sudden force behind me hurling me upwards, I am on the boat, my swim is over.
Return to Dover
It seems like I have just woken up, I peer out from under my hat and find that I am in the cabin of the boat, wrapped in blankets and a sleeping bag, a hat firmly pulled over my eyes, it is my Channel Solo hat, a gift from Imelda, ” don’t wear this until you’ve completed your channel swim”, she had said when she gave it to me, now it is on my head and I feel like shrinking away under it for the penny has just dropped that I am back on the boat, I don’t remember exactly the events leading up to me getting here but now I am painfully aware that I didn’t hit French Soil, I don’t know how long I swam but I know one thing for sure I didn’t make the crossing, as I am coming to this conclusion, I double over and throw up into a bucket on my lap, it looks pretty full, ” I guess I’ve been throwing up for a while”, I think.
I brave a look up once more and see Cynthia, Deb and Jeff, ” Hi”, I say with a hoarse croaky voice and throw up again, I heave and heave into the bucket, eventually someone takes it up on deck and hurls it overboard, I go about filling it up again, I hunch over like an old woman, my body hurts from the vomiting, but worse is the anguish I feel inside, my swim is over, Check Mate.
Hours later the boat arrives at the Dover Marina, time to get off, I go to stand and discover I am not going to be getting off this boat alone, with Jeff’s help I shuffle towards the captains chair, ” thank you Neil, sorry about throwing up”, I croak out, ” not the first”, replies the boat captain, then it is a shuffle off the boat, along the dock and into the car. Someone helps me up the steps of the caravan and I sit on the couch with my bucket throwing up, I learn that I was in the water nine hours and 30 minutes and swam in to French waters, 6 miles from the coast of France, I swam a total distance of 17 miles, I continue to vomit, but there is no longer anything there, just dry reaching.
By 2:30am sleep comes, I sleep on the couch in the caravan covered in blankets, when I open my eyes it is 5:30am, the night sky is starting to give way to daybreak, I look around at all the swim supplies scattered around the caravan, at my puke bucket and at Jeff all twisited up the couch on the other sidde of the caravan, he looks exhausted.
Today is the first day after my Channel Swim, Day one of not reaching French soil, ” I have much to process”, I think and I close my eyes.
What will I learn from my crew of the final stages of my swim and how will I feel mentally and physically after riding the tiger?
I’ll keep you posted
” Shoot for the moon, even is you miss, you’ll end up amongst the stars”
– Les Brown