So…I recognize that this has taken me a long time to post. I hope that the substance of the post addresses that. And, I further recognize that I haven’t even posted a full report. I promise it will be finished and completed soon…in the meantime, here is installment one! And, I will be posting some video 🙂
On August 10, 2012, I swam across the English Channel. It took me 14 hour 4 minutes and 44 seconds to swim from Shakespeare Beach (just south of Dover) to Tardinghen, France (near Wissant and Cap Gris Nez). I expect, if you’ve found your way here, you probably know that…but, still, I like saying it. It is like when you first get married and you introduce your spouse as your “wife” or “husband” for the first few months – it feels odd and fun all at the same time. So…now I am a Channel Swimmer…I’m not sure I will ever get tired of saying it.
I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to write this blog entry. As you might expect, it has taken quite a while for this accomplishment to sink-in. And, frankly, I’m not sure it really has. I look at pictures and video and talk about it and, while it may seem a little trite – it is still completely surreal to me that I did it…that I am a Channel Swimmer. Many days I have looked at my watch and thought – I got up 12 hours ago…that seems like a really long time ago. Then I think, how the heck did I swim for 14 hours. A few days ago I walked outside in shorts and a t-shirt and it was 64 degrees and I actually got a little chill. I thought…seriously…I swam for 14 hours in 62-63 degree water…and I’m getting a chill in 64 degree air. But, perhaps the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is the “down” feeling that inevitably comes after an monumental event like this. I hesitate to say “depression” because I’m certainly not depressed. And the outpouring of well-wishes has been amazing, overwhelming and appreciated. But, for the last two years, the bulk of my time away from work has been singularly focused on one goal. I analyzed everything I did…eating, drinking, sleeping, stretching, extra-curricular activities that might have been dangerous…and, of course, every swim and how to accomplish exactly what I felt I needed to in my training. Suddenly…all of that disappeared. I thought it would be freeing and, at first, it was. But now, I’m feeling a bit lost because there is simply no denying that it is done…I have done it. And, I think to write about it, to write this blog entry, was the final acknowledgement that it truly is done…the goal has been accomplished. I didn’t expect to have mixed emotions…but, there it is, I do. Elated and somewhat sad all at the same time…
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Most people have inquired about the journey …and quite a journey it was. On August 4th, Matt and I arrived in Heathrow and met our friend Nate who was also arriving from the U.S. We picked up our rental car and I was the lucky one who got to drive on the opposite side of the car and the road for the first time. We crammed all the stuff (and Nate) into the car and headed to Walmer – about 3 hours away. It was quite an adventure …as I continued to get stuck in roundabouts or took the wrong exits out of the roundabouts just trying to get to the highway.
We arrived in Walmer and found the house we had rented…a beautiful old house called “Church House” – which I would highly recommend to any future channel swimmers. I wanted to go for a short swim…as, I had, of course, been dreaming of putting my toes in the English Channel for a VERY long time. So we got settled and headed to the beach. Nate decided to take a dip with me and we went for a short 30 minute swim. The water was chilly – but as I expected, about 63. It was also extremely salty – also about what I expected. But, after 30 minutes I was already starting to chafe a little and my mouth could definitely feel the impact of the salt. Good to know so I could take it into account for my swim.
The next day, our friends Todd and Mary were to arrive and we had a quiet morning at the house while Nate went out exploring. Then, later that afternoon – Nate and I went for another swim – a little longer this time. I was feeling comfortable and ready.
On Monday the 6th we had arranged to meet my boat captain – Eric – in Dover to see the boat and discuss the swim. Eric is an excellent boat pilot and has exactly the right demeanor to lead a swimmer across the English Channel. He is witty, warm and pragmatic. He said he expected that I would be going off either Thursday or Friday – a little earlier than I expected. Originally there were two swimmers before me during my “tide” – but swimmer #2 had his passport stolen and had been delayed leaving South Africa. As a result, that meant I was bumped into second position.
By way of explanation, swimmers typically book swims during the “neap” tides. There are two types of tides – neap tides and spring tides. Neap tides are on the quarter moons and spring tides on the full and half moons. Generally, the shift between low and high tide during the “neap” tides is less extreme. Correspondingly, the shift between low and high tide during the spring tides is more extreme resulting in higher highs and lower lows. As a result, swimming during a neap tide means that you aren’t pushed as far north or as far south when making your journey across the Channel. My neap tide was from August 8 to 16. Each boat pilot books approximately 4 swimmers during each neap tide.
So…when we left the meeting with Eric the plan was that I would likely swim Thursday or Friday. I immediately went into planning mode. While I had certainly been “planning” for quite a long time – this was it. I needed to get my bags packed, additional items purchased, etc. We needed to be ready to go when Eric called.
Matt and I spent Tuesday running around buying things, packing and re-packing with the goal of being ready by Tuesday night. I wanted to rest (and eat) on Wednesday. Wednesday came and we did our best to rest, double-check the bags, hydrate and eat. We confirmed with Eric that we were a go for Thursday at 3:30. I had a relatively bland dinner and headed to bed around 7:00. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The alarm went off on Thursday at 2:00 a.m.. I got up, showered to loosen the muscles and wake myself up, ate a few boiled eggs and toast and we were off to Dover. The drive from Walmer to Dover is about 15 minutes. As we were heading into Dover, I noticed some fog. I rationalized that it was going to be morning soon – so the fog must be lifting rather that settling in. Also, Walmer sits a bit higher than Dover and I thought that it would make sense for there to be fog higher in the cliffs but, hopefully, not in the Channel. As we were descending into Dover, I noticed a little fog – but nothing that I thought would cancel the swim. Still…when there is fog and it is dark, swimming doesn’t seem quite prudent.
We arrived at Dover Harbor, paid to park, unpacked the car and began carrying the bags to the boat. There was at least one other swimmer loading his boat…there was anxiety and excitement in the air. I was a little concerned about the fog – but trusted Eric and knew that he would not put me in harms way. We boarded the boat and I met our boat observer, Keith, for the first time. Keith was very kind. He obviously understands a swimmer’s stress before a Channel swim. He went over the rules of the swim with me and explained how things would go along the way. It was good to have something to focus on while we began making our way out of Dover Harbor. But, as I looked around, I could tell that the fog was in fact, NOT lifting, but clearly settling in. We could barely see the other boats around us…or the light leading out of the harbor. I tried my best to focus on Keith. Also, the water was extremely rough and the fumes from our boat and another boat nearby were thick. Mary, Todd and Matt were standing in a line on the side of the boat. I sensed that they were not feeling well and that they were being kind enough not to share that with me. I, too, was feeling a little sick to my stomach and the more we traveled towards where I was to start, the more fog there seemed to be. The boat was moving very slowly and it was sloshing about in the chop. Eric, Gary and Keith were huddled-up in the cabin and I could tell that things were not going as planned. Gary kept stepping out of the cabin and looking for landmarks…but there was nothing. We couldn’t see 10 feet beyond the boat. So…I continued to sit in my chair, trying to keep my wits about me and wondering whether I was really going to swim today. But, I thought, I must continue to think as if I am until someone tells me otherwise.
The boat slowed and Eric, Gary and Keith all came out of the cabin and began looking around. Eric explained that there was a 100 foot wall right next to us with lights on it and we couldn’t see it. The doom of an aborted swim began to creep-in. Because the start time is hugely dependent upon the tides in connection with the swimmer’s speed we could not wait an hour or two to see if the fog lifted. Essentially, it was now or a few hours before another high tide. Then – it happened – Eric said we were aborting and heading back to Dover Harbor. Eric said it was the thickest fog he had ever seen in Dover. At first, I was disappointed and a little upset. But, it would have been dangerous and frankly ludicrous for me to start a swim in dense fog at 3:30 in the morning.
When we got back to Dover, Eric and I discussed when to try again. He said the weather looked good for Friday, so I elected to try again Friday morning at pretty much the same time. Eric said he would call me later in the morning to confirm. So we unpacked most of our gear from the boat, repacked the car and headed back to Walmer.
When we got back to the house we all headed back to bed. We would have another 2:00 a.m. wake up call on Friday. Eric called later that morning and said we looked good for a 4:00 a.m. start on Friday. But, he asked if I would consider heading out on Thursday afternoon and swimming into the night. Eric said there was a chance that the wind would pick up off the coast of France on Friday afternoon and that the conditions could impact my swim. He thought that the conditions could be a tad better from Thursday afternoon into Friday. That question prompted a new round of stress. I wanted to go when Eric suggested. But, I had been on a roller coaster ride of emotions over the last 8 hours. And, I was a little concerned about the cold setting in if I swam into the night. Friends had told me that it is much easier to swim into the light than into the dark. I called my friend Mo who had given me great advice before I left for England – but I couldn’t get in touch with him before I had to make the call…Thursday afternoon or Friday morning. My gut was telling me Friday morning. I was more concerned about the effect of the cold than the chop. I train in chop…I do well in chop. Cold water for a really long time and night swimming were lesser known factors. And, primarily, I felt like my head wasn’t going to be ready to go 12 hours after we aborted. So…I made the call – Friday morning it would be.