After competing in triathlons for 9 years, I decided it was time to try something different. In the back of my mind I had always had this idea that I would try to swim the English Channel some day. Now, after almost 2 years of distance swimming training, that day is almost here!
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I swam the English Channel!
WE DID IT!!! I crossed the English Channel on Saturday and early Sunday with the help of my awesome support team and all of your thoughts and prayers! It took me 16 hours and 10 minutes to reach France. I believe I will be the 1005th or so person to swim the English Channel solo. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had! I loved (almost) every minute of it! Below is the detail if you are interested. Some of this is repetitive with my last post but I have added a little more detail.
The swim almost didn't happen. The weather all week long had been bad for a swim - strong winds pushing waves the wrong direction. So after several false starts thinking a day looked good and then having it change at the last minute, we came to Saturday, the last day possible to swim on this tide. Saturday's wind forecast looked good but it didn't help me a bit as the first slot swimmer got that day. Faster swimmers could have gone Sunday or even Monday if the winds stayed low (no guarantee of course). But that wasn't an option for me either as the highly recommended pilot I had booked, Eddie Spelling, had a commitment to take a group of rowers across on Sunday. What that meant for me was I had to find another answer to this problem. I needed to get another pilot if I was going to swim this year.
By pure luck, or I prefer to think, lots of prayers, there was one pilot with no swimmers booked. That is very unusual as swims are booked at least a year in advance. Worried why he wasn't booked when everyone else was, I did some checking and called on a few people I have met in Dover and elsewhere. I received mixed and polar opposite reviews. Some said he was the best of the bunch. Others said he has a reputation for taking a strange route across the channel unlike all the other pilots causing the swimmer to be in the water unnecessarily long. So as I was weighing that information on Friday at lunchtime I also realized I now had a miserable cold or sinus infection with nasty stuff coming out of my nose (sorry). I was feeling down about the whole thing. Several folks advised me to go home and try again next year because of my physical and mental state. I called my pilot and he said next year the first available slot was the same week (last of the season) but was 4th slot. I thought I was in pretty good shape with 2nd slot and still hadn't been able to swim!
So I considered my options - risk it with the new pilot (which wasn't free by the way) and a bad cold OR hang it up this year saying it wasn't meant to be. I could just take the family to Paris on the last day of our trip to reward them for all their hard work, missed evenings of Daddy while he swam, and the roller coaster of each day in Dover wondering when I would swim. So I asked my wife to be my sounding board. We talked it over listing pros and cons and decided I would go for it. It came down to the fact that I would always regret not having tried. And my next shot could be at least one but more likely two years away. So I booked with my new pilot Dave Whyte and his crew. That night we finished final preparations and I got to bed early. Lauri, the kids and Bonnie were awesome in getting everything organized and worked out logistically.
The next morning, Saturday, I woke up feeling the same if not worse physically. What had I gotten myself into? But mentally, I was going forward now. I had committed. One thing the folks who advised me to wait until I was fully ready helped me realize was that I needed to be 100% mentally positive I was going to walk out of the water on the other side. So I was doing this and wouldn't quit unless they dragged me out against my will.
Lauri, Bonnie and I drove a short distance from our hotel to the Dover Harbor. We beat Dave there which made me a little nervous again about him and his boat. But he arrived soon thereafter with his crew. Then he had trouble parking his car and I said to myself "Oh Lord, please let me survive this day". But everything went smoothly from that point on. I have to say they were a top notch crew and knew what they were doing. We did quick introductions and they loaded the boat in no-nonsense manner. We were the first boat out of the harbor. There were a few other boats going out the same day with swimmers including Chris Pountney, the first slot guy on Eddie's boat. We got to speak briefly and wish each other well as my new boat, the Ocean Breeze, pulled out of the harbor.
While Bonnie busied herself with the lay of the boat and my drinks, I rested and chatted with some of the crew and the two observers assigned to watch me from the certifying organization. So in total we had 1 pilot, 2 crew, 2 observers, Bonnie and me on the cruiser. It didn't take long for us to get out of the harbor and on our way to my starting point of Samphire Hoe beach. The pilot gave me the order to get ready. That meant stripping down to my Speedo and slathering Vaseline liberally to places that might rub and cause serious rash from the saltwater. Bonnie also covered me with sunblock. (The worst burn of my life was a swim in the Potomac river where the sunblock wore off. I couldn't sit comfortably for days.) I felt a little rushed but managed to get it done with Bonnie's help. Then, unceremoniously, I dropped off the back of the boat and into the English Channel. I swam about 30 yards to the shore and walked out. You must be completely free and clear of the water to begin the swim. I took a moment to put my goggles up on my cap to look around, do one last stretch, and tell myself I was doing this. They signaled me from the boat to get going. My moment was finally here! It was a beautiful, sunny, low wind day and it felt right. I was happy as a clam. So I charged in at 8:51am, swam a few strokes and realized my goggles were not on my eyes! In the excitement of the start I had left them up on my swim cap. I stopped swimming and began to look around. I walked back towards the shore but didn't see them anywhere. What a terrific start to the swim. I think the folks on the boat thought they had just witnessed the shortest crossing attempt ever. Fortunately, I brought a back-up pair for both day and night. I swam to the boat and Bonnie had them ready for me. So then I began the swim in earnest.
I knew from my training in this and other sports I really needed to pace myself if I wanted to finish. So I got into a good rhythm and started plodding along towards France. For some strange reason the cold water didn't affect me at all. I didn't even think about it. The plan was for me to swim 1 hour before getting a feed from Bonnie. Her main job was to follow a regimen borrowed from Freda Streeter (Channel General). After the first hour I would feed every 30 minutes. Usually it was warm Maxim and water. Sometimes flavored with summer squash (what the Brits call fruit punch) or a tea.
So I did my thing. Several wise people said don't think "today I am swimming to France, farther than I can see". Instead they said just swim from feed to feed. So 30 minutes of swimming, about 60 seconds treading water and downing Maxim, 30 minutes of swimming. That didn't stop me from tracking my progress. I watched the position of the sun. I knew I would have to swim several hours in the dark. The channel also has two shipping lanes going opposite directions similar to a water freeway. I also knew I would get mouthwash at hours 6 and 12. But I really tried to think about those things as little as possible so as to not get overwhelmed. So instead I thought about my family most of all. Both boys really wanted me to be successful and I really wanted to do it for them as well as my super supportive wife. I thought about a lot of other things too. Anything to pass the time and not think about swimming to France. And yes, I did many versions of 99 bottles of beer along with a few bible songs.
Along the way I hit seaweed, something hard like a turtle shell a few feet below the surface (don't even know if they have turtles there), a few sticks but no jellyfish!!! I guess God felt I got my fair share of those at the Long Island Sound swim this year. Bonnie said later she saw a rather large one close to me but it didn't get me. Other than the boat and sun to look at there wasn't much. I perked up whenever a large freighter would come near. Those things are enormous when you are in the water with them close up. A sailboat also came close enough for me to wave to them. That was in the middle of the channel between the two shipping lanes.
At my 6th hour I got my feed and was treated to mouthwash to get the saltwater out. It was already starting to ruin my tongue and the back of my already sore throat. Think of sticking you mouth into a bucket of salt and keeping it there for hours. That’s how it felt. Unfortunately, right after I used the mouthwash, everything in my stomach came up violently. I heaved a few extra times after I was already empty and knew that among other things, my stomach and neck would be sore. Never mind all the gastric juices in my raw throat. But fortunately I had practiced hurling after long swim practices (not intentionally). So when I was done, I did a few strokes of breaststroke and then went on swimming.
I felt very good swimming. Even several hours into it I was in a very positive and cheerful mood. And why not? I was living my dream! Fortunately that mental state stayed with me for the vast majority of the swim. At about hour 11 I got sick again and was also really sick of the taste of Maxim. I asked Bonnie for a Milky Way bar and ate 3 of those over the next several hours. I kept tracking the shipping lanes and willing the sun to go down. I did have one fear about that - I would get cold. But it didn't happen. I don't think I really felt cold the entire swim.
I'm not sure when it started but my left shoulder (not the one Dr. Hassler treated) starting to get really sore. I don't know if I changed my stroke to compensate for my slightly injured right shoulder or what. But it steadily got worse. It became quite painful for the last 4-5 hours of the swim. It felt muscular, like a bad strain so I wasn't worried that I was doing any permanent damage. So I just tried to ignore the pain. It worked pretty well. Back to the bible songs, etc. But at some point I lost the ability to keep count on 99 bottles and couldn't remember the words to the bible songs. My brain got a little fuzzy(er). So I switched out of necessity to just saying a simple mantra in my head to block out the pain. Like "feed to feed, feed to feed..."
As I continued with my feed to feed strategy and the sun finally set, I swam on. I switched to my night goggles. They were clear and had a blinking light attached to them on the back of the strap so that the crew could see me. I also had a light stick attached to my suit. But probably the most amazing part of the swim was what happened in the pitch black darkness when my hands entered the water in front of me. A trail of bioluminescent bubbles streamed from my fingers and around the rest of my body. My friend Tobey (channel finisher earlier this year) told me about this. It wasn't like a few blinks here and there but thousands of green bubbles exploding off my hands with each stroke. That kept me occupied for a while and my mind off my increasingly painful shoulder.
Then I saw other light. It was dim and far away but I could tell it wasn't a ship. It was France! I tried not to get too excited because others warned me that I would see it hours before I landed on it. So I went back to my mantras and bubbles between feeds. But I was a little jazzed too. I knew I was in the last quarter of the swim. I intentionally never asked Bonnie or anyone how far I had gone, how much more to go, etc. But one of the crew volunteered at one feeding that I was 3 miles out. In my head I automatically thought 1.5 hours and I'm done! I got out of feed to feed mode and started moving a little faster. I could see distinct lights now and not just the fuzzy haze. I could also see the way to the shortest distance across the channel - landing near a lighthouse on Cap Gris-Nez. Quick funny story about the Cap. One day last week I was at the harbor to speak with Freda and get some more advice on my swim. A friendly man nearby joined our conversation and shared his wisdom too. After a bit I introduced myself and Bonnie to him. He said his name was Kevin Murphy. I said his name sounded familiar and had we met before? He didn't think so. But it clicked with Bonnie from all her research on the channel that we were having a friendly conversation with the man who has the the record for the most crossings of the channel (34). I said, "Oh, that Kevin Murphy!" Only one woman has more than him. That's Allison Streeter, daughter of Freda, with 43 crossings. But one thing Kevin said was that in all his crossings, he had NEVER landed on Cap Gris-Nez. So anyway, I was excited to see the lighthouse and think I was going to land there and soon. But that didn't happen. The strong tide carried me right past it. I would swim a 30 minute block and go absolutely no where. At least that's what it felt like. I kept drifting further up the coast, swimming harder to new sets of lights but again it seemed I was making no progress. For the first time in the swim I got a little frustrated with myself. I could see the curve of the cliffs in France but for hours I couldn't get to them. I was finally getting tired and my shoulder really hurt. I was ready to be done. To move a little quicker and give my arms more assistance I would pump up my kick cadence from time to time. I could see that I made progress when I did that. So I kept it up for a while. Eventually a cliff face loomed in the darkness in front of me. I didn't have good depth perception but I knew I was getting close now. Suddenly the captain shined a spotlight on the wall face. It looked like a sheer cliff as far as I could tell. I was told that if I landed at a cliff with nowhere to get out that it was acceptable to tag it and swim back to the boat.
I got closer and closer really straining against the tide. At some point the boat stopped and I knew I was going to land soon. As I approached I saw that I was headed to an isolated sandy beach with cliffs on both sides. I was glad because I really wanted to walk out of the water. I put my head down and swam a bit more knowing I was very close now. I lifted my head up again to check my progress. And then my feet hit sand!!! That felt soooo good. At 1:01am Sunday, I walked out with both hands in the air and marched up the beach. My legs worked surprisingly well. I turned around to soak in the moment. It's hard to describe the sense of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion and just general euphoria that I had at that moment. Then I quickly grabbed a small hand full of smooth stones and put them in my suit as souvenirs. Seemingly out of nowhere I noticed a swimmer standing on the beach next to me congratulating me. At first I didn't know who he was (probably because I was so spent). I thought he landed with another boat. I introduced myself and then realized he was one of the observers who got in to swim the last few yards with me so I wouldn't be alone on the beach. Again the whole crew was great.
Finally, for the first time all day, I was starting to get really cold in the open wind. We both got back in the water and swam easily to the back of the boat. As I approached I heard celebratory music blaring and everyone congratulating me. I hugged Bonnie and then sat down with a sleeping bad wrapped around me (pic above moments after finishing). I started shaking from the cold but after a bit felt good enough to change into the many layers of clothing I had brought. Bonnie and I had permanent smiles on our faces but soon exhaustion and the need to sleep set in on the ride back across the channel.
It took about 2.5 hours for us to reach the Dover Harbor. Then we were docked, taking pictures and looking for Lauri to hug us and take us back to the warm hotel and warm showers. We wished all the crew and observers well and zipped away as it was a little after 4am and we needed to leave for the London Gatwick Airport by 5:30am. Bonnie and I took showers while Lauri did the final packing into our giant van and rousted the three kids. We made it to London in good time with Lauri driving (and now also an expert on the roundabouts). And now we're back home in Darlington, SC.
Thanks again to Lauri, Ben, Jacob, Bonnie, and Anna who were there the whole time. Thanks to BOTH boat crews - Eddie Spelling who endured numerous e-mails and calls from me for many months - and Dave Whyte and his crew coming in at the last moment to rescue my dream. Also thanks to all of you who followed my blog and offered encouraging words. It REALLY made a big difference to me. I thought about that a lot as I was swimming. I didn't want to let everyone down!
Again, I had a blast doing this. It was quite an adventure. Life is short, so I plan to continue going for my dreams. Though maybe next time it will be something academic or spiritual since these athletic goals are wearing me out!
Posted by Allan at 5:52 PM