The Channel: Swimming through the shipping lanes

Well, we gave it our best shot, but sadly it was not to be.

After the original date was aborted due to fog we finally got away at 07.16 am this morning when Sarah Pierce, our first relay swimmer, swam the short distance to Shakesphere beach stood up and waved a hand, and then dived into the sea to get us going.  Conditions were great, with clear skies, and only light winds.  Since we were all in a relay, we would each have 3 hours between swims – actually a lot when you consider it – but it was amazing how fast the time evaporated.  Moreover, in the cramped rear cabin of our 40 foot support boat ‘SUVA’, it was tricky to get too much rest, as the vessel rolled quite a bit even in the light swell.

I jumped in for my first swim at 09.16, feeling very keyed up and just wanting to expend all the pent up nervous energy in my body.  Jumping off the stern of SUVA, I was surprised how pleasant the water was, and from what I could see actually quite clean (although for obvious reasons I’m not best placed to judge…).  After the usual few minutes of trying to find my rhythm, I settled into it and actually found the swimming very pleasurable.  Knowing I only had an hour, and then our support crew would pass me a steaming hot chocolate, was a great spur to progress.

The first hour slipped by quickly, and then we simply settled into our relay routine; Sarah, John, myself and Rich.  By early afternoon we were surrounded by container ships and cross Channel   ferries as we swam through the shipping lanes.

Then around sunset the sea conditions started to deteriorate markedly, and the wind speed also increased.  With ‘wind against tide’ it became increasingly difficult for us all to swim, though we rotated through another cycle of swims it was getting worse and worse.  Moreover, once each stint was done, there was little respite on the boat.  We were heeling over 30 – 40 degrees and myself and Sarah in particular were horrendously sea sick.  As the ream swam on into the night, with swimmers festooned in lights, it became clear there was a real safety issue, and the rusk of the 20 ton SUVA being deposited atop a swimmer in the rough seas.

Therefore, with heavy hearts we did the sensible thing and agreed we’d need to abort.  We were around 4 miles from the French coast, and the others were able to see the lights of Normandy.  It was incredibly frustrating since none of us was physically exhausted from swimming, it was simply the fact the conditions prevented it.

Once we’d returned to shore, following a nausea – enhancing voyage across the Channel, we all variously collapsed into the back seat so cars or – for those others who had planned – proper beds in a guest house.

Looking back on things the following day, it was really disappointing to have been so close, and yet I took hear from two things.  Firstly, none of us had been found wanting in terms of the actual swimming.  I felt the fear of the unknown had been vanquished, and the chances of success at a later date strengthened immeasurably.  Secondly, on a broader note I reflected that, as with any challenge, if it were a guaranteed success, it would not be a challenge.

So, big picture, we’re all safe and we gave it a great go.  Lesson’s learned, and with fingers crossed for better weather next time, we’ll be back!