Report written by Jo Fearon (with comments from Niall in italics) Both of us have a background in endurance events, neither of us are swimmers so the channel was a strange one. In fact Niall first learned to swim in 2005 and me in 2006. We both started because we wanted to take part in Ironman triathlons
Swimming the channel is very different from other things we have done because no two crossings are the same. The effects from the weather and the tides mean you never know what you are going to get. Niall was self taught initially but last year Eilis Burns very kindly (foolishly?) took him on and tried to tidy him up a bit! In essence she rebuilt my stroke, taught me to swim and trained me for the channel all in one year. No mean feat.
We arrived in Dover on the 4th September for the first neap tide window that started on the 5th. Even the journey there was difficult with the drive to Rosslare then the ferry and an 8-hour drive the other side to get to Dover. Poor Finbarr who had kindly agreed to help crew the crossing had to put up with it all the way.
We stayed in Varne Ridge with Evelyn and David who have a long history of looking after channel swimmers. The weather was awful for the first weekend and we spent most of the time holed up in the mobile home. Needless to say this didn’t help the humour of the swimmer who was nervous as hell. On Sunday I got out for a couple of hours and ran a marathon in Margate. It was a great stress buster and I finished 3rd. The weather started to improve on Monday but the winds were still high and very few people were getting out to swim. We were really getting frustrated at this point as it started to look like we might not even get out at all.
By Thursday, the weather had improved enough that we were able to say Friday or Saturday would be good enough. Unfortunately this coincided with the tides increasing (stronger currents) but good weather is more important than slack tides so we were going to go for it. This waiting was driving me up the wall. Trying to keep myself amused and trying to stay rested and well fed for the whole week is a serious job. I did take a day to run up to London on the train to see my brother and just chilled out. But on the whole everyone around me, my pilot and the entire campsite worked hard to keep me chilled.
Thursday night we got the call from our pilot (Dave Whyte – A Legend!) to say we would be leaving at 7am on Friday morning. We were due to have an experienced swimmer and crew person (Imelda Lynch) on the boat but because of the short notice she couldn’t make it to Dover on time so it was up to myself and Finbarr to crew for Niall.
Friday morning was calm and we got on the boat in a nervous silence.
Our first job of the day was to get out from Dover harbour along to Samphire Hoe beach where we were going to start. We greased Niall up with lots of vaseline and lanolin and dumped him off the boat to swim to shore. 8am and we were heading for France. Water temperature was 15-16 C, much better than we’ve had in Ireland all summer.
He had a great start, good stroke, calm water. The first bit of trouble we ran into was one hour into the swim when we stopped for his first feed. Niall cannot thread water very well so stopping to drink was a problem. He was spiting back any solid food we tried to give him. This got even worse after 3 hours when his hamstrings started to cramp badly whenever he moved from the front crawl to feed.
Our carefully crafted feeding plan went out the window and we started to increase the concentration of his drinks and added electrolytes and anti-inflammatories to help with the cramping. His stroke was still very strong and we were making good progress at about 3.2 km/hr. I was also very seasick and when not feeding him, I was most likely to be found on the other side of the boat depositing the contents of my stomach overboard. I have never had trouble with hamstrings before. So at this point I was just mentally running through all the possible causes and hoping my boat crew would fix what I needed in my next feed. They never disappointed.
The channel is 21 miles across at the shortest point but most people swim closer to 25-30 miles with the currents. Mentally we divided the journey up into English waters -> British shipping lanes -> separation zone -> French shipping lanes -> French coastal waters.
After 4 hours we were well into the British shipping lanes. It was a strange thing
to watch this small blob swimming alongside huge tankers. It had been training lightly up to this point but then sun came out. I did at one point notice a small coastguard plane fly overhead too. Some nice Jellyfish managed to stay deep enough to be out of my way, which was a relief.
After 7 hours we were well into the separation zone and over half way there. This is an important point of the swim. Only 30% of channel attempts are successful but these odds decrease rapidly if you have not made the half waypoint by 7 hours because of the tidal movements.
Cramps had improved slightly at this point, or at least he wasn’t complaining about them so much. I was slightly concerned because he was only drinking about 300-400ml per feed. I would have been much happier with 700ml but the good thing was it was only taking him about 1:45 to feed so we were not loosing much time from the stops. He was
grumpy as hell though. His stroke rate was a nice constant 55.
A slowing stroke rate is one indication of a tiring swimmer and not a good sign. I was trying not to look back or look to France, as I knew that if I watched cliffs not getting closer, hour after hour I would get depressed. All the same I stole a glance or two.
At 10 hours things started to get rough. The wind picked up and it was coming from the "wrong" direction creating lots of chop, which makes very hard going for the swimmer. At the 11 hour feed he was worried about the rough water. On the one hand, I wanted him to know that yes the water was choppy and it was not his imagination playing games but at the same time, I definitely didn’t want him to know that it was so rough that most of the other swimmers who had come out that day, had just given up and gone home. We spent three hours in that rough bit before the winds died down and it really sapped his strength.
At least he was now drinking for us. At 12 hours Finbarr got into the water with him (he is allowed a buddy for an hour so long as the other swimmer stays behind the soloist). I wanted him to have some support for the last of the rough water. He was mentally very bad at this stage because he was tiring and we were still in the shipping lane and trough water. It was also starting to get dark. We changed his goggles over and put lights on him so we could see him in the dark. It was going to be a struggle from here in. Starting to switch off about here. Brain was slowing down and thoughts seemed to form and disappear before I grasped them.
By 14 hours we were less than a mile from shore but the tide had turned and was pulling us up the coast towards Calais. He was jaded, calling us names and although he never asked to get out I know he was close to wanting to give up. His stroke had deteoriated and he was swallowing a lot of water. Essentially he was slowly drowning. We kept telling him how close he was to shore but because of the currents it was so hard to get in to land. I don’t think he believed us anymore. I did swallow quite a bit off salt water.
I was in bits watching this. At the time I likened it to a first time father at the birth. You see the person you love exhausted and in extreme pain and there is nothing you can do to make it easier. I had to be strong for him but when he swam off from the boat I just wanted to cry. We could see the French coast but getting into shore was a long battle. By 15 hours he was completely spent. I’m sure simply breathing out was giving him more forward propulsion than anything he was doing with his arms. We likened it to a doggy paddle but in reality it was more poodle paddle than great dane. Only guts and determination would get him to France now. By now we were in only 2 meters of water but progress was painfully slow. The support swimmer got back into with him for the final push to shore. It was horrendous.
It took 3 hours 42 minutes to cover less than a mile but eventually after 15 hour 42 minutes in the water, Niall climbed up a French beach. When you are that cold and tired, your brain function slows completely. All he could focus on was "clear the water line". If you don’t clear the water, you are disqualified. He kept crawling up the dunes and had to be called back repeatedly. I was bawling on the boat and the independent observer had to come and give me a hug to stop me crying. The final indignity is having to swim back out to the boat when that tired and cold. The pilot had managed to manover the boat between two wrecks in less than one metre of water on an outgoing tide, but it still was 100-150m from the beach. I still am amazed that I just didn’t keel over in the surf and sleep. Crawling on all fours inland was purely automatic at this point.
Once on board, we had to get him dry and warm. Hypothermia is scary the first time you see it. His extremities were blue, he couldn’t talk or stand and couldn’t understand what we were saying to him.
Eventually he started to shiver violently and went grey, which is actually a good sign. He was also violently sick but at that stage he didn’t need any more energy so we were happy enough to let him puke.
By the time we got back to Dover he was looking much better but still very cold. Worryingly, when he started to talk again, one of the first things he said was "Do you know, only 3 people have both swum the channel and climbed Everest". I’m not laying money against that being his next challenge!
I’ve never had much interest in swimming the channel. Hypothermia doesn’t appeal to me. It’s a lonely day out there. Crewing it has completely put me off the idea. It’s a terrible mental ride from England to France. Give me hard physical pain over that kind of mental anguish any day. Without everyone involved I could not have even made it to the mid-point. But both my Coach Eilis and Joanne deserve a lot of the credit.
My son points out that while we all look on this as a massive endeavour, it really is only 2000 lengths of a pool and the correct mindset. The easy at which children simplify things to their known knowledge base. Of course he does suffer from daddy’s inability to know when ones body has reached breaking point (stubbornness).
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