Thursday, 1 August 2013

Swimming the English Channel

I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for almost 3 years!!  Its going to be a long one, so please bear with me.

July had been a reasonably good month of training. I completed 2 split weekends of a 7 hour sea swim on the Saturday and 6 hours on the Sunday, and was surprised at how well they went.  I had a few pains in my hips and legs, but assumed these would go during the taper (recovery) leading up to the big swim.
A couple of days after the last big training weekend I received a call from my boat pilot (Paul Foreman) asking if I wanted to go early, as the condition were perfect.  I had seen photos of the Channel, it was flatter than a swimming pool and the sun was shining high in bright blue skies....literally perfect conditions. However, I had to decline as I was still pretty sore from the big weekend swims and needed the recovery period.
In the lead up to my swim window I became obsessed with the weather.  After months of willing the sea temperature up, I was now focused on the wind.  The weather had turned and it was now looking as though the swim would get blown out.  Then I received another call from Paul telling me that there would be a small window just before my official window opened up.  This would mean that I would be going on a Spring tide (higher high tides, lower low tides, so more movement of water) and would have to swim through the night.  Not ideal I thought, but I also didn’t want to enter into the unknown and potentially have to wait weeks to go. So I accepted and my date was booked, Friday 26th July, 11pm start!  My stomach did a few flips, but now I could put months of planning into action, mobilise the crew and focus on getting this challenge under way.
The evening of the swim my crew arrived at my house to pack the car, with what seemed like a ridiculous amount of kit, and whisk me to the coast.  On the journey down I kept saying, I can't believe this is actually happening.  As we neared Dover, in the dusk , I could make out a flat sea in front of me, which was reassuring.
The crew, from left to right Marcus, Mark, me, Ben, Adam
We arrived in Dover with plenty of time to spare, too much actually, as we had to wait around with nothing to do but think about what lay ahead.  Mel had come down with Toni and Giorgio to offer their support, which was fantastic.  There were lots of  'you can do this', 'I know you can make it'....whilst this was all meant in the best possible way, it also felt as though there was extra pressure on me to get across.  The negative thoughts and doubts were already circling overhead, I just had to keep them at bay.

At last there was something to do, the boat (Optimist) was ready for us.  My crew (Adam, Mark, Marcus and Ben) took all the kit down to the boat and started loading up,  whilst I made a couple of calls and said my farewells to Mel.  As the boat pulled away, I had to take a few deep breaths and try and trick myself into believing that this was just like any other training swim, break it down into manageable chunks and not think too far ahead.
Marcus got the short straw
We were given the 10 minute warning, which meant I needed to get greased up, thick layers of sun cream and Vaseline to protect various body parts from chaffing.  Not a job the crew were fighting over to do!! 

Shakespeare Beach
And then we were there, facing Shakespeare beach, me fully greased up with green swim lights switched on and a black sea in front of me. 
Last drink before the big 'Off'
I was given a quick run down on what to do; go down the ladder, jump into the water, swim to the beach, clear the water, raise arms in the air and the clock would start when I got back in the water.  Easy enough! As I climbed down the ladder I was taking it slowly because I really wasn't looking forward to the shock of the cold,water, but I was shouted at to get in, so in I jumped. It actually wasn’t too bad, the water felt warm, which was a great relief.  I took a gentle swim to the beach, checking that my goggles and hat felt fine.  As I got to the beach I saw three silhouettes standing some way off, then I heard a yell 'Go Matt-Fish' it was Mel, Toni and Giorgio, they had come to the beach to wave me off.  I turned, gave them a quick wave and then walked back into the sea to start the swim of a lifetime.
Nice warm water....
My navigational skills were immediately challenged, I swam straight out from the beach expecting that was the direction the boat was taking, but before too long there was some distance between me and the boat and I realised that the boat had turned, I quickly adjusted course and got alongside the boat.  However, I found it really hard to stay next to the boat and keep my stroke natural.  When I was alongside the boat I was paranoid I would swim into the boat or it would go over the top of me, so I would swim away a little and then straighten up, but having no point of reference in front of me in the dark I just swam further and further away from the boat, until I realised that I had gone too far and had to swim back.  This went on all night, I needlessly added extra distance to what was already a long enough swim.
Just me and the jellies

Within the space of a few minutes in the water I had my first jellyfish encounter, being stung the length of my body and then a few minutes after that a full on face sting, which left my lips tingling.  Suck it up and keep on swimming was what I had been told to do, so that I did.  For the first couple of hours I felt pretty good in the water, I was able to find a good rhythm and get used to the dark and generally felt comfortable. 

Speaking to Paul at the end of the swim, he said  'you were flying for the first 3 hours' which was how I felt, I had an idea of how the tides would turn and wanted to get as far across as possible for when the tide turned so that when it turned back 6 or so hours later I would get the best of  the tide pushing me toward Cap Gris Nez (the closest point of the French coast to England).  However, as Paul rightly pointed out, the wheels fell off into the 3rd hour.

The hip problems I had in training started to niggle pretty much from the start of the swim, but I thought if I can just keep up a decent pace and not get cold I'll be fine.  The pain in my hip  wouldn't go and at one point I felt like hot fluid was pouring inside my leg and down to my knee, which was swelling up.  It wasn't, but that’s how it felt.  The pain only got worse as time went on, and then my hip flexors started to ache and that was when I started to slow down.  I tried a number of things to stop the pain; not kicking, kicking harder, mushrooming in the water……...anything to alleviate the pain, but it wouldn’t go.  It got to the point that I would count to 100 to get through one cycle and them mushroom or stretch out the legs again.  Then try and swim without stopping for a count of 100 or 200 before trying something else.  This went on until about two hours from the end of the swim.

Pretty much from the start of the swim there was a lightning storm going on in the distance.  The water would light up around me with bright white light.  I started to worry that I would get pulled out of the water if the storm got too close and then I started to hope that I would.  This early into the swim and the demons had already raised their ugly heads.  I went through circular thoughts; 'shit I'm going to get pulled out', 'good that means this pain will stop', 'but then I'll have to start all over again another day', piss off demons!  At least it gave my brain something to think about.
Ah, the 2013, an excellent year
My feeds started at 1 hour which consisted of a hot maxim (carbohydrate) drink, I tried to down the whole bottle (about 300ml) as quickly as possible.  I managed to keep all my feeds less than 30 seconds.  If there was any motivation for not hanging around on a feed , it was that I was drifting backwards away from the boat and away from France.  I knew how much energy it would cost me to cover those lost 30 seconds of drifting, so didn’t want it to be any longer. 
I didn't enjoy the feeds at all, forcing liquid down my throat as quickly as possible, to get the much need calories for my body to fuel me across the Channel.  Going from; being horizontal in the water, to vertical to feed and then straight back to horizontal, without giving the fluid time to properly hit the stomach, meant that I kept getting hiccups and reflux which at one point led to it all coming back up.  I managed four feeds of solids during the whole swim; half a banana (ok), jelly babies (tolerable) tinned peaches (disgusting) and flumpy sweets (tolerable).  I gave up on the solids as it just wasn't working for me.  I had thought the feeds would give me the chance to have some contact with my crew.  This was not the case, because I was wearing earplugs, the crew were quite high up and I was trying to stop for as short a time as possible, there was very little contact.  During the night was even worse as I couldn’t even see them, which made for a bit of a lonely time.
Cometh the dawn
Marcus providing light relief
Finally the dark sky turned to grey and then briefly to pinks and oranges as the sun made a brief appearance on its way up.  There was also a sighting of a dolphin, which I was gutted to have missed, but probably best that I didn’t see it as I may have mistaken it for a shark!  At around this time Marcus jumped in to swim alongside me for an hour.  The Channel swimming rules allow a support swimmer to swim for 1 hour at a time at 3 hourly intervals.  Before the swim I wasn’t really sure what the point was of having a support swimmer in the water, but decided to give it a go.  It was another distraction and helped to pass an allotted amount of time, it also gave me another point of reference so that I could see that I was actually moving forward. As Marcus got out of the water the fog started to come in and then it began to rain.  I was worried that the fog could mean the end of the swim, but fortunately it didn’t get too bad.  By this point I was over half way across the Channel and although I was still in pain I didn’t want to get pulled out.  I just kept telling myself that I would have to do all those miles again if I got out of the water now.
The Channel can be split into 5 distinct zones; England in-shore waters (5 nautical miles) South-West shipping lane (4nmi) separation zone (1nmi), North-East shipping lane (5nmi), French in-shore waters (3.5nmi).  I had asked the crew to tell me when I crossed into each zone so that I could get a motivational boost at each point.  By the time Marcus got out of the water for the first time I was entering the separation zone.  I had thought this would make me feel good, but it actually just made me realise how much farther I had to go.  When I was told that I had entered the NE shipping lane sometime later I tried to calculate how long it would take me to swim the 5nmi to the French in-shore waters.  I quickly gave up when I had a) no idea if I would actually be swimming 5nmi, b) what effect the tides would have, c) any concept of what pace I was swimming at.  All I knew was that it was going to take a while and I knew I should not be thinking that far ahead.  I stopped myself and told myself just to focus on the water in front of me, used the mantra I had been given by my son Jack ‘just keep swimming, swimming, just keep swimming swimming’.
The big boat photo
This phase of the swim went by in a blur of discomfort and hope that land was close by.  I would catch sight of something when I turned my head to breath and thought it might be land, but it just turned out to be a tanker or the fog.  When the rain started the wind picked up a bit and the water was a choppier, which added to the fun.
What a beautiful sight - Thre Cap
After what seemed like hours of swimming on the spot, even with Marcus jumping back in for another hour stint, it all suddenly turned good.  The clouds began to break, opening up to the blue sky, I could feel the sun on my back and, the pain in my legs disappeared and then I was told I had entered French in-shore waters….I was close.  I felt rejuvenated and energised, I felt strong in the water, as though I had just started the swim and not that I had been swimming for around 13 hours.  I could just make out land in front of us, it was the Cap.  I could feel that the tide was turning and starting to push me away from the Cap, so I swam even harder.  At this point I thought the crew was pointing me in the direction of the Cap and that I should swim hard for it.  So, I put my head down and kept swimming in that direction, but this meant that I started to swim away from the boat.  The boat had to come over to me and tell me to follow them.  They gave me one last double strength feed and told me swim towards the bay, I was almost there.  

My escort
Land didn’t seem to get any closer, I knew I shouldn’t keep looking up,  but I couldn’t help myself.   Then all of a sudden I could make out the shapes of people on the beach and not long after that I saw Marcus and Mark standing on the ladder of the boat ready to escort me into the shore.  Ordinarily support swimmers only get in the water about 200m from the end of the swim, so I thought we were really close.  I found out later that they had got in 800m from the end as they had to guide me to the shore and make sure i  didn't  drift too far away, as the boat wouldn’t be able to pick us up due to shallow water.
So close

 I was swimming hard for the shore when Mark and Marcus got in as I thought we were very close.  Then I looked up and realised we still had some way to go. And then I could see the sand beneath me, I was so happy.  I tried to stand up, but quickly sank under as it was deeper than it looked.  A few more strokes and I was at standing height.  
The Victory shot
I put my feet down and stood up tentatively, I felt a little wobbly, but got my balance and strode to the beach, cleared the water, turned to the boat and raised my arms in the air to signal I had finished.  I had done it! Then I allowed myself to lie down on the sand.  It was over!  I felt so happy that I had finished, that I had made it.  All those countless hours of training had paid off.  I looked up at the boat and realised we had a good few hundred metres to swim back when all I wanted to do was rest.  I pulled myself up and made myself get straight back in the sea and swim back to the boat so that I could get aboard and properly rest.

Man hugs all round
I can stand on my own, honest


My crew were amazing throughout the whole experience, taking care of me,making sure I was fed and watered throughout the swim and that I got warm after the swim and had everything I needed.  I could not have completed the swim without them.
Nice and toasty

Its much harder than it looks
The come down

It has been an amazing journey these last couple of years.  I have had the pleasure of meeting some amazing and generous people.  I am not aware of another sport where everyone is so helpful and friendly, where people give so much of their time for no personal reward or gain.  It is truly touching to experience such human kindness.  I am ecstatic that I have reached the goal I set myself almost three years ago but perhaps a little sad that this journey is over.

Becoming part of history, signing my name on the wall of the White Horse pub in Dover


Reut said...

WOW!!! So inspiring! Well done!

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Gav T said...

This is truly an inspiring account of what must be a grueling challenge. Well done.

Stephen Key said...

Awesome, Matt. Starting to plan my own EC attempt. Thanks for the inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Good post.