This post is intended as a summary of what a channel relay entails and will hopefully provide enough information for you so that you can decide whether it is for you or not.
It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure that there will be many things that I haven’t included. I’m certainly no expert. I’ve only ever done one relay and I loved it – although I’ll try to be as unbiased as possible in my summary.
Part of the reason for writing this is that I’m keen to organise and take part in another relay – especially for the Team Bear lot, if there is enough interest. I loved my previous experience, so I’d like to repeat it, plus I think that it gives a great perspective of what a channel crossing is and what it involves, which is great mental preparation for a solo crossing – something that I have on my ‘to-do’ list.
I have been offered the chance to take part in a relay this year, which I can’t do (sorry Michael), so I’m keen to do another one in future years.
What it is
A channel relay is quite simply a swim from England to France in a team (rather than on your own). It can only be done in that direction as the French authorities don’t allow you to set off from France any more.
To start you must be clear of the water on English soil (setting off from Dover, or an adjoining beach) and to complete it you must swim all the way to France and get out and clear of the water on French soil – the closest point is Cap Gris Nez.
You swim in a team of between two and six, with each swimmer swimming for an hour at a time. You rotate through the team until everyone has swum and then you start with the first swimmer again and swim in the same order.
Everyone must swim for a full hour and everyone must swim in the order they have been assigned. There can be no changing this once the swim has started and if any swimmer can’t start or complete their hour then the whole relay is over.
During your swim you can only wear a swimming costume, swim hat, goggles and night lights if it is dark – no wetsuits are allowed. You are also not allowed any assistance from the boat – you cannot be touched, or touch the boat or crew. You can feed during your swim (vital for solo swimmers, not needed for a one hour swim during a relay), but the feed must be passed down to you without you touching your crew – it’s usually attached to a rope and then pulled back into the boat.
Making it Official
The only way that a channel swim (solo or relay) is officially ratified is to do it under the authority of one of the two channel swimming bodies, the CSA or CS&PF. And they only way they will ratify it is if you do it with one of their registered pilot boats to support you.
This is very important as the English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world with enormous cargo boats travelling up and down it. You need someone that is experienced and qualified to get you through that lane – it has been described as being like a snail trying to cross the M25!
Not only do the pilots have the knowledge to steer you over to France, they also have the experience of taking hundreds of swimmers over – they know the tides, the weather, they can spot if a swimmer is struggling, they can predict if the weather is going to change and make the swim dangerous and they can be the difference between a successful swim or not.
Once you set off the pilot is in control of the swim, they have the ultimate power to pull you out of the water if they think you won’t make it, whether it’s the weather or you that is deteriorating, their first concern is the safety of the swimmer and the crew on board.
In fact even before you set off the pilot is in charge. They pick the start time, based on the expected weather and tide – so you can’t choose to set off at a leisurely 10am, you start when the pilot tells you to. Equally though they may not let you set off. Sometimes swims are ‘blown out’ and the weather may kill your chances – it is one of the ‘joys’ of channel swimming.
So now we come to one of the sticking points for many potential solo and relay swimmers – the cost. And there’s no way to butter this up as it’s not cheap. The pilots can differ slightly, but expect to pay £2,750 for your crossing. And that is just the pilot’s fee, you will also need to factor in accommodation, food, kit and any training fees etc. It’s not cheap, but compared to a brand new tri bike it’s a snip!
The other major sticking point seems to be the qualifying requirements. You will obviously need to have a medical form signed by your doctor, which needs to be done in the year of your swim (and can be another cost given the way most GP practices are run).
However, it is the swimming qualification that catches some people out. For a relay swim you must complete a two-hour swim in water below 160C (for a solo it’s a six-hour swim) within 18 months of your relay. If you’re training up and a channel relay is to be the pinnacle of your swimming efforts, then this can seem like a lot – again though it is for your safety, you must be able to show that you can cope with both the temperature and the swimming that will be required.
Other than being able to do the qualifying swim other training to think about is:
– exposure to cold water – don’t just do your training in a pool where the water is a lot warmer than you’ll be swimming in on the day. If you’ve not swum outside before it will feel cold at first, but I promise you your body will adapt if you repeat the process often enough
– sea swimming – sea swimming is actually more buoyant that fresh water (thanks to the salt), so it some ways it can be easier. However it’s a good idea to practice in salt water so you can get used to the taste of it (!) and also the rolling waves – a lot different from the local pool
– night swimming – at some stage during the relay your team will almost certainly need to swim at night and it may be your turn to swim, so practice it. In my experience once you get used to the dark then it is a beautifully peaceful experience and possibly my favourite bit of my relay
– distance – make sure that you can swim for an hour, then another hour and possibly another hour or two after that
We can’t ignore the fact that the English Channel has some ‘wildlife’ in it. It’s rare to see any large wildlife – the busy shipping lane tends to put them off – but you will almost certainly see some fish and worse than that some jellyfish. If you’re unlucky you may even ‘shake hands’ or ‘kiss’ a jellyfish.
I’m certainly no expert on marine wildlife, but my understanding is that the jellyfish in the channel are ‘babies’ when it comes to their size and stings. I’ve heard them described as like a nettle sting – so noticeable, initially disruptive, but nothing you can’t swim through. No-one will pretend that it is pleasant to swim into or through a jellyfish, but you can and should be able to carry on if you do.
If this element of the swim is likely to be something that you just can’t overcome your fear of then you are best not signing up for a channel swim of any sort.
As I said, I’ve had the good fortune to do a channel relay in the past and I loved it. We did a four-person relay and I would argue that that is the perfect number. With a six-person team it is very possible that you’ll only get two swims each, in the four-person team I had four.
I also started the swim at 1:30am and despite my advice above I had never swum at night before. After overcoming the initial fear (of both night swimming and the responsibility of starting the swim) I loved it! LOVED IT!
While relays are easier than solos, by completing one you will still join a select group of people that can say they have swum across the English Channel. The camaraderie and companionship of other channel swimmers is enormous – as is the jealousy of some swimmers that haven’t done it!