On Friday at just before 6:03am Jayne jumped off the back of the boat Suva and set off swimming to Samphire Hoe beach. It was only a c. 200m swim and once there she climbed up the beach so that she was completely clear of the water. She waved her arms, the boat’s horn sounded and Jayne got back into the water and started swimming towards France.
After an hour Jayne got out and Rach got in. She swam for an hour and was followed in by Cathy who also did an hour and then I got in. We repeated this four times until after 15 hours and 23 minutes I had the honour and privilege of hitting land in France. I climbed up so that I was completely clear of the water and the boat’s horn sounded again – me and three pals had swum the channel.
Makes it sound easy really doesn’t it?
It wasn’t quite that simple.
It started with lots of waiting. Our tide started on the Monday and we knew it was unlikely we’d be off straight away as we were booked as the third swim to go out on the tide, but other than than that we didn’t know when it would be. At one stage it was going to be Tuesday morning, then not, then maybe Thursday evening, then not, then Friday morning and it was. But the waiting is hard work and emotionally very draining.
The confirmation finally came just before 7pm on Thursday evening and we needed to meet up with our boat pilot in Dover at 5am. So an evening of not much sleep followed with a 3am alarm clock. Then once we had met up it was time was a nerve racking journey of about 40 minutes on the boat from the harbour to the beach we were to start from. Jayne was clearly nervous, but toughed it out and did a great first swim, getting us out and away.
The weather was great, a beautiful sunrise and the water wasn’t too choppy. That said, for those of the team that don’t have strong sea legs it was choppy enough to cause some discomfort and both Jayne and Rach managed to feed the fish! Rach actually managed it while swimming (which is supposed to be easier than standing on deck) as she took the second leg for us. Fortunately for Cathy and I we were able to cope by staring at the horizon and taking a sea sickness tablet.
The water flattened out during our second rotation and for both Jayne and Rach another swim helped, while Cathy had her most favourite swim of the day in the beautiful water. It flattened until I got in that is. Within a few minutes of my swim starting I was thinking how much harder it felt compared to how it looked from on deck – I actually felt a bit of a wimp and vowed that I wouldn’t discuss it with anyone. But as I climbed out the rest of the team asked if I’d heard the thunder as a storm had started back on the coast and had churned the water up a bit. I hadn’t, but it justified my slightly tougher than expected swim.
The day drifted by and we continued to swim. France got closer, but still tantalisingly distant. We continued to swim in rotation and at all times we were looked after superbly by our non-swimming teammate Caroline. Towels, tea and unwavering support made the swimming so much easier. We were able to concentrate on ourselves knowing that Caroline was supporting the returning swimmer.
Then as dusk started we hit the tide and the unpredictability started. The swims themselves became tougher as we fought the tide and the serene progress was halted as forward momentum was replaced by lateral movement. The issue now was whether we would manage to hit land before the Cap (Cap Griz Nez and the famous lighthouse) or whether we would miss it and possibly give ourselves an extra 4-6 hours of swimming. The night was descending and the tiredness was setting in and it became a mental as much as physical challenge.
We were close enough to France that a strong swim in a straight line looked as if it would get us there in an hour or so. But the tide had other ideas and Jayne couldn’t break us through, then nor could Rach. By the time Cathy got in it was almost pitch black (apart from the beam from the lighthouse) and we were no longer really sure where we were. Then all of a sudden we realised exactly where we were – far too far away from Cathy as she was swimming. Panic, yelling and tooting of the boat’s horn on board; serene swimming as she thought the boat had stopped and she was swimming into shore in the water. We thought that she was fighting the tide to get back to us; she thought the boat had stopped on purpose to let her hit land. Eventually the boat moved over towards her, but had this ruined our chances of landing near the Cap? Extra worry and discussion on board; but excellent strong swimming in the water.
In the end Cathy wasn’t able to take us to land, but had done enough to see us safe and I had to get in and swim for the final leg. As I got in I wasn’t sure it would be the final leg. I had the lighthouse beam on my left (and I swore at it every time I breathed to that side, telling it it wasn’t going to win) and the boat’s light on my right. I swam like a cat that chases a laser pen, every time I slipped out of the boat’s light I chased it down again. Until one time when the boat suddenly pulled away from me – or had I dropped behind and lost our chance? Would I be able to make up the ground (water?)? Fortunately I did, but it was scary sprint from two or three minutes.
Then the boat just seemed to stop. My pessimistic brain immediately assumed that we had missed the Cap and swim was being aborted. But instead a beam was shone from the deck and there was the French coast. It was too shallow for the boat to go any further and I had to follow the beam of light until I could climb out on the rocks and make sure I was completely clear of the sea. I did. The horn sounded. I jumped back in, but before I swam back to the boat I picked up a handful of French pebbles as souvenirs.
All that was left was congratulations, updating social media and lots of conversations about “never again” (although not from me…).