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Channel Judgment Day looms

No wetsuits, jellyfish and islands of rubbish. As she waits for the call, Lou outlines the specifics of her Channel relay swim

Channel swimming is like having a baby. There’s a huge life-changing event in the offing and you know roughly when it’ll happen but not exactly when. So you pack a bag and wait for the call. You’ve done all the prep but you still don’t really know what it’ll actually feel like.

It’ll be a long, physical haul. Right at the end, when you’re exhausted, you have to work harder than ever and everyone tells you to push as hard as you can. Then when you finally succeed you forget how painful it all was.

It’s feeling all very real now for my team the Seabrook Space Cadets. We’ve been on Channel alert for a week waiting for a weather window for the first Seals team who finally reached French sand (and a drunk French dog walker apparently) yesterday.

This morning, as I type, the men’s team is preparing to swim. We were all glued to the tracker yesterday and I can see today being just as unproductive as I watch a little arrow on a chart inch its way from Dover to Cap Gris Nez near Calais.

Channel swim specifics

This is how it works for a Channel relay swim. When our pilot, Stuart Gleeson, gives us The Call we’ll all pile down to Dover. This depends on weather, sea state, etc, and could be the middle of the night. We leave Dover marina and nip round the corner to one of two beaches where our first swimmer, Gary, will jump in and swim to shore.

Once clear of the water, the official onboard observer hoots the horn and it’s time to start swimming. Gary will swim for one hour before Jo jumps in and overtakes him. Then Gary gets back onto the boat as quickly as possible so that we don’t have to sit still for too long to be swept in the wrong direction by the tide. There are six people in our team and we swim in strict rotation until there isn’t any more sea and everyone’s speaking French.

We must swim in a fixed order, must not touch each other in the water when doing handovers, and must not touch the boat at any stage while we’re in the water. We are not allowed wetsuits – just a swimsuit, one hat and goggles. Men have to swim in Speedos. Them’s the rules! The boys love that one.

Playing dodge with jellyfish

It could take us anywhere from 10 to 15 hours so the chances are that most of us will swim twice. In all probability we will swim in the dark at some stage. We will play dodge with jellyfish, rubbish that’s been chucked off boats, islands of seaweed and possibly poo.

In between swims we’ll help each other to prepare and recover, eat and relax and keep an eagle eye on whoever’s in the water. All the swimmer has to do is work as hard as they can, swimming alongside the boat. The boat dictates the direction – that’s all down to the skill of the pilot, putting the swimmer in the best place to make the most of whatever conditions the weather and sea throws at us.

We might start out in calm water with no wind but with huge tides hoofing through a narrow gap between England and France the sea state can change rapidly. The pilot is the boss and reads the water and weather constantly to make sure we land in the right place. We just have to swim our arms off.

So. We’ve done the training. We’ve swum in freezing water throughout the winter. We’ve been borderline hypothermic. We’ve swum at night. We’ve googled jelly fish. We’ve all got a ton of sand in our cars. We’ve bought sea sickness tablets, green flashing lights and glow sticks to keep us visible in the dark. Our Dryrobes will mean the entire team will look like a gaggle of penguins or mad nuns.

We are ready! Allez, allez, allez!

Lou is training for a Channel relay attempt in September 2013, raising money for three charities. You can donate via her fundraising site http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.

Picture credit: Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.