Like I said in my last blog, a channel swim is like having a baby. Babies are unpredictable and ours came three weeks early. After a labour of 17 hours 12 minutes and 54 seconds, Keith was standing on a rock in a small French harbour at 2am and it was all over. We had become Channel swimmers!
The Call came out of the blue. Our pilot, Stuart Gleeson, had had a cancellation and offered us a slot at the end of that week. This was too good to be true: good weather, shorter nights than our slot in mid-September and a chance to get all three Seal teams across the Channel in the same week. Somehow all six of us in the team managed to juggle work, life and children to get ready within 48 hours. But it was a false alarm. Ten hours before we were due to start it was called off because of too much wind. Then, four hours later it was all back on again. So – an emotional, adrenaline-fuelled roller coaster before we even got to Dover.
Battling the waves
We didn’t have a target time in mind because we were swimming on the biggest tides of the season. This meant that, although we always swam on the same heading towards France, the strong tides sloshed us sideways. Such big tides can affect the size of the waves and even the apparent wind so it was never going to be straightforward and it’s more testing for the pilot. But Stuart had faith in us so Gary started our swim at 9.07am. All we had to do was swim each of our hour-long stints as if it was our last.
We went out hard and hung on. My first two hour-long swims were the longest hours of my life. I’d asked to be given signals on 15, 30, 45 and 55 minutes so that I could judge my effort and ramp it up gradually. With 15 to go it meant a big push then at five minutes to go it was hammer time, before five hours’ recovery and starting again. But each 15 minute segment lasted about 12 years. By lunchtime the sun had gone in and we were bundled up on deck in hoodies and Dry robes. We must have looked like a weird black-robed sect.
Between swims we’d eat, warm up, rest, help other swimmers dress and keep an eye on whoever was in the water. Stuart seemed happy with us, but as the day went on we started to wonder whether we would get far enough south so that when the tide turned it would push us towards the beaches to the south west of Cap Gris Nez.
Sadly we didn’t. I was number four in the swim order and I’d secretly been hoping I wouldn’t have to swim again. Another hour at such a high effort level, in the dark this was daunting. Ali, at number three was more than welcome to the honour of landing in France and collecting six French pebbles from the beach. Then it looked like I might get the honour of landing. That would’ve been fabulous… and I wouldn’t have to swim the whole hour.
But during Ali’s swim, the track of the moon on the water started to veer off to the right, which meant the tide was changing… and we weren’t yet far enough south. Ten minutes before my swim started I established that not only would I not land it, neither would Sarah, swimming after me.
At this point, the mood was a little sombre. Everyone was either shattered or contemplating swimming through that vicious tide that formed such an effective barrier between France and us.
Approaching the finish line
That last hour in the dark at midnight, I swam the hardest I’ve ever swum, yet for the first 55 minutes I made no progress at all. Instead, the tide bounced off Cap Gris Nez and tried to push me back to Dover, but I managed to hold my ground. I was also pushed sideways at 4.7 knots while being tossed around like a cork in the turbulence off the end of the Cap. I had to relax to prevent my form from going to pot and causing me to slow down.
Nonetheless, it was a brilliant swim. My goggles didn’t leak – although I thought they were going to be knocked off a few times. Despite feeling tired, I remained strong.
I must have broken through in the last 5 minutes because I managed to creep forwards about 500m into shallower water. An hour and 12 minutes later Keith was standing on a big rock in a harbour at Wissant in France. We were done.
What an experience! Swimming as fast as you possibly can for an hour in the sea is tough, but doing it again and again when you’re tired, in the dark when the conditions are getting worse is painful. But when your teammates are standing on the side of the boat screaming at you to keep going, you just want to swim your arms off for them, your supporters and your charities. The exhaustion is total, but the grin doesn’t leave your face for days!
Lou is raising money for three charities with her Channel swim. You can donate via her fundraising site http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.