There’s always something new to learn in the Channel swimming game. Being able to swim is just one tiny part of it. There’s also learning to deal with the cold, the waves, the night swims, the getting in again when you’re cold, plus mental and physical toughness. This weekend we got a glimpse of how we’re going to pull it all together for our Channel relay when we went to Dover for a training session with our Channel pilot.
Stuart Gleeson, with his boat Sea Leopard, is registered with the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) as one of a handful of pilots qualified to take swimmers across the Channel. On The Day he is the boss, telling us when to go, how fast to go and in which direction. We are completely in his hands. Also on the boat will be a CSA observer who will time us and make sure we follow all the rules so that the swim is officially recognised. Luckily, Sea Leopard’s observer Sam Jones was on the boat with us so we could bombard her with questions – she’s swum the Channel many times herself.
We had just two hours to get to grips with it all so we piled into the boat and headed out of Dover harbour and round the corner to Shakespeare Beach. Our first swimmer, Ali, had to swim ashore, get clear of the water and raise her hand in the air to signal readiness. Then the boat hooted twice, the clock started and she started swimming back towards the boat. Once she reached us, the boat set off at Ali’s pace towards France. All Ali then had to do was follow the boat. Simples.
THAT PRE-RACE PLACE
After 10 minutes it was my turn. I was all ready in my swim kit with my Dryrobe on top to keep the chill off. Externally, I tried to appear calm and nonchalant but inside I went to that contemplative pre-race place full of nerves and anxiety. Ali slowed right down while I climbed down the ladder of doom (very bravely and quite fast I might add, considering the water was a refreshing 9.7°C) before swimming past Ali, touching neither her nor the boat. That was the changeover done, but I couldn’t get swimming until Ali was safely on-board and sitting down so I did some vigorous water treading for a minute or so.
Now, as you know, I’ve been swimming in the sea all winter in all conditions. The conditions here were as good as it’s ever going to get apparently as far as sea state goes… yet I didn’t find it easy. It took me a while to get used to the motion of the water – there was enough chop to hose mouthfuls of sea water down my throat every now and again. I had to constantly tell myself to stay calm, relax and go with it. Except I couldn’t completely relax because I had to keep an eye on the boat.
It shouldn’t be hard, of course – it’s a great big white thing chugging along next to you – but it meant I couldn’t just swim and look up occasionally to see if I’m still on course. I’m not often capable of swimming in a straight line so didn’t dare stop concentrating in case I got too close or headed off towards Brighton.
SMELLY AIR VS LUMPY WATER
The fumes weren’t great. The obvious thing is for the boat to be between the swimmer and the wind and weather to give the swimmer the best conditions. But that also means you’ve got the wind blowing exhaust fumes in your direction. Some people really suffer and spend their whole swim feeling sick. It’s a case of deciding whether you’d rather swim in lumpier water or smellier air.
Anyway, I was just beginning to calm down and get into my rhythm when they signalled that it was time for me to change over with Jo. After lying flat and working hard for a while you can feel wobbly so fellow team members help get you on-board and sat down with a hat on and Dryrobe round you asap so that the boat and the next swimmer can get moving again towards France. Then you have to change into a dry swimsuit for your next swim, lots of layers on top, hot drink, then back to helping with fellow swimmers.
Afterwards we agreed it wasn’t necessarily as easy as it looked. Some people swam too close to the boat, some too far away; some, like me, took a while to calm down and get used to it (even really experienced sea swimmers struggled), while others made it look easy. Some people only like breathing on one side but that’s a problem if that’s the side facing away from the boat or towards the weather so that you’re more likely to inhale water. The daft thing is that in theory it IS easy… it just doesn’t always feel like it when you’re in the water. But I suppose that if you’re in for an hour at a time you settle down and get into your stroke.
It was a brilliant experience and great to get to know Stuart and Sam because the next time we see them… it’ll probably be at about midnight, one night in September, when we’ll be setting off to swim to France. Wey hey!
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.