Imagine this. It is 2.45am, pitch dark, and you’re on a small boat in the middle of the English Channel. Youre holding onto a ladder waiting for a klaxon to signal the moment at which you will jump into the sea. The water temperature is 16 degrees and you are wearing a pair of Speedos.
Should you ever find yourself in this position, I can absolutely guarantee what you will be thinking, and it will be: “What the f*** am I doing?!”
This is certainly what went through my mind last week as I clung to the back of the good ship Sea Satin waiting to take my turn on our English Channel relay swim. My team of four had been going for two hours, starting from Dover just after midnight. Big Andy Heath did the first hour, Robin Corder is just completing the second hour and I was the next in to bat. Both Andy and Robin swum well and looked comfortable, heaping pressure on me not to be crap.
Inevitably the klaxon of death went and I jumped in. I was expecting it to be cold and we were told the water was a cool but manageable 16 degrees. The water I jumped into felt more like 1.6 degrees. It was so cold I couldn’t swear. Or swim. Or breathe. I just made this gasping noise and started wind-milling frantically to get round to the side of the boat where the spotlight was.
I don’t know if any of you have ever swum in the sea, in the dark, but take it from me, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’m not usually afraid of the dark, but then I don’t usually encounter so much of it. It’s above you, ahead of you, behind you and, most importantly, underneath you. I am not afraid to say that I was absolutely bricking myself and I stuck to the spotlight beam like a moth.
So began possibly the least pleasant hour of my life (apart from when I once used a mobile phone in Nuneaton and was almost burned as a witch). After swimming as though my life depended on it – which it did – I was mightily relieved when a green flashing light on deck signalled that our fourth and final team member Steve ‘Iceman’ Howes was readying himself for a watery grave. The klaxon went and I was on the boat faster than a Somali pirate.
Much had changed on the good ship lollipop while I was paddling about. Andy was now gripped by seasickness and was retching at 10-second intervals. I set about searching for a towel, dry clothes and some bravery before settling down on the poop deck for a snooze. I was dozing when a sharply worded exchange between ships captain Lance and the Iceman awoke me:
Captain Lance: “Are you all right, mate?”
Steve the Iceman: “I want to get out.”
Lance: “You can’t, you’ve only done 30 minutes.”
Iceman: “I’m cold”
Lance the pilot: “Well keep swimming then.”
Steve is not given to such announcements lightly. He’s done the Ironman world finals five times, won his age group at Ironman Austria, cycled from Lands-End to John-O’Groats and he’s done a DOUBLE Ironman. In the channel, though, he felt the cold more than the rest of us, due to having the same percentage body fat as a paper-clip. However, showing true determination he dug in and finished his hour before coming aboard and amusing us all with a two-hour impersonation of Shakin’ Stevens as he tried to stop shivering.
The next four hours were a repeat of the first four except it was now light, which wasn’t all it was cracked up to be because we could now see that we were in the shipping lanes with tankers and ferries all approaching at ramming speed. Seasick Andy did his turn before returning on board to resume his retch-athon and bobbin’ Robin took over, clawing his way through blankets of seaweed. My turn came and went in a flurry of thrashing arms and salty burping, before the Iceman returned to the frozen deep.
After eight hours bobbing along in a sick bucket you’d think we would be starting to get a bit disheartened, or perhaps show the first signs of scurvy. However the third stint turned into our best. The sun came up, our speed went up and on my third hour something wonderful happened – France hove into view on the horizon. The sight of the coast sparked renewed vigour and even the Iceman forgot his bone-shaking to put in a super-fast hour.
There was of course another reason why we put on a sudden spurt for French waters. We weren’t just swimming across the Channel, we were racing across the Channel! Starting alongside us was another boat, Gallivant – populated with out-and-out swimmers, as opposed to the boat-load of Ironmen that comprised our ships company. Steve McMenamin, Karen Throsby and Jamie Goodhead AKA The Customers Dodgers had been close behind us from the word go and were now making an attempt to overtake. Seeing them trying to sneak up roused us into action and all of us put in some big turns , none more so than Seasick Andy who struck out for the coast like a man possessed (mostly so he didn’t have to get back on the boat.)
Despite the best efforts of the tides to take us off towards, variously, Belgium and Brazil, we all swam to the beach together, dragging ourselves onto the stony French shore in 12 hours 58 minutes. We remained on the beach for all of about three minutes before sprinting back to the boat and rushing over to where Gallivant was chugging along to have a hearty laugh as the “swimmers” lugged themselves ashore 20 minutes behind us. After a thoroughly enjoyable gloat our boat turned around, for a three-hour ride home to the sound of Andy retching.
As ever with these things, there’s more to this Channel swimming lark than meets the eye. You can be the strongest swimmer in the world but time, tide, cold, shipping lanes, swell, wind, dark and fear are all there to stop you succeeding. The tides alone are not to be underestimated. As the crow flies it’s just over 20 miles from England to France, but the tides meant we swam closer to 35 miles. However the boat pilots are geniuses who know every inch of the ocean and who encourage you to reach certain points at certain times with ancient nautical phrases like “get a f***ing move on or we’ll miss the tide”.
So that’s that, I’m a channel swimmer (of the relay variety) and, in summary… thank Christ that lot is out of the way. And for anyone out there who has done it solo, or is planning to – respect!