All this time, we’d been in a race, Trent, the crew, Gallivant. Though there were other Solos out that day, including Chloë McCardel‘s second three-way record attempt, (she made it to about two hours into the third leg) Trent’s race was with a ghost, or shall I say, ghostly presence. Not an actual shade but an avatar of Petar Stoychev who was always there, in the presence of his previous record swim track which was visible on the AIS screen inside the cabin, visible to the Channel Chat group on the couple of updates that Mike Oram sent out. And Petar Stoychev was ringing Mike Oram every hour, a lot of direct interest for someone who apparently didn’t think Trent had a chance before the start.
After reporting that he was feeling flat at about the third hour, Trent called for caffeine in his next feed and requests more cheering from the crew. This was another difference visible to me in how a world champion operates. I’d imagine that if I ask you to cheer for me, it’ll have no effect, since I instigated it. Trent however requested the cheering and yet still responded. You could see immediately that he was enjoying it.
Jumping back, just before two hours elapsed, Mike Oram had sent an email to the Channel Chat group, reporting briefly on Trent’s progress. I didn’t see it but I did see the next update from him later on my phone and I showed Harley and told him I hadn’t seen something like this previously on the group, that Mike is probably taking the Trent’s progress really seriously.
Trent swam fine through the third hour with no further reports of feeling off, flying across the North East Shipping lane.
At four hours and fifteen minutes, Trent’s mother sent a message which Damián relayed, and which features later in many of the Australian media broadcasts. It’s a lot of words for Trent to have to read, but Damián can get the whiteboard right in front of Trent’s face, as he has been doing previously, and Trent can read it over the course of a many strokes.
I’d used this method on Gabor’s Solo two years previously, rather than trying to relay a long message during a feed, hold the whiteboard in place and give the swimmer plenty of time to read it. It only works in flat water, when the gunwale and message board are low, but it works well for that.
During the fourth hour, the haze had thickened further to fog, and the world shrank around us. Some sun and patches of blue sky remained about us and Trent swam through occasional vibrant pools of light in a larger sea of grey and into the fifth hour, still seven minutes ahead of Petar Stoychev.
But that gradually changed, and I found myself looking around at the horizon more, watching the weather as our world, even on the boat, shrank. For the Channel swimmer, the world is a dichotomy, always both small and huge at the same time. Small with the boat, the crew, eyes a centimetre above the surface, everything is near, the circle of world contracted. Huge with the slowness of the progress, the water, the immensity of the task, catching an occasional glimpse of the Varne Cliffs mast, seemingly immobile at night for hours or worse, glimpsing the Cap Lighthouse. But Trent didn’t even have those irritations, the world grown smaller and duller.
At four hours twenty-five minutes, somewhere astern, a ship’s foghorn called out.
“Now’s the hard bit“.
Every Channel swimmer knows this, it just usually takes the rest of us much longer to swim to this point. Channel swimmers say that “you swim to the start of the real swim”, or “you swim and you swim, until you get tired or exhausted. Then the Channel starts“.
During that fifth hour we noticed that Trent’s superlative stroke was suffering slightly, but only to the extent that he was keeping his left arm straight on recovery. Harley passed a message to Trent to focus on technique and specifically that left arm.
At four hours thirty-five minutes, Trent called for Mike Oram.
“Can I do it?” he asked.
Five minutes later Mike responds with “yes, you are still seven minutes ahead“.
Throughout the fifth hour, Trent was in a less than equitable mood. Frustration was obvious as he slipped off the bow wave, slipped back a bit more during his feeds, and had to struggle to swim more to get back to and stay on the bow wave. He called for the boat to move forward, to hold pace a few times, to pick up speed.
Afterwards he’s admitted this was the most difficult period, that he lost concentration, that he got annoyed and angry at us, and at the boat crew. He also told us directly during this time that he had cramp. I offered Harley some zero-carb electrolyte I’d brought with me, exactly for this possibility, which I’ve used previously myself and for Alan, but completely understandably, Trent and Damián didn’t want to try it, after all, we all stress to never do anything new in a Channel swim. (And just in case the cramps did get worse, then we could fall back to it).
I have a different view than Trent does of the fifth hour. To my mind, he never behaved less than well and the small sarkiness is exaggerated in his mind and completely normal for a Channel swim anyway. My own words to my observer and King of the English Channel, Kevin Murphy, written by him in my observer’s Report were: “Fuck France“. Kevin’s response in the report is “I know how Donal feels“.
Even if you are the world number one, the Channel is not going to be easy. (Cue the Channel swimmer’s motto and my much-repeated Chad Hundeby story). I also think it wasn’t entirely his own perception of lack of concentration. During this hour the boat crew changed, Mike Oram was for a while forced to both helm and navigate, and the throttle was not as constant, and this created difficulties for Trent staying in the bow wave.
Before the end of the fifth hour, I saw Trent miss almost all his lurid red 250ml feed, which hadn’t happened previously, and briefly he looked like a vampire victim. Once is not a concern, but if it was to repeat it could become a problem. Around this time Trent also told Harley and Damián that he wanted Damián to come if for the last hour and a discussion ensues between Harley and Mike and Damián in the wheelhouse.
At the start of the sixth hour the fog lifted again to be come replaced with a warm Channel haze, my worries of the swim being abandoned due to fog (only I had them anyway) dissipating along it. We were in French waters, Trent was swimming well.
The finish, and the Cap, were ahead.
On to Part Five.