During the fifth hour, Trent and Damián had discussed when Damián would come in as support swimmer. Trent requested Damián for the last hour. Around this time Mike also told Trent to take a double-concentration feed for his next feed, “for a boost” but Trent didn’t want to so do. Some further discussion ensued with Harley and Mike, and it was decided Damián would hold off a while into the last hour before joining in Trent.
Late in the fifth hour the Grey Nose, Cap Gris Nez, became visible to me on the opposite starboard side of the boat, in the South West, and I pointed it out to Harley and Damián, showing them that we were taking a curving southwesterly path. I tried to make sure Trent saw me pointing, though I guessed he would not know I was pointing at the Cap.
A Channel swimmer always feels like they are swimming straight ahead, so it’s difficult to comprehend their position or simply easy to forget the angles that are actually involved, especially when the swimmer gets tired and cognition is not as sharp.
The swimmer, even a swimmer as fast as Trent, is actually also travelling sideways, though it feels like a directly forward progression. When people look at a Channel chart, they imagine the swimmer’s line as a meandering but always forward direction. Humans are pattern recognition experts, in any picture of a directional line that we see, we project that the line terminates in an arrow. Even Trent, with a flatter trajectory across the Strait than almost all swimmers, was travelling sideways as well as forwards by the time he started to approach the Cap.
The haze and fog were slipping away astern, and the sky was again mostly blue, with high wispy cirrus clouds. With the Cap in sight to the crew, every Channel swimmer will tell you; this is the tough part of the swim. When you have to dig in, and to dig deep. The Channel’s challenges compress into this area, west, south and north of the Cap.
There is the real battlefield, there is the heart of the English Channel.
Early in the sixth hour, just before noon, Mike gave Trent and crew another way-point check from Petar Stoychev’s AIS chart. Trent was still 600 metres ahead. And not just a way check but Mike Oram’s unique coaching input, “get your arse in gear and stop fucking around, and bloody swim“.
What helped more was that at this stage Mike also relayed to Trent that Petar Stoychev was calling regularly, every 30 minutes. But the team knew that Stoychev back-ended his swims, as Trent and Damián had raced him many times, and that he was stronger toward the end. From here on it was possible, even probable, that Trent would start to lose his lead, that the invisible and to some invincible, Stoychev would start to eat into Trent’s lead. Trent was not just swimming against a ghost, but against the past, against a swim that had already happened. Petar Stoychev, ten times consecutive FINA Grand Prix Number One and World Champion, who allegedly has his English Channel Record time printed on many of his clothes.
During the first half of the sixth hour Mike Oram and crew started cooking, the aroma of a frying lunch drifted aft, where I was getting hungry. (My method for seafaring is to not eat, just to be sure. After surviving the bedlam of Viking Princess and the return after Alan Clack’s Solo the previous day, I had another data point experience that tells me I don’t get seasick. But I never want to take the chance of messing-up someone else’s swim, so I don’t eat much for about twelve hours before the swim and only ginger biscuits during the swim). The water was flat, the boat was stable, and I was starving, with nothing but ship’s biscuits while Gallivant‘s crew were tucking into a fry-up). Soon a smell of burning drifted back also, and Trent, by now feeling better, demonstrated his improved state by asking Damián if he’s burnt the toast. Good to see the humour back in him. Meanwhile, Mike Oram washed down his fried lunch with a chocolate ice-cream, a mixture more typical of a Channel swimmer!
For a while, the team’s vocal encouragement had been growing ever stronger. Damián had produced a plastic red coach’s whistle and had been using it with increasing frequency, pun intended. When Damián was busy talking to Mike, Owen, Harley or I used it. When we weren’t blowing the whistle we were hooting and shouting. Trent’s stroke rate had been rising and by end of the sixth hour, he was at 78 strokes per minute, up from the 64 strokes per minute he had started on.
Harley would shout “Hup”, I would hoot or shout “go”, Owen would interject with “Go Trent” and Damián would do everything. I’d learned long ago that a higher-pitched wordless shout, literally almost the word hoot vocalised, carries well over water, and if you timed it or “Go” or “Hup” with Trent’s predictable metronomic stroke, he could hear it on every breath and he would feed off it.
Trent responded with another increase in stroke rate.
At about six hours, before 1 P.M.,Trent had another feed, it took two seconds, his feeds hadn’t gotten any slower. Apart from a very occasional one which took 6 seconds, Owen and I estimated the average feed time as 4 seconds. We were not to know it was to be his last feed, so we never got to say the Magic Words, “this is your last feed” to him.
Swimmers reading this are doing the calculation. The fast ones are saying that’s no problem. The fast ones are forgetting he was still swimming across the tide and had been swimming at a 5k pace for five hours. The average or slower ones are thinking that it was only five and half hours in, a lot of swimmers don’t even have to dig in until eight or nine or ten hours have elapsed.
As the character Eldon Tyrell says in Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long. And you have burned so very bright.” Trent was swimming on the edge. Speed versus burnout, distance versus time, failure versus glory. All were out on the line, out on the water.
Right here, with only seven people present watching, one of the biggest sporting events of the year, certainly the most important anywhere in the world that day, the English Channel Record, was teetering. But the gap had narrowed and the tension was rising in everyone. With the last hour to go, we no longer knew if Trent would make it. We didn’t have time to update people by Twitter more, leaving long awkward silences for those following.
In the final hour, we saw a Coast Guard cutter approaching astern. The French Government does not like, encourage, support or allow Channel Swimming and has been known to interfere with occasional swims to deter our lunatic pursuit. Would this be one of the rare times this would happen? Passports ready, I Tweeted.
There were more messages. Most encouraging, many exhorting Trent. Some humorous, an occasional humorous and/or crude one. Harley related to Trent a reminder of what he’d told a FINA friend and friend, the worst insult he could think of in the English Language. I shall leave it to your imagination.
We’re nearly there. Nearly at the Cap and the final stretch of the swim.
On to the Final Part.