HOW TO: The greatest sport on Earth. Follow a swim during Channel season

This is an updated version of a post from a few years ago on following marathon swims online, with the specifics mostly aimed at English Channel swimming. This is mostly for those unfamiliar with following a swim and I’ll try to explain a couple of anticipated questions before they arise.

Channel swimming is a sport that by necessity happens essentially in private. This private battle between a lone swimmer and crew and the sea is one of the features of what makes this special. The Channel can be a lonely place in the middle of a sunny summer afternoon, the swimmer essentially alone with the water and their thoughts. No social media or phone or GPS can capture that individual loneliness, something only other swimmers can understand.

In the five years since I first ventured to the Channel in 2008, things have changed quite bit, with social media and more online tools now far more predominant in following swims. So the changes for the more established swimmers will be even greater.

If you wish to follow a specific Channel swim, It is necessary that you have some rudimentary information, specifically the name of the person, the boat, and the day of the swim.

First a reminder of an English Channel swimming season. Generally in English channel swimming, solo swims happen on neap tides and relay swims happen on spring tides. (Generally but not always). With an approximately four-month long season, and tides alternating every second week, that means about nine weeks are available for solo swimmers. You don’t need to know which tide is which but you can assume as a rule of thumb that solo swimmers are waiting every second week.

The English Channel swimming fleet is approved for and correctly should have six boats in each of the two associations, the CS&PF, and the CSA. (That figure is dictated by the maximum number of pilot boats that can enter the shipping lanes at one time. The CSA fleet currently have seven boats, something that both a cause for concern for many and CAN have an effect on someone’s swim).

The most popular way of following a swim with almost live information is a SPOT GPS Tracker aka a Tracker. Many of the boats have these and some individuals or swim clubs have them, as they are not expensive. If the boat or swimmer is providing the Tracker they will provide the correct web address. There is no way of searching for SPOT Trackers as each is a unique IP address and does not carry any information about who is using it.  SPOT trackers update once every 10 minutes. For example this is the SPOT Tracker for CS&PF senior pilot Mike Oram. Tracks remain accessible for three days before they are overwritten or deleted. Each SPOT Tracker address may have a number of pages accessible from the bottom left of the left-side sidebar. Only the full details in the times of each reading will indicate the date of each track. Sometimes SPOT trackers can stop working during a swim. It’s also worth pointing out that the Tracker is on the boat, not the swimmer. At the end of a swim the boat will stop while the swimmer continues into land.

Random SPOT tracker English channel map
Random SPOT tracker English channel map

Above is a random, and completed SPOT Tracker window from Gallivant. The sidebar at the left includes time details for each update once the tracker is active. The bottom left has the page option. The sidebar can be collapsed. The map screen can display either map or satellite view and  the yellow line is the track of readings. A currently updating reading will display as a series of flashing concentric semicircles and the whole map is zoomable. In this map it can be seen that the track turns off Cap Gris Nez as it is on the boat and the map indicates the inside coast at high tide.

Many boats do not have a SPOT, and individual swimmers may not have access to a SPOT nor may not want to use or publicise a tracker. In such a case there is another way to check on a boat. Every boat in the Channel must have an AIS Transponder. AIS comes at different levels of range, and while the fleet is upgrading all boats may not have AIS that can be tracked the whole way across the Channel, though most now do.

The CS&PF website now provides Live Tracking for all its fleet on the Federation website. The advantages of the CS&PF site are considerable:

  • You don’t have to have the actual SPOT URL.
  • You can select one, many or all boats.
  • You can also see the CSA boats.
  • The Channel zones and shipping lanes, not visible on other charts, are visible.
  • The Channel buoys are visible.

All Individual pilots may provide their own tracking off individual websites such as CS&PF pilot Eddie Spelling’s excellent LoveChannelSwimming.com. Eddie’s tracker for his boat Anastasia, displays great extra information such as air and water temperature, wind, and swim speed. Mike and Lance Oram’s Gallivant and Sea Satin are also accessible from their own website.

Using the boat name (or its marine registration numbers MMSI or IMO) you can find its current location on one of the online marine traffic sites such as ShipAis.com (Dover), marinetraffic.com or vesselfinder.com. For example Mike Oram’s Gallivant is MMSI 235023353.

The current 2013 list of pilots and their boats in the combined English Channel fleet:

CS&PF

  • Paul Foreman – Optimist
  • Eddie Spelling – Anastasia
  • Lance Oram – Sea Satin
  • Mike Oram – Gallivant
  • Neil Streeter – Suva
  • Chris Osmond – Sea Farer II

CSA

  • Reg Brickell – Viking Princess FE137 
  • Andy King – Louise Jane
  • Eric Hartley – Pathfinder
  • Fred Mardle – Samallen P40
  • Keven Sherman – Connemara
  • Stuart Gleeson – Sea Leopard
  • Peter Reed – Rowena FE75

For checking current weather in the Channel, data directly off the Sandettie buoy, north-east of the usual swim routes, is the most regularly used and the closest fixed point. There’s also a Dover harbour webcam which has very variable availability.

Outside these fairly automatic processes, the next most valuable information source is Twitter. For you Facebook addicts, you should understand that it’s easier for busy crew to update Twitter due to brevity and the less-used ability to send SMS text updates to Twitter. Crews are always busy, feeding, mixing, and ever watching the swimmer. This restricts time available for updating which is secondary to the important swim support. If you know a swimmer is going you should request a Twitter name, or ask them or a crew member create a Twitter account.

The CS&PF has a Twitter account also, as does the CSA, (somewhat less regularly updated) which are often used to update solos and relays out in the Channel. Eddie Spelling mentioned above uses Twitter to update on all his swims, ongoing. CS&PF President Nick Adams mostly uses his Twitter account when crewing for Channel swims, which he does regularly.

Many Channel swimmers and Channel junkies follow each other on Twitter and share news of swims (as well as other swim related stuff). Jumping onto the list of those I follow on Twitter (and visa versa) can help find many useful Twitter accounts.

Updates via smart or other phone can be erratic. There is little network coverage in the centre of the Channel. Also many people will not transfer to higher roaming costs of another country (though these are dropping in Europe thanks to EU legislation). A perennial problem is the limited battery life of most smartphones

It should also be remembered that during the closing stages of a swim, when people are most requesting updates is the time when crew are busiest.  An understanding of current weather and the possibilities that have occurred over multiple Channel swims means followers should be careful in the final stages of a swim of making sometimes incorrect jumps to conclusions and even of requesting constant updates from crew. It’s hard to wait but unavoidable.

With all these technological advances its possible to get closer than ever to the essential experiences of Channel swimming. the next big breakthrough, for whatever pilots will decided such an investment makes financial sense, will surely be live video from some boats. In the meantime we must use our empathy, experience and imagination to enhance the technological feeds, to put ourselves into the arms and mind of the crew and swimmers, engaged in the greatest and amongst the most extreme of adventure and extreme sports.

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3 thoughts on “HOW TO: The greatest sport on Earth. Follow a swim during Channel season”

    1. Yes, simply that springs tidal current is greater. I’ve read opinions that on neaps the Channel water can calm down faster also. There has been a slight move toward more solos going out on springs for the last few years. Local fast swimmer here went out on a spring two weeks and was pushed far north of Calais on the flood tide. Neaps fill with solo slots earlier also, therefore relays, which can go out in rougher weather, can take days that wouldn’t be suitable for a solo.

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