Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 1

This story started in different places and at different times, like all stories. For me, it started in a mobile home in Varne Ridge park in Capel-le-ferne, Folkestone, home of so many Channel adventures, in October 2010. It was a couple of days after my Hungarian “stepson” Gábor Molnar had completed his English Channel solo and Sylvain Estadieu and I had been on crew. The remainder of the crew were asleep and Gábor, Sylvain and I pursued a late not-entirely-sober night, talking Channel, swimming, Sandycove and future plans and dreams. Sylvain was raving about I.M. (individual medley, a combination of backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke and front crawl). We agreed that whatever Sylvain decided, Gábor and I would be crew.

Gábor, David, Donal, Eve, Sylle in 2010
Gábor, David, Donal, Evelyn & Sylle in 2010. Hatching plans.

For Sylvain, I think it started even earlier.

After his previous English Channel Solo in 2009, on the same tide as Owen O’Keeffe and Lisa Cummins, he had decided in early 2010 to do four laps of Sandycove by I.M. Sandycove is about 1700 metres around (average), so that was about a mile of each stroke. He’d done it with Gábor as company and the seed was sown for the later grander adventure, though over the course of the following three years, we were party to some of his ideas. He finally settled on a butterfly crossing, as no man had crossed the Channel by butterfly, though both Julie Bradshaw and Vicki Keith had previously crossed the Channel using that stroke.

Booked for September 2013, in September of 2012, Sylvain, committed to transparent rules like most marathon swimmers, engaged in a discussion on the marathonswimmers.org/forum about what extra rules could or should apply to such a crossing, with particular reference to stroke judging, something with which those of us who swim front crawl don’t have to be concerned. In the autumn he contacted the CS&PF through President Nick Adams, asking for the CS&PF committee to agree the rule-set in advance.

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Eventually Sylvain’s window arrived and we assembled as usual In Varne Ridge with Sylvain and his fiancee Greta. Gábor had just changed job and was very disappointed to not be able to be present but instead he’d drafted in a Hungarian friend of his from his EC solo and MIMS swims, Gergő “Kovi” Kovács. Lisa Cummins also joined the crew. But the weather wasn’t co-operative for Channel swimming for the week. Sylvain did electrify the Saturday morning Dover beach crew who had all heard about his butterfly attempt. He also made me do butterfly with him in training and Greta had to enter the water also. I did about 200 metres continuous and that was enough for me. Sylvain glides through the water with his ‘fly, I look more like I am trying to escape from the water.

Sylle & Donal swimming off Dover beach
Sylle & Donal swimming off Dover beach – shot by Lisa Cummins
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Dungeness Lighthouse

During this week, Lisa and I stepped in as emergency crew for Haydn Welch’s Channel attempt, as there was still no visible window. Sylvain and Greta waved us off from the rare departure point of Dungeness for Haydn’s unusual English Channel attempt, something that was tough on them as conditions looked quite good from the beach, though as it (providentially) became aware to us crew, it was utterly unsuitable for a butterfly attempt. Two days later, Lisa and I both returned to Ireland and Kovi to Hungary. Haydn’s attempt provided Lisa the opportunity to leave from Dungeness, which nicely counterpointed the fact that she is the only English Channel swimmer to ever land at Dungeness. Sylle continued to train daily in Dover harbour. Torn between holding his nerve and taper, and the temptation to restart long swims, he agreed with coach Eilís that he would swim a couple of two and three hour swims.

I’ve said before, and I am sure will say again, that waiting for weather is one of the most difficult and least understood or appreciated aspects of Channel swimming. Years in the dreaming and training, everything can be lost with an unfavourable low pressure system. Many people in Sylvain’s situation would have lost their chance of a swim after the first week, and probably have to return home, and it being late in the season, may not have any chance at a late swim. The financial cost also escalates rapidly. Another week of accommodation and car rental. Cancelled or rescheduled flights for yourself and extra flights to bring crew back in, and more expensive due to short term booking.

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Uncooperative Channel weather

Sylvain and Greta was prepared to wait for a chance of a spring tide opportunity, and so a week after we returned home, Sylle called us back to Dover. We arrived the afternoon of Saturday September the 21st with the prospect of starting the swim during the night on Sunday/Monday or during Monday.

Soon after we arrived, we did “the big shop”, using my checklist. Water for Sylvain. Water for crew. More water. Backup food for Sylvain. Food for crew. More food for crew. More water. WHIF food. (What-IF we can’t eat this or that? What-IF Sylvain or crew get sick?). A Channel swim’s provisions often look like a small desert expedition.

Then back to Varne to eat and prepare and mix, and await the next call after 7pm with Pilot Mike Oram.

Mike confirmed the swim was almost certainly on for Sunday with a starting time in the morning of about 9a.m. but Sylle still needed to to wait until Sunday morning on the pntoon, for final confirmation as weather forecasts still indicated a possibility of a 6 hour delay but the final, final, final morning discussion would gave us the go-ahead. Provisionally! Life of a Channel Swimmer! Hurry up and wait. But be on the slip-way in the morning, and there was still a chance of a tide delay.

Sylvain & Great Greta
Sylvain & Great Greta

Back to Varne to pre-mix, pack, eat and sleep. 

Premixing the swimmer’s feed simplifies and cleans up things on the boat greatly for the crew. The swimmer can be sure the feed is mixed to their own requirement, and malto-dextrin is a sticky substance best avoided having to mix on a boat. Two or one and a half litre bottles are much easier to lift and pour than 5 litre bottles. Square bottles pack better than round. Minutiae, the type that comes from the combined experience of the group.

Then we packed all the boxes. Sylle’s pre-mixed feeds. Sylle’s supplementary and solid swim food. Sylle’s gear, crew food, more crew food. Sylle’s swim gear. Crew gear. Sylle’s clothes. Crew bags. Pack everything, then unpack it and repack it. Check the checklist. Then dinner, then re-check the checklist and boxes.

A morning start would bring its own challenges, but at least we would get a good night’s sleep before.

Sylle does like to gurn for the camera!
Sylle does like to gurn for the camera!

On to Part 2.

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3 thoughts on “Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 1”

  1. Hi Donal, I’d like to share this article with the Wanaka Lake Swimmers group but I can’t see an icon to share on a WordPress site, I know I’ve done it before. Sorry for such a silly techy question….I’m sure i’m missing something obvious?

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